Is conscious experience an epiphenomenon of the brain?

I would like to find out how you could answer the following question:
Is conscious experience an epiphenomenon of the brain?

I’ve dealt with this question several times before, but I’ll gladly address it again. Epiphenomenalism is the idea that mental phenomena –thoughts, feelings, acts of will –do not cause physical actions, but are only a response to them. I think I have deliberately moved my arm, but in fact my arm moved as a physical reaction to electrical signals in my brain, my thoughts did not cause it, but only observe it.

The motivation behind the development of epiphenomenalism is the difficulty of explaining the connection between the mental and the physical. Even today, there is no known explicit mechanism by which my act of will translates into a motion of my arm.

Yet epiphenomenalism is easy to debunk. It presents itself as an explanation of a mystery in the world, but all it really does is deny that that mystery takes place in the first place. It does not have any positive explanatory value.

The best argument for epiphenomenalism I think, is the argument from fiction. If I read a book, it is possible for me to get so deeply involved in the story that I feel as though it is happening to me in the moment. Even though I the reader do nothing to influence the events of the story, the skill of the writer makes me feel as though I am making the choices that in reality are being made by the character (really by the author).

Yet the metaphor of the book requires that the text has been prewritten, and that the shape of the narrative reflects the will of the author. No random assortment of letters on a page would have the power to create that same illusion of agency. In the same way, no plausible purely physical, unwilled sequence of events has yet be proposed that can explain, for example, why my physical body is sitting here, making motions with my hands that precisely produce this specific email that my mind believes itself to be composing.

Again, let’s say I’m the dictator of a small country. I decree that statues should be erected in my image nationwide, and poems written to commemorate me that should be chiseled into the pedestals. Epiphenomenalism has no explanation for why these statues and specific combinations of words subsequently appear all around the country –if not in response to my dictatorial willing that it should so happen. It’s a bit of a stretch of the imagination to call it a pure physical coincidence. At most, the adherent of epiphenomenalism can claim that all this directed complexity could theoretically spontaneously appear physically through some as yet undiscovered mechanism. Yet all that does is exchange one mystery for another.

5 thoughts on “Is conscious experience an epiphenomenon of the brain?

  1. It is not intended to explain anything. It instead claims that one of your implicit assumptions is false, namely that mind and body are separate, and thus there is a connection that needs to be explained.

    The rest of your argument can be adressed by the weak or modified anthropic principle.

    1. Even if you drop the assumption that mind and body are in any way separate, the onus is still on epiphenomenalism to explain how the illusion of complex, premeditated willed actions is created. If the answer is that what we used to call “will” is merely a purely physical process that we don’t understand yet, then we’ve just traded one “black box” –one mystery of life –for another.

      We’ve also traded the implicit assumption that mind and body are separate for the likewise unproven assumptions that a) they are not separate and b) mind is a epiphenomenon of body rather than the other way around.

      Appealing to the anthropic principle fails to solve the problem. The anthropic principle states that the probability of conditions on Earth being suitable to produce life cannot be assessed independent of the fact life on Earth does exist –the second clause being necessary to any assessment being performed in the first place. The anthropic principle arguably guarantees you a past consistent with your present. But nothing in the anthropic principle guarantees you a past consistent with the ongoing, consistent, convincing illusion of free will that we do in fact experience.

  2. Brian, above, is right. Conscious thought and all your decisions are determined by your brain, as brain scans show. No, you can’t blame someone for their past bad acts (say, causing pain) but you can express your disapproval and try to persuade them (because brain cicuits are changeable)to do the right thing in future. That’s enough ‘morality’ for now.

  3. The illusion of free will arises because we can make choices between alternatives and think these choices are free. They are not; whatever we choose is determined by factors stored in the brain as data derived from past sensory experience.

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