How strong is the evolutionary argument against epiphenomenalism?

20 January, 2021

Besedin A.
First pub. in: Вестник Томского государственного университета. Философия. Социология. Политология. 2016. № 2(34). С. 32–40.

The article includes three parts: historical background, discussion of the strong version of the argument, and introduction of a moderate version of the argument. The evolutionary argument against epiphenomenalism is often attributed to Herbert Spencer, who allegedly stated it in the second edition of “The principles of psychology” (1870). If so, the argument appeared before formulating the thesis of epiphenomenalism by Thomas Huxley in his article “On the Hypothesis that Animals Are Automata, and Its History” (1874). The first classical statement of the argument is attributed to William James (1879). George Romanes could invent this argument independently of James in 1882. In Russia the argument was known as early as in 1889, when Lev Lopatin explicated it in his work “The Question of Free Will”. Most probably, Russian philosophers got acquainted with it through the works of their German colleagues.

Epipheomenalism is a theory that denies any causal efficiency of consciousness. James has formulated the strong version of the argument, which starts with an observation of the connection of the conscious states and behavior, and proceeds to the conclusion that consciousness is an evolutionary important feature of human species, hence consciousness is causally efficient, and epiphenomenalism is false. This argument is built on a supposition that conscious is important for the natural selection, which must be empirically based. But epiphenomenalists show, that it cannot be empirically demonstrated. The strong version of the argument is unsound. The thesis of evolutionary importance of consciousness is, at least, trustworthy, but epiphenomenalists sacrifice it in favor of another important principle: the principle of causal closure. The price is the isolation of epiphenomenalism from the theory of evolution – a crucial part of modern biology. But it is possible to unite both principles in the scope of one theory. For example, it could be Vadim Vasyliev’s local interactionism. This is the moderate version of the evolutionary argument: any theory, which includes both thesis of evolutionary importance of consciousness and thesis of causal closure is more preferable than epiphenomenalism.

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