Saturday, November 26, 2011


The belief that we as individuals are each a brain, a chunk of matter, a complex 3D object and nothing more is an article of faith in our materialistic culture, dominated as it is by our physicalist science. It is confidently declared by pundits and popularisers that 'of course' the mind equals the brain. But does it? It’s more likely that this belief is no more than a methodological prejudice, a comforting ploy of the ego to affirm its own mastery of the situation. We all believe that our minds are distinct from our brains, so we might as well give the thought its head and see where it takes us.

It may seem counter-intuitive to consider the mind as ontologically distinct from the brain – as a different sort of existent, but it is just as counter-intuitive to try to consider the mind and its events as mere movements of particles. The 'brain-mind identity' theory is a recent belief deriving from our obsession with things and a little reflection shows that no-one actually holds it very seriously – except, that is, when people are getting on their theoretical hobbyhorse. We all think as dualists, but that may be because our brains and our language can only deal with objects. It is unlikely that our brains can handle the whole range of reality; but in addition to handling objects, our minds can also conceive minds and it is futile to dismiss this ability as misguided fantasy. On the one hand, our entire culture rests on the primacy of the object; but on the other it also rests on the primacy of the individual and on the dignity of the self as a mental entity, whatever that might mean. The confusion is obvious and deeply-rooted, impacting on our legal and moral discussion no less than on our science and our religion. So it's probably time dissenting voices were heard again, since taking the self seriously, though still unfashionable in academic circles, is a perfectly legitimate approach to the mind and its development. Thy physicalist talks only of objects and claims to believe that only objects exist; those who talk of minds know with more immediacy than they know anything else that minds exist - it's just that they have constantly to remind themselves when talking of minds that, despite the way it sounds, they are not talking of objects.

The mind is part of our experience, so treating it as if it were a mind, rather than an object, is good empiricism. Calling mental experience 'delusory' is actually bad empiricism. Of course this raises ontological problems, but they are not solved by pronouncing the mind to be 'mere matter'. It raises epistemological problems, too, because as soon as we stop regarding the mind as an object, it becomes correspondingly more difficult to be 'objective' about the mind. But prejudging the nature of reality and declaring minds to be impossible because they are not objects is simply daft. It’s time we grew out of this childish simplification. Giving the self its own ontological status, therefore, is just good mental housekeeping. Taking the difference between the self and the brain as fundamental (as Popper and Eccles did in their book The Self and its Brain) involves pursuing the ontological distinction wherever it might lead; and one direction in which it leads is that which takes us towards considering the self and its properties introspectively. This might be decried as subjectivism; but it is possible to remain objective and strictly empirical about subjective experience. It just requires a bit of caution and a lot of culture.

The brain is like any other organ of the body, a chunk of stuff that can be treated as a mechanism. As it ages, its mechanical properties inevitably begin to decline. It becomes sclerous and calcified. It creaks and groans in protest at the years of routine tasks it has been required to perform. Its circuits, once so plastic and impatient to learn, become, with advancing age, rigid in their resistance to the new and in their tendency to repeat and repeat the actions they performed in the past – particularly if these actions produced pleasurable or empowering feelings. Then the whole thing starts to wear out and shut down. The brain begins seriously to fail and its control over the body becomes less and less efficient. But even in these circumstances those circuits that have been of significance in the life of the empirical individual, whose brain it is, may intensify their autonomy and generate obsessions and manias in the mind of the individual concerned. Old people can become ‘set in their ways’ and also prone to develop ever more eccentric, incomprehensibly egoistic or outwardly weird behaviour, as the diminishing brain circuits that are left to them occupy more and more of their mental economy and dominate more and more their behaviour. The spectacle of a demented old person half naked and shouting in public about a confused mania with some incomprehensible link to past experience is not calculated to inspire optimism about the process of ageing. But we do not necessarily have to age in order to become obsessive in all sorts of unedifying ways: if we fail to develop as selves – that is to say grow ‘spiritually’, for want of a better word – , brain-circuits that have provided us with pleasure or satisfaction in the past, however trivial, will come increasingly to dominate our waking life and may lead to the kind of obsessive nastiness that is observable most clearly – by virtue of the exaggeration – in the psychopaths and deviants that plague our society with their insanitary idées fixes.

But is this dismal tale altogether a negative one? My deepest belief is that it is not. The reason for this is that the negative developments in the brain may be accompanied and outweighed by entirely positive developments within a self that is increasingly independent of the brain.  The brain is the seat of the ego, the organ of survival, of accomplishment in the world, of reproductive success of increasing power and of all the other areas of interest to the growing and maturing human individual. The main function of our brain is to guarantee the survival of our individual body long enough to enable us to reproduce our kind. The focus of the conscious brain’s activity is the egoistic programme and egoism is its natural mode of functioning. But all of this is destined to be slowed by decline and finally to fizzle out altogether. So it is what remains after the brain has been programmed for success and then worn itself out in the pursuit and possible achievement of this success that really matters to the individual. And it’s the real individual we’re talking about here, not some social role or persona.

There is good evidence to suggest that spiritual growth throughout a life seems to protect the person in some measure from the effects of brain-wear. In ageing, the individual, if he or she continues to grow as a self, naturally detaches him- or herself progressively from the egoistic accomplishments of life, from its dominant preoccupations and turns inward towards the self. It is at that point – precisely when the brain is beginning to decline – that the ego can be relegated to the back seat and the self is able to assert itself, as long as the retrieval mechanisms are not irrevocably damaged. At this point, the self can use the vast store of knowledge and experience stocked within the brain as so many reasons to abandon the life of the organ of success in preference to cultivating the life of the individual self. It is at this stage of life that altruism – that mysterious phenomenon of human community – is understood for what it is: the dawning awareness of the self that it is a vaster mental terrain that that of the ego.  Sometimes this happens earlier in life as a result of a crisis – a near-death experience or something similar – but it happens most naturally as a result of ageing.

The positive side of ageing is generally invisible to those who see only its wear and tear. As brain-dominated egos (or as ego-dominated brains) we’re so obsessed by judging others according to their value to us, that we often forget that they have a value to themselves and that this may increase as their value to others decreases. This value of the self to itself is utterly different from the value of the ego to itself and wholly independent of the value of an individual’s brain power to others. The essence of self-awareness can be seen as the growing consciousness of the self as part of the universal intelligence of the cosmos. Given that the development of the self seems to separate itself from and even to go against the functions of the brain, there is no reason to suppose that the self may not continue to develop beyond the point at which degeneration of the brain has seriously interrupted the individual's ability to communicate with the outside world. The moral and spiritual accumulation of the self requires, as Kant pointed out, that the self in question have no term set to this development.

Many aspects of the empirical personality, many of its accomplishments and habits, many of its most treasured intellectual and emotional possessions, including language itself, have to be abandoned in the process of ageing; but in abandoning these, the self discovers what is intrinsic and essential to it. Old age is the stage of life in which contemplation may take over from action and goal-directed thought; indeed, if it doesn't there's something wrong. This is the stage at which the self discovers that though its brain is determined, time-bound, space-bound, hidebound and destined for inevitable decline, the self is not necessarily any of these. It is the stage at which mind-thinking begins to diverge from brain thinking - though in certain creative individuals, this divergence may have happened much earlier. The self realises as it detaches itself from the brain with its egoistic routines and habits that it is possibly undetermined, spaceless, timeless and polyvalent. The sense of liberation is immense. Old age is often a period of cheerful gallows humour, as the ego declines towards its inevitable demise. The self begins to develop a hunch, if it continues to grow, that it is not only keyed into the universal intelligence of the cosmos, as pure, unexpressed potential, but that its continuing stake in the cosmos is assured. Of course, pursuing the logic of such a process, the individual becomes aware that the brain not only will die, but actually has to die in order for the self to be released; but the wise of every age have known that death, far from being the end, is a kind of return to the point of departure that makes possible the liberation of the essential self. Cavafy’s fine poem Ithaca is a description of this separation process. In this liberation the brain is merely a facilitating mechanism that has served its purpose and, having done so, become irrelevant. We are unable to speculate intelligently about the manner of the self’s persistence, but the accumulations during the period of physical life assure us of its reality and give us some inking of its onward course. The consignment of the ego and its ambitions to oblivion seems to be an important precondition of this unfolding of the self.

For those human beings who find it impossible to transcend the ego and who remain exclusively attached to the activities of their adult life, to the memories of pleasures going back to their childhood, to the feelings of accomplishment, power, reproductive success and so on, nothing remains to them in ageing but the re-excitation of those brain circuits that provided them with the experiences of such things. If such individuals never acquired the spiritual distance, the mental disengagement from the physical, the discovery of the no-thingness of the essential self, that is at the heart of all authentic aesthetic, spiritual and religious or mystical experience, then their fate is sealed and they are destined to decline as selves along with their declining brain. On the other hand, the development of a spiritual dimension to the self seems to guarantee that separation from the brain takes place (the earlier spiritual development began, the easier and more effective this separation will be) and the self acquires the ability to contemplate the decline of its body with equanimity as the awareness takes hold that it is only after the death of the body that the full scope of its potential can be realised. The ego can only mourn, as its infrastructure, the brain, begins to decline and as its highest values – those of fostering its own advantage – look increasingly vain. What more pathetic spectacle than that of the wealthy tycoon desperately trying to extend his empire and increase his wealth as death beckons? For the self that has abandoned egoism, however, the sense of accumulation, of expansion from the centre, that characterises a life devoted to the cultivation of spiritual values, has at its core the conviction that such an accumulation not only will not, but cannot be truncated. The death of the brain along with the death of all that the brain does best is then understood as an essential element in the process. It is as the brain and the ego fall away that the oceanic consciousness of the self is free to expand.

The brain is responsible not only for our obsessive, automatic behaviour, but also for our ritualised actions, our habitual actions, our skilled actions, in short, for all of our typically egoistic human behaviour and for most of what people conventionally consider to be the essence of their personality. In fact, none of that is intrinsic to the essence of the self but getting rid of all this stuff is obviously challenging, since it feels a bit like the threat of extinction and is therefore anxiety-inducing. Nevertheless, the practice of death (Plato’s melete tou thanatou) involves nothing less than this, and getting used to the process is probably indispensable to a decent old age. Those who fail to develop a spiritual non-egoistic life risk fizzling out along with their brain. Spiritual consciousness is post-intellectual, post-linguistic, post-human. But it is the culminating stage of a coherent process of human development that is similarly described in numerous old traditions. It is on the whole vouchsafed to the old, firstly because in the young it would be a handicap – principally to earning a living, though ascetic passions may arise spontaneously at any age –  and secondly, because a great deal of experience, skill and time are required to acquire distance from, and growth out of, the brain.

The human self requires a brain and a programmed brain in order to develop a full self-consciousness. The development of a fully functioning ego is vital to the process of transcending that ego. The self emerges not only out of the experience of an individual lifetime, but also out of the entire evolutionary history of the species that lies stored up in the brain. In common with all natural transformations, the husks of former stages of existence, though they were necessary at the time, fall away and become redundant. So it is with the brain. Far from being the essence of our self, it is simply the essence of our humanity and the support structure of our ego; and as such it has to wither away as the self moves beyond mere human life and transcends the human condition. Getting stuck in the brain and failing to move beyond the ego, for whatever reason, failing to develop a spiritual self can thus be regarded as the greatest of disasters for the individual, since with the death of the brain, the individual who has not developed as a self may turn out to be truly dead. The possession of an under- or undeveloped self is almost always advertised by a stridently vociferating ego. But the ego is literally going nowhere. The ego lives and dies with the brain and the energy field that defines the physical boundaries of the brain and thus of the brain-dominated personality will be absorbed into the entire energy field of the cosmos anyway, just as an eddy in a fast-flowing river gradually fills and disappears. The panic-stricken resistance of the ego is powerless to stop this. The self, on the other hand, feels no resistance at all to the prospect of reabsorption, indeed, it desires nothing else.

So for those who may feel stuck in their brain and fed up with their ego, several stiff drinks, or a dose of some mind-expanding substance may loosen the bonds and give the self a bit of elbow-room; but  these effects are of limited value. There's no substitute for the development of the creative persistence of that unfathomable but entirely non-egoistic frame of mind that is frequently referred to – however inadequately – in phrases such as 'a sense of awe', 'aesthetic contemplation', 'mystical awareness', the 'oceanic experience' and so on. Such phrases may strike the empiricist in us as outlandish, pompous or simply absurd, but they nevertheless point to an archetypal experience of the emerging self that we do well not to ignore. The entire cultural history of our species, with its florescence of religion, art and science, is a record of the struggle of the post-human self to liberate itself from the limitations of the evolved human brain. Culture itself is an indication that the evolution of our species has left the realm of the purely physical and moved into the realm of the immaterial. Every tendency of our species is towards the loosening of the dark embrace of matter. To have some inkling of the manner in which the brain has exhausted its usefulness to us is to experience the completest liberation of the self that is possible this side of death.


Common sense is popularly considered as the infallible guide to life, the universe and everything; but this is emphatically not so. The human animal is a creature that is in a type of conflict with itself that leads it to believe many contradictory things. This conflict is sometimes referred to as a moral conflict – ‘the things I want to do I don’t do, and the things I don’t want to do I do’ – and accounted for in terms of friction between social pressures and individual freedom. It is clear that what is of benefit to the individual is not necessarily of benefit to the collective. But it seems odd to suppose that the human animal would invent and go on inventing something – culture, society – that is in conflict with and even militates against its essential nature, unless there is an impulse to do so that determines behaviour in ways that are not strictly ‘selfish’ for want of a better word. But then, the conflict is not only moral, it is also intellectual. Guilt – and some would call it ‘existential guilt’ – is a feature of our species, but so is the intellectual need of members of successive generations to call into question what the previous generation believed. So rather than trying to find cultural factors or genetic factors supposedly responsible for this conflict, it is much more reasonable to speculate that the dissonances we experience as a species are rather down to a much more primordial tension that is inherent in our own nature. I am going to stick my neck out and call this:

the conflict between the brain and the mind.

It is not very fashionable to postulate a distinction between brain and mind, no more fashionable, indeed, than the distinction between body and soul. The ‘brain-mind problem’, so-called, is solved by those seeking scientific respectability by the simple expedient of denying the existence of the mind, or calling it a mere ‘epiphenomenon’ of the brain – something like the hum of an electric motor. I have no need of scientific respectability and care not a fig for fashion, so I’m going to argue for what strikes me as the clearest explanation for the essential conflict at the heart of human mental activity and declare that it’s down to the (creative) tension between the brain, and the mind that uses it. We could call this the conflict between the self and its brain. The materialistic objections to taking the mind seriously have evaporated as physics has developed: we simply do not understand what we mean by ‘matter’ any more. There are clearly levels of reality beyond the material and there is no point in asserting that mind cannot be considered a reality in its own right and studied phenomenologically. This is the line to be taken here. We shall assume not only that mind is distinct from brain but that mind is the more basic phenomenon and that mind makes use of brain for its expression. The mind, on this view, is a more capacious concept than that of the brain and the phenomenology of the mind is correspondingly more complex than that of the brain. For physicalism, brain event a and the ‘corresponding’ mind event a’  are one and the same. But there is no particularly good reason for this apart from a correlation that we do not understand. Brain event a may give rise to mind event a’; but equally, mind event a may give rise to brain event a’. Brain event a may exist without any mind event at all; but equally mind event a might exist without any brain event at all. Mind events might thus be prior to and more complex than brain events. If this view has any merit at, it becomes possible to see how the brain might be a source of limitation on the mind and how the mind might be a possible means of transcendence of the brain. The brain may merely focus the mind; and the mind may well expand the brain.

 The brain, we are told, is an engine tinkered together by the long peregrinations of our evolutionary past including those of the evolutionary past of all of our non-human forebears. This brain, in common with every other organ of every other creature, has been sculpted by all the dramas, tragedies, adventures, catastrophes and accomplishments of our long evolutionary history; and, in common with brains of other creatures, it is an impressively effective but sometimes unruly agent. But if we were no more than the sum total of the operations of our brain thus evolved, we would be creatures without conflict, like our non-human cousins, whose brains allow them to live in the same manner generation after generation without inner discord. Far from being impelled to live life in a certain way and no other, we (modern) humans find it impossible to live like our parents. We announce to ourselves that there is no essentially human life at all and that we are whatever we decide to make ourselves into. We imagine we are completely free to do this, even though, at the same time, we may hold the doctrine of total behavioural determinism by the brain.

Even a rudimentary knowledge of the history of our species should suggest to us, without invoking an immaterial self, that our mental evolution seems to require at the very least some ability of the brain as a system to modify itself, to stand outside of itself, as it were, and to criticise its own functioning.  It is as if the software running on the computer, so to speak, were built so as to be able to re-write itself on a regular basis. We seem as a species always to be rubbing up against what our brains impel us to do and finding stratagems that we think might be in some way better – or at least different. That doesn’t much look like mechanistic determinism and perhaps the ballooning of self-conscious awareness in our species is the irruption into what appears to us as material nature of the universal non-material levels of reality. If we take the existence of the human mind seriously – rather than trying to explain it away – then there is no reason at all why mind should not be considered to be a universal feature of realty. The emergence of this reality into the natural world in the form of self-consciousness can no longer be assumed to be an impossibility, as it was on the basis of now discredited conceptions of the material constitution of the world. We don’t necessarily have to go into the realms of Hegelian speculation concerning the absolute spirit and its emergence into consciousness in the human being; but we can postulate that universal intelligence achieves consciousness in the human individual thanks to the complexity of the brain, and that this brain, far from being a perfectly  adequate instrument for the expression of this universal intelligence acts as a restriction against which such intelligence constantly struggles. This restriction is, it seems, vital to our creativity and our ingenuity. It is in that sense that we suggest here that human beings might be in conflict with themselves and that this conflict emerges most visibly in that battle between our soaring imagination and our common sense.

This contradiction at the heart of our being should make us reflect that while we might be determined by our brains, there is clearly something else going on both in our individual consciousness and in the human species as a whole. The conflict of which we speak is of the very essence of what we are and is closely related to our restless drive towards accomplishment. It is responsible for the fact that we have moved in a very short time – speaking in evolutionary terms – from being no more than savannah-dwelling bipedal ape-like creatures to being, in our own eyes, masters of the universe. Our volcanic creativity, our use of language and mathematics, our technological inventiveness, our political evolution, our poetry and religion – all of these features of our history are connected to the central conflict of our being. So what is the nature of this conflict? The suggestion here is that it is down to a tussle within the human species between the swelling cerebral mass, as a survival-machine produced by evolution, on the one hand, and the emergence into human consciousness, on the other, of a level of reality that can only be described as ‘intelligent mind’ and that may for all we know be as essential a feature of the universe as matter. It may well be that the brains of mammals had to reach a certain level of complexity before this became possible, but whatever the case, there is a chasm between the human species and all other species that is to some extent explained by the nature of the brain, but that is best explained by the operation of the mind. We do not need to assume a dualistic structure to reality, with inexplicable interactions between two apparently irreconcilable realities, since current theories of physics do not exclude the operation of the mental in the non-material world of the sub-atomic in ways that cannot be explained by a purblind insistence upon the primacy of the three-dimensional object.

If this thesis is true, then we have to assume that brain-thinking and mind-thinking can be prised apart. Intuitively, this seems possible. But the difference between brain thinking and mind thinking is perhaps most clearly evident in the phenomenon of ‘common sense’. Human common sense is demonstrably a brain function: it is the way we are impelled to think before we start to reflect on our thinking, before we are even conscious of thinking. Common sense is what appears to humans to be obvious, self-evident or completely reasonable. For example, there are many perceptual conclusions that we draw about the world that are ‘obvious’ to us. It is ‘obvious’ to the common sense view that the universe is composed of three-dimensional objects. It is ‘obvious’ that the world is flat. It is ‘obvious’ that the sun goes around – or at least over – the stationary world from the east towards the west. It is ‘obvious’ that space has three dimensions and time is infinitely linear. It is ‘obvious’ that the moon is the same size as the sun, and so on. Additionally, there are many other common sense conclusions that we draw that have a moral character and are more subtle. It is ‘obvious’ that I owe a greater duty of care and have a greater moral responsibility towards my relatives than to non-relatives. It is ‘obvious’ that strangers are to be treated with suspicion. It is obvious that potential sexual partners are in themselves attractive. It is ‘obvious’ that aggression from you is to be met with aggression from me. It is ‘obvious’ that I should strive to maximise my sphere of influence, my power, my possessions. And so on. These ‘obvious’ matters are of relevance at the forefront of consciousness, but there are a host of other less conscious to unconscious determinants – some of which emerge when we discover perceptual illusions, for example – that nudge us towards conclusions that we find self-evidently correct and that we refer to as ‘common sense’. It is only when we begin to think about our thinking that these determinants become clear to us, we become aware of the brain’s influence upon us, and we become able to modify our behaviour or our knowledge in the light of our own freedom to criticise our common sense. The growth of culture can almost be seen as our transcendence of the brain as we become ever more skilled in criticising its operation and our consequent liberation from our common sense.

Common sense is clearly very fallible and may be dangerous once we adopt lifestyles more complex than those of hunter-gatherers. What was obvious to our ancestors served them well; but as we move away from the earth-bound, low velocity lives they led, we think about our thinking in a way that demonstrates our ability to think beyond the strictures of our brains. What is obvious now is that human civilization has taken the species beyond the sort of response to our environment that we observe in non-human animals, that all of these matters that are ‘obvious’ to our common sense view of the world are in fact far from obvious at all and are in other frames of reference mistaken. Modern physics has substantially destroyed our common sense perceptions of the world around us and centuries of moral and political evolution of our societies have extensively modified our common sense moral perceptions, too, since many of them were unjustifiably discriminatory. So although we still ‘know’ certain things of a perceptual and moral character – and know them with greater certainty the less aware we are –  we may now have to accept on the basis of rational argument that we don’t know them at all, that they arose out of mere brain ‘prejudice’ and that we are indeed mistaken. 

The world is not flat. Space is not three-dimensional. The world is not composed of three-dimensional objects, my family is not inherently more deserving than strangers, aggression is not obviously best met by aggression or vengeance, sexual attraction is a trick of the brain and it is not self-evidently true that I should always seek to maximise my own advantage. These things are ‘false’; and the fact that generations of human beings have thought otherwise does not change that.

So what is going on? What is going on is that our brains deliver to us a perceptual interpretation of the world along with certain patterns of thought and patterns of behaviour, on the one hand, that were useful to our survival as animals among animals, and our minds, with increasing awareness, find these perceptions and patterns of thought to be inadequate, on the other. This conflict is of our very essence and the view taken here is that it indicates the split in our being between mind-thinking, on the one hand, that is free to criticise and modify its mode of expression, and brain-thinking, on the other that is not. Brain-thinking is the hard wired bit of our mental economy. Brain-thinking will always impel us to pursue those types of behaviour that the brain has evolved to equip us for. We will behave like the elk with its enormous antlers and continue to use our adaptations in ways that lead to the development of even more effective versions of these assets. But like the elk, we will discover that these adaptations can be a handicap. Then, in contrast to the elk, our imagination will reveal to us where our advantage has turned into a hinderance and allow us to resist the promptings of our brain and its common sense. Our imagination will suggest to us ways in which we may liberate ourselves from the determinations of our brain. It is this creative transcendence of our innate thinking, we suggest, that is the indication of an intelligence at work in us that is not explained by the functioning of our brain alone.

Now while this intelligence may not have an evolved physical organ of expression in each individual human being, it does have an organ of expression in the totality of cultural institutions of the human species. It is this cultural organ – what Popper calls ‘World 3’ and what we have called ‘midworld’ – that permits the expression of universal intelligence through the human species as a whole and through the individual where this individual is, in turn, cultivated.

Clearly, our common sense reactions to the world are those reactions that evolution has programmed into our brains as a result of our struggle for survival. So our common sense is down to the unreconstructed activity of our brains that operates unopposed in the absence of education and continues with considerable power even where education has brought it to consciousness. It seems clear that brain-thinking does not require consciousness at all. In common sense it is, as it were, as though we were following the ordinary gradient of brain-activity. In common sense we experience the mechanisms of our brains acting according to their own structure. In our common sense conclusions, insofar as these enter our critical awareness, we ‘catch our brains at it’ and are able with increasing mental distance to criticise these conclusions. We ‘catch our brains at it’ in all sorts of situations where we may think that we are acting on reflection but where in fact our brains are thinking and acting autonomously. This is certainly the case in the affective aspects of our lives, in our sexual activity, in our motivation to find food, in our need to maximise the sphere of our power and influence and so on. But it is also the case in our perceptual interpretation of our immediate environment, in our locomotion, our judgement of space and time, our conclusions as to the suitability of a certain type of movement within a certain terrain and so on. 

