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David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).


The Rise of the Mysterians

Reverse Engineering the Brain
and the Prakiti of Consciousness

David Lane

Thus, the chief hurdle between the subjectivist and objectivist camps is to reorient precisely what we mean by matter and what it portends.

It is one of those curious ironies that crop up from time to time when reading philosophers that the very mistake they accuse others of making is precisely the same one they make while penning their objections. Colin McGinn's recent review of Patricia S. Churchland's book, Touching a Nerve: The Self As Brain in the New York Review of Books ["Storm over the Brain", April 24, 2014] is a classic case in point. McGinn claims that because Churchland realizes that the brain is the basis of mental activity “your reason to stay a philosopher evaporates.” But Churchland never says such a thing nor does she even imply it. Rather, she states the obvious: it is better to do philosophy with a deep understanding of neuroscience than without it.

Just as if you wish to understand why surfers enjoy riding certain waves over others (deep tubes versus mushy white water) a deep understanding of oceanography is better than none at all. McGinn erroneously alleges that Churchland's intertheoretic reductionism should cause her to “switch immediately to physics, since everything is ultimately made of elementary particles and depends on their activity.” Yet, he conveniently forgets that Churchland argues for a consilience (to echo the famous title of Edward O. Wilson's 1998 book of the same title) of all academic disciplines, including math, physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology, etc. It isn't one discipline versus another, but rather a deeper understanding of how each correlate and connects with each other.

Of course, McGinn unwittingly concedes Churchland's very thesis when he complains that she has garbled his “mysterian” position that consciousness cannot be truly understood because “there are special features” to it that make it intractable for humans to understand it. McGinn argues that his position is like “a blind man ignorant of the nature of color will never understand what color is (while remaining blind).” But isn't this precisely what Patricia Churchland was driving at when she opined that “you cannot understand the mind without understanding how the brain works.”? Perhaps McGinn should listen to his own example (about the blind not understanding the world of vision) and open his eyes to what Churchland really said in her book and not his own hurried caricatures of it. Perhaps then he would better appreciate why she entitled her book, Touching a Nerve, and become less of a naysayer.

But then again I am not holding my breath for too long, since McGinn's Mysterianism is almost an article of faith amongst those who believe that consciousness, as such, is an unsolvable mystery from the very outset. McGinn, Nagel, and others in this camp seem to hold to a set of inviolate axioms, such as “our inability to imagine what it is like to be a bat is permanent, since our imagination is constrained by the type of mind we happen to have.” Yet, is this apothegm as accurate as it self-assuredly posits? Do we really have an “inability” to imagine what it is like to be bat or a dolphin or Mickey Mouse? Who has scientifically predetermined the limits of our imagination and certified that it is permanent?

My problem with Mysterianism is that it is on-starting proposition and is akin to training a horse to win at the Del Mar Racetrack, but pulling out right before the competition begins by saying in effect it is impossible for her to accomplish anything so why bother at all. How does one know this unless one allows the horse to run in the first place? Likewise, how are we going to explore and perhaps solve the mystery of consciousness by declaring to scientists and philosophers at the outset that it is a no-win situation?

Yes, it is quite possible that consciousness will not be amenable, like unraveling the genetic code, to a proper scientific understanding, but it is really quite pointless to categorically claim its insolvability as a universal axiom. History is riddled with thinkers who declared that some mysteries would never in principle be explained but which were over time.

In addition, declaring that the subjective feel of awareness (“qualia”) is a hard problem doesn't actually illuminate the task ahead, but can if invoked too often serve as a sort of meta warning signal which unwittingly thwarts would-be researchers from even tackling the issue.

Instead of worrying about absolutes or getting unnecessarily sidetracked science can make great progress by taking a practical route where it focuses on one particular area, such as what Crick and Koch have done with vision, or what others have done on olfaction or mirror neurons, etc.

I realize that too often scientists can jump the gun and attempt to prematurely explain away certain phenomena that have yet to be comprehensively explored (with NDE's being a telling case in point). But despite such hubris, we can learn from these more wild, and unproven, speculations because by their very insufficiencies we can get a clearer glimpse of what further work needs to be done. We should welcome such failures, since the progressive nature of science is literally paved with them. Yet, if we only succumb to Mysterianism, we won't venture anywhere except squirm about in our armchairs spewing out deductive witticisms about why such and such cannot be accomplished.

Consciousness studies needs adventurers, and even if these voyagers never do solve the great mystery of self-reflective awareness there will undoubtedly be wondrous islands of discovery that will help us in a host of other areas, as has happened in the past where one line of inquiry led to the most unexpected of discoveries which had nothing to do per se with the project's ultimate goal.

For this reason I am greatly encouraged by the push both in Europe and in North America for scientific teams to reverse engineer the brain since this will yield some startling information about how the brain works the way it does. Paul Allen, founder of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, explains the practical focus in its initial stages:

“The basic idea is to instrument the brain at a very fine level of detail and measure all the parameters—from the diversity of cell types to the electrophysiology—in the mouse visual system, and from that reverse-engineer how it works. That's an amazing challenge, and no one's done it yet. We know a certain amount about neurons. You can do fMRI and watch parts of the brain light up. But what happens in the middle is poorly understood. We're hoping for breakthroughs in understanding cell communication and information flow in the visual system. That's what I placed a large bet on.”
Paul Allen
Paul Allen

Of course, the empirical emphasis here doesn't preclude other approaches to studying awareness. To the contrary, it is merely one approach among many. For instance, this past week I had the wonderful opportunity of meeting with Dr. Sriramamurti, an emeritus professor of Sanskrit at Andhra University in India, and Mr. Preetham Tadiparthi, a distinguished software engineer, who took time off from their busy schedule to drive some 8 hours to meet with me at my office at Mt. San Antonio College. Both are keen followers of spirituality and have long been associated with Dayalbagh in Agra, India. They mentioned that Dr. Prem Saran Satsangi, the current spiritual leader of their group and a noted scientist in his own right, has been keenly interested in the scientific study of consciousness and has sponsored a number of Conferences in India and elsewhere encouraging a dialogue between Eastern and Western approaches. Dr. Prem Saran Satsangi just this past week gave a video talk to the 20th annual Toward a Science of Consciousness held at the University of Arizona, which was co-chaired by Stuart Hameroff and David Chalmers, and featured such diverse speakers as John Searle, Daniel Dennett, Roger Penrose, and Deepak Chopra.

I mention this because Dayalbagh has from its inception advocated an internal meditational discipline as part of its core philosophy and on the surface would seem to be resistant to entertaining purely empirical studies of self-reflective awareness. Yet, under Dr. Prem Saran Satsang's tenure, Dayalbagh has been at the forefront of advocating a variety of avenues for studying human consciousness, even when certain pathways contravene their own religious beliefs.

I know this from my own personal experience, as four years ago my wife Andrea and I were invited to give a plenary talk at SPIRCON, an international conference on the interface between spirituality and consciousness, that was held at the Dayalbagh Educational Institute in Agra, India. Although we couldn't personally attend, we created a 30-minute film presentation based on a 50-page paper we had written focusing on why there was a deep impasse between science and religion. Our thesis was a very simple one: The conflict between science and spirituality primarily stems from a linguistic confusion over what the term “matter” means and what it ultimately implies. Moreover, we argued that understanding the physical basis of consciousness was bound to be a fruitful one and should be strongly advocated instead of resisted by those most interested in mysticism. Our working pun (with its Koan-like implications) was “If we are just matter, what is the matter?”

In other words, one of the real pothers in consciousness studies is a linguistic one and as such has led to all sorts of unnecessary confusions in a field riddled with enough of them already.

I must say I was pleasantly surprised to learn from Professor Sriramamurti and Mr. Taiparthi that the spiritual leader of Dayabagh had in his most recent talk at TSC in Arizona actually cited (apparently without irony and with encouragement) a paper Andrea and I co-wrote entitled “Is Consciousness Physical?

The Brain Atlas
The Brain Atlas

Professor Sriramamurti personally explained to me that according to certain schools of Indian philosophy that this physicalist approach has a long precedent and has been advocated by a number of rishis in the past. Indeed, there is a beautiful Sanskrit word for understanding the elemental basis of this universe. It is termed MulaPrakiti and is defined as "The root of nature [and] it is a closer definition of 'fundamental matter'; and is often defined as the essence of matter, that aspect of the Absolute which underlines all the objective aspects of Nature. While plain Prakriti encompasses classical earth element, i.e. solid matter, Mulaprakriti includes any and all classical elements, including any considered not discovered yet.”

Professor Sriramamurti then went on about how though Purusha (Atman or soul) is mostly seen as distinct and apart from its material corpus, ultimately Prakriti and Purusha are one. They are different ends of the same stream.

Thus, the chief hurdle between the subjectivist and objectivist camps is to reorient precisely what we mean by matter and what it portends. Our language and our misuse of certain terminology have created a superfluous roadblock and as such have sidelined us from more productive dialogues with differing perspectives.

To invoke a sports analogy here, the goal of football is to keep moving the ball forward even if one cannot score a field goal or a touchdown. Likewise, the scientific quest for understanding consciousness should be a progressive one and getting mired in Mysterianism from the very start is a sure fire way to go nowhere at all.

Perhaps we can take a hint from the root word of matter, which originally derived from the Latin word “mater” which means “mother” or “origin.” It is no accident that the greatest technological breakthroughs in human history have been when we tested our imaginary hypotheses in an empirical arena. This is the great testing ground for understanding whether consciousness is indeed an emergent property of complex matter or something that transcends the known laws of physics. If we persist in being solipsistic luddites our science will remain fastened, like our posteriors, to its cushioned seats and will not find anything new and unexpected.

This doesn't mean, of course, that the physical sciences will be wholly successful in this endeavor, but if it does spectacularly fail we will learn more in that endeavor than we would otherwise. It is one of those puzzling ironies in science that we can often achieve more by failing in testing our theories than in confirming them. But in order to do this, we must be willing to seriously pursue our chosen line of inquiry.

The Mysterian position, as posited by some quarters, stops such investigations before they even start, oftentimes with fallacious axioms that are themselves invented fictions. Reverse engineering the brain may in the end not solve the mystery of consciousness, but we won't know that until the project is completed. And, most tellingly, if the Blue Brain Project at the École Polytechnique Fédérale De Lausanne (in Switzerland) doesn't ultimately succeed in providing the smoking gun of self-reflective awareness, then that very absence will provide fodder for transforming our previous paradigms. Yet even if the big prize is not secured we will succeed in gaining hitherto unknown forms of knowledge, the likes of which would be unimaginable in centuries past. As the official Blue Brain Project explains its mission:

“The ultimate goal of the Blue Brain Project is to reverse engineer the mammalian brain. To achieve this goal the project has set itself four key objectives: Create a Brain Simulation Facility with the ability to build models of the healthy and diseased brain, at different scales, with different levels of detail in different species. Demonstrate the feasibility and value of this strategy by creating and validating a biologically detailed model of the neocortical column in the somatosensory cortex of young rats. Use this model to discover basic principles governing the structure and function of the brain. Exploit these principles to create larger more detailed brain models, and to develop strategies to model the complete human brain.”

Both the Blue Brain Project and the Allen Institute for Brain Science are at their core practical endeavors and we are lucky that in their varied pursuits they have not succumbed too early to the Mysterian Temptation.

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