Consciousness & The Brain by Dr. Dossey

Why Consciousness Is Not the Brain

Larry Dossey

Physicist Freeman Dyson believes the cosmos is suffused with consciousness, from the grandest level to the most minute dimensions. If it is, why aren’t we aware of it?

“We don’t know who first discovered water, but we can be sure that it wasn’t a fish,” the old saw reminds us. Continual exposure to something reduces our awareness of its presence. Over time, we become blind to the obvious. We swim in a sea of consciousness, like a fish swims in water. And like a fish that has become oblivious to his aqueous environment, we have become dulled to the ubiquity of consciousness.

In science, we have largely ignored how consciousness manifests in our existence. We’ve done this by assuming that the brain produces consciousness, although how it might do so has never been explained and can hardly be imagined.

The polite term for this trick is “emergence.” At a certain stage of biological complexity, evolutionary biologists claim, consciousness pops out of the brain like a rabbit from a magician’s hat. Yet this claim rests on no direct evidence whatsoever. As Rutgers University philosopher Jerry A. Fodo flatly states, “Nobody has the slightest idea how anything material could be conscious. So much for our philosophy of consciousness.”

In spite of the complete absence of evidence, the belief that the brain produces consciousness endures and has ossified into dogma. Many scientists realize the limitations of this belief. One way of getting around the lack of evidence is simply to declare that what we call consciousness is the brain itself. That way, nothing is produced, and the magic of “emergence” is avoided.

As astronomer Carl Sagan expressed his position, “My fundamental premise about the brain is that its workings—what we sometimes call mind—are a consequence of anatomy and physiology, and nothing more.” Nobelist Francis Crick agreed, saying a “person’s mental activities are entirely due to the behavior of nerve cells, glial cells, and the atoms, ions, and molecules that make up and influence them.”

This “identity theory”—mind equals brain—has led legions of scientists and philosophers to regard consciousness as an unnecessary, superfluous concept. Some go out of their way to deny the existence of consciousness altogether, almost as if they bear a grudge against it. Tufts University cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett says, “We’re all zombies. Nobody is conscious.” Dennett includes himself in this extraordinary claim, and he seems proud of it.

Others suggest that there are no mental states at all, such as love, courage, or patriotism, but only electrochemical brain fluxes that should not be described with such inflated language. They dismiss thoughts and beliefs for the same reasons.

This led Nobel neurophysiologist Sir John Eccles to remark that “professional philosophers and psychologists think up the notion that there are no thoughts, come to believe that there are no beliefs, and feel strongly that there are no feelings.”

Eccles was emphasizing the absurdities that have crept into the debates about consciousness. They are not hard to spot. Some of the oddest experiences I recall are attending conferences where one speaker after another employs his consciousness to denounce the existence of consciousness, ignoring the fact that he consciously chose to register for the meeting, make travel plans, prepare his talks, and so on.

Many scientists concede that there are huge gaps in their knowledge of how the brain makes consciousness, but they are certain they will be filled in as science progresses. Eccles and philosopher of science Karl Popper branded this attitude “promissory materialism.”

“Promissary materialism is a superstition without a rational foundation,” Eccles says. “It is simply a religious belief held by dogmatic materialists … who confuse their religion with their science. It has all the features of a messianic prophecy.”

The arguments about the origins and nature of consciousness are central to premonitions. For if the promissory materialists are correct—if consciousness is indeed identical with the brain—the curtain closes on premonitions.

The reason is that the brain is a local phenomenon—i.e., it is localized to the brain and body, and to the present. This prohibits premonitions in principle, because accordingly the brain cannot operate outside the body and the here-and-now. But consciousness can operate beyond the brain, body, and the present, as hundreds of experiments and millions of testimonials affirm. Consciousness cannot, therefore, be identical with the brain.

