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Is Consciousness
Physical?

David & Andrea Lane

In sum, we have to fully explore physicality before we can invoke higher emergent structures.

The feeling that consciousness is not physical or that consciousness is distinct from our body is a very common one. Indeed, the very sensation of awareness almost prima facie convinces us that our "I" is not merely an "it." John Archibald Wheeler, the renowned physicist who once mentored Richard Feynman, famously quipped: "The universe and all that it contains ('it') may arise from the myriad yes-no choices of measurement ('bits')." For some who extended Wheeler's line of thinking even further, basing everything upon an informational notion of matter (versus one where matter "forms" data), the ultimate idea was that the universe wasn't at all physical, but rather the condensation of a mathematical reality which in itself was formless, akin in some ways to Plato's notion of universal ideals or archetypes.

In Eastern philosophy, particularly certain strands of Advaita Vedanta, the world is indeed an idea and whatever physicality we attribute its causation is merely an illusion—a maya, something which betrays its real origin. Ramana Maharshi, the famous South Indian sage made famous in Paul Brunton's breezy best seller, A Search in Secret India, is a particularly convincing advocate of this Consciousness as Reality position.

On the other side of the equation, a number of neuroscientists and philosophers have becoming increasingly interested in trying to explain consciousness without resorting to any sort of spiritual or metaphysical explanations. Thinkers such as the late Francis Crick, Gerald Edelman, V.S. Ramachandran, Paul and Patricia Churchland, and John Searle have in their differing ways attempted to explain how the brain gives rise to our self awareness. For these thinkers there is no mysterious "ghost" in the machine, but rather something much more straightforward. As Crick clearly stated in his 1994 book, "The Astonishing Hypothesis is that 'You,' your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll's Alice might have phrased it: 'you're nothing but a pack of neurons.' This hypothesis is so alien to the ideas of most people alive today that it can be truly called astonishing."

Ken Wilber, unlike Crick, has long argued for something "more" than mere physicality to explain consciousness. As he suggests in his 1997 paper, "An Integral Theory of Consciousness":

"This `simultracking' requires a judicious and balanced use of all four validity claims (truth, truthfulness, cultural meaning, functional fit), each of which is redeemed under the warrant of the three strands of valid knowledge acquisition (injunction, apprehension, confirmation) carried out across the dozen or more levels in each of the quadrants—which means, in shorthand fashion, the investigation of sensory experience, mental experience, and spiritual experience: the eye of flesh, the eye of mind, and the eye of contemplation: all-level, all-quadrant."
"And this means that, where appropriate, researchers will have to engage various injunctions that transform their own consciousness, if they are to be adequate to the postformal data. You cannot vote on the truth of the Pythagorean Theorem if you do not learn geometry (the injunction); likewise, you cannot vote on the truth of Buddha Nature if you do not learn meditation. All valid knowledge has injunction, apprehension, and confirmation; the injunctions are all of the form, `If you want to know this, you must do this'—and thus, when it comes to consciousness studies itself, the utterly obvious but much-resisted conclusion is that certain interior injunctions will have to be followed by researchers themselves. If we do not do this, then we will not know this. We will be the Churchmen refusing Galileo's injunction: look through this telescope and tell me what you see."

Although I have long sided with Wilber's approach since I first started seriously reading him in 1980 when I was attending graduate school, I think Crick's reductionistic approach will end up yielding more fruitful results. I say this, even though I readily concede that an all out "take every level, strand, what have you" approach sounds eminently reasonable at first glance. But this "simultracking" AQAL approach a priori assumes positional truths that have yet to be proven. It may be one thing to say "yes, let's meditate and find out what arises," but it is quite another to then invoke reifications such as "Buddha Nature" and say axiomatically, "you cannot vote on the truth of Buddha Nature if you do not learn meditation."

This isn't science. This is theology dressed up in the guise of science.

At this juncture why make such categorical leaps of logic when it could well be that you don't need to learn meditation at all to have such experiences? Even Frits Staal, my old philosophy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, opined in his 1975 book, Exploring Mysticism, that it may be possible that other methods besides meditation (like drugs, what he termed the "easy" path) may elicit similar mystical experiences. The point is not whether Staal is ultimately correct or not, but rather that the question of what these internal experiences indicate is still an open query. That mystics from varying traditions have practiced concentrative techniques for centuries doesn't tell us anything whatsoever about their ultimate ontological truth value, just as those having wonderful epiphanies after quaffing large doses of wine doesn't reveal the "truth" about its origination.

This point was personally driven home to me back in the summer of 2004 when I lost my sense of smell. I have been a life-long surfer and because of that my sinuses have suffered. As any devoted surfer will tell you, the waters off Southern California can wreak havoc on your health, especially if you surf (as I have done) after a heavy rain or during red tide. Because of recurring sinusitis I developed enlarged polyps which obstructed my nasal passages causing my sense of smell to completely disappear. I literally couldn't smell a thing, which can be both a blessing and a curse.

What I hadn't realized at the time was how instructive this episode would be in my understanding of how consciousness may have arisen. Smell is a truly amazing sense and when it is fully functioning it provides innumerable forms of information, including deeply resonant emotional evocations. It is like a world unto itself. On occasion, particularly after getting a prednisone shot, I would get my sense of smell back for a week or two. It was exhilarating for me as a hitherto closed off realm was reopened. Now, while my olfactory experiences seemed to border on the numinous when I could smell (Indian food, sea weed, even my boat were heavenly aromas), the fact remains that it was a purely physical event that triggered them.

While I was wafting in varying "sacred" scents, it felt as if my experiences were not at all physical in the mundane sense of the term. The experience seemed to transcend it neuronal and nostril origins. Yet, I know that all such experiences were generated from physiological structures within my own body.

This got me to thinking about consciousness in general and how a cluster of polyps could be so pivotal in determining whether I had access to hidden worlds. This, of course, is analogous to those engaged in contemplative traditions who by dint of their intense meditative practices claim to have access to realms of experience not accessible to others. And who often claim that they have encountered trans-personal or meta-physical states of being. Many further argue that these sojourns are beyond the triune brain's ability to produce them. While I think it is quite true that meditation can elicit all sorts of phenomena that may otherwise remain unknown, it does not follow that what generates such experiences is correctly revealed by the contemplative practice itself. It could be, like one's sense of smell, due to quite physical causes. I realize that when we are having these mystical experiences they do indeed seem to transcend physical causation, but that sensation of ours could just as well be part and parcel of the peculiar biochemistry within our own nervous systems.

A reductionist methodology is actually best suited to determine the physicality of such events. This doesn't mean that mystical encounters are physical, but only that taking an Occam 's Razor approach forces us to find the necessary mechanisms in the human brain for generating such illuminating displays. Ironically, reductionism is mysticism's most powerful ally. Why? Because reductionism by force of its severe focus on physical causes eliminates non-viable candidates.

Take the so-called miracles of Sathya Sai Baba as one illustrative example of how reductionism, and not merely uncritical phenomenology, can uncover so-called spiritual secrets. Sai Baba followers claim that their Indian guru has the power to produce all sorts of fantastic miracles, including producing vibuti, jewelry, and other objects out of thin air. There are hundreds of thousands of followers who believe that Sai Baba has access to realms beyond the known laws of physics.

The truth, however, behind Sai's miracles is that they are nothing more than sleight of hand magician tricks. We know this now because Sai's trickery has been caught on film. There have also been eye witness reports of incidents when Sai Baba botched his vibhuti palming, accidentally dropping the tiny tablets which he snapped that contained dried and burnt cow dung. As the Findings website explains:

"During darshan, Sai Baba carries vibhuti in tablet form between the third and fourth fingers of his right hand, with spare tablets in the hand holding up his robe. He crushes a tablet when required, and transfers tablets during the taking of letters. I have watched this happen innumerable times. Once on the mandir porch he dropped a tablet in front of me, and told a member of the Trust to 'Eat it Quickly!'"
"For years I had enjoyed the privilege of being called to the interview room and had spent every moment there, focused only on Swami's face; until David [Bailey] suggested that I shift my attention to his hands. Watching rings, watches and other trinkets being palmed, or pulled out from the side of chair cushions, and seeing vibhuti tablets held between fingers before being crushed and 'manifest' was a horrifying revelation, a personal catastrophe for me. I had given up my life, my marriage, husband, children, home, career and homeland because of my love for Sai Baba - only to find trickery at the epicenter of all I held."

Thus, instead of some transcendent phenomenon (needing an appropriate method to apprehend the same) we discover that Sai's miracles are nothing of the sort. But who was it that unearthed this secret? Who among Sai's devotees finally explained what was once considered inexplicable? It was the doubters, the skeptics, the "reductionists"—the very people that many religionists rail against.

