Consciousness – Can science explain it?

With advances in brain scanning equipment, neuroscience can now observe human consciousness — seeing what the brain is doing when the person is aware of remembering, imagining, feeling, thinking and even making choices.

Before the invention of this technology, it had been well known that when a brain is damaged, then the mind doesn’t work so well. In one case example, after a patient had a stroke, he could still speak fluently, but not in a way that made sense: nor could he understand spoken or written language. This unfortunate individual had damage in the area where the left parietal and temporal lobes meet, known as Wernickes’s area.

Can something physical have consciousness

There is now a growing body of research evidence for a close relationship between brain activity and consciousness. And scientists are now wondering whether our thoughts and feelings are nothing more than a side-product of a hard-wired biological thinking machine.

If it is only the electrical and chemical activity of the brain that gives rise to consciousness, then all deep human thought, ethical concern, and mystical experience would appear to be no more than physical phenomena.

Brains have been compared with computers. But could you accept that a computer’s processor and memory chips have consciousness? Likewise, how could you imagine the brain’s neurones and synapses having a private subjective experience? It seems counter-intuitive to argue that physical entities have human awareness.

Consciousness in terms of different philosophies

Can philosophy help us with this issue? In addition to an account of reality provided by scientific materialism, there are actually three other major traditional views that are relevant – that of idealism, dualism and Eastern world monism.

Idealism, as a philosophical view, holds that physical entities like brains cannot have human consciousness because only what we are aware of can be real. The trouble with this view is that it amounts to claiming the brain — being part of a physical dimension to life — is something of an illusion.

Dualism holds that both brain and consciousness are equally real but exist in different parallel realms of reality –  occupying physical space and not occupying physical space — that have nothing to do with each other. However, dualism doesn’t make much sense when we remember that it is a feature of everyday experience that the two do interact — one’s conscious experience is affected by physical things seen in space and it in turn influences one’s speech and actions.

Eastern world monism is a viewpoint claiming that both conscious mind and brain are real and there is no difference between them. (Some monists argue this sameness is because both have been created out of Infinite Source which alone is real.) But guess what, there is a problem too with this view, the difficulty being in differentiating categories within the one divine creation.

Swedenborg’s perspective on consciousness

Emanuel Swedenborg, was no stranger to this topic. Before becoming a spiritual philosopher, he had been a theoretical scientist, reviewing the anatomical studies of researchers who studied the brain in the laboratory. Although his groundbreaking insights into the brain were to remain generally unrecognised, they included the importance of the endocrine system in emotional life and the localisation of cognitive activity in the cerebral cortex.

Swedenborg’s ideas suggest there is something right and something wrong in all the four major philosophical views so far mentioned. For him the conscious mind is real for it is part of the reality he calls the spiritual world in which we are aware of after bodily death, where he says ideas, feelings, values all have a substantial reality. But according to his view, it is also right to say the brain is real for it is part of the natural degree of creation which is a crucial physical base for spiritual life.

It is his position that the conscious mind and brain are not disconnected as the dualists thought but rather form a coherent whole. So for him the brain is an embodiment of mind where neural patterns and chemical processes within the brain mirror the private subjective experience and intentions of mind. So when neuroscientists observe neural pathways lit up on their scanning images this would be the physical manifestation of the working of the mind. And just as the mind affects the body so the body affects the mind — suffer concussion with a bang on the head and your conscious mind goes away for a while.

He also says that space, time, matter, and person are all real — as the monists think — but  not in the same undifferentiated way. Instead, reality for him consists of a series of discrete degrees, the lowest being that of physical matter and the highest being a heavenly reception of divine love and wisdom. The conscious mind is discretely different from the material brain, but inside every brain there is something of mind.

Swedenborg was not denying the importance of the physical side of mental life. He used the term correspondence to say that the working of the brain corresponds to the working of the mind. In other words for him brain and mind are two essential aspects of mental life.

This is a holistic view that can accommodate the objective findings of modern neuroscience without devaluing the importance of our private intentions and the spiritual dimension. Our sense of free personal choice is not an illusion even if it is constrained by factors that can be studied by science.

Copyright 2012 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

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