These assertions are not hyperbolic, but conservative. They are consistent with the entire span of human history, throughout which all cultures of which we have record believed that human perception extends beyond the reach of the senses. This belief might be dismissed as superstition but for the fact that modern research has established its validity beyond reasonable doubt to anyone whose reasoning has not clotted into hardened skepticism.

To reiterate a single example—the evidence supporting foreknowledge—psi researchers Charles Honorton and Diane Ferrari examined 309 precognition experiments carried out by sixty-two investigators involving 50,000 participants in more than two million trials. Thirty percent of these studies were significant in showing that people can describe future events, when only five percent would be expected to demonstrate such results by chance. The odds that these results were not due to chance was greater than 10 to the twentieth power to one.

One of the first modern thinkers to endorse an outside-the-brain view of consciousness was William James, who is considered the father of American psychology. In his 1898 Ingersoll Lecture at Harvard University, James took a courageous stand against what he called “the fangs of cerebralism and the idea that consciousness is produced by the brain.”

He acknowledged that arrested brain development in childhood can lead to mental retardation, that strokes or blows to the head can abolish memory or consciousness, and that certain chemicals can change the quality of thought. But to consider this as proof that the brain actually makes consciousness, James said, is irrational.

Why irrational? Consider a radio, an invention that was introduced during James’s lifetime, and which he used to illustrate the mind-brain relationship. If one bangs a radio with a hammer, it ceases to function. But that does not mean that the origin of the sounds was the radio itself; the sound originated from outside it in the form of an electromagnetic signal. The radio received, modified, and amplified the external signal into something recognizable as sound.

Just so, the brain can be damaged in various ways that distort the quality of consciousness—trauma, stroke, nutritional deficiencies, dementia, etc. But this does not necessarily mean the brain “made” the consciousness that is now disturbed, or that consciousness is identical to the brain.

British philosopher Chris Carter endorses this analogy. Equating mind and brain is as irrational, he says, as listening to music on a radio, smashing the radio’s receiver, and thereby concluding that the radio was producing the music.

To update the analogy, consider a television set. We can damage a television set so severely that we lose the image on the screen, but this doesn’t prove that the TV actually produced the image. We know that David Letterman does not live behind the TV screen on which he appears; yet the contention that brain equals consciousness is as absurd as if he did.

The radio and TV analogies can be misleading, however, because consciousness does not behave like an electromagnetic signal. Electromagnetic (EM) signals display certain characteristics. The farther away they get from their source, the weaker they become.

Not so with consciousness; its effects do not attenuate with increasing distance. For example, in the hundreds of healing experiments that have been done in both humans and animals, healing intentions work equally well from the other side of the earth as at the bedside of the sick individual. Moreover, EM signals can be blocked partially or completely, but the effects of conscious intention cannot be blocked by any known substance.

For instance, sea water is known to block EM signals completely at certain depths, yet experiments in remote viewing have been successfully carried out beyond such depths, demonstrating that the long-distance communication between the involved individuals cannot depend on EM-type signals.

In addition, EM signals require travel time from their source to a receiver, yet thoughts can be perceived simultaneously between individuals across global distances. Thoughts can be displaced in time, operating into both past and future.

In precognitive remote viewing experiments—for example, the hundreds of such experiments by the PEAR Lab at Princeton University—the receiver gets a future thought before it is ever sent. Furthermore, consciousness can operate into the past, as in the experiments involving retroactive intentions. Electromagnetic signals are not capable of these feats. From these differences, we can conclude that consciousness is not an electric signal.

Then what is it? My conclusion is that consciousness is not a thing or substance, but is a nonlocal phenomenon. Nonlocal is merely a fancy word for infinite. If something is nonlocal, it is not localized to specific points in space, such as brains or bodies, or to specific points in time, such as the present.

Nonlocal events are immediate; they require no travel time. They are unmediated; they require no energetic signal to “carry” them. They are unmitigated; they do not become weaker with increasing distance. Nonlocal phenomena are omnipresent, everywhere at once. This means there is no necessity for them to go anywhere; they are already there. They are infinite in time as well, present at all moments, past present and future, meaning they are eternal.