But the most treacherous operations of our brains in the exercise of common sense are found in our chains of reasoning based upon common sense premises and then extrapolated to frame a general principle. For example, we may reason that since our immediate environment seems full of three-dimensional objects and nothing else is detectable by means of our senses, then there is nothing else in the universe. We may reason that since we can get to the top of a tree by means of a ladder, the use of a much longer ladder will get us to the moon. We may argue that since the world is clearly composed of three-dimensional objects, thought just has to be a three-dimensional object. We extrapolate all the time on the basis of common-sense premises and then discover subsequently that such extrapolations are illegitimate. Only after much trial and error do we finally reassess and possibly abandon our common sense conclusions. It is for this reason that the confident empiricist should temper confidence and hasty judgement with caution and perhaps a little imagination. Empiricism is common sense elevated to the level of the absolute and even common sense should tell the empiricist that thinking like a human being is not necessarily any more absolutely valid than thinking like a tadpole. (The comparison comes from Socrates.)

It is clear that as a species we have always been engaged upon a long process of modifying or abandoning patterns of thought that were given to us a priori, as it were, by the structure of our brains. We have as a species gone beyond the dictates of our brains in all manner of ways, both perceptual and moral. But we have also gone beyond our brains in our tendency to call into question and abandon our own extrapolations from common sense. What, for example, could be less commonsensical than the discoveries of quantum theory? Or how could an evolutionarily determined brain come up with the ideas of the Big Bang, black holes or other exotic states of matter far beyond the scope of any creature’s experience? So the question is: how does this process of ‘going beyond the brain’ come about? How do we ‘catch our brains at it’, catch ourselves thinking according to wobbly brain-supported assumptions, spot the fallacy and correct it? Animals cannot go beyond their brains. They are stuck with their brains and compelled to follow what they dictate. The elk has to carry on with its competitive behaviour that led to the disproportionate growth of its antlers and thus perhaps damage its future prospects, particularly if it gets stuck in a thicket while fleeing from wolves. The poor elk is stuck with that fate. We are apparently the only species that habitually criticises its own evolutionarily determined patterns of thought and modifies them where they appear to come into conflict with an expanded conception of reality. How do we do this?

The answer that occurs most insistently is that the human self-conscious mind is somehow ‘outside’ of or ‘beyond’ the brain and able to modify its activity from this outside vantage-point. Of course such a conclusion will draw howls of rage and ferocious opposition from all sorts of quarters, not least from the materialists and behaviourists. But the simple riposte to their arguments will often be that their ferocious opposition is more often than not based upon common sense and that they are not therefore going to win the argument by simply asserting what the brain compels them to assert. The empiricist dogma, that only what is experienced by the senses is known, is patently false. There is no longer any point or any justification in the assertion that what cannot be experienced by the bodily senses has no reality. Since that is so, we are entirely justified in following our own intuitions about our minds where rationally they take us. The empiricists will assure us that thoughts of God or transcendent minds are merely the brain-determined craving that our species has for coherent stories about and coherent meanings to our environment. But the view here is that empiricism is brain-determined common sense and probably misguided. Stories of gods and universal meanings arise because of our access to universal intelligence and not from the structures that our brains have evolved in the course of their evolution. 

The empiricists can not have it all their own way: if thoughts of God are just aberrations of the brain, then so are thoughts of universal scientific explanation. For us it is a blind alley to explain any aspect of the extraordinary effects of human creativity by pointing to this or that bit of the brain. Our creativity and the imaginative flights of fancy that are at the heart of our cultural accomplishments, are more intelligently seen as the emergence into human consciousness – admittedly still in primitive and often distorted form – of the universal intelligence that generates the cosmos. Moreover, this notion of universal intelligence gives us a sheet anchor to our minds when the business of criticising our brains and our common sense calls into question our cherished assumptions. The empiricists, who must equally criticise common-sense assumptions, have no compass thereafter to guide them on what has to be a trackless mental sea. That is why the empiricists are sometimes so ferocious and why they insist on the exclusive and absolute value of empiricism. The alternative seems to them to be pure irrationality. We at least are able see rationality as universally valid because it is rooted in universal intelligence.

Our creativity arises in our minds and not in our brains. We know all sorts of things that run counter to common sense and that nevertheless turn out to be truer than the conclusions of common sense. To take a simple example: whereas Euclidean geometry was regarded for many centuries as corresponding to the essential nature of reality, non-Euclidean geometries dreamt up out of sheer mathematical exuberance  by Gauss, Riemann, Lobachevski and others turned out to correspond much more precisely to our expanding conception of reality and facilitated the development of Einstein’s theories of Special and General Relativity as a result. Euclidean geometry is based on the ‘obvious’ properties of three-dimensional space, delivered to us to by our brains. And yet we have the ability to think up, in purely abstract ways, exotic properties of a world we have not experienced but suspect may just be possible. That such properties later turn out to be applicable to new features of the material world unsuspected by our common sense is nothing short of miraculous. The fundamental issue here is that of human creativity. We get beyond our brains by means of our creative thinking and we do it with such consistent success that to claim this merely as one part of the brain talking to another simply fails to convince. The prophets of naturalism, materialism and determinism will all claim that creativity is simply brain activity turbocharged by feedback loops created by language or by cultural pressure. Where it is not so determined, they believe, creativity is largely accidental. But both language and culture are themselves the results of human creativity over generations and therefore cannot be called upon to explain creativity. As for the ‘accident’ theory, in which creativity arises out of random brain-activity, this is a declaration of ignorance and mere desperation – the scientific equivalent of the unconvincing ‘god-of-the-gaps’.

