Against epiphenomenalism: summary and reply.

What follows is a direct reaction to the discussion I’ve had with Jochen below my first epiphenomenalism post. The discussion meandered into scary places, and Jochen ended up recommending me to keep it simple instead. I’m sure it is a good idea, so I’ll tackle what I think is Jochen’s main point and cut out all the discussion about metaphysics, ontology and epistemology. The latter subjects will need to be considered separately. In what follows, I’ll try summarising the crucial points in a way that is intended to make it superfluous to read the full original discussion.

As far as I can understand, Jochen’s main objection is (happy to be corrected – there is another secondary objection which I tackle in the conclusion):

[The anti-epiphenomenalist in an epiphenomenal world] would propose their theories, perhaps accounting for all the available evidence; but they still would be wrong: in fact, there is epiphenomenal experience in the world, that the theory of the anti-epiphenomenalist simply fails to account for.

What he’s getting at is a rejection of my own key point, where I propose that if something is an epiphenomenon, we can safely consider it non-existent. Jochen rejects this point via three counterexamples:

As I believe to have demonstrated, it’s possible to construct scenarios where your justification doesn’t hold up — the parallel universes, the lone astronomer who can’t detect the universe’s expansion, and the observers in front of their screens.

In a nutshell: there are situations where theorising about epiphenomena makes some sense, and importantly, not doing so may produce a theory which is factually wrong. Hence it’s possible to find some situations where, if one wants to be right, including epiphenomena is necessary. Moreover, Jochen also implies that the case of Phenomenal Experience (PE) might fall into this category. Thus, his attack has two arms:

  1. In some situations, we can’t safely regard epiphenomena as non existent (if we want to be right).
  2. The case of mental phenomena and PE might be one of those situations, so my overall claim is rejected.

I believe that trying to reject the first arm would be very interesting, precisely because it requires to tackle a wide range of claims that I’m already committed to, and because these claims are all, in Jochen’s words, “big f’n deals”. I agree they are big and controversial deals, and that’s why I would be very happy to discuss them – another time, perhaps. For this post, I’ll accept the suggestion to keep it simple, and limit myself to the second arm. The aim of this post is to show that even if we accept statement 1. (I don’t, but will accept it for the sake of the argument), it is still manifestly not the case that PE might be an epiphenomenon (i.e. statement 2. isn’t true). To demonstrate this, I will use the three cases made by Jochen, and then show that theorising about PE can’t fit in the pattern they exemplify.

To get started, I’ll use a generic schema of how epiphenomena can get included in a given theory. I will then show how the three cases offered can easily be matched with elements in the general scheme. Finally, I’ll show that PE can’t: it is a radically different scenario. Hence, statement 2. will be rejected, without having to thread in treacherous metaphysical waters.

Building a theory:

We have a phenomenon X, something that happens and is manifest in our world. We want to create a theory T which “explains” X. In typical scientific setting, a minimum requirement for T would be to set out the conditions that make X happen. At minimum, a successful T can be used to predict if, under known circumstances, X is present/exists/will happen. As it turns out, sometimes producing T also allows to hypothesise the existence of some epiphenomena E.

We now need to verify if this definition easily captures the cases proposed by Jochen.

Case 1: parallel universes.

The topic actually subdivides in at least 5 distinct hypotheses; for a high-level description, see here, this WikiPedia page offers some more detail and many pointers to the original literature. Depending on the different branches, our X can be evidence coming from cosmology (say the measurable fact that galaxies appear to move further and further apart), the spooky phenomena that emerge at tiny scales, summarised in what we call quantum theory, or both. In all cases, our resulting theory T can be either extended or interpreted in a way which entails the existence of Parallel Universes, where these are truly parallel, so they have no causal connection with our own (they count as strong epiphenomena to us). Thus, building a theory T, based on evidence X, produced the side effect of hypothesising the existence of strong epiphenomena. If one of these extended theories is right, Jochen argues that, for correctness’ sake, we need to regard epiphenomena as existent. This accounts for point 1., to move onto point 2. we need to figure out whether PE follows the same path (below).

Case 2: expanding universe.

The theory here is cosmological, and builds on accepted notions (our X) such as: the speed of light is constant and can’t be surpassed, the universe is expanding, etc. You put these things together and realise that parts of the universe will eventually get so far apart that they will lose all causal contact, becoming strong epiphenomena to one-another – in fact, for all we know, the universe might already be like this. Since the diverging parts will keep existing, point 1. is reached. In this case, X is cosmological, and once again we can (easily) use the theories T which account for X to predict/hypothesise the existence of stuff which is epiphenomenal to us.

Case 3: observers in front of their screens.

This case is trickier, because it’s synthetic, and the only aim that we know of is “finding the right description”, but we don’t know why, or what our initial evidence is. The basic setting is: there is a computer doing its thing (computing something), the computer has a monitor, which in some way displays/reports the computation. Something/someone observes the screen, but can’t in any way influence the computation or what is shown on the screen. We want to fully describe the whole scene. What is left unspecified is what our X is (the data we have), which in turn would allow to better understand what our description (T) needs to look like. I can see two different scenarios:

Case 3.1: we know about the observer, which isn’t epiphenomenal to us (the theory builders). X in this case is the evidence needed to describe the whole scene above. T becomes what we need to learn in order to describe the computation, what is shown on the screen, and what the observer sees/detects – T may go as far as describing the effects of what is seen/detected. This case is interesting for reasons we’ll see below, but doesn’t include epiphenomena (so doesn’t directly apply): the observer can’t influence the observed, but ex-hypothesis the observer can be detected by us (otherwise the scenario is inherently mysterious: it doesn’t explain how it’s possible that we want to describe the seeing/detecting when we have no reason to believe it’s happening).

Case 3.2: we don’t know about the observer, which is epiphenomenal to us (the theory builders) as well as to the computation. This case better resembles a standard scientific situation, where by definition we don’t know what’s out there and want to understand as much as possible. X in these setting is some evidence about the computer, the screen and perhaps the computation, but we have no direct evidence about the observer. Building T would allow us to figure out that there is a computer with a screen attached, that the computer is computing something and that this computation produces some visible effects on the screen. We eventually may also figure out that there is no input device able to change what is happening inside the computer and on the monitor. Having such a T, would make it somewhat trivial to extend it and hypothesise that, since there is a screen attached showing some stuff, it’s likely that the whole thing was installed because something/someone is going to look at the screen. We wouldn’t be able to say what this something/someone is, but we could hypothesise its existence. If indeed an observer exists, we would be right, so including an epiphenomenon would be justified. Again, this supports statement 1. above, we still need to verify if this kind of scenario applies to PE.

In summary: the directly applicable cases (1, 2 and 3.2) start with some detectable, not-epiphenomenal evidence X, produce a theory T of X and as a consequence, by inference or some other non-empirical means, hypothesise the existence of some epiphenomenon E (parallel universes, parts of this universe which are too far away to ever be reached/detected/interacted-with, the observers). In all these cases, if the epiphenomenon in question does exist: not including E in T would be a mistake, reality would fail to be fully described by T.

The next step therefore is to show if the same kind of situation applies to PE: if PE is indeed epiphenomenal, we would be wrong in rejecting its existence. Now, this is not what I wanted to demonstrate: what I want to show is that PE is not epiphenomenal (not in the strong sense). However, the approach above can be used to make my case, by showing that the kind of situation described in Jochen’s examples cannot be applied to PE. To show that this is indeed the case, all we need to do is apply the pattern shown by Jochen’s scenarios to the case of philosophy of mind: we have some evidence (X), based on this evidence we build a theory T, and T itself then allows us to hypothesise the existence of some epiphenomena, in this case PE. Trouble is, we can’t do this: in our case, the evidence is or includes PE, we start our quest by noticing that pain is painful, that pleasure is pleasurable and that seeing something red is somewhat different from seeing something green.

[Note. I’m not questioning the mystery of PE: it really is puzzling! For example, why is it impossible to explain to a colour blind person the qualitative difference between our perceptions of a green and a red chair? Or, conversely, what’s going on with that dress?]

Anyway, in this context, we have the puzzling evidence of the existence of something, we call this something PE, and want to build a theory T, which would help explaining how PE gets to exist, and therefore would make it possible to understand when PE is present and when it isn’t. One (incomplete) theory that is being proposed is that PE is generated by mechanisms in the physical world (brains, to be precise), but PE itself happens to be a strong epiphenomenon. Clearly, we are already diverging from the paradigm we explored above: the theory is incomplete, doesn’t specify the mechanisms, and at the same time, proposes that our evidence is an epiphenomenon. How can that be? I see two ways to try making this T somewhat coherent:

Escape 1: the PE that is part of our evidence X is something different from the Epiphenomena we are proposing. In this situation, the evidence we have can’t be epiphenomenal (because it’s evidence!), and following the pattern explored by Jochen, we produce a theory which proposes the existence of something over an beyond what’s needed to explain the evidence. Fine, but this epiphenomenon isn’t X, nor is contained in X, so it’s not the PE we wanted to explain. Discussing whether proposing the existence of some other element which is epiphenomenal helps explaining our original X is beyond my aim here (I don’t see how it could be), but under this interpretation, which is supported by Jochen’s examples, we don’t reach the desired conclusion. In this case, the X that we wanted to explain (EP) is not the epiphenomenon. Going one step further, saying that our original X (still EP) is actually the epiphenomenon proposed by T is just a plain mistake and produces an unanswerable question: how did we get to detect the “what is it like” quality of experience if this quality can’t have any effect? Answer: we didn’t, because PE is detectable. In short, under this route PE is not an epiphenomenon, suggesting the opposite is just an insult to basic logic.
To me, this “escape” counts as a self-inflicted bait and switch: we start wanting to explain EP (our starting X, the fact that we do have experiences – whatever we do while conscious, there is a “something it is like” doing it) and end up trying to explain something else (an epiphenomenon E which might also exist) while being mistakenly committed to the idea that EP = E. EP is our bait, what we want to explain, but instead (the switch) we end up trying to explain E, which isn’t what we wanted.

