What is the Neurodiversity Paradigm? Explaining Kuhn’s Theory of Paradigms Through Autism Advocacy Pt.1 The Medical Paradigm

Difficulty Level: 3rd Year Undergraduate, Masters, PhD

  1. Introduction
  2. Background
  3. What is a Paradigm?
  4. Autism as Part of the Medical Paradigm
  5. Scientific Research into Autism Under the Medical Paradigm
  6. Autism and Public Perceptions
  7. Autism Advocacy
  8. Beginning a Paradigm Shift: Kuhn on Anomalies
  9. Initial Anomalies for the Medical Paradigm of Autism
  10. The Medical Paradigm Struggling with Anomalies
  11. The End of the Medical Paradigm?
  12. References/ Further Reading for Series


Society has experienced a significant shift in attitude towards Autism from Autism as a medical disorder to Autism as a part of the Neurodiversity Paradigm. Such attitudes have seen the abandonment of adverts that argue that Autism ‘kidnaps’ children to celebrities embracing their identity such as Fern Brady. However, the media has paid little attention to what is meant by a ‘paradigm’. It is often used incorrectly and explained as merely a set of assumptions. In reality, paradigms refer to a particular philosophical understanding of how science works that was developed by Thomas Kuhn.

This series will explain the shift in understanding Autism through Kuhn’s theory of paradigms. Part one (this part) will explore the old medical paradigm and how Autism fitted into it. Part two will explore how Autism underwent a paradigm shift. Finally, part three will explore how well Kuhn’s theory can accommodate the changing attitudes towards Autism.


Kuhn was a physicist, philosopher and historian in the 20th Century. In 1962, he developed his theory of paradigms in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

The main focus of the book was to reject traditional understandings of scientific development. Until Kuhn’s work, science had been understood as comparable to an uncompleted jigsaw puzzle. The aim of science was to continue to discover new pieces to add to the puzzle until there was a complete picture. Once a correct piece was discovered, it could not be changed. However, Kuhn viewed science more as filling in a crossword, where scientific discoveries are dictated by a set of rules and assumptions.

From this theory, Kuhn created a new explanation for how science develops and with two main areas: paradigms and paradigm shifts. His theory will be illustrated through the example of Autism.

What is a Paradigm?

A key crutch of Kuhn’s theory is the concept of paradigms. Kuhn argued that scientists have a set of assumptions that allow them to communicate with one another. Another term Kuhn used for this was a ‘disciplinary matrix’. These sets of assumptions give scientists a set of fundamentals to work from but also created new problems for them to work on.

Paradigms also work as a way of validating science. What makes good or valid science is how well it fits to the paradigm being used. Science that does not match this paradigm is not held as a valid method of scientific inquiry and is either ignored or attacked. Because of this, all scientists are pulled into the paradigm.

Autism as Part of the Medical Paradigm

The first paradigm that Autism was understood through was the medical paradigm. There are a number of assumptions it holds:

  1. There is only one, objective way for a person to be healthy.
  2. Anyone who does not abide by this is ‘abnormal’ or ‘unhealthy’.
  3. This creates inherent suffering for the individual where the life of the person is a tragedy.
  4.  Such suffering is a result of an inherent deficit that the person possesses.
  5. The person should be treated in order for them to return to the ‘healthy standard’.

These assumptions were applied to Autism. As Autism began to be documented, scientists saw that Autism was a variation of what was traditionally considered normal. As such, scientists assumed that Autistic individuals were unhealthy. They thought of Autism as something that created inherent suffering for the person and a life of tragedy. This was inherent as a result of the person being Autistic. As such, they assumed that Autistic people should be treated in a way that returns them to a healthy standard.

These assumptions permeated every aspect of understanding Autism. Autism is traditionally defined in the DSM, a book dedicated to defining medical disorders. The DSM describes symptoms that a person ‘suffers’ from. These are described in terms of the person being deficient or unhealthy. This includes individuals having ‘obsessive interests’ or ‘struggling to have back and forth’ conversations.

Scientific Research into Autism Under the Medical Paradigm

The medical paradigm influenced how scientific research was planned. For example, the assumption of deficit led scientists to focusing on testing Autistic individuals for deficits. One example of this was looking to demonstrate that Autistic individuals couldn’t experience empathy. A study was thus designed where Autistics and non-Autistics were asked to read a set of non-Autistic facial expressions. Under the method used, it looked like non-Autistics could read facial expressions while Autistic people could. As such, it was concluded that Autistic individuals were deficient in empathy.

The paradigm also created ‘new puzzles’ to be ‘solved’. The paradigm emphasized the need for a cure due to the assumption that Autism inherently involved suffering. As such, science placed emphasis on finding the underlying biological basis for Autism so a cure could be found. Treatments were also generated with the aim of returning Autistic individuals to ‘normal’. In the 1960s, ABA therapy was developed. The aim of it was to punish Autistic individuals for behaviour that was not considered normal and train them to exhibit non-Autistic behaviour. It was believed that this could ‘cure’ Autistic individuals.

Autism and Public Perceptions

The medical paradigm had a significant impact on public perceptions of Autism. It was common for the media to portray Autism as a fate worse than death. For example, in 2007, the New York University Child Study Centre created a series of adverts that were designed to resemble ransom notes. In it, they portrayed that Autism stole children away from their parents. It conveyed the idea that Autism ‘stole normal children’ away from their parents and generated large amounts of suffering.

In 1998, Wakefield wrongly associated vaccines with an increased likelihood of children being Autistic. The media jumped on this. By 2008, it had created a widespread panic that scared parents into not getting their children vaccinated. The panic ended when it was discovered that data was falsified. However, the far deeper problem the panic conveyed was that having an Autistic child was far worse than having a child die of an illness. It promoted the assumption of the medical model that an Autistic child’s life will always be filled with suffering.

Autism Advocacy

The medical paradigm had a significant impact on Autism advocacy. Advocacy was predominantly done by parents who had Autistic children. These individuals, particularly mothers, were blamed for ‘giving their children Autism’ through their upbringing. The assumptions of such blaming emphasised the medical model by assuming that mothers could cause their children to have Autism in the same way they could cause a cold.

 The medical model also caused the belief that Autistic people were not capable of advocacy due to their inherent deficits. As such, they had no authority to speak of their own conditions and weren’t taken seriously. Parents tried their best to emphasise that Autistic people needed to be included within society. However, they also talked about the burden that their Autistic children had on them, the suffering that their Autistic children went through, and that they hoped for a cure.  

