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WHY YOUR BRAIN ISN’T EXPERIENCING ANYTHING

Even as we pass through a golden age for brain science, only the future will determine whether the whole field is based on an unproven assumption, namely, that once you understand the brain, you understand the mind. At best, the notion that Brain=Mind is touch and go. When you try to figure out where thoughts, feelings, and sensations come from, you find yourself in a strange domain filled with mirrors, illusions, and a shaky grasp of reality. The mind is harder to hunt down than the mythical unicorn because, with the mind, the hunter and the hunted are the same.

This frustrating obstacle has led to speculation that swings between two extremes: At one extreme, occupied by strict materialists, consciousness is pure illusion created by brain chemistry. At the other extreme, occupied by anyone who doesn’t really want an explanation, consciousness is a given that defies exploration, much as water is a given to a fish.

Must the riddle of the mind remain a riddle? For answers, relying on Brain=Mind is a dead end, even though that’s the position adopted wholesale by neuroscience. The complexity of the human nervous system is fascinating, but the mind doesn’t need the brain in order to exist. Consciousness preceded all living things by being fundamental in creation.

Over the past decade or so, the notion that consciousness is innate in the universe, as built-in as gravity, has gained in stature. Some leading cosmologists are circling back to the insights of quantum pioneers like Max Planck and Erwin Schrödinger. Planck declared that it was impossible to “get behind consciousness,” meaning that consciousness can’t be explained by referring to anything more primal. Schrödinger held that consciousness cannot be subdivided; there is only one consciousness, even though it appears to be subdivided into billions of individual minds. To use an honored analogy from the Vedanta tradition in India, pure gold can be made into countless objects, but in essence, they are all gold.

Quantum physics is a two-edged sword, however, when it comes to explaining the mind. Its principles have been used to justify a conscious universe or not, depending on the perspective of the thinker who is wielding the theory. The predominant aim is always to rescue the materialist (now generally called physicalist) viewpoint. A sharp break is all but impossible even among far-seeing physicists and neuroscientists.

On the sidelines, the physicalist view is steadily eroding even without the thorny issue of consciousness to contend with. It is agreed among quantum theorists that subatomic particles are essentially mathematical constructs, with no fixed properties that resemble tangible objects. So how did rocks, clouds, mountains, and trees get their physical properties? How do we get from mathematics, which has no physical properties, to the hardness of granite and the sweetness of strawberries?

It’s a classic example of “you can’t get there from here.” Physicalism isn’t applicable to the mind. Atoms and molecules can’t think, and the human brain consists of nothing but ordinary organic molecules that are shuffled around not very differently from heart or liver cells. This obviousness of this objection is so glaring, you wonder how it can be denied. Making the brain the source of the mind is like making the colors on Rembrandt’s palette the source of his genius.

The fallacy of physicalism runs much deeper even than this. Why is oxygen gaseous while iron is hard? A glance at the periodic chart of the elements reveals that an iron atom is larger than an oxygen atom, but this fact has nothing to do with hardness. Because they are the first two elements in the periodic chart, you might suppose that hydrogen and helium are gases, but the third element is lithium, a soft, silvery metal. That is unpredictable from the lithium atom, much less why it should be medically effective for bipolar disorder.

Examine the physical structure of brain cells as deeply as you want, and there is no hint at the fact that the brain produces a 3-D image of the world. Nor does a close examination of specific brain areas explain how we convert invisible photons, the quanta of light, into sight, the vibration of air into sound, and so on through all five senses.

What lies beyond physicalism and its almost total dominance in science? No one can predict, although a paradigm shift is inevitable, because of the objections just raised, and many more. We don’t even know what a thought is or have the ability to predict what our next thought will be. For now, here are some quotations from a thinker who looked to the mind’s farthest horizon and beyond. His name was Vasistha, a Vedic sage writing many centuries ago, but almost eerily anticipating the most far-seeing speculations in current cosmology.

  • “The entire universe is forever the same as the consciousness that dwells in every atom, even as an ornament is non-different from gold.”
  • “Cosmic consciousness alone exists now and ever; in it are no worlds, no created beings. That consciousness reflected in itself appears to be creation.”
  • “This consciousness is not knowable: when it wishes to become the knowable, it is known as the universe.”
  • “The world exists because consciousness is, and the world is the body of consciousness.”

THE VIEWS EXPRESSED BY THE AUTHOR ARE PERSONAL

DEEPAK CHOPRA The writer is MD, FACP, FRCP founder of the Chopra Foundation, a non-profit entity for research on well-being and humanitarianism, and Chopra Global

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