Many people today seem to believe that the brain causes conscious experience, as a friend recently expressed it to me:
I don’t understand any literal concept of mind that isn’t physical.
In other words, it is thought that neurons in the brain fire (have an electro-chemically triggered action potential), which cause us to experience something. The neurons firing is the cause of what we experience. It’s thought that the mind is basically physical, and that physicality is the source of all conscious experience. This might be called materialism or physicalism, that everything reduces to the physical cosmos, including consciousness.
An opposite perspective is perhaps that the mind causes all physicality, that all that we think of as matter/energy is actually just a manifestation of our consciousness, since it only appears in consciousness, and therefore it must be caused by consciousness. This is perhaps known as idealism.
But neither has ever actually been shown to be the case. Science currently knows of no causal mechanism or connection whatsoever that explains how firing neurons cause conscious experiences, or vice versa. For example, how does a network of firing neurons cause our experience of the color red, or the taste of chocolate? No one knows. Or, conversely, how does the smell of coffee cause a storm of neural activity in the brain? No one knows.
This dilemma has been called the “hard problem of consciousness.” We simply do not know how or why firing neurons and conscious qualia (experience) are related, or if one even causes the other.
This also seems to be related to the “mind-body problem” that has perplexed philosophers for hundreds of years. How does the mind control the body, if it is controlling it? If the mind and body are two separate and distinct things, then how do they interact with each other. What is the mechanism of interaction between the two?
The truth may be that there is no causal connection, from one to the other. There may be no interaction whatsoever. Mental states may not be an epiphenomenon, or byproduct of brain activity. And likewise, mental states may not be causing the manifestation of the physical cosmos. Firing neurons may simply be the outward physical manifestation of an inward conscious experience.
Or in other words, the two are really one and the same thing, seen in two different ways. One doesn’t cause the other, or is the source of the other, or have any other sort of interaction as if between two separate and distinct things, but rather they may be both the activity of the very same thing, perhaps seen from inner and outer relative perspectives, two sides of the same coin. This may be what is known in philosophy as dual-aspect monism (or double-aspect theory), which may be closely related to dialectical monism (or dualistic monism).
Conscious experience is perhaps what it seems like on the inside, and physical matter/energy is what it seems like on the outside. Heads on a coin doesn’t cause the tails side, and while the heads and tails side of a coin can be seen as separate and distinct things, they are really part of the same one coin. Neither side can be reduced to the other.
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This is a radical possibility, because it also means that mind and matter/energy are at some level one and the same entity, and not two separate things as we often think. In the spiritual traditions they might express this same reality by saying that spirit and body are one.
The matter/energy in the cosmos may not be wholly dead, inert, nonliving, but rather it may be mindful or conscious in a deep way, and when that matter/energy gets organized in the highly complex forms and layered systems of humans and other life, we observe an amount of consciousness in them, that matter/energy seems to come alive with knowing. This perspective is perhaps known as panpsychism.
It is perhaps like gravity; in minute amounts of mass, gravity is mostly negligible, but in large amounts of mass, gravity becomes quite manifest. Perhaps in the most simple and basic forms of matter/energy there is no noticeable consciousness, but when that matter/energy becomes more complex, consciousness emerges as a recognizable quality of that organization of matter/energy. The matter/energy seems to have come alive, capable of knowing itself as both matter/energy and consciousness.
Another way we could look at this is that we have a physical side of the brain and body, and we have a conscious (spiritual) side of the mind. The brain is physical, yes, but that does not mean that consciousness and the mind is physical. Consciousness and the mind seem to be quite NON-physical. We cannot directly touch the color red, even though we can touch the neurons that are firing which correlate with the qualia of red.
So to return to my friend’s statement, “I don’t understand any literal concept of mind that isn’t physical,” I replied, I don’t understand any concept of mind that is physical. Mind is non-physical (or spiritual). Brain is physical.
However, and this is perhaps a paradox that can never be fully understood, I think the spiritual and physical, mind and body, consciousness and matter/energy, are One. They are only One thing, but we see them from two sides in our lived experience of reality, inner and outer. The realization of the ultimate union of the spiritual and physical, mind and matter, throughout the cosmos, is perhaps partly what the ancient Christians came to know as “resurrection.” The divine cosmos recognized itself in itself, as in a mirror. God became incarnate in humans, and all other forms of life.
The cosmos and consciousness are perhaps One, the Holy (Wholly) One, as attested by so many spiritual and mystical traditions throughout history. The physical and spiritual sides to this One may be irreducible manifestations of its singular Self. And we are That Divine Self.