Thursday, August 18, 2016

Epiphenomenalism and the Challenge of Original Ideas

375 days until the first day of classes.

As I mentioned yesterday, the primary way in which I hope to offer compensation for an opportunity to attend the graduate program at the University of Colorado in Boulder is by making some original contrbituions while I am there.

Unfortunately, one of those potential original contributions has turned out to be less than totally original.

A while back, I was listening to a podcast episode on epiphenomenalism: "Philosophy Bites: What Mary Knew"

Epiphenomenalism is the view that there are properties that are caused by physical properties, but which themselves have no causal effect on the physical world.

The theory generally comes up in the philosophy of mind to explain the association between physical states of the brain and mental states - thoughts, beliefs, sensations, and the like. It says that physical events (e.g., photons of a particular wavelength striking the retina of the eye and sending a signal to and through the brain) cause mental events (e.g., the sensation of seeing red). However, these mental entities have no capacity to do such things as alter the course of an electron in the brain. Atoms in the brain are still governed in their motions and states by the laws of physics alone.

In my earlier encounters with epiphenomenalism, I always had a question come up in my mind. If epiphenomenal properties cannot alter the movement of matter in the physical universe, then how can we talk about them or write about them? Talking and writing involve the movement of atoms through space. If they are not being caused, at least in some sense, by these epiphenomenal properties, then how can the writing or the speaking be about them?

Honestly, I never developed these thoughts in any detail, and I did have some worries as to whether they would hold up to scrutiny. Instead, I filed them away as something I would investigate if the opportunity came up.

Well, in the episode of Philosophy Bites that I listened to on Tuesday, Dr. Frank Jackson gave that argument.

Dr. Jackson actually invented one of the original arguments in favor of epiphenomenalism. He invented a thought experiment in which Mary - a brilliant neuroscientist who knew everything about the physical properties involved in perceiving red - was nonetheless raised in a black and white environment. Consequently, she had never seen red herself. She is then presented with a tomato and, for the first time, has a sensation of redness. Jackson's claim was that Mary learned something new that she could not have learned from a detailed understanding of all of the physical properties associated with seeing red.

Jackson then claimed that he, himself, ultimately rejected this very famous argument for the same reasons that I mentioned above. He could not explain how he could be writing about and giving presentations about a property that, itself, had no power to cause him to influence either his writing or his speaking.

So, that is no longer something that I will be able to offer as an original idea on my part.

The question then becomes: What about the other ideas that I have?

This was one of my worries when I sent that email to Dr. Heathwood - the one that suggested that "desire fulfillment" not be understood as getting as much desire fulfillment as possible, but as fulfilling the most and strongest of one's desires. I worried that he would respond by saying, "Oh, that's been tried. Read this for a refutation." I was relieved not to get that answer.

But I still have this worry that attempts on my part to contribute something useful and original may be thwarted.

At least, in the case of this argument against epiphenomenalism, I can draw some small comfort from the fact that Jackson found the argument convincing. It is not as if I thought of something that was fatally flawed.

I worry more about discovering that somebody had already written a devastating objection to one of my brilliant ideas.

Yet, if that devistating objection is out there, I would rather know about it sooner rather than later, so that I can avoid thinking that I know something that more learned people already understand to be clearly false.

No comments: