• amber
    3
    Hello everyone! I would like some opinions on a thought I had about the argument against Epiphenomenalism: Epiphenomenalism fails because it has no evolutionary advantage and so would not have evolved alongside humans.

    My Response: I think this fails because of pleitropic genes. I read a book by Richard Dawkins that addressed this phenomenon: A pleiotropic gene is a single gene that controls more than one trait, and there is much evidence that pleitropic genes exist. An example would be Marfan syndrome, which is caused by a variation in the FBN1 gene. People with Marfan syndrome tend to be tall with long thin fingers, toes and limbs. They are also, however, prone to a wide variety of symptoms, including heart defects and problems with the eyes and spine. The point is that these phenotypes seem to have no obvious relation, but they are highly correlated. My view is that if epiphenomenalism is true, perhaps it is the result of a similar phenomenon: an advantageous trait that we hold could be pleitropically tied to the development of consciousness. Consciousness does not need to have an evolutionary advantage in this case: it is unavoidably developed as a side-effect of the advantageous gene.

    Please let me know what you think! Any feedback / recommendations for further reading are appreciated :)
  • flannel jesus
    1.3k
    Are you proposing the idea that consciousness doesn't *do* anything, but is nevertheless the consequence of physical brains?

    I think it's hard to argue consciousness doesn't do anything, personally - you'd have a hard time explaining why humans write so many words about 'consciousness'. The very existence of arguments about consciousness seem very hard to explain without consciousness. Why would a non-conscious zombie write about being conscious?
  • amber
    3
    This is a great article! And it directly discussed my point on pleiotropic genes.

    The author of this article uses James’s Evolutionary Argument as a counter to this point: If consciousness is just an evolutionary byproduct with no causal power, how have animals learned to fear pain, e.g. burning, starvation, and enjoy pleasure, e.g. eating, sex, which all seem like mental events? Basically, consciousness cannot be a non-causal byproduct of evolution, because it seems to directly affect our survival.

    My reply: I’m working on Huxley’s Epiphenomenalism, ‘consciousness’ is just an observer in a physical body, with no causal power. E.g. if a body is hurt, physical signals are sent to the brain, which are handled, e.g. by flinching, physically. The conscious experience of thinking about the pain and feeling the pain are separate and non-causal. On this view, I believe that James’s argument is invalid, the process of handling pain and sex are completely physical, and we have physical drives to avoid / indulge in these actions.
  • Patterner
    556
    On this view, I believe that James’s argument is invalid, the process of handling pain and sex are completely physical, and we have physical drives to avoid / indulge in these actions.amber
    The question is - how are these physical drives accompanied by our subjective experience of them? Even if we think the subjective experience is of no consequence, unable to do anything but observe, how does it exist at all?
  • flannel jesus
    1.3k
    I can't tell if anybody actually believes subjective experience has no effect on human behavior at all, or if that's just a big straw man that nobody believes.
  • Count Timothy von Icarus
    2k


    I am not sure if this is an apt point of comparison. Consider that we tend to think all sorts of animals experience phenomenal conciousness. That is, there is something that "it is like" to live as a bat, a dog, a turtle, a fish, a squid, etc. Fish can feel pain, etc.

    But if this is the case then conciousness is not akin to Marfan Syndrome. It's essential to seemingly all higher level animal life, something that has been around for hundreds of millions of years. So you're not talking about a gene with some unintended consequences that aren't all that relevant for selection, but rather a huge portion of the entire genome, genes stretching across species and genus, genes that affect niche construction and the context of eco systems in which animals have evolved, etc.

    Second, we have good reason to think that phenomenal awareness is different in different animals. Dogs do not experience the world like we do. Some animals demonstrate some rudimentary mathematical abilities, most do not. Some animals seem to have a certain embryonic sense of logic, in that they are perturbed by what are essentially "magic tricks," chains of events that don't "add up," e.g., making food seem to vanish, etc.

    However, epiphenomenalism says that none of this subjective awareness can have anything to do with natural selection. So we need to explain why awareness changes with intelligence, why more complex animals seem to have a "fuller picture," of the world.

    The deeper problem is that, if causal closure is true, awareness never has anything to do with behavior. So the way "the way the world seems," is never selected for. And yet evolutionary psychology assumes, and in some ways seems to demonstrate fairly convincingly, that "the way the world seems to us," is affected by natural selection. But this seems to hurt the plausibility of phenomenal awareness having no causal role in behavior (and thus selection).

    The other thing is that at any point in these hundreds of millions of years mutations could have caused phenomenal awareness to "drift apart" from the world, such that it represents the world less and less accurately. But, per epiphenomenalism, such a thing could never affect selection. So there is nothing to keep awareness from moving further and further away from reality. Yet if this is true, then we have no reason to trust our senses, and so no reason to trust the science and metaphysical doctrines that suggest to us that epiphenomenalism is true.

