Consciousness, science, brain and mind
The current debate on consciousness
In his book published in 1997, The Mystery of Consciousness, the American philosopher John Rogers Searle, born in 1932, presented in these terms a synthetic picture of the then prevailing positions, in the academic world, about the nature of consciousness and its relation to the functioning of the brain: «Traditionally in the philosophy of mind there is supposed to be a basic distinction between dualists, who think there are two fundamentally different kinds of phenomena in the world, minds and bodies, and monists, who think thata the world is made of only one kind of stuff. Dualists divide into “substance dualists," who think that "mind" and "body" name two kinds of substances, and "property dualists," who think "mental" and "physical" name different kinds of properties or features in a way that enables the same substance – a human being, for example – to have both kinds of properties at once. Monists in turn divide into idealists, who think everything is ultimately mental, and materialists, who think everything is ultimately physical or material».
«I suppose most people in our civilization accept some kind of dualism. They think they have both a mind and a body. But that is emphatically not the current view among the professionals in philosophy, psychology, artificial intelligence, neurobiology, and cognitive science. Most of the people who work in these fields accept some version of materialism, because they believe that it is the only philosophy consistent with our contemporary scientific worldview . There are a few property dualists, such as Thomas Nagel and Colin McGinn, but the only substance dualists I know of are those who have a religious commitment to the existence of a soul, such as the late Sir John Eccles. But materialists have a problem: once you have described alla the material facts in the world, you still seem to have a lot of mental phenomena left over. Once you have described the facts about my body and my brain, for example, you still seem to have a lot of facts left over about my beliefs, desires, pains, etc. Materialists typically think they have to get rid of these mental facts by reducing them to material phenomena or by showing that they don't really exist at all. The history of philosophy of mind over the past one hundred years has been in large part an attempt to get rid of the mental by showing that no mental phenomena exist over and above physical phenomena».
The almost religious implications of the materialistic conception
«It is a fascinating study to try to trace these efforts, because tipically their motives are hidden. The materialist philosopher purports to offer an analysis of the mental, but his or her hidden agenda is to get rid of the mental. The aim is to describe the world in materialist terms without saying anything about the mind that does not obviously false. That is not an easy thing to do. It sounds too implausible to say right out that pains and beliefs and desires don't exist, though some philosophers have said that. The more common materialist move is to say, yes, mental states really do exist, but they are not something in addition to physical phenomena; rather they can be reduced to, and are forms of, physical states».
Further on, in the final chapter of his book, Searle pointed out that: «The enormous outpouring of letters that my original articles elicited... reveals that problems of the mind and consciousness are regarded with a passion that is unlike that felt for most other scientific and philosophical issues. The intensity of feeling borders on the religious and the political. It matters desperately to people what sort of solution we get to the problems that I have been discussing in this book. Oddly enough I have encountered more passion from adherents of the computational theory of the mind than from adherents of traditional religious doctrines of the soul. Some computationalists invest an almost religious intensity into their faith that our deepest problems about the mind will have a computational solution. Many people apparently believe that somehow or other, unless we are proven to be computers, something terribly important will be lost. I am not sure I understand the source of the intensity of these feelings. Roger Penrose also remarks that when he attempted to refute the computational view of the mind his arguments were met with howls of outrage. My guess is that these strong feelings may come from the conviction of many people that computers provide the basis of a new sort of civilization – a new way of giving meaning to our lives, a new way of understanding ourselves. The computer seems to provide, at last, a way of explaining ourselves that is in accord with the scientific worldview and, perhaps most important, The computational theory of the mind expresses a certain technological will to power».
