Tag Archives: epiphenomena

Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary…

This post is in response to Kevin Moore’s posts about physicalism, evolution and consciousness at “The Placebic View”. I want to start by saying that I admire Kevin’s interest in philosophical positions to which he does not subscribe. Earnest examination of positions other than one’s own helps a person improve their own ideas and appreciate other people a little more. Here is some more grist for the mill.
This is my take on physicalism. I think it is not controversial to say that physicalist philosophy is a work in progress. There are a number of competing branches and sub-theories. For good or ill, I’ll only speak for myself and my non-professional understanding of the issues at hand.

1) It seems as if some things are up to me. For example, when I am deliberating over whether to, say, raise my hand or not, it seems as if I am in control over whether I actually endeavor to raise my hand. It does not seem to me as if such endeavorings are determined. Admittedly, such seemings do not entail the falsity of determinism, like seemings of pain entail the occurrence of pain. And, this means that if one were to infer the falsity of determinism solely on the basis of such seemings they would be going beyond their evidence and could very well be wrong. But, that doesn’t matter, here. All that matters for the success of this argument are the presence of such seemings; their veracity can be presently be ignored.

I’m not sure exactly what Kevin is getting at here. He is either talking about intentionality or the subjective quality of movement. I think it is the latter, and that is what I’ll address below.
Intentionality poses little difficulty for physicalism. What ever else intention is, it requires subjects and objects which are, or can be reduced to, entities having relative location and causal relations. Intention does not exist without such subjects and objects. Even when we think about love or a five-dimensional cube, we derive our ideas of these things from experience writ large, including the way in which we are predisposed at birth to feel about our parents and, with the proper exposure, perceive depth. No, intentionality is not the hard part, subjectivity is, and I think that is what Kevin is after here.

2) The naturalist worldview rests on the foundation of two seemingly indispensable pillars: Darwinian evolution (or something near enough) and physicalism. In brief, the theory of Darwinian evolution is suppose to be able to tell us why biological life is the way that it is and the physicalist theory is suppose to be able to tell us why everything is the way that it is. Without the support of both of these pillars, the naturalist worldview is hardly a worldview at all.

If physicalist theory is supposed to tell us why everything is the way it is and Darwinian evolution is supposed to be able to tell us why biological life is the way it is, then physicalist theory does not depend on Darwinian evolution and if physicalism undergirds a naturalist worldview, then neither does a naturalist worldview. Moving on.

3) Now, according to physicalism, everything must be explainable from the bottom-up. In other words, theoretically, once you’ve explained all of the physics for some event, there will be no remainder. Therefore, since our seemings are not identical to any physical states, whatever our seemings are, they must result from some underlying physical states and be epiphenomenal or causally inert. So, according to physicalism, there is no top-down causation where agents really choose anything. And, any seemings to the contrary isn’t to be trusted.

