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It has been proposed (or maybe just speculated) by a number of philosophers and scientists, including Richard Dawkins, that consciousness might be an epiphenomenon, but I think this cannot be the case.

According to Merriam-Webster's definition, an epiphenomenon is "a secondary mental phenomenon that is caused by and accompanies a physical phenomenon but has no causal influence itself". So, this would imply that if it is only an epiphenomenon, then consciousness can have no effect that outlasts itself.

But, if we look at what we can remember, it is surely (mostly) the memory of conscious experience. We can actually remember being conscious. It would seem impossible for us to remember being conscious if consciousness has no causal effect. Leaving a memory in the brain, however tenuous or imperfect, is certainly an effect and if it is a memory of being conscious then surely consciousness must in some way have caused it?

A counter-argument might be that the experience of consciousness arises from certain sub-conscious stimuli in the brain, and it is the sub-conscious stimuli that are recorded in memory, and can be replayed. But that still would not explain how we can recall the actual experience of being conscious.

So, we would need to take the counter argument further: we might say that having recorded the sub-conscious stimuli, a memory of the conscious experience could be reconstructed from this recording, playing back, as it were, those subconscious stimuli to generate a psuedo-memory of having been conscious. But I can't see how this could be possible, as playing back the subconscious stimuli would only re-create the experience of being conscious - we would not then recall the experience as a memory of the experience in the past, we would instead simply re-experience the whole experience as if we were going through it again.

Any attempt to define a process which can somehow create the memory of being conscious without having recorded the the actual experience itself seems impossible. Which leads to the conclusion it is the experience of consciousness which is being recorded. So, that must mean that consciousness does have some causal effect and cannot be an epiphenomenon.

2019 01 09 - Further exposition of the question, in response to @Conifold's comments

As I understand it @Conifold's - please correct me if I am wrong - position is: 1) Even if consciousness is an epiphenomenon, it would be possible to form a memory of being conscious. Therefore, being able to remember being conscious does not rule out the proposition that consciousness is an epiphenomenon.

I am going to address only the first part, the problem of forming a memory of the epiphenomenon of consciousness. In one of your comments below is an example of the memory of a reflection in a mirror: One can have a memory of the reflection in the mirror caused by that reflection. I don't think this addresses the question - my memory of an image I have seen in a mirror is not the same thing as my memory of the conscious experience of seeing an image in a mirror. It is the memory of having had the conscious experience that I am trying to pin down. Also, I am not convinced that the reflection in a mirror is a helpful parallel anyway, at least not in this context. A reflection can certainly have causal effects, not the least of which is to cause the perception by us of an illusion of space beyond the surface of the mirror. But that illusion is within the brain, it is not a property of the mirror nor the reflected light. The fact that we perceive space beyond the mirror results from the stimulus of the light (which has interacted with the physical properties of the mirror and followed the mathematical rules of reflection) generating signals from my eye that get integrated into an image in my brain.

When referring to consciousness as an epiphenomenon, my understanding is that this idea arises from our inability to detect consciousness having an influence on any decision-making in the brain or having control over physical actions of the body. At least, from my admittedly rather limited reading of the various discussions in which this point has been made, I understand this to be the key issue: can consciousness get involved in decisions to take physical action and contribute to improved survival chances, which could then explain its own evolution? If not, then we could abolish consciousness and still all go about our lives in exactly the same way, but without having any conscious experience of any of it.

I raised the original question because I think it's very likely (and, I hope, widely accepted) that memories play a part in survival. For example, the memory of being in a life-threatening situation could help me to avoid getting into that situation again, and thereby help me to survive. If memory has any purpose at all, that seems like a good one. Therefore, I surmised, if we can show that consciousness does have an effect on memory, then it is quite possible that consciousness could help survival, albeit indirectly. Clearly there would be many other implications, but those are beyond the scope of the question.

That's why I have focused on the question of whether can we tell if consciousness has an effect on memory. My proposition is: if it is possible to remember the experience of being conscious, then the only possible source of the memory is the conscious experience itself. It is impossible for any other function of the brain to generate a memory of the experience of being conscious, because no other function of the brain has access to conscious experience to be able to create a memory of what it feels like. If you say there could be another function of the brain that "watches" conscious experience in some way, and records what it "sees" so that the experience can be played back, then my response would be that you are simply interposing a layer of the mechanism of memory (which must exist in some form anyway), and any such mechanism does not detract from the point that it is the conscious experience which has caused the memory. That memory is a change in the state of the brain, and it may have an effect, however slight, on subsequent actions. That tenuous connection, however slight, torpedoes the epiphenomenon idea.