Researcher Dean Radin, whose presentiment experiments provide profound evidence for future knowing, believes that the nonlocal events in the subatomic, quantum domain underlie the nonlocal events we experience at the human level. He invokes the concept of entanglement as a bridging hypothesis uniting the small- and large-scale happenings. Quantum entanglement and quantum nonlocality are indeed potent possibilities that may eventually explain our nonlocal experiences, but only further research will tell.

Meanwhile, there is a gathering tide of opinion favoring these approaches. As physicist Chris Clarke, of the University of Southampton, says, “On one hand, Mind is inherently non-local. On the other, the world is governed by a quantum physics that is inherently non-local. This is no accident, but a precise correspondence … [Mind and the world are] aspects of the same thing … The way ahead, I believe, has to place mind first as the key aspect of the universe … We have to start exploring how we can talk about mind in terms of a quantum picture … Only then will we be able to make a genuine bridge between physics and physiology.”

Whatever their explanation proves to be, the experiments documenting premonitions are real. They must be reckoned with. And when scientists muster the courage to face this evidence unflinchingly, the greatest superstition of our age—the notion that the brain generates consciousness or is identical with it—will topple.

In its place will arise a nonlocal picture of the mind. This view will affirm that consciousness is fundamental, omnipresent and eternal—a model that is as cordial to premonitions as the materialistic, brain-based view is hostile.

Copyright © 2013 by Larry Dossey. All Right Reserved.


Deepak Chopra on Spirituality in the World

Author, ‘War of the Worldviews’; Founder, The Chopra Foundation

Possibly a New World (Part 2)

Posted: 1/11/12 08:45 AM ET

It’s a well-worn truth that the modern world is built upon science and technology. But this truth doesn’t dominate everyday life as much as one might think. Science is materialistic, and it explains the world through objective data. People lead their lives, at least partly, apart from materialism. The spiritual side of life exists and always has, which defies objective data. So does art, which isn’t mystical, not to mention emotions, intuition, morality and much else that makes life worth living.

Most of the time we are satisfied with this kind of catch-as-catch-can dualism. One of the easiest precepts from Jesus to follow is “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s.” If you substitute “science” or “materialism” for Caesar, everyone does exactly that, compartmentalizing personal and spiritual experience in a separate box from iPads, microwaves and space shuttles.

The problem is that a compartmentalized life feels inadequate, which is why a public debate has been ongoing for 200 years about whether God or science is the ultimate master of reality. The answer matters. If you plump for God then miracles, mysticism, the soul and invisible forces have a chance to be real. If you plump for science instead, then physical existence can be completely trusted and the rational mind will in time solve all apparent mysteries. In either case, dualism no longer pinches; some kind of non-dualism wins the day.

In my posts, articles and books I’ve argued that science can expand to include miracles and mysticism. There is no need to deny the miraculous if everything is a miracle. There is no mystery surrounding mysticism if we look into the subtle essence of the human mind. More importantly, a non-dual world based on consciousness would be a better world. The fact is that science won’t reach answers to every riddle, so plumping for materialism is an empty gesture — even a hoax — when it comes to explaining a broad range of issues:

  • What is a thought? Who is thinking?
  • What connects body and mind?
  • Where does meaning come from?
  • Why and how does the body heal itself?

These questions seem so abstract, not to mention so huge, that everyday life seems content to pass the by, and materialists are content to call them metaphysics, putting them high on a shelf to gather philosophical dust. But I’d argue that no questions are more relevant to my life and yours, once we reduce them to the personal scale.

  • Why do I have the thoughts I have? Where are they taking me?
  • Can my mind change my body in positive ways when it comes to disease and aging?
  • What does my life really mean?
  • Can I make a difference in how my body heals?