Now we get to the good parts. First, let us be clear on what constitutes an epiphenomenon. An epiphenomenon is one which occurs secondary to a primary phenomenon, a phenomenon which is caused, but causes not.
But this definition is unsatisfying. It simply instructs us in spotting epiphenomena and says nothing about their hows and whys. So how do epiphenomena arise and what are the relations which they have to regular, causal phenomena? Here are a couple of examples which demonstrate what I think those mechanisms and relations are.
First, consider that quintessential epiphenomenon: fever. Before medical science knew the details of the inflammatory response, fever was thought to cause illness. It was thought to be part of the pathological process. It turns out that fever is no such thing. Fever is a byproduct, the elevation of body temperature secondary to a particular biochemical process. So, fever is causally inert. Or is it? On an analytic basis, it is causally inert. Any ‘rules of fever’, for example ‘fever follows from infection’, are inaccurate and properly devolve to the rules of the primary process, which is the biochemistry of inflammation. But sometimes, the elevation of body temperature associated with inflammation inhibits bacterial and viral replication. Fever does something. What is going on here?
These are not the same fever. The fever which inhibits bacterial and viral replication does not give rise to rules nor does it itself participate in law-like relationships; the biochemistry of inflammation takes care of those things. But the biochemistry of inflammation does not, by its rules and law-like relationships, specify the causal relationship between elevation of body temperature and inhibition of bacterial and viral replication. If we started from the primary, biochemical phenomena we might never know about that causal relationship in particular. That’s fever’s job.
To clarify further, consider Hepatitis C. I don’t want to imply that the Hepatitis C virus is an epiphenomenon, ’cause it’s a virus. But the relationship that it might have held relative to the disease Hepatitis C by a certain theory of the disease, is an instructive analogy for the relationship which epipenomena have to their primary phenomena. Once upon a time, many scientists suspected that the Hepatitis C virus did not actually damage the cells in which it replicated. This turns out not quite to be the case, but it was a serious possibility, and let’s pretend for a moment that the theory was accurate. On an analytic basis, the Hep. C virus would be a non-entity. We could substitute “X provocative factor for inflammation” with no theoretical consequences. But Hep. C virus is precisely that provocative factor for those individuals infected with it, and in those cases the replicative habits and specific structure of the virus determine, in part, the natural history of the disease though the virus does not cause any of the pathology.
So, do fever and the non-cytopathic version of the Hep. C virus have causal efficacy? Are fever and Hepatitis C real things? Yes and no. Yes in the individual cases and no as generalities. Or rather, they pick out some real category of historical relations even though the theoretical causal analysis associated with fever and non-cytopathic Hep. C virus may ignore them. Inverting our perspective, cytokines, helper T-cells, etc. may tell us why John may have an elevation of his temperature – such explanations account for fever and even eliminate the need for the term in analysis – but the biochemical explanation of temperature elevation due to inflammation in response to viral infections cannot tell us all about why John has this temperature elevation due to inflammation. “John has a fever.” fills in the gap between the theory and the case, as the statement stands for the specific history of the virus, John’s genetics, his previous illnesses, his nutritional status; in short, all the messy data without which an account of John’s fever on November 10, 1999 at 10 AM via the theory of the primary phenomenon is impossible.
With this understanding of epiphenomena in hand, is physicalism committed to epiphenomenal consciousness? Yes and no, I think. Your patience please, for one more example.
There is a well known thought experiment proposed by the philosopher Frank Jackson called “Mary the Color Scientist”. In the thought experiment, Mary has been confined to a room without any color at all for her entire life. During her time in the colorless room, she has become obsessed with the neurophysiology of color perception and has managed to learn everything there is to know about the perception of the color red. One day, she is released from the room and thus confronted with all the colors of the outside world, including her first actual red perception. Does she say, “Wow!” or does she say, “Meh”? Does she gain any new knowledge via that perception?
Before we get to the final question, there is another question within the scenario. It has as a premise that physicalism requires, in principle, that Mary could know everything about red perception. For her knowledge to be complete, however, she must know much more than the neurophysical rules of red color perception. She must know all there is to know about the history leading up to her particular red perception. If physicalism’s view of events is assumed to be the case, all this knowing must happen in time and there is simply not enough, in principle.
“Sophistry!”, one may object, “She doesn’t have to know all that, just what makes for red perception right now, as she is first seeing red.”
Remember that little issue that Kevin mentioned in passing at the start: determinism? On physical determinism, all that is what constitutes red perception right now. An analytic theory of red, ‘averaged over’ red, however detailed, will not do. We want to know if there is a difference between knowing the reductive explanation of red and the perceptual experience of the same thing. To meet that requirement Mary must know the theory and the associated history which gives the theory its application. In such a case, Mary’s impression of red, as a thing in itself, stands for this otherwise inaccessible detail and so is a real thing just like fever – as a necessary part of the explanation of each case, and so as historical category as well. If the understanding of epiphenomena regarding fever and Hepatitis C extends to subjective experience, then even an epiphenomenal status for our seemings may be explicable in a physicalist framework, and avoid concerns of irrelevancy in the same ways.
However, I don’t think that our consciousness and its subjectivity are epiphenomenal because I don’t think our impressions are primary phenomena. Since we are playing pretend, let’s ignore physical determination and its implications, however improper that may be, and say Mary just does have the reductive explanation of exactly that red experience which is her first. I think she still says, “Wow!”. I think she gains the efficacious knowledge of red + Mary’s recourse to red references, or if we were to ask her, how red works. Red becomes an object of direct reference, where it was previously an object of reflection only. In fact, I think this is the basis of intention and awareness. Red’s ‘seeming’ on Mary’s first perception of it is Mary’s pre-red identity plus the actual, red sense-data compared to Mary’s pre-red identity including, most importantly, pre-red Mary’s expectation of post-red identity. Before her red perception, when Mary perceived an apple, she would first have to see the apple shape, depth to the shape, a stem, all of which brings “apple” to mind, and then reflect that the apple is also red. Her complete knowledge could not change that operational arrangement for her. After her red perception, red becomes available for Mary’s apple anticipations, and so her apple identifications directly, and subsequent apple viewings will give her an idea of ‘red like that apple’, and so on for the rest of her conscious life. I think this is a good description of what her basic conscious life is, if we want to distinguish it from unconscious processes like pupillary reactions to light. Without the momentary, non-reflective, anticipation-based integration of these alterations of identity, we have the zombies which are feared to plague physicalist explanations of mind – creatures with unmediated, locally contingent stimulus-response as their sole operational process. What the evolutionary consequences of such a distinction may be, I won’t guess, but the possibility of consequences addresses the concerns regarding potential invisibility to selection (misplaced though they are).

