Epiphenomenalism is a mind-body dualist proposal that states that the brain can affect the mind but the mind cannot affect the brain. However, it has a big problem. It doesn't explain why the brain knows about the mind (qualia).

"The most powerful argument against epiphenomenalism is that it is self-contradictory: if we have knowledge about epiphenomenalism, then our brains know about the existence of the mind, but if epiphenomenalism were correct, then our brains should not have any knowledge about the mind, because the mind does not affect anything physical."


One of the proposed solutions is that God programs in our belief of our own qualia. How can one solve this problem without invoking God?

  • 1
    Wikipedia is not a very good source on such subtleties, a better source is Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, see Epiphenomenalism. This specific objection is called self-stultification, and it is discussed there in detail. The standard response is to reject the premise that knowledge of a mental event requires causation by that mental event.
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 10, 2018 at 21:32
  • I see no solution for this problem other than to abandon epiphenomenalism. I've considered the work-around suggested by Conifold and to me it does not work. But it would not be necessary to invoke God since there are options, one of which would be to deny that the distinction between Mind and Body is fundamental. Descartes speculated along these lines but this is often forgotten. . .
    – user20253
    Commented Oct 11, 2018 at 12:49
  • @Conifold What about PeterJ 's objection?
    – Noah
    Commented Oct 11, 2018 at 21:03
  • 1
    I do not see an objection, only a mention of private reflections without details.
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 11, 2018 at 21:27
  • See also here: philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/54474/…
    – present
    Commented Oct 13, 2018 at 0:41

3 Answers 3


Epiphenomenalism does not necessarily say that. It says that there are no changes in the mind that do not have corresponding changes in the brain. Surely there remain ways in which the mind 'affects the brain'. Emotions that result from realizations made in the mind clearly trigger physiological processes in the brain. No one can ignore facts like that. So the definition you give is not quite honest.

By overly generalizing the definition, you have set up a straw man fallacy. Understanding is an 'effect', but it is not necessarily a change in the mind. Since the mind and the brain grow up together the brain understanding the mind would be a coextensive state, and not a change. Using the real definition, then, there is no conflict here.


Given your presentation of epiphenomenalism, its counter-argument and the God-invoking defense, and supposing that the aforementioned are satisfactory, I believe the following would be a sufficient non-God-invoking defense of epiphenomenalism.

1)The brain was formed as part of a natural process of evolution. 2)The mind is a byproduct of that process. That is to say, the mind itself is not a selective trait, which it cannot be if it cannot have a physical effect given that (i) natural selection occurs entirely in the physical world, and (ii) events in the physical world obey physical laws only.

It may sound a bit demanding to maintain that the mind be a byproduct, but reducing it to ineffective subjective qualia was -I believe- already on this line of thinking.

Hope this helps.

  • If you have references to others who take a similar view that would strengthen your answer and give the reader a place to go for more information. Welcome to this SE! Commented Nov 20, 2018 at 23:34
  • Thank you for the welcome! This particular idea was my own but I will make sure I refer to sources when possible. Commented Nov 21, 2018 at 0:38

The denial of, mind to brain influence, is born from Epiphenomenalism's materialistic roots. Epiphenomenalists do not in principle (want to) accept the mind as a distinct substance, that is, they would reject dualism were it not for the difficulties in explaining mental properties.

With this in mind let us explain the mind, from the Epiphenomenalist perspective, using an analogy. We equate the mind with a computer screen, the brain is then the CPU. Note, we are thinking in terms of the temporal/events shown on the hardware of the screen, and likewise the software environment of the CPU.

Everything on the screen is caused by the CPU, but not everything the CPU does goes to the screen. The screen can think that it is doing/influencing what happens on the screen, because there is a procedural logic to events on the screen, that also happens to match the underlying logic that constitutes the screen content. However all computations are actually done by the CPU.

Now the mind may think it is deliberating, while in fact it is the brain that does the data processing, writing the process and results to the mind almost in real time. The mind thus mirrors the brain's activities, some of which are giving structure to the mind and filling it with content. Therefore the mind, its properties, its content and events, are all epiphenomena, everything the mind 'experiences' are mirror/phantom processes. So what happens in the mind, stays in the mind.

Of course the criticism remains: What is the the mind for?

  • "What is the the mind for?" It seems to me that the 'mind' would be the naturally-selected interface for how the brain performs recursive self-modification.
    – Onyz
    Commented Nov 20, 2018 at 18:28
  • @Onyz A good hypotheses. Epiphenomenalists however, would rather think of it as some accidental epiphenomenon.
    – christo183
    Commented Nov 21, 2018 at 5:00

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