Mystery of Consciousness: A Critique

By Nicanor Perlas, Updated 03 April 2017

In a workshop that the author facilitated in the Philippines, a group of young people shocked many of the participants. One of them in particular argued that there is no God, that our belief in God is just a program we were all made to believe, and that our consciousness is nothing but the product of firing of neurons in our brain.

The others in the workshop almost panicked. They could not articulate their perspective on why human consciousness is not a mere product of the physical brain and why there is a higher intelligence that pervades the universe.

In response I summarized the arguments against this simplistic and mistaken notion of consciousness as a mere product of the brain. I then went on to show how the very development of the brain itself is driven by consciousness as amply illustrated in the phenomena of neuroplasticity and the cultural formation of the prefrontal area of our brain.

It was clear that the young participants were not aware of the most recent developments in science and its implications for the decades old debate on the nature of consciousness, from a scientific perspective.

We are more than our brain. When we understand this, then this will liberate us to look deeper at ourselves and understand why there is an awesome spiritual power within us, a power not only to remake ourselves, but a power that can transform worlds.

Time magazine devoted an issue to the “Mystery of Consciousness” in 2010, thereby reviving bitter debates about a topic that has gripped humanity for hundreds of years. Given the title, there was a sense of anticipation that perhaps scientists had finally unlocked the mysterious workings of the human mind with all its profound implications for the future of humanity. We know that advances in technology have resulted in powerful and sophisticated non-invasive instruments including, among others, the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) that can visualize the brain in action without cracking the brain open.

As one reads through Time’s lead article, however, there comes a sinking feeling. There are some fascinating discoveries. But the overall paradigm is nothing but a recycled argument, albeit more sophisticated, from 19th century materialistic and reductionist science, one that has already been surpassed by many philosophical and scientific developments in the 20th century.

Here, in essence, are the key arguments of Steven Pinker, author of the Time article . Dr. Pinker is a professor of psychology from Harvard University.

Pinker writes that brain scientists are trying to unravel two kinds of problems connected with the relationship of the brain to consciousness. The “Easy Problem” is correlating our different experiences of consciousness with specific areas of our brain. The famous scientist, Nobel Laureate Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, describes the “Easy Problem” as the “astonishing hypothesis”, the idea that “our thoughts, sensations, joys and aches consist entirely of physiological activity in the tissues of the brain. Consciousness does not reside in an ethereal soul that uses the brain like a PDA [personal digital assistant]; consciousness is the activity of the brain.”

The “Hard Problem”, on the other hand, is explaining “how subjective experience arises from neural computation.” On the latter, Pinker observes: “And not surprisingly, everyone agrees that the hard problem (if it is a problem) remains a mystery.”

Pinker gives the impression that the “easy problem” has already been solved. Functional MRI now allows cognitive neuroscientists to “almost read” people’s thoughts on the basis of patterns of blood flow in people’s brains. Scientists can infer from these brain images whether a person is thinking about a “bottle or a shoe”.

Pinker marshals additional empirical findings to support his declaration. Pinker argues that physical manipulations can result in certain kinds of consciousness. “Electrical stimulation of the brain during surgery can cause a person to have hallucinations that are indistinguishable from reality, such as a song playing in the room or a childhood birthday party. Chemicals that affect the brain, from caffeine and alcohol to Prozac and LSD, can profoundly alter how people think, feel and see. Surgery that severs the corpus callosum, separating the two hemispheres (a treatment for epilepsy), spawns two consciousnesses within the same skull, as if the soul could be cleaved in two with a knife.”

Pinker also thinks that a person’s consciousness is extinguished when the brain is dead. He believes that past attempts to contact the souls of the dead are only “cheap magic trips.” Furthermore, the widely reported near death experiences (NDE) of tens of thousands of people are nothing but “symptoms of oxygen starvation in the eyes and brain. In September, a team of Swiss neuroscientists reported that they could turn out-of-body experiences on and off by stimulating the part of the brain in which vision and bodily sensations converge.”

