Is a Non-Materialistic View of the Nature of Mind Defensible?
- Is Human Understanding Fundamentally Limited?
Some of the deepest scientific questions so far have not yielded to our most inquisitive minds. Will they be answered as science progresses, or will they forever elude our cognitive reach?
I noted in a previous hub (‘Is Human Understanding Fundamentally Limited?’) that the last few decades have witnessed conspicuous empirical and technological advances in the neurosciences, which have significantly enhanced our understanding of the brain. This progress, widely reported by mainstream media, may have engendered in the general public the impression that the ‘physicalistic’ view of the mind: that neural activity causes conscious mental activity, and that the latter is itself a purely physical process, has been conclusively validated.
This is not the case. Despite remarkable advances, the conceptual conundrums raised by the mind-brain (or more generally mind-body) relationship remain as puzzling as ever. That a series of entirely unexceptional physical-chemical events taking place within and between the brain’s neurons could result in conscious mental states – feelings, thoughts, sensations - which seem essentially different from these process, creates an explanatory gap extremely difficult to close.
The fact that the attempt to explain the mind-body nexus has not yielded to a physicalistic – or ‘materialistic’: these two terms are generally used interchangeably - explanation poses a problem of greater import for materialism than is generally acknowledged. Philosopher Thomas Nagel recently1 pointed out that the inability of materialism to account for the emergence of mind within the brain and within nature more generally calls into question the whole explanation of reality thus far outlined by the physical and biological sciences. In the simplest terms: if consciousness is not just an extravagantly improbable chance occurrence but a natural outcome of biological evolution, then the inability to account for it within the current theoretical horizon means that biological science as we know it is fundamentally limited in its explanatory scope. Furthermore, since biology - according to standard reductionistic materialism - is ultimately reducible to chemistry and physics, it follows that physics itself – the most fundamental science – is unable to provide a complete description of the natural world. What this implies, in turn, is that a more satisfactory naturalistic understanding of the world may require a major evolution – or perhaps a revolution - in the whole structure of the natural sciences: the creation of a broader paradigm that includes new explanatory constructs that can accommodate the existence of mind, rationality, consciousness, value, and meaning in the cosmos as we know it.
A recent collection of essays of some twenty three philosophers of mind is provocatively entitled The Waning of Materialism2. Their authors are fully aware that this long standing metaphysical perspective – which can be traced back all the way to Democritus’s (c.460- c.370 BC) atomistic theory of the universe - is not going to disappear anytime soon (indeed quite possibly it never will), and that it still represents the majority view of philosophers and scientist. Yet, the book amply illustrates the extent to which this perspective is challenged by its unabating inability to provide for the existence of conscious mentation. Moreover, by at least one important measure, materialism can be considered as waning: from the second half of the past century to the present, a majority of leading philosophers have expressed either explicitly antimaterialistic views, or fundamentally doubted that this approach can ever be able to adequately address the mind body problem.
I think it fair to say that at the very least all is not well within the materialistic camp, as many thinkers of this persuasion are also prepared to admit. That being the case, the way is cleared for a more receptive consideration of alternative views of the mind-body link than has been the case in recent years.
In yet another hub (‘What on Earth Happened to the Soul?’), I discussed in some detail substance dualism, the view – most frequently identified with Rene Descartes’s (1596-1650) thought - that mind and brain/body/matter are altogether different kind of substances which nevertheless interact to produce the phenomena that characterize mental life and the behaviours that depend upon it.
As noted therein, substance dualism is often regarded as fundamentally flawed due to its assumed incompatibility with some basic tenets of the naturalistic view of reality. I shall not repeat the arguments presented there. I shall just note that the main points of contention include dualism’s supposed violation of the principle of the causal closure of the physical universe: the tenet that every physical event must have an antecedent cause itself physical, which as such prohibits granting causal efficacy to a mind seen as a non physical entity. An objection closely related to causal closure is that postulating an immaterial mind that can influence the body by affecting the brain entails the violation of fundamental laws of physical science, most notably the law of the conservation of energy.
I presented in that hub counterarguments to these objections which in my view justify the refusal on the part of several thinkers to consider substance dualism unsalvageable. Indeed, in the view of some physicists (see, e.g.3) interactive dualism, far from being incompatible with contemporary physical science, is in fact helpful in addressing conceptual difficulties related to the physical interpretation of the formalism of quantum mechanics, and more generally the role of mind and consciousness within the universe.
In that hub, I debated the fundamental objections to which all versions of substance dualism have been subjected to. Here, I propose instead to discuss in some detail one particular class of theories – and one in particular - that can be generally regarded as dualistic in the above sense. These theories have been proposed over the years by important thinkers, all the way to the present.
