Epiphenomenalism

I saw the original of Caspar David Friedrich’s painting, Der Wanderer ├╝ber dem Nebelmeer‘, (‘The wanderer above the sea of fog’), or a painting very like it, several years ago, in a travelling exhibition in Edinburgh titled, ‘The Romantic Spirit in German Art’ (which I’d misread as, ‘The Romantic Shirt in German Art”).

Caspar David Friedrich Wanderer above the Sea of Fog

This particular Romantic Shirt painting by Friedrich is used on the front cover of my battered old copy of ‘Ecce Homo‘, Nietzsche’s collection of engagingly barmy essays published shortly before his permanent breakdown and the final 10 or 11 years of silence from him, which I bought and tried to read long ago in a bout of moody teenage autodidacticism. I understood … not very much of Nietzsche’s excited ranting but I was quite taken with his little aphorisms and strange snippets of advice. I very much concur with his recommendation about walking in the open air, in the mountains:

Remain seated as little as possible … put no trust in any thought that is not born in the open to the accompaniment of free bodily movement..all truly great thoughts are conceived by walking

A while ago, for example, walking on the fells (the hills) of the Cumbrian Lake District, Helen and I got into a conversation about the Mind and Brain, during which she produced the best knock-down case against epiphenomenalism I’ve ever heard.

Every year, Helen teaches a new intake of more-or-less interested pupils a little about the philosophy of consciousness and the Mind, taking them on a quick tour of dualism, monism, eliminative materialism, qualia and the other members of the exotic bestiary. Although the course module, Freewill and Determinism, contributes relatively little to the final grade, the cleverer students, who will almost never have come across the debates and ideas before, find it fascinating.

One of the supposed explanations of Mind, mental states, and mental events is Epiphenomenalism, the position that mental events are not causal. Although this is a rather improbable claim on the face of it, it has attracted some support because it tries to get around the problem of dualism by denying mental events the capacity to effect behaviour. The commonest brief analogy to help people think about the idea is to liken mental events’ relationship with behavior to the froth on waves. The notion has received a little fillip in recent years following the experiments by Libet which have been taken by some to imply that unconscious neuronal activity precedes apparently volitional acts that experimental subjects believed had been consciously inititiated.

Helen’s objection points out, quite simply, that we are the products of evolution and although there might well exist several, or many, human characteristics that are spandrels, in the accidental, circumstantial, contingent sense that Stephen Jay Gould argued for, and against which Dan Dennet took issue, it would be nonsensical to suggest that consciousness could be such a non-adaptation, needing no explanation. Yet if consciousness – Mind – the sense of volition – is purely epiphenomenal then it could never have been selected for through Natural Selection because its existence or otherwise would have no phenotypic effect which could be operated upon by the forces of evolution.

It seems a very clear and irrefutable argument.

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5 thoughts on “Epiphenomenalism

  1. The ‘forces of evolution’ work on the neural correlates of consciousness, ie the brain processes that underlie it. It is these brain features which are selected for, not their ‘epiphenomena’ – although we can choose to regard these latter as most important.

  2. I think you’re missing the subtlety of the argument Norman. Ask yourself, what would be the reason for our conscious experiences to be so coherent and consistent? If consciousness has no causal power then it would be very much more likely that if conscious experiences needed to exist at all then they would be random and meaningless because nothing would operate upon them to push them into coherence and to keep them coherent.

    You seem to be in the position of having to assert that the conscious correlates of unconscious mental processes have a coherence and consistency simply by chance.

  3. David – Just think of a film projector as the brain and the image it produces on the screen as consciousness. The logical sequence of the images we see is determined by the logic inherent in the production of the film. Note that the image does not influence the film.

  4. Hi again Norman.

    You’re getting rather close to a homunculus fallacy with that metaphor aren’t you?

    But anyway, you make my point well for me. There would be no reason for the succession of images to have a coherence if consciousness were epiphenomenal. My dreams aren’t coherent, after all, and they’re presumably caused by brain processes.

    I think you’re making two claims.

    The first is that, given a sequence of underlying brain processes which are goal-directed, purposeful, and logically sequential; then a conscious representation of them must necessarily be apprehended as logical, purposeful, etc, and that these conscious representations must be consistent over time.

    The second is that, given the underlying processes, the conscious representations must be, if you will, ‘truthful’ about the processes.

    I really can’t see any way these two things could be true unless something operated upon the conscious processes to bring them into alignment with the unconscious processes. And that alignment process can only work on a causal consciousness.

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