Buddhism and Neuroscience

Perhaps great feats are not supernatural, but merely a rare extension of the natural. On one show, a Chinese acrobat stacked six chairs, some on two legs, then did a slow handstand on top of the stack. On the TV show That’s Incredible, a Hindu yogi once got into a 2 square foot clear plastic airtight box for a full hour. He suspended or drastically lowered his metabolic functions for that time. Perhaps it was faked, though there was no indication of that happening on the show in general. Perhaps mind actually has enough power to compel matter to perform seemingly miraculous feats. Certainly we can say it is a basis of natural ability enhanced by years of training.

(My book, Buddha is an Atheist, was originally conceived to include material on reincarnation and mind, but it was cut for lack of space.)

Soldiers have leapt on grenades to save their comrades. A good logician could, no doubt, twist this into a form of natural selection. I find the argument a bit base. It sucks the heroism out of noble deeds. I choose to believe the higher view. Not because it feels good to do so, though it does, but because I feel it is true. When the soldier leaps to his death to save others, I feel no need to create a convoluted chain of evolutionary reason to explain it. It is love. That soldier sees, without reason, without genetic compulsion, that the multiplicity of his fellow’s lives means more than his one.

Could consciousness be so powerful to exert such control over matter? Its power is apparent in lesser matters, to be sure. Mind enables us to move about freely as we wish, to imagine and create the world we live in now, full of technological wonder and science.

To come at this from a different slant, gods, for example, could be different than what we think they are, but perhaps they have some relative reality. According to this view, there is a consciousness that can exist without physical form. This is, of course, absurd to the reason-bound atheist who suffers only science to provide proof. For this being, if it cannot be reproduced in a laboratory, it cannot exist. These are the same souls who swore in past days that matter and energy were different things, that light could not possibly behave like a particle, nor an electron act like a wave. Now, they say, we have it right. In this matter, maybe so, but the universe is vast and complicated.

At any rate, those separations have been put to rest and we have considerable evidence that matter and energy are but ends of a spectrum. The philosophical implications are staggering and have only begun to be explored. Why is it impossible that consciousness could exist at the furthest end of the spectrum, as energy alone? Here it would be even more refined than the as-yet-undetected (and maybe non-existent) gravitons or gravity waves. It might have fewer distinguishing objective traits than dark matter.

Indeed, consciousness is almost completely not understood. It is one of the great problems of science. How are we aware? How does this barrage of tiny sparks and chemical reactions allow for experience? There is no answer.[1] Perhaps the cause and effect situation is being looked at incorrectly. The default assumption is that the physical (brain) gives rise to the non-physical (mind). Could it be the reverse? Perhaps mind gives rise to the physical.

This is a legitimate (though defunct in the West) school of thought called Idealism. It seems ridiculous to us, but it can be shown that feeling results in large measure from cultural conditioning and a presumptive bias toward physicalism.[2] Physicalism is the above hinted at proposition that everything is reducible to matter and energy.

Why couldn’t consciousness be a part of the animus that drives the body? Hogwash, the immediate response, the animus was disproven decades past. So let’s change the word to energeia, to borrow a literary term. Energeia is the inevitable force of movement, the activity. Indeed, to have free will at all, the consciousness must be in control. Otherwise, the firing of neurons in the brain create every instant of consciousness and if we have no control over them, as it seems, then we have no free will. Would the physicalist remove free will in this manner?[3] To say otherwise is to say that the physical controls the mental. Therefore, free will is an illusion and we are simply prisoners of what our brain produces as mind. Who would believe that?

If this consciousness can be said to control the brain in any way, it must have its own power in some sense. I hate to raise the hoary specter of free will, but it’s a valid point. If the electro-chemical firings of the brain create the mind and its behaviour, then mind has no power over the brain. What use is mind, then? It has no legitimate place in natural selection, especially as it is powerless to affect anything!

This dependence of mind upon brain, inviolable to the physicalist, which is to say the average atheist, is merely a temporary plug-in to a Buddhist. Another way of looking at this: are brain and mind the same thing? If so, death should not end the mind because the physical brain is still there. But that doesn’t seem to be the case because the brain has no activity. It makes no sense to say brain and mind are identical as a result. The best we can say is that mind is the activity of brain.

