It was during a Superbowl party that some friends and I were looking at my modest library and began discussing the human mind, of all things. Well, someone put forth the suggestion that the mind is a non-physical entity of the body and brain in much the same way that kickers are the non-physical entities of football teams. Hmmm, someone’s been smoking Rene Descartes again.
My reply was swifter than Bruce Lee’s fists. I replied that it was silly to suppose any duality between the mind and body since consciousness is an activity of the brain. This is indisputable (though we don’t know why brain activity leads to consciousness). In layman’s terms our minds, acting largely as an organization devise, arise to integrate and provide an interpretation of the world around us as perceived by our senses. Having operated on the brains of patients who are awake, scientists have located sites that stimulate the sense of smell, reflexes, emotions, hallucinations, and out-of-body experiences (OBE’s). You see, it’s a new thing educated people are doing; they’re called scientific journals and people should read them more often. But I suppose I care more about these kinds of things, so I’ll take it upon myself to bring the rest of the team up to speed.
Theists more so than agnostics seem to be fans of Dualism (the belief in a spiritual realm that supersedes physical reality) while there is no good evidence for such a state of affairs than say, Quadralism or Hexalism. I would also like to add that if we’re going to argue over realms of existence superseding each other, how do we determine which realm is ‘superior’ or answerable to another? Theists take for granted the notion that their unseen and immeasurable realm of spirituality, where God coincidently resides, is the immutable master over all. As usual, such a supposition is undertaken with absolutely no more evidence than a pair of crossed fingers.
Let’s do something crazy and ask an important question: Do ideas survive on their own when no one is around? The answer is “No, are you out of your mind?” (Well, not unless you’re a Platonist or fan of the Irish philosopher George Berkley…in which case you are out of your mind since you can’t provide the slightest evidence.)
But how do ideas even begin to happen? What goes into making a concept meaningful between two people? First, you think of an idea which is a physical event in your brain that is the culmination of experiences related to the real world we live in; ideas do not appear out of thin air. To transmit this idea to another person, you need a physical transport system such as text or language. (Sorry, but ESP hasn’t come close to verification. Even if valid it would have to be shown to be a non-physical event using non-physical means to transport thoughts which is not outside the realm of possibility if you’re at all familiar with the “spooky action at a distance” in physics.). Then, my senses receive your data, which is also a physical event. My brain interprets the data through a biological process, organizes the information and compares it against what I already know about the world. At some point I conclude with or without reason whether you are insane or not. There is never a point where the exchange of information between people is anything other than a physical process. Ideas do not exist without a brain around to think of or transmit them.
Now we might ask if the mind can exist without the brain. If you’re thinking “yes” then I’d like to know where the mind goes when someone is in a coma. Why don’t people revived from comas tell us about the wonderful places their mind has been while the body was laid up? If the mind can exist without the brain, why do personality and intelligence disorders sometimes arise from trauma and injury to the head? Why, if duality exists, do most people experience memory loss in old age? This tells us the brain and ‘mind’ must be intimately related somehow. The theistic objection here is that if the physical transport system of the mind is damaged, misinterpretations by the brain of what the mind wants will naturally occur.
Such a defense raises some questions. For example, which “you” would survive death into the afterlife? People display different personality traits throughout their entire life; the young “you” is surely most different than the old “you.” Would personality changes come with experience in the afterlife as they do in our earthly lives? If ideas come from some netherworld, would we be privy to all the knowledge in the universe come the afterlife? Now please feel free to ask your own questions on the matter that you haven’t used your brain to think of.
In the laboratory where scientists have studied monks meditating and achieving nirvana, snapshots of the brain during this time record unusual brain chemistry. However, consciousness cannot be shown to “go” anywhere during this time. The transcendence of physical reality does not occur. The last time I checked, monks still needed to eat. I guess that’s because transcendence is not a practical state to be in if you intend to provide your brain with enough energy to meditate and achieve transcendence. Honestly, I wouldn’t see the point of the brain continuing to register any activity if the transcendence of physical reality has occurred. Does it not defeat the point? Perhaps we haven’t developed the means by which to measure “where consciousness goes” in these instances of meditation, but the theist cannot dismiss out of hand the possibility that it’s all just in the head.