As James Randi, Michael Shermer, and other professional skeptics have repeatedly pointed out, the best person to analyze a miracle worker is a magician, not a believer. We are too easily duped by magical tricks, too easily deceived by the confusion of cause and effect, too easily mistaken by the conflation of an object with its image. In other words, the best work in revealing Sai Baba's supposed divine powers wasn't done by taking a spiritual approach, but rather by grounding his claims in the here and now—in the very physicality of the time and place he performed them. When this was done his "paranormal" powers turned to be anything but.

I mention this primarily because Wilber's non-reductionistic tendencies don't elicit the kind of ground-breaking information he supposes. Is it any coincidence that Wilber's overly enthusiastic endorsement of the American born spiritual master, Da Free John hindered, versus helped, uncover the guru's nefarious activities with a number of American women? Wilber wasn't on the front lines revealing the ins and outs of Da's very questionable relationships with his disciples. He was literally too busy praising how Da's genius was misunderstood. Is this kind of naivety something we should expect from a pandit who prides himself on being a "critical" thinker?

I confronted Ken Wilber about Da Free John on two occasions in the mid-1980s when we met over dinner in San Francisco and when we met again a couple of years later over breakfast in Del Mar, California, where was I was then living. I happen to genuinely like Ken and I have always found him to be immensely engaging and charming. And even though he listened to my criticisms of Da (to Ken's credit, he did write me once and say that Da was a "fuck-up"), I found him to be surprisingly gullible when it came to appraising spiritual masters. His present association with Andrew Cohen only reconfirms my suspicion about Ken's greenness in this area. That Cohen's own mother chose to write a scathing expose' of him warrants more than just passing attention.

While I certainly applaud Wilber's efforts to be as all inclusive as possible, his approach doesn't engender much confidence when you look over his track record in dealing with spiritual masters who make extraordinary claims. In fact, I sometimes wince when I re-read some of Wilber's endorsements of Da Free John's writings. Do I really want him to be my critical guide in appraising the supernatural, even if I appreciate his empathetic tolerance that nobody is wrong 100% of the time?

Generally, skeptics, not believers, further the cause for the paranormal because they systematically demand evidence that can indeed withstand rational scrutiny. As Carl Sagan rightly stated, "Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence."

And, therefore, the spirit of reductionism can be quite conducive in ferreting out pseudo candidates for the transcendent. More precisely, critics are religions' best friend, provided that such religions wish to know whether their respective truth claims are genuine or not.

Wilber's tendency towards inflationary rhetoric is well documented, but his modeling systems also have a problem of too readily accepting truth claims that may turn out to be simply the product of folk psychology.

For instance, as Wilber writes in "An Integral Theory of Consciousness":

"Subtle energies research has postulated that there exist subtler types of bio- energies beyond the four recognized forces of physics (strong and weak nuclear, electromagnetic, gravitational), and that these subtler energies play an intrinsic role in consciousness and its activity. Known in the traditions by such terms as prana, ki, and chi—and said to be responsible for the effectiveness of acupuncture, to give only one example—these energies are often held to be the `missing link' between intentional mind and physical body. For the Great Chain theorists, both East and West, this bioenergy acts as a two-way conveyor belt, transferring the impact of matter to the mind and imposing the intentionality of the mind on matter."

While it worthwhile to acknowledge that ancient and modern religionists believe in forces such as "prana" or "chi," it does not at all follow that these forces are indeed what the proponents claim they are.

Is there any convincing evidence to suggest that these subtle energies exist "beyond the four recognized forces of physics?" Again, believers are not the best sources for "testing" such claims, nor does it logically follow that you have believe in prana first in order to test it. Rather, a more doubting approach to the subject would force those who make such extraordinary claims to step up and produce their extraordinary pieces of evidence.

As we have seen repeatedly in the psychic world, whenever a so-called master is asked to prove his case it turns out he cannot. Uri Geller, for example, completely failed on national television when he appeared on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show and was unable to bend even one spoon.

The late Peter McWilliams, author of the famous book Life 102: What To Do When Your Guru Sues You, discovered to his chagrin that his spiritual master, John-Roger Hinkins, didn't have the ability to read students' minds at all, but rather the guru had installed an elaborate taping system throughout his mansion so he could eaves drop on conversations in other rooms.

Perhaps this may explain why some scientists feel that the most promising way to tackle the subject of consciousness is by a process of eliminative materialism. Simply put, if the phenomena cannot be explained fully and comprehensively by mathematics, then one turns to physics, and if that too is incomplete, then to chemistry, then to biology, then to psychology, then to sociology, etc. The old joke is that if none of these academic disciplines can explain it then it is perfectly okay to say, "Well, God did it."

