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The Problem and Promise of Consciousness

by Richard Schain

'The emergence of an individual consciousness from the void is, after all, the most amazing fact of human life...'
Hamlin Garland, A Son of the Middle Border, 1917

In a recent interview with David Chalmers conducted by Seher Yekenkurul (Philosophy Pathways Issue 123), it was stated that the 'basic question in the philosophy of mind is the mind/ body problem.' The term body really refers to the brain since it is the connection of mind to brain that concerns a large number of philosophers who are attempting to decipher the mystery of this relationship. The vast majority of these individuals accept the materialist thesis of modern science, namely, that all reality is reducible to materia. Lately, however, because of the intractability of the problem of reducing the conscious mind to brain processes, the dichotomy between monism and dualism has been fudged by philosophers like David Chalmers and John Searle who say that consciousness is an 'emergent property' of the brain and is not reducible to specific neuronal events. A growing literature exists on the merits of this idea.

The concept of philosophy as an aspect of the human condition refers to one's consciousness of the nature of the self and of the universe, the so-called higher consciousness. This is a primary datum, first arising in the western world within the Ionian societies of Greek-speaking peoples. Philosophy came to be valued by these peoples as a unique aspect of their culture. Subsequently, it was adapted by the Romans and then by all later European civilizations. The establishment of philosophy in universities rather than solely within church institutions resulted in the widespread dissemination of philosophic thought in western culture. It became an independent branch of European culture, intimately associated with the Enlightenment movement in Europe.

However, coincident with the Enlightenment and the rise of an independent philosophy, a distractive phenomenon began to emerge, namely, the preoccupation of philosophers with the mind-brain relationship. It had been known since the days of Hippocrates that the brain was intimately connected to the psyche, but not much importance was given to this realization except in certain disease states like epilepsy or brain damage. Philosophers did not concern themselves with the mundane issue of the mind-brain relationship. They concentrated on the development of their minds. The establishment of the Christian doctrine of duality of spirit and body strengthened this approach. Descartes was perhaps the first philosopher to concern himself closely with the nature of the mind-brain relationship. His infamous assertion that the pineal gland was the site of interaction of soul and brain irreparably damaged his reputation in the modern era. Soon afterwards, Leibniz asserted that brain processes and mental processes unfolded simultaneously, but without any connection other than that in the mind of the Creator. Here was the ultimate dualism looked upon now with derision by hardheaded scientists.

These questions were peripheral to mainstream philosophy until the nineteenth century when the scientific revolution extended into detailed studies of the human brain. Scientists began to wonder about the significance of higher consciousness if it could only arise from an inauspicious-looking three-pound lump of grayish, gelatinous substance in the cranial cavity. The eminent German neuropathologist Rudolf Virchow joked that after examining hundreds of human brains, he had never found any evidence of a soul. Gradually philosophers began to turn their attention to the brain, especially since the prestige of scientific investigation could be used to bolster the reputation of a field that many thought of as worthless, unscientific rumination. The discovery of the microscopic complexity of the brain underneath its undistinguished physical appearance lent fuel to their interest. Somewhere, amidst the billions of neurons making up the human brain and their complex interactions must lie the secret of consciousness.

Actually, from the point of view of rigorous science, there is no more knowledge today about the relationship of consciousness to the brain than there was in the era of Vesalius in the sixteenth century. Vesalius was a Flemish anatomist who was the first to carefully describe the anatomy of the brain, based on his many dissections of that organ. He knew that the living brain was necessary for the mind to function but could say no more than that. What more has been added by all the variegated descriptions of neurons, synapses, neurotransmitters and brain electrical phenomena? Much has been learned about the fine structure of the brain and associated neural mechanisms. However, there is virtually no connection of all these details to an understanding of the conscious mind.

Neuroscientists who study the brain are much more inclined to relate their findings to disease states originating from pathological processes. Infinitely more is known now about the pathophysiology of neurological disorders such as Parkinson's disease, epilepsy, paralytic strokes and encephalitis. Motor and sensory functions and, to a lesser extent, speech mechanisms have been localized to specific brain areas. Most neuroscientists, however, avoid the problem of the mind-brain relationship. Those few who have done so, like Charles Sherrington, John Eccles and Wilder Penfield, have often ended with a position of frank dualism. For a long time, reputable British and American neurophysiologists confined themselves to studying the reflex systems of the spinal cord. Moving above this locus would expose them to the charge of mysticism.

There is probably no one in the history of philosophy who thought more deeply about the problem of the relationship of the mind to the brain than did William James, longtime professor of psychology and philosophy at Harvard University. It is worth quoting from him. After the most detailed consideration of all the possible relationships of consciousness to brain, he concluded that 'nature in her unfathomable designs has mixed us of clay and flame, of brain and mind, that the two things hang indubitably together and determine each other's being, but how or why, no mortal may ever know' (Principles of Psychology, Chap. VI, The Mind-Stuff Theory, 1890). I cannot see how this situation has changed any since James penned his profound thought on the matter.

In recent decades, however, philosophers have moved in where angels feared to tread. It is in the modern era of analytic philosophy that intricate speculative webs have been spun about ways in which consciousness may make its appearance in individuals. Utilizing behavior theory, cybernetics, quantum mechanics or recent advances in neuroanatomy and neurophysiology, philosophers have rivaled medieval scholastics in speculating about the nature of consciousness.

