Getting Real About Brain Science – A Challenge to the Current Model (Part 2)
Brain research could someday hit a dead end if we do not address the basic question of what the brain truly is. Assuming that we know what the brain is won’t work—not forever. In the first part of this series the assumptions of neuroscience were held up to the light, and it turned out that almost everyone in the field believes, without question, that the brain is a physical object that produces thoughts and feelings. Without this physical object ticking away inside our skulls, we wouldn’t have a mind–so the currently dominant belief system goes.
It seems outrageous, then, for philosophy to come along and say, no, you don’t know this at all. You are stating a working assumption as if it were a fact. Change your assumption, and all the beautiful data that has been gathered by brain science, although still very useful, will look entirely different. As one scientific paradigm breaks down and a new one replaces it, all assumptions become vulnerable, all knowledge becomes open-ended. There are a lot of unstated assumptions in the current view.
Let’s imagine that a brain scientist has been backed into a corner by this argument. He can always say, “Don’t bother me. I’m an expert, and I know what I’m doing.” But if the cornered brain scientist takes the argument seriously, he can push back on several rational fronts. He might say the following:
“You claim that the old paradigm doesn’t work anymore, but thousands of useful findings are being produced. There’s no end in sight. Treating the brain as the thing that creates the mind is enormously productive. You can’t deny it.”
True, but imagine a sailor before Copernicus. “The sun still rises in the East and sets in the West. Because that’s a fact, my ship can go anywhere in the world navigating by the sun. You can’t deny it.”
The sailor thinks he’s talking about a fact of reality, as does the brain scientist. As long as a paradigm is useful, it won’t collapse. But this doesn’t mean its assumptions are undeniable. The Copernican revolution took place when someone looked beyond practicality and saw that putting the sun at the center of the planetary system gave much better calculations of how the moon, stars, and planets moved. (It actually took the later work of Galileo and Newton to make the Copernican system more precise than what came before.) In the case of brain science, there will be much better knowledge about the mind once we question the assumption that the brain is a physical thing that produces mind. Here are the reasons for why the brain-as-mind model is crumbling.
1. The model is self-referential. The very thing you need to define (the brain) is also the thing doing the defining. 2. Quantity isn’t the same as quality. Water feels wet. You can’t explain this quality by weighing water, breaking it down into its elements of hydrogen and oxygen, or splitting oxygen and hydrogen into even smaller bits. The experience of wetness will elude you no matter how many measurements you take. 3. Experience consists of a constant stream of qualities. At this moment you see colors, feel temperature, detect movement in the air, and so on. No amount of brain measurements will get at any of these qualities, just as weighing a liter of water will never tell you why it feels wet. 4. Mapping the brain is not sufficient to understand a qualitative experience, since everything we know about the brain is an experience. The brain is gelatinous, dark, gray, moist, and zapping with tiny electrical shocks. Those qualities are simply there, like the hardness of a rock. You can’t get beyond them, and yet you need to if you want to know what’s real.
This last point is the toughest, so let’s go into it. The sun is bright. The brain is dark. Is the brightness of the sun produced by the darkness of the brain? Neuroscience says it is, but clearly it can’t be. If you put the brain to your tongue, it will have its own taste. But in that taste you won’t find sugar, salt, chocolate, fish and chips, etc. As long as you stay inside the brain’s thingness, the vast range of color, taste, sight, sound, and smells that constitute our experience of reality cannot be explained. Many cultures have a saying that the eye cannot see itself. This is a metaphor that applies to the brain: If everything we know is produced by the brain, we are trapped inside its processes. Any attempt would be just another brain process. This seems to give our cornered brain scientist a way out. “Aha, if I can’t get outside my brain, neither can you. So I don’t have to consider anything you say.” This would be a solid refutation if no one could go beyond the brain. Likewise, if fish couldn’t jump out of the sea, they wouldn’t be able to find out whether the ocean is wet. Forever trapped inside the thing they want to examine, they hit a dead end. So brain science can’t be challenged unless we can get outside the brain. Copernicus made his breakthrough by getting outside the limitation of seeing the sun rise and set every day. But he didn’t get outside the brain, which is much harder to do, nor did Einstein, Heisenberg, and other modern geniuses we look to to explain reality. But they actually said one profound thing that current brain science does not always consider: The world is in the mind, not the other way around. In order to get outside the brain – meaning outside the picture of reality that the brain produces – requires a new paradigm. That’s really the nub of the matter. The old paradigm is comfortable staying inside the brain, using its processes to explain everything else, giving the brain a privileged position in the entire univer
se: it’s the one physical object that can think. This is like giving God a privileged position in the Book of Genesis – God is the one thing in the universe that didn’t have to be created. The new paradigm stops turning the brain into God. It’s obvious that the brain had to be created, and whatever did that isn’t the brain. Once this obvious fact is accepted, a better set of ideas can be accepted at the same time. 1. The brain, being an ordinary physical object, doesn’t create mind, which isn’t physical. (Is it just gray gel infused with chemicals and electromagnetic signals that makes you love your children or want to look good on your next date?) 2. Something beyond the brain creates the experience of the world. The brain, in fact, is just another experience, so it is disqualified as the creator. 3. Once you throw out the brain as the creator of experience, it’s plausible that the mind creates experience. There’s no reason to disbelieve this, and every reason to believe it, since all experiences are mental. 4. Getting outside the brain is easy once you accept that the mind is running the show. Our cornered brain scientist is someone with intellectual integrity. He’s not going to squirm away by refusing to listen or stubbornly insisting on false assumptions. We have him sweating now, but he hasn’t run out of denials. “Clever thinking, but you have no facts in your new paradigm. You just have ideas, and without facts, backed up by experimental data, an idea might as well be a fantasy.”
This would be true if mind were just another assumption like assuming the brain can think. Clearly mind isn’t an assumption. Mind is our portal to the real. In fact, the mind is the only portal to the real. You can’t step outside it. Yet facts are necessary to science—meaning measurements and data—which makes it hard for philosophy and its method of pure thinking, to make headway. In the first post we focused on an article in the journal Cell that defended the brain as the one and only route to explaining consciousness. The rationale behind the article was that in time, the mass of findings collected about the brain will improve, becoming more sophisticated and complex, and thus the riddle of consciousness will be unraveled, thread by thread. So the story goes. But science is also based on theory, and we still have no viable theory demonstrating that the mind is produced by neural circuitry in the brain.
To believe that the riddle of consciousness will be unraveled is to mistake a correlate for a cause. It’s absolutely true that every mental event has a corresponding physical event in the brain. The way the process looks carries valid information about the process. Flames carry valid information about combustion because they are the way combustion looks when observed from the outside; not the cause of combustion. In exactly the same way, brain states carry valid information about subjective experience because they are the way subjective experience looks when observed from the outside. But they are not the cause of subjective experience.
And it doesn’t matter how complicated the correlations get. A major focus in neuroscience is to assess cross-talk among various areas of the brain with increasing granularity, on the underlying assumption that this will get us closer to understanding consciousness. But will it? This would be similar to stating that the integrated circuitry inside your TV creates your favorite show. This we know would be an absurd assumption, as absurd as the Earth being flat just because the ground near us to appears flat.
Instead of looking upon back-and-forth communication between different brain regions – so-called ‘reverberation – as a cause of consciousness, the new paradigm would view it as a mechanism of amplification of certain contents of consciousness.
Insofar as it increases the footprint of certain subjective states, reverberation can indeed be viewed as a form of amplification. Instead of looking upon different neural processes as either conscious or unconscious, one would see them as either amplified or obfuscated, respectively. The moment certain contents of consciousness become amplified, they naturally obfuscate other contents, the way the sun obfuscates the stars at noon. Obfuscated contents are still in consciousness, for the same reason that the stars are still in the sky at noon. Instead of looking upon decisions that precede (amplified) awareness as the deterministic outcome of unconscious neural processes, one would see them as choices made by (obfuscated) consciousness.