Escape 2: the PE that is part of our evidence X is somehow a-causal. We just know that PE exists, but since it is an epiphenomenon, there is nothing that causes this knowledge. I suspect this is the interpretation that is usually taken seriously, but I must confess that I don’t see how to make it work. Jochen offered plenty of words to support this view (1, 2), but to me, it is spectacularly unsatisfying. The reason is simple: under this interpretation, our theory T may (if completed) explain what is necessary to produce PE. However, at the same time, it would tell us nothing about how we get to become aware of our own phenomenal experience. Because we have now added in our hypothesis the claim that our evidence is epiphenomenal and that we get to know about it in some a-causal way, we have implicitly accepted that we can’t explain how we got our evidence in the first place (if there is no cause, there is nothing to explain!). This would be a dodgy strategy in any case, but is especially unsatisfying in the case of PE, because one could say that the mystery of PE is precisely what we are accepting as unexplainable. After all, we get to know that experience exists by having experiences: the act of experiencing is one and the same as creating the knowledge that experiences exist. How this unity subsist is, under many interpretations of the mind-body problem what makes the problem problematic. Thus, we get to another bait and switch situation (just like in escape 1): we wanted to explain how experience is experienced, but instead, by starting with the assumption that experience is just experienced (there is no reductive way to slice the phenomenon up in sub cause/effect components), we explain something else (at best), while assuming the unwarranted hypothesis that there is nothing that can be explained about how experiencing happens. This escape looks a bit like the scenario 3.1 above, where we simply avoid questioning how we got to know that the observer exists. However, unlike that case, when it comes to PE, how we get to know about it is very much part of what we want to explain, so case 3.1 remains a dead-end, it is inapplicable to PE.

Conclusion.

I feel a little self-indulgent, because all of the above adds precisely nothings to what I’ve already written. Moreover, it isn’t even original, for example, Brian D. Earp explicitly says that Chalmers implements his own bait-and-switch strategy (Earp BD 2012, page 17), which, under my approach, correspond to my discussion of scenario 3.2 and/or Escape 2. Thus, if I am proposing something new, it’s merely a new way of making an old claim, with the icing being my belief that we are dealing with a self-inflicted (not deliberate) case of bait and switch. Moreover, the main assumption I’m making is that we are (also) looking for what causes our knowledge of PE, we want to figure out what mechanism produces experiences, or what makes “experiencing” possible. If this wasn’t the case, I would be wrong, but clearly, plenty of people want to figure this out, for example, just a couple of weeks ago Eric Schwitzgebel proposed a particular definition of:

phenomenal consciousness, a.k.a. “qualia” or “what-it’s-like-ness”

In his proposal it is manifestly clear that the intent is produce a definition which isn’t an intrinsic source of trouble (i.e. avoid self-inflicted bait and switch) and the same time, that the starting definition of our explanandum directly stems from non-epiphenomenal evidence (“it’s not neutral, and it depends on there being some obvious feature/property that is shared [between different kinds of experiences]”), furthermore, Ned Block (who, famously distinguishes between access consciousness, and phenomenal consciousness, the latter being what I call PE in here) is taking him very seriously. Thus, even if I abhor making arguments by appeal to authority, in this case I admit that I must: the citations above demonstrate that my main point, the one assumption that is indispensable for the work I’m trying to do (that our knowledge of something, whatever that something is, needs to have a cause – and symmetrically, that explaining something requires to identify what causes that something) may not be uncontroversial, but at the same time refuting it by saying that this assumption is clearly false as it “leads to infinite regress” (as I think Jochen does) doesn’t hit the target. Searching for explanations means looking for what causes our explananda, assuming our explananda has no causes (instead it “just is”), precludes us from ever finding what causes it. Since I can’t see a way of making PE epiphenomenal without also accepting that our knowledge of PE isn’t caused by PE, it directly follows that PE isn’t epiphenomenal – that’s because PE is, by definition, at least a necessary condition for our experiencing, while our experiencing causes us to want to understand how it all happens.

Bibliography:
ResearchBlogging.org

Brian D. Earp (2012). I can’t get no (epistemic) satisfaction: Why the hard problem of consciousness entails a hard problem of explanation. Dialogues in Philosophy, Mental and Neuro Sciences, 5 (1)

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Posted in Consciousness, Philosophy, Stupidity
15 comments on “Against epiphenomenalism: summary and reply.
  1. Jochen says:

    Hi Sergio,

    so, the conference is done, I’m back—more or less, at least. I think the above provides a good summary of the discussion so far, and allows me to throw our differences in sharper relief.

    I think the most substantive case the epiphenomenalist (and I should perhaps take a second to re-iterate that I don’t count myself among that number) can make is tied to the following assertion of yours:

    Anyway, in this context, we have the puzzling evidence of the existence of something, we call this something PE, and want to build a theory T, which would help explaining how PE gets to exist, and therefore would make it possible to understand when PE is present and when it isn’t.

    To the epiphenomenalist, this is of course simply question-begging—you start out assuming that you have evidence for PE you want to explain; but of course, on an epiphenomenal conception, PE does not yield any kind of (third-personal, objective) evidence such as to ground theory-building. Thus, the epiphenomenalist would simply reject your argument on the ground floor.

    One may, of course, question how reasonable this is (but really, that’s a different debate). However, I don’t think there’s any substantial argument to be had regarding its consistency: we have some set of facts that we wish to explain, including, say, verbal reports of experience, or other kinds of behavior—say, crying out in pain. Now, on an epiphenomenal reading, this evidence is not causatively linked to phenomenal experience; nevertheless, it may be that during the course of our theorizing, we are forced (or at least, invited), to introduce certain non-observable entities into the theory, which constitute phenomenal experience.

    The reasons for this could range from theoretical consistency to simple preference; in particular, the only theory we are capable of finding for one certain phenomenon may include epiphenomenal mental experience—say, some form of nonreductive physicalism provides a particularly good explanation of intentionality, while also introducing causally inert phenomenal experience.

    So ultimately, the epiphenomenalist will just hold that it’s not our phenomenal experience that set us on the course of theory-building—it couldn’t have been—but rather, maybe its behavioral correlates; however, this does not preclude us from concluding the existence of epiphenomenal mental states. In particular, once you assume that it’s the phenomenal experience that prompts finding a theory of mental phenomena, you’ve essentially already decided that phenomenal experience can’t be causally inert, and thus, you’re begging the question against the epiphenomenal account.

    You should ask yourself the question: if epiphenomenalism were true, could I run all of my arguments in the same way? I think the answer is yes: your arguments only concern the causally efficacious, which is hence not touched by the presence of epiphenomena. And contrary to some of your earlier claims, our world and a world that possesses epiphenomena could in fact be identical regarding all causally efficacious entities; yet your arguments fail in the latter, i.e. they would prompt us to disregard theories that actually are factually correct in this setting.

    Perhaps as an illustration, consider that one and the same entity may be differently conceived off in different contexts—for instance, the morning star is named that because it is one of the last stars visible in the morning, and even though the evening star is the same thing as the morning star, you can’t say that ‘the evening star is named that because it is one of the last stars visible in the morning’. Hence, even though there is an identity relation between the morning and the evening star, one can’t freely substitute one for the other in all cases.

    In the same sense, there may be an identity relationship between an entity qua bearer of causally efficacious properties, and qua bearer of phenomenal properties; that entity has causal powers, yet those causal powers are wholly independent of its phenomenal qualities—i.e. an object identical to it wrt its causal powers, but lacking its phenomenal properties, is imaginable. Considering solely causally efficacious properties, there is no difference between the former and the latter objects; however, in attempting to build a factually correct theory of the world, the choice matters, and hence, can’t be fixed in an a priori way using arguments like yours.

    Regarding the idea that everything we know, we know via causal mediation (including knowledge of our own knowledge, or of our own mental states), I couldn’t really figure out the relevance of Ned Block’s comment above; to the best of my ability to tell, he didn’t consider the matter at all. Did you intend to point to some other comment, or did I miss something?

    Personally, I still don’t see how you intend to get out of the infinite regress—for some causal influence, there always has to be an effect separate from the cause, hence, you introduce some effect of our knowledge separate from that knowledge, and so on ad infinitum. To me, it’s much more simple to hold that we know of our minds because we simply are our minds—just like a rubber ball doesn’t need to be caused to bounce by its rubberiness, but simply bounces because it is the rubber.

    There’s no separate homuncular self that needs to be influenced by phenomenal experiences on the stage of the Cartesian theater; rather, the self is just some particular conglomeration of phenomenal experiences (or memories, thoughts, and so on). I know of my blue-experience because that blue-experience constitutes me, at least in part, not because there is some me that is influenced by my blue-experience. Indeed, that thing that I call ‘I’ is just something implied by my experiences, because experiences are the sorts of things that need somebody (or -thing) having those experiences. Whenever there’s a blue-experience around, there’s somebody having that experience; but that somebody is not a separate entity from the experience.

  2. David Duffy says:

    “why is it impossible to explain colour to the colour blind” – I always substitute odour here: why are you unable to anticipate what a novel smell will be like, but you aren’t really surprised when you smell it? Because it’s not really that interesting a question, though hopefully you’ll remember the phenomenal experience (in some way) for when you smell it again. And if person X is missing that particular receptor, what could you tell them? Obviously I’m eliding over those cases where multiple receptors are activated.

    As to causal efficacy of PE, I’d look to theory of mind, where some of my inferences are based on my recognition of behavioural markers in others that I associate with my internal experiences of pain, depression, happiness. My inferences about that person’s future behaviour are based on my associating my previous introspective experiences with my past behaviour etc. I don’t think a radical behaviourist explanation cuts it, but presume this is recapitulating old arguments.

  3. Sergio Graziosi says:

    Jochen,
    [Apologies for taking my time: I’m under enough pressure at work these days; real work takes precedence, leaving precious little spare mental resources – if any.]

