Why it’s better to have a mind than a brain (part 2)

Last week I proposed that we need to look to the mind instead of the brain as the answer to many things. One example was depression. In the wake of new research showing that antidepressants don’t work, and that the brains of depressed patients don’t seem genetically different from those of undepressed people, we have an opening to look at the mind with fresh eyes.

Depression is the smallest tip of a huge iceberg. The fad for focusing on the brain has overwhelmed science and society as a whole. It perfectly suits our materialistic belief system. As a result, science acts as if the mind is a fiction, a ghost, or a superstition, very much like the soul. That is a straw man of the most obvious sort, because how your life turns out depends very little on whether you believe in the soul. It depends a great deal on how you use your mind.

I realize that this seems like an abstract or lofty debate to ordinary people. Brain or mind? It’s all the same to them. But consider a bit more deeply. If treating depression by looking inside was better all along, if popping millions of antidepressants was a dead end all along, what other issues might fit the same model?

Here are a few hot candidates:

God: Researchers have been striving (in vain) to show that there is a faith gene, or that religion was a survival mechanism to protect our species, or that God is a holdover from ancient brain responses that used fear to keep us alert to danger when we lived in caves. Thus fear of saber-tooth tigers morphed into fear of a punishing God. That there might actually be a God, lies outside the purview of science. This doesn’t prevent scientists from thinking they are about to disprove God.

Love: There is a ceaseless campaign to posit a love gene or lacking that, a brain response that roots love in chemistry. Insofar as we deem love to be noble, uplifting, or even meaningful, we are being fooled by a meaningless brain secretion. Once again, as with God, evolutionary biologists presume that primitive humans needed to bond together for survival and what we call love depends upon an atavistic holdover.

Psychology: The basis of psychology is that the self can be normal or abnormal, healthy or sick. Brain researchers haven’t found any location for such a self, however. Therefore, since the brain holds all the answers, there’s a strong camp that declares the self to be a total illusion. If you feel like a person having experiences that matter to yourself, you are being deluded by clouds of chemical reactions in the brain that are so complex you cannot fathom them all. Therefore, you take the easy, and primitive, way out by telling yourself that you have a self. (Ironically, Buddhism and Hinduism deny the personal self, also, but for another reason: identifying with their ego, or personal self, blocks our access to a higher self, where true meaning abides.)

These are three big topics, but the brain is also given primacy in many other fields, including emotions (more chemical secretions), relationships (an evolutionary holdover), morality, aesthetics, philosophy, and spirituality in general (all of these fields are illusory compared to the brain responses that cause them). It’s as if someone discovered the radio and declared, “Good, now we know where music comes from. We can ditch all this nonsense about composers and genius.”

Just as a radio picks up the signals that transmit music, so the brain functions to bring mind into everyday reality. If the radio is smashed, the music goes away. If the brain is ill, defective, or damaged, some aspect of mind will go away. But to use this reasoning as proof that the brain is the mind, or more real than the mind, is utter folly. Would you believe it if someone claimed that World War II was caused by Germany and Japan having something wrong in the brain? Would you believe it if you were told that a spouse you deeply love and trust only appeals to you because prehistoric man needed to bunch up by the fire in order not to freeze?

Throwing mind out of the equation is done for only one reason: it’s useful in the short run. Science takes messy, complex reality and steps outside it, turning experience into elegant numbers and manageable data. That’s quite practical. There’s a lot of knowledge to be gained by looking at data. But when science holds out numbers to claim that they are reality, or that ordinary experience is an illusion, a huge mistake has been made.

How will this mistake be reversed? It won’t happen by calling religion back into the picture. What we need isn’t a divine mystery; we need knowledge that accepts science while going beyond it. So, what does “beyond” mean? It means returning to messy, complex reality and understanding it more deeply. Science has always been a tool, not an end unto itself. When technology is allowed to trump morality, we get horrors like the atom bomb. When genetics is allowed to wipe out spirituality, we get a mass sense of futility and emptiness. Science can’t give life a purpose, anymore than a reality television show set in Samoa can substitute for going out to the beach.

Ultimately, the current brain fetish will reach a dead end, if it hasn’t already. We will return to the mind, and something startling but obvious will emerge and become accepted. Consciousness is primary, the brain is secondary. This is like saying that music is primary, the radio is secondary. Whatever is primary comes first and holds the essence of life.

It’s my personal conviction that the brain was created by consciousness. There is no other viable explanation, because our current explanation— that the human brain evolved through random mutations— simply doesn’t hold water. Our brains are the single most complex structures in the universe. To say that they were randomly created is a million times more unlikely than having ten monkeys sitting at typewriters produce all of Shakespeare. But that’s a topic for deeper thought. It will be good enough if coming generations turn back to the mind and stop reducing the richness of experience to a mushy machine made of meat.

Posted San Francisco Chronicle