How in general should I address topics in which the consequences are scary, while maintaining intellectual integrity? …Aren’t philosophers ever in the dilemma of compromising intellectual integrity versus becoming crazy?

This is a rare case where I agree with David Hume, one of my least favorite philosophers. As philosophers (or scientists) we are entrusted with the task of theorizing about the world and to trying to understand it to the best of our abilities. But we should never allow the gaps in our theories to destroy the fabric of our everyday lives.

Human comprehension is limited and subject to flaws, and our best and most sure statements about the nature of the world are doubtlessly inadequate approximations. The irreconcilable results that stem from our favored theories, therefore, are more profitably viewed as indications of problems in the theories or in our understandings of those theories, than as indications of flaws in the nature of the universe itself. In my view, intellectual integrity is more honored than endangered by an honest admission of the limitations on intellectual apprehension –with the caveat that we are then honor-bound to keep working to improve our theories to the point where they do work in the world we live in.

My argumentation for my version of Epiphenomenalism is that if it had been not true, free willed actions would influence the movement of atoms, and the laws of physics & chemistry would not work when it comes to the human body. However, they do work. It does not mean (like some people wrongly think) that the mental states are illusions, but the fact that they are causal is an illusion. I agree that epi…ism has to give an explanation how is consciousness created, and how exactly the illusion o

Your argument contains a fallacy. You are assuming that mental agency, if true, would operate indiscriminately –or at the least, indiscriminately within the confines of the body. In other words, if I concentrate, I should be able to dissolve my hand into its component atoms as easily as I can raise it or lower it, and no one should ever suffer from paralysis, etcetera.

This does not necessarily follow from the idea that mental agency might exist. For example, I can construct a scenario that would account for the given data without leading to that situation.

In general, events on a subatomic level do not create visible effects on the world, because subatomic particles are so tiny an numerous that their effects never aggregate to the point where it becomes a macroscopic causal agent. Even an occurrence as momentous as the decay of a radioactive atom will generally pass unnoticed by the world.

Yet it is possible to create circumstances under which even that single atom’s fate can have an outsized impact. For instance, the decay of a single atom in an armed nuclear bomb creates an explosive chain reaction. Similarly, a Geiger counter, which is designed to measure the decay of single atoms, can be attached to an apparatus that responds to the atom’s decay in a macroscopic way –by killing a cat, in Schr0dinger’s famous example, or less violently, by playing a recorded song, or raising a mechanical arm.

We would call the decay of the atom the causal agent of the death of the cat or the raising of the arm, but that would not imply that the range of agency of the atom was unlimited. The decay of the atom could only create a tightly defined range of macroscopic effects predetermined by the nature of the apparatus.

In theory, human agency could follow an analogous pattern, with the brain taking the place of the Geiger counter and the body being the apparatus that translates the subatomic event into a macroscopic action. In your version of Epiphenomenalism, you admit mental processes, so let us further theorize that a mental process somehow localized in the brain could create subatomic events of the type the brain was optimized to detect. The end result would be that the mental process would indeed have macroscopic agency, but only though the well-defined channels created by the combined apparatus of the body and the brain.

I’m not claiming that this is in fact the mechanism at work, but it demonstrates the inadvisability of supporting a belief in Epiphenomenalism through the argument you outlined.

ntI believe that epiphenomenalism is true. (Mental causation is unscientific). I also believe that if it is true, then there is no basis for morality. (You cannot blame physical causes… ) How should I explore this and similar questions – not compromising NEITHER intellectual honesty nor sanity?

Let’s clarify our terms here. Epiphenomenalism is the belief that mental experiences of choice and freely willed action are basically illusions. They are the accidental side effects of purely physical events and cannot be the source of any action or event. In other words, I may believe that I am choosing to type these words now appearing on the screen, but in fact, the words are being created by a complex set of physical/chemical reactions –I merely think that I have the freedom to type whatever I wish.

