The efficacy of consciousness and psychological theory: a short comment
by Titus Rivas
The theory of the Non-Efficacy of Consciousness or epiphenomenalism (and other non-reductive forms of physicalism) may be influential, but the author shows why they inevitably must be rejected as incoherent. It is time to accept and integrate the consequences of the analytical disqualification of physicalism into theoretical psychology. The ultimate criterion for the a priori-tenability of any fundamental framework for theoretical psychology is to be found in reason rather than mere social consensus.
Psychologists have more than once tried to show that subjective awareness, how ever precious it may be for us as conscious subjects, is at best the tip of an enormous mental iceberg. Sigmund Freud already pointed at the existence of unconscious or subconscious emotional and motivational processes which in his view would determine most of our behavior. His student Carl Gustav Jung added the concept of a collective subconscious to his own brand of analytical psychology.
Contemporary cognitive scientists such as Ray Jackendoff stress the importance of what is sometimes called the ‘cognitive subconscious’, i.e. subconscious computational processes at the basis of what we perceive, think, feel, want and do. Jackendoff goes even further than Freud and than other cognitivist scholars in claiming that consciousness (in the sense of subjective awareness or the phenomenal mind as he terms it) has no efficacy, which means that it can have no impact upon the subconscious, computational mind whatsoever. He lucidly terms this standpoint the hypothesis of the Non-Efficacy of Consciousness. Jackendoff has based his hypothesis partly upon empirical evidence for the striking importance of subconscious computation but even more on the philosophical consideration that any efficacy of consciousness would boil down to ‘magic’. It would imply an non-material phenomenon with subjective and qualitative, physically unregistrable dimensions to have a causal impact on the non-subjective and non-qualitative functional processes of the physical brain. Implicitly, his Non-Efficacy of Consciousness equals a form of what philosophers traditionally call epiphenomenalism. According to Jackendoff consciousness qua subjectivity would primarily be non-efficacious or an epiphenomenon (a powerless by-product of the physical world) because of its non-physical nature, properties or aspects.
At the section of Theoretical Psychology at the University of Utrecht (The Netherlands), René van Hezewijk, Rob de Vries and some of their graduate students organized meetings for anyone interested in a serious discussion of Jackendoff’s book Consciousness and the Computational Mind. It was during such a meeting that as a student I fully realized the impact of his hypothesis of the Non-Efficacy of Consciousness. I was surprised by the fact that it was taken so seriously, as personally I was searching for a unification between cognitivism which accepted data from psychological and neuropsychological experiments and field studies, and a Neo-Cartesian dualistic type of humanist psychology which accepted the existence of an efficacious subjectivity. To me, both the existence of subconscious cognition and an important role for an irreducible, qualitative and subjective consciousness seemed obvious, in human and ‘even’ in animal psychology. Therefore, I wondered how anyone could seemingly swallow Jackendoff’s standpoint so unproblematically.
One of the organizers of our discussions of the book, Rob de Vries, formulated an analytical argument against the Non-Efficacy of Consciousness, saying that it was strange to state that we could describe our conscious experiences if they weren’t having an impact upon our computational mind. However, I realized that Jackendoff would counter this argument by saying that what we described would be the subconscious percepts and concepts leading to our conscious experiences rather than those experiences themselves. Surprisingly, this remark of mine seemed to have ‘solved’ the problem, whereas for me it was just the beginning of a discussion of it. As I repeatedly tried to show during our meetings, I believed that this rebuttal was untenable since it implicitly contained a logical contradiction. I wrote Jackendoff an answered letter about it and even spoke with him personally at an international conference. As I see it, Ray Jackendoff was not able to show any flaw in my argumentation and even seriously considered a reductionist ‘escape route’ rather than admitting the dreaded ‘magical’ possibility of any type of conscious efficacy.
The logical contradiction within any non-reductive hypothesis of the Non-Efficacy of Consciousness
In my view, Rob de Vries was right to expect a logical contradiction within the theory of epiphenomenalism or more generally Non-Efficacy. How could we discuss the contents of consciousness if it hadn’t any type of causal impact upon our cognition? The formulation of his argument just needed some additional sophistication. An epiphenomenalist might claim that we simply don’t think or talk about the contents of consciousness but exclusively about its non-conscious, computational substrates or causes. Even if this might usually be so -for example if we are discussing the results of psychological experiments which use self-reporting techniques- there certainly is one clear-cut case in which the rebuttal cannot by any standard make any sense. Whenever we want to dwell on consciousness as such, i.e. consciousness qua consciousness, we need conscious experiences to have an impact on our cognitive processes. Even if we had an innate concept of consciousness, referring to such a concept would not suffice to explain our knowledge of the existence of consciousness. For us to know that there are such things as subjective experiences, those experiences must inevitably have causally affected our cognitive apparatus.