Beginning a Paradigm Shift: Kuhn on Anomalies

Kuhn identified that there are times when the assumptions that science uses change. He calls this a ‘paradigm shift’. Kuhn argued that one of the first steps toward a paradigm shift is an anomaly arising. This is a scientific result that cannot be easily explained by the current paradigm. Initially, the paradigm attempts to extend itself or dismiss the result as unscientific to accommodate these anomalies. However, as more and more anomalies arise, the limitations of the paradigm are revealed. It begins to be accepted that there needs to be a change in assumptions.

Science is thrown into crisis. Normal science stops and revolutionary science begins. During this phase, science is no longer focused on puzzle-solving or experiments to prove hypotheses. Instead, there is an intellectual revolution that requires philosophy to generate new assumptions so science can start moving forward again.  

Initial Anomalies for the Medical Paradigm of Autism

One initial anomaly that arose for the medical paradigm of Autism was that more people had Autism than initially thought. At first, Autism was predominantly focused on individuals who could not communicate with their loved ones and were dependent on others for their care. However, it was noticed individuals who could have ‘normal lives’ (do well in education, get married) also exhibited some of the characteristics of autism, such as struggling to make eye contact or having a narrow interest.

Initially, the medical paradigm attempted to accommodate for these anomalies. New parts of the diagnosis were added with the explanation that individuals could be on the ‘milder end of the spectrum’ or have ‘mild Autism’. These people were still viewed as deficient, but less so than the traditional stereotype of an autistic person. Emphasis was placed on the ‘higher-functioning/lower-functioning’ distinction that was first created by Asperges in the 1940s. Autistics were split between those with high intelligence and poor social skills and those who could not look after themselves. These accommodations allowed the medical model to hang on a little longer.

The Medical Paradigm Struggling with Anomalies

Despite the medical models attempts to accommodate this new discovery, it still struggled.  This was because the ability to have a clear distinction between the two was rapidly eroding. For example, individuals who were labelled as ‘low functioning’ as children because they lacked the ability to speak were assumed to be completely ‘deficient’. However, some of these children did go on and were able to speak later in life. Alternative communication devices were also developed. From this, it was clear that these individuals were intelligent. They just didn’t communicate in a way that the rest of society did. As such, the high/low functioning distinction could not be maintained.

These Autistic individuals also presented new challenges to the medical paradigm. It was common for ‘low functioning’ Autistics to be forced into ‘treatment options’ including ABA therapy. Such therapy was forced on those who could not communicate their experiences of the therapy. However, those who eventually could began conveying their overwhelming trauma from the experiences. Some methods went to the extent of using electrocution to punish Autistic individuals for their behaviours. To top this all off, these individuals also knew that ABA did not work: these individuals never became non-Autistic – they were merely traumatised into masking it.

The End of the Medical Paradigm?

The previous section begins to hint at the nail in the coffin for holding on to the medical model: autistic people began speaking about their experiences of Autism. This development was heavily aided by the internet where Autistic individuals found a safe space to discuss their characteristics on their own terms. From their lived experience, Autistic individuals were able to refute that their lives were filled with suffering or that they were inherently deficient.

 One defining point was a speech delivered by Jim Sinclair. In a speech delivered to parents of Autistic children in 1993, Jim Sinclair argued that the tragedy model did not relate to his personal experience of being Autistic. Instead, it was a theory pushed onto Autistic people by society who felt Autistic people were a burden. When Sinclair suffered, it was the result of the oppressive attitudes of society towards Autistic people rather than anything inherent about Autism. He saw Autism as a way of being that could not be separated from him as a person.  

Jim Sinclair is just one example of many Autistic people reporting that their experiences did not align with the tragedy narratives that had been painted by society. This broke the medical paradigm, thrusting science into its current crisis and scientific revolution.

Part Two Coming Soon

I’m the Anomaly To Your Paradigm Neurodiversity Pride 11oz White Ceramic Mug

References/ Further Reading for Series

Aberley, Paul. 1987. “The Concept of Oppression and the Development of a Social Theory of Disability.” Disability, Handicap and Society 2 (1): 5–19.

Bagatell, Nancy. 2010. “From Cure to Community: Transforming Notions of Autism.” Ethos 38 (1): 33–55.

Chapman, Robert. 2017. “Autism Isn’t Just A Medical Diagnosis — It’s A Political Identity.” Medium (blog). January 7, 2017. https://medium.com/@robchapman_90047/autism-isnt-just-a-medical-diagnosis-it-s-a-political-identity-4e877b3e4513.

———. 2019. “Neurodiversity Theory and Its Discontents: Autism, Schizophrenia and the Social Model of Disability.” In The Bloomsbury Companion to Philosophy of Psychiatry, edited by Serife Tekin and Robyn Bluhm. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/bham/detail.action?docID=5589477.

Conine, Daniel E., Sarah C. Campau, and Abigail K. Petronelli. 2022. “LGBTQ+ Conversion Therapy and Applied Behavior Analysis: A Call to Action.” Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis 55 (1): 6–18. https://doi.org/10.1002/jaba.876.

Dein, Kalpana, and Marc Woodbury-Smith. 2010. “Asperger Syndrome and Criminal Behaviour.” Advances in Psychiatric Treatment 16 (1): 37–43. https://doi.org/10.1192/apt.bp.107.005082.

http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Autistic-Self-Advocacy-Network/46477486501. 2011. “Get Involved – Autistic Self Advocacy Network.” Https://Autisticadvocacy.Org/ (blog). May 26, 2011. https://autisticadvocacy.org/get-involved/.

Kapp, Steven K., ed. 2020. Autistic Community and the Neurodiversity Movement: Stories from the Frontline. Singapore: Springer Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-8437-0.

Kay, Schriner, and Richard Scotch. 2001. “Disability and Institutional Change: A Human Variation Perspective on Overcoming Oppression.” Journal of Disability Policy Studies 12 (2).

Milton, Damian. 2018. “The Double Empathy Problem.” National Autistic Society. 2018. https://www.autism.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/professional-practice/double-empathy.

Mukhopadhyay, Tito Rajarshi. 2010. “Five Poems.” Disability Studies Quarterly 30 (1). https://doi.org/10.18061/dsq.v30i1.1192.

NIH. n.d. “Autism Spectrum Disorder.” National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Accessed May 17, 2023. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/autism-spectrum-disorders-asd.

Owren, Thomas, and Trude Stenhammer. 2013. “Neurodiversity: Accepting Autistic Difference: Thomas Owren and Trude Stenhammer Explain Why a More Accepting Attitude towards ‘Autistic’ Needs and Behaviour May Contribute to Better Services.” Learning Disability Practice 16 (4): 32–37. https://doi.org/10.7748/ldp2013.

