Agent causation, functional explanation, and epiphenomenal engines: Can conscious mental events be causally efficacious?

Journal of Mind and Behavior 24 (2):197-228 (2003)
Agent causation presupposes that actions are behaviors under the causal control of the agent’s mental states, its beliefs and desires. Here the idea of conscious causation in causal explanations of actions is examined, specifically, actions said to be the result of conscious efforts. Causal–functionalist theories of consciousness purport to be naturalistic accounts of the causal efficacy of consciousness. Flanagan argues that his causal–functionalist theory of consciousness satisfies naturalistic constraints on causation and that his causal efficacy thesis is compatible with results of Libet’s experiments on conscious causation. First, the notions of conscious effort and conscious causation are analyzed with respect to the project of naturalizing the mind, that is, the attempt to assimilate folk-psychological explanation to the causal model of explanation in the natural sciences. It is argued that a serious obstacle for any naturalist program is that mental states are individuated by their semantic content, not the mechanistic, physical properties of their neural state instantiations. In particular, it is argued that explanation by reference to mental state content yields not a causal but an interpretive or rationalizing account of action in which the question of causal efficacy is irrelevant. Then, Flanagan’s causal–functionalist theory of consciousness is critically assessed; specifically his interpretations of Libet’s negative experimental results on the causal efficacy of consciousness are diagnosed and disputed. It is contended that Flanagan misinterprets the results of Libet’s consciousness experiments and that his functionalist concept of consciousness fails to yield an adequate explanation of the alleged causal efficacy of consciousness. Finally, his thesis is countered with other experimental results that appear to favor an epiphenomenalist view over the causal efficacy account of consciousness
Keywords Agent  Causation  Consciousness  Epiphenomenalism  Mental Event  Metaphysics
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