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.


  1. interesting points, but if the mind is a process happening within the context of the brain, how would your conclusion change?

    1. If the mind is a physical process, then I would conclude there's no afterlife.

    2. proof of that life after death exists even if consciousness is produced by brain: .
      (i have come here from your tweet found by hashtag, by which i tried to promote/advertise this my post).

  2. "There is no appropriate mechanism, or conceivable causal chain, whereby such qualitative experiences could be created. The fundamental problem is that the input to our brain, mind and/or consciousness is extremely restricted by language. Almost all people can identify the fragrance of an orange; but, to someone who can't know that fragrance it's lost in translation. The same thing happens with all objective and also subjective experience. A solution to this problem will probably arise from the engineering of psychic phenomena which are many and varied but absolutely real. It's just a matter of time.

  3. I like the spectacles analogy, might use that at some point.

  4. The spectacles argument is brilliant. Did you come up with that on your own?

    1. Yes. I've never come across anyone else ever using it.

      PS Just published this comment and loads of others. I never got notified by email for some reason. Sorry about the delay.

  5. The fact that you use a "spectacles" analogy diminishes your position, I think. In what useful sense are spectacles analogous to a brain? Spectacles are simple, brain is complex. There is very little similarity.

    A brain, which is a complex organ, and additionally is the product of millions of evolutionary experiments (which adds yet another level of complexity) is capable of creating consciousness. The "spectacles" analogy has little power to suggest it is not. And if you say that consciousness requires even more complexity than the brain possesses (therefore you must posit an external source of consciousness), where is the evidence of that? Do you have concrete evidence of this "more complex that the brain" thing?

    I think that consciousness (me-ness, sense of self, our sense of continuity) is a useful fabrication of the brain, which we have because it is evolutionarily favorable. My analogy is that consciousness is a story we tell ourselves. The value of stories is that they are mnemonics to remember useful but complex information. The other value of stories is that they can be told to other members of the tribe around the fireside. A story which describes the tribe running away from the shore when the ocean retreats has a huge evolutionary genetic advantage. In addition, I think that adept storytellers became the leaders of tribes, and they had procreative advantage. In addition, the extended brain plasticity of human babies means that early exposure to storytelling, and language, and detailed communication hardwires a storytelling neural network in our brain. Notice that the first sense of me-ness happens once you had acquired language. There is an article somewhere of a deaf mexican man who had no language until he was in his 20's; he calls his time before language "the black time". He does not really have a clear memory of it.

    You don't discuss it, but I want to add an additional point about free will. I suspect that 99.9% of our decisions are made for us by subconscious programming. There are a few decisions that are made by a flip-of-the-coin (chaotic random events), and these may result in something good or bad. We add the result to our personal narrative (often rationalizing that we made the decision of our own free will). By reliving the narrative, we alter the subconscious programming a bit. That makes a better decision next time, which we rationalize that our free will is responsible for.

  6. 1/2 The complexity of the brain is not obviously relevant. Complexity just means that a lot of parts are interacting thereby producing an intricate output. But, usually any output is reducible to the interactions of all the parts and never anything more. One can create all sorts of complex models with meccano or lego, but whatever one assembles, it would be hugely surprising if the model transpired to be conscious. There's a reason for this -- namely consciousness is not reducible. That is it's not cashed out in terms of physical processes. Essentially you're assuming consciousness is the output of mechanistic processes and, on the face of it, this seems unlikely. It might be helpful if you were to read another essay by me:

    The fact that spectacles are simple is also not relevant. Balloons are simple, but they are used as an analogy to understand the expanding Universe. Here's the situation. If changes in X are followed by changes in Y, then we need some justification that it's because X *creates* Y rather than X merely affecting Y. And in the case of brain and consciousness, it is at least surprising that brains could create consciousness. If we were miniaturised and walked around a living brain, we would just see various physical processes and never any hint of any consciousness. As far as I can understand, it’s just as surprising as spectacles producing vision etc. In neither case is there any *conceivable* mechanism.
    This doesn't meant to say that brains *don't* produce consciousness. It might be simply the way the world is -- namely where there are properly functioning brains, then consciousness pops into existence. That's conceivable, but with what good reason have we to believe this?

  7. 2/2 The idea that consciousness exists because it is evolutionarily favourable assumes that consciousness makes a difference to our behaviour. But, near the end, you insinuate all our behaviour is the result of material processes. If true then consciousness doesn’t make a difference. Having said that, I have argued elsewhere that consciousness *per se* is necessarily efficacious. Go here: So if, as I argue, consciousness does make a difference, then perhaps evolution can somehow account for it. But my argument rules out modern materialism and hence undermines the whole modern western metaphysical conception of what we (and other animals) essentially are.

    I honestly don't think we have compelling reason to conclude that brains produce consciousness. Normally if X *produces* Y, Y is simply an inevitable consequence of all that is happening within X. We can, *at least in principle* trace all the causal chains and understand how Y results. We cannot do this with brains and consciousness.

    Moreover, we have a ton of evidence suggesting an afterlife. Young children apparently remembering previous lives that have been investigated and often it is found their memories check out. There's stuff like crisis apparitions, deathbed visions, shared death experiences etc. There's mystical experiences, DMT trips etc that strongly suggest there's more to this world than the materialist assumes. Also the modern western culture is virtually unique in emphatically rejecting an afterlife.

    So, I would ask you and others who are dismissive of an afterlife how you can be so certain? What understanding and knowledge do you have that you can dismiss all the philosophical arguments, dismiss peoples’ experiences, dismiss mystical experiences, dismiss the fact virtually all other cultures have recognised an afterlife, dismiss the fact that even young children implicitly suppose an afterlife and indeed beforelife (see a blog post of mine in my other blog

    So I'm really struggling with why people are so certain that there's no afterlife. I think people have been effectively brainwashed by our modern western world.

  8. Several points to address here:

    "And in the case of brain and consciousness, it is at least surprising that brains could create consciousness." I think I agree with you here. If someone were to eventually simulate a neural net of the scale of the brain (and not explicitly program some sort of consciousness-like subroutine into it), I think it would be surprising that consciousness would be emergent simply due to the size of the neural net. Size enables it, but does not create it. However, I say that evolution "created" it; this is in the same sense that people have a hard time seeing how a slow gradual process created a giraffe, so they insist there there must be a creator. I think that once you can envision an evolutionary advantage of consciousness, and see a gradient of consciousness in animals, it is not too hard to believe that evolution could create consciousness, or a 9-foot neck.

    I don't know what you mean by "consciousnesss is not reducible". You have dogs; they are aware of their surroundings; they remember previous events; they can anticipate the future; they behave as if they understand that their owner has a mind of their own. Is this not a lesser version of human consciousness? Can a rat be thought of as having a lesser level of consciousness than a dog; and a snake lesser than a rat? Aren't these examples of reduced consciousness? Maybe I don't know what you mean by reducible.

    Because our behaviour is generated by material processes, consciousness cannot be a material process? I don't see the logic of this, unless you've already started with an axiom that consciousness is not material. Consciousness is not magic. Here is an analogy: I think that Da Vinci would have no difficulty understanding boolean logic, and could easily believe that there are machines that operate on boolean principles. But if he were introduced to a modern immersive video game with virtual reality goggles, he would insist there was some magic involved. The gulf between a NAND gate and a gaming rig is just too big. I think that is what happens when people think about consciousness.

    Our intuition is that consciousness seems to be too large to fit into our brains, as if our brain was a Tardis - larger on the inside than the outside (clearly non-physical). The reason is that the algorithm inside your head is tricking you. There was an experiment where they used eye tracking and a large page of text. Wherever the subjects eyes were landing, the text was readable, Everywhere else, the letters were replaced by "x"s. The subjects insisted that the entire page of text was there. The only way to convince them otherwise was to let them observe a different subject. Why does the algorithm "fill in the blind spot"? I'm not sure, but there are many cases of it, in our visual field, in our sense of time, in hearing, in our sense of our body. There is a lot of evidence that the brain is instantaneously worldbuilding based in minimal sensory input. (This is also why dreams seem so real, yet you can never remember details.) (Read "The Mind is Flat" by Nick Chater for more.)

    Afterlife: I'm not even going here. The only evidence of afterlife is created from wishful thinking. Children remembering events that are independently verifiable only happens by coincidence, if ever. Your "Atheists claim we are born atheists" did not enlighten.

    1. Unknown said:
      ||"Afterlife: I'm not even going here. The only evidence of afterlife is created from wishful thinking. Children remembering events that are independently verifiable only happens by coincidence, if ever.||

      You're not going to comment on the very topic the blog post actually addresses? :O

      Your evolution argument simply ignores my original blog post where I state "there is no appropriate mechanism, or conceivable causal chain, whereby such qualitative experiences could be created". If there's no conceivable causal chain that can result in consciousness, then how on earth can evolution help? Indeed, evolution *presupposes* the notion that there are only material causes and effects. Unfortunately, this neither accounts for the very existence of consciousness, nor the causal efficacy of consciousness. I've given you the relevant links where I argue this.

      I do have a genuine interest in why people think an afterlife is so unlikely. In common with virtually everyone else, you've provided no clue as to why you believe as you do. So I have nothing further to respond to.

      I think in future I'm going to have to disallow irrelevant comments.


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