Another theistic defense postulates that the human brain only uses a small percentage of its capacity. Sometimes, theists and other spiritualists argue that we only use 10-12% of our brain; a popular common misconception. Therefore, they postulate, perhaps the areas of the brain that seem inactive are actually busy being connecting the mind to a higher or unseen reality, being that again, we haven’t devised a means of detection. Or, that at least these areas of the brain we haven’t been able to access yet because, “We’re not ready for it.” Yes, someone actually said that to me. Again there is no good reason to suppose any of this. You can’t tell me it can’t possibly be that these areas of the brain are dormant because they are no longer necessary. We are obviously getting by without using the whole brain if it actually were the case we only use a small portion of it and if there were any advantage to using the whole brain, we would seem likely to already be doing it. We need only to consider possibilities to cast suspect on a world of duality.
The human mind is a tool, albeit the most important tool in our arsenal. Even though it may allow us deep experiences and fantastic ideas, it cannot do so without the physical component of the brain. No brain, no deep experiences or fantastic ideas. Now, does this tool have a purpose? Yes. The ability to problem solve and think abstractly provides us with adaptability. This increases individual survival as well as the collective survival of the species. That is the human mind’s greatest asset. It is also the mind’s greatest liability.
Problem is, our interpretations of the world are highly subjective to our sensory experiences. Moreover, what happens to our interpretations of the world when some of our senses aren’t working? I am continuously awed by theists who should know better but fail to consider these questions because it would challenge their faith. Is it reasonable, I ask, not to consider what if our senses are working, but due to nurturing and conditioning we draw false conclusions of reality? Does the mind make any more sense of the world than is necessary for a person to live?
Maybe author Scott Adams understands: “There is more information in one thimble of reality than can be understood by a galaxy of human brains. It is beyond the human brain to understand the world and it’s environment, so the brain compensates by creating simplified illusions that act as a replacement for understanding…the delusions are fuelled by arrogance, the arrogance that humans are the center of the world, that we alone are endowed with the magical properties of souls and morality and free will and love.”
That’s almost hard to argue with. However, some things can be known with some degree of certainty through reasoning or evidence. If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it still make noise? Yes it does. Leave a microphone and recorder in the woods if you don’t believe me. Even if there are no means with which to record it, the rustling of the air (noise) has still occurred. Even if one dies, there is still a world for living people to participate in, unless the world is a figment of my imagination (or of God’s imagination, as George Berkley might say).
If the world is not my imagination, then an objective reality exists whether or not I can know it. But as I have pointed out, at least some truths can be objectively known. If the world is my imagination (and my brain is in a jar somewhere), I still need to deal with the world how I imagine it, a world where apparently immutable laws of physics apply. If I’m only dreaming that some true reality exists, then God’s existence can be equally true or untrue depending upon what I felt like believing when I woke up in the morning. If we don’t perceive more of reality than is necessary to live, then there’s a good chance that believing in God isn’t particularly practical. It would depend upon the individual. Believing in God would become more of a whim since it has little practical value in helping you, say, outrun a lion.
On the other hand, if God does exist outside of our minds and it’s one of those few things we could know, again, we might wonder why God wouldn’t make us all goddamn sure of it. What is God afraid we would do with immutable knowledge of His existence? Why exist unless this is all some kind of test? It would benefit us tremendously to know what’s really going on, oh great and all-loving God, unless you have a practical reason for sending people to hell or some other equally gruesome fate. Again, we’re never privy to God’s reasoning. Are God’s plans beyond our ability to understand? This is a common theistic defense that explains nothing.
It’s not that our thoughts are without some physical existence. God does exist, at least as a concept which arises from the physical process of thinking. But God, nor any “soul”, exists when there isn’t anyone around to imagine such nonsense. Even if a soul did exist, there isn’t anyway for us to know how far divisions go. If the body is a subject of the soul, is the soul subject to a super soul? This would seem ridiculous, but I’m only following the theist’s line of thinking that arbitrarily chooses to end the divisions with duality.
If God cannot be proven to be true or false, it would do the world a good bit of justice to dispense with the idea of gods. By freeing ourselves of less delusional delusions, we free up more time to learn things that can be known as well as identify and deal with actual threats to our existence, like intolerance and martyrdom. The collapse of theism replaced by actual thinking would increase the chances of survival for all of us. After all, religion has proven unable to control itself, what with Inquisitions, Crusades, and wars of and on terrorism. Maybe that’s because people who say they believe in God really do not; or maybe their god is a primitive, bloodthirsty prick. Believe in God if you want, but for the love of Christ keep it to yourself.
In the end, it’s worth remembering that dinosaurs were around eighty times as long as humans have been around. Yet we view their brains as vastly inferior to ours. Trees have been around even longer than dinosaurs and they don’t even have brains! So what makes anyone think they know what they’re talking about (besides me and my superiorly advanced brain)? What makes anyone think our ability to think is so special? Will our brains help us as a species to survive as long as dinosaurs or trees? Only time will tell. Delusions will not.