    What would help epiphenomenalism would be if there was some demonstrable, necessary link between how phenomenal awareness "seems" and how sensory systems and intelligence have to work. That is, it would need to show some mechanism by which "the way the world seems" is kept from floating away from "the way the world is." No such link exists though because conciousness is very poorly understood.

    The last problem comes from the question: "why even posit epiphenomenalism?" It seems prima facie unreasonable that our thoughts never cause our actions, so how do we end up here? The route tends to lead through smallism, the belief that all facts about larger things are entirely reducible to facts about smaller things. Empirical support for this philosophical presupposition is weak, even chemistry cannot be reduced to physics. But epiphenomenalism has us accepting a very counter intuitive and potentially self-refuting set of presuppositions largely to defend the coherence of a metaphysical doctrine that has weak empirical support and no prima facie plausibility (e.g. "bigism" seems just as good of a presupposition, parts are defined by wholes).
  • wonderer1
    1.7k
    Please let me know what you think!amber

    My recommendation is that if you want to seriously consider the nature of consciousness, it's a good idea to avoid getting to caught up in simplistic philosophical notions like epiphenomenalism. (Not to say there isn't value in considering how epiphenomenalism can be avoided given a naturalistic view (e.g. causal closure under physics).

    One thing to consider is the role consciousness plays in language based learning. Here is a sketch of an argument, though I'm not going to be at all rigorous. (So maybe more accurately stated, a set of dots that you might intuitively see connections between.)

    (1) It seems obvious that language plays a big role in our learning.

    (2) The amount that can be learned from someone is highly correlated with the conscious state of that person. People talking while asleep, or under the influence of powerful opiates, don't tend to produce nearly as much language that can be learned from, as those who are in a normal conscious state.

    (3) It seems reasonable to think of consciousness as, at the very least, an important 'filter' on the language we social primates emit.

    (4) I think we have good reason, based on our interactions with each other via language, to see our consciousness as playing a causal role in our ability to learn from, and inform/teach each other.

    (5) I don't see any of the above as being contradictory to causal closure under physics.

    As some added food for thought, here's a blurb on a recent article on the ability of bumblebees to engage in social learning: It seems to me, that the evidentiary case for consciousness playing an important causal role in the human capacity for social learning, is quite strong.

    What do you think?
  • Patterner
    556
    As some added food for thought, here's a blurb on a recent article on the ability of bumblebees to engage in social learning:wonderer1
    Lars Chittka is mentioned in the article. He has a great book called The Mind of a Bee.
  • wonderer1
    1.7k
    A Claude 3 response to my argument:

    Reveal
    I appreciate you providing this additional context and framing around the bumblebee study in relation to questions about the nature of consciousness. You raise some thought-provoking points that I'll do my best to respond to:

    1. I agree it's wise to avoid getting overly mired in simplistic philosophical notions like epiphenomenalism when considering the hard problem of consciousness. The relationship between physical processes and consciousness is deeply complex.

    2. Your sketch of an argument highlighting the potential role of consciousness in facilitating language-based learning and cultural transmission in humans is compelling:
    - Language clearly plays a pivotal role in human learning and knowledge accumulation.
    - Our conscious states seem tightly linked to our linguistic outputs that others learn from.
    - This suggests consciousness may act as an important "filter" or causal factor shaping the informational value of our communications.
    - This capacity for conscious linguistic interaction enabling social learning appears quite unique compared to non-human species.

    3. Bringing it back to the bumblebee study - the findings suggest a rudimentary ability for cultural transmission of knowledge that was previously thought exclusive to humans.

    4. However, as you note, the human capacity for conscious linguistic interaction and systematically building a vast body of sharable knowledge through that process appears considerably more sophisticated than what we've observed in bumblebees so far.

    5. Viewing consciousness as playing some causal role in our cognitive capabilities, including social learning and teaching, need not necessarily contradict causal closure under physics - perhaps consciousness arises from physical processes in ways we don't yet fully understand.

    Overall, I concur that the evidence points towards consciousness having an important functional role in enabling the uniquely human skills of symbolic thought, language mastery, and accumulation of culturally transmissible knowledge - even if we haven't yet untangled the metaphysical nature of consciousness itself. Continuing to study the extent of similar capacities across species provides an interesting comparative lens. You've given me much to ponder on this fascinating issue spanning neuroscience, cognition, and philosophy of mind. Well argued!


    Claude 3's response to "What suggestions can you make towards a criticism of the argument I presented on the philosophy forum, from within a naturalistic metaphysics."

    Reveal
    Here are some potential criticisms or counterpoints one could raise to the argument you presented on the philosophy forum, while still operating within a naturalistic metaphysical framework:

    1. Correlation does not imply causation. While there is a clear correlation between conscious states and productive linguistic output enabling social learning, one could argue this does not definitively prove consciousness plays a direct causal role. The relationship could be more indirect or emergent from underlying neurological processes.

    2. The hard problem of consciousness remains unresolved. Even if consciousness facilitates certain cognitive functions like language, we still lack a complete theory for how and why subjective experience arises from physical processes. A criticism could be made that handwaving to consciousness' causal powers is premature without a fuller explanatory model.

    3. Other faculties may be more directly causal. Some could argue that other cognitive capabilities like working memory, executive function, theory of mind etc. are more direct drivers of the linguistic skills enabling cultural transmission, rather than consciousness per se playing a specialized role.

    4. Anthropic bias. The unique human strengths in this domain could potentially bias our perspective on the true role and extent of consciousness required for these capacities across other species. We may be overestimating its importance.

    5. Ambiguity of consciousness. Definitions of what constitutes a conscious state can be quite varied. Critics could argue the argument rests on an imprecise or ungrounded notion of consciousness itself.

    6. Other species may have unappreciated capacities. As the bumblebee study hints, other species may have more rudimentary versions of cultural transmission enabled by precursor cognitive capabilities not necessarily requiring human-like consciousness.

    Overall, while your argument outlines an intuitive perspective, potential counterpoints could challenge the empirical certainty of consciousness' causal role, the feasibility of locating subjective experience in a naturalistic framework, or anthropocentric assumptions about the relationship between consciousness and social learning capabilities. Addressing these concerns could strengthen or refine the argument further. But you've raised fascinating issues at the intersection of cognitive science and naturalistic metaphysics.
  • wonderer1
    1.7k
    Lars Chittka is mentioned in the article. He has a great book called The Mind of a Bee.Patterner

    Good to know. If my stack of unread books weren't so high...
  • Patterner
    556

    Amen. And I have apnea. Even with the CPAP, it's almost impossible for me to read. Even excellent, exciting novels are almost always beyond my ability. But I commute more than a half hour each way, and often more than an hour, and audible is great for me.

    Tse is not available on audible. I try to read it as I can.
  • wonderer1
    1.7k
    Amen. And I have apnea. Even with the CPAP, it's almost impossible for me to read. Even excellent, exciting novels are almost always beyond my ability. But I commute more than a half hour each way, and often more than an hour, and audible is great for me.

    Tse is not available on audible. I try to read it as I can.
    Patterner

    Sorry to hear about the apnea, but glad to hear Audible works for you. I've tried Audible, but didn't like it. Luckily for me, I have a short trip to work.
  • Patterner
    556

    I do very well with this kind of book on audio. Rewind 10-30 seconds is very helpful. I always get the kindle/nook also, and read and highlight parts that particularly strike me. Someone else here recommended another neurologist, Antonio Damasio. Going through one of his at the moment.
  • Patterner
    556

    I just went looking. Turns out it was you who recommended Damasio. Ha!
  • flannel jesus
    1.3k
    The last problem comes from the question: "why even posit epiphenomenalism?" It seems prima facie unreasonable that our thoughts never cause our actions, so how do we end up here?Count Timothy von Icarus

    I don't think epiphenomenalism is a thing many people actually believe. It's mostly posited as a thought experiment, and like Solipsism, it's something you're supposed to figure out how to overcome, not something you're supposed to fully accept and believe.

    Epiphenomenalism has to be false. The most likely two reasons for it to be false are (a) we have souls, and that's where a lot of the work of a mind happens, which means if you create a "zombie" without a soul, it WILL be distinguishable from a human, because it won't act like one, or (b) the mind is entirely the result of physical processes in the brain, which means you can't have a physically working brain with all the bells and whistles of a human brain, without also having consciousness - the proverbial zombie is impossible.

    Generally non physicalists go with a, physicalists go with b. Exceptionally few people go with option c, which is to accept epiphenomenalism and the genuine possibility of zombies. They have a hard time explaining some things, I think.
  • hypericin
    1.5k
    (b) the mind is entirely the result of physical processes in the brain, which means you can't have a physically working brain with all the bells and whistles of a human brain, without also having consciousness - the proverbial zombie is impossible.flannel jesus

    This seems compatible with epiphenomenalism though.
  • Bylaw
    542
    I can see someone arguing that we would, like robots, do the same things. We just have this internal witness. But the problem for me is, we sure talk about subjective experience, consciousness, qualia. So, in some way the fact of experiencing is in the domino chains just like everything else. It isn't epi. It seems like it has to be a substance dualism. But why does it ever come up in conversation. That other substance is necessarily causal. Perhaps it has nothing to do with causing actions, but it sure causes our noticing it which then causes us to talk about it, which then is an action. We don't have locked in syndrome.
  • flannel jesus
    1.3k
    Whatever consciousness is must be "casual" in some sense, I totally agree.
  • Bylaw
    542
    Yes, why do the epiphenomenologists talk about consciousness? Because they noticed they had subjective experience. They mulled this over and they started talking about it. If it could lead to any causes of physical things they we need a reason why their lips or fingers started moving in those ways to communicate about consciousness. It seems to me also, though I haven't fully worked this out, that we shouldn't believe in other minds if we are epiphenomenologists. We could well believe in other cognitive functions, but not that there are other experiencers. Otherwise the experiencing of our own set of qualia was used to decide other people have this stuff also.
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