    You should ask yourself the question: if epiphenomenalism were true, could I run all of my arguments in the same way? I think the answer is yes: your arguments only concern the causally efficacious, which is hence not touched by the presence of epiphenomena.

    I agree, with a caveat. To agree, I need to specify what can be true about epiphenomenalism: that is, it’s true that brain mechanisms may generate some epiphenomena. However, what can’t be true is that solving hard problem requires to “explain” them. So, as I write in the main text, if the aim is to describe how things actually are, it is possible that brain mechanisms generate a-causal things, but it is not possible that these a-causal things are what caused us to stumble on the hard problem. I still struggle to believe it is really necessary to spell out such a tautology: the hard problem is caused by something, supposedly the mystery of how Phenomenal Experience may be generated by mere mechanisms, thus, it should go without saying that PE has causal powers. We know it has at the very least the power of generating the problem. This in turn makes me type the current text, changing the physical world, so PE is pre-theoretically causally efficacious in the physical world, tautologically so.

    Thus:

    […]we have the puzzling evidence of the existence of something, we call this something PE, and want to build a theory T, which would help explaining how PE gets to exist[…]

    To the epiphenomenalist, this is of course simply question-begging—you start out assuming that you have evidence for PE you want to explain; but of course, on an epiphenomenal conception, PE does not yield any kind of (third-personal, objective) evidence such as to ground theory-building. Thus, the epiphenomenalist would simply reject your argument on the ground floor.

    Yes, a genuine epiphenomenalist would react as you expect (at least, I expect the same reaction), and s/he would be wrong. If you start by assuming that PE is epiphenomenal, you will naturally reject the assumption that it isn’t. So, at first sight, the situation could look symmetrical, we may start from two mutually exclusive assumptions and, since neither has been able to produce a complete theory, we don’t have strong, a posteriori reasons to favour one foundational assumption above the other. However, we can look at what assumption is more reasonable a priori. Which is what I’ve been trying to do.

    At the beginning, when we start trying to figure out what this Consciousness thing is, we got to start without assuming it’s a strong epiphenomenon, otherwise we would be wilfully ignoring the question of how we got to generate the assumption that we do have a subject to study.
    This objection (O1) is the one I’ve been exploring here in the third post – so far I’ve found no argument against it.

    In the first two posts, I’ve explored other objections, and the one you haven’t even tried to demolish is that assuming that something is epiphenomenal makes this something impossible to study scientifically: since it causes nothing, whether it’s present or not makes no difference, so there is nothing that depends on our something which can be tested empirically. The only possible test is one to disprove the epiphenomenalist hypothesis, saying “ah, our theory proposes that our something is this and this has causal powers (see experimental data), therefore epiphenomenalism is false”. However, a genuine epiphenomenalist can always answer “ah, therefore our something isn’t this because our something is a strong epiphenomenon”. This reply is always allowed, under the epiphenomenalist assumption, for every conceivable this. Thus, even if we concede that epiphenomenalism is coherent (which I don’t), we must at least accept that it isn’t a valid scientific hypothesis (O2): that’s because it can’t be disproved empirically, no matter what. [This is why Earp can’t get no epistemic satisfaction, in my opinion.]

    Realising this second effect of epiphenomenalism (O2) sends us back to our pre-theoretical drawing board. If our assumption locks us in an a-scientific frame, maybe we can find a better one which allows empirical investigation. So we return to O1, trying to stay as pre-theoretical as we can, knowing that adding theoretical baggage might sent us back in the dead-end of epiphenomenalism. This is what Schwitzgebel is doing, and by doing so, in my reading, he is making the same assumption I have been making myself: knowledge must be caused by something connected to its object – if it isn’t caused by anything, it can’t be knowledge (for there can’t be any truthmaker, using your language). In this context, Block’s reply is significant not because he’s positively making the case that knowledge has to be causally mediated, but because, going along with Schwitzgebel he is clearly finding the assumption reasonable. Thus, my assumption is considered reasonable by at least two people who have far more philosophical credentials than myself: it is a self admitted argument by authority, which I though I had to make because you claim that:

    [slightly edited] the edifice of argument you have erected teeters, totters, creaks and cracks

    I see why you say this, so I’ve accepted your suggestion:

    Work out what you really need to claim; assume what you need to assume for that, and clearly mark what is being assumed as an assumption

    With my minimal assumption stated (knowledge of something must ultimately depend, at least partially on that something), I pointed you to two accredited specialists who are clearly accepting the same assumption and trying to work out their differences from that common ground. Hence, my minimal assumption is to be considered at the very least not manifestly untrue. Now, you’ve previously stated that:

    your entire line of reasoning rests on the idea that everything we know, we know via causal mediation. But of course, we know that that can’t be true, as it leads to infinite regress

    So you are stating that my position is clearly not true. In this context, I am not concerned with escaping the infinite regress, not because it isn’t interesting, but because you yourself have done the work for me: your own intentionality paper escapes the very same infinite regress by means of circular self reference. Thus, we know (or at least agree) that knowledge via causal mediation doesn’t necessarily lead to infinite regression – we may be wrong, but it remains the case that we might eventually find a way to avoid infinite regression, in one way or the other. Overall, my foundational assumption isn’t inherently incoherent and isn’t even exotic, but once made, it directly negates the possibility that our initial, pre-theoretical object of study may be a strong epiphenomenon.

    Going back to the beginning of my reply: looking just beyond the surface, it turns out that we can start from two mutually exclusive assumptions, however one is coherent, the other isn’t (it negates that there must be a reason why we want to theorise); one can lead to an empirically theory, the other can’t (the same assumption can be used to refute all possible theories, on non-empirical grounds). Thus, a priori, the situation isn’t symmetrical. One assumption needs to be our favoured starting point, the other needs to be rejected for as long as possible: not rejecting it is equivalent to giving up and declaring our object of study unexplainable. The fact that we don’t know how to solve the hard problem while accepting the coherent hypothesis doesn’t mean that it can’t be done: it just means that we need to try. Which is what I’ve been doing all along ;-).

    [PS: your morning/evening star diversion is suggestive of the reasons why I consider myself a “dual aspect monist”. I’m assuming you can see why/how, so I’ll skip this discussion unless asked to make it explicit.]

  4. Sergio Graziosi says:

    David,
    [Same apologies as per my reply to Jochen.]
    Re your first paragraph, it seems that the key concept is “Because it’s not really that interesting a question”. This throws me off a bit: are you saying that the hard problem isn’t interesting and/or isn’t that much of a problem? If you are, I fear I’ll need many more justifications to be able to jump on board with you.

    Your second paragraph is agreed. Causal efficacy seems granted by many (if not all) commonsensical approaches. However, this clearly hasn’t been a reason strong enough to steer away from epiphenomenalism (rightly so: common-sense can’t be a justification in itself), so I thought it was worth trying some more routes.

    • David Duffy says:

      “This throws me off a bit…”: just regarding qualia – I guess my stance would be deflationary. Like they’re really mysterious, but a) exhibit power laws relations between perceived intensity and the external stimuli (I think intensity counts as “a raw feel”); b) are pretty regular, otherwise they’d be useless; c) vary in informational complexity depending on the perceptual processing that has already been done eg perception of a human face as a “single” quale (cf faces of familiar and unfamiliar races); d) are “atomic” basic units of perceptual experience, but synaesthetes show semantic associations (“ideasthesia”) that are actually probably ubiquitous; e) what else would they be like, given they most likely have equivalents in the mental lives of non-verbal animals eg ease of coping with visual inversion or sensory substitution in humans v. other animals.

      Another supervenience quote:
      “Physiological functions of a protein supervene on its own atoms and their spatial arrangement. However, physiological functions of a protein do not supervene on the atoms underlying the DNA code for that protein, nor does it supervene on the atoms of the ribosome that synthetized the protein. Instead, the relation to those gene expression mechanisms is the one of creation (poiesis)”
      Rapaport might replace “poiesis” with “implementation”.

    • Sergio Graziosi says:

      David,
      I was forgetting to acknowledge your clarification. That’s agreed, I’m in the choir you’re preaching to on this one.

      Re mystery and the hard problem in general, I think that once one accepts that:
      A. Incoming sensory signals are already symbolic.
      B. Use (maybe even “Interpretation”?) of the incoming symbols doesn’t require translating them to some other language (shades of Dennett here, I think).
      Most of the mystery goes away. Se Bakker’s BBT, Graziano’s Attention Schema, Loorits’ Structural Qualia, Metzinger’s transparent self model, my own ETC, and who knows how many more. The common idea is that whatever operates on symbols wouldn’t natively have access to information on how these symbols are “implemented” (not sure I’ve picked the right word, hope you can understand me nevertheless). Thus, the nature of the fundamental building blocks (e.g. the redness of red) of the symbols that are being processed remains mysterious from within. So, yeah, mysterious, but there is no mystery on the origin of the mysteriousness ;-).
      Is that deflationary enough for your taste?

  5. Jochen says:

    Hi Sergio,
    so we keep going round and round, it seems… Anyway. I think the chief issue is really that you’re kinda dodging the appeal to factual correctness I’m making—no matter what causes our investigation, what the original issue was that spurred us into theoretical action, what is and what’s not scientifically accessible, the point is quite simply that we may have epiphenomenal conscious experience, and hence, a priori excluding it from our theorizing blinds us towards a real possibility. After all, a world in which our conscious experience is epiphenomenal is at least consistent.

    So when you say things like:

    However, what can’t be true is that solving hard problem requires to “explain” them.

    Then you’re right, if you want to say that the ‘hard problem’ merely concerns whatever is the root cause of our verbalization of ‘I want to solve the hard problem’, or what makes us say ‘consciousness is mysterious’, and so on.

