Epiphenomenalist Nonsense

 Posted by on 4 September 2008 at 12:01 am  Philosophy
Sep 042008

The position in philosophy of mind known as “epiphenomenalism” is fallacious, even nonsensical, and thus should be rejected.


The epiphenomenalists hold “that mental events are caused by physical events in the brain, but have no effects upon any physical events.” Their view is a mix of “property dualism” with “physicalism”. I’ll define “property dualism” as meaning “the position in which mental and physical properties exist, and that mental properties come into being from some physical substances (brains, for example).” And “physicalism” as “the position in which everything that exists is the result of the laws which are valid for the physical world.”

In their view, the aspects of our mind — our thoughts, knowledge, emotions, desires, feelings of pain, and volition, these things which we think influence and guide our physical actions and latter mental states — are only useless by-products of physical processes. The only things that are causally effective are physical processes and interactions. (See the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry and Wiktionary entry on Epiphenomenalism.)

This position results in a fundamental change in how we’re supposed to understand causal relationships. As I’m typing this sentence, it’s not because I’m trying to make a point, but exclusively because of neurons firing off and other brain processes. When one studies (studies?) for an exam, the activity is caused only by physical events in the brain: conceptual knowledge and the connections of logic are only illusions, according to the epiphenomenalist view.

Arguments for Epiphenomenalism

So what are the arguments and evidence in favor of this position, one might ask?

Strictly speaking, there are none. (While arguments have been offered which use the position to address problems in the philosophy of mind, such as the “No-Gap Argument,” I’m referring specifically to arguments which report observable facts and makes inferences accordingly. If I’m mistaken, please do point them out.)

From what I’ve gathered, epiphenomenalism is only a development from the “physicalist” position in the philosophy of mind. No positive evidence has ever been offered to establish the position’s validity. As Sven Walter notes in his entry on “Epiphenomenalism“:

Arguments in favor of a philosophical theory typically focus on its advantages compared to other theories–that it can explain more phenomena or that it provides a more economical or a more unifying explanation of the relevant phenomena. There are no arguments for epiphenomenalism in that sense.

Arguments against Epiphenomenalism

Regardless of this lack of argument, the position (1) commits the fallacy of “self-exclusion” and (2) is internally inconsistent.

(1) The epiphenomenalist claims, as knowledge, that brain events produce mental events, and that the latter are causally inefficacious–presumably, this also includes beliefs. In effect, he’s claiming that he’s previously witnessed the evidence and logically established that his viewpoint is true (i.e. that he believes he has knowledge). While at the same time, his position as an epiphenomenalist implies that his beliefs and observations have nothing to do with the fact that he’s now advocating that position, as such advocacy would be the exclusive result of brain events (recall that only physical processes are causally effective, on his view). By his own theory, he’s being made to believe and produce epiphenomenalist “word sounds” by brain activity, which make his claim to knowledge meaningless.

In a paper on an Objectivist perspective on psychology, Dr. Edwin Locke notes that determinists, as a result of their own theory, can’t even claim something along the lines of “I’m being made to emit these word sounds in favor of determinism” as objectively true knowledge, since their position eliminates all claims of knowledge. In the same vein, the epiphenomenalist position reduces all claims to meaninglessness.

In light of this, to continue to hold that the position of epiphenomenalism is genuine knowledge is to commit the “self-exclusion” fallacy. Epiphenomenalism commits the fallacy of “self-exclusion” because the position would invalidate itself (i.e. would be self-contradictory), unless it excludes itself from the scope of the its own claim; such a move is unwarranted, and thus fallacious, because the scope of the claim does include the epiphenomenalist’s doctrine.

Simply put, the epiphenomenalist position amounts to: “all claims are meaningless by-products of the brain–except for this one, which (somehow) is real knowledge.”

(2) Regarding epiphenomenalism’s internal inconsistency, I largely agree with the argument presented by Titus Rivas and Hein von Dongen in their paper “Exit Epiphenomenalism: A Demolition of a Refuge.” Here is my own formulation of the “logical inconsistency argument”:

(i) Epiphenomenalism is a form of dualism, which holds (roughly) that the mental and physical are ontologically distinct from each other (i.e. that physical things have properties different from mental things). The position thus has a concept of “mental,” “consciousness,” “thought,” and so forth.

(ii) Due to epiphenomenalism’s acceptance of dualism, and its own explicit position about mental events, its view is that the concepts of consciousness (or “mental things” or “mental units”; e.g. thoughts, volition) refer to actual parts of reality–specifically the epiphenomena of brain activity which are not reducible to such activity (thus leaving us with a non-reducible–yet causally impotent–mental existence).

