Monday, March 21, 2011

Consciouness and the Brain: Correlation or Cause?

". . . thinking without awareness
is the main dilemna of human
existence. . . ."

(Eckhart Tolle, "A New Earth," p. 32.)
What are the two greatest misunderstandings about consciousness and the psyche? I would argue, as so may others have, that the two greatest blunders - blunders which contribute to the continuing shortfall of Western science to put on an academic "full-court press" to get to the root of what 'consciousness' actually 'is' - are the blind assumptions that (a) consciousness is a 'by-product' of the brain, and (b) that when we are "conscious" (as opposed to dreaming, or hallucinating) we are actually in control of what it is we think.

As the great modern enlightenment teacher, Eckhart Tolle, has often remarked, Descartes got it absolutely wrong in making his famous declaration, "I think, therefore I am." I would, only add that he got it wrong on both counts. It seems far more likely that the thought processes and structures of the brain are the by-product of a higher order of consciousness, or at a very minimum they are shaped by consciousness. Moreover, I think that upon close observation almost everyone must concede that most of the time, when we believe we are consciously 'thinking,' we are actually being 'thunk!'

The embedded video, "Zen Biology Lesson on Enlightenment," produced by, tackles both of these "false" presumptions 'head-on' (so-to-speak), while accompanied by a rather nice rendition of Vivaldi's Four Seasons.
Carl G. Jung (18 - 1961)
"The Undiscovered Self"

In his short masterpiece (see attached link), "The Undiscovered Self," the great Swiss psychologist. Carl Jung puts it this way:
"In the same way that our misconception of the solar system had to be freed from prejudice by Copernicus, the most strenuous efforts of a well-nigh revolutionary nature were needed to free psychology, first from the spell of mythological ideas, and then from the prejudice that the psyche is, on the one hand, a mere epiphenomenon of a biochemical process in the brain, or on the other hand, a wholly unapproachable and recondite matter. The connection with the brain does not in itself prove that the psyche is an epiphenomenon, a secondary function causally dependent on biochemical processes.  Nevertheless, we know only too well how much the psychic function can be disturbed by verifiable processes in the brain, and this fact is so impressive that the subsidiary nature of the psyche seems an almost unavoidable inference. . . ."

"The structure and physiology of the brain furnish no explanation of the psychic process. The psyche has a peculiar nature which cannot be reduced to anything else. Like physiology, it represents a relatively self-contained field of experience to which we must attribute a quite special importance because it holds within one of the two indispensable conditions for existence as such, namely consciousness. Without consciousness there would, practically speaking, be no world, for the world exists as such only in so far as it is consciously reflected and consciously expressed by a psyche. Consciousness is a condition of being. Thus the psyche is endowed with the dignity of a cosmic principle, which philosophically and in fact gives it a position coequal with the principle of physical being. . . ."
Western neuroscience has made great strides in mapping the neural correlates of different emotions and phenomena of consciousness, but little or no success in mapping the neural correlates of consciousness itself. There is likely no specific neural correlate and if, as Jung and others suppose, 'consciousness' is indeed aphenomenal instead of epiphenomenal in nature such a neural correlate will never be found.

Because of the strong two-way correlations between the brain and consciousness, however, mind scientists are all-too tempted to conflate correlation and causality, as Jung notes. It is high time that neuro-scientists and neuro-anatomists who expend a great deal of effort probing the brain for an objective phenomenal 'seat of consciousness' so to speak, turn with an equal effort (and open-mindedness) to the question of just what the subjective aphenomenal nature of consciousness and its many-flavoured shades are.

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