Consciousness as a scientific problem
When the debate on a certain phenomenon shows philosophical connotations characterized by the prevalence of speculative theoretical arguments, which produce contrasting or conflicting positions, there is obviously a lack of scientific knowledge of the phenomenon itself: so it was for consciousness at the time when Searle published his book. However, the interest in consciousness was ever more alive. In 1997, Searle had to recognize that: «Twenty years or so ago, when I first became interested seriously in these questions, most people in the neurosciences did not regard consciousness as a genuine scientific question at all. Most people simply ignored it, but if pressed, I believe they would have said that science with its objectivity could not deal with subjective states. A fairly typical attitude was expressed ironically by the University of California, San Francisco, neuroscientist Benjamin Libet, when he told me that in the neurosciences, "It is okay to be interested in consciousness, but get tenure first." Of course, not all neuroscientists have been reluctatnt to tackle the problem. There is a tradition going back at least to the work in the first part of the century of the great British physiologist Charles Sherrington, if not earlier, of trying to get a neurobiological account of consciousness, and this has been continued by such prominent recent scientists as Sir John Eccles and Roger Sperry. But they have been definitely regarded as mavericks in the field. Typical textbooks of brain science to this day have no chapters on consciousness and say very little to suggest that it poses an important scientific problem».
The intuitive intelligence
But what makes scientific knowledge possible? Obviously, science is not given by the evidence of sensory data, but by a much more complex process which has as its protagonist the intuitive and creative reasoning elaborated by some people. For example, sensory data suggest that the sun moves in the sky, rising in the eastern quadrant and setting westward, but observing the sun shifts throughout the year and the position of the sun at different latitudes, and the experimental measurements of the motion of the stars both day and night, make human intelligence elaborate a form of interpretive reasoning that accounts for these facts in a way that best suits reality. All scientific knowledge derives from the application of intuitive intelligence to increasingly complex and numerous experimental data: certainly not basing on sensory evidence, for example, scientists could determine the genetic code.
In order to produce effective results, intuitive reasoning requires, in addition to particular intellectual abilities, the attention and dedication of a person to the problem he/she is going to solve, and the acquisition of incontrovertible and objectively positive data. The mental process leads, when successful, to the development of an interpretative theory that can be verified experimentally: that it is able, viz, to elaborate in advance those results that will then be confirmed in the real world by the experiments performed. But while the physical world and, to a large extent, also the biological one, allow to collect and process the experimental data required, to which an objective validity can be attributed, with regard to mental activity and psychic phenomena, the foundation of objectivity fades away. The only aspect that can be attributed to an objective value is whether a person is or not conscious. But also the state of consciousness is subject to a range of variations (from the twilight to the clouded consciousness, from the dream state to those of altered consciousness) which, although classifiable on the basis of objectively established criteria, then have different results from individual to individual, in addition to being variable over time even in the same subject.
The brain enigma
As it can be seen in the page about the unconscious in this section, most of the physiological processes that take place in our body are unconscious. The same happens for the processes that take place in our brain: those that determine our state of consciousness and the psychic experiences associated with it, including the thoughts and reasonings we can do intentionally and under the control of the Ego, do not exceed 20% of the total. This, at least, is the cognitive framework currently validated by scientific entourage. The reasons behind this approach are undoubtedly valid: from the observation that a trauma or the lack of blood flow to the brain obliterate consciousness, up to the research into the effects that certain substances in the brain have on states of consciousness and psychic content, all seems to confirm what Francis Crick (1916-2004) wrote in his 1994 book The Astonishing Hypothesis - The Scientific Search for the Soul: «"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 assemble of nerve cells and their associated molecules». This means, in an undeniable way, that the only thing that has a real temporary existence is the brain and that the consciousness, the Ego and the psyche are determined by the functioning of the brain: the Ego could be in fact a form of self-representation of neural cortex populations having an organizational and decision-making function.
As to the causes for which the human brain has evolved, works as it does, and determines all the processes that culminate in the self-consciousness, in the Ego's intent, in thought and in reasoning, by now there are no satisfactory explanations, so that some scientists tend to completely remove the issue, or by denying that there are causes and purposes, or by recognizing that they can not be part of scientific knowledge. Therefore, the very existence of the brain, with all the mental activities that the operation of this organ determines, remains an enigma without solution that inevitably affects the meaning of human life. This lack of knowledge about the meaning of life, which is prevailing over previous ethical or religious conceptions present in our socio-cultural system, contributes astonishingly to the chaotic flow of psychic nuclei of all kinds in our conscious experiences.