Pellicano, Elizabeth, and Jacquiline den Houting. 2022. “Annual Research Review: Shifting from ‘Normal Science’ to Neurodiversity in Autism Science.” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 63 (4): 381–96. https://doi.org/10.1111/jcpp.13534.

shitborderlinesdo. n.d. “Shit Borderlines Do.” Tumblr. Tumblr (blog). Accessed April 28, 2023. https://shitborderlinesdo.tumblr.com/post/121319446214/psa-from-the-actual-coiner-of-neurodivergent.

Silberman, Steve. 2015. NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity. Penguin.

silentmiaow, dir. 2007. In My Language. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JnylM1hI2jc.

Sinclair, Jim. 2012. “Don’t Mourn for Us.” Autonomy 1 (1).

Singer, Judy. 2017. Neurodiversity: The Birth of an Idea. Judy Singer.

The Last Leg, dir. 2023. “There’s Not Enough Talk On How Weird Neurotypicals Are” Fern Brady Discusses Autism | The Last Leg. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HaqsScc32nQ.

The Living Philosophy, dir. 2021a. Thomas Kuhn — Paradigms, Incommensurability and Kuhn Loss. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uW5jCyJ2-YE.

———, dir. 2021b. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions – Thomas Kuhn. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C99X-Ye-GB0.

Then & Now, dir. 2020. Thomas Kuhn: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L70T4pQv7P8.

“Thomas S. Kuhn | American Philosopher and Historian | Britannica.” n.d. Britanica. Accessed May 17, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Thomas-S-Kuhn.

Walker, Nick. 2013. “THROW AWAY THE MASTER’S TOOLS: LIBERATING OURSELVES FROM THE PATHOLOGY PARADIGM • NEUROQUEER.” 2013. https://neuroqueer.com/throw-away-the-masters-tools/.

———. 2014. “NEURODIVERSITY: SOME BASIC TERMS & DEFINITIONS • NEUROQUEER.” 2014. https://neuroqueer.com/neurodiversity-terms-and-definitions/.

———. 2016. “AUTISM & THE PATHOLOGY PARADIGM • NEUROQUEER.” 2016. https://neuroqueer.com/autism-and-the-pathology-paradigm/.

Did Descartes Sleep in an Oven? The Evidence for Descartes’s Visions

Difficulty Level: General


  1. Contents
  2. Introduction
  3. And So the Legend Goes
  4. Alleged Impact on Work
  5. What Evidence is There for These Perceptions?
  6. Questions Remaining
    1. Translation Difficulties
    2. Alternative Explanations
    3. Inconsistencies With Later Philosophies
    4. Invented for Other Reasons
  7. References


Imagine a cold November night in 1619. You are a soldier for the Dutch Army during the 30 Years War and stationed in Bavaria. To stay warm, you decide to crawl into an oven. While in there, you receive three visions from God about the underlying truths of the universe. You then go on to write some of the most prominent philosophical texts the world has ever seen and are considered the founding person of rationalism and reason.

This dramatic story is told about the famous French philosopher Rene Descartes.  However, how much of it is just that – a story? With a long and complicated history, there is significant controversy over the factual accuracy of the story. This blogpost explores the legend, the impact it is claimed to have had on Descartes’s work, the evidence we have for the legend and the controversies around the story.

And So the Legend Goes

In his early life, Descartes focused on becoming a lawyer like his father. However, he never actually became one. Descartes felt disillusioned with education and was frustrated (students may relate to this).  He wanted to experience something new so, as part of the ultimate gap year, he decided to join the Dutch army as a volunteer to travel the world.

At the time of Descartes enlistment, it was the 30 Years War and he was stationed in Bavaria. On November 10th, 1619 (Saint Martin’s Eve), he spent a night either in an oven or in a room with an oven to escape the cold. During this night, Descartes experienced three dreams or visions.

In the first perception, Descartes struggled through desperately blowy winds. A person walked past him and acknowledged Descartes but Descartes was distracted by the appearance of a church he knew from his college days. After regaining focus, he then tried to return to the person but the wind blew him towards the church forcibly so he couldn’t seek the person out. Everyone around him seemed unimpacted by the wind. At the church, he met someone he knew. The person gave him a melon and the wind stopped, leading to Descartes waking up.

During the second dream, Descartes believed that the storm of the first dream had returned. The room faded, there was a sudden bang and his head ached. The room then was filled with sparkles before he woke up again.

The final dream consisted of Descartes picking up an encyclopedia and discovering that there was a book of poems inside. One of these poems was Idyll XV by the Roman Poet Ausonius with the first line translating into ‘What road shall I follow in this life?’ An unknown person also presented him with a different poetic verse of Ausonius called ‘Est Et Non.’ The unknown person and the poems disappeared and Descartes was left with an incomplete encyclopaedia as he woke up.

Alleged Impact on Work

It was alleged that Descartes interpreted these dreams in a specific manner. The wind in the first dream represented an evil spirit and that Descartes needed to find unshakable truth. Being pushed towards the church, on the other hand, was God making sure that Descartes fulfilled his destiny. The lightning in the second dream was the truth and reason that came to possess him on that evening and how clear it could be. The encyclopedia in the final dream represented the need to apply scientific methodology to the sciences. Finally, the dreams presented an answer to what Descartes was meant to do with his life; he was meant to unite all of the sciences into one.

The dreams are said to have an inspirational effect on Descartes. It has been argued that Descartes believed that these were visions presented to him by God. He promised to go on a pilgrimage to Italy as he wanted to write all of these down into a manuscript. The piece he ended up writing in the 1620s was called the Olympica and is said to have described the dreams. However, it is also claimed that Descartes changed his mind and wanted to wait until he had more experience until he wrote the manuscripts. The truths from these dreams were thus explored in Descartes’s Discourse on the Method and Meditations on First Philosophy. The Discourse on the Method goes as far as to mention the night when Descartes received these perceptions. 

If the story is true, they had a clear influence on Descartes’s philosophy. Descartes sought to seek unshakable knowledge that could not be doubted. This was to provide a foundation so that knowledge could analytically be built in the same way that mathematical truths could be. Consequently, he developed a method of doubt to find something that was undoubtable. To illustrate this, Descartes used the thought experiment of an evil demon trying to deceive him. He thought that maybe all of our perceptual experiences were just hallucinations produced by this evil demon. With this method, Descartes reached the Cogito – I think, therefore I am. This is the idea that, despite the extensive amount of knowledge we can doubt, we cannot doubt that we exist due to our conscious state.

Descartes is considered one of the founding fathers of modern philosophy within the traditional philosophical canon and one of the most prominent figures in the study of rationalism – a philosophical methodology that relies only on reason to gain knowledge rather than experience or feeling.

What Evidence is There for These Perceptions?

It is easy to see why the story of the visions appeals to people. However, is there any evidence that these visions occurred?

As stated previously, Descartes wrote about these perceptions in the Olympica in 1920 which he wrote in a secret notebook that he had at the time. Upon Descartes’s death, these papers were handed over to a publisher for possible publication. Unfortunately, these documents were not published and eventually lost.

The only other mention of that specific night that Descartes makes is within the Discourse on the Method. He mentions that he spent the entire day in an oven or an oven room. However, he does not make a reference to the dreams. Rather he phrases it in a way that it is an exploration of thought rather than a vision that he received.

Besides Descartes, only two individuals are known to have seen the documents. The first person was Adrien Baillet, a historian who wrote a bibliography on Descartes’s life. It is his book, The Life of Monsieur Descartes that provides the story of the visions that we know today.

The other source is from Gottfried Leibniz. Leibniz made a copy of some parts of the notebook and kept it in his private collection. This was also thought to have been lost until their rediscovery and interpretation by Alexander Foucher de Careil in the Royal Library of Handover in 1859 who provided a French translation of the Latin. This version was very brief and unlikely a copy of the entire thing.

Questions Remaining

With the problems in tracking down the original source, it is no surprise that there is significant debate around the accuracy of the story. In fact, it is only the starting point. Here are further queries historians and philosophers have:

Translation Difficulties

There have been translation difficulties with the remains of the text. The original text was written in Latin and thus required both Latin-to-French and French-to-English translations. Particular focus has been made on the translation of ‘oven.’ Some have held that Descartes slept in a literal oven. However, what is more likely is Descartes slept in a room with an oven in it, as this was common at the time.

Another smaller interpretation point is whether Descartes was given a melon or an apple. Some hold that it is more likely he was given an apple rather than a melon, as it is more in line with the Latin meanings. If so, the interpretations of the dreams that Descartes presents become fuzzier.

Alternative Explanations

If we accept Baillet’s retelling of events, then Descartes believed that these revelations were directly sent from God. However, few people nowadays would believe that what Descartes experienced was a result of a revelation sent from God. Alternative explanations have been sought.

One theory held by Pierre Daniel Huet and others is that the dreams were likely the result of something that Descartes had consumed (such as alcohol or tobacco). It is noted in Baillet’s text that, at the time, November 10th was the Eve of Saint Martin. This was a time where the soldiers were known to drink too much. As a result, the visions could have been the result of Descartes being drunk. Nonetheless, Baillet’s text adamantly argues that Descartes had not consumed any alcohol that evening.

A theory has also been posed that Descartes suffered from some kind of migraine disorder. This is particularly reflected in the second dream, where he closely describes sensations that would be associated with migraine with aura. He is also thought to have had a sinus tumour that could have produced hallucinations. However, hallucinations occurring as part of migraine are rare and the kind of tumour would make it unlikely that Descartes would see hallucinations as a result of one.

Inconsistencies With Later Philosophies

One of the largest controversies is trying to reconcile the tale with Descartes’s philosophies. Later in his career, Descartes rejected the value of dreams and imagination as an authentic source of knowledge in his work as it was not compatible with his rationalistic approach. Even within the Discourse on the Method, Descartes does not mention the dreams but merely states that he had revelations on the night in question.  Thus, historians have been suspicious of whether these dreams genuinely occurred. Even Leibniz, who must have seen the original diary himself, treated the dreams with significant suspicions and is thought to have only written a shortened version of the notes of the Olympica. The only person who really embraced these dreams seems to be Baillet, which will be discussed in the next section.

It should be noted though that the inconsistency between Descartes’s rationalism and his receiving a vision from God is not surprising. Descartes was a staunch religious believer who used his method to argue for the existence of God. While it may not be philosophically consistent, for him to break rationalism and to claim he received knowledge in a vision from God is unsurprising.

Invented for Other Reasons

The final theory that is going to be explored is whether Baillet merely invented the dreams or exaggerated the scenario as a literary technique. It has been noted that the three dreams fit very nicely with the three core tenants of Descartes’s philosophy – applying the scientific method to philosophy, his method of doubt and his need to find the absolute truth. It is possible that either Baillet or Descartes himself merely exaggerated the tales in order to create a better narrative around Descartes’s life.

This would seem true to some level – it would be easy to change ideas that Descartes had to visions from God and there would be an understandable motivation for this. Maybe Descartes merely had dreams about these ideas or he had a revelation while sitting in the room. However, to what extent there was an exaggeration or if the dreams ever existed, we will never know.


Aczel, Amir.D. 2005. Descartes’s Secret Notebook: A True Tale of Mathematics, Mysticism And the Quest to Understand the Universe. New York: Broadway Books.

Baillet, Adrien. 2007. The Life of Monsieur Des Cartes Containing the History of His Philosophy and Works : As Also the Most Remarkable Things That Befell Him during the Whole Course of His Life / Translated from the French by S.R.http://name.umdl.umich.edu/A29412.0001.001.

Bruno, Leonard C., and Lawrence W. Baker. 1999. Math and Mathematicians : The History of Math Discoveries around the World. Detroit, Mich. : U X L. http://archive.org/details/mathmathematicia00brun.

Descartes, René. 1637. “Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences.”

Gabbey, Alan. 2015. “Dreams, Descartes’ Three.” In The Cambridge Descartes Lexicon, edited by Lawrence Nolan, 1st ed., 222–25. Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511894695.087.

Gomez, Susana. 2020. “Enthusiasm and Platonic Furor in the Origins of Cartesian Science: The Olympian Dreams.” Early Science and Medicine 25 (November): 507–35. https://doi.org/10.1163/15733823-00255P04.

Hatfield, Gary. 2018. “René Descartes.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Summer 2018. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2018/entries/descartes/.

Knappily. n.d. “November 10, 1619: Descartes Sees Three Dreams | Knappily.” Knappily – The Knowledge App. Accessed April 21, 2023. http://knappily.com/On%20this%20day/november-10-1619-descartes-sees-three-dreams/5a0683dcc7415d671d130006.

Michele, DeThomas. 2016. “René Descartes Slept in an Oven – Fact or Myth?” Fact / Myth. July 12, 2016. http://factmyth.com/factoids/rene-descartes-slept-in-an-oven/.

Murdoch, Dugald, John Cottingham, René Descartes, and Robert Stoothoff, eds. 1985. “Early Writings.” In The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, 1:1–6. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511805042.003.

Otaiku, Abidemi Idowu. 2018. “Did René Descartes Have Exploding Head Syndrome?” Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine : JCSM : Official Publication of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine 14 (4): 675. https://doi.org/10.5664/jcsm.7068.

Sack, Harald. 2018. “Cogito Ergo Sum – The Philosophy of René Descartes | SciHi Blog.” March 31, 2018. http://scihi.org/cogito-ergo-sum-rene-descartes/.

Tons of Facts. 2018. “30 Interesting And Fun Facts About Rene Descartes – Tons Of Facts.” Tons of Facts. 2018. http://tonsoffacts.com/30-interesting-and-fun-facts-about-rene-descartes/.

Watson, Richard. 2023. “Rene Descartes | Biography, Ideas, Philosophy, ‘I Think, Therefore I Am,’ & Facts | Britannica.” Britanica. 2023. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Rene-Descartes.

What is Lived Experience in the Philosophy of Disability? An Extension of the Overthink Podcast

Difficulty: 3rd Year Undergraduate/Masters/PhD


  1. Contents
  2. Introduction
  3. A History of Disability Rights
  4. Importance of Lived Experience to the Philosophy of Disability
  5. Brief Advert
  6. How has Lived Experience Shaped Disability Activism?
  7. The Lived Experience of Disabled People, Phenomenology and Epistemology
  8. Limitations of Lived Experience within Disability Groups
  9. References/ Further Reading


Lived experience is a buzz word within the philosophy community currently. It has been identified as one of the most important tools for minorities to attack structures that have been used to oppress them in the past. However, there has been little examination of what lived experience is and where it has come from. On their excellent podcast Overthink, Ellie Anderson and David Peña-Guzmán tackle the question of where lived experience came from and the role it plays within philosophical debates (this post is best read after listening to the episode here).

As part of this, Anderson created a graph from the google n-gram tracker that tracks the increased use of lived experience over time:

Ellie Anderson [@ellieanderphd]. 2023. “I’ve Been Hearing the Term ‘Lived Experience.’” Tweet. Twitter. https://twitter.com/ellieanderphd/status/1646179866696642561.

From this graph, the podcast discusses lived experience for women, LGBTQ+ and BAME individuals and how the civil rights movements were influenced by the idea of lived experience. They also track the beginnings of lived experience within phenomenology and epistemology. However, a full picture of lived experience cannot be achieved without studying disability groups, who have a special link to lived experience. This post will thus extend the work of Anderson and Peña-Guzmán, look at the history of disability activism, examine how the philosophy of disability is dependent on lived experience and how it is used in modern disability scholarship.

A History of Disability Rights

The 20th century was particularly transformative for disability rights. It began with three mass disabling events. The First and Second World Wars led to a significant increase in the number of disabled people within society. This was paired with the Spanish Flu Epidemic, which was a similar epidemic to the Covid-19 epidemic but mostly targeted younger adults. As such, there were larger numbers of disabled people at the start of the century.

Despite this, there treatment of disabled people was cruel, particularly with the wide use of eugenics.  Eugenics is a policy that conserves ‘good genetics’ while eliminating ‘bad genetics’ – with disabled people traditionally being placed in the bad genetics category. This was a globally accepted policy until after the Second World War, where the Nazis created the T4 programme that was used to murder 70,000 disabled people in the name of eugenics. Further, society had not made relevant accommodations for these individuals to take part in society.

The struggles of disabled people saw the beginnings of disability activism as early as the 1920s with blind people marching for their rights in the UK. During the 1960s, disability activism gained steam with groups such as the Independent Living Movement that arose in California and was led by university students. Disability activism became even more prominent in the 1990s with the Capitol Crawl Protest in America which protested the delays in passing the Americans with Disabilities Act in America. Wheelchair users got out of their wheelchairs to crawl up the steps of the Capitol building in order to get their message across. This event is now the basis for modern-day Disability Pride.

The graph correlates to these events. The use of lived experience begins at the same time as the mass disabling events in the 1910s and 1930s. It then rises in the 1960s with the establishment of Civil Rights Movements in the 1960s and continues drastically upwards from the 1990s onwards with the Capitol Crawl Protest. But this could be a coincidence. An examination of the philosophy of disability and how it is linked to lived experience is needed.

Importance of Lived Experience to the Philosophy of Disability

As mentioned previously, lived experience is important to all minority groups. However, it has a particular importance to the philosophy of disability.

To understand the link, out-dated models of disability need to be considered. Historically, disability has been defined by how non-disabled people have viewed disabled people. This led to the medical medical model of disability. From the medical viewpoint, non-disabled people saw disabled people as inherently flawed, where any struggles that the disabled person faced was the result of the person themself. As such, non-disabled people determined that the lived experience of disability was a life filled with suffering and tragedy. It was in the interest of disabled people to actively treat disabled people to make them ‘normal’ or, in the case of eugenics and the Nazis, eliminate them.

Such attitudes embedded themselves in the structures of society. Disabled individuals were excluded from decision-making due to the assumption that they didn’t have the cognitive abilities to make decisions for themselves. However, due to disabled people being unable to use their lived experience to inform policy, the policies created were significantly damaging to disabled people, such as the eugenics policies of the Nazis.  

Disability activism has primarily focused on challenging these narratives from lived experience. Disability justice argues that disability is not a tragedy and or always involves the suffering of the person. Instead, disability can be neutral in the way it contributes to quality of life. It can either be positive or negative but is not inherently so. This is known as a value-neutral approach towards disability.

Part of the reasoning for taking a value-neutral approach to disability arises from the social model of disability (developed in the 1960s) and argues that disabled people are not inherently broken but instead are limited by the exclusionary attitudes of society and its structures. For example, a wheelchair user may suffer in a society where there are only stairs. Under a medical model, it would be argued that this makes the wheelchair user disordered. As such, they need to be treated until they can walk again or they are ’defective’. However, the social model instead identifies the problem with the fact that society was designed by non-disabled people and is thus exclusionary. The wheelchair user would be able to move about fine if there were ramps. There is nothing wrong with being a wheelchair user. It is merely a different way of getting around. It is thus society that needs to change, not the person themself.

Consequently, lived experience is key for disabled communities in order to change structures within society but also to challenge incorrect notions of the quality of life disabled individuals have.

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How has Lived Experience Shaped Disability Activism?

The impact of lived experience can be seen as early as the 1920s with the blind marches. One of the mottos for the movement was ‘justice, not charity’. Within this simple idea, we can see the challenging of non-disabled people’s attitudes about the quality of life of blind people. The people marching didn’t view their lives as a tragedy that people should pity them for. However, they did want the accommodations that they deserved. The protests thus represented a demand of disabled people for others to listen to their lived experiences to establish their quality of life.

In the 1990s the ‘nothing about us without us’ slogan was started within disability movements in South Africa but quickly spread to become a global slogan for the disability movement. At the 2007 UN Convention for the Rights of People with Disabilities (one of the first of its kind), the moto was used to demand that the lived experience of disabled people were actively listened to so the stuctures of society could change to accomodate disabled people.

The Lived Experience of Disabled People, Phenomenology and Epistemology

As mentioned in the podcast, lived experience is strongly associated with phenomenology – the study of conscious experience. The podcast goes into more detail, but it is important to note that the existentialists were working at a time where questions about disability were strongly present. Part of the fueling of the existentialists was questions around the world wars and how humanity could come to terms with the aftermath, including greater amounts of disabled people.

Merleau-Ponty can be seen as key to modern disability perspectives as they were integral to the development of embodied cognition – a psychological methodology that holds that ways of thinking are influenced by our physical interections with the environment. Merleau-Ponty even goes as far as to use case studies such as phantom limb syndrome, where a person with a missing limb feels sensations even though they no longer have the limb. To study embodied cognition is to study how different bodies impact cognition and disabled bodies are different to what is considered the ‘norm’.

Phenomenology has thus become an important method for disability studies as a background for individuals to explore their own experiences. For example, Toombs’ (1995) paper The Lived Experience of Disability uses existentialist phenomenology to explore what it is like being a wheelchair user due to multiple sclerosis. He details the new struggles he faces when travelling and how his relationship to space and time have shifted. A more modern defence of the phenomenological method for studying disability is done by Carel (2016) in The Phenomenology of Illness, who has written extensively on breathing and her experiences with lymphangioleiomyomatosis.

This has impacted the study of epistemology. For example, Garland-Thomson (2012) has argued that disabled individuals can offer unique knowledge due to how their different bodies interact with the world and is a valuable resource. Disability has also been examined through the lens of feminist epistemology, including standpoint epistemology. Sprague and Hayes (2000) use the methodology for disability which views the knowledge of disabled individuals as perceptively unique and truer than non-disabled individuals due to the oppression they have suffered.

I should be noted that due caution should be taken with how disability studies and lived experience are understood in relation to philosophies such as feminist epistemology and phenomenology. Sometimes these studies are attributed with developing a philosophy of disability. However, as demonstrated by this post, these ideas have been embedded in disability communities well before more formal philosophies came along. It is important to understand disability studies on their own terms rather than dependent on other philosophies. The relationship is thus two strands being sewn together due to their commonalities rather than the creation of something new.

Limitations of Lived Experience within Disability Groups

As the podcast notes, there are limitations to the use of lived experience to justify arguments within disability justice. As Wendell (1996) argues, the study of disability has the heterogeneity problem. It is difficult to pinpoint a singular unifying factor that unifies disabled people and their experiences. Disability advocacy has often been dominated by individuals who subscribe to the social model. However, there are disability groups who have lived experience that do not align with a socially constructed version of disability. They have the completely opposite experience of those who do. Even for those who do ascribe to a social model, they would not argue that this knowledge is somehow superior knowledge. It is merely different or value-neutral.

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References/ Further Reading

Anderson, Ellie, and David Peña-Guzmán. n.d. “Lived Experience.” Overthink. https://open.spotify.com/episode/0bJyhafHQOrRJ2OLaDaFI1.

Bakewell, Sarah. 2016. At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others. Other Press.

Barnes, Elizabeth. 2016. The Minority Body: A Theory of Disability. Kettering: Oxford University Press.

Carel, Havi. 2016. Phenomenology of Illness. Oxford University Press.

Deegan, Patricia E. 1988. “Recovery: The Lived Experience of Rehabilitation.” Psychosocial Rehabilitation Journal 11 (4): 11–19.

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. 2012. “The Case for Conserving Disability.” Journal of Bioethical Inquiry 9 (September): 339–55. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11673-012-9380-0.

History. 2010. “Spanish Flu – Symptoms, How It Began & Ended.” History.Com. 2010. https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-i/1918-flu-pandemic.

Kaczmar, Dawn. n.d. “Blind Disability Activism: The Blind Marches of the 1920s and 1930s.” Pro Quest.

KIM, SUNTAE, EVAN POLMAN, and JEFFREY SANCHEZ-BURKS. 2012. “Opinion | When Truisms Are True.” The New York Times, February 25, 2012, sec. Opinion. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/26/opinion/sunday/when-truisms-are-true.html.

Little, Becky. 2020. “Activism Behind the Americans with Disabilities Act Included the ‘Capitol Crawl.’” History.Com. July 24, 2020. https://www.history.com/news/americans-with-disabilities-act-1990-capitol-crawl.

Meriah. 2022. “A Short History of the Disability Rights Movement.” Meriah Nichols (blog). April 28, 2022. https://www.meriahnichols.com/a-short-history-of-the-disability-rights-movement/.

National Democratic Institute. 2022. “From ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’ to ‘Nothing Without Us’ | National Democratic Institute.” 2022. https://www.ndi.org/our-stories/nothing-about-us-without-us-nothing-without-us.

Petronis, Caroline. 2023. “Disability Rights Movement | Duke Social Movements.” 2023. https://socialmovements.trinity.duke.edu/movements/disability-rights-movement.

Saxton, Marsha. 2006. “Disability Rights and Selective Abortion.” In The Disability Studies Reader, edited by Lennard J. Davis, 205–115. Routledge.

Shakespeare, Tom. 2006. “The Social Model.” In The Disability Studies Reader, edited by Lennard J. Davis, 197–204. Oxford: Routledge.

Sprague, Joey, and Jeanne Hayes. 2000. “Self-Determination and Empowerment: A Feminist Standpoint Analysis of Talk about Disability. American Journal of Community Psychology, 28(5), 671-695.” American Journal of Community Psychology 28 (November): 671–95. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1005197704441.

Toombs, S. Kay. 1995. “The Lived Experience of Disability.” Human Studies 18 (1): 9–23.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. n.d. “People with Disabilities — United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.” Accessed April 13, 2023. https://www.ushmm.org/collections/bibliography/people-with-disabilities.

Wendell, Susan, and Annette Junemann. 1996. The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability. Florence, UNITED KINGDOM: Taylor & Francis Group. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/bham/detail.action?docID=1111564.

Wilson, Phillip. 2023. “Eugenics | Definition, History, & Facts | Britannica.” March 29, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/science/eugenics-genetics.

Boris Johnson’s Death By A Thousand Qualifications: Anthony Flew’s Falsification and Johnson’s Resignation

Trigger Warning and Content Warning – mentions of sex scandals and sexual assault.  If you have been affected by these issues, you can access Rape Crisis at 0808 802 9999 who help those who have been raped or sexually assaulted.

Difficulty level: A-Level


  1. Contents
  2. Introduction
  3. What is Death by a Thousand Qualifications? Anthony Flew’s Falsification
  4. Religious Application of Flew’s Parable
  5. Johnson’s Death by A Thousand Qualifications
  6. Limitations of Understanding Johnson’s Resignation Through Flew
  7. References


On Thursday 7th June, Boris Johnson finally decided to resign as Prime Minister. For most, this departure was long overdue. The scandals while Johnson was Prime Minister included multiple Tory MPs committing sex crimes, a particularly ugly and expensive refurbishment of Ten Downing Street and Party Gate.  Though being slow to progress, such scandals finally led to the rebellion of the Tory Party itself with both Rishi Sunak (Chancellor) and Sajid Javid (Health Minister) resigning in protest at Johnson appointing a known sex predator to Chief Whip. The frustration of both sides of the House of Commons was summed up by Tim Loughton, a conservative MP, asking if there was any circumstances that would be enough to warrant Johnson’s resignation in Johnson’s eyes. While not realizing it, the sentiment expressed is one of the deep philosophical implications as it suggests Johnson died a death of a thousand qualifications.

What is Death by a Thousand Qualifications? Anthony Flew’s Falsification

The concept of a death by a thousand qualifications was created by Anthony Flew. Flew was a staunch atheist (someone who doesn’t believe in God). He argued that statements made by religious believers (such are ‘God exists’) are meaningless. In order to do this, he used the theory of falsification. This is a test where a statement can only be meaningful if there is some hypothetical method to falsify it. For instance, the statement ‘the cat is on the mat’ is meaningful because it can be proven false if the cat is not in fact on the mat. The statement doesn’t necessarily need to be proven false. Merely, there must be a hypothetical which could be used to falsify it.

To explain the impact of such a theory, Flew used an adapted version of John Wisdom’s Parable of the Invisible Gardener. The Parable focuses on two individuals walking through a jungle and coming across a clearing. The pro-gardener notices that there are flowers and holds that there must be a gardener. The anti-gardener challenges this and states that the gardener is nowhere in sight. The pro-gardener states that this is because the gardener only comes at night. The two decide to camp overnight but there is still no gardener. The pro-gardener then argues it is an invisible gardener so they change tact and get a bloodhound to detect the gardener. The guard dog doesn’t detect anything so the theist argues that the gardener is scentless and sets up an electric fence. There is still no gardener and the pro-gardener argues that there is a gardener but the gardener doesn’t have a physical body. Eventually, the anti-gardener asks what is the difference between a scentless, invisible gardener that only comes by night and cannot be detected by an electric fence and the gardener not existing at all.

What Flew argues here is that the statements of the pro-gardener are meaningless. The reason for this is that the pro-gardener keeps changing or adding the qualifications for their belief. Initially, they believe there is a gardener because of the flowers, but when presented with the fact that they cannot find the gardener they add the qualification that the gardener only comes at night. As more evidence is presented to disprove there is a gardener, more qualifications are added to try and keep the statement meaningful. However, the more evidence that is presented, the further away the person gets from the original meaning of the sentence. Eventually, they add so many qualifications that the original meaning of the statement is lost. Therefore, a death of a thousand qualifications occur.

Religious Application of Flew’s Parable

Flew used this to argue that statements around God are meaningless. The death by a thousand qualifications is paired with the idea of the ‘God of Gaps’. For many of the things we now have a scientific explanation for, God used to be used as the explanation. For instance, before the discovery of germs, illness was seen as a punishment sent by God on an individual. However, as science has developed God has been used to explain fewer things. The amount of things that God can be used for decreases with significant evidence against the religious believer increasing. To accommodate for this, religious believers merely change the scope of what God can be used to explain. However, eventually God can only explain a small number of things and is far different to the initial causal power of God. Flew would argue that the changing of the qualifications has become so significant that God becomes meaningless. God dies a death of a thousand qualifications.

While Flew focused his explanation on God, we can also apply such sentiments to the downfall of Boris Johnson.

Johnson’s Death by A Thousand Qualifications

Boris Johnson’s death by a thousand qualifications has been prominent in a number of his scandals, but most notably Party Gate. This was where a series of parties were held from May 2020 to April 2021 during periods of lockdown. At the time these events were held, it was illegal for any social events to occur. This included funerals, which were, at points, limited to 10 individuals in attendance. The symbolism of this sacrifice can be seen in the Queen sitting on her own during Prince Phillip’s funeral. While the most well-known, it reflected many individuals who were in similar positions, being unable to say goodbye to loved ones and being unable to attend their funerals.

When allegations first arose around Party Gate, Johnson denied that any events had occurred. However, then pictures arose of the gatherings, including one where Johnson and his wife were hosting a group in the back garden of Ten Downing Street. At this point, Johnson argued that the gatherings that were being questioned were work meetings which didn’t break the Covid rules. He decided to authorize a report, dictating that this should be used to decide whether the gatherings were parties or not. When this report was about to be published, he decided to change his mind and that the group that should dictate whether he broke any laws or not was the police. When both of these decided that the gatherings broke the law, he then proceeded to argue that he was not aware that such parties broke the rules.

The actions of Johnson can be seen to reflect the actions of the pro-gardener in Flew’s parable. Johnson kept changing the rules of what would qualify his statement to be false. Each time a challenge was presented (a photo, a report, the police investigation) Johnson merely changed the qualifications for his statement. Eventually, the statement was held to no longer be meaningful by many, including conservative MPs such as Theresa May calling the Prime Minister to resign. Despite this, Johnson continued being Prime Minister.

His final death was in the revelation of Chris Pincher, the Chief Whip of the conservative party, being revealed to be a sexual predator. In this, Johnson argued that he was not aware of previous sexual allegations of Pincher. However, Lord McDonald wrote a letter to Johnson revealing that Johnson did know of previous allegations before appointing Pincher to the role of Chief Whip, including ones from when Pincher worked in the Foreign Office.

At this point, Johnson finally died his death of a thousand qualifications. The statements he made were held to be meaningless by most politicians. Rishi Sunak (the Chancellor) and Sajid Javid (the Health Secretary) resigned on Tuesday 5th July, triggering a rebellion in the Conservative Party. On Wednesday 7th July, Johnson resigned as Prime Minister. 

Limitations of Understanding Johnson’s Resignation Through Flew

For most, the resignation of Johnson went far past that of a death by a thousand qualifications.  It cannot be denied that if Johnson’s resignation was down to how meaningful his words were, he would have resigned a long time ago. Certainly, his death by a thousand qualifications for most occurred after Party Gate. However, politics has never aligned well with morality and the politics of politicians supporting or rebelling against their leader in order to gain political power is beyond this blog.


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BBC News. 2022. “Partygate: A Timeline of the Lockdown Gatherings.” BBC News, May 19, 2022, sec. UK Politics. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-59952395.

Bloom, Dan. 2022. “Damning List of Chris Pincher Claims – and Questions of What Boris Johnson Knew.” Mirror. July 4, 2022. https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/what-boris-johnson-know-chris-27392322.

Channel 4 News. 2022. The Best of Boris Johnson’s Tough PMQs Following Senior Resignations. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lgyp0BRtWlk.

CNN, Ivana Kottasová and Tara Subramaniam. n.d. “Boris Johnson’s Tenure Has Been Defined by Scandal. Here Are Some of the Biggest Ones.” CNN. Accessed July 16, 2022. https://www.cnn.com/2022/07/06/uk/boris-johnson-scandals-intl/index.html.

Encyclopedia. 2019. “God of the Gaps | Encyclopedia.Com.” Encyclopedia. 2019. https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/god-gaps.

Flew, A., R. M. Hare, and B. Mitchell. 1971. “Theology & Falsification: A Symposium.” In The Philosophy of Religion, edited by Basil Mitchell, 7. Oxford Press.

Guardian News. 2022. “The Party’s over”: Keir Starmer Derides Boris Johnson’s Apology at PMQs. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sPtN0VWRJNw.

The Independent. 2021. Boris Johnson Denies Breaking Covid Rules with No 10 Christmas Party. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5C9ZkPDYwDc.

What Do Frogs And Steam Trains Have To Do With The Human Mind? Huxley’s Epiphenomenalism And Mental Causation

Difficulty: A-Level/Undergraduate/Masters


  1. Contents
  2. Introduction
  3. The (Immoral) Science Experiments Of The Victorians
  4. Enter Huxley
  5. Huxley’s Opponent: Mental Causation
  6. Rejecting Common Sense: Enter Epiphenomenalism
  7. Cars, Steam Trains And Epiphenomenalism
  8. No Fans For Epiphenomenalism
  9. References/ Further Reading


The 19th century was an exciting time to be alive. Incredible inventions were being discovered (such as the steam engine) new scientific theories were being developed (such as Darwin’s theory of evolution) and new philosophical positions were being created (such as utilitarianism). The Victorians were also fascinated with carrying out lobotomies and decapitations on innocent frogs. So it was a terrifying time if you were a frog. Or any other animal to be fair. However, while deeply unethical, such experiments led to a new philosophy around how the body and mind interacted. It is not talked about much as a valid philosophical position today, other than as a warning for other positions. That position is epiphenomenalism.

The (Immoral) Science Experiments Of The Victorians

During the 19th century, many scientists became obsessed with carrying out decapitations on frogs and other similar, torturous experiments (always have to love the Victorians for their commitment to animal welfare). However, some interesting observations arose from these experiments. For instance, it was discovered that frogs could swim despite parts of their brains being destroyed.

Comparisons were also drawn to medical cases with humans. For instance, in 1870, a French soldier was observed by Thomas Huxley being able to carry out complex tasks such as reloading a gun despite the soldier having severe brain damage. Some individuals, such as Huxley, argued that neither the frogs nor the soldier were conscious due to the destruction of parts of their brain. However, despite this, both the frogs and soldier were still able to carry out complex tasks. If correct, Huxley believed that this had significant philosophical implications.

Enter Huxley

Huxley was born in 1825 and was a natural scientist. In his younger years, he joined the royal navy and travelled the world studying various different species of animal (again, thoroughly appreciating animal rights). He then went on to be a lecturer in London and was on multiple boards for education. Controversially for the time, he was an ardent defender of Darwin’s theory of evolution, controversial because it was a significant challenge to the church who was the main body of authority at the time.

In 1874, Huxley gave an address to the British Association For The Development of Science named ‘On the Hypothesis that Animals are Automata; and it’s History.’ In it, he defended his idea of how the mind and body interacted (mind-body theory) as a result of his experiments.

Huxley’s Opponent: Mental Causation

Before we look at Huxley’s position, we must first look at the point he was arguing against. This position is mental causation. This is the idea that the mental has causal power. Most people believe in mental causation. Even those who do not study philosophy believe in this, even if it is subconsciously. Most people would argue that, if we turn on a kettle, this is because we have a mental state that wants us to turn on the kettle. This may be because we want to make a cup of tea or fill up a water bottle. If we didn’t have these mental states then we wouldn’t turn on the kettle.

Rejecting Common Sense: Enter Epiphenomenalism

However, despite the evident nature of mental causation, Huxley challenged the idea of mental causation. To Huxley, the soldier and the decapitated frog showed that individuals could carry out actions even when they weren’t conscious. He argued that this showed that, even when there are no mental states, physical actions would occur. Thus, he challenged whether the mental had any causal power at all. He believed instead, that the physical alone was capable of carrying out actions. The mental had no causal power. This position became known as epiphenomenalism.

Cars, Steam Trains And Epiphenomenalism

This position may appear odd to most. However, it can be understood by imagining the shadow of a moving car. The physical mechanics carry out all of the actions. Nothing else is needed for the movement of the car other than the physical mechanics. However, from the car’s motion, a shadow is cast. This shadow plays no role in the action of the car. It is merely produced by the physical action. Another comparison Huxley used was to the whistle of a steam train. Again, the action of the steam train is physically complete without the whistle. The train would move whether there was a whistle or not. It is produced but has no causal bearing on the movement of the train.

In the same way, Huxley viewed the mental as the shadow of the brain. When turning on the kettle on, the physical action occurs. In some very botched science terms, neurons fire in your brain which cause your arm to move. and turn on the kettle This process produces the biproduct of wanting tea. However, this want for tea has no causal power. The physical mechanism is enough to carry out the action without the mental. The mental is merely a product of the physical process.

No Fans For Epiphenomenalism

It is safe to say not many philosopher’s have promoted Huxley’s view. While explaining mental causation is a huge problem in the philosophy of mind (more on that in a later blog) not many would want to argue that the mental is a ‘dangler’. It is clear that what we perceive as the mental does have some kind of effect. It is obvious to everyone. Philosopher’s don’t want to deny that, when we want to boil a kettle, what causes us to boil the kettle is the fact our mental states chose to. It would be too counterintuitive to deny this. Further, it has significant impact on our free-will. No mental causation would mean no personal responsibility. This is not a conclusion philosophers often willingly concede. Because of this, it has been argued that there are more promising ways to solve this problem such as reductive or non-reductive physicalism.


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References/ Further Reading


Jaegwon Kim, Philosophy of Mind, 2010, Chapter 7 ‘Mental Causation’ Available here (affiliate link)








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