Determinism, brain-determinism simply does not work as an account for human creativity. The easiest and clearest way to account for the manner in which humanity has consistently and massively altered the functioning of its own thought, transcended its common sense, is to suppose that the mind is a broader, larger and more complex phenomenon than the brain and that it is the action of the mind upon the brain that drives it to transcend its own limitations while continuing, in many respects, to be tied to them. There is clearly a two-way process going on: the brain becomes ever more practised in its functioning as a result of experience; but this conceivably allows the mind enhanced scope. The mind can be presumed to be far more complex than the brain, just as all possible, but as yet unknown, mathematics is more complex than existing mathematics. Such complexity could not of course be squared with the notion of mind as an ‘emergent’ property of the brain, for emergence, though permitting interactionism, leaves the mind less, and not more, complex than the brain it uses and from which it supposedly emerges. The only reasonably respectable conception of mental reality that could allow the mind to be more complex than the brain is that of panpsychism, according to which mind is a property of the universe at large and as such predates the emergence of any brain, human or otherwise. And indeed a conception of the universe that includes intelligent mind as one of its fundamental properties is not inherently difficult to accept any more. It is only difficult to accept is if one is ideologically committed to one or other – or all – of the various eliminative theories that since the eighteenth century have striven to exclude mind from the universe, first in the form of a deity and then in any form at all, including that of a human mind.

A universe in which intelligent mind is a fundamental property may well strike us humans as against common sense and thus as inconceivable, but it is not more against common sense than quantum theory and its inconceivability is a result of the limitations of common sense anyway – limits that we transcend with great regularity. So inconceivability and common sense are no objections to a theory of universal intelligent mind. Moreover, it is not as inconceivable as all that, since we know from our most intimate experience, and against common sense, what is implied by the word ‘mind’ and we have direct experience of the interaction between mind and the material systems that make up our bodies. Extrapolating from our own mental experience to the universe at large is now more justified than extrapolations to the universe at large of human common-sense intuitions concerning matter. We do not need, moreover, some unsatisfactory dualistic theory to make the idea of universal mind comprehensible to ourselves. The world of physical matter is quite complex enough to include in it mind-like levels of reality. The old idea that matter had to mean three-dimensional objects has gone forever. Matter is now understood much more in terms of energy fields than in terms of three-dimensional objects. There is, therefore, no reason at all, why intelligent mind should not be an energic feature of the entire universe just as intelligent mind is a feature of the human being. The world of three-dimensional objects arises out of a level of reality in which there are no three-dimensional objects and that level could conceivably be not one, but a multiplicity of levels, - let’s say a hierarchy of ever more subtle fields –  on one or more of which mind could operate.

So the distinction between brain-thinking and mind-thinking is by no means a wild or fantastical idea. The brain is only a three-dimensional object in terms of our common sense and in terms of the capacities of the sensory-cognitive apparatus bequeathed to us by evolution, and we are learning to be ever more critical of all of this. It is not reasonable to claim, as dyed-in-the-wool materialists do, that thoughts are objects. It is, however, perfectly reasonable to believe that thoughts are what we think they are – i.e. thoughts – and to suppose that the history of human culture has been a progressive liberation of the mind and of human consciousness from the limitations of the brain. If we had been stuck with our brain and nothing more, we would arguably be still living in the manner of our hominid ancestors. The explosive development of human culture and human consciousness is well accounted for in the speculative theory that the increasingly complex brain produced by evolution permitted the emergence into human consciousness of the universal mental levels of reality. If what we understand as the ‘matter’ of the universe is more a creation of our sensory-cognitive apparatus than objective reality, and if this material character of the macroscopic world arises out of a distinctly non-material substrate, then our brains, too, can be understood as arising out of a non-material substrate, an energy field or something analogous. Such conceptions are entirely within the bounds of modern physical possibility. Mental activity will thus always correlate to observable brain activity, since the two – the mental dimension and the physical – are aspects of a single reality that in turn is part of the intelligent, mentally active universe. But correlation is not the same as causation; and it is no more reasonable to say that the empirically observable electro-chemical activity of the brain causes the thoughts than it is to say that the thoughts cause the electro-chemical activity.

Common sense has to be taken with a large pinch of salt. The brain imposes all manner of mental habits upon us that we do well not to trust, when it is a question of understanding reality. Reality has to be our guide, not fashionable theory. And whatever else we may know or not know, we know that our minds are real. Much of scientific advance has involved overturning common sense notions and there is no reason to suppose that this will not continue as science becomes deeper and investigates ever deeper levels and wider vistas of phenomena. Science is still too closely linked to common sense. The philosophy of naturalism and its related ideologies of determinism and materialism arose from a too uncritical reliance on common sense and therefore on the natural gradient of the brain. Science, when it comes of age, will take us ever further from our brains and ever deeper into the mental reality that we are only just beginning to appreciate. But we may have to take mental reality more seriously first. Technology is taking us ever further from the limitations of our bodies and there is no reason to suppose that science will not do the same for that bit of our bodies we call the brain. 

Materialism is dead. Determinism is dead. And there is now no longer any reason to cling to the ideology of naturalism. The mind is the most difficult entity for science in its present form to understand, precisely because science is still too dependent on common sense. The self-conscious mind is even more difficult to understand. Science will have to grow up and evolve new methods for dealing with the immaterial. But this is not something to fear; nor is it something radically alien, since art has been dealing with it for centuries. On the contrary, a liberated science holds out the possibility of vastly enhanced understanding and vastly expanded vistas of reality. If such intellectual developments eventually rehabilitate the idea of a deity, then so be it. The idea of a God is only to be feared if it is shackled to the common sense of the human brain and all the primitive obsessions that arose from it, its tribalism, its territoriality, its xenophobia, its naïve three-dimensionalism and all the rest. The modern atheists rely entirely on their common sense to deliver their truth. The truth is that the brain has never delivered any more than a convenient, survival-related truth. The search for truth is an activity of the mind and that mind, once honestly considered, leads inevitably to the thought of a universal intelligence.