Pinker’s critique of soul and spirit reaches fever pitch when he attacks the widely experienced reality of a “self”. Pinker says there is no “I”, that the “I” is an illusion. The sense of self [ordinary self and witness self] is fleeting depending on which neural event is stronger than another. According to Pinker, consciousness “turns out to consist of a maelstrom of events distributed across the brain. These events compete for attention, and as one process outshouts the others, the brain rationalizes the outcome after the fact and concocts the impression that a single self was in charge all along.”

From this denial of self, the denial of free human action inevitably follows. Pinker claims that voluntary action, hence freedom, is an illusion because a free act is merely the result of “noticing a correlation between what we decide and how our bodies move.”

The implications of a hard position on the “Easy Problem” (correlating the neural correlates of consciousness) does not bother Pinker. He is happy to have no freedom, no self (hence no identity) and to vanish into nothingness after death. He exclaims excitedly that neuroscientists “are well on the way to identifying the neural correlates of consciousness, a part of the Easy Problem.”

From this vantage point, Pinker like other philosophers, see no point in investigating the “Hard Problem” in consciousness research. (See above.) For Pinker and others, the “Hard Problem” “boils down to information processing in the brain and thus gets sucked back into the Easy Problem, leaving nothing else to explain.” Pinker understands why most people will act with incredulity regarding this conclusion “because it seems to deny the ultimate undeniable fact: our own experience.” But, tough luck, for that is the way reality is, Pinker believes.

But incredulity leads almost to absurdity when Pinker tries to buttress this cavalier attitude to the Hard Problem with another hypothesis by philosopher Colin McGinn. The latter believes that “our vertigo when pondering the Hard Problem is itself a quirk of our brains. The brain is a product of evolution, and just as animal brains have their limitations, we have ours. Our brains can’t hold a hundred numbers in memory, can’t visualize seven-dimensional space and perhaps can’t intuitively grasp why neural information processing observed from the outside should give rise to subjective experience on the inside.”

Pinker is not fazed by the improbability of this assertion. He says: “This is where I place my bet, though I admit that the theory could be demolished when an unborn genius–a Darwin or Einstein of consciousness–comes up with a flabbergasting new idea that suddenly makes it all clear to us.”

It is good that Pinker leaves a small opening in his own position. For a closer analysis of his claims reveals a number of gaping holes in his argument.

Pinker’s own examples refute many of his points above. In the very beginning of his article, he writes about a woman who had inner experiences despite the fact that parts of her brain connected with speech were already damaged. So obviously the woman was having an inner experience even if the portions of her brain correlated with the capacity to express this inner experience were damaged. Pinker’s beliefs have blinded him from seeing this obvious contradiction in his own essay.

In addition, Pinker seems to be ignorant of the revolutionary findings of Nobel Laureate John Eccles in the area of brain science. Eccles demonstrated beyond doubt that the conscious intention to do something comes first–before the firing of the brain cells and the whole neural network connected with this human intention. Eccles specified the supplementary motor area (SMA) as the brain area that is activated first by human consciousness.

These findings contradicted Sperry’s own theoretical inclinations. Originally, and for decades, Eccles had wanted to prove that brain processes create consciousness. His fact-based scientific discoveries showed otherwise. Consciousness can precede and alter brain events.

Pinker’s speculations also cannot erase from the empirical territory the outstanding fact-based discoveries of the Global Consciousness Project based in Princeton University. This project has found a way to construct random event generators (REGs) on the basis of quantum physics. REGs generate random events. So scientists in Princeton wanted to determine whether or not consciousness can alter the randomness of the REG machines. If consciousness induces non-random patterns in the REG machines, then it would mean that consciousness is not fully enclosed and explained by the brain and has the power to alter material events.

Their data, collected from a global network of more than 40 autonomous REG machines in many countries, clearly demonstrates that consciousness can affect the workings of matter.

Readings for significant global events like September 11 clearly show that consciousness impacts matter. It is therefore not far-fetched to think that, contrary to Pinker’s belief, consciousness can alter brain events. In this regard, it is highly telling that Pinker also ignores the revolutionary findings of neuroplasticity. This new science has now established that our consciousness can not only stimulate the emergence of new brain cells (neurogenesis), but can also alter the functional areas of the brain (neuroplasticity).

