The Swedish Fish: Chapter 13: Which Pill Will You Choose? The Red or the Blue?
Our friend Sheridan, the quintessential atheist, posits that consciousness is a byproduct of neurons firing in the brain, like smoke is a byproduct of fire burning. Randal informs his atheist friend that epiphenomenalism isn’t so simple, and that it’s greatly complicated by “free will.”
Before I get into chapter fourteen, “The Pastry I Freely Choose,” and Randal’s discussion on free will, let us just take a moment to reflect on the fact that traditional epiphenomenalism has largely been rejected. The theory of mind and along with it the modern branches of cognitive science, including neuroscience, have mainly evolved out of our desire to tackle and answer this question. Meanwhile, free will is still nowhere near a given. At best, the existence of free will is still an open-ended debate.
Furthermore, it could be that both positions are mistaken, as the philosopher Daniel Dennett has cautioned in his book Consciousness Explained, that both ideas of epiphenomenalism (i.e., the belief that mental events are completely dependent on physical functions and, so, have no independent existence or causal efficacy) and qualia (i.e., a term used in philosophy to refer to the intrinsic nature of individual instances of subjective, conscious experience, such as beholding the redness of a sunset) may simply be category mistakes. He rejects them on the same grounds that the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle rejected the Cartesian “ghost in the machine.”
Randal’s mistake seems to be a continuation of the category mistake he seemingly made earlier where he holds that understanding how a thing functions and the utilization of a thing’s function are the same. As the car analogy showed in the previous chapter, understanding how a car engine works doesn’t necessarily equate to knowing how to drive a car. Once again, it seems that Randal is either unfamiliar with functionalism, or he just doesn’t want to acknowledge it here because it would act as a defeater to his premise about the mind and soul being independent of the body.
Functionalism, or more specifically, homunculi functionalism, is the idea that an intelligent system, or mind, may be thought of as the result of a number of sub-systems performing more simple tasks in coordination with each other. The subsystems may be envisaged as homunculi, or small, relatively unintelligent agents. The example often used in comparison is a digital computer, where a battery of switches each capable of only one binary response (on or off) can make up a machine that can play chess, compete on the game show Jeopardy, and perform other complex functions.
Randal turns our attention to Dr. Ferry, who enters the coffee shop and orders a cinnamon bun. Randal goes on to say that we cannot account for Dr. Ferry’s desire for the cinnamon bun, and adds that all the firing of neurons and motor functions amount to is the action of achieving the goal of the desire, but do not explain the desire itself. Randal says, “You’ve got to look to Dr. Ferry’s mental intention to order a cinnamon bun because he wanted one.”
Randal is only partially right. Desirism is a burgeoning area where moral philosophy and modern mind theory intersect, and it is still an active area of discussion, but it is my understanding is that there are and always will be numerous physiological triggers such as hunger, or simply having a sweet tooth, along with reactions to certain tastes and smells, our bodies’ reliance on things like caffeine, our level of tolerance to pain, etc. which all impact our everyday desires.
In fact, desire can be manipulated by physical changes in diet. For example, my strict vegan friends have reported that after several years the smell of meat and cheese can become repellent. Things like a juicy cheeseburger, a block of tangy red cheddar, or a nice carbonara pasta which once made one’s mouth water in anticipation can become disgusting turn-offs due to the change in diet and subsequent change in physiology.
Look at people who are lactose intolerant. They may have less of a desire to consume dairy than others since they have an underlying physiology which yields a negative physical response to consumption of dairy products. The same can be said for those who have other food allergies, such as being allergic to nuts.
Right now, this very moment as I write, I desire a Coke. But this has more to do with my body’s addiction to sugar and caffeine than some unmet inclination that wafts around in the ether of some vague, imperceptible metaphysics.
Thus it seems that either desiring to have a glass of milk or a Coke, for example, or not desiring to have a glass of milk or a Coke, depends on pre-existing physiological conditions, such as whether or not you are lactose intolerant or have a sweet tooth.
Regarding Dr. Ferry’s ordering of the cinnamon bun, Randal informs us that
It’s because he wanted a cinnamon bun that a particular pattern of neurons fired, causing his finger to tap the glass. And it’s because he wanted to express this intention that more neurons fired, thereby causing him to vocalize the desire to have one…
Again, this seems to ignore the underlying physiology I mentioned above that gives rise to the craving in the first place. Worse yet, Randal continues to speculate on unknowns which fly in the face of our current scientific understanding. Personally, I don’t think Randal knows what he’s talking about here, and I would take everything he says with a grain of salt (another thing people often find they have an overwhelming desire for).
Referring to his previous comment, Randal asserts, “So that’s two reasons to support the existence of a mind or soul.” And if hasn’t sunk in yet, Randal states it one more time for the record:
First, conscious experience is something more than the activity of the brain. And second, our minds interact in the physical world. This means that we have at least one example of a non-physical substance—mind or soul—that interacts with the physical world.
Notice that in a single sentence Randal has conflated mind and soul to mean basically the same thing. Randal continues:
And if souls can exist and interact with the world then why not think that God could be another non-physical substance that interacts with the world?
If the mind exists as a metaphysical state and not a physical state, this doesn’t prove the soul exists as Christians define a “soul” or a “spirit”. All it means is that the mind doesn’t have a direct physiological or biological reason for existing—that is, it exists apart from the natural world rather than as a part of it. Although this isn’t at all clear, what is clear is that the mere existence of a metaphysically derived mind speaks to nothing about the validity of the Christian concept of a soul.
Another way to look at it would be to consider that if one day we discovered real magic beans with magical properties, it wouldn’t automatically mean that man-eating giants live high above us in cloud cities. But if you were going by Randal’s logic you would be entitled to make that very inference, since according to him discovering a disembodied mind would constitute evidence for things like the soul and God.
Without compelling evidence, however, that’s all that needs to be said on the subject of souls and disembodied minds.
 To learn more about epiphenomenalism and its problems, read about it online at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy at:
 Even nonbelievers are interested in the free will debate. Most recently, the cognitive scientist and philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, who has written extensively on the subject, published his review of the neuroscientist Sam Harris’s book on free will by the same title.
Interestingly enough, these gentlemen take opposing views. You can read their rather lengthy discussion online at:
Sam Harris’s rebuttal to Dennett’s response can be read at:
 Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained, pp. 401-405.
 For more on Functionalism, please feel free to head over to Wikipedia and read the overview: