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.
- How do Epiphenomenalists explain such causal chains of events that involve higher order mental concepts?
- Are such causal chains indeed a challenge to Epiphenomenalism?