It is completely obvious that we are limited beings with a limited conception of reality who are still struggling with the straightjacket of the brain upon our thought. The question is whether we are definitively imprisoned within those limits or whether there is a way for us to transcend them. I have tried to argue that though our brains are determined, evolutionarily circumscribed structures, our minds give us access to levels of reality that are not merely material, and therefore we may legitimately hypothesise that we do have mental access to levels of reality from which our brains  exclude  us. Thus the interaction between mind and brain on the historical level has led to an expansion of our capacities in all areas, because we rightly suspect that more is going on in the universe than our brains give us cause to believe. Below the sub-atomic level of reality, we have no indication from our brains of anything at all: reality shades off into a mysterious fog or foam of energy. There is no reason, however, why the hierarchical levels of reality to which we do have access – macroscopic objects, microscopic objects, atoms, sub-atomic particles etc. – should not be supported by any number of additional structured levels beyond the sub-atomic, as David Bohm suspected. 

The structure beyond the levels of the sub-atomic would provide ample accommodation for the presence and operation of any number of entities that are unknown to us from our sensory experience of the world but that might be grasped to some extent by us on the basis of our own experience of the mental. We perceive the world in a particular way; and empiricists will assert boldly and with breezy optimism that there is nothing else to reality other than what we experience in that way. That they are mistaken in this is clear not only from non-scientific culture but also from the progress made by particle physics. They can also clearly be seen to be mistaken from the simple observation that they have no account to give and therefore no understanding to offer of the phenomenon of mind unless they reduce it to a thing. Their account of mind is an eliminative one: they can only deal with mind by denying its existence because there is no sensory access to it. They can only study mind by murdering it first. Less ideological thinkers, however, see clearly that as limited beings, limited by the capacities of our brains, we are right to suspect that more is going on in the world than we can understand by empirical means. 

The hunch that members of the human species have always had that something is going on in reality beyond what we perceive, is a legitimate ground for speculation concerning structures in reality that are not given to the experience vouchsafed to us by our brains. The easiest conclusion to draw is that our mental access to levels of reality beyond the physical is an avenue of communication between those levels and ourselves. It may well be after all that we have a connection with what has traditionally be called ‘the divine’ through our mental experience. After all, we can postulate that our bodies are in causal contact with all the other matter in the universe, so why should we not suppose that our minds are similarly in contact with a universal mental reality? It is for this reason that one does well to take the deliverances of the brain cum grano salis and to allow the hunches of the mind concerning the complexity of reality to provide a very much expanded conception of the world than that of the merely empirical.

Common sense is thinking according to the limitations of the brain. Poets, prophets, philosophers and imaginative scientists have always suspected that there is more to the world than meets the eye –  and brain –  and indeed followed strong hunches as to what that ‘more’ might be. There is no reason why we should bow to the bullying dogmatism of the empiricists when the world patently is so much more wonderful than they allow and becomes yet more so with every new discovery that expands our consciousness. Expansion of consciousness and spirituality are related concepts. If spirituality means anything at all, then it involves some aspect of humanity that is not tied to the empirically observable brain. The brain dies and decomposes - that is the universal lot of evolved creatures. That much we do know. If any spirituality that may be achieved simply died with the brain, it would be a waste of time to pursue and accumulate it. All the religious traditions of the world suggest that spiritual growth involves progressive departure from those patterns of behaviour that seem to be programmed into the brain of the species. Spirituality is a matter of increased individuation – or perhaps it should be ‘dividuation’ – and a diminution of those features of the personality that are merely human. It is a departure from the attitude to the world governed by common sense. We are no longer justified in dismissing the fact that humanity has always suspected the mind and body to be separable with the former providing the locus and focus of onward growth. There is no reason to assume, except on merely common sense grounds, that the death of the body annihilates the gains made by the mind. Such a possibility is entirely compatible with our present understanding of the world and of the information that structures it.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


We inhabit a culture in which things are of consummate value and in which the mind as an entity is not taken seriously. This is an anomalous situation since we do in fact take minds seriously in our relations to other human beings, in our legal system, in our art, religion, ethical reflection and indeed in every context in which consideration of the person without any attempt at reduction is vital. But then as soon as any theoretical discussion of mental events arises, we fall back with tedious knee-jerk predictability on scientific mantras to the effect that mind is ‘of course’ nothing but brain. There is a deep-seated fear in our culture of appearing to take the mind seriously as mind, but the simple and obvious reason for this is that we are unable to talk of anything but objects. We are hidebound by this convention even though we know in our deepest being that there is more to us than mere tangible things. So the intention here, and in subsequent posts, will be to follow the consequences of taking the existence of the mind seriously. Taking the mind seriously involves having the courage of our convictions and allowing what strikes us as completely obvious (until we begin to theorise) to impose certain types of conclusion. The essence of these conclusions is to allow, without prejudging the issue on theoretical grounds, that the mental is a form of existence in its own right and can be treated as a real aspect of the world. Once this is allowed, a host of consequences begin to flow – most of which will be unacceptable to the physicalist and materialist assumptions  of the  neuro-scientific  and biological establishment –, the most fundamental of which is the postulation of a real distinction between those aspects of our being that are brain-determined, and those aspects of our being that are not.

The trouble with all talk of minds, selves, souls, persons, psyches, and so on, is that although the existence of such is obvious to us from our own intimate experience, we are not equipped by our brain even to think of such putative entities, let alone talk of them. Evolution gave us a brain honed for our survival in a world of hard knocks and has thereby equipped us to think of things with great precision and clarity. We do this wonderfully well.  Our discrimination between things and between parts of things is magnificent, but the downside of this is that we can think with any precision only of things. Having adapted us to perceive and handle things mentally, evolution also gave us the massive handicap of preventing us from mentally manipulating anything else with the same degree of lucidity. The result of this is that we have powerful hunches concerning entities in the universe that simply cannot be things and yet we tend to reify them nevertheless because that is how our mental apparatus works best. And yet we are clearly able to get beyond our own obsession with the 3D object. Our minds have persistently grappled with the non-physical and physicists have recently come up with the startling thesis that things might not exist in the way we believe, that the fundamental levels of reality cannot be thought of as material. So while we are apparently handicapped by our innate empiricism, we also, surprisingly, have the means to overcome this handicap, at least to some extent. The belief here is that it is the possession of a mind, distinct from its brain, that not only allows us to perform such feats but that drives us towards them. While the brain convinces us that the world has to be thought of as a collection of objects, the mind tells us a different tale.