In the light of current scientific knowledge, however, one can not doubt the fact that the organizing and informatics complexity of the human brain determines the consciousness, the memory, the sense of identity of the Ego and the whole repertoire of psychic experiences that constitutes the inner life of each person. This conception must be the basis and the starting point for any further consideration of the meaning of life. However, it must be pointed out that, while the functioning of the brain is somehow observable, mental activity can only be experienced internally and subjectively, and can be communicated from individual to individual within the limits imposed by language and behavior. For this reason too, it is important to use the verb «determine» rather than «produce» or «create» to indicate the relationship between the functioning of the brain and the corresponding mental states that the conscious Ego experiences. It may also be accepted the term «cause», providing to recognize that at present our knowledge can not always establish a precise relationship between causes and effects.
Can the brain know its functioning?
The fact remains that if our mental activity is determined by the functioning of the brain, the search for knowledge – which is carried out by the collection and quantification of data and the application of intuitive reasoning – must also be attributed to the functioning of the brain (albeit not of any brain), and therefore, in the end, it would be due to that factor that is at the basis of the evolutionary phenomenon and that has led to the development of the human brain first, and then of culture. But while the acquisition of data about the physical world is always theoretically possible (given the difficulties to overcome case by case, with the help of man-made instruments), the intent of the brain to know its functioning faces a separation between two dimensions: on the one hand it can collect the objective data relating to the physical activity of the neurons or the glial cells that compose it, and on the other it can classify subjectively communicated data relating to mental activity and psychic nuclei that are experienced by a person. The difficulty of establishing a cause and effect relationship between these two dimensions could be a serious obstacle, since the subjective character of the experiences (the effects) may be inconsistent with the objective character required for active brain functions (the causes). On the other hand, it is known that an organized system can only «know» systems of complexity inferior to its own: it remains to be seen whether a brain team can or can not be a complex system superior to the object of the research.
In addition, in its way of working, the brain is not a standalone tool, primarily because it is subject to a continuous stream of sensory stimuli coming from the external environment that it needs to process and interpret, and then because it communicates more or less frequently with others brains, and therefore with other mental systems, from which it receives information, instructions and interpretative programs about the various aspects of the world, including the inner life. Since we find deep individual and temperamental differences between humans, it is evident that if we refer to the brain as a decisive tool for the existence of the conscious Ego, we must recognize that there may be considerable differences between one brain and another, which affect the way it works: therefore, if we are studying some aspects of the functioning of a single brain, it is not said that the results can be automatically extended to all brains. In addition to being a living structure, and as such subject to changes over time, the brain has a functioning susceptible to being molded and modified. Furthermore, it may be able to process a large part of the information and programs received in a new and creative way, thereby demonstrating its vital individuality.
Thus, the identification of the human being with his brain is not a sensational discovery (as the title of Francis Crick's quoted book would like to make known), but only a different overview of the object of the research. Already Hippocrates, the great physician and scientist who lived in the fourth century BC, so said: «It should be known that pleasure, joy, laughter and fun, as well as pain, sorrow, fear and tears, have no other source than the brain. It is above all this organ that allows us to think, see and feel, and to distinguish the beautiful from the ugly, the good from the evil, the pleasant from the unpleasant. It is in the brain that dwell the madness and the delirium, the fears and the horrors that torment us often at night and sometimes even by day; there is the cause of sleeplessness and sleepwalking, of the thoughts that do not emerge in the mind, of the forgetfulness of duties and of odd symptoms». Current researches are just a step closer to confirming and deepening the way our brain determines everything we are, and in this century the literature on the subject has been greatly enriched. However, it remains to be considered a fundamental fact: the human brain is destined to dissolve at the death of the body.
Unconscious mental activity and brain functioning
Once recognized that consciousness is determined by the coordinated activity of particular areas of the cerebral cortex and that the very existence of the Ego depends on consciousness, the problem remains to know if there is a control center of the unconscious brain activity. Evidently, this control center is not the conscious Ego, whose existence itself is considered by many scientists as illusory (see the interview with Gerhard Roth), however, as has already been observed, the conscious Ego is the essential core of our individual existence. If it is true, as it seems, that the psychic nuclei acquired by consciousness are largely determined by unconscious brain activities that escape the control of the Ego (or the illusion transmitted to the Ego to be able to exercise some form of control over the psyche), we can at least ask on what depends and what produces this strange game of mirrors and illusions. The deceptive character of the human psyche is highlighted in the following pages of this section, but there is an aspect of mental activity that should never be forgotten: each brain able to function in a normal way is immersed throughout its life in a flow of informative and programmatic communications – dependent on the era and place, that is, on time and space – which influences its functioning according to three possibilities.