One could add many other important issues to the list, but all would have one thing in common: until you understand the mind, you haven’t truly understood reality. Life comes to us as experience. This is true of driving a car, raising a child, catching a cold or building a super collider in order to detect subatomic particles. Experience is how we participate in the universe. The super collider isn’t set aside in some objective space, even though data tries to be objective. Every moment in every scientist’s life is a subjective experience. It consists of sensations, thoughts, feelings and images.

You can claim, as non-dual materialists do, that the subjective side taints the objective and should be considered an unreliable guide to truth. But to say this makes two mistakes, and they are whoppers. The first mistake is that the mind cannot be located in the material world. Primitive peoples, as we like to call them, believed that spirits inhabited physical objects, a perspective known as animism. Trees contained tree spirits, the sky was the home of rain gods, and little demons lurked all around. Yet when it says that mind exists in the brain, neuroscience is committing the same fallacy. The brain is made up of atoms and molecules. It is a thing, like a tree, and to say that the mind is only the brain means that you have attributed consciousness to atoms and molecules. No one has ever explained how mind suddenly arises in blood sugar when that sugar crosses the blood-brain barrier. It is simply assumed.

The second mistake, intimately connected to the first, is that observers can stand apart from what they observe. Instead of being a participatory universe, science asserts that outside reality is separate from us; we are like children with our noses pressed to a bake shop window, staring through the glass but never going inside. This view reduces experience to data and then goes further by saying that data is superior to experience. This cannot remotely be true. The data about your body, such as blood pressure, heart rate, hormone levels, etc., is essentially the same as the data from Buddha, Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci and Picasso. It seems obvious that when you throw out all the factors that make these individuals unique, you have thrown out something pretty essential — the very meaning and purpose of life.

I’ve argued that a new world is being born in which nothing needs to be thrown out, and such a world can only be based on experience. Experience covers billions of people leading different lives, but one element is always present: consciousness. Thoughts and actions occur in consciousness. This is so obvious that it feels a bit meaningless, like saying that all marine life occurs in the sea. But the world’s wisdom traditions exist to open our eyes, seeing beyond the obvious to something incredibly important: If you delve into consciousness, you will find the essence of existence, meaning it purpose, direction and goal. You will know deeply and fully who you are, and when that unfolds, you will know what reality is.

Non-dual consciousness doesn’t celebrate subjectivity over objectivity. To do that is simply to take the mistakes of materialism and turn them on their heads. Non-dual systems all make the same claim: “Everything is made of X.” Science says that everything is made of matter and energy. Non-dual consciousness says that everything is made of mind. An alien landing on Earth in a spaceship, lacking bias either way, could easily see why these two worldviews consider the other preposterous. To say that everything is matter and energy is preposterous when you are trying to get at the mind and subjective experience. Non-dual consciousness is preposterous when you are trying to figure out where stars and galaxies come from. In other words, the physical seems secure in making its claims on us, while the mental seems just as secure when telling the story of inner life.

The great challenge is to decide which preposterous claim is, believe it or not, actually true. For thousands of years human beings had no difficulty believing that Creation was happening in the mind of God; the spiritual origin of the universe was certain. Today, people have no trouble believing that tiny physical things called atoms and molecules will reveal why we fall in love, create art and have thoughts in our heads. I’m not defending an ancient bias as opposed to a modern one. Rather, there has been an evolution, bringing us to the point where we can go beyond crude animism, whether of the spiritual or materialistic kind, at last seeing how consciousness works in the whole scheme of reality.

We can explain the galaxies and personal experience at the same time by finding the same origin for each. If nature goes to the same place — an invisible workshop beyond time and space — to create a supernova, a rose, human love and our craving for God, then non-duality solves everything. My position is that non-duality must be based in consciousness, since it is inescapable that the only reality we know comes through experience. Without a doubt we live in a participatory universe, and the sooner we surrender the delusion that data is superior to experience, the closer we will come to transforming the world.