Epiphenomalism

It’s not often that one finds someone who embodies an odd philosophical position.  Nobody really is a solipsist (although I think I knew someone once who was).  I’m beginning to think, however, that E.J. Dionne, liberal columnist for the Washington Post, might be an epiphenomenalist, that is, someone who believes the mind has no causal influence on the body, but is merely a byproduct of the brain’s workings.  The epiphenomenalist can merely observe the body doing the things it does, he cannot will the body to do as he wants.  The body does what it wants, then the mind makes up a story explaining why that was what it wanted to do.  In a similar fashion, Dionne observes political changes and viewpoints (even his own) without really intervening.  Here he is yesterday:

The era of the religious right is over. Even absent the rise of urgent
new problems, Americans had already reached a point of exhaustion with
a religious style of politics that was dogmatic, partisan and
ideological.

That style reflected a spirit far too certain of itself and far too
insistent on the moral depravity of its political adversaries. It had
the perverse effect of narrowing the range of issues on which religious
traditions would speak out and thinning our moral discourse. Precisely
because I believe in a strong public role for faith
, I would insist
that it is a great sellout of those traditions to assert that religion
has much to say about abortion and same-sex marriage but little to
teach us about war and peace, social justice and the environment.

I’d have two things to say about that last paragraph.  First, where someone else might say why faith ought to have a strong public role, Dionne uses his believe in faith (odd as that may see) as the explanans–the thing that explains–his position.  This is pure Dionne, of course, where an argument is necessary, he brings an explanation.  Thus his argumentative epiphenomenalism: no one in his world has reasons for her positions, there are in fact only personal or psychological explanations.  These may be in some sense accurate and helpful, but they really belong to something other than political argument.  

Here’s the second point.  People whose faith differs from Dionne’s have a lot to say about war and peace, social justice, and the environment.  It’s just a little different.  Ok it’s a lot different.  It involves Armageddon, dominion, and so forth.  Dionne seems to think it’s wrong.  Perhaps in another column he can argue for that claim.  After all, they argue for theirs. 

2 thoughts on “Epiphenomalism”

  1. I never noticed the connection between the subjunctive and epiphenomenalism, but I think its an interesting point. The subjunctive distances the explainer from the action, like a narration describing one’s own actions with an air of inevitability. The "I" is no longer first-personal, but third-personal, and it becomes unclear who owns (authors?) what:"Precisely
    because I believe in a strong public role for faith
    , I would insist
    that it is a great sellout […]"H.W. Fowler (an intellectual ancestor to Strunk and White): "Subjunctives met with today, outside the few truly living uses, are
    either deliberate revivals by poets for legitimate enough archaic
    effect, or antiquated survivals as in pretentious journalism,
    inflecting their context with dullness, or new arrivals possible only
    in an age to which the grammar of the subjunctive is not natural but
    artificial (Source: Wikipedia)."

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