It would be a mistake to call this view scientific in the first place; since it rejects, without adequate explanation, a large pool of data –that being your own subjective experience of mental agency. It may be true that you cannot prove that the people you see around you are not cleverly designed automata that merely appear to have internal mental states. I feel safe in assuming, however, that you do experience yourself as possessing both consciousness and will. Before rejecting that experience, you would need a theory that adequately explains why certain configurations of atoms (people) appear to behave as though they have mental states, and furthermore why you personally experience some phenomena, such as the movement of your arms and legs as under your control, and others, such as the weather or the movements of other human beings, as impervious to your will (in other words: if your sense of agency is an illusion, and you are merely an observer of all things, then why does that feeling of control or perception of agency extend only to some of the many things you observe?).

Epiphenomenalism provides no such explanation, rather, it amounts to a blanket statement of belief (or rather, disbelief) on the subject of mental agency. In fact, the situation is even worse, since if epiphenomenalism were true, it could not be proved in any meaningful sense, give that the demonstration of proof would be (in that case) as empty as any other mental illusion.

Given this, one practical solution to your dilemma would be to adopt a version of Pascal’s wager, as follows: If, on the one hand, epiphenomenalism is true, then your beliefs and actions will be determined by events beyond your control. In that situation, your decision to believe in epiphenomenalism and behave accordingly will be equally as meaningless and predetermined as your decision to reject epiphenomenalism. On the other hand, if epiphenomenalism is untrue, or simply flawed in ways we do not currently understand, then your decisions and actions do have validity, and potentially make a significant difference in the world. Therefore, you are justified in acting and behaving as though epiphenomenalism is false –if you can! –no matter what the true state of affairs.

Although epiphenomenalism is a relatively new philosophical position, it raises issues similar to those faced by anyone who believes that the universe is deterministic in one way or another, whether that be because the physical trajectories of the subatomic particles are held to be predictable and unalterable, or because the story of life is held to have been prewritten in indelible ink in God’s diary. In each scenario, however, my answer would be the same. Whether or not we live in a way that is fated, the only option that makes sense is to live as though our freedoms of choice were momentous and absolute.

My sense, however, is that your real question is how to reconcile your belief that we live in a fundamentally physical universe with your sense that mental or metaphysical entities such as values and ideals do make a difference, I would suggest that you look into “Emergentism,”  the idea that irreducibly complex behaviors can arise from simple foundations –as in the mathematical phenomenon of fractal geometry. From that standpoint, it is reasonable to hypothesize that a mental phenomenon such as consciousness might emerge from a purely physical ground, yet not be reducible to something understandable in a purely physical framework; and even that a higher-order pattern (consciousness) could influence a lower-order pattern (physical matter) through the kinds of complex feedback loops that are ubiquitous in chaotic and emergent systems (rather than through “mysterious energy”
or whatever other non-scientific channel of causation you fear embracing mental states would commit you to).

Furthermore, if we take ourselves to be patterns of emergent complexity, there is in fact an underlying foundation for morality that attaches to that conception, to the effect that some choices –the ones that allow us to live in harmony with other complex patterns –are positive in that they increase the amount of complex order in the world, while others –the ones that destroy –are negative.

Hi. If something is objectively true, does it have to fall within the realm of science, and does the fact that something does not fall within the realm of science prove its relativism? (Examples – art and ethics)

This is a great question. Unfortunately, the answer is surprisingly controversial and complex:

The first challenge is figuring out what “objectively true” means. Most –but not all!– people believe there is a universe “out there” that has characteristics which are independent of any particular person’s observations or perceptions. This is a position generally known in philosophy as “Realism.”

To find out if you are a “Realist”, try this thought experiment: Imagine you personally do not exist, and furthermore that other people don’t exist, and in fact, that there is no intelligent life in the universe. Do things such as stars and planets still exist? Does a proton still have the same mass? Does water on earth still freeze at zero degrees Celsius? If you think so, you are a Realist.

The majority of people, even if they aren’t sure that the things that exist actually have the forms and the nature that we think they do, believe that something exists objectively –which is to say, independent of any given subject. Unfortunately, this is impossible to “prove”, given that each of us is imprisoned, so to speak, inside our own experience. There is no way for me to show incontrovertibly that there is anything independent of my own personal experience.