For example, a person’s visual cortex–what enables us to see physical objects–can be transformed, by conscious training, into an adjunct or supplementary auditory cortex in blind people.

Neuroplasticity also debunks the idea that we have no sense of self or freedom. Transforming our brain (neuroplasticity) requires a continuous and consistent focus and attention that overcomes random brain processes. There is clearly a consistent sense of self that freely undertakes the conscious and voluntary act of pursuing a practice that ultimately transforms the brain to be a supportive matrix for the new practices and habits that we want to create. Otherwise, there would be no cure to depression and addiction, among others–cures that contradict the very contentions of Pinker.

Maybe Pinker did not wish to access the thoughts and writings of the late Nobel Laureate Roger Sperry because the latter clearly argued, on the basis of his laboratory results, that consciousness survives death. And Sperry is not alone.

As early as the 70s and 80s of the last century, the US Department of Defense was spending millions of dollars using, or better, misusing public funds and the capacity of consciousness to transcend its bodily (including) brain limits. The US military trained individuals to master out-of-body (OBE) journeys to expand and advance the range of their arsenal in espionage and counter-espionage. Their OBE experts traveled in consciousness to the depths of the sea, into the hidden and locked vaults of target enemy buildings to secure highly confidential information. Such a program was publicly defended in the public records of the US Congress in the early 1980s. So much for Pinker’s oxygen-theory of near-death experiences.

While ordinary people can easily refute Pinker’s assertions with their own reflexive and intentional consciousness, Pinker ignores two hard-core advances in epistemology, the science of knowledge.

Kurt Godel, the successor to Einstein’s Chair in Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Studies, shocked the world with his theory widely known today as Godel’s Theorem. This theorem of this brilliant mathematician showed that one can never use the assumptions of a system to prove the truth of a system. Pinker argues that consciousness is as determined and mechanical as the human brain. So a determined and mechanical system, like the brain, can never produce a reflexive consciousness, one that can reflect on brain events and extrapolate on implications.

Further there is also another deep epistemological contradiction in Pinker’s position. If he claims that consciousness is nothing but brain events, then his theory of consciousness is basically worthless with regards to making any universal claims about the nature of consciousness in connection with the brain. For, if his own conclusions are used against his own theory, then Pinker’s theory of consciousness as brain falls apart. After all, it is nothing but an aspect of brain dynamics–nothing more. And since brain dynamics can change, then Pinker’s consciousness and the theories it contains, may dramatically alter in the next moment.

Stated in another way, Pinker commits a fundamental epistemological error. There can be no science of consciousness based on his theory of consciousness. One cannot make a scientific statement because that statement is nothing but a product of a random brain event. It cannot lead to any single conclusion, since an unfree consciousness cannot even rise above a random, determined event to make an unbiased observation.

Pinker, in effect, torpedoes any notion of reliable scientific knowledge including, even his very own theories about the brain. In his world, there can be no scientific truths, only temporary neural events that produce the illusion of regularity in the world. Relegating consciousness to a neural event undermines the idea that all neural events must come from brain tissue. There can be no universal conclusion, only ad hoc random speculations about brain correlations.

And in all the foregoing discussions, we have not even treated the holographic theories of the brain that are starting to emerge and attract the serious attention of other brain researchers.

Brain scientists are developing holographic and even quantum models of the brain exactly because the scientific data reveals serious flaws in the simplistic and reductionist brain theories advocated by people like Pinker. Some advanced versions of quantum brain theory, for example, are showing that memory does not reside in the brain tissue but is stored in the quantum field of the universe.

Indeed, mysteries remain regarding the nature of consciousness, especially how something as intangible as consciousness can affect something as hard and physically solid as the human brain. But these mysteries will never be revealed by scientists who continue to insist that consciousness is nothing but material brain events.

In a broader framework, there will be room for studying the correlations between consciousness and the brain. And these wonderful patterns will not lose their grandeur and beauty when science finally understands how the spiritual processes behind consciousness shape the final direction and performance of the physical brain itself. We will have then moved closer to a deeper understanding of the awesome capacity of human beings to acknowledge not only their materiality but also, at the same time, to open the door, thru their consciousness, to the creative possibilities of the future that come from their access to the more comprehensive domains of the spirit.

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