    But if our phenomenal experience is what you want to explain, then you may be wrong: that phenomenal experience may be an epiphenomenon, but that doesn’t make it any less real. If it is epiphenomenal, then yes, it’s not the reason for our investigations; but nevertheless, explaining our conscious experience is an intention we can form without being causally influenced by our PE to do so—for instance, we could simply want to explain everything, which certainly includes things that we have no idea of at all, and which we’ve never interacted with, and so on.

    So it’s ultimately just a narrow view of explanation that allows you to skirt the issue of epiphenomenalism, it seems to me.

    Yes, a genuine epiphenomenalist would react as you expect (at least, I expect the same reaction), and s/he would be wrong. If you start by assuming that PE is epiphenomenal, you will naturally reject the assumption that it isn’t.

    The epiphenomenalist is not begging the question here, but merely pointing out that it is a possibility that our conscious experience is epiphenomenal, which is a belief that does not rest on the assumption that it in fact is. You, on the other hand, are rejecting epiphenomenalism ultimately because you consider our phenomenal experience to be causally effective—that is, you’re actually begging the question.

    So ultimately, I’m merely pointing out that the following is consistent, and even metaphysically possible:

    1) Whatever it is that causes our seeking for the answer to the hard problem, it is not our phenomenal experience itself, but (e.g.) its physical correlates,

    2) Our phenomenal experience is, nevertheless, completely real; however, it is causally inert itself, and hence, epiphenomenal.

    3) Following your strategy, we would never discover the full set of facts about the world, as we have excluded a certain set of facts (the epiphenomnal ones), which nevertheless obtain.

    4) Hence, any theory of conscious experience we formulate on this basis, in this sort of world, would be wrong, and we have methodologically blinded ourselves against ever finding the right sort of account. Indeed, if we take the theory thus constructed as a blueprint, and construct a world based upon it, this world would be one without conscious observers—and in the sense that every fact is ultimately a fact that appears to us within conscious experience, we have in fact not managed to explain any fact at all.

    So ultimately, it might well be the case that you feel a pain, but this subjective experience of painfulness does not have any consequences; any apparent consequences are, in fact, due to its physical correlates, including our search for answers to the problems of consciousness. In this scenario, following your reasoning would preclude us from ever finding them.

    In the first two posts, I’ve explored other objections, and the one you haven’t even tried to demolish is that assuming that something is epiphenomenal makes this something impossible to study scientifically: since it causes nothing, whether it’s present or not makes no difference,

    Well, I have tried briefly, at least, to get you to reconsider this stance: if our experience is, in fact, epiphenomenal, then even though it causes nothing, it makes all the difference—without it, everything would be ‘all dark’, so to speak.

    This is what Schwitzgebel is doing, and by doing so, in my reading, he is making the same assumption I have been making myself: knowledge must be caused by something connected to its object

    Could you point out where he’s making this assumption? And perhaps I should point out that I have no problem with the idea that phenomenal experience is causally connected to the real world; but that the PE itself then needs to cause further knowledge of it seems implausible to me. Furthermore, I also fail to see how it’s even necessary: to put it in somewhat Aristotelian terms, qualitative experience is the ‘form’ of mind, and thus, mind does not need to be further ‘informed’ of it.

    your own intentionality paper escapes the very same infinite regress by means of circular self reference.

    The mechanism I consider there isn’t really a universal regress antidote; it works for the case I need it to, but I don’t see how one would apply it to the causal regress you face.

    it turns out that we can start from two mutually exclusive assumptions, however one is coherent, the other isn’t (it negates that there must be a reason why we want to theorise); one can lead to an empirically theory, the other can’t (the same assumption can be used to refute all possible theories, on non-empirical grounds).

    The only incoherence comes in if you assume that all a theory can discover is that which set us on the course of theory-building in the first place; but I don’t think this is a good assumption (parallel universes were not among the reasons we did cosmology, but—provided certain speculative theories check out—we nevertheless ended up having to account for them in our theories).

    And of course, empiricism isn’t necessarily the end-all and be-all of epistemic standards—indeed, supposing it to be so invites inconsistency, since the principle that ‘only empirical facts are worthwhile’ is itself not empirical, of course. Furthermore, theories are not collections of facts, all of which have to stand up to empirical scrutiny; rather, they stand and fall as a complex, and thus, even a theory that has consequences which are not empirically accessible may meet scientific standards of falsifiability by means of other consequences.

  6. Sergio Graziosi says:

    Jochen,

    so we keep going round and round, it seems…

    So it seems, but it’s hard to tell whether we’re following a spiral or just running in circles. Happy to spin some more if you are.

    I think the chief issue is really that you’re kinda dodging the appeal to factual correctness I’m making—no matter what causes our investigation, what the original issue was that spurred us into theoretical action, what is and what’s not scientifically accessible, the point is quite simply that we may have epiphenomenal conscious experience, and hence, a priori excluding it from our theorizing blinds us towards a real possibility. After all, a world in which our conscious experience is epiphenomenal is at least consistent.

    Well, that really isn’t my intention: I’m trying to tackle your appeal full-on, and show that it’s empty. What causes our investigation is at least part of the object of our investigation and concurrently, we don’t have grounds to infer the existence of not-known-before epiphenomena based on otherwise established theory. We don’t have a theory (nothing empirically verified) and, in stark contrast with the legitimate examples that you’ve proposed, we are trying to make the unwarranted inference that what caused our inquiry (observing that there it is something it is like …) isn’t caused by the fact that there is something it is like. This inference might be theoretical, but is also blatantly wrong.

    Thus, a world in which (some, not “our”) conscious experience is epiphenomenal is indeed consistent, in itself. What I’m saying is that a world which looks exactly like ours, and where conscious experience is epiphenomenal, can’t exist. That’s because we, in this world, fret about conscious experience all the time, and yet we don’t know how to describe it objectively (we don’t have a third-party kind of description which we can readily agree on). Thus, we don’t know precisely what we refer to when we talk about conscious experience, but one thing we do know: whatever it is, it is not epiphenomenal. You shouted “ouch, that hurts”, or admitted that you like/don’t like ice cream well before hearing about Descartes, Leibniz or Chalmers, didn’t you?
    So, pre-theoretically, we have something to explain, and it isn’t epiphenomenal. The moment you accept it to be epiphenomenal, you are doing a bite and switch, probably self inflicted. You start wanting to explain X (why does pain exist, why do you like/dislike ice cream?), then you say we need to explain X as an epiphenomenon (allow me to call this X’), but X’ is not X because we know from the start that X is not an epiphenomenon. Now, it’s totally possible that the mechanisms involved with X also do produce an epiphenomenon X’, if we want to be correct, we do need to account for X’, I agree on this. What I disagree with is the blatantly false idea that X is X’, it can’t be: if we want to be correct, we need to acknowledge that it isn’t, and we also need to figure out the mechanisms that make X happen/exist.
    Your points 1-4 are almost consistent in themselves, but they do not describe the situation as it is in our world: we introspectively realise that being alive comes with a “what is it like” property and want to figure out how/why and what that property is (when expressed in objective, third-party terms). The moment we do, something in the physical world changed because we did, and in that very moment, aiming for correctness, we just need to infer that the “what is it like” property is not, cannot be a strong epiphenomenon, whatever it may turn out to be.

    For my position to be correct, one needs to accept that our knowledge of the “what is it like” aspect has to at least be con-caused by some “what is it like” property. If our knowledge comes out of nothing, it just is, then the “what is it like” property could be epiphenomenal, but we would have no way of explaining how we experience things, because, “we just do”. This situation, different from your 1-4 scenario, is also possible, but isn’t anyone’s (as far I know) default assumption because it explicitly gives up. Those who take this last position enter the mysterian crowd and, if they care to be coherent, won’t even try to explain consciousness, as their own position entails that it can’t be explained.

    In this context, Schwitzgebel is explicitly trying to regain a stable footing by proposing a definition of PE which is explicitly pre-theoretical. Since we agree that we can only infer the existence of epiphenomena by extending a pre-existing and trustworthy theory, he is, at the same time (when viewed in the light of our discussion, so please note that I am actively interpreting his position, something that is quite uncomfortable, BTW) making the implicit assumption that the “obvious common features” of different conscious experiences are not epiphenomenal. To this proposal Block replies with some appreciation and additional doubts. Crucially, he does not mention problems connected with things like “what if the obvious common feature of all conscious experiences is an epiphenomenon?”, he doesn’t because, in my reading, there is no imaginable reason to; it should go without saying that the obvious common feature(s) of all conscious experiences aren’t epiphenomena: if they were, they wouldn’t be obvious.

    From the rest of your comment, and joining with other parts of our conversation, I do however see half a hope of finding an escape route that might accommodate both our positions – just half a hope, so what follows doesn’t really lead to much!

    to put it in somewhat Aristotelian terms, qualitative experience is the ‘form’ of mind, and thus, mind does not need to be further ‘informed’ of it.

    This to me suggests that we may be merely trapped in a well hidden semantic trap (unfortunately, if true, it would kill any hope of keeping it simple!).
    Let’s see if I can explain this faint hope: perhaps you are starting with an assumption that PE is one and the same as knowledge thereof. Nothing can cause the knowledge of PE because PE is the knowledge we are talking about. Thus, something causes PE and nothing further needs to happen, leaving nothing more to be explained.
    I would be happy with this interpretation, if it wasn’t for a number of additional problems that open up when accepting this reading.
    First, knowledge requires memory: I know (or believe) I have PE because I can recall past experiences, and introspectively verify that toothache feels very different from sunbathing (no idea how I picked the examples!). This suggests that there must be additional elements (mechanisms) besides what allows feeling something: we need additional stuff in order to store that feeling, retrieve the memory and conclude “ah, I know I have PE”. On a typical cognitive perspective, having PE requires different mechanisms from knowing/believing that we have PE. Remaining with Block, the above roughly follows the distinction between phenomenal consciousness and access consciousness. It seems very reasonable (not a guarantee of truthness) to expect that PE and memory/access are sustained by separate mechanisms, and thus knowledge of PE must depend on both. If it does, it clearly isn’t one and the same as PE. In this reading I am happy to concede that knowledge of PE comes with its own qualitative feeling, but I don’t see how this poses an obstacle.
    Secondarily: making these distinctions is precisely the kind of operation that you would expect to inform a reductionist explanatory attempt. Conversely, assuming that knowledge of PE equals PE forbids to tear PE and knowledge apart and look at the subcomponents inside: it’s a difficult to overcome game-stopper in itself. So I reach the same conclusion again: one approach allows to put together an empirical research program, the other doesn’t.

