Consciousness Dialogs -- Second Session: Consciousness and Its Brain
“There is no evidence of consciousness independent of the brain.” This seems to be the final refuge against any argument that consciousness is anything more than mere neural epiphenomena. But is that fair and reasonable?
Not when you consider that, “There is no evidence that consciousness is dependent on the brain.” Or, to put it another way, what consciousness is and how the brain might produce consciousness is a complete unknown. The problem has been stated this way: "How can something as immaterial as consciousness ever arise from something as unconscious as matter?"
Are there lines of evidence that suggest that consciousness is something fundamental in the universe? Quantum physics suggest that, at the atomic level, the act of observation affects the reality that is observed. In medicine, a person's state of mind can have significant effects on the body's ability to heal itself. In cardiac arrest studies patients report NDEs (near-death experiences). Pilots report out-of-the-body experiences under high gravitation anoxia. Karl Pribram and others propose a holographic model for the brain. Savants with brain injury seem to access holographic mind and memory, mystics and meditators report experiences of consciousness that are unbounded by time, space, conception and perception. In DMT and ayahuasca (a hallucinogen) studies (Strassman) participants report being in other realities. There are studies of children that report previous lives. Even atheists and scientists report sudden “mystical” experiences that result in various revisions of worldview. A.J. Ayer himself reported a Near Death Experience (NDE).
These things are considered anomalous. Mainstream science makes a point of ignoring such events because it is outside the materialist paradigm. For materialism nothing is irreducibly real but “the physical.” And to qualify as physical it must be measurable and quantifiable. When an anomaly can no longer be ignored, the common reaction is to attempt to explain it within the current paradigm. If the anomaly persists, despite all attempts to explain it, then maybe the fundamental assumptions of the prevailing worldview need to be questioned. (Thomas Kuhn) And the history of science is the overthrow of previous models.
Last month there was an interview with Sam Parnia in New Scientist on NDEs. Pim Von Lommel, a cardiac surgeon, published an article in Nature on NDEs on the operating table. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon, has recently been in the news with his NDE experience. Mario Beauregard is a neuroscience researcher who has written several books on the subject. And there are many more such publications. Chris Carter has a book anthologizing this area.
Consciousness has by no means been proven dependent on the brain. Rather than merely trying to extend the reach of materialist physics and chemistry, and propose more and more complex epicycles to the old paradigm, let us discuss some of the other models. It is always safe to be an empirical pluralist. In the Consciousness Dialogs we are not merely disputing essences and ephemera, we are trying to reckon our actual place in the universe. Does science provide the only true compass or is science a single black-and-white road cutting through a technicolor phenomenology of infinite diversity? I want to find out.
Optional preparatory reading:
• Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, Thomas Nagel
• Consciousness and the Universe, Ed. Roger Penrose
• Embracing Mind, The Common Ground of Science and Spirituality, B. Alan Wallace
• Irreducible Mind, Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century, Ed. Kelly
• The Quantum Enigma, Physics Encounters Consciousness, Rosenblum and Kuttner