In science, problems get solved faster when the pot begins to boil. Dormant questions need motivation, which is why I posed a million-dollar challenge to anyone in the materialist camp who could demonstrate how matter turns into mind. (Please see my two preceding posts, which set up this provocative issue.) In the wake of the challenge, a stir was indeed created. The general public isn't aware that 99 percent of neuroscientists, biologists, and physicists interested in the mind-brain problem assume without question that the brain creates the mind. This is one of those assumptions that, once exploded, seems ridiculous in hindsight.
It's not exploded yet, but we're getting closer. Consider what it means to say that your brain creates your mind. Somewhere in the fabric of time, floating molecules of hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon, the basic elements in organic chemistry, organized a complex clump of molecules that learned to think, to take in the three-dimensional world, and finally to become aware of what they were doing. This seems like a totally untenable position to me, and to a growing body of scientists who are adopting a far different view, that mind came first, bringing with it the organizing power to evolve the structure of the human brain.
At first blush the two possibilities seem equal and perhaps equally improbable. If the materialists are correct, there has to be a way for matter to learn to think, which has never been proven. If the consciousness camp is right, mind has to find a way to create molecules. The reason that the second position makes sense is that our thoughts are creating molecules all the time -- the chemical makeup of the brain is altered with every thought, feeling, and sensation. That is indisputable. But the bias in favor of materialism is strong, upheld mainly by inertia. Why bother to re-examine the entire creation when it's obvious, we are told, that we live in a physical universe?
The answer is this: We don't live in a physical universe as defined by rocks, trees, mountains, and Chinese porcelain. The quantum revolution long ago unmasked the illusion of physicality, proving with exact mathematical certainty that matter consists of waves in an infinite quantum field. How these waves transform into material objects remains one of the two greatest questions facing physics. (The math is there, but not the actual process.) The other great unsolved mystery is to find the biological basis of mind.
My million-dollar challenge encompasses both issues. Until we know how matter relates to consciousness, there is nothing definitive to be said about the brain, normal experience, and the origin of thought. No one knows where their next thought is coming from. Thoughts emerge from a field of infinite possibilities, and the same is true of atoms and the subatomic particles that they are made of. My challenge isn't frivolous, but I firmly believe no solution exists as long as anyone, however brilliant, adopts the physicalist position that everything about the mind -- our inspiration, reasoning, love and joy -- can be derived from physical properties. It's like someone claiming that Picasso's genius comes down to analyzing the paint he used.
Which brings us to the zombies. The relation between mind and matter has vexed philosophers for centuries. In the twentieth century the problem landed in the lap of science, which began to search for hard data and provable facts. These would prove superior to woolly-minded speculation. But the only result anyone could obtain was in the area of brain activity. So the conclusion was drawn that if mind and brain are the same, there's no need to go beyond super-sophisticated fMRIs, and in short order the mind would have no more mysteries to yield. No serious thinker with a philosophy background can actually agree to this conclusion; it's like saying that since Mozart's music is played on the piano, all we need to know is how a piano works.
Science needed an ally from the philosophers' camp, which it found in Daniel Dennett, who seemingly erased the whole dilemma by saying that the most mysterious products of the mind -- a person's sense of self, free will, and even self-awareness -- are total illusions produced by brain chemistry. Since our every thought and action is actually the product of neuronal activity and nothing else, we are like zombies, showing all the signs of autonomous awareness while in fact existing on the level of biological machinery. (Zombie has become part of the terminology, synonymous with biological robot. I hope Dennett includes himself.) Dennett became notorious for his zombie metaphor, since he meant it literally. Only extreme materialists feel comfortable adopting such a theory, since it's evident on the face of it that we do in fact have self-awareness, free will, creativity, choice, and all the other advantages of mind that are not enjoyed by a computer.
But Dennett was clever enough to take the materialist assumption to its logical conclusion. This leaves everyone with only two choices. Either the human mind -- including the minds of Shakespeare, Bach, and Einstein -- is only an artifact of neuronal activity or carrying the materialist assumption to its logical conclusion reveals its absurdity to begin with. Both alternatives are hotly argued, so the game is afoot. Apparently money can even motivate a zombie.
Deepak Chopra, M.D., is the author of more than 80 books, with 22 New York Times bestsellers, including Super Brain, co-authored with Rudi Tanzi, Ph.D. 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.