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Supervenience and Rambo (2)

Cardiopulmonary arrest is not a legitimate cause of death. This often comes as a surprise to the lay public since it is highly counter-intuitive. Nevertheless, if a doctor writes that on a death certificate, the vital statistics office will return the paper with a nasty-gram demanding clarification. The problem is not that cardiopulmonary arrest is not the cause of death, in a certain sense. The problem is that cardiopulmonary arrest is always the cause of death, in a certain sense.

Of course, the main reason for excluding it from the death certificate is justification for the epidemiologists’ jobs. They can’t very well have a single column of data year after year titled “Cardiopulmonary arrest” and hope to keep their line in the public health budget. Plus, they would be forced to repeatedly present to the public and government officials a mere dismal reminder that everybody dies and there really isn’t anything anybody can do about it. Beyond those practical motivations, though, they actually have got  it right in principle.

Cardiopulmonary arrest is an epiphenomenon. It is a summary  description of  a crucial juncture in a process, but it is not really part of that process. It is an epiphenomenal, or apparent, cause of death, but not the actual cause of death. At this point, some CPR survivors may be jumping up to disagree. Good for them, but those survivors represent the population of people with treatable heart rhythm problems and choking victims, not the population of cardiopulmonary arrest victims (though they will someday join that group, by whatever means). The state of pulselessness and apnea supervenes on an underlying pathological chain of events in every case. The precise sequence of events is unique to each individual, so it may seem incoherent, or at least superfluous, to even talk about cardiopulmonary arrest at all. That is a mistake as well.

The underlying process in each death, if traced back through the microscopic processes  determining the outcome, is so byzantine that it appears random. Though those processes are the really real truth of the pathologic mechanism in each case, such an explanation is not really available to us and so it fails just at the point where a person collapses in the shopping mall. Then the idea of cardiopulmonary arrest shines, for in a few, indiscernible cases, immediately replacing the function of the heart and lungs specifically by employing the techniques of CPR, will allow correction of the underlying process which set the person on their fatal trajectory.

So cardiopulmonary arrest turns out to be an epiphenomenal cause and useful as such, but not as a truth. To prevent premature onset of cardiopulmonary arrest we need a more precise, truthful representation. Thus the epidemiologists demand a description of the fatal process more proximal in time and specific in detail. They need something closer to the bare truth, even though they must still deal in epiphenomena. Except perhaps in cases of  vaporization, the acceptable causes of death are still summary descriptions reducible to more basic causes, but they are all we need at the level of public health. The acceptable causes are real enough. This interplay of epiphenomena is how our understanding of the world works in general anyway. Just look at how we come to appreciate cloud elephants and Jesus toast.

