Couldn't mind be naturally 'supernatural'?

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Jan 3, 2010, 12:16:36 PM1/3/10
to Brights India
Let me first excuse myself, this is my first post here, I might be
sounding odd.

But couldn't mind have powers that some of us are just being unable to

Let me clarify myself.
Our brain can convert sensory inputs from eye, ear, nose, skin, tongue
(that's where modern science is now) that is visible spectum, audible
frequency, smell, temperature roughness, taste

Now think of sharks which can sense electromagnetic field.

To continue what I'm going to say I need to make an assumption -
"that there could be, like the electromagnetic waves, another kind of
waves or radiation or energy, which the modern science is yet to
experimentally confront."
(and with that i must add "did anyone know about electricity before
faraday (or is it oersted?) discovered it?")

and there's one thing to note that if there's such a thing it's
properties could be vastly different from any other things we have
observed. It may not be like light. it may not be like particles or
waves. and of course i can not tell what it will be like.

[the whole point of this post is that assumption. if that is wrong i'm

If you agree with that let us call those rays asd rays (that's the
abbreviation of my full name - so that if in case someone finds it i
can tell that i had predicted it and name it under my name, got the
point? :D)

now i hope i am right when i say that "evolution does not depend on
whether we understand it or not"
(that is to say like we have the electron behaving like a wave when we
observe it and like a particle when we do not in Young's double slit
So I believe that
"even if we don't know that asd rays exist, our DNAs know it" (my
goodness, that is an interesting point, could our body be knowing what
our mind doesn't? could we be knowing more than what we know?)

And so let us assume our body has evolved mechanism to receive asd
rays (like we do with light rays)

And if we can receive asd rays we may be able to send asd rays too..
may be (like we can create sound, and hear sound)

And may be there is some organ in our yet-to-be-studied-fully brain
which CAN actually send and receive asd rays.

now, may be the composition of asd rays is such that it doesn't
require a medium to pass through.
and may be it could interact with things (sound can make things
vibrate, light can strike electrons off)

OK. that is all the assumptions we have to make.

Now my intentions are clear.

Couldn't there be such a mechanism in our brain or mind or body?
(which can make things like telepathy, spoon bending, apple from thin
air, etc. possible)

Reply from akshay s dinesh to asd of india

But if there's such an organ, our body would let our mind know it.
For, do we have to learn that we can use the eye to see, ear to hear,
etc. Should there be such an organ we must be knowing about it.

reply from asd to akshay

but do we come to realize that we have a liver, or a spleen by
ourselves? (I never knew there existed an organ called spleen until I
watched a mother killing her step daughter hitting on the spleen with
a hammer in reality tv)
i mean may be this is an involuntary organ.
(like our heart rate gets automatically lowered when we're calm and
vice versa)


Well I know all these are assumptions. But this is my hypothesis to
make many things that we term supernatural as natural.. So that there
wouldn't be any fight at all (i don't like fights)
and therefore i wish to invite you to contribute to this idea too.
That is to say instead of asking me questions. Help me make this idea
a perfect hypothesis waiting to be proved.

viswanathan chathoth

Jan 3, 2010, 12:50:19 PM1/3/10
Dear Akshay,
Welcome to the group. It would be nice, if you like, to let us all know more about you.Only if you like to do so.
As you wanted, I won't ask you questions.I would just point to one serious flaw in your argument: You are proposing a big theory to explain phenomena that are NON-EXISTENT ! "things like telepathy, spoon bending, apple from thin air" are just stage magic, and to know how they are done, you have just to go to a professional magician and learn from him. You do not need any new theory to explain these things. In case you are convinced that these phenomena are not explainable by any mechanism so far known to man, please contact James Randi foundation  at

"The Foundation is committed to providing reliable information about paranormal claims. It both supports and conducts original research into such claims."

Who knows? You may be the person to collect that one million Dollar on Offer by James Randi.


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Jan 3, 2010, 9:10:14 PM1/3/10
to Brights India
OK. I now understand that I shouldn't have added those three
phenomenon there (well I know how to bend spoon using metal fatigue,
and I almost know where the apple comes from everytime)
But I wanted to explain just telepathy. Or read the following
from http://www dot abuddhistlibrary dot com/Buddhism/H%20-%20World
%20SAMADHI . htm

Here's the part I want you to read...
"...We have, then, two planes in which the human mind works. First is
the conscious plane, in which all work is always accompanied with the
feeling of egoism. Next comes the unconscious plane, where all work is
unaccompanied by the feeling of egoism. That part of mind-work which
is unaccompanied with the feeling of egoism is unconscious work, and
that part which is accompanied with the feeling of egoism is conscious
work. In the lower animals this unconscious work is called instinct.
In higher animals, and in the highest of all animals, man, what is
called conscious work prevails.

