First Causes

JPL Verhey matterDELminds at hotmail.com
Sat Sep 11 20:10:07 EST 2004

"Alex Green" <dralexgreen at yahoo.co.uk> wrote in message ....

>> To come to terms with volition - as a possibility or fundamental
>> impossibility - I would think that a closer look at epiphenomalism is
>> necessary.
>> As i see it, to call conscious experience 'epiphenomenal' means you
>> again end up with a ghost in a machine, or a ghost hovering over a 
>> hill
>> top. Then, of course, conscious volition is always oxymoronic under 
>> any
>> circumstance. But in fact it is an admission of defeat: the
>> epiphenomalist has no clue what conscious experience is since he
>> believes that what is observed and  'physical', such as the observed
>> brain, is the real thing and must 'somehow' be the cause of conscious
>> experience. Since this riddle can not be resolved, conscious 
>> experience
>> ends up being called "an epiphenomenon". But it is a word that has no
>> other meaning than saying 'I don't know', or 'I am 'confused'. The 
>> great
>> divide, the "explanatory gap" between brain and mind..  or
>> matter-vs-mind in general, still rules. Like the Ghost itself, the 
>> word
>> "epiphenomenon" is a void without meaning, especially scientific
>> meaning. There are no known physical entities and qualities with 
>> which
>> this "epiphenomenon" can be described, analyzed and put into 
>> equations
>> that can predict. The ghost in the machine just has been given a
>> personal name, "epiphenomenon". But it remains a ghost all the same, 
>> a
>> rabbit out of a magic hat. There still is the hard problem of why 
>> that
>> epiphenomenon would arise from all those observed brain processes to
>> begin with. The same thing has just been given new names: "conscious
>> experience", "mind", "Ghost".. and finally: "Epiphenomenon". Where is
>> the progress?
> This is a good point. For the past century whenever people have
> pointed out the seemingly epiphenomal nature of consciousness others
> have said that this cannot be possible and have simply rejected
> epiphenomenal consciousness. A better approach is to wonder why
> consciousness exists if there is so much evidence for it being
> epiphenomenal.

It could be I have a misunderstanding of what is meant with 
epiphenomenalism. I take it to mean that consciousness, awareness, is 
considered having no causal impact on anything we can observe, i.e. of 
what can be 'the content' of any of our epxeriences. From having no 
impact on a the orbit of the moon when we look at it (I do agree), to 
having no impact on reflexes of body movement like hitting your breaks 
when a person suddenly appears in front of your car (I agree), and 
reflexes of emotion and thought such as when a sudden smell can trigger 
emotions/moods and memories/thoughts.

It is, indeed, thinkable that every thought, emotion and behaviour that 
we are aware of, are reflexive processes and that the awareness of it 
all is truly epiphenomenal. Volition/free will might be utter illusion, 
but perhaps useful. Somebody who is convinced that volition is an utter 
illusion, might think, feel and behave differently than somebody who 
believes the opposite. This would suggest that independent of the truth 
or falsehood of something, our assumptions do make a difference. A 
culture that has instilled in the minds of people that all is 
pre-determined via causal chains from which there is no escape, and free 
choice an oxymoron.. will produce different behavior than a culture that 
cultivates concepts of freedom and choice, responsibility and a trust in 
the ability of creative and active change. My personal assumption is 
that, in more general terms, determinism and indeterminism co-exist in 
any framework of scientific knowledge (with a limited domain of 
validity) and that therefor nothing final and conclusive can be said 
about human freedom in general, and conscious volition in particular. 
Going from here, it can safely be assumed that conscious experience is 
neither entirely bereft of control or causal impact, nor in control of 
everything. The latter being rather obvious. Less obvious perhaps is 
that conscious experience could have causal impact - as you mention that 
"..there is so much evidence for it [consciousness] being 

Although it is true that conscious experience appears to be an observer 
that only registers facts like a journalist reporting to the world what 
takes (or took) place, it is safe to assume that even during the most 
passive forms of awareness such as attentive meditation (by just letting 
your senses et-al do the work and the verbal commentator in our heads 
quiet down to near total silence).. our brains are fully involved and 
active "still". The activities in the brain during 'high-alert' 
meditation or as a response to immediate danger,  are in essence not 
different from the high-gear activity and focus of a sportsman. Having 
your arms and legs actively moving around during a game of tennis, is 
not much different from he high activity in the brain. They are all 
activities of different organs and functions that constitute the 
organism. One of the brain's functions is consciousness. It tells the 
organism where it is in relation to the world around, what its internal 
state is (hungry, happy, angry etc etc..) and it mediates, evaluates 
behaviors of the organism accordingly within its environment.

It is important, I think, to recognise that "consciousness" is a brain 
activity, as any other brain activity, even as any other activity in the 
body like blood being pumped around in veins, and even as any other 
activity of the body such as moving arms and legs, speach etc. It just 
happens to be, that one of the bodybrain's activities is a brain process 
(or "state"), located apparently in areas of the brain you mention 
below, is a conscious process.

Now if one forget's for a moment that this activity/process is a 
conscious activity/process... it becomes suddenly not so strange at all 
that this process is very much experienced as being "epiphenomenal". 
Assume, for the sake of the argument, that your arms when they are 
actively moving around are able to "monitor" your legs when they run 
around. What your legs do and what happens to them has no direct affect 
on your arms other than that it is registered. The activity of your arms 
IS the registration process what happens to your legs.(if you'd stop 
moving your arms.. you'd stop registering where your legs are, what they 
do and how they are doing) This way..your arms are a true "epiphenomenon 
of your legs". If you twist your anckle, your arms are still ok..and 
actively registering this fact. Your arms are not an "epiphenomenal 
ghost", they are just different limbs then your legs.

Now, in the same sense, consider the brain's parts and processes that 
constitute conscious experience as similar to those "actively moving 
arms". We have not "killed" epiphenomenalism yet, but it is clear that 
instead of an "epiphenomenon" (which is IMO a meaningless word anyways) 
we have very active "moving" brains. Like in a cockpit the main 
functions of the organism are monitored and the environment scanned and 
mapped. Conscious experience is the  "experiential cockpit" of the 
organism. But in any cockpit of an airplane or organism, it never ends 
with "epiphenomenal registration" only. In the cockpit, there is an 
evaluation of the data and signals are being generated and sent back 
into the other parts of the organism that can make it change course, 
altitude. Many of those signals are done by auto-pilot when nothing 
deserves special attention. You have "passive epiphenomenal awareness". 
However, when something unexpected happens - either because it never 
happened before or because at a moment that did not happen before, the 
"pilot" wakes up and has to actively improvise a solution. Passive 
"epiphenomenal" awareness remains active, but more conscious activity is 
added: that of the "pilot" that evaluates the unexpected changes and 
responds to them with changing the signal pattern sent back into the 
organism. This way, the organism can change and adapt its behavior to 
the continuously changing circumstances  - similar but always different. 
The passive "epiphenomenal" consciousness as monitor and 'auto-pilot' is 
always there (kinda day dreaming), but gears-up to a more active 
conscious activity or "intervention" to change the pattern. This can 
happen during (pre-verbal) evaluations of a fraction of a second, or 
evaluations that involve verbal thinking of some minutes where you (the 
verbal "I") decides that it's better to stay home tomorrow because 
hurricane Ivan will cross your path.

The human toolbox: (1) Passive "epiphenomenal" consciousness + (2) 
active "intervening" consciousness + (3) active-verbal conscious 
evaluation (thought) for long term planning and decision making.

This tool-box enables us to (1) be aware of hunger, (2) jump to the 
fridge in a reflex but find it totally empty.. and (3) decide to go to 
the shop tomorrow. (4) actually going to shop next day.

Many of our daily life behaviors are of the 1/2/3/4 type. Notably 
conscious decisions (3) and the subsequent behavior (4) following (much) 
later.. don't point to epiphenomalism as telling the whole story. This, 
apart from it's "ghostly" connotations and the afore mentioned 
determinism-indetermisms general uncertainties.


> What we know is that if you abolish consciousness by trauma to the ILN
> or suppressing ILN activity with general anaethetic coma results.  If
> patients 'recover' from trauma to the ILN they suffer extreme
> delirium, persistent vegetative state, akinetic mutism etc.  This
> suggests that conscious experience has a global role in the brain,
> stabilising activity. Those who have lost consciousness due to ILN
> removal have no 'meaningful' behaviour if they awake from coma - in
> PVS they just move their eyes blankly, in delirium they make no sense.
> This suggests that conscious experience is at the other end of the
> chain of relations from the various senses, it is a state, not an
> encoding of data. Encoded data just runs around the brain without
> meaning without conscious experience.
> According to these observations conscious experience is not
> epiphenomenal but neither is it directly responsible for specific
> behaviours. It does something else. Stability is a definite phenomenon
> but why consciousness for stability? My own suspicion is that, despite
> Tegmark, the brain does experience quantum noise. Recent studies
> showing that single neurons can precipitate behaviours would seem to
> confirm this (Even Tegmark's calculations might allow 1 in 10^11
> neurons to have an uncertain state).
> If consciousness is a point phenomenon such as Zeh suggested then we
> would truly be in a situation where the brain would be unstable
> without it and the 'many minds' theories of the universe would be
> possible.
> Best Wishes
> Alex Green 

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