    Still, this reading does offer a glimpse of hope because one could try to untangle and harmonise conflicting assumptions:
    the approach I have espoused is based on a reductionist expectation, e.g. that we’ll be able to identify sub-components of the whole consciousness phenomenon. Thus, what I call PE is assumed to be only part of the whole architecture and is distinct from knowing/believing that we have PE. On the other side, such assumption isn’t made: PE is one and the same as knowing that there is something it is like to feel and perceive different things. Fine: under the two assumptions, the PE expression clearly refers to different referents. So, perhaps we should just harmonise our semantic definitions and use two separate terms, one for each separate and mutually exclusive assumption. (?)
    We could, but I don’t really think we’ll get far (I’m exploring a half-hope, after all): we know from neurological syndromes that PE, awareness of PE and knowledge of PE can de-couple in very odd ways, so once again, one route comes with immediate encouragement from empirical science, while the other approach remains immobile and fruitless.

    Overall, far from dodging your appeal to factual correctness, I am positively trying to show that one approach is supported by evidence, the other isn’t and can never be. Picking the one that’s more likely to be correct should therefore be a no-brainer (yes, I still can’t understand why it isn’t!).

    Going back to your initial summary:

    After all, a world in which our conscious experience is epiphenomenal is at least consistent.

    No, it isn’t, not if you talk about our conscious experience, the one we actually have in this world. It would be consistent with a world where no-one knows they have conscious experience: it might be consistent in an imaginable world, but it isn’t consistent with our own.

  7. Jochen says:

    Hey Sergio,
    trying to be brief on this one:

    What causes our investigation is at least part of the object of our investigation and concurrently, we don’t have grounds to infer the existence of not-known-before epiphenomena based on otherwise established theory.

    We may not currently have such grounds (though several people would disagree), but methodologically blinding us to this possibility still carries the cost of potentially missing a real metaphysical possibility.

    we are trying to make the unwarranted inference that what caused our inquiry (observing that there it is something it is like …) isn’t caused by the fact that there is something it is like. This inference might be theoretical, but is also blatantly wrong.

    No, it’s clearly true: what caused our (interpreting ‘our’ intersubjectively here) inquiry is the things we write about, talk about, and the ways we behave. That this behaviour is in turn caused by our phenomenal experience is a highly non-trivial hypothesis—lots of people deny it (eliminiativists, for one, who deny there is any such thing—and if that denial is at all consistent, then claiming that it’s ‘blatantly wrong’ to say that our investigation into consciousness may not be caused by phenomenal consciousness is, well, blatantly wrong).

    What I’m saying is that a world which looks exactly like ours, and where conscious experience is epiphenomenal, can’t exist.

    Hmm, I’d hoped we’d gotten this out of the way… But well. Aren’t you saying something blatantly contradictory here? Namely, a world which is not physically different from ours (as containing epiphenomena makes no physical difference) is nevertheless physically different from ours? It seems to me, by the definition of epiphenomenon, there simply is no possible way that it could make such a difference.

    I mean, it’s after all easy to imagine our world as it would be if it our consciousness were epiphenomenal: I would behave in all the ways I do, actually, behave; and all of my behaviors have physical causes, and are completely determined by them, by the causal closedness of the physical. Yet, additionally to that, I also have experience; this experience merely comes along with my behaviors, affecting nothing in itself, like the proverbial steam whistle. Nevertheless, I might think that my subjective experience is relevant for my behavior, which thinking is itself part of my behavior, and comes with some attendant subjective experience; I would just happen to be wrong.

    Furthermore, I could subtract all of that experience, and have a world that is—outwardly, physically—exactly as before: I perform the same actions, make the same verbal reports, have the same neural patterns instantiated, some of which even correspond to the same thought that ‘my subjective experience is responsible for my behavior’. But in this case, there would not even be any subjective experience. Nevertheless, this world is physically identical to the one before.

    Neither of these scenarios strikes me as very plausible, or interesting. But I’m sure you’ll have to agree that they’re possible. And furthermore, we have no way, at present at least, to tell that we’re not living in the second of these worlds—that’s after all what the Dennetts and Churchlands of this world are telling us. But if that’s right, we likewise have no way of telling that we don’t live in the first world.

    So either, you have some way to show the causal efficacy of conscious experience—in which case, you should really have brought that up first, as it would have saved us a lot of discussion (certainly, the mere fact that it seems to you that your pain caused you to cry out cuts no ice hear). Or, you need to accept that a world with epiphenomena would be indistinguishable from ours—as otherwise, you would violate your own dictum that one can’t collect any evidence for (or against) epiphenomena.

    You start wanting to explain X (why does pain exist, why do you like/dislike ice cream?), then you say we need to explain X as an epiphenomenon (allow me to call this X’), but X’ is not X because we know from the start that X is not an epiphenomenon.

    And again, this begs the question against an epiphenomenal account: to an epiphenomenalist, that pain exists is not the reason we start an investigation into pain, but merely, its physical correlates put into action some causal chain that ends with us theory-building, and potentially discovering the existence of epiphenomenal properties (say, from consistency constraints on the theory). So we are, from the start, spurned on by X’, which may lead us to discover epiphenomena X—provided we don’t introduce some methodological bias against them.

    Sure, we might believe that it’s X, and not X’, which sets us on our path; but if things go as above, then the theory would merely correct our pretheoretical misconceptions, as often happens. And it’s also not the case that our belief in X is wholly inexplicable: it might be, for instance, adaptive to us that we believe we have some moral value, which value comes from our capacity for suffering, e.g. So while this belief is not itself caused by X, it might nevertheless be correct. Again: implausible, perhaps—but that doesn’t make it impossible.

    we introspectively realise that being alive comes with a “what is it like” property and want to figure out how/why and what that property is (when expressed in objective, third-party terms).

    This once more just begs the question. On an epiphenomenalist account, that’s not what we do: our experience does have a ‘what it’s like’-property, but that property is causally inert; it is just some additional flourish to the otherwise dark and empty physical causal chains unspooling themselves all around us. And it is these causal chains that are responsible for our wanting to figure out how our minds work—not, of course, how our subjective experience works, since it is not part of these causal chains; but it may nevertheless come to be an outcome of our investigations.

    Take, as a model, Leibnizian pre-established harmony: the physical and the mental are like two clocks that always strike in unison; but neither strikes because the other does, they do so independently, because they have been set to the same time. Again: implausible, surely, but still, it is a metaphysical possibility (and it might be at least in some part just ‘the spirit of the ages’ that makes us judge it implausible—a more religious time, like Leibniz’, would have had far less trouble with it, and supposing ours to be intrinsically ‘more right’ is ultimately just intellectual chauvinism).

    Regarding Schwitzgebel: I still fail to see how you read either him or Block to be providing some support for your ‘knowledge of PE must be caused by PE’-position, sorry.

    Let’s see if I can explain this faint hope: perhaps you are starting with an assumption that PE is one and the same as knowledge thereof.

    I’m saying that there has to be some ‘buck stops here’-point in the causal chain of knowledge production. Take a computer: what it knows is what’s stored on its hard drive. These items need not cause any more changes on the hard drive—any additional knowledge—to be knowledge themselves. Ultimately, each memory configuration is a certain state within the computer’s set of possible states. The computer knows what it knows because it’s in the state it is in.

    It’s the same with us: having a certain phenomenal experience means being in a certain state; and we know what we know about that state because we are in that state. This state does not need to cause any further change of state in order to encode knowledge (although, of course, it can, if you derive new consequences from old items of knowledge). In as much as a state also contains a memory of prior states, this also addresses the memory issue.

    So I reach the same conclusion again: one approach allows to put together an empirical research program, the other doesn’t.

    This is again an argument of the form: ‘if the world metaphysically is like that, science can’t tell us everything about it, hence the world can’t metaphysically be like that’. (I also don’t think it’s right: most reductionist programmes move towards greater unification, not separation—think physics, where we have combined electricity and magnetism to electromagnetism, that and the weak nuclear force to the electroweak model, and this with the strong force to the standard model of particle physics, which we now hope to unify with the final outstanding force, gravitation. So realizing two separate phenomena are two sides of the same coin may produce great explanatory progress.)

    Picking the one that’s more likely to be correct should therefore be a no-brainer (yes, I still can’t understand why it isn’t!).

    Well, I think we both do agree on what’s more likely to be correct. But likelihood is a far cry from certainty, and there are several points in which you try to imply that we can exclude epiphenomena with certainty (and not just consider them unlikely). Additionally, you’ve made an argument of the form ‘my model explains some physical aspects of PE, but there can be no further aspect to it, so my model explains PE (in some large part)’, for which you need for epiphenomena to be impossible.

    No, it isn’t, not if you talk about our conscious experience, the one we actually have in this world. It would be consistent with a world where no-one knows they have conscious experience: it might be consistent in an imaginable world, but it isn’t consistent with our own.

    But again, take the Leibnizian view: there, it is possible to have epiphenomenal consciousness, and know it, too, just as it is possible for both the clock on my desk and the one on the church’s spire to show the same time. You’re arguing that something that can’t make a physical difference must make a physical difference (knowing something, in whatever way, certainly must be physical, or have a physical correlate, in order to influence our verbal reports, say; but just as you can’t say that the presence of epiphenomena caused this knowledge, you likewise can’t say that their absence prohibits it).

  8. Sergio Graziosi says:

    Jochen,
    I’m afraid it’s my turn to manifest my distress. You keep feeding me the headlines of the arguments for epiphenomenalism, as if I didn’t know them already, and worse, as if I hadn’t been making any argument against them.
    If I didn’t know for sure that you are acting on the best possible intentions, I would drop this conversation: without my a-priori certainty that you are really trying to help, I would have to conclude that you don’t want to acknowledge the arguments I’ve been making.

    So, for example:
    I’ve been saying that, if we want to study consciousness, there are two mutually exclusive assumptions on offer, and we have to pick one. Before picking one, it’s reasonable to ask which one looks more promising, yes?
    The two options are:
    (O1) PE is epiphenomenal.
    (O2) PE is not epiphenomenal.
    I have explored many reasons why O1 doesn’t look good – a priori. To these, you consistently answer: “under O1, your position X begs the question”, I agree. However, evaluating our options does require to see what happens in both cases, but can’t be done if one categorically accepts one of the options already.
    Thus, one of the strong points I’m making requires to acknowledge that O1 isn’t promising precisely because accepting O1 as true makes it impossible to find satisfying answers. Or, if you prefer, it makes it always possible to say that results found via O2, if one accepts O1 instead, would beg a question. At the very least, this makes O1 a very dubious scientific premise because it precludes the possibility of generating testable hypotheses. This stuff is all contained in the main text of the three “against epiphenomenal” posts. Nevertheless, you still reply to me as if this point was irrelevant. To my eyes, all your “it begs the question” replies are unreceivable at worse, or making my point at best: as I’ve said in my second post, presuming epiphenomenalism always allows to reply to any explanatory theory “congratulations, you’ve shown how to build a philosophical zombie”. Thus, interim, a-priori conclusion is: if epiphenomenalism is true, we won’t ever even be able to find empirical confirmation that it is. Not the best start, uh?
    Second interim, a-priori conclusion is that, for exactly the same reasons, accepting O2 has to be vulnerable from attacks coming from the O1 opposition. You don’t need to convince me of this.

    However, we would still like to figure out which one between O1 and O2 is likely to be true, right?
    So far we’ve established that we can’t do so after picking one: because O1 necessarily can’t make strong enough testable predictions, it can’t be falsified empirically, so accepting it leads to an epistemic halt and doesn’t allow making progress by means of experiment. All we could do is build more and more philosophical hypotheticals, hoping they are so manifestly coherent and convincing that even empiricists will accept them. You’ll excuse me if my third, interim and a-priori conclusion is that OK, O1 might be true but should be espoused if and only if we know with very high confidence that the other option leads to nothing.
    Let me reiterate: I’m accepting the “begs the question” arguments, and showing why, since they are always possible, they are a good reason to steer away from O1 for as long as possible.

    Thus, we are left with the option of exploring O2. Given the above, we may start by asking: are there any a-priori reasons to expect it to fail? Proponents of O1 will say “Yes! The conceivability argument”. And sure enough, you come in, all guns blazing, making this point virtually every time. Fine, I haven’t concentrated on refuting this because the argument itself is so spectacularly weak that it feels like shooting a dead duck. But if I must, let me try this strategy:
    Let’s assume the argument is correct. If it is, let’s answer the following questions:
    Q1) Is the universe of DC comics (Superman & Co.) conceivable? [Clearly it is, right?]
    Q2) Does the conceivability argument predicate that therefore Superman is possible? [Again, under the assumption that the argument is right, I can’t see why not.]
    Nevertheless, presumably we all agree that, in our world, Superman is not possible. Thus, we reach Q3, for you to answer: if we accept that zombies are possible, what is it that nevertheless makes us all agree that Superman isn’t? [By contrast: if zombies are as possible as Superman, i.e. as close to impossible as it gets, why should we ever take their possibility as the foundation of our default hypothesis?]

    Furthermore, I don’t need to spend too much time/energy refuting the conclusions of the zombie argument on conceivability grounds alone, at the very least because the argument has been tackled with strong rebuttals uncountable times. The last one I’ve stumbled upon today is here (by Alex Carruth, funny that he chose to use the example of a mechanical clock, as I did when exploring the consequences of reductionism).
    Another interim conclusion: to know if philosophical zombies are actually conceivable, we need to figure out how the mechanical side works. Again, I’ve made this point in the second against epiphenomenalism post, but somehow, this didn’t stop you from feeling free to reiterate the original argument, as if I’d ignored it from the start.

    Recap: so far we have two options on the table. One demonstrably leads to an empirical dead end. The other doesn’t, but of course, this isn’t a guarantee that the second option will work out. Thus, we need to ask ourselves if we have reasons to believe that the second option will necessarily fail. A priori, the best argument for failure is inapplicable: we need to find out the details before we can test for conceivability in any meaningful way (In other words, at least we need to start by provisionally accepting O2). The other argument against O2 is that we have no idea of how mechanisms could even start to explain PE. We don’t even know what an explanation would look like. Fine, but this argument has no force: not knowing the answer is not in itself proof that there is no answer. Furthermore, I have a very precise idea of what the answer might look like, if I’m right, it will look like ETC, the attention schema, BBT and the like. [We are having this discussion because ETC assumes O2, so I want to check that espousing O2 is reasonable, remember?]
    So we have to keep exploring O2; this time we’ll try to see if we got some evidence supporting it (we already know we can’t find any direct evidence in support of O1, only inference can support O1 – ex hypothesis).

    Here I do have an argument, which is: we talk of PE, but we don’t know what PE is. If PE is epiphenomenal, we remain with the certainty that we can’t explain what makes us think that when injured we scream because of the pain. Under O1, our default hypotheses (we scream because of PE) can’t be because of PE – we would scream even if pain didn’t exist! However, when we want to understand why pain is painful, we know we are not looking for an epiphenomenon, even under O1, we would still need to find out what it is. To this I add: what’s wrong with calling what causes us to scream in pain “pain”, or if you prefer, expect that the mechanism which causes a feeling is the cause of the feeling? Thus, because we currently don’t know what PE is, the available evidence suggests something (just suggests, doesn’t guarantee) (with Schwitzgebel): “sensory, imagery, and emotional experiences have something obvious in common, which makes them different from all these other [not-perceivable] things”. Being obvious, it’s unlikely (again, not certain) that we all automatically make the same (pre-theoretical?) inference which is required to espouse O1. It’s the “obvious” adjective that makes the trick for me: if it’s obvious, it becomes very unlikely that the “common element of conscious experiences” is an epiphenomenon. That’s because to (convincingly) hypothesise the existence of an epiphenomenon one needs to infer its existence from a pre-existing (and convincing) theory. Thus, if O1 is true, it flies on the face of what we can learn from the best empirically substantiated hypotheses about the existence of epiphenomena (this is the main point of the original post above).
    Furthermore, we can make the working hypothesis that having an experience is different from being aware that we have it. This hypothesis is immediately empirically supported by very straightforward considerations.
    Let me ask you: did you feel properly rested when waking up on June 5th, 2002? Unless I’ve picked a date that means something to you (or if you always wake up in the same state), I am expecting that you won’t be able to answer. Why? Because you don’t remember. Thus, you can’t be sure that waking up that day felt of something. You can presume it did, because all instances you do remember are associated with a vague “what it was like” recollection. Thus, we already know that knowing you have PE is in principle separable from having it. From this, we know that our knowledge of PE needs to have a cause (if you couldn’t remember any instance associated with a “what it was like” recollection, not even one in the immediate past you should conclude there is no “what is it like”. Note here: even asking yourself “does ‘now’ feel of something?” requires some time to answer, so it relies on some form of short-term memory: without memory, you can’t know if you have PE.).

    In this respect, you have ignored my references from the aforementioned post on reductionism and instead claim that:

    I’m saying that there has to be some ‘buck stops here’-point in the causal chain of knowledge production.

    This is correct, there must be a bottom. But observing that there must be a bottom doesn’t grant any credence to the presumption that having PE is the same as knowing we have it. Any explanatory quest which includes at least some reductionist toolkit is exactly about collecting evidence about how many separate mechanisms make up the overall phenomenon, and so far, the evidence we have points in the direction of non-unity: having PE and knowing we have it are two distinct pieces of the same puzzle. We can legitimately presume this because we all posses first-person evidence of the dissociation of the two, and if we don’t want to rely on subjective considerations, there is no shortage of neurological syndromes that suggest the same (including but not limited to blindsight). One of my (as far as I know) original arguments, is that if PE and knowledge of PE are indeed dissociable/distinct, then O2 is confirmed, and O1 is badly damaged as a consequence (if not killed in one shot): so after all, we can find evidence against O1. If our knowledge of PE is caused by something (a necessary condition if we can have PE without knowing it, which we can: we just need to have no memory), this something must include PE (otherwise it would be knowledge of something else, not PE!).

    Thus, when we get to empirical reasons that offer some support to either O1 or O2, I conclude that O1 can’t have any, not even in principle: we can only hope of finding evidence against O2, which in turn would make us favour O1. Trouble is, evidence which is consistent with O2 is everywhere, leaving us with plenty of reasons of accepting it as our working (still-to-be-confirmed) hypothesis. This whole approach evaporates all your complaints that “likelihood is a far cry from certainty” (we agree: we’re trying to evaluate which hypothesis is more likely to be true between O1 and O2, we also expect to never reach absolute certainty).
    But we can go further: if we accept that PE and knowledge of PE are likely to be dissociable (if I chemically impair your ability to form any new memory, and then slap you on the face, after the fact you’ll be convinced I’ve never caused you physical pain, and you would be wrong), it immediately follows that PE is unlikely to be epiphenomenal. If it were, it remains unexplainable how the hell we get to know it exists. You can also flip the coin and say: since we don’t know what PE is, we could as well assume that PE is at least a part of whatever causes our knowledge of PE, therefore giving us a strong, empirical reason to ROTFL whenever anyone proposes epiphenomenalism again.
    Overall, O1 looks bad both on a priori and a-posteriori (e.g. after looking at the little evidence we do have), thus, we can’t be sure that O1 is false, but we do know that O2 is by far more promising. In conclusion, before even considering O1 we should make all possible efforts under O2. Since we know close to nothing about what actually happens within brains, O2 is still alive and well, while O1 should remain in the drawer where we store wacky ides for as long as possible.

