By Gilbert Ross
The Quantum Physics of Consciousness
In philosophical debate, particularly in the philosophy of mind, the question of how mind and consciousness arise out of our matter, or more specifically, out of the physical neurological processes in our brain, has been a long-standing one and it has baffled scientists and philosophers alike. When we speak or think of mind, it seems natural to suppose that it is directly linked to our brain and our conscious thinking, including other cognitive functions. Even if, from our direct experience and observation, there is no direct evidence or clue that could lead us to unambiguously understand what mind is, we do collectively intuit that mind is a phenomenon that is deeply interrelated to our brain activity, and yet it is something more. But what is this ‘something’ more? This question alone has historically spurred some interesting theories of mind, together with various philosophical standpoints and debates.
The most common take on the nature of mind in modern Western thought is that mind is the same thing as brain activity and hence the question of ‘what if this something more?’ does not arise. This materialistic position on mind was born out of the classical scientific view and its influence on modern thought. It is called materialist because it assumes that mind is nothing more than matter. The philosophical idea coming out of this materialistic view is a reductionistic one, meaning that it assumes that phenomena such as mind and consciousness can be explained by reducing them to the physical and chemical processes occurring in the neurology of our brains. It is literally a flattened view of the world, since it reduces all phenomena to the dimension of matter, time and space, which are considered primary, according to this view.
The Mind-Body Problem
The mainstream scientific position has led itself into a brick wall when it comes to understanding the phenomenon of consciousness. Philosopher of mind, David Chalmers, refers to this as the hard problem of consciousness, which is basically the problem of explaining subjective mental states of consciousness objectively in terms of physical processes, as required by the strict view of science. In simple words, how do we explain a particular feeling we have when we think of chocolate, in terms of neurons firing in our brain?
Other positions that do not subscribe to this reductionist view of mind, however, tend to face another problem–the problem of dualism. Basically, if we are to consider the mind as being separate from the brain, then this once again begs the question “What is mind?” and more specifically, “What is the relationship between the physical brain and mind?” The former is an ontological question asking about the nature of mind, while the latter is an epistemic one, which tries to understand the cause and effect relationship between brain and mind and how information and knowledge passes from one to the other, seeing that they are two different things.
The assumption that mind is different from the brain, such as–for example–that mind is non-material whereas the brain is material, gives rise to the so-called mind-body problem, first addressed by French philosopher René Descartes, who said that the mind and the body are two different substances. Bodies are extended in space, incapable of feeling or thought, whereas minds are unextended, thinking and feeling substances. Because they are two different substances, belonging to the material and non-material, and because there is no observable point of interaction between the two, then we cannot explain a causal relationship between the two. If we cannot come up with a causal explanation, for example, of how our internal mental states and beliefs give rise to behaviour, then some would argue that talking of mind would be superfluous.
Mind as Software and Emergent Effects
Despite this seemingly problematic position of the mind and brain co-existing in some form of relationship, the idea lived on in other theories and metaphors. One of the most popular metaphors, in fact, is borrowed from the computer sciences and which sees the mind as analogous to a software that runs on top of a hardware (or wetware)–the brain. This model has served particularly well in psychology and the cognitive sciences, where the non-material aspect of mind is seen as the software program and the material aspect of the brain is seen as the underlying hardware.
Another interesting position considers the mind as an emergent phenomena, resulting from the complex interactions of the neural processes in the brain. This theoretical position is a non-reductionistic one while at the same time it circumvents the mind-body problem because although mind is still considered as something other than the brain, the cause and effect link between the two can be explained in terms of emergent effects. The problem with this view, however, is that it still considers matter (the brain) to be primary and mind and consciousness as something that emerges out of matter, rather than being a fundamental aspect of the universe, such as time and space are.