OK, here is the third attempt to more clearly present the problem of epiphenomenalism that I tried to point to in past two posts. BTW, I do think that lot of people are intuitively aware of this problem, but this is an attempt to make it more explicit…
So, there is a phenomenon in this world where philosophers write books about consciousness, give lectures about consciousness, then there are people who buy those books, read those books, discuss those topics, and so on. It is identifiable third-person phenomenon, or we have a pattern of behavior on social level. Whenever we have this kind of identifiable pattern, we may ask for a causal explanation – how come this kind of pattern appeared?
And that is where I claim that epiphenomenalism gets into problem: Physicalists and interactionists can give the following simple causal explanation of this behavior (of course both will add details if needed) – Those people talk about consciousness because they are aware they are conscious. But epipepiphenomenalists can’t do that, because whatever is causal explanation of their behavior in the actual world, would also be causal explanation of their behavior in the zombie-world. And in zombie-world those people aren’t aware they are conscious. So, my claim is that they need to give alternative explanation of appearance of this pattern of behavior, but that they don’t have any plausible explanation.
On that epiphenomenalist answers that it is not true that physicalism can give some causal explanation that they can’t. It can’t be that they are in worse situation than physicalism, as in explaining things they can refer to all the cogs and bolts that physicalism can, and then some more.
And really, given the same world to analyze, epiphenomenalists and physicalists will agree on what is happening on the atomic level. So, epiphenomenalists can give the same causal explanation of the things in the world as physicalists, if for giving a causal explanation what was needed was just stating the state of the universe at certain previous time, and stating the basic physical laws. But certainly when we are asking for an explanation of some phenomenon that appears on social, psychological or biological level we are not asking for THAT.
For the explanation to make sense, we need to identify a reason why this pattern of behavior formed, not given the precise state of the universe on atomic level, but on a more abstract level, which would ignore to certain amount the specifics of the situation. We do that for example when we explain phenomena by using the laws of thermodynamics (and not by pointing of the movement to every molecule). Or explaining the traits of species using evolutionary pressure, and so on…
So, while epiphenomenalism and physicalism agree about the world on the level of atoms, physicalists HAVE on this abstract level something in this world which consist of atoms and molecules, which epiphenomanlists don’t – the possibility people to be aware that they are conscious. So they can provide explanation of this pattern, which is inaccessible to epiphenomenalists.
So, what can epiphenomenalists do here? In my view, there are two options:
1.Without proposing any new abstract level, say that explanation needs to be searched for on lower level, by pointing to the behavior of the individual neurons, atoms or whatever. But this would be admitting practically that this complex behavior pattern is result of a chance, because what explains it is only the state of the world at some earlier time t.
2.Propose some new abstract level explanation. Probably arguing that there will be some brain states which will appear in people who behave as if thinking, writing and talking about consciousness. Richard Brown noticed in the comments of the last post, that those brain states could be related to the ones we have when we discuss fictional entities like unicorns (though of course, unicorns don’t produce such obsessive behavior like behaving as writing and speaking for days).
So, I think the main point for the epiphenomenalism is this. Just because it can refer to same basic nuts and bolts as a physicalist, it doesn’t have same explanatory power for the physical realm. It doesn’t have it because in its metaphysics, it pushed part of the mental phenomena – more specifically ‘awareness of being consciousness’ outside of the physical world. So, epiphenomenalism needs to provide new explanation. It needs to forget physicalism, and its explanation. Just imagine zombie-world in which zombies have this obsession with the word “Consciousness”, and behave as if writing and talking about consciousness, and give *any plausible explanation* of appearance of such zombies. (Again, tracking the movement of molecules doesn’t count, the explanation needs to make sense.)
To me, the idea that zombies would develop such obsessed behavior, is at least counter intuitive, as the claim that the zombie world is impossible.
UPDATE:Just wanted to add this note, because in few answers to those posts, and the discussion at Philosophy, Et Cetera, people seem to be defending the metaphysical or logical possibility of what I attack. So, to be clear, I’m not attacking metaphysical or logical possibility of epiphenomenalist proposal.
Instead I’m attacking the plausibility of it, or attacking the sensibility of their proposal. Let me try analogy… Let’s say that we find a group of monkeys in the nature to which whenever you give a typewriter, they end up writing complete works of William Shakesepare. So, we have three groups, two of
which explain the behavior using some cause C which totally makes sense (in our case it is “awareness that we are conscious”), and third group(in our example those would be epiphenomenalists) that say that C is not part of the physical world, and hence can’t be cause of what we are seeing, but fails to provide any alternative explanation (on abstract level, and not on general, it is because of the physical laws, or it is because of the brains level).