The materialist would have us believe that mind blinks out at death. But how does this process occur? Does the mind gradually fade as death comes and fewer and fewer neurons fire under oxygen starvation? If we have a single weakly flickering neuron, do we have a mind still? Or two, or a hundred, or a million? At what point does mind extinguish? When is it gone? How does the experience of death arise for the extinguishing consciousness?

For now, I want to continue to look at these difficult to prove ideas about the link between mind and brain. The link is so intuitive that it is difficult to doubt. No one denies the connection, of course, only the causality and ontology are debated. Where is the proof that brain actually creates the mind? Can the brain be kept alive without the body? Will it then have the mind in it? Can we perform a brain transplant and wind up with the same person?

This only proves the link between mind and brain while the brain exists. It does not prove that link is unbreakable without the survival of the mind. These theories sound like nonsense to the scientific devotee. But three hundred years ago to say that sound and pictures could travel through the air and you could talk to someone around the world would have been called magic or worse. The most scientific minds would have laughed first and loudest at such an idea, before reporting you to be burned alive for heresy and witchcraft.

The point is that we don’t understand. We do not know. Science has made almost no inroads into the nature of consciousness and lacks the ground to make definitive pronouncements about it. The typical atheist’s blithe statement that things simply end at death is that and no more. It is just a statement without proof. Things may very well end at death, but they may go on. We lack proof either way. We cannot say what happens after death because no person has returned to prove it.

One could argue that people have returned from clinical death on the operating table, but clinical death may not be death per se. It is only a doctor’s definition of death. Should we respect the experts? To a point, yes, but we are discussing the phenomenon of death and they have no first-hand experience of it. If people have returned, it is from a very brief stay. No one has gotten to know it intimately and returned. If we accept the doctor’s hypothesis that someone actually died and returned, then we have to agree that something continues beyond death. Otherwise, what could return?

Does the brain start again, with faculties intact and memories in place? Possibly. But this reduces the person to a set of stored chemical and electrical states. It removes decision. In this view, we are robots, slaves to the physical. Consciousness must have its own domain for choice to exist.

For now, I am loosely defining mind as consciousness, that which perceives, that which understands, that which knows. This will be expanded later. If mind exists solely in the brain, how does it do so? Does it saturate the brain, filling it to the edges and no more? Does it exist only as the firing neurons, a sort of flickering web of mind in brain? How do sensory impressions move from outside world (including body) to inner perceiving mind? As they travel along the nerves, is that part of mind? Are the electrical impulses traveling along the nerves of a qualitatively different station and order than the brain functions which give rise to mind? Or are they already in the mind as they travel? If so, the consequence is that mind pervades the body and not just the brain. Unless we consider mind as inclusive of the nervous system.

For now, let’s take it as separate, that there is a difference between nerve and brain cells. That seems to be the case, because the brain cannot precisely feel, and nerves definitely can. So at some border (and where is that border precisely?) some electrical impulse transfers into the brain and either becomes the mind or passes into the mind. It becomes the mind if one posits that the neuronic activity is the mind. That relationship is unclear, at best. How does the synergy of these impulses create consciousness?

I am not saying it doesn’t occur. Obviously, there is a link, but science has not explained that link to the point where consciousness arises upon dependence of mind.

An analogy might be that if one took away the seats and body of a vehicle (brain), but left the motor and drive train (mind), it is still possible to drive it. The analogy seems backward to one who insists that the brain is the power and motive force, but if the causality is reversed, giving consciousness the motive force (making it the engine) for brain, it makes sense. The seats and body are just a place for mind to rest.

We have a cultural bias to believe that the physical supersedes the mental, that the brain is more key than the mind. I would suggest that we have an incorrect bias. A perhaps better analogy would be the sun and it’s light. The sun (brain) can burn up and still the light emitted (mind) goes on for billions of years. (My apologies for the lame metaphors.)

