You are on page 1of 6

WHY QUALIA ARE NOT EPIPHENOMENAL

Hans Muller
Abstract
In this article, I give an original objection to Frank Jacksons argu-
ment for the conclusion that the subjective, felt properties of expe-
rience are causally inert. I show that the very act of asserting the
existence of these properties undermines the claim that they are
epiphenomenal. If this objection goes through, it is fatal to the
argument in question.
1
It has now been more than twenty years since Frank Jackson
famously argued that mental properties, though real, are causally
inert with respect to the physical world. In this essay I argue that
the very act of arguing for the existence of qualia immediately
undermines the claim that they are not the causes of physical
effects. That is, the assertion at issue, whether verbal or written, is
behaviour and behaviour is a physical phenomenon. And this
behaviour has no other cause than the subjective, felt property:
i.e., the supposedly causally impotent quale.
In Epiphenomenal Qualia Jackson explicitly defends two
theses about the relationship between qualia and the physical
world: (1) [I]t is possible to hold that certain properties of mental
states, namely those I called qualia, are such that their possession
or absence makes no difference to the physical world, and (2)
[T]he instantiation of qualia makes a difference to other mental
states though not to anything physical.
2
I argue that both of these
theses are falsied by Jacksons claim that he has those experi-
ences which he calls qualia.
Jackson does consider three reasons that others have given for
thinking that qualia must be causally efcacious, but his argu-
ments against those reasons do not address the point I am making
here: namely, that the introspective (mental) act of noticing the
reality of the experience of the quale is in fact the cause of the
behaviour of asserting I just experienced a quale or, more gen-
1
Thanks to an anonymous referee for comments.
2
See Frank Jackson, Epiphenomenal Qualia, Philosophical Quarterly, 32 (1982), p. 133.
2008 The Author
Journal compilation 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
Ratio (new series) XXI 1 March 2008 00340006
erally, Qualia exist. In what follows I will examine Jacksons three
attempts to argue away the intuition that qualia are causally ef-
cacious and I will show that none of those arguments meets my
objection.
Jackson describes the rst reason for believing that qualia are
not causally inert this way: It is supposed to be just obvious that
the hurtfulness of pain is partly responsible for the subject seeking
to avoid pain, saying it hurts and so on. Jacksons response is to
argue, The hypothesis that A causes B can be overturned by an
over-arching theory which shows the two as distinct effects of a
common underlying causal process. The idea is that some physi-
cal state or process presumably in the nervous system and brain
causes both the felt phenomenal aspect of pain (the ouchiness
as Jackson puts it) and the pain-behaviour, say, yelling Ouch!
and pulling away from the cause of the injury. So the supposed
causal connection between the quale (here, the felt pain) and the
behaviour is merely an apparent connection. As Jackson puts it, It
is simply a consequence of the fact that certain happenings in the
brain cause both.
3
It is an ingenious and bravely counter-intuitive move and I was
convinced by it for many years, but it turns out that it doesnt
cover all cases. When Jackson sat down to write Epiphenomenal
Qualia he was, in part, motivated by the fact that he really does
have the subjective feeling of pain he calls a quale. To see why
the above move doesnt meet my objection, consider the counter-
factual case where the underlying brain state causes the pain-
behaviour but not the quale. Our hypothetical subject jumps up
and down and yells Ouch! and quickly moves away from the
source of the injury but feels no pain. If we were to ask him, Did you
feel a pain just then? he would say No. And the fact that his
behaviour would be different in the counterfactual case than it is
in the actual case shows that the quale is causing some behaviour
after all: namely, the verbal report of the subjective experience of
pain or ouchiness.
The second possible reason Jackson considers for believing that
pain qualia are causally efcacious is motivated by a certain under-
standing of how traits are selected for in the process of evolution.
The basic idea is that traits are selected for if they help us survive
and that a trait that is causally impotent with respect to our
3
Jackson, Qualia, p. 133.
86 HANS MULLER
2008 The Author
Journal compilation 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
behaviour would not have evolved because it obviously can do
nothing to help us survive. Jackson plausibly suggests that qualia
might by evolutionary free-riders. That is, the brain state/process
is what kept our ancestors alive long enough to reproduce, while
the qualia are merely extra effects of those brain states. He
deploys the metaphor of the warm and weighty fur coats of polar
bears. One of the two traits warmth is adaptive and was
presumably selected for, while the other trait weightiness is not
adaptive (or perhaps even maladaptive) and thus was not selected
for. The suggestion is that qualia are evolutionary non-adaptive
by-products of the relevant brain processes just as the consider-
able weight of the polar bears coat is an evolutionary by-product
of the coats warmth. Jacksons response is acceptable as far as it
goes, but it does not touch my above point about verbal reports.
The third objection to the view that qualia are causally impo-
tent is based on the problem of other minds and is expressed by
the following question: [H]ow can a persons behaviour provide
any reason for believing he has qualia like mine, or indeed any
qualia at all, unless this behaviour can be regarded as the outcome
of the qualia?
4
Jackson rightfully points out that every account of
the mental faces trouble from the problem of other minds, so this
shouldnt count against his property dualism unless some other
theory decisively solves that problem (not a likely development!).
But the response he does give is a clever one and it is worth
considering whether it can be adapted to meet my objection.
If you read in The Economist that, say, a manned spaceship has
landed on Mars, then you have good reason to expect that News-
week will also report that a manned spaceship has landed on Mars.
Notice that you do not assume that the report in The Economist
caused the report in Newsweek. You merely assume that something
as unprecedented as this will result in reports in most, if not all,
weekly newsmagazines. Jackson suggests something similar might
be going on with our judgment that other people have qualia
like we do. This is plausible enough and, as mentioned above,
demanding a solution to the problem of other minds is too strong
a test for the acceptability of a theory of mind. But once again, this
third argument of Jacksons does not address the objection I have
raised. And I think no argument can.
4
Jackson, Qualia, p. 134.
WHY QUALIA ARE NOT EPIPHENOMENAL 87
2008 The Author
Journal compilation 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
To repeat, my argument is that quite a lot of behaviour is
caused by the felt phenomenal properties of mental states. For
instance, When Frank Jackson sat down to write Epiphenomenal
Qualia, part of his motivation was based on the introspective
activity of paying attention to the fact that pain has a feel. I do not
put this forward as simply an appeal to intuition, my view is
supported by a very straightforward counterfactual argument. If
Jackson had never had the experience of feeling pain (i.e., having
that quale) he would not have written his now famous article in
which he tried to convince the rest of us that qualia are both real
and causally impotent with respect to the physical world. And
none of Jacksons three attempts to argue away the intuition that
qualia are causally effective addresses the striking fact that one
seemingly cannot say, I have qualia and they are causally inert
without falsifying that very claim via the act of asserting it.
I emphasize again that my objection is different from each of
the three addressed by Jackson. At rst glance, one might think
that his response to the rst reason for believing qualia are caus-
ally efcacious might be applicable to my objection. I concede
that Jackson makes a plausible case when he claims that some
pain-behaviour e.g., yelling Ouch! and moving away from the
source of the injury is caused by a completely physical process
in the brain which also causes the quale. In other words, there is
no contradiction in denying the presumed causal connection
between the quale and the behaviour. However, once we start
talking about the quale itself and making arguments in favor of
the conclusion that it does in fact exist but that it causes no
behaviour, we do get a contradiction.
