Why the efficacy of consciousness cannot be limited to the mind

by Titus Rivas

In 2003 Hein van Dongen and myself published our paper Exit Epiphenomenalism , the updated English translation of a Spanish original paper , in which we show that the notion of an irreducible and at the same time epiphenomenal consciousness is incoherent. The acknowledgement of the irreducibility of consciousness logically entails the acknowledgement of the efficacy of consciousness. This is because the only justifiable claim of the reality of consciousness must be based upon knowledge of consciousness, which in its turn can only exist if consciousness has an impact upon our cognition.
After the publication of our paper, several readers asked whether this logical consequence of the acceptance of consciousness could be limited to an impact upon the mind.
If so, a partial epiphenomenalism could be sustained and therefore physicalism regarding the physical world as well. In this short paper I will show why the logical implication of (ultimate, i.e. direct or indirect) conscious efficacy cannot be limited to 'internal' psychopsychical causation and must also be extended to psychogenic causation of physical events.

Psychopsychical efficacy
Our paper Exit Epiphenomenalism conclusively established that consciousness must have an impact upon cognitive processes in the mind. If it wouldn’t have such an impact, we wouldn’t be able to know that there are subjective experiences. Apparently, several theorists seem to find the acceptance of such a psychopsychical efficacy of consciousness less problematic than the acceptance of a notion of general efficacy. In our paper we had rejected the position of parallelism, as it implies that the physical world never has any impact upon cognition and therefore becomes entirely unknowable for the mind. Therefore, the position that readers of our paper have proposed is a combination of psychopsychical efficacy with an impact of certain physical processes upon the mind and intraphysical physicalism for the physical world.

Two counter-arguments
There are two arguments against the position that the psychogenic efficacy of consciousness would be limited to the realm of the mind itself. The first of these has already been mentioned in the paper Exit Epiphenomenalism which defends a general efficacy of consciousness (i.e. not limited to the mind).

Intraphysical physicalism makes it impossible to specifically talk and write about consciousness
If consciousness has no (direct or indirect) impact upon physical processes, it becomes impossible to specifically talk or write about consciousness. In other words, we would have personal reasons to believe in the existence of subjective experiences but we would be unable to express those reasons psychomotorically by speach or writing. However, the position of an efficacy of consciousness that would be limited to psychopsychical causation implicitly claims to be a position that can be expressed in words, as otherwise it could not exist within the realm of interpersonal or collective philosophical debates. Therefore, the position of limited efficacy is an incoherent position.

The exclusively somatogenic causation of consciousness is inherently incompatible with psychopsychical efficacy.
Implicitly, the notion of an efficacy of consciousness which would be limited to psychopsychical causation is part of a theory according to which consciousness would be a product of neural processes, i.e. it would be caused by the brain.
At the same time, consciousness would have an impact upon the mind, but not upon the brain. This implies that some processes of the mind would be caused by consciousness, while they would at the same time be the product of neural processes. The problem is that during the mental conceptualisation of consciousness, the supposed neural processes (that would ‘support’ consciousness) or “substrates” cannot themselves be based upon any (direct or indirect) impact of consciousness.
They can never follow the cognitive direction of specific considerations that are part of this specific (psychopsychical) conceptualisation of consciousness. There seem to be two possible escapes.
- Either this psychopsychical process is not specifically supported by specific (computational) neural processes, which goes against the notion of the content of consciousness as something which is always specifically caused by the brain. The problem with this escape is that it is very strange that exclusively psychopsychical conceptualisation would not be specifically supported by neural (computational) processing, whereas all other psychological processes would. Within intraphysical physicalism, there is no way for the brain to notice whether a specifically psychopsychical process takes place, as registration of such a process would entail a psychogenic effect upon brain processes during such a registration (and any psychogenic effect on the physical world is incompatible with intraphysical physicalism). The brain would never ‘know’ when it should specifically (computationally) support mental processes and when it shouldn’t.
- Or consciousness is in fact never influenced by neural processing. Within the theory I discuss here, this is impossible, as it would imply a type of parallellism which entails that we can have no reason to believe in a physical world, whereas the existence of a physical world is a precondition for intraphysical physicalism. Only in the case of ontological idealism is it possible to deny any type of psychophysical and physicopsychical interaction.

The (ultimate) efficacy of consciousness, both intrapsychically and psychophysically is logically entailed by the recognition of the reality of consciousness defined as irreducible, qualitative and subjective awareness.

Titus Rivas
Darrenhof 9
6533 RT Nijmegen
The Netherlands
Titus Rivas, April 2003

This paper was published as a Letter to the Editor in the Journal of Non-Locality and Remote Mental Interactions, Vol. II Nr.2 of July 2003.

In this paper or Exit Epiphenomenalism we haven't explicitly mentioned all recent versions of epiphenomenalism, such as that of Jaegwon Kim, because the apects we've focused on aren't specific for these recent versions. They belong to any form of epiphenomenalism, i.e. to the very essence of the epiphenomenalist position.