At any rate, how does the activity of nerves transform into that of brain and subsequently into mind? It’s fine that science does not understand, but it is grossly off to pretend that it does. That is a big no-no. To say that when the brain ends, consciousness ends – we have definitive evidence, is untrue. Science has no idea what happens to the consciousness at death. It cannot speculate with any authority. We only know that brain dies because no definitive causality of brain to mind has been proved. The link is there, but, like a chain connecting two prisoners, once the chain is broken, the prisoners can part company.

Minds could be hidden in the gaps of quantum mechanics. And though I’m not putting forth the claim that it is, I put it forth as an absolutely valid field of inquiry, one that modern scientists have shamefully overlooked. It is exciting that our minds could actually exist in the mysteries of entanglement, wave-particlism, and uncertainty. It is erroneous and arrogant to follow the conclusions of wave-particle duality and conclude that only the physical can have meaningful existence. The wave here is not a wave of energy, it is a wave of possibility. When a measurement is made, the ‘superposition’ collapses, as is said. Afterwards, we know where a particle is. But we do not know where it was before. More to the point, we do not know if a ‘particle’ even existed before the measurement. To say that mind arises from brain as an epiphenomenon is the equivalent of saying, “we know what happened before the measurement.”

But it cannot be known. To say mind is not there is to say, “it cannot be known, yet we know.” Something must be happening because of experimental results but we cannot say what it is. The analogies to high-level teachings on the Buddhist nature of mind are almost spooky.

The mind is said to be an epiphenomenon. This seems to be a phenomenon arising in dependence on something else. But the brain is dependent on many factors – the mother’s womb, the food eaten, and DNA, we are told. The brain arises from a variety of causes and requires a variety of conditions to continue as a ‘brain.’ It is also an epiphenomenon by that definition.

But what is a brain? Is it a lump of grey matter? The brain is that which guides and directs the organism. Its activity, engaging with an external world, is called mind. If it fails in these activities, is it still a brain? What qualifies it to be so? The clump of neurons? If we get a handful of stem cells and grow them into brain cells, but never ‘activate’ it, is the lump of neurons a brain, having never performed the brain’s function? If we divide a brain in half, which half is the brain? Is it both? If I take half away, is the other half now the brain?

If we go back to the idea that the brain is that which directs the activities of the physical body and creates the illusion of a person, then we are saying that brain is the mind. According to this, brain arises upon the activity of the mind. It is not meaningfully a brain if it has never performed any brain activity.

The assumption for either case (brain gives rise to mind or vice versa) is that a fundamental, objective reality exists. It does not. As Einstein said, “reality is an illusion, albeit a persistent one.”

Quantum terms offer a high utility to frame these arguments. Why? Because the mechanics has a near perfect predictive capacity. Something actual is going on. Second, the theory aims at the fundamental reality – the indivisible particle. A proton lasts for a billion trillion years. That’s pretty hard to beat for stability. It comes pretty close to satisfying two requirements for absolute existence – singularity and permanence. Ultimately, it fails, but it’s a good run compared to anything else. The interesting question is a proton’s independence .

It is neither a wave nor a particle in absolute identity, but it is not nothing. It’s easy to say we don’t know or cannot say for certain. It is quite as valid to say there is nothing to know, but there is not nothing. Science should change its assumption from ‘we can know everything,’ to ‘theoretical leaps create more unknowns than knowns.’

There is a point of remoteness, or alienness, from our own experience where it cannot be proved whether new theory creates or discovers new terrain. We are at that point. This gives us the actual experience of ‘no objective reality.’ Because if we had a definitive case of ‘no objective reality,’ then paradoxically that would be the objective reality.

From this point of view – science as invention rather than discovery – man is god. He creates the universe through assumption. As Max Planck said, “the man who cannot occasionally imagine events and conditions of existence that are contrary to the causal principle as he knows it will never enrich his science by the addition of a new idea.”

[1] Crick and Koch have discovered oscillating waves in the frontal lobes they believe are correlated with conscious experience, but no one has explained any causal mechanism.

[2] The best example is the dream. No sane person would argue that the apparent physical objects in a dream are truly existent, but we believe in them at the time.

[3] Obviously, the consciousness need not fire each neuron. The consciousness moves on its own and the neurons follow where the consciousness leads. More on this later.

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