Some of these cultural programs can in fact put roots, metaphorically speaking, into the brain, and then influence the subsequent mental activity. Other programs are compared with those already acquired and dominant, and are either accepted or rejected on the basis of their accordance with them, or, in some cases, may replace the programs already acquired. Finally – but this only happens to a few brains – there is the the possibility for an autonomous and creative processing, through mental activity, of new ideas that, starting from the acquired program information, produce original programs that are inserted, with greater or lesser success, in the cultural circle. A phenomenon of this kind, of epochal dimensions, has occurred in our culture since the middle of the seventeenth century, when cultural programs based on scientific knowledge have begun to replace those based on religious beliefs.
The psychic component associated with brain activity
Once recognized that every brain can be considered a world to itself because of genetic, cultural and environmental factors that determine its development and programming (although maintaining its ability to communicate and interact with other brains), from the point of view of the conscious Ego the most interesting aspect of brain activity is the fact that every conscious event associates a psychic component that takes one of those forms that in the past (but partly also today) were attributed to the higher functions of the human soul (such as intelligence, rational thought, charity, sympathy and empathy towards the others, sense of justice, etc.), or to the instincts and urges deriving from the animal origin of our body (desire to possess, passion, violence, exploitation of others, etc.). In human history, there has been no time or place where the psyche has not represented, in the form of a cultural program, a vision of human life tending to account for the complexity, the conflict, the gratifying aspects and, above all, the painful ones, of inner life. If the complexity of the elements constituting the human psyche is to be attributed to brain activity, there is a question to which it is necessary to answer: from what did the psychic components originate in all their range of variants?
The psychic nuclei experienced by the conscious Ego must have an origin, and if their present manifestation in the inner life of an person depends on a particular connection of the neural networks or on the presence of certain neurotransmitters, this implies that the brain itself, as has been seen, has the power to determine that experience. Among psychic experiences, some are congenital – that is, determined by the functioning of the brain – while others depend on how the brain processes the culturally received programs. Most of the experiences are determined by both causes. For example, the psychic nuclei of panic or dread experienced by many people during an earthquake or a fire are due to the brain itself, while the fear of being fired and ending in misery depends on how cultural programs affect some brain circuits. But how does the functioning of the brain determine the psychic experience of the conscious Ego? It should be remembered that wanting to deny the value and importance to the conscious Ego, reducing it to an almost superfluous brain epiphenomenon, as some neuroscientists claim, means to reduce the human being to a complex and sophisticated automaton, and to consider as a mere illusion the only thing that constitutes its individual essence: the inner life. To think well, concepts such as spirit and soul, once released from their religious connotations and their moral implications, may represent properly the reality of the conscious Ego and the dignity and importance attributed to his journey of life through psychic experiences.
Evolution of the psyche
Since a well-functioning brain is a psycho-physical system, we can hypothesize for psychic nuclei an evolutionary chronological development that has determined their present complexity starting from simple initial manifestations, similar to what has happened to the evolution of complex animal organisms, which have evolved from the first unicellular ones. What marks and defines the psyche, however, is not given neither by the behavior of the organism nor by the morphological or physiological variations that occur within it: these factors may in fact depend on the «mechanical» functioning, however complex it may be, of the organic system. In order to be able to talk about the psyche, there is a need for a conscious individual element associated with the organism (what we recognize as a «conscious person» in the human being) able to subjectively experience the psychic effect. For example, in the face of a danger by which is threatened, an organism can manifest an escape or defense behavior and present alterations in its functioning, but only if it has a consciousness can experience the psychic effects of fear. So the psyche must necessarily be associated with a form of consciousness. Various clues lead us to believe that, apart from the human being, animals of various species are also conscious and have psychic experiences, but we do not know how far we can extend this supposition. Does a cricket have consciousness, or is it only an evolved, well-organized and well-functioning automatism?
