Thursday, 27 October 2011

Struggles with Epiphenomenalism

As regular reader's of my alter-ego's Facebook page may already be aware I have been obsessing about epiphenomenalism for the last two days. Broadly speaking this is the theory in Philosophy of Mind that mental activity (beliefs, desires, intentions, etc.) are caused by physical activity of the brain and that mental events do not cause physical events whilst appearing to do precisely that.


When Samuel Johnson first heard of George Berkeley's perfectly reasonable yet totally ridiculous theory that there are only mental phenomena and what we think of as the Universe of matter is not there when unobserved, he said "I refute it thus" and kicked a stone.  Obviously, that was no kind of refutation at all - as everything he could know about the stone (from the sensation of his foot's impact to the sight of its trajectory to the sound of its thudding into a pile of discarded dictionary manuscripts) would have come to him through his senses and therefore be mental phenomena.

I'm a bit of a fan of Berkeley because he is the battiest of the British Empiricists.  An Idealist in the original sense of the word - he believed the world was made up only of minds and their ideas.  Clearly, an altogether more beautiful theory than the ugly epiphenomenalist viewpoint of mind as a sort of fluff to the brain's bellybutton.  Clearly also batshit crazy.  We can't have a Universe which only exists when bits of itself are watching it.  In fairness, Berkeley was aware of this problem and adopted the tactic favoured by most early modern philosophers of wheeling on God at the last minute. I don't want to get sidetracked into theology, but basically if you ever find yourself in the 17th Century and there is a massive flaw in your philosophical argument, just say "God does that bit" and everybody will nod sagely and probably make you a bishop or something. 

So, reluctantly, I reject Idealism on these grounds.  But I cannot embrace epiphenomenalism because it goes against the very grain of human experience. It is my intention to write 1000 words a day that leads to me (very occasionally) doing so.  My brain isn't just telling my fingers to type words and at the same time causing me to think that I had intentions to type them.  Or is it?  If epiphemomenalism is true then we lose Free Will and I rather like my will being free.  I like willing myself to freely stay in bed for instance.  And there are countless other examples of free things I willingly do - like nap and procrastinate.  Actually they are bad examples because they are the sort of things that a brain can get on and do without the mind getting involved and insisting on some Free Will action.

How would an epiphenomenalist account for this?

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