Curt J. Ducasse

C. J. Ducasse

(1881-1969), French-born, highly respected Professor of Philosophy at Brown University. Awardee of the Carus Lectures prize (American Philosophical Association). Contributed to the "Journal Information for Philosophy and Phenomenological Research", "Causation", "Immortality" (Edited by Paul Edwards), "Philosophical Dimensions of Parapsychology" (edited by James M. O. Wheatley). Ex-student of Josiah Royce. Pursued a career in philosophy but retained a strong interest in logic - so much so that he took the initiative to create the Association for Symbolic Logic with its Journal of symbolic logic. Among his many important papers on survival are "How the Case of The Search for Bridey Murphy Stands Today" Journal of the ASPR 54: 3-22, and "What Would Constitute Conclusive Evidence of Survival After Death?" Journal of the SPR 41: 401-406. His books included "A Critical Examination of the Belief in Life After Death", "Paranormal Phenomena, Science and Life After Death" (Monograph), "A Philosophical Scrutiny of Religion", "Nature, Mind, And Death", "Truth, Knowledge and Causation", "Philosophy As a Science: Its Matter and Its Method" and "Philosophy of Art".

A Critical Examination of the Belief in a Life After Death - Part 3

Chapter 10: Mind as "Halo Over the Saint"

1. Epiphenomenalism | 2. Metaphorical character of the epiphenomenalistic thesis | 3. Arbitrariness of the epiphenomenalistic contention as to causality between cerebral and mental events

 - Curt J. Ducasse -

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          WHEN A person who has leaned to the purely physicalistic conception of mind sees that it presupposes the absurdity that certain of our words do not denote what we do denote by them, he is likely to adopt in its place the less radically materialist conception which the late ]Professor G. S. Fullerton picturesquely termed the "halo over the saint" theory of the mind's relation to the body.

1. Epiphenomenalism

That theory asserts that mental events have to brain events much the same sort of relation which the saint's traditional halo supposedly has to him: the halo is an automatic effect of his saintliness, but does not itself cause or contribute at all to it. This is the relation which, as between brain events and mental events, is technically termed epiphenomenalism (from the Greek epi = beside, above + phainomai = to appear): the mental events are conceived to be an epiphenomenon of, i.e., a phenomenon beside or above certain of the physical events occurring in the brain; and to be a by-product, and hence an automatic accompaniment, of cerebral activity; but never themselves to cause or affect the latter.

This conception is not, like the radically physicalistic one, open to the charge of absurdity since, unlike the latter, it admits that the term "mental events" denotes events that are other than those denominated "physical" and more specifically "cerebral." Epiphenomenalism is thus not strictly a physicalistic monism. But virtually, i.e., for all practical purposes, it is both a monism. and a physicalistic one, for it holds that the only occurences that ultimately count in determining behavior are bodily ones and therefore physical. And this means that if it were possible to do away altogether with a person's mental states without in any way altering his brain and nervous system, he would go on behaving exactly as usual, and nobody could tell that he no longer had a mind.

Now, obviously, if it is true as epiphenomenalism. asserts that all mental states actually are effects of cerebral states, and also that no mental states could be caused otherwise than directly by cerebral states, then it follows that mental states and activities cannot possibly continue after the life of the brain has ceased.

2. Metaphorical character of the epiphenomenalistic thesis

Let us, however, now examine critically the epiphenomenalistic conception of the body-mind relation.

It is associated chiefly with the names of T. H. Huxley and of Shadworth Hodgson. As defined by the latter, it is the doctrine that "the states of consciousness, the feelings, are effects of the nature, sequence, and combination, of the nerve states, without being themselves causes either of one another or of changes in the nerve states which support them."(1) Huxley, similarly, writes: "It seems to me that in men, as in brutes, there is no proof that any state of consciousness is the cause of change in the motion of the matter of the organism ... our mental conditions are simply the symbols in consciousness of the changes which take place automatically in the organism; and that ... the feeling we call volition is not the cause of a voluntary act, but the symbol of that state of the brain which is the immediate cause of that act."(2)

(1) Theory of Practice, London, Longmans, Green, 1870 Vol. 1:336.
(2) Collected Essays, Appleton, New York, 1893, Vol. 1:244.

