Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Why are we all so convinced the brain produces consciousness?

Most people seem to take it for granted that the brain produces consciousness and they surmise this because when the brain is damaged, the person’s mind is also damaged. Such damage not only can result in the diminishing of one’s mental capacities, it often seemingly changes the actual personality. The obvious conclusion is that the brain produces consciousness, otherwise why should the mind be affected?

Proponents of an afterlife almost invariably ignore this argument.  Instead they counter with the evidence for an afterlife such as NDE’s, mediumship, recollections of alleged previous lives, and so on.  It seems to me that implicitly, therefore, they are conceding to the skeptic that this mind-brain correlations argument is a very powerful one indeed and to be avoided. However, it is my contention that there is no need for the proponent to avoid addressing this argument head-on since, as I shall argue, it appears to be considerably less powerful than it is often thought. 

Let’s consider the following related argument: 

It surely must be obvious to everyone that spectacles (i.e. eyeglasses) actually create vision. Changing the lenses affects the vision in certain characteristic ways. One can make one's vision worse, or better. One can make one be able to see in the distance, but not close up; or conversely, to see close up, but not at a distance. We can invert peoples' vision. We can make people see everything in blue, or red, or green, you name it. Or all blurry. By painting the lenses black we can even eliminate one's vision completely! And all these effects are consistent across different people.

Of course, we know that spectacles don’t create vision. Indeed, we know in principle that spectacles could not create vision all by themselves since there is no appropriate mechanism, or conceivable causal chain, whereby vision could be created. Extra ingredients are required; namely eyes and the part of the brain dealing with vision.

Other examples apart from spectacles can be considered. Thus, consider a prism. The mixture of coloured lights obtained is not wholly produced by the prism all by itself. Something extra is involved, in this case, the white light that enters the prism. Or consider a TV set. The internal components all by themselves do not produce the programmes. Similar to the prism something else is involved, in this case, TV signals. 

So it cannot be that the mind-brain correlations all by themselves establish that the brain creates consciousness, for how are we in a position to rule out that the relationship of consciousness to the brain is not of a similar nature to the forgoing examples where there is an extra ingredient involved; namely what we would call a self or soul?  In fact, I would go further and maintain that the brain- consciousness relationship is indeed of a similar nature to these examples. That is to say, similarly to the complete implausibility of expecting vision to be created from spectacles all by themselves, likewise it is similarly implausible to expect consciousness to be created from brains and the processes within them all by themselves

Consciousness is supposed to come into being as the end consequence of physical chains of causes and effects.  Such causes and effects are cashed out in the form of processes that we can measure; namely particles with physical properties such as charge, momentum, spin and so on, and their interactions. But at the end of such causal chains we get a sudden abrupt change from these measurable processes to subjective experiences such as, for example, the greenness of grass, the warmth of love, the smell of roses and so on. It seems we have an unbridgeable yawning ontological chasm between the termination of such physical causal chains, and such raw experiences. There is no appropriate mechanism, or conceivable causal chain, whereby such qualitative experiences could be created. The sensible conclusion then is to surely suppose that consciousness was there all along, and the processes within the brain merely affect its manifestation.  Compare to the spectacles example.  Spectacles affect vision, they can even block our vision completely if we paint the lenses black, nevertheless the unaided vision exists all along.  The spectacles do not, and could not, create vision.

An Objection


It is often argued that we lack any enduring nature since we change so much over time.  Hence our moods, demeanour, interests, intelligence, change throughout our lives.  Compared to when we were children we now have a much increased intelligence, we have differing interests, we have differing memories, our emotional reactions are very different. Even during the course of one day our moods can change significantly.  And just consider how much people change after a few alcohol drinks.

But all this just means that if we should find ourselves surviving the death of our bodies, then it is the underlying self that survives. What constitutes my self is that sense of me-ness that has endured since I was a child, to when I'm drunk, to what I am now. The fact that our interests, intelligence, demeanour change etc, is ultimately no more significant than, for example, the fact a table acquires scratches as it ages. Or to use the spectacles analogy, it is the unaided vision that is comparable to the self and survives.

None of the foregoing entails that there is an afterlife.  But I do think that the mind-brain correlations argument against an afterlife is significantly less compelling than people think it is.

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