In other words, try to explain it simply first. This is why Occam's Razor (Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem, "Don't multiply entities beyond necessity") is such a powerful weapon in science and why ideas such as Hume's Maxim ("That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.") and Laplace's Dictum ("The weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness.") serve as helpful guide posts.

Edward O. Wilson has captured this same spirit in his book, Consilience, which suggests that a unification of the sciences and humanities should be predicated upon a deep and robust understanding of what Bertrand Russell called "natural facts."

It is not that only simple things exist or that there may not be something beyond the rational mind, but only that to genuinely uncover these transcendent phenomena one must eliminate lower level categories first.

When we scientifically advanced in astronomy, medicine, and physics we replaced the old and outdated concepts of our mythic past with new and more accurate terminology which reflected our new found understanding of our body and the universe at large.

Thus, instead of talking about Thor, the Thunder God, we talked instead about electrical-magnetic currents. Thus, instead of talking about spirits as the causes of diseases, we talked about bacteria and viruses. Thus, instead of talking about tiny ghosts circulating throughout our anatomies pulling this or that muscle, we talked about a central nervous system.

In sum, we "eliminated" the gods or spirits in favor of more precise and accurate physiological explanations. Hence, the term: "eliminative materialism."

As a materialistic explanation evolves over time, it will either eliminate or reduce hitherto inexplicable phenomena down from the celestial region to the empirical arena. And in so doing, help us to better understand why certain events transpire in our body, in our mind, in our society, and in our world.

Eliminative materialism is reason writ large.

The glitch, though, is that we have allowed eliminative materialism to change our thinking about almost everything except ourselves.

When it comes to understanding our own motivations, we have (as the Churchlands' point out) resorted more or less to "Folk Psychology," utilizing terms such as "desire," "motivation," "love," "anger," and "free will," to describe what we believe is happening within our own beings.

The problem with that is such terminology arises not from a robust neuro-scientific understanding of our anatomies but rather arises from a centuries old mythic/religious comprehension of our very consciousness.

And that's the rub.

Where we have moved away from such religious goo speak in the fields of physics, astronomy, chemistry, and biology, in talking about ourselves we are still stuck in pre-rational modes of discourse. Where astronomy reflects the latest theories of the universe, where medicine reflects the latest theories of diseases, in talking about ourselves we tend to reflect ancient theories of human psychology.

And in order to get a better understanding of human consciousness, neurophilosophy argues that we focus our attention on developing a more comprehensive analysis of the brain and how it "creates" self-reflective awareness.

In so doing, we can then come up with a more neurally accurate way of describing what is going on within our own psyches (pun intended). Thus, instead of using the term "soul" we might instead use phase-specific words to describe the current state of awareness which are more neurologically correlated.

We have already done this slightly when it comes to headaches. Due to our increased attention to various pains and to the various drugs that are effective in treating them, we have become more aware of how to differentiate and thereby treat varying types of head pain—from Excedrin (very good for migraines because of the caffeine and aspirin combination) to Advil (very good for body and tooth aches).

Hence, the neurophilosophical way to understand one's "soul" is to ground such ideas in the neural complex.

Now if consciousness cannot be explained sufficiently (Occam's Razor only works if it can indeed explain the given phenomena accurately) with just recourse to the brain, then that form of reductionism has actually helped, not hindered, the case for religionists or transpersonalists since it has exhausted the neuronal possibilities.

But has that happened yet? No.

We are in a similar situation today with consciousness as we were back in the 1920s when it came to unraveling the secret code behind life and inheritance. We might be surprised to learn that back in the early part of the 20th century a large number of thinkers argued that it would be impossible to unlock the secrets of genetics because life was fundamentally based on something not physical, what Bergson had called "Úlan vital."

It wasn't AQAL inspired scientists who unlocked the double helix structure to deoxyribonucleic acid, but rather two radically reductionistic biologists, James Watson and Francis Crick (trained in chemistry and physics), who unraveled its molecular secrets.

And who inspired them to do such? Interestingly, it wasn't a professional biologist at all, but rather the famous quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger who published a highly influential book entitled What is Life? in 1944 based upon his public lectures at Trinity College in Ireland. In just two lines, Schrodinger captured the fundamental approach that he believed would lead to figuring out the problem of life and inheritance. He wrote,

"how can the events in space and time which take place within the spatial boundary of a living organism be accounted for by physics and chemistry?' the preliminary answer which this little book will endeavor to expound and establish can be summarized as follows: the obvious inability of present-day physics and chemistry to account for such events is no reason at all for doubting that they can be accounted for by those scientists."

