War of the Worldviews: Let’s Talk Brain and Mind
People are surprised and often offended to discover that the truth is shifting, and yet a shift always happens at the moment of greatest certainty. If you canvassed a hundred neuroscientists about where the mind comes from, it would be a good bet that 99 would say the brain. There’s a solid wall of certainty there, which would automatically indicate that a new answer is ready to emerge, toppling all conventional wisdom.
I argue this new idea in War of the Worldviews, a new book co-authored with Caltech physicist Leonard Mlodinow. Taking the scientific side of the debate, Leonard supports the brain-is-mind position that has been forced upon brain scientists. I say forced, because neuroscience studies physical processes, and with sophisticated imaging technology, those processes are understood with great specificity in the brain. But physicality is the wrong place to look for mind. By analogy, you can study a piano down to its atoms and molecules, but that won’t tell you anything about how composers create music.
Likewise, studying the firing of synapses in the brain tells us nothing about where thoughts arise. My role in our book is to defend the spiritual position, and here mind gets tricky. In one way or another, every spiritual tradition believes in an invisible reality, and mind – meaning all the traits of intelligence, creativity, order, harmony, etc. – is embedded in that reality. It isn’t necessary to use God as a creator. The spiritual position counters the scientific one in a simple assertion: mind created the brain, not the other way around. We live in a conscious universe, and the reason we humans are conscious is that Nature is imbued with consciousness to begin with.
There are many arguments for such a position, which goes back to Plato in the West and much further back to the ancient philosophers of Vedic India. Let me give a sketch of how the argument goes.
1. There is no way to physically observe consciousness. We know that we are conscious, but awareness cannot be found physically in the brain. Science infers that the brain creates mind, and inference isn’t proof.
2. All of the basic materials of the brain, primarily water and organic chemicals, are not conscious. The sugar in a sugar bowl can’t think, but the glucose in the brain is part of thinking. Does glucose think? That seems unbelievable yet science cannot show us the point at which chemicals learn to think.
3. Science reduces all physical phenomena, ultimately, to mathematics, which explains the basic laws of nature. Mathematics is a mystery. No one knows if it exists in nature without human existence, yet it seems improbable that math had to wait around for humans to invent it. Let’s say that mathematics exists beyond the physical universe, as many theorists believe. If math is transcendent, it is woven into the invisible fabric of reality. Math is more than numbers. It is also order, harmony, balance, and rigor. These are all qualities of mind, which implies that mathematics and mind have the same universal status.
4. Using much the same argument, Plato declared that all the other qualities of mind – love, beauty, truth, etc. – must be embedded in nature, also. Higher values of mind did not have to wait for the human brain to evolve. They exist at our source, woven into the fabric of creation, which is why among spiritual visionaries, there is always an intense experience of truth, love, and beauty.
Trying to settle these kinds of arguments belongs not just to philosophy and religion. Neuroscience faces “the hard problem,” a term that arose around the tough question of where consciousness comes from. The value of solving the hard problem isn’t merely theoretical; it has huge practical implications. Consider the following riddles:
Can you think yourself sick? Can you think yourself well again?
Are emotions linked to cancer?
Is depression best treated with drugs or talk therapy?
Are psychics real?
Can we communicate with the dead?
How do geniuses and savants get their extraordinary abilities?
Can you boost your mental potential?
These aren’t frivolous questions. If we knew which came first – mind or brain – we’d have the key to the right answers. Science operates as if the issue is already settled: brain comes first and then creates mind. But if you survey working neuroscientists and as them a basic question like “How is memory stored in the brain?” no one knows; they only know which part of the brain lights up to indicate where memory is stored. This is like saying that if you find the transistor in a radio that produces the sound of words, you know how language works.
In fact, the brain poses the same mystery. There is no sound in the brain, yet we hear sounds. There is no light in the utter darkness of the brain, yet we see light. The entire world is evoked in the brain, but you will search in vain for any sight, sound, touch, taste, or smell in the brain. When you look at a rose, there is no image of the rose once one travels past the retina at the back of the eye. The rose is turned into pure signals of electricity and chemical firings across synapses. Science cannot approach an explanation for how the real world emerges, and therefore the spiritual position – that the real world is created in consciousness – has great weight and significance.
The reason that science can’t find – and will never find – consciousness in the brain is that it isn’t there. Experience exists in consciousness first and foremost. Nothing is real unless you are conscious of it. There is no red in nature, for example. There is only a wavelength of light associated with red. The color red needs consciousness to exist. The term of the flavors of experience, meaning color, texture, taste, smell, and all the other aspects of reality, is qualia. Red is a qualia. If you have a human nervous system, you perceive the world as pure qualia, such is the richness of experience. Science doesn’t deal in experience; it deals in data. So we find two contending ways to look at red, either as a vibration that can be expressed as a number, or directly as a color. It’s obvious that without the experience, the number can’t exist. And to reverse the situation, with only the number at your disposal, the color cannot be produced. Qualia are primary, data are secondary.
What will topple our current scientific theories isn’t the return of God. Spirituality is now totally about consciousness, at least when we come to answering the hard problem. In our book, Leonard concedes that science has serious limitations when it comes to solving the riddle of mind and brain, but he argues that one day, with more research, neuroscience will find that the brain is the source of consciousness. Which of us is right? The debate swirls in and around many fields of inquiry. Nothing is settled, and yet I’d wager that the future is likely to arrive at a place where science will only succeed if it takes the spiritual argument seriously and begins to explore domains of reality beyond materialism.
Published by San Francisco Chronicle