Transmission Theories and the Mind-Brain Problem
I focus here in particular on the views of William James (1842-1910), the great philosopher and founder of scientific psychology in America. Ideas similar to those expressed by James – and as such subjected to the same order of considerations - are found in the works of important figures such as James’s Cambridge based co-worker Frederic Meyers (1843-1901), the philosophers F. C. S. Schiller (1864-1937), Henri Bergson (1859-1941), Curt Ducasse (1881-1969), psychologist Cyril Burt (1883-1971), British writer and scholar Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), and several others. One recent version of this theory was proposed by Jahn and Dunne4 .
William James articulated his views on this subject in the Ingersoll Lectures he gave in 1897, and in a related book5. It is worth noting that the theory was proposed within the context of a presentation on human immortality. James begins by claiming that immortality is one of the great spiritual needs of humanity, rooted in personal feelings which amount to an obsession for many. A belief in some sort of life after death - possibly an immortal one - is shared by most cultures across time and place. However, especially since the late 19th century this belief has increasingly come to be seen as indefensible by most scientifically minded people. James states their key objection thus: 'How can we believe in life hereafter when Science has once for all attained to proving, beyond possibility of escape, that our inner life is a function of that famous material, the so called 'gray matter' of our cerebral convolutions? How can the function possibly persist after its organ has undergone decay?'
James has no intention of denying this line of empirical evidence. However, the indisputable fact of the functional dependency of mind on the brain and its body, he argues, does not necessarily compel the rejection of the survival hypothesis.
James notes that when the physicalist neuroscientist argues that mentation is a function of the brain, he assumes that this is conceptually equivalent to statements such as 'power is a function of the moving waterfall', in which a material object has the function of producing a specific material effect. This is an example of a productive function. In similar fashion, it is assumed, the brain creates consciousness. It necessarily follows, therefore, that when the object (the brain in this case) is destroyed its function (consciousness) ceases to be.
However, James argues, functions other than the productive one are at work in the physical world. There also exist a releasing or permissive function (which does not concern us here), and a transmissive function.
The transmissive function is well illustrated by the effects produced by a colored glass, or by a prism. Light energy, as it passes (as it is transmitted) through these objects is sifted and limited in color by the glass, and deflected by a prism. But neither the glass nor the prism produce light: they simply transmit it, with some modifications. Hence James's key argument: when we say that thought is a function of the brain, we need not think solely in terms of a productive function: a transmissive function is just as easily conceivable.
Many philosophers, mystics, poets, and artists have looked upon everyday reality as a physical veil which hides ultimate reality, which is, as held by idealism, Mind at large. The poet Shelley (1792-1822) put it eloquently enough: ‘Life like a dome of many-colored glass/ Stains the white radiance of eternity'.
If we adopt this view, we can then speculate that this 'dome' - the world of phenomenal reality - though opaque to the radiant world of Mind which envelopes it, yet is not uniformly so. Our brains are among those tiny tiles of this dome which are somewhat less opaque than the rest: they have a limited measure of transparency, which enables beams of this radiance to pass through and enter our world. They are, James writes, 'gleams however finite and unsatisfying of the absolute life of the universe...[these] glows of feeling, glimpses of insight, and streams of knowledge and perception float into our finite world'. And, just as pure light passing through a prism or a colored glass is shaped and distorted by the properties of those media, so the 'genuine matter of reality, the life of souls as it is in its fullness' flowing through our brains is correspondingly limited, shaped, and distorted by the quirks of our finite individuality. The various mind states, ranging from full waking consciousness to dreamless sleep, modulate the extent to which the brain becomes transparent to the reality behind the veil.
When an individual's brain is destroyed by death, the stream of consciousness that it channeled into our world is forever removed from it. But this event will have no effect upon the infinite Mind, which is the source of the limited consciousness of each individual.
This version of James's 'transmission theory' seems to negate the kind of personal immortality that, for instance, Christian doctrine promises. For if the consciousness seemingly possessed by an individual is just a beam of a preexisting universal, impersonal consciousness passing through the filter of an individual brain, then upon the destruction of this organ the only thing that continues on is Mind at large, while the individual's own experiences and personal identity are dissolved by death.
James's reply to this objection is both disarming and troubling. If one so prefers, he writes, one may instead 'conceive the mental world behind the veil in as individualistic form as one pleases, without any detriment to the general scheme by which the brain is represented as a transmissive organ.' Indeed, if one were to adopt a strictly individual-centered viewpoint, one could conceive of one's everyday consciousness as a narrow segment of one's larger and true personality, possibly immortal, already living and functioning, so to speak, behind the scenes. The impact of the passage of this larger personality through the brain could then be fed back to this larger personality. For just as ... the stubs remain in a check-book whenever a check is used, to register the transactions, so these impressions on the transcendent self might constitute so many vouchers of the finite experiences of which the brain had been the mediator; and ultimately they might form that collection within the larger self of memories of our earthly passage, which is all that ... the continuance of our personal identity beyond the grave has by psychology been recognized to mean. '
This is the essence of James's 'transmission theory' of the mind as, I understand it. What are we to make of it?
An Assessment of James’s views
It is important to point out again that although I am focussing here on James’s own transmission theory, what applies to it is similarly relevant to the views of the several thinkers mentioned above.
James's 'theory' in effect possesses none of the theoretical articulation and broad empirical basis that characterizes genuine theories such as, say, the theory of evolution, not to mention any mature physical theory. It is no more than a metaphysical conjecture, based upon crude physical analogies: the brain as a prism or colored glass; the link between mind and its organ like that of a cheque and its stub, and so on. It offers absolutely nothing in the way of specific mechanisms that could elucidate how the process of transmission is implemented: indeed, James regards the latter as 'unimaginable'. Its formulation is extremely loose and open ended: for instance, one is free to pick between an infinite and impersonal Mind at large shaped by the brain into a temporary individual mind, or an immensity of eternally existing individual minds, or anything in between. Quite a menu!
Despite its flagrant weaknesses, in James's view this conjecture does not fare badly when compared with the dominant alternative: the productive view of mind as a byproduct of brain function. Actually, it possesses several advantages over the latter, or so James would like us to think, for the following reasons.
If Mind is coeval with or even pre-existing the physical world,it does not have to be invented by nature anew ad infinitum with the birth of every mind bearing organism. Transmission theory is conceptually more parsimonious, one might say. A very weak argument, in my view. Once nature found a way to give rise to consciousness in some organisms, the very same process could be replicated innumerable times, just as parsimoniously.
Transmission theory, in James's view, is in fundamental agreement with idealism, a major stream of Western philosophical thought. This argument, of course, carries weight only among those who find the main tenets of idealism - that the ultimate ground of Being is mental - persuasive.
It is also supposed to make it easier to account for the mysterious findings of psychical research, including those hinting at the possible survival of human personality after death, which engaged James attention for decades. Again, one could object that to explain a mystery with another mystery is a dubious strategy. Still, James argues with some reason that these phenomena are not in principle incompatible with transmission theory, because the kind of extra-sensory information supposedly uncovered through, say, telepathy and clairvoyance or mediumship is always present in the Mind at large. All that is needed to access it is a lowering of the 'brain threshold' (brought about by specific as yet not understood conditions): a temporary reduction in the opacity of the glass, to use James's metaphor.
Supporters of the production theory of consciousness face even more serious difficulties in accounting for these phenomena, since that view requires that all empirical knowledge be initially acquired through the senses. Their all too readily deployed way out of this difficulty, of course, has been and remains the dogmatic, sometimes disingenuous refusal to attribute any reality to psychic phenomena.
A Decisive Refutation of Transmission Theories?
As discussed above, James’s ‘theory’ presents serious weaknesses. Moreover, yet another objection to this and cognate views is regarded by some as conclusive in refuting it. This objection relates to the impact that brain disease, or injury, or the ingestion of psychoactive substances have upon the mind.
Transmission theorists maintain that explaining why damage to the brain may affect the operations of a separate though linked mind are fairly straightforward. For instance, it is easy to understand why damage to, say, the occipital cortex in which vision’s primary area is located would interfere with an external mind’s ability to regulate the organism’s interaction with the environment, or that similar effects would be brought about by damage to the auditory cortex, the somatosensory cortex etc. Plainly, if the mind’s access to the physical world via the machinery of the senses is impeded by damage to the sensory areas of the nervous system, its ability to direct the body’s actions is bound to be affected, no matter how unaffected the mind itself may be.
But a more insidious threat to transmission theories is posed by brain related changes in personality, perhaps best illustrated by individuals affected by Alzheimer’s disease (AD). As the disease advances, not infrequently dramatic changes in personality are observed. For instance, people long known for their kind, gentle, peace loving and compassionate personality and behavior may turn into aggressive, even violent, malevolent individuals. This change is understandable if we assume that personality is fully embedded in the brain: that ultimately it is the brain. Under this assumption, the progressive destruction of brain tissue leads to a corresponding deterioration in personality and behavior. As the brain is literally destroyed by the illness, so is the personality, until only primal, instinctual behavior can be manifested.
Under transmission theory, on the other hand, personality is an attribute of the separate mind. Why, then, should the latter be so fundamentally affected? Psychological studies show that in the normal, healthy individual personality traits are basically set around age thirty and do not change dramatically after that time.
Transmission theories are not necessarily invalidated by these facts.
Consider the case of hallucinations brought about by, say, the ingestion of some psychoactive substance. The brain thus affected could distort the sensory input in such a way that it leads the mind to perceive the presence in the environment of some threat. No surprise then that the mind could initiate actions meant to destroy the perceived threat, or to retreat from it. In such a case the mind, though not in itself fundamentally affected, could lead to responses interpreted as disturbed, aggressive and paranoid by onlookers, and utterly unlike the person’s ordinary personality and behavior.
Fine. But what does this have to do with the alterations observed, for instance, in the advanced stages of AD? In the case of a disturbed response due to the temporary effects of a psychotropic substance, a normal person eventually recovers his o her sanity. In the case of AD, on the other hand, brain damage is permanent and irreversible, and the affected individual never returns to normality. Thus, any attempt to account for the change in personality and behavior in AD as some sort of extended hallucinatory period does not apply.
Or does it?
It is at this juncture that the research on terminal lucidity (TL) acquires potential importance. As defined by the researchers who coined the term, TL refers to ‘the unexpected return of mental clarity and memory shortly before death in patients suffering from severe psychiatric and neurological disorders’6; ‘shortly’ ranging from a few hours to one, or at most very few days before death. The list of such disorders includes brain abscesses, tumors, strokes, meningitis, AD, schizophrenia and affective disorders. The phenomenon has been reported anedoctically in the medical literature for over a quarter of a millennium, but it has been largely ignored in more recent years and decades, and it remains fundamentally mysterious. We also lack substantive data have about the incidence of the phenomenon (in a recent study7, 70% of the caregivers in a nursing home observed cases of TL among demented patients over the previous 5 years).
What is significant from the point of view of transmission theories is that the unexpected return of lucidity prior to death may suggest that, analogously to shorter lasting hallucinatory periods, the person’s original personality was never dissolved by brain damage, and that the personality changes occurring in the advanced stages of AD could be regarded as functionally similar to hallucinatory episodes – however long lasting - that induce the person to react in a manner regarded as uncharacteristic and maladjusted to an altered perception of the environment. Within this scenario, TL represents the all too brief re-emergence of the patient’s ordinary personality, as it happens in short-lived hallucinatory episodes.
However vague, tentative, analogical and open to criticism – these considerations hint at the kind of argument that can enable transmission theories to overcome a supposedly decisive refutation.
Of course, advances in medical sciences may in the end account for this mysterious recovery of mental abilities strictly within the perspective of production theories. For instance, in the case of AD some evidence suggests that the irreversible death of neurons that accompanies the disease may occur along with other processes - including some at the molecular level - that may be partially reversible8. However, although these reversible effects may explain fluctuations in cognitive functions in the early stages of the disease, they seem insufficient to account for TL. As far as I was able to ascertain, at present this phenomenon remains unexplained from the neurological point of view.
While rereading James' work, I was struck by the fact that such an accomplished thinker, in addressing the mind-body problem and its implications, was reduced to using simplistic analogies to outline his position, which remains hopelessly vague, as are those in the same vein which followed it. This brings home yet again the realization that when confronted with this problem even our best minds falter. Perhaps, as some have argued (see ‘Is Human Understanding Fundamentally Limited?’) this problem will forever elude our cognitive grasp.
Still, the main purpose of this hub was to suggest that, in light of the shortcomings of materialism, and despite their own serious limitations, transmission theories are deserving of attention - though in dire need of much more rigorous elaboration. It is just possible that these rather feeble speculations can yet be useful in pointing us in the right direction: as long as we do not confuse the finger pointing to the moon with the moon itself!
1. Nagel, T. (2012). Mind and Cosmos. New York: Oxford University Press.
2. R. C. Koons and G. Bealer (Eds). (2010). The Waning of Materialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
3. Strapp, H. (2011). Mindful universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer. New York: Springer-Verlag.
4. Jahn, R. G., and Dunne, B. J. (2004). Sensors, Filters, and the Source of Reality. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 4, 547-570.
5. James, William. (1898/1956). Human Immortality. New York: Dover Publications.
6. Nahm, M., Greyson, B., Kelly, E. W., and Haraldsson, E. (2012). Terminal Lucidity: A Review and a Case Collection. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 55, 138-142.
7. Brayne, S., Lovelace, H. Fenwick, P. (2008). End of Life Experiences and the Dying Process in a Gloustershire Nursing Home as Reported by Nurses and Care Assistants. American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Care, 25, 195-206.
8. Palop, J.J., Chin, J. Mucke, L. (2006). A Network Dysfunction Perspective on Neurovegetative Diseases. Nature, 443, 768-773.