Schrodinger went on to say essentially that if we take a purely physicalist purview (read: reductionistic), then the secrets of the living organism must be somewhere above an atom and below a single cell. In other words, let us not prematurely venture off into metaphysical speculations when the hard physical work still awaits us.

It is also no accident that one of Schrodinger's chapters from the same book is entitled, "The Physical Basis of Consciousness."

If we start first with trying to understand how the brain can produce consciousness then even if we do not succeed we will as a byproduct have a much deeper grasp of what it is that the brain does in relation with our awareness.

A simple analogy may be useful here. If you have a particular ailment and go to your local physician, it would be helpful if he/she could eliminate any physical causes for such before unnecessarily branching off into more complicated areas. Because if it turns out to indeed be a broken bone or a nasty bacterial infection, then the doctor hasn't wasted his and your time because he focused on the fundamentals first. Likewise, if cognitive scientists spend their time first on trying to understand how our brains create consciousness then if they do succeed we can come up with a whole series of alternative modeling scenarios for why we think the way we do. If, however, such attempts turn out to be unsuccessful and we have exhausted each and every physical avenue, it will only clarify the difficult task ahead. Again, such a reductionistic tendency will actually add to our progressive knowledge of consciousness by eliminating less viable candidates. To use political parlance, we have to "vett" our varying physical theories of consciousness first before we hyping higher and more complicated emergent structures.

This bottom up approach isn't anti-informational and it isn't anti-religion. It is, rather, quite practical. Ask yourself next time you take your car into the shop what "approach" you want your mechanic to have on your engine.

Should he really spend his time looking for unseen forces like goblins or gremlins first or as part of his "simultracking" model? I think not. Now, to be fair, there really could be a demon under the hood of your automobile (and we are not talking about inflated gas prices), but in order for that to be the case it might be judicious to make sure it isn't a faulty spark plug first.

If we were to follow Schrodinger's lead, as given to us about organic life, we might be tempted to say that consciousness must be located in something that is less than our body, but larger than a neuron. For some neuroscientists, this can be narrowed down even further to that area known as our brain. Obviously something unique is going on within the confines of that cranial cavity, that three pounds of wonder tissue. But even here we might confront some troubling issues, as Antonio Damasio has indicated in his books, since the brain doesn't exist in isolation but is rather part and parcel of a larger environment, which itself is housed in a larger eco-system—each of which act as moment to moment feedback loops.

Partly because of this difficulty, a growing segment of the cognitive science community has partitioned the problem into smaller chunk size problems. The well known neurologist from UCSD, V.S. Ramachandran, for instance, has focused primarily on the visual cortex, suggesting that if we could understand this one component of consciousness we might have an easier time scaling up to tackle the whole problem. This makes eminently good sense, since even if understanding vision doesn't unlock the secrets of awareness, it does provide very useful knowledge about that most vital part of our senses. As Christof Koch explains in a co-authored paper with Francis Crick entitled, "Consciousness and Neuroscience":

"How can one approach consciousness in a scientific manner? Consciousness takes many forms, but for an initial scientific attack it usually pays to concentrate on the form that appears easiest to study. We chose visual consciousness rather than other forms, because humans are very visual animals and our visual percepts are especially vivid and rich in information. In addition, the visual input is often highly structured yet easy to control.
The visual system has another advantage. There are many experiments that, for ethical reasons, cannot be done on humans but can be done on animals. Fortunately, the visual system of primates appears fairly similar to our own (Tootell et al., 1996), and many experiments on vision have already been done on animals such as the macaque monkey.
This choice of the visual system is a personal one. Other neuroscientists might prefer one of the other sensory systems."

If you think about your awareness you will begin to realize that the notion of its unity may in itself be illusory. Combinational systems, when aligned properly, can indeed give the impression of unification. A rudimentary example that we might all be familiar with is our home entertainment centers, whether it be an old speaker system connected to a C.D. player or a newer surround sound system fully integrated with your new high definition flat screen television, replete with a blu-ray DVD player. You can tinker with your sound system so that although each speaker is in different corners in your room the music will feel like it is coming integrally from the center.

