A friend asked me:
Is our brain the source of all life as we know it? Or is something else? Neuroscientists tend to reduce life to the human brain as their source of intelligence. How can we integrate the best science with the best mysticism?
This is a great question, one that I have written about in the past. But the conversation always continues, as there is always more that can be said, and better ways to point, to symbolize.
In my view, the brain is not the source of all life as we know it. Of course, there are many living things which don’t have anything like a brain, such as fungi, amoebas, plant life, etc. These are all considered living beings. So it clearly can’t be the case that life comes from the brain. There are many “lives” that are essentially and literally brainless.
Someone might say, “well, the brain is the source of life for a human.” And even that, I would say, would not be accurate, for many reasons.
Consider: did you have a brain before you were conceived? No. So it did not cause the life of you. And, in fact, the brain doesn’t start to significantly develop in the human embryo until the 3rd or 4th week of development. So the life of that embryo can’t be said to have originated in its brain. Its life came before its brain was even present in the organism. The brain is contingent on something else for its life, as is the rest of the body.
Well, maybe the brain is the source of consciousness for the human, the origin of all its thoughts and perceptions, they are all constructed in the brain? Is that the case? This is a popular view among many people today, thinking that our mind and consciousness must reduce to the physical brain. It has become an ingrained assumption that is not even really questioned anymore in some circles. But the scientific fact is that we do not have a single piece of evidence that shows that our thoughts are created by the activity in the brain. Not a single piece of evidence. Not one.
No one has ever shown how the activity of action potentials along the dendrites of neurons in the brain creates, produces, or generates the qualia of our experience, such as our experience of the color red 🔴. Ever. It hasn’t been done. This is a deep problem in philosophy that spans millennia. It goes back to the mind-body problem in philosophy, which has not been solved. We don’t know, scientifically, what the relationship is between our experiences of mind, and the physical structures of the brain. Anyone who tells you that we do is not telling you the truth about the scientific state of things.
We simply do not know how neurons would or could produce the qualia of our experience. But more directly, no one has shown that they do produce that qualia at all. We should perhaps not be asking how it works before we know that it does work that way. It’s never been shown that it does.
Now, to be sure, there are innumerable correlations between brain states and mind states. That is not questioned at all. When we experience certain sensations, there are correlated activities going on in specific parts of the brain. That is undoubted. But correlation does not mean or imply causation, as any good philosopher of science will tell us. Just because two things are correlated does not mean that one is causing the other. There may be many other reasons why they are correlated besides causation.
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I’m also not saying that the mind of an individual is located somewhere else than in the human body. It seems quite clear that egos, personalities, knowledge, memories, etc., these are all localized to specific bodies and their brains. No one has ever found any scientific evidence contrary to that.
What I’m saying is that consciousness, in a deep and fundamental sense, may not be limited or reduced to any particular body. I know that some people have trouble with this view because our culture has so closely associated the words “mind” and “consciousness,” that we often think they are one and the same thing. I think this conflation is perhaps part of the problem. In my view, I don’t see them as the same thing, synonymous, or identical. I see consciousness as a very mysterious and objectively unknowable essence that lays at the foundation of mind, at the ground, as an empty open field of being, and that is something very different than the finite mind that is all our thoughts, perceptions, sensations, and feelings.
We could say, as I have, that consciousness is the base reality, the flat empty field of being or void-nothingness, and that mind is the excitation, modulation, or fluctuation of that field. It may seem incredible that such an empty field could produce such fluctuations, that anything could come from this nothingness (creation ex nihilo?), but this is precisely what is posited in quantum field theory (QFT), and unified field theory (UFT). The field (or fields) itself is nothing, there is no-thing there, it is a perfect void as far as we know. It is more abstract and mathematical in its essential nature, not physical. It is only known when there is energy that fluctuates that field, which arises or emerges into our awareness as a “particle,” the “particle” being that fluctuation of the field itself. I suggest that the mind may be quite similar to this unified field (if not more directly ontologically identical to it, as I’ll describe further below).
This mind includes all the thoughts, sensations, feelings, and perceptions of the particular individual, that are associated with a particular physical body in spacetime. In other words, the movement or excitation of the infinite and boundless field of consciousness gives rise to the perception of a finite and bounded individual, a self, a person, and everything associated with that particular person. That excitation of consciousness can only happen within an organic structure, such as a human body/brain. Other forms of excitation of consciousness happen in other lifeforms, and so their experiences of “mind” are different than ours. (If computers ever can be considered to have “mind,” which is a popular idea among transhumanists, it will likely be a different sort of mind than ours, perhaps as dissimilar as a human’s experience is from a tree’s.)
I suggest, as I’ve written before, that what we experience as mind is the inner experience of what we see as outer physical structures and activity of neurons in the brain and entire body (the nervous system extends throughout it, not just in the brain). In other words, one isn’t causing the other, but rather they are like two sides of a single coin, which are inextricably interdependent on each other, but are not ultimately two different things. We don’t find the presence of a complex mind where there is not a brain or body of some kind. We also don’t find the presence of a living and active brain or body that does not exhibit mind or mental experience in a human or other organism. But I suggest mind doesn’t reduce to brain, nor does brain reduce to mind (as in idealism).
