Monday, April 27, 2009


Polonius: What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet: Words, words, words.
Many years have passed now since my first encounter with the word “epiphenomenon.” I came across the term in studying modern theories of mind. To be sure I’d seen it earlier too, but I’d carelessly assumed that those who used the word, especially in reference to mind, meant “above the phenomenal,” thus separate from, indeed superior to the latter. That meaning seemed legitimate enough because the Greek prefix may be taken as indicating upon, besides, among, on the outside, above, over, and anterior. But later I discovered that the word, as used in the scientific literature, seemed to be understood in quite a different way. Eventually this sent me off to a succession of dictionaries. And I discovered that epiphenomenon actually meant—meaning that it was used by everybody except me—to indicate the very opposite of what I’d understood the word to signify. They meant that mind was a secondary phenomenon—not superior but, to the contrary, inferior, menial, a servant, a non-entity. Indeed, the word meant that mind was entirely the product of an underlying physical phenomenon which caused it. Deeper excursions confirmed this. With that confirmation I placed the word on my personal Index, as it were, and whenever I encountered it used even with vague approval, I would mentally do the sign of the cross, reach for my rabbit’s foot, cross my fingers, and mutter incantations.

Now the other day, perusing one of my favorite blogs, Siris, I came across this passage:

In Toronto I once brought a group of my fellow graduate students almost to tears of laughter by commenting offhand that I thought that anyone who talked much about supervenience ought to be drug out in the street and shot.

That word, supervenience, only served Brandon as a take-off point for an amusing discourse on the way Texans express their frustrations or their pride. And there was more of anthropological interest to those of us beyond the borders of the Lone Star State. After I read the posting, a strange feeling caused me to return to its beginning. I found the word again, stared at it hard, and had the sensation of once more being face-to-face with a small but malevolent something disguised, this time, in Roman garb. I went to Merriam-Webster to find confirmation, and indeed I did. Here was a close relative, at minimum, of my much-loathed epiphenomenon. The definition is “Coming or occurring as something additional, extraneous, or unexpected.” This definition seemed to me, however, to deserve horse-whipping at worst, little more, so I went on to see what the Wise, in this case the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (online) had to say on the subject. Here the first sentence of the article on the subject indeed made me regret that I do not own a gun:

A set of properties A supervenes upon another set B just in case no two things can differ with respect to A-properties without also differing with respect to their B-properties. In slogan form, “there cannot be an A-difference without a B-difference”.

This may be familiar ground for some (say two out of twenty million) but in a humble descendant of a man ennobled by an archduke in the current region of Baden-Württemberg circa 1475 or thereabouts for having been a court-jester of note (I kid not), this sort of thing sets up an urge to crack jokes. But I’ve deteriorated from that lofty status and actually practiced computer coding and such, the menial way of thinking mathematically; thus I plowed on, learned that the vernacular (dictionary) meaning is not to be accepted. I learned that supervenience is a technical term, that it is “proprietary,” meaning that it relates to the properties of things. I went beyond and eventually discovered the following paragraph and nutritious morsel of a quote:

But regardless of how long the notion of supervenience has been around, or who first used the term ‘supervenience’ in its philosophical sense, it is indisputable that Donald Davidson played a key role in bringing the idea to center stage. He introduced the term ‘supervenience’ into contemporary philosophy of mind in the following passage:

Mental characteristics are in some sense dependent, or supervenient, on physical characteristics. Such supervenience might be taken to mean that there cannot be two events exactly alike in all physical respects but differing in some mental respects, or that an object cannot alter in some mental respects without altering in some physical respects (1970, 214).

At last I’d traced the family lineage of this word to my own favorite bête noir. In the process I’d also discovered its home of origin, analytical philosophy, that realm of sentence parsers who, for lack of any meanings to discuss, cavort with grammar instead. Oh, how wonderful it is to discover that those who don’t believe that minds exist except as chemical traces will use so many tricky, tricky words to say what the chemicals are really saying....

Sukie sits back down politely and…here is hoping that…you know, cause I don’t have a clue.
Oh words, words, words, I can never find the words, words, words...
I can never find the words.
[But when I do, Sukie, then I weep.]
Maria Friedman for The Witches of Eastwick


  1. Now you know exactly why I said that they should be 'drug out in the street and shot'!

  2. You've got it, Brandon. I thought so too...

  3. What a fun read! I especially loved the phrase "I found the word again, stared at it hard, and had the sensation of once more being face-to-face with a small but malevolent something disguised, this time, in Roman garb." Delightful.

    However, it is also quite clear to me that those chemicals in my brain are vibrating and interacting at a low level than they might...