The postulation of two separate substances – mind and matter – is as misguided as the reduction of the one to the other. It is futile to commit ourselves to some metaphysics of mind or matter because such a policy entails prejudging what can and cannot be the case, and this practice has notoriously failed in the history of thought. We have to work  with experience and it is unnecessary to pontificate on what can or cannot come into its purview. As ‘thinking things’ to use Descartes’s phrase, rather than as bodies, we immediately suspect that we are not ourselves things, or at least that we are rather special things lacking the most obvious properties of the things of our sensory experience: three dimensional geometry, solidity, space occupancy and so on. The result of this most crucial aspect of our experience is that though our sensory experience provides us only with notions of yet more 3D things, our experience of the self (Hume was simply wrong in believing that we do not have any) provides us with at least one example of an entity in the world which is not a 3D thing. We try to get around this problem in ways that are illustrative of our evolutionarily determined handicap: we reify the self. We either imagine that the self is a special kind of thing (a ‘substance’, a  ‘subtle body’ a ‘soul’, ‘ a mind’ etc.) which we imagine we understand on analogy with the 3D thing of our sensory experience; but the difficulties are insurmountable  and we get into insoluble muddles because of category errors. Small wonder then that the materialists and physicalists, who rely absolutely on our brain-determined tendency to think only of 3D things and regard it as completely authoritative, continue with Hume and the Behaviourists to deny the existence of a self completely.

But once one has realised that belief in 3D objects is something that is forced upon us by our brains, something that we have to entertain because of our sensory-cognitive apparatus, it is surely legitimate to reflect that our primary experience of the self may well be a reason for learning to believe that not only may 3D things be possibly the illusory, but that our minds conceivably reveal a feature or property of reality that our object-obsessed thinking cannot deal with: its mental or non material nature. We may legitimately begin to reflect that our mental experience gives us access to levels of reality that our brain-imposed thinking about things cannot cope with. We may then proceed to reflect that contrary to the deliverances of our sensory-cognitive apparatus, things do not exist at all, but that reality is perhaps intrinsically mental. If things have no real existence beyond our belief in them, if things are constructions of our minds, then minds are possibly primary and the one we possess may be our particular access to levels of reality that transcend our ability to think or talk about. On the other hand, we may not have to go this far, for this is an extreme view. There may well be a rational middle ground between the old alternatives of materialism and idealism.
Given the state of modern physics and its non-material conception of the fundamental levels of the material world of our sensory experience, I can see nothing wrong in:  

a) believing in mind as a reality on the basis of our raw and fundamental experience of it;
b) rejecting materialism and physicalism as creations of our particular cognitive handicap; and
c) assuming that as the basis of our very existence, mind is a fundamental  aspect of reality.

Pontificating on what can and cannot exist in the universe is a risky and unwise business. The universe is not as small as we are and not as limited as our sensory-cognitive apparatus would lead us to suppose; and our minds are prima facie evidence that reality is more complex than our brains allow us to imagine. To dismiss thinking of the mindlike properties of the universe as a ‘category error’ or ‘epiphenomenon’ or to dismiss it by some such effort to discredit the notion merely demonstrates the power of our tendency to think in terms of 3D things alone. It is mistaking a handicap for an absolutely valid and exhaustive set of assumptions. It is as unjustified as declaring that non-visible electromagnetic radiation does not exist because we cannot see it. We need to liberate our thought and concede that we have in the experience of our own minds reason enough to conclude that our thinking in terms of 3D things is now leading us astray and should be held more lightly, if not abandoned. The development of a little discipline in conceiving non-material reality would be of great benefit. This is indeed done with reasonable rigour by studying in an unprejudiced way the wealth of stored insight found in religious and poetic language across the world and throughout the ages. The problem is that official science does not take such studies seriously because their conclusions cannot be reduced to things and their uses.

We think of things, we love things, we delight in making more things, in amassing things but fundamentally we know that we ourselves are emphatically not things. We, as selves, are fundamentally different from things. So much is clear to us in the differing values we place on items of our experience. The entity of highest value is unquestionably the self. Though as bodies we are things, we know as a feature of our most fundamental experience that the self cannot be a thing or a collection of things. This dichotomy at the heart of our being is the origin of all thought of a religious or poetic nature. It was this that led Kant to propose thinking of the world in terms of phenomena – or things accessible to our senses – and noumena, or entities not accessible to our sense (called by him - with a reificatory impulse that is quite characteristic of us - ‘things in themselves’). We cannot escape from the immaterial mind and maybe the immediate reality of the immaterial in our conscious awareness is our entrance into levels of reality that are above and beyond or behind the material presented to us by our brains. Maybe it is not just our possession of minds that gives us our obsession with the spiritual, the psychic and so on, but also our position at the edge of dimensions of reality that have always been there but that now we can begin to conceive.

In the book The Self and its Brain (Routledge London 2000) by the philosopher Karl Popper and the neuro-scientist John Eccles, Popper takes the mind seriously in that it has causal effects upon the world of matter that cannot be reduced to purely material causes. He accounts for the mind as an ‘emergent’ phenomenon, a reality that has ‘emerged’ from the process of evolution as a reality in its own right and that has in its turn given rise to the additional ‘emergent phenomenon’ of what he calls ‘World 3’ – that is to say culture and language. But he refuses to concede that mind might be a constant and universal feature of the universe. It is difficult to see why he is opposed to such a notion – called by him ‘panpsychism’ – for emergent entities with their own ontological status are no easier to understand than universal mind. His refutation of panpsychism in his section of the book (cf pp 67-71) is weak and half-hearted; and his own notion of an emergent phenomenon is no easier to understand than that of a universal mind. One must assume that his hostility to the notion of a universal mental reality – with which his fellow author Eccles has no problem at all – arises from his inability to shake off entirely the effects of his early devotion to Logical Positivism. At all events this book allows one to begin thinking in terms of a non-material mind; and once this is allowed (why should it not be?) it becomes clear that it is impossible to understand the human without postulating an immaterial self – with its own class of mental events – on the one hand, allied to a physical brain, which provides us with its particular class of mental experiences, on the other. Put crudely, brain-thinking is distinct from mind-thinking, the self is distinct from and to a real extent independent of its brain, and understanding this is vital if we are to grasp the essential features of our nature.