by Michael Kenning
The Brain of Wonderful Tricks
The stimulation or destruction of any part of the brain affects its corresponding physical or mental behaviour. A damaged hippocampus impairs memory. Stimulating the amygdala elicits violent behaviour. A shrunken frontal lobe produces anti-social behaviour (as was the case with a patient called ‘J.P.’). Gradually we are are uncovering the neural correlates1 of our behaviour, but how these neural networks produce emotion, thought, experience, memory, the experience of ‘qualia’, such as colours, emotions, sound, smell, and how they are produced, has eluded scientists and philosophers alike.2
Being the natural dualists we are (see The Self Illusion), it is not immediately obvious that the moments in which we feel most out-of-body, or weightless, or one-with-nature, are grounded in matter. Doubtless the majority of people have felt at least once the feeling of weightlessness, or bodilessness (for lack of a better word).
This feeling has been experimented with in one case: A forty-three-year-old suffering from severe epileptic seizures had her right angular gyrus of the temporal lobe stimulated through electric shocks. The scientists conducting this study were able to control the height she reported being above the bed using different levels of electricity (Blanke et al, 2002 cited in The Believing Brain). These are experiences we have in which we feel most separate from our body, and yet they are still rooted in electrochemical activity.
These apparently bodiless experiences are what make many religious experiences. In 2001, Michael Persigner published an article in the Practice and Opinion section of The Journal of Neuropsychiatry to account for the paranormal experiences. He first noted that ‘patients who display complex partial seizures with foci within the temporal lobes … report more frequent paranormal experiences has been known for decades’, and that ‘[p]aranormal beliefs and paranormal experiences are related.’3 Furthermore, 15 years previous to the study, Persigner noticed that ‘specific complex magnetic fields’ over the right hemisphere made participants, who were unaware of the experiments purpose, experience a ‘sensed presence’ or ‘sentient being’.
Other cases described included a couple who felt ‘an apparition moving through their bed’, and a female adolescent experiencing a presence ‘stimulate her inner vagina and uterus, and sensed the outline of a baby over her left shoulder.’ While the researchers found possible neurological reasons for the experience, the girl’s ‘religious context resulted in a different interpretation’ on her part. Electromagnetic readings in the locations of these experiences revealed ‘repeated transient of complex magnetic fields’ similar to those use to induce a sensed presence in the laboratory.
Experiences like these are in the extremes. There are the more subtle emotions that make us feel just as bodiless. Love is one of these emotions. Oxytocin is considered to be the neurotransmitter most frequently associated with forming personal and social bonds. It’s released by mothers when holding their children, during orgasms, and in the final stages of childbirth (Carter, R., 2010, p. 124).
Setting the Schism
Accounting for the most extreme of human experiences in neurological terms will not satisfy the argument—and it’s not the primary aim of this post either. This is the salient point, though: Dualism4 is dead, but there are still philosophers grasping onto it in the name of ‘monism’5.
‘Non-reductive monism’, better termed ‘property dualism’ (because it is a dualism), states that there are two kinds of ‘properties’: the mental and the physical. Here’s how K. T. Maslin describes it:
[Non-reductive monism do] not insist that mental properties are nothing over and above physical properties. On the contrary, it is willing to allow that mental properties are different in kind from physical properties …
[P]roperty dualism dispenses with the dualism of substances …
There are only physical substances and physical events, hence it is a form of monism. [T]here is a one-sided dependence of the mental on the physical … (An Intro. to The Philosophy of Mind, p. 153)
If this ‘mental property’ is in the physical realm, as Maslin stated, then this means we are able to test for it … right?
I think it would be true to say that we have a strong, overwhelming intuition that there is a fixed gulf between the material and the mental, which not only forever prohibits their identification, but in addition renders an account of how one gives rise to the other out of the question. (ibid., p. 168)
He’s right—up until the second comma. There is a strong intuition to believe in this ‘fixed gulf’, but that’s as far as you can reasonably go.6 I myself freely admit that I sometimes fall into the trap of the appeal to intuition. But it is hardly surprising that we cannot conceive of a ‘bridge’ between the ‘gap’ when we have the small island of evidence we have now. What seems intuitive to us isn’t necessarily the right thought process, and it might not lead us anywhere new. Take Darwin’s scepticism—albeit more sensible—about the evolution of the eye:
To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree.
The tendency to posit a completely new substance (yes, it is a non-physical substance)—one we do not have and cannot know we have—is all too unoriginal. Giving problems names does nothing to describe them, either.