In order to be able to talk about the evolution of the psyche, it is necessary to establish at what point of the evolution of living forms has made its appearance a conscious ego capable of recording, memorizing and then remembering psychic experiences. Then we should investigate through which forms of mental processing and communicative transmission, some primitive and simple psychic manifestations have transformed into others more and more articulate and complex. But since the acquisition of psychic data can only take place through direct subjective experience or communication by other individuals with whom we can share an information system, the study of the psyche beyond the human sphere is difficult. Experiments have been carried out in recent years to test if certain complex tasks that human beings can complete only if they are conscious, when are carried out by animals show a more intense activity just in their brain areas corresponding to those that are activated in the human brain to perform the same task. As the results are positive, one can reasonably assume that the animal is also conscious. Of course, the results obtained for animals whose brain structure is analogous to that of humans, such as primates and other mammals, can be positively interpreted, but we can not realize whether an insect is conscious or not.
We can be brought to extend, by analogy, certain behavioral or physiological manifestations to the psychic experiences we associate with them, but that this could be an arbitrary supposition not supported by evidence, it is demonstrated by the behavior of very young babies, which we have already mentioned: they cry, laugh, act and interact, they show satisfaction or irritation, yet they are not conscious. Unless you want to imagine a nearly instantaneous form of consciousness, which is not recorded in the medium and long-term memory, it can not be stated that a one year old baby, in which the conscious Ego has not yet developed, experiments the pain, even though his whole body manifests the effects of something that disturbs him.
The cultural influence of scientific knowledge and the worldviews produced by the psyche
Every new form of knowledge that is introduced into the cultural circuit of a society exerts an effect on the programming of the various brains exposed to cultural influences, and thus on the psychic effects that result from it. Of course, not all brains react in the same way, and there is a big difference between the brains that already have decades of life, in which the new cultural programs have to deal with those acquired in the past, and the younger brains, that accept new programs more easily and without difficulty. This observation, in its banality, leads us to confront the question of the worldview and the meaning of life, elaborated by the human psyche in different cultures and at different ages. For example, after a period of several centuries in which the dominant cultural program presented the human being as a dual system, consisting of a (mortal) body and a soul (immortal), for a few decades ago to today a new program has emerged, according to which the human being consists only of a body with its brain, and what until recently was interpreted as a soul is nothing but mental activity determined by the brain working. If this is the case, it is as if the brain itself (taking into account the interactions between the many thousands of brains that form a socio-cultural system) said: «Sorry, so far I have been wrong, but now I tell you things as they really are».
Since every form of knowledge is determined by mental activity, it is nothing more than a psychic construction oriented to represent a reality that, in its essence, escapes us. The confidence we can have in the representations elaborated by the human psyche is undermined by the fact that these representations are changing in the various cultures, both in space and over time. Even today, in our western society, so many people continue to operate on the basis of religious programs, and often superstitious. Undoubtedly, it is true that to understand the bases of scientific knowledge an uncommon intelligence is required, and that the achievements of science should be established over time for their intrinsic consistency and the benefits they have for human living conditions. But the psychic representation that conscious mental activity is nothing but an epiphenomenon of brain activity presents more than a weak point, and does not produce any advantage. The conscious Ego, in fact, has its own reality and intentional autonomy: this means that those parts of the brain that – through their activity – determine consciousness and the Ego's self-perception, differ essentially from those areas of the brain that work unconsciously. The fact of bringing back into the functional scope of the brain all the problems and conflicts that are found in the human psyche perhaps may be helpful, but does not move one iota the complexity and difficulty of the issues to be resolved: the organic basis holds in itself the mystery of its enigmatic origin.
