Matter, Intentionality, Epiphenomenalism and the Interaction Problem

What is matter?

There are at least three approaches to answering this question.



The mechanistic-cum-atomistic view of matter is probably the best known and most popular view of matter today and can basically be summed whereby matter can be described as:

1) Homogeneous and of the same nature and only distinguished by quantitative differences of size, shape, mass, spin, tension (string theory) and motion.
2) Having no intrinsic finality or goal-directedness.
3) At the fundamental level has no conscious activity.
4) In ancient Greek atomism there are two fundamental principles, atoms (Greek = átomos) and the void. These are analogous to todays “fundamental particles” and “empty space-time” respectively.

All change is described in terms of the arrangement and rearrangement of these fundamental particles.


For Aristotle matter was the underlying principle of change and change was the reduction of potentiality to actuality. The concepts of potentiality and actuality together with prime matter and substantial form are central to Aristotle’s view. Substances according to this view are composites of potentiality and actuality, prime matter and substantial form.

Prime matter according to this view:
1) Is pure potentiality. It is something that can be transformed by an actualizing principle into anything which nature allows.
2) Is wholly indeterminate substrate underlying change.
3) Itself does not undergo change.
4) Has no form.
5) Is the closest there is to nothingness without being nothingness.
6) Is a state of being without form, and since science deals with substances and all substances have a substantial form, this state is impossible to achieve experimentally.
7) Cannot actualize itself since it has no actuality, it is only actualized by something actual.

All change is described as the reduction of potentiality to actuality by something actual.


The Panpsychist view can be argued to be compatible with either of the above to views with at least one feature that differs and it is related to the conscious activity of matter. For the panpsychist, at the fundamental level, matter has some sort of mental activity or the underlying something that makes up “matter” has a mental element or a conscious element to it. One view that is compatible with panpsychism is the view supported by Stuart Hamerhoff and his model for what consciousness exactly is. See for example the “Orch OR” model for consciousness.

All three of these views are metaphysical and philosophical views. There is no way to empirically verify which one is correct. However, the logical and metaphysical arguments for each of these views can only be successful if the overall metaphysical view is coherent and interprets the facts logically and consistently.

So let’s now look at the following premises and see what logical consequences it would lead to:

1) Mechanism-cum-atomism is true
2) Intentionality is real

Mechanism-cum-atomism vs Intentionality

What is intentionality?

The term “intentionality” derives from the the Latin term, intendere, which means “to point (at)” or “to aim (at)”. The term is used to refer to the capacity of brain states “to point” or to be about, or to stand for or aim at or to be directed at something beyond itself.

Your brain state of perceiving  is an example. A brain state cannot just perceive without perceiving something. The brain state of perceiving is directed at something specific. The same goes for goal-directed behaviour such as intending to be friendly or to pick up the trash. A brain state perceiving something refers to something beyond itself that may or may not exist and it is an intrinsic feature of the brain. Intentionality in the context of this discussion can be applied to conscious beings. For example, the the brain states of other animals also have the capacity to perceive or to point at or to direct at objects beyond themselves.

The consequences

If both statements are true then it appears that intentionality cannot be explained in terms of matter.

The following syllogism seems logically supportable:
I) If the brain is wholly composed of matter and brain states are explained in terms of the arrangement and rearrangement of matter.
II) And if matter has no intentionality, intrinsic finality or goal-directedness.
III) Then intentionality cannot be explained in terms of matter.

Intentionality appears to be some sort of epiphenomenon if the mechanistic-cum-atomistic view of matter is true. It seems to be some intrinsic feature of brain states that has no matter. 

 The following three options seem to be available:

A) The mechanistic-cum-atomistic view of matter is false and intentionality is real.
B) Intentionality is not real and
the mechanistic-cum-atomistic view of matter is true.
Intentionality is real and the mechanistic-cum-atomistic view of matter is true but is does not apply to brain states.

Let’s assume C) is true.

This view of matter became prominent during the 16th century with philosophers and mathematicians such as Galileo and Renee Descartes. These problems are not new problems, in fact Descartes had his own solutions to these problems.

Galileo had this view of matter and he saw the universe as one “vast self-contained mathematical machine”. Galileo differentiated between primary and secondary qualities. The forces of nature and the interaction of these mechanical-cum-mathematical entities of the universe were primary qualities. Man’s thoughts, feelings and purposes became secondary qualities as some secondary effect as a result of the mathematical motions of matter. These secondary qualities were also seen as subjective.