Indeed, what the Cell paper calls ‘consciousness’ is, under this alternative way of seeing, simply a particular, amplified segment of consciousness. The so-called ‘unconscious’ is, in turn, merely the obfuscated segment of consciousness – there is no actual unconscious. This is easy to see: For the past several minutes your breathing – the feeling of the air flowing in and out of your lungs – has been an obfuscated content of your consciousness, which now becomes amplified as you read this sentence. Were you truly unconscious of your breathing just a moment ago? Or was the consciousness of your breathing merely obfuscated while your focus was on reading this article? What the Cell paper calls ‘unconscious’ neural processes are simply what obfuscated processes in consciousness look like from the outside.
Now we can solve one of the world’s great mysteries. How can mystical experience – seeing angels, connecting with God, hearing the voice of your soul – be real? There is no problem with them being real if, like breathing, other experiences are obfuscating, or blocking them out. Remove the obstructions, and consciousness can naturally include so-called mystical experiences. If you enter an expanded state of consciousness, as saints, swamis, seers, yogis and according to many scientific accounts dying persons are said to do, your reality shifts. Suddenly you experience certain things that were always there but blocked from view. The fact that the reality we experience is different in different states of consciousness indicates that reality is consciousness-dependent. Saints feel God’s presence everywhere; swamis have detected the self that is beyond ego; seers perceive what lies behind the veil of appearances; yogis rest in pure Being. And dying persons, in fact those who clinically died but came back, report experiences that are quite similar to one another’s. These are facts in their states of consciousness. Something real is known, and on that knowledge a solid foundation can be built, leading to a revolution in science. Hearing this, our cornered brain scientist would probably be dazed and confused. He might sink to the floor with his head in his hands. “You’re destroying real science with your damn philosophy.” After a while he’ll recover his composure, at which point he’ll go back to his normal way of doing things—but then where is his intellectual integrity? The new paradigm may look outrageous from the viewpoint of the old. Even so, it’s the duty of science to take it seriously. This is how science progresses, by shunning hidden dogmas and stolid belief systems. Outworn assumptions are reaching their expiration date. We need to admit this to ourselves and move on. A higher, more useful science is waiting in the wings. Deepak Chopra, MD is the author of more than 80 books with twenty-two New York Timesbestsellers including Super Brain, co-authored with Rudolph Tanzi, PhD. He serves as the founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing. Bernardo Kastrup has a Ph.D. in Computer Engineering and has worked as a scientist in some of the world’s foremost research laboratories, including the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and the Philips Research Laboratories (where the “Casimir Effect” of Quantum Field Theory was discovered). He has authored many scientific papers and four philosophy books: Rationalist Spirituality, Dreamed up Reality, Meaning in Absurdity, and Why Materialism Is Baloney. This latter book is a grand synthesis of his metaphysical views. Bernardo has also been an entrepreneur and founder of two high-tech businesses. Today, he holds a managerial position in the high-tech industry. In parallel, he maintains a philosophy blog, an audio/video podcast, and continues to develop his ideas about the nature of reality. Bernardo has lived and worked in four different countries across continents. He currently resides in the Netherlands. Menas C. Kafatos is the Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor of Computational Physics at Chapman University. He is a quantum physicist, cosmologist, climate change researcher, and works and writes extensively on consciousness and the above fields. His doctoral thesis advisor was noted M.I.T. professor Philip Morrison who studied under J. Robert Oppenheimer. He is co-author with Deepak Chopra of the forthcoming book, Who Made God and Other Cosmic Riddles. (Harmony) Rudolph E. Tanzi, PhD is the Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit and Vice-Chair of Neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is also serves as the Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Tanzi co-discovered three of the four known Alzheimer’s disease genes and currently directs the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund “Alzheimer’s Genome Project.” He is co-founder of several biotech companies, including Prana Biotechnology. He also co-authored the popular trade books “Decoding Darkness” with Ann Parson and the New York Times Bestseller, “Super Brain” with Dr. Deepak Chopra.