In addition, Realism by itself doesn’t actually tell us as much as you might think –it says something exists beyond our perceptions, but not what that something is. If, however, you believe that the world is more-or-less the way it appears to be, then you are not just a Realist, you are a “Naturalist”, or a “Realist about Perceptions”. In other words, you think the familiar world of trees, sky, earth, stars, moon, sun, etcetera, exists generally the way it seems to.

This seems like a natural (no pun intended) step, but it runs into some problems. One is that it is vulnerable to the possibility explored in the “Matrix” movies that your perception of the world and all its objects are generated by causes quite different than the seeming ones –in the case of the Matrix, a computer, in the case of Descartes’ similar hypothesis, an malicious demon. It may seem far-fetched, but it gains plausibility when we think of how easily our perceptions can be shifted –a set of rose-colored glasses makes everything look pink, just as being told that a student is smart can change our perceptions of his or her classwork.

This leads us at long last to the starting point of your question. In general, scientists replace “Naive Naturalism”, the thought that the world is just as we perceive it, with “Scientific Naturalism”. In scientific naturalism, it is accepted that objects may have a “real existence” very different from our perceptions –for instance, who would guess that fire and water are both made of the exact same building blocks of electrons, protons and neutrons? The claim is made, however, that objective reality relates to our perceptions of it in orderly, rule-governed and consistent ways, and that those relationships can be discovered through the use of the scientific method.

The scientific method is not the only way of discovering truths or “Truths” about the world, but it does have many practical advantages, including the fact that the things it discovers are, by definition, reliable (they will work the same way each time) and fit into a general schema that fits together with all the other scientific truths.

If we take your question at face value, “If something is objectively true, does it have to fall within the realm of science?” the answer is no. Assuming we take a Realist stance, and agree that there ARE things that are objectively true out there, it is clear that some of those true things will be outside the realm of what science can tell us now –whether or not there is intelligent life on other planets, for example –and even that some of it might forever be outside the realm of what science can demonstrate.

I think what you really mean, however, is “does a proposition have to be tested by the scientific method in order to be a valid and reliable piece of knowledge?” That’s not a question that itself has an objective or uncontroversial answer. For example, we might say that there could be other methods –substantially different from our current science –that would give reliable answers. Would we consider those methods “scientific” because they were reliable? In that case, all we mean by “scientific” is “reliable”. But we can’t disprove that other such methods might exist –after all, much of what we consider as good science today would have been alien to scientists of the past.

Another counterclaim is that there are other non-methodical sources of truth. A religious person (such as myself) might be comfortable with the claim that religious revelation provides a source of truths that are equally or exceedingly “objective” as the truths verified by science, while a non-religious person would reject that claim.

As far as the second part of your question, what about things such as art and ethics? Are they intrinsically relativist, which is to say, are they irreducibly dependent on subjective and personal beliefs or characteristics that do not generalize?

On the one hand, we should keep in mind the fact that it might be possible that a “science” of art or ethics could be someday created, which is to say, that we could figure out ways to make statements about those fields that are as testable and reliable as those about fields such as physics and chemistry. In my opinion, however, that would first require not just a different understanding of art and ethics, but also a different understanding of science. Previous attempts to make a science out of such things have generally focused on reducing them to purely material terms, and have not resulted in any notable successes.

This brings up a final issue raised by your question. Do we live in a universe where everything is best explained in purely material terms –i.e. as the extended ramifications of the trajectories of protons, electrons, neutrons and other particles, or even in a universe where everything is capable of being explained in such terms? There are quite a large number of people who would endorse not merely the second statement but also to the first (please notice the differences!). But it should be made clear, such a statement is essentially a declaration of faith. It is not an independently provable proposition, and it is capable of being wrong.

Let me thus rephrase your questions: “Given the current state of human knowledge, is the scientific method the only widely accepted, internally consistent, controllable and reliable way of constructing new knowledge; and do fields such as art and ethics currently fall outside the realm of what science has thus far proven itself to be capable of considering successfully?” The answer to that question is a highly qualified “yes”.