This philosophical theory places you on both sites of the proverbial fence.7 Is Maslin a dualist or a monist? Yes. But what he does admit, and what he must admit, as well as those who agree with him, is that the ‘mental properties’ are completely dependent upon the ‘physical properties’. Any diversion on his part would be inconsistent with his theory, because it would be to immediately assume that these ‘mental properties’ can assume an independent existent. (He already eschewed Cartesian dualism, after all.)
With this in mind, we are left with dualism versus monism: our human experiences are either believed to be products of physical reality, or exogenous.
The case for a physical explanation behind consciousness has been presented. Now the implications of such beliefs must be explained. Nick Lane, in Life Ascending, argues that ‘feelings are entailed by patterns of neural firing, by a very precise code.’ If this is true, or some such similar case is true, then there is no conceivable way that emotions, thoughts, ideas, words, etc., could be produced without a brain.
By contrast, dualism would leave us to a completely different conclusion. If the ‘soul’ is an incorporeal thing, capable of leading an independent existence, then it is also the case that emotions, thoughts, ideas, words, etc., are all capable of being existent, independent of the brain, or ‘patterns of neural firing’.
It would therefore be logical to assume that any incorporeal being would be able to host emotions, thoughts, ideas, words, etc., without requiring a brain. This reasoning also applies in the opposing direction. If one believes that an incorporeal being can hold emotions, thoughts, ideas, words, etc., then you must—must!—believe that emotions can exist independent of neural nets and the brain, or any similar physical structure.
This would make sense for any theist or deist. How many times have you heard the phrase ‘God is Love’, or ‘God loves his children’. What about Genesis 1:31? ‘God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.’ It’s present in the Qur’an, too: ‘If you should love Allah, then follow me, [so] Allah will love you and forgive you your sins. And Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.’
The Olympian Gods in all their myths (which, so far as I have read, are wonderful) feel some set of emotions or another. They are portrayed as infallible as human beings, as susceptible as we are to the vagaries of the human condition; they embody the highest of intellectual virtues, or superhuman strength. In every theistic and deistic world religion, the gods have been bestowed with some collection of mental power whilst being entirely ethereal.
These are what must be admitted if you are a dualist—and it isn’t hard to do so. If you are a monist, however, it is not logically possible to also believe in gods.
There’s the dilemma: if you’re a monist, you can’t logically believe in any immaterial gods; if you’re a dualist, it's a little easier, but you still have a long way to go to prove your case.
Neurology Without The Tools—Or Eyes
‘You sadden me, Mrs Sauskind. I wish I could find it in my heart to tell you that I find your scepticism rewarding and invigorating, but with the best will in the world I cannot. I drink quiet, Mrs Sauskind, drained. I think you'll find an item in the build to that effect. Let me see. … Ah yes, here we are, “Struggling on in the face of draining scepticism from client, drinks—three hundred and twenty-seven pounds fifty.” Would that I did not have to make such charges, my dear Mrs Sauskind, would that the occasion did not continually arise. Not believing in my methods only makes my job more difficult, mrs, and hence, regrettably, more expensive.’ —Dirk Gently in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency
There will be more objections to my argument than there has been ink spilt over the Trinity. Many will be vacant: others will be thought-provoking. But few will overcome the dilemma. However terse it may be, it doesn’t take away from the thrust of the argument.
The ‘theories’ of many charlatans and pseudo-scientists, examples being Deepak Chopra and Graham Hancock, work from the platform of ignorance. We know so little about the brain, and in particular about consciousness, and people like these claim that they know more; and what’s more that we cannot verify what they to know exclusively without first believing what they say.
An objection I can think of off the top of my head would be something like this: Well, what if there is a god, or gods, and it is/they are ‘physical’? How big would you want the god to be? The bigger it is, the slower the neural activity, the slower it would think. You could make it small; but how many neural nets could you fit into that?
There is an experiment that may, if successful, yield some interesting results. If there is any human behaviour that cannot be correlated with any neural activity in the brain or body, and has been tested and repeated numerous times under controlled conditions, only then might I consider that there might be a distinct ‘thing’ from physical matter, and only then might the religious and charlatans be vindicated.
1 Neural correlates are the neural nets in the brain which correspond to a particular behaviour, whether it’s mental or physical. For instance, there is an area of the brain called the primary motor area; if certain parts are stimulated with electricity, you can manipulate its corresponding body parts. And vice versa, moving your arms and legs will cause the associated areas in the primary motor area to ‘light up’.
2 In Nick Lane’s Life Ascending, Daniel Dennett is accused of begging the question in the last chapter on qualia in Consciousness Explained when he asked (and I paraphrase), why is it that electrochemical happenings in the brain can’t produce qualia? What is not realised is that he asked this question after citing multitudes of philosophers who have become absolutely certain that they cannot be explained using the vast, complex networks of neurones—without giving a reason other than intuition, by the way; even to the point of shifting the problem onto physics, by postulating that there might be new laws or new properties of matter to discover (which is not impossible, and if evidence does arise to support it I will admit it, but new laws purely for the sake of consciousness is asking for too much). Even Nick Lane almost fell into the trap.