To buttress this idea further I often given an analogy in my philosophy classes that came to me from watching varying bands play at the Tomorrowland Terrace in Disneyland. Imagine that there are different musicians, each playing different instruments, tuning up. Finally, after much tuning up each musician starts to play in harmony with the other players until finally they unite into one beautiful song. Further imagine that once this unification occurs a conductor appears waving his baton acting like he has been conducting the music all along. However, you know that he only arose after all the musicians were in harmony. The conductor wasn't the cause of the music. He was, most pointedly, the result of the music, even if he or she acts as if they were the maestros all along.

If consciousness is indeed the result of a combinational connection of varying parts of the body system, but most particularly the brain, then it would make great sense to try to understand each of those distinct, but not segregated components first.

Or, to put it more bluntly: If our seeing is physiologically based and our hearing is physiologically based and our smelling is physiologically based and our tasting is physiologically based and our feeling is physiologically based, then is it really that much of a stretch to think that our "being" is physiologically based as well?

I don't think so, but we will never find this out unless we can duly eliminate all those physical causes first. In other words, if one truly thinks that consciousness is the result of something beyond the brain/body complex, then it is vitally important to make absolutely certain that awareness cannot be merely the outcome of physiological processes.

In sum, we have to fully explore physicality before we can invoke higher emergent structures. If we fail to do so, then we run the very probable risk of being just as duped as those who bought into Sai Baba's miracles because they too readily accepted something as mystical when, in point of fact, they were merely bad parlor tricks.

I remember one of my former philosophy students once telling me that my skepticism was misguided since he could leave his body at night during sleep and travel to other parts of the globe and remember many key details from his nocturnal sojourns. I told him of my own similar excursions, but that I (like Blackmore, Feynman, Faqir Chand, and many others) felt that such experiences were not objectively real but were rather the projections internally of our own mind.

But, since I could easily be wrong (skepticism may be many things, but closed minded should not be one of them), I then proposed a little experiment to him that I had cribbed from my readings in parapsychology. I said that I would put a seven digit number on my office wall and that over the next few nights he could astrally travel and jot the numbers down to his memory. Now this wasn't a fail proof test, but we both thought that if he succeeded it would certainly warrant further attention.

However, to his disappointment, every time he went to my office in his nightly O.B.E.'s he ended up securing a completely wrong number. He wasn't even close. Now this doesn't prove that O.B.E.'s are merely brain hallucinations, but it does throw the burden of proof back on where it belongs. If you make a claim then, like that short-lived reality television show on MTV, you have to back it up. Otherwise, we are back to square one and speculation 101.

While there have been many reports in the literature about how there have been some remarkable breakthroughs in parapsychology (such as Dean Radin's book, The Conscious Universe), a closer scrutiny of the literature has shown a field which has offered up terribly dismal results.

This doesn't mean, however, that we should give up the search for such things, but only that the most expedient way to progress in this field is to be as critical and skeptical as possible of any extraordinary claim. We too often succumb to what Paul Kurtz called the Transcendental Temptation. In our overly eager desire to believe in the mystical, we tend to accept less than convincing evidence since it buttresses our already cherished hopes and desires. It is naturally difficult to contravene what we wish to be the case.

I remember one telling incident that occurred in my own family. An elder relation named John chided me about my tendency to doubt claims of purported telepathy. He was convinced that such powers existed and knew from his own experience that I was wrong to be so questioning. John proceeded to tell me of when he went to see a psychic at a local gathering and the psychic told him the exact serial numbers off his one dollar bill which was buried in his wallet which, he emphasized, was buried deep within his front pocket. John then provokingly exclaimed, "Explain that Mr. Skeptic."

I thought for a second and then chimed back, "How long do I have to solve it?"

John, looking a bit perplexed said, "How much time do you need?"

"About thirty seconds or so," I responded.

"What?" said John.

I then asked a very simple question to John, "Did you pay any money to see this psychic showing."

John replied, "Why, yes."

I then said, "Did they give you back any change"?

John now looking quite agitated replied, "Well, yep."

I then went in for the jugular, "Was the change in the form of a dollar bill or bills?"

At this point, John knew that I knew that he had been had. John was duped, but even though he was a pawn in a very old magic trick, he still held out that surely some psychics knew things beyond our five senses, even if they occasionally succumbed to less honest gimmicks.

Perhaps the most recalcitrant issue in consciousness is that it provides us with a keen sense of dissociation and therefore its very intangibility appears resistant to a merely physical explanation. Awareness doesn't feel "bodily," except of course on those occasions when we have a toothache, a headache, or any other "associative" ailment tied with our body. How can something so ethereal be the result of something so material?