    With this, I rest my case. If you wish to have another round, do feel free, but please, proceed as follows: try very hard to see why I think I’ve put epiphenomenalism to rest for a very long time, if not forever. Only after having seen why (I’d suggest taking your time!), please do try to show why I might be wrong – so far, you’ve missed my point and I have no reason to believe that explaining it again will help you seeing it. In other words, I wish you won’t repeat the old, re-heated and insipid arguments for epiphenomenalism. I know them already and all the epiphenomenalism T-shirts are too small for me! 😉

  9. Jochen says:

    Hey Sergio,

    I think one fundamental confusion is with what I mean when I say that you’re begging the question. So you say:

    Or, if you prefer, it makes it always possible to say that results found via O2, if one accepts O1 instead, would beg a question.

    This seems to imply that one would have to accept O1, in order to find arguments for O2 unconvincing—that if you already believe that O1 is right, surely there must be something wrong about those arguments.

    But begging the question is exactly the opposite: it’s when you, in order to attack O1, implicitly assume O2 must be right—which renders the attack null and void, regardless of which of the two options one prefers. That’s what you do whenever you say something like that our subjective mental states are what caused us to look for a theory of consciousness (and that hence, they can’t be epiphenomenal)—you’re assuming that epiphenomenalism is wrong to make an argument against epiphenomenalism.

    If one doesn’t make any assumption at all—in particular, if one neither assumes the truth nor falsity of epiphenomenalism—then the argument simply carries no logical force. This is what I’m pointing out, not that somebody convinced by the epiphenomenal account would not find your argument enlightening.

    Thus, interim, a-priori conclusion is: if epiphenomenalism is true, we won’t ever even be able to find empirical confirmation that it is. Not the best start, uh?

    This is something that seems to be in conflict with some other views of yours. I mean, I agree that if epiphenomenalism there’s nothing empiricism can do either to confirm or refute epiphenomenalism, but you seem to hold that to be false—namely, that one can distinguish epiphenomenal worlds from non-epiphenomenal ones. After all, you claim to be able to tell that ours is not one in which epiphenomenalism could be true. So either that’s true—then the bit in the quote above is false. Or the quoted bit is right—but then your assertion of distinguishing epiphenomenal from non-epiphenomenal worlds is at odds with it.

    Recap: so far we have two options on the table. One demonstrably leads to an empirical dead end.

    And this again touches on an argument you continue to make, despite my rebuttals (hey, if you get to accuse me of just repeating the same old points…): namely, that whether it’s empirical should have any bearing on whether it’s right. You seem to content yourself with saying, ah, it’s not empirical, so we can discard it. At worst, this is again an appeal to epistemological intelligibility as a metaphysical principle: the world is obliged to be intelligible to us, and hence, must not be structured in such a way that it wouldn’t be. This is, again, one of those BFD’s I would like to see an argument for—yet which you seem to just take in stride.

    At best, it’s an admission of preference on your part: you like theories that are empirical better. Well, that’s fine, of course. I do, too. But sometimes, we don’t get what we want. And let’s not forget that you’ve been claiming to be able to refute epiphenomenalism: to show that it’s not just implausible, or hard to make sense of, or dissatisfying (although it is all these things), but wrong. This is the claim I’m attacking, because, quite straightforwardly, you haven’t demonstrated it, or at best, your demonstrations hinge on some highly questionable epistemical and metaphysical principles.

    We are having this discussion because ETC assumes O2, so I want to check that espousing O2 is reasonable, remember?

    Well, not from my point of view: to me, we’re having this discussion because you claim to be able to disprove epiphenomenalism, to be able to tell that our world isn’t one that includes epiphenomena, or even that only things that have causal consequences can rightly be said to exist at all.

    Moreover, you’ve proposed arguments in the past that depend on epiphenomenalism being wrong. You’ve said it yourself: all your attempts at explaining consciousness rest on the assumption that epiphenomenalism is nonsensical. That’s a far cry from implausible or unreasonable, a much stronger claim that needs a consequently strong argument to back it up.

    To this I add: what’s wrong with calling what causes us to scream in pain “pain”, or if you prefer, expect that the mechanism which causes a feeling is the cause of the feeling?

    And well, the answer I’ve been giving a couple of times now: what’s wrong is that doing so is simply begging the question, an instance of circular reasoning that gets us nowhere, no matter what the right account of conscious experience eventually may turn out to be.

    That’s because to (convincingly) hypothesise the existence of an epiphenomenon one needs to infer its existence from a pre-existing (and convincing) theory.

    I’ve given an explicit example—Leibniz’ pre-arranged harmony—where that’s not true (which you, of course, summarily ignored—somewhat ironically, given that most of your last reply consists of indicting me for not properly replying to your points). The whole thing is like a kind of huge Gettier case: say you have a certain ringtone indicating your boss calling you. You hear that ringtone, pick up your phone, and answer, finding indeed your boss at the other end of the line.

    However, unbeknownst to you, you actually had your phone set to mute, and the person sitting next to you had their phone ring at exactly the same time your boss was calling you. Thus, you reasonably inferred a completely correct conclusion; however, that which made you make that inference was not causally tied to the inference’s correctness.

    That’s how things would be like in a Leibnizian world, only that the correlation between the two events would not be accidental, but lawful (albeit not mediated by physical law): it would be the case that whenever your boss calls you, your phone is set to mute, and you infer the fact of your bosses calling instead by the ringing of your seat neighbor’s phone. In the same way, mental events would be tied to physical ones, and you would make the right inferences even though they are not underwritten by a causal relationship.

    This is correct, there must be a bottom

    You’re doing a little flip-flopping here: a couple of posts back, you seemed to think that there would be an infinite regress, but that my model of von Neumann replicators could (somehow) deal with that. Which of the two’s it gonna be?

    having PE and knowing we have it are two distinct pieces of the same puzzle.

    This is, of course, exactly what one would have on the epiphenomenal account just sketched: there, the knowing would be the inference by means of the neighbor’s phone, while the having of said experience would be your boss actually calling—which is not causally related to your neighbor’s phone ringing at all.

    So by this example, your contention that

    if PE and knowledge of PE are indeed dissociable/distinct, then O2 is confirmed, and O1 is badly damaged as a consequence

    seems, to me, to be drawing the exactly wrong conclusion.

    Additionally, I think you should not confuse memory and knowledge. There are lots of things in my memory that I don’t have any (current) knowledge of—maybe something will pop up to call forth the subtle feeling of restedness I felt on July 5th, 2002, but right now, I know nothing of it.

    Whether or not knowledge of PE and PE is the same thing, certainly, memory of PE is different—I don’t cry out in pain when I remember that one time I stubbed my toe on the nightstand.

    What my argument was concerned with was not how one can lay down memory of experiences—be they phenomenal, or related to factual matters, or whatever. Rather, it was about having PE and knowing it—feeling the pain and knowing that one is feeling it; this knowing can’t be related causally, because that would just call up the image of PE on a screen causally affecting the audience, which of course leads nowhere.

    So, knowledge of PE as I meant it, and having some memory are two vastly distinct things, and appealing to the latter doesn’t help with the former.

    Anyway, I feel the tone has gotten somewhat unnecessarily sharp over the last couple of replies. So, in order to not perpetuate this, I’ll refrain from posting what I originally wanted to post—a list of issues you had neglected to address from my posts, while repeating your arguments again and again—which would have been quite childish.

    Instead, allow me to answer a question of yours you put to me in the other thread. Why do I do this? Why do I care?

    There’s two parts to this. One is that I think you’ve got a good thing going—I think there is value to your ideas. But you have a dangerous tendency to overstate your case. You try and always hit the ball out of court—but sometimes, the better play is to just bunt (no idea if that’s the right metaphor here). You keep running away with your point to places where few can or will follow you, meaning that the point is essentially lost on them.

    So it’s fine to say that you neglect the possibility of epiphenomenalism. It’s fine even to argue that it’s not a strong position, that you find it unpromising, methodologically challenged, and so on. But you always want to go all out and show it to be nonsensical, show that only causally efficacious things exist, and so on. While, of course, if you could make these arguments work out ironclad, you would have quite a strong case for your view, the fact that you can’t (and nobody else currently can) means that you actually damage your argument.

    The second part is that I, myself, passionately am opposed to the idea of epiphenomenalism. It’s horrid—I could never believe that the world would be so inelegantly structured, that the one thing that makes life worth living should be nothing but bling, bells and whistles, that the love I feel for my wife has nothing to do with why I married her. So I really would like to have a good argument excluding the possibility of epiphenomenalism, and my own position is that it’s a load of hooey.

    But whenever one is passionately opposed to something, one must take all the more care to not be suckered in by arguments affirming one’s core beliefs. The easiest person to fool, after all, is yourself. Hence, my default stance is that of opposition against such core beliefs—not that I’m always successful there, mind. So unfortunately, that’s what you’re bearing the brunt of right now; if it’s too much, just say the word, and I’ll zip it.

    • Sergio Graziosi says:

      Jochen,
      I’m too tired now to tackle the real argument, but I do wish to say two things as soon as I can.

      First, I am in awe of your ability to keep emotions in check, especially in combination with your supernaturally fast reaction times. You type at the speed I think, and at the same time manage to keep true to your aim. Wow. I’m lucky you’re still hanging around. I was provoking you deliberately, and got the reaction I didn’t dare to hope for.

      Second: OK, it’s time for me to tackle my own aims, I think I need to explain why I keep looking for the home-run, and so on. I have some reasons to believe this will help you understanding why I write the way I do. So that’s what I’ll do next. After doing so, we’ll decide together if resuming our belligerent tango is worth both our efforts.