The autonomous value of psychic experiences
It is therefore not necessary to deny that our present life depends on the functioning of the brain, to recognize the value that psychic experiences have for the conscious Ego. All our inner life remains grounded on such experiences and how they are stored in memory. The fact that a part of the brain has evolved so as to determine the existence of a conscious Ego that is involved in a flow of psychic experiences is a significant and important reality. Moreover, if it is true that brain activity determines mental activity, it is equally true that the latter influences and orientes the former: brain activity and mental activity are nothing more than two aspects of the same phenomenon. Throughout this life, mental activity is designed to experiment and evaluate the different aspects of the human psyche, while brain activity, in addition to providing coordination and support for the proper working of the psychophysical system through which we experience life, determines the conditions of mental activity, and processes and stores the experiences. Within such a rich and complex scheme, the conscious Ego can orientate its assessment towards seeking a purpose, a destiny, and a meaning, or may recognize that this astonishing evolutionary game runs out in itself. Certainly, it may seem strange (if not pathologic) to reduce the amazing chromaticity of psychic experiences to an undifferentiated gray tonality: in fact, some psychic experiences are certainly more meaningful, exciting and fulfilling than others, and one of the dominant demands of inner life is precisely the search for such experiences.
This is the reason why this site gives ample space to those particular psychic experiences that transcend the ordinary state of consciousness and that have a profound impact on the conscious Ego, making him/her feel in relationship and in contact with the very source of life experience. The fact that such experiences are also attributable to brain activity does not in the least devalue their importance: it only means that the brain has evolved and has been programmed to determine such experiences, at least in relation to the conscious Ego of some people. The only problem that remains open is the brain disintegration, which as a rule occurs after death, although traumas, injuries, and various pathologies may affect the functioning of the brain even in life, and sometimes from birth. In this regard, it is important to recognize that one can not speak of the brain as a device produced in series and with minimal differences between the humans: brains differ significantly from one another, both for the genetic factors which determines their development and functioning, and for the cultural programs they receive and the environmental conditions in which they operate. And even after recognizing these causes of diversity, it is not said that there can not be others that for the time being escape our knowledge, considering that so many and so wide are the differences that are found among the psychic tunings that humans experiment individually.
The mind and the paranormal phenomena
Paranormal phenomena really occur, albeit in an aleatory way, and present a non-indifferent enigma for the human mind. In fact, in order to explain the production of such phenomena on the basis of the deterministic view that every aspect of psychic activity corresponds to a particular cerebral activity, the human brain (or at least some brains) should be equipped with special faculties whose modes of manifestation have not yet been understood. These faculties include distance transmission of thought, knowledge of past events or that will happen in the future, the extrinsication of objectively active forces, the production of visual and auditory phenomena objectively perceived, the production of organized material, up to whole living organisms, even humans, that can be perceived as «in flesh and bone». In this site a special emphasys is given to those mediumistic phenomena that show the widest range of paranormal phenomenology to the highest level. Though these phenomena are in decline today, in the period between the end of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century they had a considerable diffusion, evidenced by abundant literature and the investigations conducted by well-known scholars, as you can see in the section on psychical research.
Today, paranormal phenomena are subject to serious researches by well trained and qualified scholars, and there are also some academic institutions devoted to these investigations. There is, however, a sort of vicious circle, as on the one hand, the paranormal researchers make every effort to accredit themselves in the scientific field and to ensure that the qualification of scientific discipline is recognized to parapsychology (and some result in this regard have been obtained), and, on the other hand, the scientific community as a whole continues to consider the paranormal phenomena either non-existent (as it is in any case produced by fraud and deception) or as an annoying anomaly, which is not worth worrying about because it would be a waste of time. As we shall see, the chances of subjecting paranormal phenomena to the scientific method are very limited, and virtually nil for the most striking phenomena. Nevertheless, in the past, reliable laboratory investigations have also been conducted on some mediumistic phenomena, the results of which have been published.
In the mediumistic phenomenology, there is always an element of disturbance to the currently accredited scientific picture that sees in the brain the only source of mental activity and human psychic experience. Brain activity, as explained, is based on the transmission of electrochemical signals within the neurons and the synapses that connect them to each other through the neurotransmitter molecules. Signals coming from the outside environment, which can affect the functioning of this neural system, must have a physical support that can interact with any of the system's sensory terminals. In turn, even the action produced by brain activity on the external environment should in any case occur through a physical support (body movement, sound emission, etc.). Many paranormal phenomena, however, do not fall into this scheme.