(iii) The only way to establish that these concepts of mental units refer to something real is through introspection, i.e. by becoming aware of our own conscious experiences (i.e. mental units). This introspective evidence thus serves as the base for epiphenomenalism’s concepts of consciousness. Such introspection, however, is a causal effect by one’s consciousness on the concept-formation process when one attempts to form such concepts of consciousness.

(iv) Epiphenomenalism is thus logically inconsistent. It presupposes that there is a valid reason for accepting the existence of conscious experience (namely introspection), and yet its explicit position makes the ability to figure out anything about these experiences impossible; this is because introspection, according to the epiphenomenalist claim, would itself be a causally impotent by-product of brain processes, and thus useless.


Epiphenomenalism is incoherent, and thus untenable. Due to the contradictions which result from applying the position to its advocates’ claims to knowledge, or from checking what the position presupposes in comparison to what it advocates explicitly, epiphenomenalism should be judged as “nonsensical” and discarded for some other theory.

  • http://www.atheismandthecity.com/ The Thinker

    So what are the arguments and evidence in favor of this position, one might ask?

    Strictly speaking, there are none.

    That is not at all true. We have plenty of evidence, including a lot that has come out since this post was written (which I cannot fault the author for of course)

    Here is some of the evidence that the brain causes the mind which is the epiphenominalist view:

    Internally generated preactivation of single neurons in human medial frontal cortex predicts volition.


    -Recording the activity of 1019 neurons while twelve subjects performed self-initiated finger movement, this study shows progressive neuronal recruitment over ?1500 ms before subjects report making the decision to move. -A population of 256 SMA (supplementary motor area) neurons is sufficient to predict in single trials the impending decision to move with accuracy greater than 80% already 700 ms prior to subjects’ awareness. Furthermore, they predict, with a precision of a few hundred ms, the actual time point of this voluntary decision to move. -Using an SVM classifier to predict the time point at which the subject reported making the decision to move, the algorithm detected the occurrence of the decision in 98% of the trials and only missed W in 2% of the trials.

    Reading My Mind


    -CBS 60 minutes report from 2009 showing how fMRI imaging can recognize with a high degree of accuracy the contents of thoughts about objects like a hammer, a window, an apartment etc. -Report reveals there are enough similarities between different people such that once enough people’s brains are measured when thinking about an object, a person who never scanned can have their thoughts predicted with 100 percent accuracy when thinking about those objects.

    Predicting free choices for abstract intentions


    -Researchers are able to show that the outcome of a free decision to either add or subtract numbers can already be decoded from neural activity in medial prefrontal and parietal cortex 4 s before the participant reports they are consciously making their choice. -Previous findings have been mostly restricted to simple motor choices. -In the current study, participants were not cued to make decisions at specific points in time but were allowed to make decisions spontaneously. By asking participants to report when they first consciously decided, we could investigate what happened in the brain before the decisions were consciously made. We found that both medial frontopolar cortex and posterior cingulate/precuneus started to encode the specific outcome of the abstract decisions even before they entered conscious awareness. Our results suggest that, in addition to the representation of conscious abstract decisions, the medial frontopolar cortex was also involved in the unconscious preparation of abstract decisions.

    Tracking the Unconscious Generation of Free Decisions Using UItra-High Field fMRI


    -Researchers show that it was possible to decode the decision outcomes of such free motor decisions from the pole of anterior medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10) and the precuneus/posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), up to 7 s before subjects were aware of their intention. -Taking into account the temporal delay of the BOLD signal (which is in the order of a few seconds), it is possible that these signals reflect processes up to 10 seconds before the actual decision.

    Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain


    -Taken together, two specific regions in the frontal and parietal cortex of the human brain had considerable information that predicted the outcome of a motor decision the subject had not yet consciously made. This suggests that when the subject’s decision reached awareness it had been influenced by unconscious brain activity for up to 10 seconds. -The temporal ordering of information suggests a tentative causal model of information flow, where the earliest unconscious precursors of the motor decision originated in frontopolar cortex, from where they influenced the buildup of decision-related information in the precuneus and later in SMA, where it remained unconscious for up to a few seconds.

    There Is No Free Won’t: Antecedent Brain Activity Predicts Decisions to Inhibit


    -Our main argument is as follows: Libet et al, (1983) had suggested that decisions to inhibit action have an important role in freedom of will, because, he argued, they do not have any obvious unconscious neural precursors. In Libet’s view, this makes decisions to inhibit crucially different from decisions to act, for which, he claimed, there is a clear unconscious precursor. Libet’s dualistic notion of “free won’t” has been criticised on theoretical grounds. However, in our view, a stronger rejection of “free won’t” could come from actually showing that a decision to act or not can be driven by a preceding, presumably unconscious neural activity. Our results identify, for the first time, a candidate unconscious precursor of the decision to inhibit action. These results count as evidence against Libet’s view that the decision to inhibit action may involve a form of uncaused conscious causation. -The dualistic view that decisions to inhibit reflect a special “conscious veto” or “free won’t” mechanism is scientifically unwarranted.