      [As usual, I won’t be quick!]

  10. David Duffy says:

    “the …thing that makes life worth living should be nothing but bling, bells and whistles…”. I am reluctant to make a comment, since the pair of you seem to have covered most of the possible ground. I get the impression that Jochen sees EP like the other skeptical arguments (solipsism, other minds…): indefeasible, except for the meta-response “then why are bothering talking to me?”. However, I do like the observation about QM that goes something like, “whatever weird theory you end up with, everything at our (classical) level of experience turns out exactly as it does”. So, if some type of EP was the true state of nature, then the things that make life worth living are still the same, but acting down at the true causal level – since our epiphenomenal PE supervene perfectly on that stuff.

  11. Sergio Graziosi says:

    David,
    Thanks. I suppose this means you’ve actually endured the pain of reading our whole discussion. It’s comforting to hear that someone did, and a bit worrying/embarrassing as well ;-). I suppose you have found a succinct way of re-stating my point, down to its origin of “if something is an epiphenomenon, we can safely treat it as non-existent”. Or I am I just “wishfully misreading” you?

  12. Sergio Graziosi says:

    Jochen, it’s time to spill some more of my beans in public!

    What follows will try to isolate and identify two distinct sources of friction. One is about divergent aims: if I’m right, all we need to do is acknowledge and account for the differences. The other is about divergent methods: this might be more of a worry, if we can’t agree on how to proceed, we might be better off not trying to proceed together. Thus, I’ll explain my reading and kick the ball back to your court, knowing you’ll use it well.

    More premises: what follows comes with an embarrassing stink of self-indulgence. I’ve given me roughly a week to figure out how to avoid the stench. Having found no better way (most likely because of vanity), I’ll bite the bullet, hold my breath and pretend I don’t smell the smell (with many apologies for using an olfactory metaphor, sorry!).

    OK, first subject is about our different aims. I suspect your overall aim is to produce acknowledged philosophical contributions: finding a way of making actual progress in the field(s) of interest. I may be wrong, but I should at least be able to explain my own aim (limited to my own ability of being true to myself). So, what am I trying to achieve here?

    A few years ago, back in 2011-12, I found that I had some spare mental energy, that I was automatically spending it philosophising by myself, and that what resulted felt interesting. However, I was also very aware that all philosophising feels interesting to the “philosophiser”, so, precisely because I agree that “the easiest person to fool, after all, is yourself”, I started looking for ways of testing my own thoughts. The result is ETC and this blog. More precisely, this blog is primarily my own attempt of forcing me to put some order in my ideas and concurrently, by placing them in front of me, seeing if they keep making sense to me. The strategy isn’t perfect: I’ve allowed myself to be convinced that I had to try publishing ETC because that was one way of collecting informed feedback, not trusting myself means that I also wanted/needed to see how my ideas would be received.

    This leads me to the issue of the BFDs: it’s true, I do make outlandish claims. That’s because they are the things I end up believing, and I’m trying to take them seriously and see I keep believing them even after trying to put them down in writing. In a sense, this is the step zero of a philosophical endeavour: I’m still stuck in the phase where I am primarily worried with trying to convince myself that my thoughts are worth pursuing. In another sense, this phase is plagued with self-contradiction: a part of me is fully convinced, another part is sceptical and full of self doubt. As a result, I’m sure I emit contradictory messages, for example, asking for feedback and then rebutting the criticism with unrestricted (and perhaps unjustified) vehemence.
    By contrast, it’s no secret that you are already contributing to the relevant official literature, so I guess you just assumed (with reason, considering that I did try to publish the ETC paper), that I’m playing the same game. I’m not. If I’ll manage to find a way out of my own muddle and convince myself that I should try to get my thoughts officially recognised, then, and only then I’ll be aligned with what I think you’re trying to do. For now, I’m still playing with myself (fully aware of the downsides of indulging in self-pleasuring activities 😉 ).

    A practical consequence is that I’m not too worried about making my arguments in ways that would not make professional philosophers and scientists cringe. Because the blog is certainly not very visible, I sort of assume that this downside will become manageable if my ideas will end up being worth exploring. If they aren’t, the downside would be irrelevant.
    The other practical consequence is that I am vulnerable to attacks of the kind “you are treating this topic too lightly”. In a way, this kind of remark is always true, and I know it. I only have limited amounts of spare brainpower, and expecting that they could be enough to stay on par with whoever dedicated a lifetime to a given subject is preposterous. In another way, the same attacks feel a bit unfair: I write what I write because I know full well that I’m proposing BFDs and I am trying my best to treat them as seriously as I can.
    The problem is exacerbated by my own surprise: in the early days of my blog I was expecting to converge on pretty standard views, all the BFDs took me by surprise, and I still have no plans/desires of making them my profession. Thus, I face a conundrum: I could try to revolutionise my life, leave a job I love (and believe to be F’n useful), and indulge on my lofty intellectual ambitions, this would at least maximise my chances of not under-developing my BFDs; at the same time it feels both dangerous and preposterous. The other approach is keep doing this as a hobby, and, no matter how much I’ll invest on it, I’ll condemn my arguments to some degree of under-development. Thus, the effort of “convincing myself”, resolving the conflict with my sceptical side becomes even more important, making my secondary ambitions of being heard even less significant.
    Does this help you read me better? In a sense, the efforts you have spent with me are valuable data even without considering what you’ve been writing. The effort in itself, confirmed by you last message, is telling me as loud as possible “you should try to make your ideas acceptable, intelligible and known”. That’s one additional way you’ve been useful to me. The counterbalance is that whenever you say that I’m over-stretching myself it hurts, because I know it’s true, but I see no solution. I know I produce somewhat contradictory impressions, but from where I stand, you do too (although the contradiction is all in my own mind).

    The above more or less covers the issue of my aims, with a little guessing about your own ones. It also includes some hints about different methods, but I think that’s a bigger problem, so I’ll indulge some more and discuss the particulars.

    Back in another millennium, when I was 18, I found myself somewhere in England, pretending to study English (what we called studying-holidays). One day, as an afternoon exercise, we enacted a debate. My team was to propose that “Sex, alcohol and rock’n’roll should be banned by law”. Now, I couldn’t be further away from that kind of position, however, by knowing very well why I would oppose such views, under my direction we managed to win the debate. Win it spectacularly, by unanimous vote. After that, members of the opposing team, my own team members, and the teacher herself took turns to quietly ask me in private if I really believed what I’ve said. Of course I didn’t, but the experience marked me forever. That day I learned on my own skin about the Bullshit asymmetry principle (HT to the usual Brian Earp). Why am I reminiscing? Because that experience forget my sceptical method. It’s true that I can fool myself easily and that I should apply the highest degree of scepticism to my own beliefs. However, I also know (or believe at the most profound level) that if an argument is complex enough, it is always possible to nitpick and produce a refuting argument that looks perfectly solid (see also my homework here). More: I know that I can do this to my own beliefs, and produce an inordinate amount of hard-to-refute BS in the process. Thus, because my aim is to discern whatever BS I do happen to believe, I cannot simply try to tear my beliefs apart in whichever way I can find. It wouldn’t work, because I won’t be able to trust my own objections (just as I didn’t believe that we should ban the good things in life).
    This is why I primarily seek feedback: I need some external mind to look at my arguments and point out my mistakes. If I try too hard to do it myself, I’d be fooling myself multiple times, in a recursive infinite regression of BS, so I don’t. I stop at what I rings true to me, feels intelligible and looks coherent to me. After that, I hit “publish” and hope for the best. The best is what I’ve got in case of your own feedback and challenges.

    Coming back to our own debate: it seems to me (knowing I may be wrong), that my consciously provocative remarks weren’t entirely misplaced. You say:

    my default stance is that of opposition against [my own] core beliefs—not that I’m always successful there, mind. So unfortunately, that’s what you’re bearing the brunt of right now; if it’s too much, just say the word, and I’ll zip it.

    [No, it’s not too much, and please don’t zip it!]
    Thus: we share a fundamental mistrust of our own beliefs. However, how we address this mistrust is radically different. The way I felt multiple times while debating you is that you didn’t acknowledge the rule of BS, and where using whatever argument you could find to rebuke me. More, you were using known ways, which I already found unconvincing (remember, I’m not trying to convince a possible community, I’m merely trying to figure out whether I should try). Instead, I was hoping you would try to distil what isn’t BS in what I’m saying, get to the core arguments, and tell me if you’re left with something or not. If not, I would hope to get help in seeing why not. This, assuming I’m not misinterpreting you, clearly highlights where we got off the rails.
    Your aim was to help me find ways to rebuke known arguments which we both wish to prove wrong. My aim was to figure out whether I’m making sense, notwithstanding the known fact that, since I’m proposing a philosophical argument, it will always be possible to produce some BS which appears to refute it. It cuts both ways, and it’s of course possible to produce BS to refute some other BS, produce good arguments to refute BS, refute a BS refutation with good argument, but do so in defence of some original BS, etcetera. Thus, the mere fact that I can’t produce what is an unassailable, watertight argument is taken for granted, and finding evidence (your rebuttals) that this is the case provided me with zero new information.
    This explains why I’ve allowed me to show my irritation: I felt we were wasting time, didn’t want to stop trying, and went for the risky strategy of rattling your cage as hard as I could without saying things I didn’t actually believe.

    Right-ho. That’s my summary of what I think is going on. I have no idea if I’m barking at the wrong tree, badly misread you, or not. The questions thus are: does the above describe fairly well what happened? If not, I’ll stand corrected. If it does: what should come next? I confess that I don’t know, in part because I don’t want to keep inferring what may suit your aims, in part because we have adopted different approaches to “test” our own beliefs, and I don’t know if or how we can exploit the differences in a productive way…
    Oh well, if it were easy it wouldn’t be interesting!

    PS all this said taking for granted that you know how grateful I am and that I wish to reciprocate.

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