But there may still be room for the epiphenomenalist to make
some moves here. One might argue that my counterfactual case is
simply not possible. I have asked the reader to imagine a case in
which a brain state causes pain-behaviour but not a quale. Perhaps
it can be stipulated, by denition as it were, that if the brain is in
the relevant state, then it causes a quale. In the words of an
anonymous referee, To suggest otherwise is to deny that such a
quale supervenes on the brain state, i.e. to hold that there could
be a mental difference without a corresponding neurological dif-
ference, and that seems implausible. While this objection is quite
clever, it will not help the epiphenomenalists case. To see why, we
need merely note that the epiphenomenalist is already committed
to the purportedly implausible state of affairs. Recall the second
thesis Jackson is defending: [T]he instantiation of qualia makes a
88 HANS MULLER
2008 The Author
Journal compilation 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
difference to other mental states though not to anything physical.
5
Since neurological states and processes are physical states and
processes, the epiphenomenalist following Jackson has the
existence of mental difference without a corresponding neuro-
logical difference right at the center of her account. Indeed, it is
apparently one of the things the argument for causally inert
qualia is supposed to make room for! Part of Jacksons idea here,
I take it, is that since a quale is a potential object of the subjects
introspection, it can give rise to other mental states. If our subject
was an analytic philosopher of mind, such a mental state might
have propositional content along the lines of, Hey, this quale was
more tingly and less shooting than the quale I had when I broke
my toe. One way to think of what I am asking the reader to
imagine is that one of the mental states potentially caused by a
quale has the following content, Hey, this quale is real, so why
dont I write an article arguing for property dualism and against
various forms of reductive materialism. I submit that once our
subject sits down to write such an article, the quale has ceased to
be causally inert with respect to the physical world. So while one
might legitimately complain that there is something peculiar
going on in my counterfactual case, it isnt a feature that is par-
ticular to what I have asked the reader to imagine. It is simply part
of the territory when one takes the possibility of causally inert
subjective mental states seriously. In summary, denying that my
counterfactual case is possible is not a move that the epiphenom-
enalist can use to advance her case.
There is, however, a second line of attack the epiphenomenalist
might take. She might deny that my imagined subject is man-
ifesting real pain-behaviour.
6
In my example, after the subject
jumps around and makes various yipping noises I imagine him
being asked if he felt pain and he, being the honest thought-
experiment-subject that he is, answers No. Since an utterance is
itself behavioural, the epiphenomenalist might well argue that the
subject is not really exhibiting pain-behaviour here at all. Indeed,
it might be claimed that he is exhibiting lack-of-pain-behaviour.
Not so fast is my response to the epiphenomenalist on this point.
I am not arguing that qualia are causally inert. It is the epiphe-
nomenalist who must meet the burden (an onerous one, I would
5
Jackson, Qualia, p. 133. Emphasis in original.
6
This objection was also suggested by the anonymous referee.
WHY QUALIA ARE NOT EPIPHENOMENAL 89
2008 The Author
Journal compilation 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
argue) of making sense of a world in which qualia have the
following four properties: (1) they are real, (2) they have the
capacity to cause other mental states, (3) they are potential objects
of introspection, but (4) they do not have the capacity to contrib-
ute to causing behaviour (because behaviour is physical). The
whole point of my argument is that once we grant properties 13
to qualia, it is not possible to deny them the capacity to cause
behaviour, especially verbal behaviour. It will not do for the
epiphenomenalist to cry foul because the subject in my example is
capable of making accurate assertions based on his reections. If
he were to say Yes when asked if he experienced a quale, then,
I would argue, there simply is no fact of the matter regarding
whether he has a quale or not. And that, I take it, is not a result
the epiphenomenalist would accept. Either qualia, qua the
content of subjective experience, are potential objects of intro-
spection or they are not. If they are, then they will make a differ-
ence to behaviour and hence to the physical world. If they are not,
then they are not real in the sense the epiphenomenalist has said
they are: i.e. they are not the contents of subjective experiences.
Department of Philosophy
American University of Beirut
Beirut 1107 2020 Lebanon
hmuller132000@yahoo.com
90 HANS MULLER
2008 The Author
Journal compilation 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd