IT’S ALL IN THE BRAIN, MY DEAR!


We do not belong to this material world… We are not in it, we are outside. We are only spectators. The reason why we believe that we are in it, that we belong to the picture, is that our bodies are in the picture. Our bodies belong to it…Whence come I and whither go I? That is the great unfathomable question, the same for every one of us. [1] – Erwin Schrodinger

Something in my brain must prevent me from taking the conclusions of current scientific orthodoxy seriously. The conviction that spiritual inclinations are the product of neural activity has eluded me. Nonetheless, the conviction has become popular, finding an able ally in the intellectual shambles of evolutionary psychology. The human brain has been created by the awesome powers of natural selection for survival, therefore, what better weapon against formidable predators than an instrument programmed to speculate about an omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent deity? Like the gag reflex, the religious urges of the human brain cannot be controlled. Therefore, in every culture, in every region, in every era, humans have worshipped, prayed, meditated…

Not content to explain away spiritual aspirations, evolutionary psychology now explains the human predilection for beauty, war, love, marriage, gossip, and philanthropy. It explains universal preferences in the composition of landscape painting; wartime rape; envy; road rage; fear of spiders; the occasional human tendency for acts of great heroism, and the fact that most of us think that we do actually exist: It’s all in the brain. And if evolutionary psychologists have yet to confirm whether a fondness for cheese on toast is also located within the brain, then it can only be because neuroscience needs more funding before it can do justice to this perplexing riddle.

Is the capacity to believe in the statements of evolutionary psychology also a product of neurophysiological events in the brain? I ask in the spirit of newborn curiosity.

If it is not, then why assume that spiritual convictions are? If both convictions are products of devoted neurons, then which conviction is right?

If no conviction is right, then why should we pay any attention to what our neurons tell us?

If we are not supposed to take our neural firings seriously, then why can’t we tell evolutionary psychologists to go white-water rafting down the Niagara Falls?

Whatever the benefits of ontological reductionism, coherence is not one of them. “For, not only does it relegate our experiences of beauty, moral obligation, and religious encounter to the epiphenomenal scrapheap,” physicist John Polkinghorne has reasonably observed, but “it also destroys rationality. Thought is replaced by electro-chemical neural events. Two such events cannot confront each other in rational discourse. They are neither right nor wrong. They simply happen…The very assertions of the reductionist himself are nothing but blips in the neural network of his brain. The world of rational discourse dissolves into the absurd chatter of firing synapses. Quite frankly, that cannot be right and none of us believes it to be so.”[2]

The Holy Grail

What can a brain do and how does it do it? Seeking to answer this question, brain researchers have been glued to their scr eens, documenting the subtle physiological processes taking place in intact, functioning human brains. This effort has no doubt yielded torrents of information about the black box. But can this torrent flood us with enlightenment about who we really are?

Consoling the readers of Newsweek that their common sense is quite common and not to be taken seriously, psychologist Steven Pinker has reassured us that “modern neuroscience has shown that there is no user [of the brain]. ‘The soul’ is, in fact, the information-processing activity of the brain. New imaging techniques have tied every thought and emotion to neural activity.”[3]

If every thought and emotion has been tied to neural activity, then what of it? Even if we can establish a perfect 1:1 correlation between different states of consciousness and the corresponding physiological processes going on in the brain, it would do anything but show that the two are identical or that consciousness emerges from brain processes. When scientists claim that consciousness is a pr oduct of brain processes, they overlook an observable law of causality. For example, in the case of ice emerging from water, both ends of the causal relation are undeniably physical entities that we know how to measur e and quantify in predictable physical ways. However, in the brain/consciousness causal relation it is self-evident that this is not the case. How can a set of physical events cause a very real, non-physical experience?

The most obvious conclusion of reductive physicalism is also the most unwelcome. If our consciousness is simply the inner side of outer brain events, then this conclusion annihilates any claims made on the behalf of human freedom. If the thought “I want to lace my grandmother’s tea with cyanide so that I can get my hands on her property” is simply a product of brain events, then why all the fuss? What else can the poor person do, a victim of the devilishly deterministic dictates of current scientific orthodoxy? Why subject the perpetrator to criminal courts and human rights panels?

E. J. Lowe, Professor of Philosophy at Durham University, provides a more scrupulous assessment:

Reductive physicalism, far from being equipped to solve the so-called ‘easy’ problems of consciousness, has in fact nothing very useful to say about any aspect of consciousness.[4]

The saints have always championed this view—consciousness drags the neural cart behind it and not the other way around. “We do not in fact have anything even remotely resembling a full causal account of consciousness,…”5 Edward F. Kelly and his co-authors have pointed out in their lengthy treatise Irreducible Mind, and though “intelligibility of causal accounts is surely something we would like to have,” perhaps we should “focus instead on the prior empirical question whether we can get one at all.”6 We can then admit there’s at least a possibility that consciousness is ontologically distinct from the brain, though functionally closely linked. This is precisely the possibility that militant atheists and all the other enemies of humanity do not want us to consider.

The Filter Model

No one doubts that there is a correlation between conscious experience and activity in the brain. One hardly needs the advantages afforded by functional magnetic resonance imaging techniques to come to this conclusion. But to take what no one doubts and fashion it into the unalterable doctrine that consciousness is what the brain does requires a disciplined commitment to a metaphysical position; one that owes little to reason and even less to the evidence. For this r eason (no reason and no evidence), doctrinaire materialists eagerly promote the brain generating consciousness as a remarkable discovery of more than four hundred years of cumulative scientific advancement. The idea is eagerly advanced, because it serves as a convenient device to nullify any attempt to go beyond the physical.

All philosophical positions on the mind-body problem hinge on different ways of interpreting the correlation between conscious experience and the physiological processes going on in the brain. Naturalists naturally claim what their faith allows them to claim: correlation implies production. Brain processes generate or constitute episodes of consciousness. But to claim that this is the only legitimate way this correlation can be interpreted betrays a remarkable paucity of imagination and an equally remarkable reluctance to look around. William James, one of the founders of modern psychology, had clearly indicated the pathway to wider horizons. James observed that “arrests of brain development occasion imbecility, that blows on the head abolish memory or consciousness, and that brain-stimulants and poisons change the quality of our ideas.”7 For many scientists of his day, these observations were all that was needed to jump onto the brain-processes produces consciousness bandwagon. Consequently, they assumed that when the brain ceased to function, the individual consciousness associated with it ceased to exist. There is, however, no actual basis for this assumption. No one has logically or demonstratively shown how o r why consciousness is or should be produced by the brain. Furthermore, any such theory of consciousness being produced by the brain would have to account for the pr oduction of billions of infinitely varied episodes of consciousness in an individual’s life. This led James to say, “The theory of production is therefore not a jot more simple or credible in itself than any other conceivable theory. It is only a little more popular.”[8]

James went on to argue that the true function of the brain might very well be transmissive rather than productive. A prism has a transmissive function relative to light. It does not produce light. When light passes through a prism, the prism filters or constrains it. Similarly, the brain strains, sifts, restrains, and limits consciousness to various degrees, but it does not produce consciousness.

According to the state in which the brain finds itself, [James remarked] the barrier of its obstructiveness may also be supposed to rise or fall. It sinks so low, when the brain is in full activity, that a comparative flood of spiritual energy pours over. At other times, only such occasional waves of thought as heavy sleep permits gets by. And when finally a brain stops acting altogether, or decays, that special stream of consciousness which it subserved will vanish entirely from this natural world. But the sphere of being that supplied the consciousness would still be intact; and in that more real world with which, even whilst here, it was continuous, the consciousness might, in ways unknown to us, continue still.[9]

In connection with the idea that matter is not something which produces consciousness, but rather something which simply limits or confines preexisting consciousness, James cited the following statement by British philosopher F.C.S. Schiller:

Matter is an admirably calculated machinery for regulating, limiting, and restraining the consciousness which it encases…If the material encasement be coarse and simple, as in the lower organisms, it permits only a little intelligence to permeate through; if it is delicate and complex, it leaves more pores and exists, as it were, for the manifestations of consciousness.[10]

Old Wine in a New Bottle

There is nothing new under the sun—not even the filter model of consciousness. Though James initially thought that he invented the filter model, he later discovered the following passage from German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason:

The body would thus be, not the cause of our thinking, but merely a condition restrictive thereof, and, although essential to our sensuous and animal consciousness, it may be regarded as an impeder of our pure spiritual life.[11]

The filter model can also be detected in a number of Platonic dialogues, including Phaedo, Phaedrus, and Ion. It also shows up in the writings of numerous other philosophers, both modern and ancient, both from the East and the West. But easily the most comprehensive depictions of the filter model can be found in the texts of the Vedic tradition. Here is one from the Shrimad Bhagavatam (11.10.9):

Just as fire may appear differently as dormant, manifest, weak, brilliant and so on, according to the condition of the fuel, similarly, the spirit soul enters a material body and accepts particular bodily characteristics.

Different bodily forms, the Vedas assert, allow for the manifestation of varying degrees of consciousness. Vedic biology therefore gradates bodies according to how much consciousness they permit. According to this criterion, the Vedic texts categorize material bodies in this universe into 8,400,000 species.

Obviously implicit in this worldview is the understanding that consciousness is in a separate ontological category fr om matter. The Hungarian-British polymath Michael Polanyi argued:

…once it is recognised…that life transcends physics and chemistry, there is no reason for suspending recognition of the obvious fact that consciousness is a principle that fundamentally transcends not only physics and chemistry but also the mechanistic principles of living beings.[12]

Consciousness is the unchanging ground of all bodily and mental content; not the seen but the seer, not the experience but the experiencer, not the inquiry but the inquirer. So where does it come from?

Consciousness, so Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita (13.34), is the energy of the soul, the self, the living entity. “O son of Bharata, as the sun alone illuminates all this universe, so does the living entity, one within the body, illuminate the entire body by consciousness.”

And what does Krishna say about the soul?

For the soul there is neither birth nor death at any time. He has not come into being, does not come into being, and will not come into being. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain.

What Krishna does not directly say is that the filter model of consciousness is logically feasible; it is compatible with all of the facts conventionally interpreted under the ‘brain-states produce consciousness’ model; and, as a much needed bonus, it can accommodate those perplexing powers exhibited time and again by conscious agents—powers which William James called “the unclassified residuum” and what naturalists, constrained by a priori allegiances, have rather annoyingly termed the “paranormal.”

Now, you have every right to ask: What is an eternal soul doing soaking up the trials and tribulations of living in a temporary body? To answer this question, among many others, Krishna spoke the perennial truths of the Bhagavad-gita.

We could do worse than listen to Him.

Notes:
[1] Erwin Schrodinger, Nature and the Greeks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 95-98.
[2] J.C. Polkinghorne, One World (London: SPCK, 1986), 92.
[3] Article appearing in the September 27, 2004 edition of Newsweek.
[4] E.J. Lowe, “There are no easy problems of consciousness” in Explaining Consciousness—The Hard Problem, ed. J. Shear (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998), 121-22.
[5] Edward F. Kelly, “A View from the Mainstream: Contemporary Cognitive Neuroscience and the Consciousness Debates” in Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century, Edward F. Kelly and others (Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007), 25.
[6] Ibid., 26.
[7] William James on Psychical Research in ed. Gardner Murphy and Robert O. Ballou (New York: Viking Press, 1960), 284.
[8] Ibid., 294.
[9] Ibid., 292.
[10] Ibid., 300.
[11] William James, Human Immortality: Two Supposed Objections to the Doctrine 2nd ed. (Boston & New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1900), 28-29.
[12] M. Polanyi, “Life’s irreducible structure,” Science 160 (1968): 1308-1312.

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