When someone sees an elephant in a passing cloud or the figure of Jesus on a piece of toast, the image supervenes on their knowledge of elephants or Jesus in conjunction with some prosaic neurological mechanisms. The image is unique in each case and without prompting, an observer may not immediately identify a line-up of cloud elephants as belonging together. The grouping of shapes may seem irrational. Once cued to the basal relationship however, most will nod and can even start picking out details of trunks, ears, legs and tails. The images cause nothing other than amusement, and even then as epiphenomenal causes (the amusement comes from recognizing the image – the process of seeing it – subsequent viewings are less and less entertaining).

Now, some may claim that Jesus is on the toast on purpose. Nobody claims that the cloud is shaped like an elephant on purpose, and nobody claims that the shape on the toast gives them their primary idea of Jesus or that the shape of the cloud gives them their primary idea of elephants. Still, it is rational to see elephants in clouds and Jesus on breakfast foods. Though the various arrangements of contrasting shades that evoke the image are different (the figure of Jesus or an elephant is multiply realizable) they are related in their causes, they share a base, and so are not incoherent. The mental objects are the rationalizing story themselves.

These relationships between causes and their explanations, between reduced phenomena and what we experience, finally beg the question of the truth of our ideas about causation. We have good reason to doubt those ideas. We cannot understand very small things or very large things, though we can model them with mathematics. Therefore, somewhat predictable relations exist at these extreme scales; they may just defy our notions of causation. Too bad, we are stuck with the limits of our perception. Despite the potential limitations of the picture we derive from analysis, the story of the mental supervening on the physical is the best we’ve done so far and its consistency suggests that we’re headed in the right direction. Think of what lies in the other direction, where the physical begins to supervene on the  mental. Things quickly start to resemble the situation in the movie Rambo 2.

Actually, movies in general provide a case where the physical supervenes on the mental. The story that the director wishes to tell determines the objects and events on-screen. Rambo 2, particularly during the helicopter sequences at the end of the film, is just one of the best examples of what comes of this supervenience relation.

As the denouement begins, the bad guys prepare to drop a bomb on Rambo. The bomb has to be big and scary, so we fear for Rambo’s survival and so we understand what a superhuman feat his survival would represent. There must not be objects attached to the helicopter, like rocket-pods, that would detract from the visual impact of the bomb slung beneath the fuselage.  Once Rambo has dodged the explosion (and we are prepared to accept further superhuman acts from him, such as leaping from the water to commandeer the helicopter) he needs to kick ass. He can’t do that properly in a helicopter without rocket- pods, so rocket-pods appear just before he takes possession of the aircraft. He needs to wreak righteous vengeance on the POW camp where his comrades have been held and tormented, but if he wipes out the thirty or so guards that mustered out in an earlier scene, he might look like a bully and the quantity of  righteous vengeance delivered would be unsatisfying besides. He therefore kills three or four times that number, taking a massive amount of ground-fire all the while. The pattern continues as guns on the helicopter switch sides when needed, a rocket launcher acquires an emphatic handle and trigger, and a hole in the chopper’s windshield appears and disappears  as necessary.

These inconsistencies are called continuity errors. Sometimes that name fits, but often it does not. Often, the inconsistencies are there because the story demands it or the director thinks he can sneak them by the audience in scenes where consistency would be costly or inconvenient. This is the kind of thing we should expect with physical supervenience on the mental. These continuity errors reflect the “queerness of the mental” – the consequences of things like bias toward pattern recognition and inborn attentional preferences, the very things that allow directors to slip continuity errors by us. In real life we don’t see rocket-pods flickering in and out of existence or any other continuity errors of the sort we should expect with a “bare truth” variety of mental causation. Rather we see mental objects as causes like cardiopulmonary arrest is a cause of death or the scorch-marks on a piece of bread are a cause of an image of Jesus – just true enough for us to handle.

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