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  • Being an epiphenomenon does not mean not being "actual". It only means that it has no causal power to effect the consequences (physical, in this case). If "consciousness" necessarily accompanies some brain states then reproducing the states would reproduce the "consciousness", in all of its "actuality". Just as if you reproduce the same setup in front of a mirror you'll see the same reflection in the mirror, its epiphenomenality notwithstanding.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 18:50
  • @Conifold - thanks for your comment - but doesn't that have the problem that reproducing the brain states would just recreate the conscious experience again, not the memory of having previously been conscious? I can't see how you can remember a conscious experience without that conscious experience having caused the memory. And, if it is an epiphenomenon, then no part of the brain could "know" what consciousness feels like in order to create a memory of it.
    – JohnRC
    Commented Jan 7, 2020 at 17:41
  • One can have a memory of the reflection in the mirror caused by that reflection. But it is still epiphenomenal regarding what happens in front of the mirror. Moreover, when "conscious experience" is reproduced the reproduction may well come with a phenomenal marker of it being a reproduction. Memory is a reproduction, whether it is a reproduction of "conscious experience", or just a reproduction accompanied by attendant "conscious experience", is a distinction without a difference as far as phenomenology is concerned.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 0:37
  • Thank you @Conifold again for your comments. I am not really well-enough versed in some of the terminology you are using, so I will need to do a bit more research. It may take me some time to try to understand your points and then perhaps to develop my argument further in response.
    – JohnRC
    Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 21:37
  • In simpler terms, whether our conscious experience is recreated from the original experience, or only the brain state is recreated, and accompanied by the same experience, we can not tell from the experiencing itself. So it can be epiphenomenal. It can also be epiphenomenal in the sense of not affecting brain states at the time of the experiencing, but causally active enough to create a trace in memory.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 22:29

4 Answers 4

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Since the laying down of memory is a physical process in the brain, then consciousness appears to have a physical effect. Moreover, the memory may later trigger other physical effects in the outside world through conscious action. As regards Dawkins, he seems to be specifically concerned with the evolution of consciousness in humans and whether it has a selective advantage. My panpsychist view is that consciousness is already there at a fundamental, universal level. In that view, consciousness is definitely not an epiphenomenon.

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  • Thank you for your answer! Well, I am not a panpsychist myself, and it seems to me the concept of panpsychism is not needed to provide support for the argument, which is from prinicple. I use the definition of "epiphenomenon" itself to show that conciousness must be excluded from membership of the club. In fact, I think you might need to rely on the claim that consciousness is not an epiphenomenon as a precondition of proposing panpsychism, not as something you can deduce from it. Panpsychism is a puzzle to me but I guess that;s a subject for a different thread :)
    – JohnRC
    Commented Feb 1 at 15:15
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I have just done some more work on this, having raised the question some time ago. Now I think I have something of an answer, and think my original conclusion was wrong.

My assertion in the question that an epiphenomenon cannot have any causal effects is not quite right. The point about an epiphenomenon is that it does not have any causal effect on the observed events that lead to or accompany its occurrence. So the point is that if you think you have decided consciously to do something, the epiphenominalist would claim that, in fact, you have not so decided. The conscious experience of having made a decision is in fact an illusion, the decision having been made prior to or in parallel with the conscious experience, not as part of it.

There is nothing to debar the conscious experience from having effects, such as the process of recording the experience itself in memory in some way, so that the experience can later be recalled as part of a new conscious experience.

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  • Under epiphenomenalism mind cannot have any functional effect, you memory recording effects as commonly understood seem very functional... Commented Feb 5 at 21:14
  • Hmmm yes good point. Maybe I was right first time round, then?
    – JohnRC
    Commented Feb 18 at 18:45
  • The answer hinges on how you honestly view your 4 years of consciousness effort about above original post, is it no functional effect or actual worse tangible effect?… Commented Feb 19 at 2:22
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Consciousness does a very large number of functions for us. Here is a podcast series that details many of these functions: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/theory-knowledge/202012/untangling-the-world-knot-consciousness https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLTJe1xFfoxrAIyl5r1dB4La6zzMfUZVyd

If consciousness does ANY functions then it is not epiphenomenal. Causing memory traces is an excellent example of one of the functions that consciousness serves as a causal driver for. You could also pull out dozens of other functional examples from the psychological study of consciousness.

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Remembering itself is a conscious experience, so the claim 'consciousness is epiphenomenal' is not disproven by remembering, because remembering may also be epiphonemonal.

There are things you can point to that reasonably disprove the epiphenomenal conception of consciousness, but I wouldn't considering "remembering" to be one of them. I don't think consciousness or remembering ARE epiphenomenal, for the record.

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