One of the leaders in this modern day scholasticism is John Searle who is explicit that 'Consciousness is caused by lower-level neuronal processes in the brain and is itself a feature of the brain' (The Mystery of Consciousness, 1997). Intuitive thought does not permit one to conceive how billions of individual neurons, modifying billions of synaptic structures secreting myriads of neurotransmitter substances can give rise to a unitary sense of self with a unitary consciousness. Recognizing this problem, some contemporary 'neurophilosophers' like Searle have resorted to the metaphysical idea of consciousness as an 'emergent property' of the brain. In other words, it is still a mystery from the point of view of scientific monism.

Thus the difficulty in imagining any way in which even an elementary consciousness can be reduced to neuronal processes — not to speak of the higher consciousness out of which philosophy itself has emerged — has forced philosophers with a broader scope to acknowledge that the traditional concept of dualism has some merit albeit they will rarely acknowledge themselves as dualists. Instead, the idea is put forth of 'property or emergent dualism' in which subjective experiences ('qualia,' a resort to the time-tested scientific habit that if you don't understand something, think up a new name for it) represent a different ontological reality from the material brain. Stubbornly, however, philosophers like Chalmers and Searle maintain that they are not really dualists because they conceive of the conscious mind as a feature or property of the brain. All this may seem like pedantic quibbling to the ordinary observer. But such is the ingrained resistance against dualistic thought in an academic philosophy imbued with the worldview of scientific monism.

I fail to see any logical contradiction to the concept of dualism except there is no reason to believe that reality is limited to only two realms of existence. Physicists now talk of an eleven dimensional universe instead of the conventional three or four, if time is included. The notion of a concrete material reality is ever more blurred by advances in sub-particle physics. Even the apparent phenomenon of absolute time and space has disappeared, to be replaced by relativity theory. Philosophers, more than others, should realize that our awareness of reality is as much determined by our own perceptual apparatus than by what is actually out there beyond our selves. It is all well and good to confine oneself to strict materia-oriented, causality-determined scientific principles when building a bridge or repairing the plumbing but when it is a question of higher consciousness, it is philosophic insight not scientific methodology that is needed.

It seems to me that with respect to the question of consciousness, much of contemporary philosophy has lost itself in the pursuit of trivia. What is to be gained by the continuous pursuit of newly discovered brain functions that correlate with conscious states? The philosophic fallacy referred to by Aristotle as a metabasis eis allo genos (Posterior Analytics), a passing from one realm of being to another in philosophic discourse, is constantly being committed. Now that neurologists have learned with the use of radioisotopes to convert metabolic activity of the brain into brightly colored visual images, one can foresee a whole new domain of brain correlates to be related to conscious states. Perhaps we will be confronted with a new form of phrenology that will connect characteristics of the mind to images generated by positron emission tomography (PET) rather than to bumps on the cranium. But all this is so much trivial pursuit. One thought from Plato is worth a thousand PET scans. For the philosopher, the temptation to sell one's philosophic soul for a mess of neurological pottage is best avoided. Anyway, since philosophers do not engage in laboratory studies, they will never be more than camp followers of the neurosciences.

The history of conceptions of a higher consciousness in the western world goes back thousands of years to what Bruno Snell called 'the discovery of the mind' in Greek-speaking civilization. Subsequently, philosophy as a manifestation of higher consciousness continued its development in the west, even with the restrictions laid upon it by Christianity and the backwardness of the Middle Ages. The European Enlightenment gave rise to a flowering of philosophy that could be compared to the heyday of the Greek polis. A new phenomenon in philosophy arose in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with the emergence of a remarkable group of 'existentialist' philosophers, the most notable of which were Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche.

But after that, a blight seems to have descended upon philosophy. Instead of fresh insights into the nature of man and the universe, there has appeared an obsessive preoccupation with science — cognitive science, computer science, neurological science, critical thinking science — anything to avoid the challenges of philosophical thought as it was known to Plato and his successors in the history of western philosophy. Perhaps Nikolai Berdyaev, Teilhard de Chardin and Abraham Joshua Heschl were the last important philosophical minds of our era not to be intimidated by the sciences. Today the old physical tyrannies of Christianity have been replaced by the psychological tyranny of scientific thinking. The models of creative metaphysical thought seem to be confined to representatives of churches, albeit still constrained by Christian or Judaic dogmas. This is a sad situation for philosophy.

Since the neurosciences have given no insights into the basic phenomena of consciousness such as wakefulness or intentionality, it is hardly to be expected that they will shed light on higher consciousness; e.g. ideas about the significance of man in the universe, about the nature of time and creativity, and on the traditional areas of philosophy — axiology, epistemology and eschatology. These are the substance of philosophy; their importance lies in their intrinsic content, not their connection to the brain. Philosophic thought is a dimension of reality in its own right and not merely a vehicle for some other purpose. There is a certain Quixotism inherent in philosophical activity. No pragmatic or sophistical benefits should be expected of it. The unique mix of intuition, rationality and passion that enters into philosophy represents the highest achievement of the human condition.

Individuals may die, the whole human race may come to an end; but with the growing awareness of the relativity of time, it is reasonable to envision that the phenomenon of a higher consciousness will find its place embedded in the canvas of eternity (R. Schain, In Love With Eternity, 2005). With such a perspective, consciousness does not represent a problem of cognitive or neurological science but a promise of personal fulfillment. If I may paraphrase an assertion by that unique philosophical mind of antiquity, Jesus of Nazareth, the kingdom of heaven is to be found within the mind of every authentic philosopher.

© Richard Schain 2007


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