The materialistic paradigm prevalent today has been fantastically successful in giving us our current level of understanding of the Universe, as well as in its contribution to our technological development. Materialism basically holds that everything is physical, or that matter/energy is primary. Another way of saying that is once all physical facts, or laws, are known, a full understanding of all aspects of reality would follow. The current level of success behind this worldview that most of us have been inculcated with since birth, makes it very natural and obvious for us to assume that the brain produces consciousness. Once all physical facts are accounted for a complete understanding of consciousness would follow, including the “why” behind your loves, passions, talents, etc.; the “why” behind everyday decisions like whether or not to get the fish taco or burger for lunch; even the “why” behind the inner feeling you get from the color red, or the smell of the ocean, as well as a fundamental explanation of any of the other veritably infinite variations on human experience that is possible. We would have a scientific, mathematical model that could explain all this in physical terms, or in terms of physical laws/facts and, at least to some extent, offer predictions. At least, that’s the idea.
However, given that we have no understanding of how conscious, subjective inner experience (i.e. qualia) can arise from unconscious physical matter, it is just that – an unproven assumption. Also, anyone with a historical viewpoint should take caution here. One thing history, specifically the history of science, has taught us is that adamantly and stubbornly sticking to the existing paradigm only guarantees that you will eventually be wrong, despite whatever level of success you currently have. It is also perhaps especially the case the longer you bump your head up against any one problem and fail to explain it under the existing paradigm. Nothing qualifies better here than the problem of explaining consciousness. As David Chalmers points out, we have made essentially zero progress in the last 100 years in our understanding of how subjective, inner experience can arise from physical matter. He coined this “the hard problem” of consciousness.
I recently came across an enjoyable article that provided a good discussion on alternative ideas which hold consciousness as primary, rather than matter. These ideas have been around for quite some time and given serious consideration by folks as far back as Hippocrates and as recently as William James. With recent evidence for psi becoming stronger and the prevalence of Near Death Experiences growing, as well as other anomalous phenomenon, these ideas are regaining momentum today. I’ll included a few snippets below and a link to the article found at realitysandwich.com. I hope you find it enjoyable.
“Lamont rightly contends that the fundamental issue is the relationship of personality to body, and divides the various positions into two broad categories: monism, which asserts that body and personality are bound together and cannot exist apart; and dualism, which asserts that body and personality are separable entities which may exist apart. Lamont is convinced that the facts of modern science weigh heavily in favor of monism, and offers the following as scientific evidence that the mind depends upon the body:
- in the evolutionary process the versatility of living forms increases with the development and complexity of their nervous systems
- the mind matures and ages with the growth and decay of the body
- alcohol, caffeine, and other drugs can affect the mind
- destruction of brain tissue by disease, or by a severe blow to the head, can impair normal mental activity; the functions of seeing, hearing and speech are correlated with specific areas of the brain.
- thinking and memory depend upon the cortex of the brain, and so ‘it is difficult beyond measure to understand how they could survive after the dissolution, decay or destruction of the living brain in which they had their original locus.’ “
“However, this conclusion is not based on the evidence alone. There is an implicit, unstated assumption behind this argument, and it is often unconsciously employed. The hidden premise behind this argument can be illustrated with the analogy of listening to music on a radio, smashing the radio’s receiver, and thereby concluding that the radio was producing the music. The implicit assumption made in all the arguments discussed above was that the relationship between brain activity and consciousness was always one of cause to effect, and never that of effect to cause. But this assumption is not known to be true, and it is not the only conceivable one consistent with the observed facts mentioned earlier. Just as consistent with the observed facts is the idea that the brain’s function is that of an intermediary between mind and body — or in other words, that the brain’s function is that of a two-way receiver-transmitter — sometimes from body to mind, and sometimes from mind to body.”
” …. as for the objection that the transmission hypothesis is somehow fantastic, exactly the same objection can be raised against the production theory. In the case of the production of steam by a kettle we have an easily understood model — of alterations of molecular motion — because the components that change are physically homogenous with each other. But part of the reason the mind-body relationship has seemed so puzzling for so long is because mental and physical events seem so completely unlike each other. This radical difference in their natures makes it exceedingly difficult to conceptualize the relationship between the two in terms of anything of which we are familiar. It is partly for this reason that even though it has been more than a century since James delivered his lecture, in all that time neither psychology nor physiology has been able to produce any intelligible model of how biochemical processes could possibly be transformed into conscious experience.”
I think it is important to realize that transmission, or TV/radio, is meant to be just an analogy and a rather crude one at that. But, it does help to point us in a direction where we can start viewing the mind/brain problem from a different perspective. A perspective that as William James pointed out is just as valid as the standard “brain produces consciousness” perspective. At this point one idea is no more supported by evidence than the other.
It has been suggested to think of consciousness more as a field found in Quantum Field Theory, with the usual non-local properties, however this too is just an analogy. Psi evidence seems to suggest consciousness is capable of obtaining information in ways that the usual fundamental forces, as modeled within QFT, would be unable to provide with the typical conventional signals. We also know that QFT is an incomplete theory and that the field perspective is probably not a fundamental picture of reality.
The perspective of holding consciousness as primary does not negate materialism, nor does it require us to throw out any existing physics. On the contrary, it would only show that materialism is a limiting view, like all human views, but still entirely valid within its domain. Likewise, we would only need to extend physics, similar to how Relativity is an extension of Newtonian theory, which is still also valid within its domain.
And, so, I still contend that is best for us to keep an open mind and not commit ourselves solely to the idea that “brain produces consciousness“.