Here’s an example of a philosopher, K. T. Maslin, passing-off any explanation of consciousness in electrochemical terms:
The basis of the objection is this: physical occurrences do not just appear to be different from consciousness; they are utterly different, so utterly different in fact, that it is inconceivable how the physical could produce the mental (Intro. to The Philosophy of Mind, p. 168).
Aside from begging the question (who’s to say there is a mental substance at all?), other questions come to mind. Why is it a surprise that it is inconceivable that the physical could produce the ‘mental’? We’ve barely scratched the surface of neurology. To what authority are these statements of ‘fact’ made? To intuition. (The same authority creationists all-too-often appeal to.) All that is provided in the favour of this view are intuition pumps.
The profundity of this view is understood with the following objections: (1) It is now possible to study the evolution of our primate brain. We are also able to observe that, with evolution, behavioural capabilities tend to correlate with the relative complexity of brains, and brain power. With this in mind, why is it insisted that we look elsewhere for an explanation?
(2) If ‘consciousness’ couldn’t possibly be multitudes of electrochemical happenings, then (and I’m borrowing this from Dennett) ‘what do you think it would seem like if it were just a combination of electrochemical happenings in your brain?’
(If you would like to see a great analysis on the philosopher’s quale, see Daniel Dennett’s chapter, Qualia Disqualified, in his book Consciousness Explained.)
3 There is a species of lucid dreaming, called sleep paralysis, which induces a state of paralysis, pressure on the chest, the feeling of floating, flying, falling, or leaving one’s body, accompanied by fear—and other times excitement, exhilaration, rapture, or ecstasy. I owe this description to Michael Shermer’s book (pages 227-228 of The Believing Brain), so I will continue by quoting him:
Several centuries ago, the English referred to nighttime sensations of chest pressure from witches or other supernatural beings as the ‘mare’, from Anglo-Saxon merran, or ‘to crush’. So a nightmare was believed to represent a crusher who comes in the night. Since they lived in a demon-haunted world, they called these crushers demons. Since we live in a alien-haunted world, we call them aliens. Your culture decides what labels to assign to these anomalous brain experiences.
4 Dualism is the philosophical theory that there is the mental and the physical, and the former is not reducible to the latter. I.e., you cannot explain the mental in terms of the physical.
5 ‘Monism’ posits that consciousness has its roots in physical matter. ’Reductive monism’ is the philosophical theory that all mental activity can be reduced by electrochemical processes in the brain. In contrast to ‘non-reductive monism’, it does not postulate a second ‘mental property’
6 Thought it adds nothing to the neurosciences, it is therefore a great thinking aid because of how intuitive it is. Just as Daniel C. Dennett uses the idea of homunculi—tiny people inside of the brain controlling everything, which has presented the problem of infinite regress—to help us think about our various faculties, so can ‘non-reductive monism’, and this conception of ‘mental properties’ and ‘physical properties’.
7 He even admits it himself:
What appears to be required is a theory that contract and middle path between radical materialism and strong dualism, a theory which, on the other hand, does not seek to deny the fact of mentality by reducing states of mind to the purely physical but, on the other, does not turn the possesses of mental states into incorporeal Cartesian ghosts, impotent to affect the world. (An Intro. to The Philosophy of Mind, p. 153)
Adams, D., 1987. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. London: Pan Books Ltd.
Carter, R., 2010. Mapping the Mind. London: Orion Books.
Darwin, C., 1998. The Origin of Species. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd.
Dennett, D.C., 1993. Consciousness Explained. London: Penguin Books.
Hood, B., 2011. The Self Illusion: Who Do You Think You Are?. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd.
Lane, N., 2010. Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution. London: Profile Books Ltd.
Maslin, K.T., 2011. An Introduction to The Philosophy of Mind. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Shermer, M., 2012. The Believing Brain: From Spiritual Faiths to Political Convictions—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them As Truths. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd.
Articles & Journal Entries
Blanke, O., et al., 2002. Neuropsychology: Stimulating illusory own-body perceptions. Nature [Online], 419(6904), pp. 269-270. Available from: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v419/n6904/full/419269a.html [Accessed 6 September 2014]
Persinger, M., 2001. The Neuropsychiatry of Paranormal Experiences. The Journal of Neuropsychiatry [Online], 13(4), pp. 515-524. Available from: http://neuro.psychiatryonline.org/article.aspx?articleid=101550 [Accessed 7 September 2014]