Epiphenomenalism is the view that physical neural processes have a causal effect on mental states, but that the reverse is not true: Mental states cannot effect neural states and only occur after the fact.

Recent experimental results from neuroscience seem to support this viewpoint, where it has been shown that the neural signals for a specific action are transmitted before a person has made a conscious decision to take that action.

I am trying to figure out how can an Epiphenominalist explain the fact that higher order symbols and concepts have a causal effect on our actions, and if humans' capacity for manipulating higher order concepts poses or not a challenge for Epiphenomenalists.

Consider the following examples:

  • A person has a headache and reaches for aspirin in the medicine cabinet: From an Epiphenomenalist point of view, this can be easily explained as a reflex that has been acquired over time. A causal chain that goes from [sensation of pain] -> [reaches for cabinet] -> [swallows aspirin] can be explained in purely neural terms as some sort of pavlovian reflex similar to dogs salivating when a light comes on.
  • A person in a foreign city gets a very painful tooth ache and so goes on Google to search for a dentist and then calls the insurance company back home to see if her insurance will cover the costs: I can't see any way of explaining this from a purely neurological point of view the way an Epiphenomenalist would have to. The causal chain of events only makes sense if higher order mental concepts such as "Google search", "dentist" and "insurance coverage" are used. The chain of events is too unique to that particular situation to be explained as a an acquired reflex.

My questions:

  1. How do Epiphenomenalists explain such causal chains of events that involve higher order mental concepts?
  2. Are such causal chains indeed a challenge to Epiphenomenalism?
  • If by "recent experimental results" you mean Libet 1983 experiments even Libet thought that they are consistent with "conscious veto". Moreover, his assumption that the rise of readiness potential before awareness is what causes flexing of the muscle is also highly questionable. informationphilosopher.com/freedom/libet_experiments.html
    – Conifold
    Nov 23, 2015 at 20:34
  • @Conifold there's a talk by Daniel Dennett on youtube (I'll have to pull it up later) where he mentions some more recent results. He also keeps hinting that neuroscientists in general are all mistakingly Epiphenomenalists. Nov 23, 2015 at 21:36
  • What is a 'mental state'? And shouldn't it be described as a mental process? If all the events in the brain are 'physical neural events' or sequences of 'biochemical behavioural process' then then obviously in one's 'mentality' one couldn't control these biochemical events. The only way one could use a conscious- level operating system that 'controls these biochemical events is if there were higher-level processes that somehow represented all the relevant biochemical event sequences. And these higher-level emergent processes could be 'substitutes' for the low level biochemical events.
    – 201044
    Mar 3, 2016 at 5:07
  • So if one could manipulate , in one's 'mentality' these higher level 'substitutes' that represent various biochemical event sequences then one could 'mentally' cause changes on a biochemical level of description of neural events.
    – 201044
    Mar 3, 2016 at 5:12

2 Answers 2


An excellent challenge to Epiphenomenalism that formalizes some of your concerns: http://www.amazon.com/Conscious-Mind-Search-Fundamental-Philosophy/dp/0195117891/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1460223321&sr=8-1&keywords=conscious+mind+chalmers

In particuar, the problem is with "knowing" one's own mind. If the subject claims to know a (loosely defined here) mental event, then that event caused the thought-- A view incompatible with epiphenomenalism. For example, if I say "I want _____" then there is a plainly physical consequence of a mental event. So if you accept some version of self-knowledge, this poses potential concerns for the epiphenomenalist viewpoint.

I think this in some sense is central to what you're saying. If we admit to some higher order processes (such as deciding to pick up a phone etc. etc.) there is presumably some intentionality granted in a particular instance. However, if one is to admit knowledge (or some physical manifestation) of this kind of mental activity, there are indeed some concerns.


Based on the name, Epiphenomenalists, it sounds like they are talking about events like epiphanies which is something quite different than the example you gave.

In that case it seems completely consistant with findings, At least within my own model of How I believe my brain works.

I define the subconscious as doing any normal processes we might do consciously only without the awareness of the conscious mind. This then frees up the subconscious from needing to wait for the extremely slow English language our conscious mind needs in order to be conscious.

Then it's just a matter of efficiency.

It handles the repetative tasks which we have trained it to do out of repetition, nevigating familiar menus, or driving our daily commute to work.

But if your putting a lot of time into working out a problem, then the subconscious can eventually pick up on those patterns as well though they may be much more complex tasks. So long as your aware of how to do them, then the subconscious knows as well and it can run 24/7 on it's own even though you might be doing unrelated tasks. If you change projects, it would follow suit in time.

This is why you might get an epiphany at any odd hour of the day or night or why sleeping on a problem seems to be so effective. But, it doesnt cause any reflex action such as alerting your boss. That would deny free will.

BTW, I have been able to consciously train my subconscious for answering a long series of similar problems but with unique multiple choice results. I don't expect anyone to believe this but it seems like a pretty easy experiment to see if it could be repeated by anyone else.

  • 1
    This answer does not at all address the question, and also speculates the meaning of a well defined term. Apr 9, 2016 at 17:42
  • Sorry, Ill be more careful to keep it more in line with the question next time Apr 9, 2016 at 23:52
  • Epiphenomenalism has a very specific meaning within the philosophy of mind literature. See the SEP article on the topic. Apr 12, 2016 at 20:45

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