Mind, Brain, and More
Published on September 6th, 2009 | by Harmonist staff0
It is now three and a half centuries since Descartes asked two simple questions: Are minds and bodies distinct? And if so, how do they interact? After more than three hundred years of the most intensive interrogation of nature ever performed by man, Descartes’ two questions are still waiting for the answers. We have made great headway in discovering the material world, but we come up against a brick wall as soon as the subject of mind is broached (ignoring for a moment the difficulties involved in its definition).
The French word l’esprit means both “mind” and “spirit.” It is not clear which one Descartes intended when he divided existence into two fundamental elements, res cogitans (mind/spirit) and res extensa (matter), but it is clear that “spirit” went under the surface of discussion like a sinking subduction zone, and we have been stuck with “mind” ever since, which is something entirely different. In turn, attempts have been made to reduce mind to speech, to electrochemical activity in the brain—anything, so long as its independent existence can be escaped.
If you can’t reduce mind to matter, the next best tactic is to deny that the problem exists. But the sad fact is that subjective experience—what you see when you look inside yourself—is still there whether you deny the problem or not. What nobody has been able to explain after three hundred years of the most merciless questioning by the most intelligent minds of our species is how, exactly—assuming that matter is more fundamental than mind (or even assuming it’s not)—a bunch of electrons bouncing around in your brain gets translated into the consciousness of the scent of a rose. Neurobiologists have been able, and will continue, to discover many things about the workings of the brain. They have traced the signals leading from the sense organs into the brain, the specific regions where they are processed, all the intricate detail down perhaps even to molecular level. Where they have drawn a complete blank, where all attempts at progress have met with utter failure, is where the marvelous hardware of the brain somehow gets converted into conscious experience.
Now, in another three hundred years the problem may be solved. Or in three thousand. Or in fifty thousand. Someone may even come up with a solution tomorrow. But until that day arrives, three hundred years of painstaking research plus common sense tells me that we may be looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. We may be on a wild-goose chase. That is why Descartes and other philosophers are still with us. The best thing is to admit two distinct, experiential, existential realms to man, an internal and an external, both equally real, both created by God —and carry on from there, until such a time as our knowledge permits a satisfactory answer. At length, one gets tired of all the people pretending to know this answer when they don’t.
As John Searle’s recent analysis implies, one can accept the existence of the objective world without denying the ontological irreducibility of the subjective world. Like the wave-particle duality in quantum physics, consciousness—with the mind as a subset—and matter can be viewed as complementary aspects of a single whole.
In The Mystery of the Mind (1975), neurologist Wilder Penfield told how his surgical findings forced him toward a hypothesis of a mind as distinct from the brain, with energies different from the brain’s. That hypothesis is still with us, and—distasteful as this might be to some people—it seems destined to remain with us for a long time to come.
This article originally appeared as a section in Chapter 2 of Henry Bayman’s Sufi Knowledge for All Humanity, available digitally here.