But this is precisely why our own experiences should not be the sole criterion for appraising how consciousness arises. My experience every morning tells me that the sun rises at dawn but as we now know my inference about the sun is mistaken. The sun doesn't "rise". Rather, our planet earth rotates and this rotation is what causes the impression of a "rising" sun. Yes, my experience may tell me otherwise, but in order for me to have a richer and larger understanding of how the sun and the earth actually operate I have to go beyond my own limited experiences and appeal to measurements which contravene what I think I already know.

Likewise, whatever certainty I have that consciousness must be non-physical has to be tempered with the very simple rejoinder that my experience may indeed be both illusory and wrong. The latest studies in neuroscience have come up with some startling insights into how easily we deceive ourselves when it comes to visual perceptions. Neuroscience has also come up with some startling conclusions about why we have self awareness and how mirror neurons may have evolved to provide us with a dual function. As V.S. Ramachandran explains in a now famous article, "The Neurology of Self Awareness:"

"The discovery of mirror neurons was made by G. Rizzolati, V. Gallase and I. Iaccoboni while recording from the brains of monkeys performed certain goal-directed voluntary actions. For instance when the monkey reached for a peanut a certain neuron in its pre motor cortex (in the frontal lobes) would fire. Another neuron would fire when the monkey pushed a button, a third neuron when he pulled a lever. The existence of such Command neurons that control voluntary movements has been known for decades. Amazingly, a subset of these neurons had an additional peculiar property. The neuron fired not only (say) when the monkey reached for a peanut but also when it watched another monkey reach for a peanut!"
"These were dubbed 'mirror neurons' or 'monkey-see-monkey-do' neurons. This was an extraordinary observation because it implies that the neuron (or more accurately, the network which it is part of) was not only generating a highly specific command ('reach for the nut') but was capable of adopting another monkey's point of view. It was doing a sort of internal virtual reality simulation of the other monkeys action in order to figure out what he was 'up to'. It was, in short, a 'mind-reading' neuron."
"Neurons in the anterior cingulate will respond to the patient being poked with a needle; they are often referred to as sensory pain neurons. Remarkably, researchers at the University of Toronto have found that some of them will fire equally strongly when the patient watches someone else is poked. I call these 'empathy neurons' or 'Dalai Lama neurons' for they are, dissolving the barrier between self and others. Notice that in saying this one isn't being metaphorical; the neuron in question simply doesn't know the difference between it and others."
"Primates (including humans) are highly social creatures and knowing what someone is "up to"—creating an internal simulation of his/her mind—is crucial for survival, earning us the title 'the Machiavellian primate'. In an essay for Edge (2001) entitled 'Mirror Neurons and the Great Leap Forward' I suggested that in addition to providing a neural substrate for figuring out another person's intentions (as noted by Rizzolati's group) the emergence and subsequent sophistication of mirror neurons in hominids may have played a crucial role in many quintessentially human abilities such as empathy, learning through imitation (rather than trial and error), and the rapid transmission of what we call 'culture'. (And the "great leap forward"—the rapid Lamarckian transmission of 'accidental' one-of-a kind inventions.)"
"I turn now to the main concern of this essay—the nature of self. When you think of your own self, what comes into mind? You have sense of "introspecting" on your own thoughts and feelings and of 'watching' yourself going about your business—as if you were looking at yourself from another person's vantage point. How does this happen?"
"Evolution often takes advantage of pre-existing structures to evolve completely novel abilities. I suggest that once the ability to engage in cross modal abstraction emerged—e.g. between visual 'vertical' on the retina and photoreceptive 'vertical' signaled by muscles (for grasping trees) it set the stage for the emergence of mirror neurons in hominids. Mirror neurons are also abundant in the inferior parietal lobule—a structure that underwent an accelerated expansion in the great apes and, later, in humans. As the brain evolved further the lobule split into two gyri—the supramarginal gyrus that allowed you to "reflect" on your own anticipated actions and the angular gyrus that allowed you to "reflect" on your body (on the right) and perhaps on other more social and linguistic aspects of your self (left hemisphere) I have argued elsewhere that mirror neurons are fundamentally performing a kind of abstraction across activity in visual maps and motor maps. This in turn may have paved the way for more conceptual types of abstraction; such as metaphor ('get a grip on yourself')."
"How does all this lead to self awareness? I suggest that self awareness is simply using mirror neurons for 'looking at myself as if someone else is look at me' (the word 'me' encompassing some of my brain processes, as well). The mirror neuron mechanism—the same algorithm—that originally evolved to help you adopt another's point of view was turned inward to look at your own self. This, in essence, is the basis of things like 'introspection'. It may not be coincidental that we use phrases like 'self conscious' when you really mean that you are conscious of others being conscious of you. Or say 'I am reflecting' when you mean you are aware of yourself thinking. In other words the ability to turn inward to introspect or reflect may be a sort of metaphorical extension of the mirror neurons ability to read others minds. It is often tacitly assumed that the uniquely human ability to construct a 'theory of other minds' or 'TOM' (seeing the world from the others point of view; 'mind reading', figuring out what someone is up to, etc.) must come after an already pre- existing sense of self. I am arguing that the exact opposite is true; the TOM evolved first in response to social needs and then later, as an unexpected bonus, came the ability to introspect on your own thoughts and intentions."