I think this argument is logically sound and shows that there are two logically tenable possibilities in the debate about the causal impact of subjective awareness: either one accepts the reality of both an irreducible consciousness and its efficacy, or one rejects both. Non-reductive physicalism simply doesn’t make sense analytically. As reductionism does not make sense empirically, the choice should seem obvious.
Knowledge by acquaintance as an alternative to causal conscious efficacy
After I had formulated my argument against physicalism and found that no-one I knew succeeded in showing that it was misguided, I wrote an article about it with my friend Dr. Hein van Dongen for the Revista de Filosofía of the University of Santiago (Chile). This was after I found that three other scholars had published their own versions of our logical argument against epiphenomenalism, namely reductionist Daniel Dennett (in Consciousness Explained), idealist John Foster (in The Case for Dualism) and Michael Watkins (in Analysis). Naturally, we mentioned their own independent formulations in our paper.
Some months after its publication, I confronted David Chalmers with an English translation of our article, who kindly sent me material on his own position. Chalmers thinks that we must indeed posit a cognitive influence of consciousness so that we can know that we have subjective experiences, but that this influence is not a causal one. According to Chalmers, we know that we are conscious subjects directly, by acquaintance. Thus, a moderate, but still essential type of Non-Efficacy which would allow for knowledge of consciousness can be saved. However, I realized that this way out would only account for some kind of instantaneous, ephemeral knowledge of subjective experiences at the very moment they would occur. Any knowledge that would last longer than the moment itself would require an impact of consciousness on memory. An impact which could not be anything else than causal.
Hein van Dongen and myself incorporated this insight into a second, English version of our paper for the Journal of Non-Locality and Remote Mental Interactions, published this year. We also found out that Anthony J. Rudd had responded in a similar way to the position taken by David Chalmers.
Partial epiphenomenalism, parallelism and identity theory
Some enthusiasts of the theory of Non-Efficacy have adopted a type of partial epiphenomenalism. They grant the fact that epiphenomenalism implicitly presupposes a causal impact of consciousness on our cognition which makes it an incoherent position. However, they claim that the efficacy of consciousness is limited to the mind and would not affect the brain as a physical system. This is also an incoherent position as Van Dongen and myself showed in our paper, in that partial epiphenomenalism would not allow us to talk or write about consciousness in any meaningful way, a point already made before by John Foster. Partial epiphenomenalists (implicitly) claim that they can do so, which entails that they simply cannot be right.
Also, a causal impact on the mind which would not also affect the brain in any way could mainly occur within a parallelist reality in which mind and brain would never affect one another. Whereas, as we show in our paper, parallellism should be rejected for a similar reason as epiphenomenalism. Epiphenomenalism claims it possesses knowledge of the existence of subjective experiences while it denies the possibility of reaching such knowledge. Parallelism claims to have knowledge of the existence of a physical world while it denies the physical world to have a causal impact upon our cognition. Thus, both partial epiphenomenalism and parallelism in general contain incurable logical contradictions.
All this even has an important implication for the tenability of any type of identity theory which would deny that consciousness has an impact on the ‘objective’ brain seen from a third-person perspective.
The efficacy of consciousness and theoretical psychology
The theoretical acceptance of irreducible, subjective and qualitative experiences within psychology can only be justified if we acknowledge these experiences to have a causal impact on cognition. I’ve often wondered what the problem would be if we simply did so. Scholars point to the supposed magic this would imply, whereas the real ‘magic’ (in the sense of irrationality) would consist of accepting a theory of which we already know a priori that it must be false. Consciousness is there and it must have an impact on the subconscious mind and the brain. In fact, it is enormously important for the mind, as we wouldn’t be talking or thinking about subjective experiences so much if it were not. Without conscious efficacy we would not even be aware of ourselves as conscious subjects and would lack self-awareness in this pivotal sense.
Rather than clinging to an obsolete, self-defeating physicalism, I think it really is time to boldly accept a type of interactionism. A realistic or Neo-Cartesian interactionism in fact, which doesn’t ignore any evidence for the role of subconscious processing.
The acknowledgement of an irreducible and causally efficacious conscious mind within theoretical psychology might make some of us feel ackward in the context of a generally physicalist science. However, who is to say that a logically coherent psychology could in principle never contribute anything fundamental to our scientific world view? Are we still subconsciously suffering from an inferiority complex in this respect? If so, it is never too late to fight this irrational obstacle consciously.
As rational scientists we should value reason much more than any socially favoured doctrine.
I here specifically wish to thank Hein van Dongen, Hank Stam, Rob de Vries, René van Hezewijk, Emile van der Zee, Ray Jackendoff, Michael Watkins, John Beloff, David Chalmers, Esteban Rivas and Anthony J. Rudd.
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