Friday, August 18, 2006

Mind, brain, and spinal cord

Throughout my twenties I was perfectly comfortable with the mainstream neuroscience idea that the mind and the brain are one, that any mental process has a counterpart in something neurons are doing. From that point of view consciousness is a trivial thing. It is built up from all of the sensory images our brain makes, both from within us and outside of us, together with our cognition about what everything in those images mean, plus an ongoing memory that gives us continuity, plus feedback from whatever we do that changes our sensory images. This any good neuroscientist knows is what the brain integrates to give us consciousness, a property that simple emerges from all these systems to give us a virtual reality that is very close to the real world, a world we actually don’t experience directly at all, but only through senses.

Our consciousness is so good at tying us to the real world that we don’t ordinarily think about needing our senses to be working in order to know anything around us or even within us. Yet examples come up often enough where this breaks down in some part for us to know the truth of our virtual reality if we think about it. We need our brain, or we know nothing. There doesn’t seem to be any way to get knowledge into us otherwise. Only then some spiritual experience comes along that can make one question that. One can imagine there being a God and a spiritual side to reality, separate from the physical side, that can communicate with us through our physical brain somehow. It’s not essential to abandon a belief that the mind and brain are one to believe in God and spiritual experiences. It’s more that if a scientist as I have been starts to believe in God, many things become open questions.

One thing that isn’t an open question for me is that it’s not necessary for God to do anything to make the physical universe work. Maybe He is the Creator. Maybe He isn’t. Whichever it is, that was a long time ago. Now there is no arbitrary term necessary for the will of God to explain all sorts of physical phenomena, from weather to biology. Nature is a self-regulating system in every way science knows, which in the 21st century is a lot. That people still talk about God being responsible for every lightning bolt that hits the ground is amazingly archaic. One can argue that science is an illusion, that the only reason science seems to work is because God is so orderly about micromanaging the universe. In that case there is no gravity. God just makes all massive objects behave in a way that precisely matches our concept of gravity, even to the point of general relativity being a theory of gravity that works perfectly while Newton’s theory is inadequate under extreme situations. What a strange God it would be who would do that as opposed to simply being separate from the physical world, but one can argue many possibilities.

I do assume that science is valid, and that God doesn’t mess with physics, since no one ever has documented that He does. Some talk about a God of the gaps who only shows up where science is useless, such as explaining the ultimate origin of the universe or for now the ultimate origin of life. I don’t like that idea. It sounds arbitrary. The possibilities for God and consciousness are much greater, which made me wonder more about the mind and the brain.

In the nineties I read Christian apologetics about the mind and the brain. J.P. Moreland’s Scaling the Secular City was one of these. What a waste. If you insist that your arguments prove your position, then whatever arguments you come up with will be seen by you as doing that. That can be delusional, though. Arguments apologists make against the mind and brain being one are just that weak. They use false philosophical dichotomies such as the difference between a property and a substance to create circular arguments about what supposedly can’t be physical. You know, for a mind that can’t be physical, it sure is affected by an incredibly large number of changes in the brain, which are all understood perfectly well through physical mechanisms, different areas of the brain being very different in that. Such philosophy demonstrates no understanding of how neurons in the brain form an image. That part is very well worked out. What’s mysterious is exactly how this image becomes part of the subjective experience called “me”. What is clear to me is that there is certainly no valid argument to say the mind cannot be the same as the brain.

But might the mind be somewhat different than the brain? Is it possible, even if there is no good way to insist that this is the case? Neuroscience certainly shows there are large areas of overlap between the mind and the brain. What part of the mind might not be in the brain? Memory might be one. The mechanism for converting short-term memories into long-term memories is clearly in the hippocampus, but what happens to those long-term memories? Neuroscientists now wave their hands about how those memories become stored diffusely throughout the brain. Really, how? It’s hard to say, something about altered synapses, but altered to do what exactly? At some point neuroscience becomes just as vague and abstract as philosophy. But beyond that there are so many odd phenomena about retrieving memories, such as repression, or the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon, where memories are easily accessible at one time, but not another for some obscure reason. There is the strangeness of a distant memory which suddenly pops up with incredible clarity. Where was it?

Some would say many strange things are in our unconscious mind/brain. Where is that? In the 19th century there were large areas of the brain with unknown function to put an unconscious entity into. There is no such territory any more. There is no place in the brain for an unconscious mind. Yet people can believe in that scientifically, while whoever uses the word “spiritual” instead of “unconscious” is seen as a nut.

What is our will? Where do all of our desires reside? Is there a nonphysical part of my mind that grows during life and survives my physical death? I don’t know, but I wonder. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wondering that, no matter how much ridicule it would draw from those who are sure science can explain every bit of our consciousness.

I thought of a possibility once. What if the mind is to our brain as the brain is to our spinal cord? A well-trained neurologist can tell the difference between a stroke or tumor in the brain vs. one in the spinal cord. Sensory and motor pathways cross at different levels on their way from one side of the body to connect with the other side of the brain. Logic and neuroanatomy allows you to know where a deficit is coming from, though the difference can be subtle, and in a comatose patient who can’t give sensory information, it may be impossible to say exactly why one leg is weak. If the spinal cord is damaged, that would make the leg weak. If the brain is damaged, that would make it weak as well. Both of these are physical structures. If the patient dies, one can see what the problem was. One might be able to tell from neuroimaging before that. From that experience we know that there is something besides a spinal cord necessary to make a leg strong.

The spinal cord has certain programs that give strength to a leg. The brain modulates those programs and even drives the spinal cord in its own ways to make a leg do what we want. The brain is a later improvement to an organism a long time ago that was much more spinal cord than brain.

If there is a mind beyond the brain, it’s not physical. We can’t discover it through pathology the way we did that the brain was not just an organ to cool the blood. We have to discover a greater mind the way we would if we were studying the spinal cord and said, “There is more going on here than the spinal cord can do.” No mere argument will show that. Neuroscience may come up against a barrier, across which memory, will, desire, and everything now called unconscious is coming into the brain without a good explanation for it in the brain itself. I would be surprised if anyone suggests such a thing from data within a hundred years. Maybe that will never happen, and the neuroscience revolution of this century will tie up every loose end. Maybe there is no mind beyond the brain, no unconscious either, just some things attended to better than others. God can exist either way. God may be an illusion either way. It’s just something I know will be clearer in the future.

So I wish people would quit fighting over this issue in the meantime. Fortunately it doesn’t draw the same craziness as creation vs. evolution, but it is somewhat crazy to try to discuss this anywhere. As someone devoted to God I say without equivocation that the apologetics on this subject are terrible. They prove nothing except that those speaking are biased. I wish I could pull God out from behind a post to tell people this, to just knock it off. Whatever is real will be apparent soon enough. In the meantime, it’s subduing the person in the mirror that is the most important task.

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