Can Brain Science Explain Experience? (Part 2)

For at least two thousand years thinkers have tried to explain the human mind and disagreed heatedly, but a consensus has formed around one thing.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

By Deepak Chopra MD, Menas Kafatos, PhD., Subhash Kak, PhD., Rudolph E. Tanzi, PhD., and Neil Theise, MD

For at least two thousand years thinkers have tried to explain the human mind and disagreed heatedly, but a consensus has formed around one thing. When you try to figure out where the mind comes from, you find yourself in a strange domain filled with mirrors, illusions, and a shaky grasp on reality. The mind is harder to hunt down than the mythical unicorn, because the hunter and the hunted are the same. This frustrating obstacle has led to speculation that swings between two extremes - at one extreme consciousness is pure illusion created by brain chemistry. At the other extreme consciousness is a given that defies exploration, much as water is a given to a fish. We can't jump out of our minds to land on a place where objective observations can be made, just as a fish cannot land on dry land as a way to observe the sea. Both are physically impossible.

Must the riddle of the mind remain a riddle? In the first post we looked at the dominant field of research, neuroscience, that lays claim to explaining consciousness. (You may want to read Part 1 first to get the basics of what brain science is trying to achieve.) Our position is radically different from the vast majority of brain researchers, who unravel the intricacies of the mind by dissecting the intricacies of the human nervous system. We claim that mind doesn't need the brain in order to exist. It precedes all living things by being fundamental to the universe. In a word, we inhabit a conscious universe.

Over the past decade or so this notion has gained enormous stature, even though it began as a ridiculed fantasy. Some leading cosmologists are circling back to the insights of quantum pioneers like Max Planck and Erwin Schrödinger. Planck declared that it was impossible to "get behind" consciousness, meaning that it can't be explained by referring to anything more primal. Schrödinger held that consciousness cannot be subdivided; there is only one consciousness, even though it appears to be subdivided into billions of individual minds. To use an honored analogy from the Vedanta tradition in India, gold can be made into countless objects, but in essence they are the same gold.

Planck, Schrödinger, and their like-minded colleagues never pursued this line of thought very far, being consumed with the new frontiers of quantum mechanics. Today, the physicists who are circling back can take advantage of brain science, which gives them a continuous view of mind from the biggest to the smallest, from the entire cosmos to the subatomic particles that that constitute all objects, including the human brain.

One of the most open-minded cosmologists, Max Tegmark of MIT, is a gifted explainer of difficult mind-brain-cosmos issues (one of his most entertaining and thought-provoking lectures is on YouTube under the title, Max Tegmark at the Secret Science Club.) Tegmark goes further than traditional physicalists, the preferred term for those who trace all phenomena back to matter and energy. He has become identified with a tag line: Consciousness is a state of matter. This view remains materialistic, in that subatomic particles come first and foremost, arriving from the quantum vacuum carrying information, which then becomes one of the primary trademarks of consciousness. By transferring and building up more complex information structures, one arrives at the human brain and its capacity to create artificial intelligence in computers of the future - everything depends on how powerful their information processing becomes.

We have no intention of getting into the weeds here. Quantum physics is a two-edged sword when it comes to explaining the mind. Its data can be used to justify a conscious universe or to justify a totally mechanical universe based entirely on mathematical models. This is where Tegmark has fascinated his peers, because he wants to rescue the materialist view - and totally believes in mathematics as the ultimate model of reality - and by positing that matter can have the property of consciousness, his ambitions are, quite literally, cosmic. He wants to deliver a universe where math is compatible with mind.

The higher you climb, the farther you may fall. In Tegmark's case, critiques have emerged in equal measure with praise. He himself poses the most troubling problems that must be confronted;

  1. Since it is agreed among quantum theorists that subatomic particles are essentially mathematical constructs, with no fixed properties that resemble tangible objects, how did rocks, clouds, mountains, and trees get their physical properties? It looks like creation out of nothing.
  2. To date, there have been endless discoveries of ever more potent mathematics to explain the cosmos. But what if the chain isn't endless? We may be at the point where Nature's patterns, and the math that describes them, reach an end. If that's true, then the mathematical model will no longer work, just as every previous model going back to the Greeks has succumbed. The big difference is that no one trained to view math as the ultimate tool of science can conceive of what would replace it.
  3. What gives some kinds of matter the property of consciousness and not others? Oxygen has the property of being gaseous, while iron is metallic. The difference can be explained using the periodic chart of the elements. No such explanation exists for why the sugar in your brain participates in thinking, while the sugar in a sugar cube doesn't.
  4. "Information" is a dubious foundation for consciousness. You can make heavier elements by adding more protons to an atom and more atoms to a molecule, but is it true that the great achievements of the mind (represented by Mozart, Shakespeare, and Einstein) were gained simply by adding more information? A Mozart symphony contains no more and no less information than a symphony by one of his hack contemporaries. Information seems like a weak reed to lean upon if you want to explain inspiration, insight, "aha" moments, moods, desires, intentions, creativity, and much else that we prize in human consciousness.
  5. There is a limit to all models, because reality is too complex to be whittled down. The great mathematician John von Neumann supposedly said that the only adequate model of a neuron would be a neuron. In other words, you can't explain the mind by reducing it to anything else.

Tegmark offers an eloquent exposition of his claim that matter may have consciousness as one of its basic properties - at least he, and others in the same wave of cosmologists - are nibbling around the fringes of a universe that may be entirely mindful. One camp is willing to call itself panpsychism, meaning that in some way everything is conscious. This would be the same as accepting Schrödinger's original notion that consciousness is holistic and cannot be subdivided. A radically new view of reality emerges if you accept this one idea, sending shock waves through brain science, quantum physics, and cosmology. We'll outline the coming revolution in the third part of this series.

For now, here are some quotations from a thinker who looked to the mind's farthest horizon and beyond. His name is Vasistha, a Vedic sage writing many centuries ago, but almost eerily anticipating the most far-seeing speculations in current cosmology.

"The entire universe is forever the same as the consciousness that dwells in every atom, even as an ornament is non-different from gold."

"Cosmic consciousness alone exists now and ever; in it are no worlds, no created beings. That consciousness reflected in itself appears to be creation."

"This consciousness is not knowable: when it wishes to become the knowable, it is known as the universe".

"The world exists because consciousness is, and the world is the body of consciousness."

(To be cont.)

Deepak Chopra, MD is the author of more than 80 books with twenty-two New York Times bestsellers including Super Brain. He serves as the founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing. Join him at The Chopra Foundation Sages and Scientists Symposium 2014.

Menas C. Kafatos is the Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor of Computational Physics at Chapman University. He is a quantum physicist, cosmologist, climate change researcher and works extensively on consciousness and the above fields. His doctoral thesis advisor was noted M.I.T. professor Philip Morrison who studied under J. Robert Oppenheimer. Kafatos' studies involved quantum physicists Hans Bethe, Victor Weisskopf and cosmologist Thomas Gold. He is co-author with Deepak Chopra of the forthcoming book, Who Made God and Other Cosmic Riddles. (Harmony)

Subhash Kak, PhD., Regents Professor of Computer Science, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater

Rudolph E. Tanzi, PhD., Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard University, and Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), co-author with Deepak Chopra of Super Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-being. (Harmony)

Neil Theise, MD, Professor, Pathology and Medicine, (Division of Digestive Diseases) and Director of the Liver and Stem Cell Research Laboratory, Beth Israel Medical Center -- Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York.

Go To Homepage