Home > biology, consciousness, cosmology, neuroscience, Perception, philosophy, physics, universe > Is the brain the receiver of mind and consciousness, or their generator?

Is the brain the receiver of mind and consciousness, or their generator?

My answer on Quora

The receiver model of consciousness need not be taken so literally as to presume that mind is exactly like an electromagnetic broadcast. Arguing for a receiver-like role for the brain does not require that we have a good theory of what is being received and how, only that there are other possibilities for the origin of consciousness besides being somehow generated within the tissue of the brain itself.

In a way, philosophy and science can be understood as the academic extensions of mind and body, respectively. Because this concept directly addresses some of the deepest mysteries in both philosophy and science, we should begin, in my view, from a position of Cartesian skepticism…assume nothing except what we cannot doubt, and proceed from there.

What do we really know about the brain? I think that we should all be able to agree that the brain is something which we see and touch with our body, and with technological extensions of our body. Why make a big deal out of that? Because although we can imagine many things in our mind that are true, the details of our own brain is not one of them. Everyone can see a brain with their eyes, but nobody can correctly imagine precise details of their own neurochemical functioning. By the same token, no brain imaging technology can show things like flavors, emotions, and colors being generated in the brain.

If we take our body’s word for what consciousness is, all that we can see is that the brain is the organ which can cause changes to behavior. If we image our own brain, we can learn that it is the organ through which we cause changes in our body.  It is through the activity of the brain that the mind can cause changes in the world. It should be noted that this world is the world that we ordinarily perceive to be outside of our mind, however even the advance of science has not prevented significant portions of the population from continuing to report various sorts of out of body experiences and experiences in which the world is not separated from the self.

In light of these conditions of uncertainty about mind and body, it may be premature to pronounce that 1) it is the body alone which produces mind and 2) the body is produced by something which is not like consciousness. If we dig down into the latter, I think that we find the most important possibility. When we think about the vast undertaking that is entailed in the division of a single zygote into a living human body, complete with central nervous system, brain, immune system, etc, the complexity is arguably far greater than what has been technologically achieved in human history thus far. Within the body, for example, there are countless critical processes which are maintained under dynamically changing conditions. It begs the question – if this fantastic orchestration of physiology can take place without minds or some kind of awareness, then why would the humble hominid develop this elaborate, metaphysical quality of ‘conscious’ experience just to keep up with the daily demands of food foraging and mate selection? What is it that would be so special about a human life that it would be the sole being which is capable of experiencing the universe?

Surely we don’t mean to say that no other animal experiences the universe, and as time goes on, we are finding fewer and fewer ways that human beings are different from other species in an unqualified way. It seems that at best, Homo sapiens recapitulates the features of a lot of different species, and has developed some of those feature to an elaborate degree. If what we see of other creatures is so limited by our own perception, so too might our scientific instruments amplify our limitations as well as our understanding. The more that we study our body, the less we remember that the body is only the exterior of our mind. The more we study other bodies in the world, the more that we define them by their behaviors. Cells and especially molecules and atoms are seen increasingly as mechanistic puppets, behaving according to principles which are also mechanical. What we have failed to see is the role that perceptual relativity plays in how our world is portrayed. We have learned to disregard our own direct view of the universe, trusting instead the view of the universe which is given to us when we look through microscopes and telescopes. The problem with that is that we define the significance of our own subjectivity from a perspective which has been filtered by our subjectivity to negate itself. When we construct this relatively objective worldview, subjectivity is zeroed out by necessity. Our enlightenment has literally blinded us to the ontologically ‘nocturnal’ phenomena in the universe.

In Steve Harris‘ answer, he says ‘You can’t damage a mere receiver to a normal intelligent mind in a way that mimics all common symptoms of dementia.’

A very good point. I agree that the brain is not like a receiver in the sense of being passive. To the contrary, the brain is more like a transceiver, and in my view, it is made of cellular transceivers, and molecular transceivers.
The internet is not contained in my computer, but if my local computer is damaged, I might not be able to get into certain websites. That, in turn, might affect my ability to effectively use other online services, and that in turn might affect my desire to continue using the internet at all (and then its lights out).

I propose that actually what we see as molecules, cells, and bodies are more like obstructions or standing waves within a primordial context of perception and participation that is very different from our own. Matter is not a separate substance, but rather a phenomenal presence which is encountered from a particular sensory perspective. Just as we can see different reflections with polarized filters, or a rainbow appears from one vantage point but not another, matter, cells, brains, and bodies are a way of looking at the collective history of our history as an organism from an ‘edge-on’ view, as it were. All that we are and all that we are not are distorted as through a fisheye lens before our eyes and behind them.

Philosophy and science, like mind and brain offer us two perspectives, each of which is unique in some sense and which together make a deeper kind of sense. Both philosophy and science formalize methods of inquiry into nature, but whereas science emerged as a kind of ‘performance enhancing’ philosophy specializing in nature, philosophy itself extends into metaphysics, ethics, politics, mathematics, etc. Following science back to philosophy is like following the brain back to the mind, and the mind itself as the accumulation of discipline and learning on an even more primordial animism of emotion and sensation.

I no longer see any reason to be afraid of a model of the universe in which brains and not minds physically exist, or in which science and not philosophy is allowed to contribute to the progress of human civilization. In light especially of the revelations of people like Einstein, Godel, and Heisenberg, we no longer need to think of the fabric of the universe as body-like. From pioneers like Jung and Leary and Ken Wilber, we no longer need to see the nature of consciousness as only mind-like. The inner universe and the outer universe seem to overlap, to share, and to diverge wildly, however ultimately, to me, it is brain-like structures which seem more plausible to ‘materialize’ within a sensory context than the other way around. There is no likelihood, as far as I can imagine, of unconscious matter to build bodies and brains, but then for brains to suddenly develop a need for something that is not physics to explain itself to itself.

  1. June 8, 2014 at 4:47 pm

    Why either or? Seems to me that consciousness is more like an internet account. We send and receive, we compare and choose, all of it through our consciousness. So does our subconscious, behind our backs, as it were. So do animals and even single cells. However they experience the interactions is certainly different the way we do, but functionally they are the same. “…ultimately, to me, it is brain-like structures which seem more plausible to ‘materialize’ within a sensory context than the other way around” Me too.

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