In so stating, however, Huxley ignores the fact that symbolizing is not a physical but a psychological relation: That S is a symbol of something T means that consciousness of S in a mind M that is in a state of kind K, regularly causes M to think of T.(3) Other metaphors used by epiphenomenalists to characterize the relation between brain states and states of consciousness are that consciousness is but "a spark thrown off by an engine," or (by Hodgson) "the foam thrown up by and floating on a wave .... a mere foam, aura, or melody arising from the brain, but without reaction upon it."(4)

(3) Cf. the writer's Symbols, Signs, and Signals, Jl. of Symbolic Logic, Vol. 4:41-43, No. 2, June 1939.
(4) Time and Space, London, Longmans Green, 1865, P. 279. The wave-and-foam metaphor is used by Hodgson in this book to characterize a theory of the mind-body relation which he there attacks. But in his Theory of Practice, published five years later, he embraces the (epiphenomenalistic) theory he had attacked in the earlier book, and declares entirely erroneous the "double aspect" theory he had opposed to it there (p. 283). The "wave-and-foam" metaphor is therefore true to the radically epiphenomenalistic conception of the mind-body relation formulated in the passage quoted previously from the later book.

The spark and the foam in these metaphors are indeed by-products in the sense that they do not react - or more strictly, only to a negligibly minute extent - upon their producers. But - and this is the crucial point - they are themselves, like their producers, purely physical; whereas states of consciousness, as we have seen and indeed as maintained by epiphenomenalists, are non-physical events, irreducible to terms of matter and motion. The analogy those metaphors postulate is therefore lacking in the very respect that is essential: If states of consciousness are effects of brain activity, they are not so in the sense in which occurrence of the spark or the foam is an effect of the activity of the machine or of the water under the then existing conditions; for the spark and the foam are fragments of the machine and of the wave, but states of consciousness are not fragments of cerebral tissue.

Hence, if mental events are effects of cerebral events, they are so in the quite different sense that changes in the state of the brain cause changes - modifications, modulations, alterations - in the state of the mind; the mind thus being conceived in as substantive a manner as is the brain itself, i.e., as something likewise capable of a variety of states, and of changes from one to another in response to the action of certain causes.

3. Arbitrariness of the epiphenomenalistic contention as to causality between cerebral and mental events

This brings us to another respect in which the epiphenomenalistic account of the mind-body relation is indefensible, namely, its arbitrariness in asserting that although cerebral events cause mental events, mental events on the contrary never cause cerebral events nor even other mental events.

That assertion is arbitrary because if, as epiphenomenalism contends, causation can occur between events as radically different in kind as, on the one hand, motions of molecules or of other physical particles in the brain and, on the other, mental events, then no theoretical reason remains at all why causation should not be equally possible and should not actually occur in the converse direction; that is, causation of brain events by mental events.

The paradoxical character of the contention that states of consciousness never determine or in the least direct the activities of the body is perhaps most glaring when, as Ruyer points out, one considers on the one hand painful states of consciousness and desire to prevent them and, on the other, man's invention and employment of anaesthetics: "The invention of anaesthetics by man supposes that disagreeable states of consciousness have incited man to seek means to suppress such states of consciousness. If, according to the (epiphenomenalistic) hypothesis, disagreeable consciousness is inefficacious, how, on the one hand, can it originate an action? On the other hand, how can a chain of pure causality (as between brain events) so manage as not to 'become' such as to get accompanied by disagreeable consciousness?'(5)

(5) Raymond Ruyer: Neofinalisme, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris 1952, p. 24.

As a matter of fact, the empirical evidence one has for concluding that occurrence, for example, of the mental event consisting of decision to raise one's arm causes the physical rising of the arm, is of exactly the same form as the empirical evidence one has for concluding - as the epiphenomenalist so readily does - that the physical event consisting of burning the skin, - or, more directly, the brain event thereby induced - causes the mental event called pain. If either the conception of causality which the so-called "method" of Single Difference defines, or the regularity-of-sequence conception of causality, warrants the latter conclusion, then, since the one or the other is likewise the conception of causality through which the former conclusion is reached, that conclusion is equally warranted.

