The other day one of my friends suggested I write a paper on epiphenomenalism (keep reading for definition). Upon careful reflection, I decided he had made an excellent suggestion. At this moment I can hardly think of a more relevant topic for our times. After all, there is not a single person in the world today who has not personally encountered epiphenomena. In fact, every human being exhibits and experiences epiphenomena every day of their lives. Considering how integral epiphenomena are to our existence, you can easily understand why I was so eager to write about them.
I realize, at this point, you are seriously questioning my sanity; or, at least, my sobriety. “I’ve never encountered epiphenomena before!” you exclaim, “this guy is nuts!” However, I must caution you not to be too hasty. If you would grant me but a few minutes of your time, I will not only explain what epiphenomena are, but will demonstrate why epiphenomena are important to you personally.
Epiphenomenalism is the subject of one of the most exciting fields of modern philosophy known as the philosophy of mind. These days, the majority of philosophers and neurologists engaged in this field adhere to what is commonly known as metaphysical naturalism–the belief that only the physical/material world exists and that everything can be explained in terms of brute material processes. The predominate theories of the mind reflect this attitude, as they attempt to explain the mind purely in physical terms. To the dismay of many Christians, physicalist accounts of the mind completely exclude the traditional notion that human beings have a subsistent soul or that the mind is essentially immaterial. For the physicalist, everything about the mind and human action can be explained in terms of material chemical processes.
To be sure, physicalist theories of the mind are capable of explaining a wide range of human behavior. In the past twenty years, neurologists, operating on physicalist assumptions, have uncovered a vast amount of knowledge about the inner workings of the brain. Thanks to their hard work, we now have a detailed understanding of the complex physical processes which take place in our brains and we understand how many of these processes correlate to our emotions and behavior. Considering the vast amount of knowledge we have about the brain, and how much we can explain about the mind, in terms of physical processes, it is understandable that many philosophers still embrace metaphysical naturalism. But, do physicalist theories account for everything we know about the mind? Are there some facts which defy physical explanation?
According to J. P. Moreland, “a theory may explain some facts quite nicely, but there are [often] recalcitrant facts that doggedly resist explanation by a theory. No matter what a theory’s advocate does, the recalcitrant fact just sits there and is not easily incorporated into the theory.” In many cases, a recalcitrant fact, “provides falsifying evidence for the theory and some degree of confirmation for its rivals.” The question facing us is this: are there any recalcitrant facts facing physicalist explanations of the mind?
The unavoidable answer is yes. The recalcitrant fact facing physicalist theories of the mind which “doggedly resist explanation,” in spite of years of research, is consciousness. In his book, The Conscious Mind, David J. Chalmers describes consciousness as being, “the subjective quality of experience: what it is like to be a cognitive agent.” Cognitive agents (e.g., human beings) do not experience reality in the third person–we experience reality in the first person. Consciousness, therefore, is our first person experience of reality. According to Chalmers, there are a wide variety of conscious experiences that we know about; these include, but are not limited to: visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, taste, experiences of hot and cold, pain, mental imagery, conscious thought, emotions, and self identity.
There are a handful of philosophers who argue that consciousness is an illusion and that conscious states do not exist–but one can hardly take these arguments seriously. Physicalists who “eliminate” the existence of consciousness offer no significant reason for doing so–aside from the fact that the existence of conscious mental states does not square well with their physicalist sensibilities. Other’s have argued that consciousness is merely another physical phenomena–but this view is steadily falling out of vogue. Moreland has identified at least four features of conscious mental states that are not shared by physical states:
- There is a raw qualitative feel or a “what it is like” to have a mental state such as pain.
- Many mental states have intentionality–ofness or aboutness–directed toward an object (e.g., a thought is about the moon).
- Mental states are inner, private and immediate to the subject having them.
- Mental states fail to have crucial features (e.g., spatial extension, location) that characterize physical states and, in general, cannot be described using physical language.
Consequentially, the existence of consciousness and the fact that conscious mental states are not physical has been a constant thorn in the side of physicalist theories of the mind.
Currently, the trend has been to acknowledge, rather begrudgingly, that conscious mental states exist, but to deny that they play any roll in human cognition. This view is known as epiphenomenalism. Epiphenomenal accounts of the mind avoid the problem of consciousness by ignoring it and giving conscious mental states a cool ambiguous title: epiphenomena. The Oxford Companion to the Mind, explains that epiphenomena are, “Phenomena that occur in association with, or are supervenient upon, a given set of events, yet supposedly are not caused by those events. The term is applied particularly to the mind-brain problem.” It seems, then, by renaming conscious mental states, epiphenomena, physicalists can continue pontificating their theories, without having to deal with pesky recalcitrant facts like consciousness. Oh, the joy’s of not having to face up to reality!
So, whenever you have a first-person experience of sight, taste, feel, or smell, whenever you have a first-person experience of emotions, have conscious thoughts, and use mental imagery, you are living proof that metaphysical naturalism has utterly failed to account for everything it is to be human. Every time you exhibit epiphenomena, which is virtually every second of the day, you can take comfort in the fact that you are not merely a mindless conglomeration of matter with no objective purpose. You are a conscious cognitive agent with a rational mind, reflecting the beautiful image of your creator.