Even the most profound spiritual experiences may themselves be the result of brain processes of which we remain unaware. This doesn't discount the beauty or bliss of such numinous journeys, since there are many things we enjoy that are indeed the result of physical machinations. For instance, my fondness for surfing (even with my lack of smell) has not disappeared because I know something about the physics of waves. The majestic beauty of a rose isn't lessened by our deeper grasp of its molecular parts. As Feynman once illustrated when he pointed out to his artist companion that a physicist's understanding of a flower doesn't detract from its beauty, but only adds to it since he can appreciate so many other levels that usually go undetected.

In light of how reductionism actually works when applied to real life situations, I am surprised that there are not more strong advocates of it coming from those most deeply interested in mysticism. Blaise Pascal once wrote that those with little faith will have little doubt and those with great faith with have great doubt. While I appreciate his religious syllogism, I don't think he extends if far enough. The logical consequence of his couplet should end with "And those with infinite faith, will have infinite doubt."

Because it is through doubt and skepticism where more, not less, evidence for the transcendent will arise since such critical scrutiny raises the bar for acceptable proof much higher than those who tend to believe on anecdotes alone.

I find it curious that we resist the physical causation of consciousness, knowing as we do nightly that very tiny chemicals, such as adenosine within our brain can all too easily make our lucid awareness fall almost imperceptibly to mush. The biochemical basis of our awareness is so evident that even this very article you are reading can prove it. If I multiplied this piece tenfold and you were forced to read each and every word, I am quite confident that within fifty more pages the Adenosine would kick in and you would find your luminous waking awareness completely upended and your breathing getting louder with peaceful sounds known to us as "snoring." Of course, for some readers this may have already occurred after page five.

It is one of philosophy's great ironies that if you think long enough about how consciousness is not physical, sleep will eventually take over and resolve the argument for you without any words whatsoever.

And if you find yourself, like Ken Wilber, having the ability to remain "aware" in a non-dual state even while sleeping, then you may want to ask why alcohol can so rapidly screw up such luminosity, as Wilber himself acknowledged in his book One Taste. Then again, as I humorously tell my Religion and Science classes at CSULB, the ultimate acid test for transcending the notion that consciousness is purely physical is what is lovingly called the hammer test which has many variations, but which always ends up with the same answer. Why is it that when I hit my head with a hammer it invariably alters my state of awareness, especially if my consciousness is not physical?

Or, as the script to the short film A Glorious Piece of Meat summarizes the consciousness paradox: "I know that my consciousness is more than the sum of my neurons firing; or, at least I think so while my neurons are firing."

© 2008 by David Christopher Lane




David Christopher Lane is a Professor of Philosophy at Mount San Antonio College and a Lecturer in Religious Studies at California State University, Long Beach. Professor Lane received his Ph.D. and M.A. in Sociology from the University of California, San Diego, where he was a recipient of a Regents Fellowship. Additionally, he earned an M.A. in the History and Phenomenology of Religion from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley. Dr. Lane is the author of several books including The Radhasoami Tradition and Exposing Cults (New York: Garland Publishers, 1992 and 1994 respectively). He is the founder of the Neural Surfer website. Professor Lane won the World Bodysurfing Championships in 1999 and the International Bodysurfing Championships in 1997, 1998, 2000, and 2004.
Andrea Diem-Lane is a tenured Professor of Philosophy at Mt. San Antonio College, where she has been teaching since 1991. She received her Ph.D. and M.A. in Religious Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Dr. Diem earned her B.A. in Psychology from the University of California, San Diego, where she conducted original research in neuroscience on visual perception on behalf of V.S. Ramachandran, the world famous neurologist and cognitive scientist. Professor Diem has published several scholarly books and articles, including The Gnostic Mystery and When Gods Decay.