On the other hand. if the supposition that a volition or idea or other mental event can push or pull or somehow otherwise move a physical molecule were rejected, either on the ground of its being absurd or on the ground that it would constitute a violation of the principle of the conservation of energy, then the supposition that motion of a physical molecule in the brain can cause a mental, i.e., a non-physical event, would have to be rejected also, since it would involve the converse absurdity or would involve violation of that same principle.

Again, if it is argued that mutilations of the brain, whether experimental or accidental, are known to cause alterations of specific kinds in the mental states and activities connected with that brain, it must then be pointed out that, as psychosomatic medicine now recognizes, mental states of certain kinds generate corresponding somatic defects; so that here too causation is sometimes from mind to body, as well as sometimes from body to mind.

The preceding considerations, then, make amply evident that the epiphenomenalistic theory of the relation between body and mind is altogether arbitrary in holding that causation as between brain and mind is always from brain to mind and never from mind to brain.

Furthermore, it is arbitrary also in holding that all mental states are effects of brain states; for this is not known, but only that some mental states - of which sensations are the most obvious examples - are so. Moreover, observation, as distinguished from epiphenomenalistic dogma, testifies that, in any case of association of ideas, occurrence of the first is what causes occurrence of the second. Nor do we know that mental states of certain kinds, which normally have physical causes, might not - although perhaps with more or less different specific content - be caused otherwise than physically. This possibility is suggested by the occurrence of visions, apparitions, dreams, and other forms of hallucination; for in all such cases mental states indistinguishable at the time from sensations are caused somehow otherwise than, as normally, by stimulation of the sense organs.(6) That even then those states are always and wholly effects of cerebral states is not a matter of knowledge but only of faithfully epiphenomenalistic speculative extrapolation.

(6) See, for instance, the remarkable case of a waking hallucination reported in Vol. XVIII of the Proc. of the Society for Psychical Research, pp. 308-322.

Moreover, if the capacity of mescalin or of lysergic acid diethylamide to induce hallucinations by physical means should be cited, the comment would then have to be that what needs to be accounted for is not only that hallucinations then occur, but also what specifically their content - which in fact varies greatly - happens to be. That is, do these drugs cause what they cause one to see in a sense comparable to that in which a painter's action causes the picture he paints and sees; or, on the contrary, do they cause one only to see what one then sees, in a manner analogous to that in which the raising of the blind of a window on a train causes a passenger in the train to see the landscape which happens to be outside at the time?

These remarks are not offered as an argument that, since we do not know that the specific content of hallucinations has cerebral causes, therefore probably its causes are non-cerebral; for so to argue would be to become guilty of the fallacy argumentum ad ignorantiam. They are offered only to underline that this very fallacy infects the contention that, if, as in fact is the case we do not know that only some mental states are cerebrally caused, then probably all of them are so caused.

That all mental states have exclusively cerebral causes is thus only postulated; and - notwithstanding the contrary empirical evidence we cited - postulated only out of pious wish to have an at least virtual physicalistic monism, since a strict physicalistic one is ruled out by the absurdity pointed out in Ch. VIII, which it involves. What the epiphenomenalist does is to erect tacitly into a creed as to the nature of all reality what in fact is only the program of the sciences dedicated to the study of the material world - the program, namely, of explaining in terms of physical causes everything that happens to be capable of being so explained.

The upshot is then that the epiphenomenalistic conception of the relation between brain and mind not only is not known to be true, but even arbitrarily disregards positive empirical facts which appear to invalidate it. Hence the consequence that would follow if that conception were true - namely that no mental activities or experiences can occur after the brain has died - is itself not known to be true. That is, so far as goes anything that epiphenomenalists have shown to the contrary, after-death mental life - at least of certain kinds - remains both a theoretical and an empirical possibility.

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Contents | Preface | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15 | Chapter 16 | Chapter 17 | Chapter 18 | Chapter 19 | Chapter 20 | Chapter 21 | Chapter 22 | Chapter 23 | Chapter 24 | Chapter 25 | Chapter 26

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