In spiritual terms, we could say that spirit and body are One, mind and matter are One, at least insofar as living things go. These are not two separate things in an ultimate transcendent sense, but a duality that emerges out of the action of that One, in the way that we perceive them, just as in quantum theory we see a duality of wave and particle, which are both ultimately part of the same wave-function, and whether we see a wave or a particle depends on how we look at that wave-function. Or even if we confine it to just a wave, we can still see a duality between the energy that is the fluctuation of the field, and the field itself, even though they are really the same thing, one thing in motion. The duality is perhaps caused by seeing the essence and its action as two different things, when of course they are really one thing. The wave is not separate from the field. It is the field, in motion.
The same, I suggest, is the reality of mind and matter. If we see neuronal activity and action potentials, it is because we are looking at the physical action happening in the brain. If we hear that someone is experiencing the color red, it is because we are looking at a person and their inner (spiritual) mind and asking them what they are experiencing. They are two sides of the same One, two perspectives of the same One thing.
So, yes, I do believe that the mind and brain are closely connected with each other, but they are mutually irreducible. One doesn’t generate or produce the other. We are just looking at two different sides of the same One coin. It also seems to me that the personality that is constructed in association with a mind and its thoughts is connected with the brain of that particular person, and cannot be extricated from that connection. The ego-self identity of the individual is tied to that particular brain-body. When that particular brain-body is no more, neither is the ego-self, barring some kind of transhumanist computer upload of the future.
It may become possible to transfer the ego-self identity of an individual to a different brain-body, and in fact we may already see this taking place today in the form of books. When we read another’s written works, we are, in a sense, transferring the knowledge of their mind and ideas and ego-personality into our own brain-body. We take on something of their identity. You are doing it right now with me and my identity. I’m transferring thoughts in my mind to yours, so you can think the same thoughts that I think. At least, that is the intention of such communication. So we could say that the ego-self identity already outlives particular brain-bodies in the form of writing, but it is a static state of the original ego-self, a snapshot capture of a particular mind at a particular moment of that original mind’s life in the world, and any new body (human or synthetic) that takes it into itself will build on it dynamically, and it will no longer remain the same ego-personality or “self.” Studies have shown that even the same person is not the same over time; we are quite a different individual, with a radically different identity, at age 75 than we had at 25.
But what is consciousness? Is it the unified field of spacetime? Is it some kind of internal base reality, similar to the unified field of “external” reality? Or is it one and the same field, one and the same One? I think this may only be answerable in a definite way in the experience of pure consciousness, which is known by the mystics throughout history, and which I have also experienced. It is only there that consciousness can experience itself as it is in its purity, in its true nature. No idea in the mind can express it, because these ideas are necessarily fluctuations of consciousness, not consciousness itself. I can (and I have) try to put it into words, but whatever is said will not ever convey the reality of that experience itself. When we dig down this deep within ourself, we seem to go to the source of the mind and ego-self, the very essence from which the mind and self emerge, and perhaps even the source from which body and brain emerge as well.
For, if mind and matter, spirit and body, really are like two sides of the same One coin, then when we come to know directly that One itself, it is no longer divided into two, by definition, not even an inner and outer, not a spiritual and physical, but it is known as the One, indivisible, inseparable, infinite, boundless, unconditional, beyond all subjectivity, and even beyond objectivity, being neither subject nor object (another duality), neither self nor other, neither spirit nor body, neither this nor that, not mind or matter. There are simply no dualities there anymore. It is both. It is nondual. What One experiences, One is, and that is all there is, everywhere, always, eternally. That is the Whole, the Essence, the Ground, the Ultimate Reality of our being, and of all Being, which mystics throughout history have attested, and of which I attest. We are not something separate from this Ultimate. We are it, each of our finite body-minds and ego-selves are as temporal excitations of that One, incarnations of the One field of Being that is the cosmos itself, particular manifestations of the Totality of everything that Is. This is the I AM that gives rise to our “I am.”
So, no, I don’t think the brain is the source of our life, or that our life can be reduced to a brain. I now know, through personal contemplative mystical experience, that my deepest essence is that One. I don’t think this can ever be shown or proved definitively by science, because it is necessarily a mystical experience that reveals it as it is, a contemplative experience and experiment in the laboratory of the mind. It is not anything “out there” in the world that we can demonstrate. That One is my Source, my Life, and is the Source of every being, every thing, and all forms in the cosmos, without exception. How could anything not be a part of this One that we call the cosmos? It’s not possible. Try to outrun it, or find a place outside it, but you’ll never escape it, anywhere. You’ll never be separate from it (see Romans 8:38-39). You can’t leave this Uni-verse (One Song), no matter how hard you may try.
I think this is what Jesus was getting at in the Gospel of Thomas where he is attributed as saying,
I am the light that is over all things. I am all: from me all came forth, and to me all attained.
Split a piece of wood; I am there.
Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.-Gospel of Thomas, http://gnosis.org/naghamm/gosthom.html
I suggests that when our particular body-brain dies, so does our ego-self identity, its personality, its individuality, its sense of being a separate dualistic self in the world. But our real identity, our unchanging ultimate transcendent “divine” identity, reaches down to the depths of this One itself. That is our true Self, our deepest “I,” you and me, in our fundamental Being. And because it is both you and me, and everyone, it is also called “Love.” It is the glue that binds our shared essence together, not as two, but as the One. This One manifests its Self as the many, you and me. The One is Love, and Love is the One.
What do you think? Does life reduce to the brain? Or can we go deeper? How can we integrate brain science and mysticism better than this? Where do my arguments break down, and is there a way to better articulate them so they don’t break down, or are there other options, possibilities, ways of framing this? Please share your ideas in the comments below or on Facebook.