    Further evidence that the brain causes the mind:

    1)The evolution of species demonstrates that development of brain correlates to mental development eg “We find that the greater the size of the brain and its cerebral cortex in relation to the animal body and the greater their complexity, the higher and more versatile the form of life” (Lamont 63). Lamont, Corliss. The Illusion of Immortality. 5th ed. New York: Unger/Continuum, 1990.

    2) Brain growth in individual organisms: “Secondly, the developmental evidence for mind-brain dependence is that mental abilities emerge with the development of the brain; failure in brain development prevents mental development (Beyerstein 45). Beyerstein, Barry L. “The Brain and Consciousness: Implications for Psi Phenomena.” In The Hundredth Monkey. Edited Kendrick Frazier. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1991: 43-53.

    3) Brain damage destroys mental capacities: “Third, clinical evidence consists of cases of brain damage that result from accidents, toxins, diseases, and malnutrition that often result in irreversible losses of mental functioning (45). If the mind could exist independently of the brain, why couldn’t the mind compensate for lost faculties when brain cells die after brain damage? (46).” Ibid

    4) EEG and similar mechanisms used in experiments and measurements on the brain indicate a correspondence between brain activity and mental activity: “Fourth, the strongest empirical evidence for mind-brain dependence is derived from experiments in neuroscience. Mental states are correlated with brain states; electrical or chemical stimulation of the human brain invokes perceptions, memories, desires, and other mental states (45).”

    5) The effects of drugs have clear physical >>> mental causation Daniel Dennett superbly opines:

    It continues to amaze me how attractive this position still is to many people. I would have thought a historical perspective alone would make this view seem ludicrous: over the centuries, every other phenomenon of initially “supernatural” mysteriousness has succumbed to an uncontroversial explanation within the commodious folds of physical science… The “miracles” of life itself, and of reproduction, are now analyzed into the well-known intricacies of molecular biology. Why should consciousness be any exception? Why should the brain be the only complex physical object in the universe to have an interface with another realm of being? Besides, the notorious problems with the supposed transactions at that dualistic interface are as good as a reductio ad absurdum of the view. The phenomena of consciousness are an admittedly dazzling lot, but I suspect that dualism would never be seriously considered if there weren’t such a strong undercurrent of desire to protect the mind from science, by supposing it composed of a stuff that is in principle uninvestigatable by the methods of the physical sciences.

    Daniel C. Dennett, “Consciousness in Human and Robot Minds,”

    Again, as the great Michael Tooley puts it: (1) When an individual’s brain is directly stimulated and put into a certain physical state, this causes the person to have a corresponding experience. (2) Certain injuries to the brain make it impossible for a person to have any mental states at all. (3) Other injuries to the brain destroy various mental capacities. Which capacity is destroyed is tied directly to the particular region of the brain that was damaged. (4) When we examine the mental capacities of animals, they become more complex as their brains become more complex. (5) Within any given species, the development of mental capacities is correlated with the development of neurons in the brain Michael Tooley, “Opening Statement” in William Lane Craig and Michael Tooley debate, “Does God Exist?”

    Seriously, The Laws Underlying The Physics of Everyday Life Really Are Completely Understood:

    In this case, one hypothesis says that the operation of the brain is affected in a rather ill-defined way by influences that are not described by the known laws of physics, and that these effects will ultimately help us make sense of human consciousness; the other says that brains are complicated, so it’s no surprise that we don’t understand everything, but that an ultimate explanation will fit comfortably within the framework of known fundamental physics. This is not really a close call; by conventional scientific measures, the idea that known physics will be able to account for the brain is enormously far in the lead. To persuade anyone otherwise, you would have to point to something the brain does that is in apparent conflict with the Standard Model or general relativity. (Bending spoons across large distances would qualify.) Until then, the fact that something is complicated isn’t evidence that the particular collection of atoms we call the brain obeys different rules than other collections of atoms.

    So, we have plenty of lines of evidence in support of epiphenomenalsm, and plenty of lines of evidence against interactionism, which is the view that mental properties with no direct physical.

    For arguments against interactionism and dualism, see here:

    Objections to Dualism Motivated by Scientific Considerations


    -Arguments from Human Development

    -The Conservation of Energy Argument

    -Problems of Interaction

    -The Correlation and Dependence Arguments

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