Renee Descartes is considered by many as the father of modern philosophy. Descartes too viewed the universe as some mechanical machine made up of matter as described by the mechanistic-cum-atomistic approach.

Now descartes was quite a sharp chap. He was aware that intentionality posed a problem for this view of matter. Following Galileo, Descartes distinguished between primary and secondary qualities. Primary qualities existed in physical bodies as they really are, in other words matter. Descartes labeled this realm “Res extensa“.

Secondary qualities on the other hand belonged to the realm of the mind, such as thinking, willing, perception, imagining, feeling etc. Descartes labeled this realm  Res cognito“. This realm according to Descartes has no physical or mathematically describable extension. To him, these secondary qualities (feeling of sadness, blueness, happiness, pain etc.) do not exist outside our minds and are only caused by motions of matter in our bodies.

For Descartes the true universe of Descartes essentially existed of two completely distinct substances. The Res extensa consisted of the vast mathematical machine extended in space and  Res cognito consised of secondary qualities and these two substances interacted. Descartes essentially solved the the problem that intentionality posed for a mechanistic-cum-atomistic view of matter by inventing  substances that is not composed of any matter. Intentionality was a secondary quality.

All the secondary qualities of a human being were collectively known as the “soul”. This is basically the Cartesian view of the soul.

The Problems with the Cartesian view of the soul

1) The interaction problem

The exact mechanism of just how these two distinct substance interact is a complete mystery. The Res cognito has no mass, size, location or motion and this must somehow interact with the the Res extensa realm.

2) The problem of personal identity

The soul on this view is the identity of the person and the body is just some sort of passanger. Since the soul is completely without mass, size, location or motion, it makes it impossible in principle to ever know that we are dealing with the same soul when we speak to others from day to day. Since a disembodied soul (from Cartesian dualistic view) can exist on its own, it would be impossible to know if some soul just interacted with a different body from day to day. There is nothing that tightly connects the body and the soul from this view. This problem is about explaining how we perceive a person from day to day to actually be the same person and not some other soul interacting with the same body.

3) The problem of knowledge (epistemological)

This is related to the first two problems. If there is not a  tight connection between the body and the soul and they somehow mysteriously interact with each other, it makes it impossible to know whether the two substances exchange true knowledge between the two realms (res extensia vs res cognitans) to the the person.

4)   The problem of specificity

1) Why does intentionality not apply to other states? Why is it not an intrinsic feature of say rocks, atoms, plastic or paper? The reason for the specificity of intentionality appears to be mysterious.

Descartes’ solution to the problem of intentionality seem to raise more problems than it solves. So there appears to to be serious problems with C).

So what if we  accept B)? Intentionality is an illusion or some epiphenomenon that is not real. Does this solution appear rational? Is it possible to perceive that perceiving is an illusion?

Now if we accept B) then it leads to some kind of epiphenomenalism. It is basically a byproduct of brain states. What we perceive as “intentionality” is simply a byproduct of brain states.

Take for example the following scenario:

1) Electrochemical processes (basically the arrangement and rearrangement of matter in your brain) of different brain states causes you to feel hungry.
2) Other electrochemical processes of different brain states causes you to want to prepare food.
3) Still, other electrochemical processes of different brain states causes you to eat the food.

If we accept that B) is true then it follows that your feeling of hunger is an epiphenomenon. When you perceive hunger, it is an epihenomenon of different brain states.

It also follows that there is no causal relationship between your feeling of hunger and your act of preparing the food and eating it since the feeling of hunger, the feeling of wanting to prepare food and feeling of wanting to eat the food are only ephenomenons with no effects on brain states.

So if we accept B) then there appears to be a similar interaction problem to the one we see with Cartesian dualism. There seems to be an interaction problem between:

A) Electrochemical processes of different brain state.
B) The feeling of hunger and wanting to make food and wanting to eat it.
C) The act of making food and eating it.

A causes B and C but B does not cause anything.

So, if we accept B), that is:
Intentionality is not real and the mechanistic-cum-atomistic view of matter is true.

Then the following view follows (in the pic).

Intentionality is an epiphenomenon caused by brain states. Epiphenomena on this view are causally inert, they have no effect on brain states.

Now if it is true that epiphenomenacan have effects on brain states, but then we no longer accept that B) is true. Either A or C seem to follow.

Should we accept A) then?

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