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4/26/11

Epiphenomenalism & Illusion of Conscious Control


Descartes started it all. The modern debate on dualism can be traced back to him. He theorized that effects on physical stuff, matter, on the one hand, were caused by mental stuff, consciousness, on the other. He had a problem, though. How does the mental stuff effect the physical stuff?

After all, you can't lift a glass of water to your mouth simply by willing it.
Something physical has to accomplish the task--your hand and arm. But how does consciousness get its signal to the muscles to lift the glass? Descartes looked at the brain and found it was divided into hemispheres. As we know, he did find something deep down, the pineal gland. This gland, he claimed, bridged the gap.

It does not, but back then it was his best guess. So how does the gap get bridged? Or is there a gap to bridge? Epiphenomalists say there is none. It's physical stuff, baby, physical stuff all the way down. Epiphenomalism has a long history, stirred by Cartesian dualism and is still discussed today. It finds support in Benjamin Libet's experiments with the Readiness Potential. (See Libet in the sidebar.)

Consciousness, epiphenomalists say, is a product of the brain, and that's it. The route from the brain to what we call consciousness is a one way street. This is the way it works:



What does this mean for Descartes and his dualism of physical and mental? Epiphenomenalists say dualism is wrong because it doesn't work the other direction:



In short, consciousness has no effect on matter. You think that it causes a "you" to lift the glass of water to the lips, but it does not. Consciousness is a physical property, a by-product of what the physical brain does, but has no influence on the brain, which alone causes things to happen. (The brain is the central processing unit.) To use a metaphor, the light bulb doesn't come on to see what is in the brain; the light bulb is something the brain causes to happen as it goes about its business. Consciousness is just along for the ride, but thinks it is in the driver's seat. So that raises the question of control. Epiphenomenalists say it is illusory, rather like the character behind the steering wheel on the right:



By this means they have solved the problem raised by Descartes. Not two, dualism (spiritual/physical), according to the French philosopher, but one thing, monism, according to them. Physical stuff, or property dualism. (Physical substance has two properties, one physical, the other mental.) You think there is a steering wheel which a "you" controls, but it is an illusion. Their solution is rational and it has good logic behind it.

No, it is not an emotionally satisfying answer, nor is it complete, but it is a reasoned explanation, and it does provide causal closure, physical effected by physical. Still, it leaves me with questions. To use a metaphor, once my brain is pickling in a jar it is no longer my brain. It remains a physical object, but what happened to that which experienced physical objects? Enter: David Chalmers.

Some would say David Chalmers provides me an escape clause with his hard problem of consciousness. I don't see it that way. The hard problem truly is a legitimate problem. In brief, the term implies that epiphenomenalism does not help me explain what it feels like to be me. Of himself, Chalmers writes, "he frequently gets into arguments [with others], arguing that their position cannot do justice to the realities of conscious experience. And yet he has no conscious experience at all!" (The Conscious Mind) By his irony, Chalmers implies that the epiphenomenalists have not resolved the hard problem of consciousness to his satisfaction. In their turn, they might say that his a non-problem, just another illusion of control.

Epiphenomenalists face a substantial challenge in explaining why consciousness plays a prominent role in our lives if it is only a by-product of evolution.  Instead, it should have once figured in adaptation and later been ignored, rather like wings on a chicken. Those appendages were once handy, but are of little use today. We cannot say consciousness is no longer prominent in our lives but once was.

When I think about the effects on societies of epiphenomenalism, I am mindful of beliefs and values of peoples and nations. We need only think how various people, various nations, have been shaped by beliefs and values, which do have effect on lives. If this theory became deeply embedded in global ways of thinking, what would be its effects?

I find epiphenomenalism inadequate as well as flawed, and not because of its potential in changing social values and beliefs, including legal systems, but because of something missing in how it accounts for consciousness. It has its own self-defeating logic. An epiphenomenalist can never know if his belief is true because, according to him, the view is only a byproduct of brain neurons. That is, his consciousness, his mind, his mental state, are only a byproduct of a CPU, the brain. Physics is empirical, not logical. He has no cognitive advantage and can only say his neurons made him believe in epiphenomenalism. He cannot know if a rational mental state led to his view. Like the chained men in Plato's cave, he can claim no access to sunlight.

As to physical determinism, through both telescopes and microscopes, the deeper you probe, the less "physical" stuff you find until you are at a great deal of empty space, where behavior of objects can be explained by "laws" (gravity, etc.) and principles (uncertainty, etc). Where, the empiricism of physics from here? That is, what laws and principles explain brain and consciousness? This is a question for science.

As for philosophy, it is just one banana peel after another.
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"Epiphenomenalism is the view that mental events are caused by physical events in the brain, but have no effects upon any physical events. Behavior is caused by muscles that contract upon receiving neural impulses, and neural impulses are generated by input from other neurons or from sense organs. On the epiphenomenalist view, mental events play no causal role in this process." (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

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