Tuesday, June 02, 2009


Ephiphenia was a strange planet. It looked much like Earth in appearance, but it's inhabitants held one majorly different view. The Ephiphens had long before "discovered" that their thoughts did not affect their actions. They were convinced that thoughts were the effects of bodily functions and not the other way around. They explained that although thoughts often preceded actions, there was no causal link between the two. One's body and brain might suggest that the stomach needs food due to bodily alerts and functions, but the thought of going out and eating, is just a consequence not the cause. So is the Ephiphens' claim... are we humans any different? (Source: Ephiphenomenalism was coined by T.H. Huxley, in an 1874 paper, "On the Hypothesis that animals are automata and it's History", republished in Method and Results: Essays by Thomas. H. Huxley)

That's a fundamental question. Are thoughts just byproducts of bodily functions, or are they the ones that drive us? Ephiphenomenalism is a class of dualism (acknowledging both mental and physical states), that ascertains that although mental states exist, they are merely caused by bodily functions and have no influence on the physical states, the body and the world around us. Such a way of thinking minimizes our perception of free will. Many philosophers, most notable being Spinoza, held such a view on the philosophy of the mind, mainly stemming from the belief that our perception of free will is a mirage. He claimed that humans are very much like automata because we are constantly driven by nature's law. In reality, the number of options available to us to exercise free will is quite small. There are societal constraints which we can probably fight against (with the risk of losing acceptance), but there are natural constraints on our body and circumstances that minimize freedom in it's true sense. One can't just fly out, can't abstain from food and other basic needs, and these basic bodily necessities are the one that seem to drive us, and influence our way of living.

Ephiphenomenalism also obviates the need to dwell on, give importance to, and understand consciousness and thoughts. The biggest hole in dualism is the missing link of explanations as to what happens between thoughts and actions. If one did hold the view that thoughts drive us, the basic questions is how are thoughts translated into actions? If there is an abstract space of mental states, how do these non-physical states interact with the physical brain, and how do such thoughts get converted to actions? No one knows. Hence Ephiphenomenalism then comes in as an explanation that dismisses thoughts as mere byproducts, and argues that studying thoughts is a futile process. This is supported by behaviorists like Pavlov, Watson and Skinner who focused on understanding behavioral responses to stimuli, completely bypassing mental states of cognition. But this still doesn't explain the causal link between input stimuli and behavioral response in cases such as computation and problem solving. How do we problem solve? How does rationalism take place? Ephiphenomenalists argue that computation takes place in the level of brain states (as in the case of a computer, wherein computation takes place at the level of physical states of chips and processors).

But anyway, enough of history. This is a chicken-egg problem in itself, which continues to have "empirical proofs" of research on both the supporting and the opposing teams. To me, this view is against rationalist view of thinking. It strips humans from the ability to reason and act on such reason. Most of the problems we encounter are not necessarily driven only by the need to hunt/gather food (and other such known primordial needs), or compute/problem solve by crunching numbers. We form complex opinions, solve problems and make decisions that are novel and unprecedented, and it seems overly simplistic to attribute all of them to neural connections in the brain and other bodily functions. Yet I am also aware that neuroscience is striding confidently with more and more research under it's belt to prove that our actions and thoughts can be linked to neurons. I don't deny that. Obviously if there are cerebral deformities or damages, one can clearly see how mental states, thoughts and actions get affected.

While I do concede that some thoughts can arise out of bodily functions and neural connections, I don't agree that these thoughts cannot interact again with the brain/body to influence actions. This subset of thinking is called "interactionism", wherein one believes there is a constant interaction between the body and the mental states. Where do "will" and "motivation" arise from? When the body is screaming from pain, when the brain is tired and wants to sleep, where does determination and will sprout out of and push the body to perform? Will that be called as the plain effect of adrenaline or dopamine? How do patients with paralysis find the energy to wake up their limbs and motivate themselves to walk again? Can will and motivation also be reduced to physical states in the neurons? And is it our bodily need to ask such epistemological questions and find answers? What is my body gaining out of such thoughts? Surely there are no direct implications of such thoughts. Not today, maybe not tomorrow, but my collective self and my actions in the long run will be influenced by such thoughts through indirect decisions and ways of life. Where do creativity and innovative ideas come from? Is painting a picture a mere result of neurons firing away and due to excessive chemicals of a certain kind? Surely there has to be some sort of interaction between thoughts and such actions...

In the end, both realms of theories are not decidedly proven; each theory has been multiplying into trickles of sub-classes, each combining a little bit of both theories and adding a slightly different view. We have a long way to go to scientifically prove/disprove all the hypotheses. While it's indeed hard to study an abstract non-physical entity, dismissing it altogether cannot be a solution. Do you believe in your thoughts influencing you?

No comments: