In recent years, philosophers, theologians, cosmologists, and even mainstream cognitive scientists have joined the fray, developing powerful critiques and alternative theories that attempt to expand the frame of our thinking about the mind and brain.

Since the human nervous system is the most complex piece of hardware on the planet, it’s no surprise that the most complex form of consciousness accompanies it. Though still eschewed by most mainstream philosophers and scientists, this view is gaining ground, particularly among the alternative in- telligentsia, in large part because it provides a potentially non-reductionist framework for understanding the relationship between the mind and the brain (even if some of its proponents, like Chalmers, use it as an argument for the possibility of conscious machines—if all matter is conscious, after all, why couldn’t a supercomplex computer be as conscious as you or me?

Is it possible that it will be science’s failure to solve the mind/body problem that will ultimately lead to materialism’s undoing? Could neuroscience’s bold attempt to penetrate the mysteries of the human psyche be that one step too far that brings the entire edifice crashing to the ground? It is of course far too early to say, but if such an eventuality were to unfold, given the mythic implications, it would no doubt give the gods and perhaps even Icarus a good chuckle.


Still, in the face of such multilayered complexity, one can’t help but feel compelled to reach for synthesis, whether it’s God or the Neurons that are doing the compelling.

I find the materialist notion that the mind is an irrelevant byproduct of brain function about as plausible as the dualistic idea that consciousness is some ghostly ethereal substance that exists entirely independent of the brain. The truth, it seems, must lie somewhere in between. But where exactly?

Just how the brain’s neural network could function as a “tuning system” for consciousness, however, is still something I’m struggling to visualize.

I’m also tempted to go with some version of the emergence idea, as it seems the closest to hard science to say that consciousness in some way comes out of the brain. But as one philosopher pointed out to me, “Until someone explains how emergence occurs, we might just as well say GOD did it.”

Perhaps the most promising and ultimately satisfying theories are the integral ones that acknowledge the essential reality of different levels and dimensions of existence, allowing interiors and exteriors, consciousness and matter, to be seen as different sides of the same event, neither reducible to the other. Where mind and brain are concerned, however, even the most integral theories have thus far been unable to explain how the two interconnect, leaving the mind/body problem a mystery for another day.


One thought experiment is imagining that our brain really is generating our consciousness. Think about it—this whole three-dimensional experience of sound, color, thought, feeling, and movement all somehow arising out of the organic functions of this wrinkled slab of tofu like substance in your head. It seems hard to imagine, but if it were true, what would that say about the nature of matter itself? In fact, if I think about it in this way long enough, I start to wonder which would really be mind-boggling to find out that the brain doesn’t create the mind, or to find out that it does.page284image45333696

There are levels of who we are that simply cannot be understood by looking at our neurons alone. Although we may not lose our humanity to neuro science, however, it does seem likely that as research progresses, we will have to let go of a few ideas—possibly even some big ones about what our humanity is made of. The great specter of brain science is that it will demonstrate that we are merely conscious organic machines, that all of our experience and behavior originates in the brain. Based on the evidence from frontier science alone, it doesn’t seem likely at this point that it will quite be able to do that. But let’s say that it were able to show that most of our behavior and experience is rooted in the brain. What would that mean? Well, for starters, we’d have to come to terms with the fact that we’re a lot more organic machine than we’d like to think that, as much as we savor the nuances of our personal wishes, aspirations, and personalities, most of our responses are driven by genetic and social conditioning wired into our brains on a level we cannot see.

However, even if we take the materialist position that the brain is the sole mediator of experience and the final arbiter of truth, we are left with the fact that human brains across the ages have universally concluded that the spiritual reality glimpsed in mystical experience is in fact of a higher order than the ordinary reality we experience every day.

And this leads us to what may be the most interesting point of all. For as Newberg’s research demonstrates, there is little doubt that the brain is at least a big part of what is enabling us to perceive that higher order. This means that, in what may be the greatest miracle we know, life somehow managed to evolve an organ capable not only of reflecting on itself but of perceiving something higher than itself perceiving, even, that which many believe to be the very source and creative driver of the cosmos. Looked at in this way, the brain suddenly starts to seem a lot less like some frightening organic computer that we’d do well to distance ourselves from and a lot more like a rather mysterious and even spiritual event in its own right. After all, if it can do all that, who knows what kind of genius and untapped potential live within its folds? Given that human evolution is still in its early days, it in fact seems likely that the awesome powers of the human brain have only begun to reveal themselves. If we can use our gray matter to avoid destroying ourselves, we may find that the story of humanity’s higher potentials is just getting started.