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The Concept of Epiphenomenalism Essay

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Updated: Sep 11th, 2021

Epiphenomenalism is the doctrine that states that mental phenomena are not causal even if they seem so in their appearance or occurrences. This view represents that specific events and states of properties are usually caused by physical elements and they do not interact or correspond with anything which is not physical in nature or intangible in its existence. Therefore according to this if the mind is described as an epiphenomenon, then it exists like that due to the operations of the brain and the properties that the brain might have. However, as per this belief, the mind can’t affect the brain in this context.

Epiphenomenalism is a term from the philosophy of the mind which relates to the opinion by people that physical events and occurrences tend to have mental effects and not the other way round, i.e. the mental properties triggering physical events or occurrences. In this belief, the causal relationship between the two entities of physical and mental is on a single one way which flows from physical to mental and not the other way round.

Consciousness however refers to being aware and is depicted as the state of mind which is composed of subjectivity, self-awareness, ability to perceive things, ability to analyze things and to have sentience through which the person can establish and identify the relationship between the environment and self. Consciousness is often described as the mental faculty which enables us to be aware of the environment as well as our abilities and states relative to our mental capacity. According to consciousness, the flow of information goes from the mental aspect to the physical aspect, which means that consciousness rise due to the interaction of the physical as well as the mental and cognitive of the brain. This definition depicts that the concept of consciousness is almost completely the opposite of the theory about epiphenomenalism.

The automation theory by William James 1980 states that if we were to restrict our perception and view to the physical plane then the phenomena of intellectuality and intelligence would not aptly describe in any context. This requires open boundaries for the description and the analysis of one intelligence and intellectual capacity. Moreover, the mental images that arise in our mind, exist and come up because they cannot exist without the neural system of a human being backing them up. This means that the mental images in our mind need corresponding and related bari events to support them. By employing such techniques the human being can use these mental images to perform memory-based actions and undertake cognitive processes which enable the human being to retain consciousness while performing in-depth analytical decision-making processes which might be consuming much of the person’s mental capacity and intelligence at a moment in time. This also depicts why human beings can be able to multitask themselves and perform multiple actions both physical and mental at the same time.

Psychologists understand the relationship between the physical elements and the mental and neural capability of the human being and how brain events trigger changes n the mental capacity. However, the controversy over here is that the Physiologists refuse to believe in the correlation and the interaction of the human brain and the mental capacity relevant to the fact that the human brain events trigger mental intelligence and events, and not the other way round.

The first-ever self-sufficing nervous system mechanism was proposed by Descartes. He took on animals as his subjects and analyzing the animals’ behavior in context with that of man he was able to identify and put forward that the only differentiating factor between the nervous system of a man and a beast was that the man had the element of consciousness and that he could be rational instead of simply responding to action triggered by the sensory organs.

A doctrine by Clifford was put forward which related to the relationship of the brain and the mental capacity of the human being, which was backed by less refine metaphysical considerations. He stated that “All the evidence that we have goes to show that the physical world gets along entirely by itself, according to practically universal rules…. The train of physical facts between the stimulus sent into the eye, or to any one of our senses, and the exertion which follows it, and the train of physical facts which goes on in the brain, even when there is no stimulus and no exertion, – these are perfectly complete physical trains, and every step is fully accounted for by mechanical conditions…. The two things are on utterly different platforms – the physical facts go along by themselves, and the mental facts go along by themselves. There is a parallelism between them, but there is no interference of one with the other. Again, if anybody says that the will influences matter, the statement is not untrue, but it is nonsense” (James, 1987).

It was also proposed by William James (1987) that to compare consciousness as a function with epiphenomenalism we should first be able to rationalize the changes that take place and should make an effort to comprehend the proposition put forward by Shakespeare in his works. “To comprehend completely the consequences of the dogma so confidently enunciated, one should unflinchingly apply it to the most complicated examples. The movements of our tongues and pens, the flashings of our eyes in conversation, are of course events of a material order, and as such their causal antecedents must be exclusively material. If we knew thoroughly the nervous system of Shakespeare, and as thoroughly all his environing conditions, we should be able to show why at a certain period of his life his hand came to trace on certain sheets of paper those crabbed little black marks which we for shortness’ sake call the manuscript of Hamlet”. (James, 1987).

Another reputed writer and researcher on the issue of consciousness and epiphenomenalism are Mr. Owen Flanagan. He discussed this issue in his work titled ‘Conscious Inessentialism and the Ephiphenominalist Suspicion’. In it, he stated that it is not essential for consciousness to exist as human beings can be able to carry out their cognitive process and operations both consciously as well as without consciousness. This is justified when a person goes into a coma and does not make use of his/her consciousness however he can retain the images and memories of his time spent in the comatose state. Another justification that can be derived from Flanagan’s works is that cognitive thinking and intellectual activities can be performed by a well-programmed artificial system or a robot as ell. However as the Robot does not have the element of consciousness, the fact relevant to tying consciousness along with the cognitive processes as being essential is questioned by Flanagan.

He states in his work, “Consciousness did not have to evolve. It is conceivable that evolutionary processes could have worked to build creatures as efficient and intelligent as we are, even more intelligent without those creatures being subjects of experience. Consciousness is not essential to highly evolved intelligent life. This claim is true and important. However from the fact that consciousness is inessential to highly evolved intelligent life, it does not follow that it is inessential in our particular type of life.” (Flanagan, 1998).

The epiphenomenalism suspicion that is introduced by Flanagan is that suspicion is exiting about this as according to certain characteristics of human action it has been observed that consciousness does exist in humans but it usually plays a very inconsequent and irrelevant role in their lives as they develop and evolve. This is because consciousness leads to the human being getting misled by their consciousness while their mental intelligence and intellectuality is pointing them to the more suited and appropriate decision option.

Flanagan himself refers to the works of William James by the fact that William James describes the presence of consciousness as an unwarranted element that drives the human body. Flanagan describes this theory of James while referring to a steam engine, according to which consciousness is the steam that drives the engines and therefore the whole train on its tracks. Flanagan disagrees and states that it is an unnecessary phenomenon that exists in us humans and with time as the evolution in our species takes place human intelligence will overrule the consciousness making it possible for the human mind to conduct intellectual tasks and use its intelligence without employing the used of consciousness. This is described as the evolution of reflexivity as per the works of Darwin in his evolution theory.


The reasons behind the theory of automation by William James (1987) are that the complex actions both mental and physical that are taken up by the human being are a result of several mechanical systems which are in place and operate to help the individual relate to the brain events with the mental images. Owen Flanagan on the other hand states that consciousness is not relevant and not necessary for a human being to be able to operate his intellectuality and cognitive process through his brain and nervous system.

In reality, our brain is a very complex entity and the workings and mechanisms of this entity have not yet been fully identified till as yet, therefore, it would be feasible and suitable to state that it is essential to have both epiphenomenalisms as well as consciousness to be able to function of the brain and related process efficiently and in a justified manner. Therefore in my personal opinion, it is essential for human beings in the current state we are to employ and use consciousnesses as a function while also considering epiphenomenalism. Even Owen Flanagan states that currently at the stage that we are it is not possible for us to operate our consciousness from our intellectual compatibility and intelligence however in the future it might be possible to do so.


Flanagan, O. ‘Conscious Inessentialism and the Epiphenomenalist Suspicion,’ in Ned Block, Owen Flanagan and Guven Guzeldere (eds.), The Nature of Consciousness: Philosophical Debates (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1998), pp. 357-373.

William, James, (1980), Chapter V – The Automaton Theory.

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