But it does not end here. There is a still higher plane upon which the
mind can work. It can go beyond consciousness. Just as unconscious
work is beneath consciousness, so there is another work which is above
consciousness, and which also is not accompanied with the feeling of
egoism. The feeling of egoism is only on the middle plane. When the
mind is above or below that line, there is no feeling of "I", and yet
the mind works. When the mind goes beyond this line of self-
consciousness, it is called Samadhi or superconsciousness. How, for
instance, do we know that a man in Samadhi has not gone below
consciousness, has not degenerated instead of going higher? In both
cases the works are unaccompanied with egoism. The answer is, by the
effects, by the results of the work, we know that which is below, and
that which is above. When a man goes into deep sleep, he enters a
plane beneath consciousness. He works the body all the time, he
breathes, he moves the body, perhaps, in his sleep, without any
accompanying feeling of ego; he is unconscious, and when he returns
from his sleep, he is the same man who went into it. The sum total of
the knowledge which he had before he went into the sleep remains the
same; it does not increase at all. No enlightenment comes. But when a
man goes into Samadhi, if he goes into it a fool, he comes out a
...This, in short, is the idea of Samadhi. What is its application?
The application is here. The field of reason, or of the conscious
workings of the mind, is narrow and limited. There is a little circle
within which human reason must move. It cannot go beyond. Every
attempt to go beyond is impossible, yet it is beyond this circle of
reason that there lies all that humanity holds most dear. All these
questions, whether there is an immortal soul, whether there is a God,
whether there is any supreme intelligence guiding this universe or
not, are beyond the field of reason. Reason can never answer these
questions. What does reason say? It says, "I am agnostic; I do not
know either yea or nay." Yet these questions are so important to us.
Without a proper answer to them, human life will be purposeless...

...The Yogi teaches that the mind itself has a higher state of
existence, beyond reason, a superconscious state, and when the mind
gets to that higher state, then this knowledge, beyond reasoning,
comes to man. Metaphysical and transcendental knowledge comes to that
man. This state of going beyond reason, transcending ordinary human
nature, may sometimes come by chance to a man who does not understand
its science; he, as it were, stumbles upon it. When he stumbles upon
it, he generally interprets it as coming from outside. So this
explains why an inspiration, or transcendental knowledge, may be the
same in different countries, but in one country it will seem to come
through an angel, and in another through a Deva, and in a third
through God. What does it mean? It means that the mind brought the
knowledge by its own nature, and that the finding of the knowledge was
interpreted according to the belief and education of the person
through whom it came. The real fact is that these various men, as it
were, stumbled upon this superconscious state...."

(I tend to believe Swami Vivekananda, after all his snake-while-
meditating stories and amazing memory and reading speed stories and
atheist turning theist story, after his speeches in religious
(There's a book called complete works of swami vivekananda, which when
I read, I felt rational. It is completely this kind of stuff.)

Now the idea that there is a superconscious state gets me excited (I
do not know whether Swami Vivekananda wrote that stuff just to get
people excited and join his Paramahamsa mission. I tend to believe
Swami Vivekananda. I know he may be another of the satyasayi,
amritanandamayi group, but I tend to believe he is not.)
And I like to believe this state does exist.

And with my hypothesis, this state is what i intended to prove. (I
earlier thought when this state is achieved spoon bending would be
possible, so I could substitute 3 paragraphs with 3 words) I wish to
prove that mind reading is possible (oops, I do not mean David Blane's
mind reading, I mean Buddha's mind reading)

So my question is, "Is such a state of super consciousness possible?"
My answer will be, "I like to believe yes"
My own explanation will be: "Everyone produces asd rays unknowingly,
(these rays are a projection of all your thoughts) and when you are
really concentrating, you can consciously receive and interpret these
rays, thus you will have an access to everybody's thoughts 'a state of
supreme consciousness'"

Now tell me, do you believe Swami Vivekananda, or do you think James
Randi should have confronted him too?

also read this http://en dot wikipedia dot org/wiki/
He was trying to explain the supernatural, and I'm trying to explain
it too.. (that wiki link will definitely help to understand what I'm
trying to do)

On Jan 3, 10:50 pm, viswanathan chathoth <> wrote:
> Dear Akshay,
> Welcome to the group. It would be nice, if you like, to let us all know more
> about you.Only if you like to do so.
> As you wanted, I won't ask you questions.I would just point to one serious
> flaw in your argument: You are proposing a big theory to explain phenomena
> that are NON-EXISTENT ! "things like telepathy, spoon bending, apple from
> thin air" are just stage magic, and to know how they are done, you have just
> to go to a professional magician and learn from him. You do not need any new
> theory to explain these things. In case you are convinced that these
> phenomena are not explainable by any mechanism so far known to man, please

> contact James Randi foundation  at

> "The Foundation is committed to providing reliable information about
> paranormal claims. It both supports and conducts original research into such
> claims."
> Who knows? You may be the person to collect that one million Dollar on Offer
> by James Randi.
> Regards,
> Viswanathan.C

> ><>

viswanathan chathoth

Jan 3, 2010, 11:11:10 PM1/3/10
Dear Akshay,
I have read a lot of Vivekananda earlier, and the part you forwarded is familiar to me.
I do not think that Vivekananda was lying.He was deluded.He -most likely-believed in what he said.
All attempts to explain Human nature -like that the real human is the immortal soul and that body is just a cage where it temporarily resides- made before the Darwinian revolution is now  only of historical interest. I am sorry to say this, but your understanding of the phenomena of life and consciousness is pre-modern.
I do not know anything about your background.In any case, I request you to pause reading 19th century stuff like Vivekananda for a while, and read Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, instead. Their writings do not consist entirely of material one would 'like to be' true, but are nevertheless true,based upon objective evidence. In case you are hard pressed for time, I urge you to read this excellent book: "Human nature after Drawin-a philosophical introduction' by janet radcliffe richards.The cost is Rs469, and you can order it online.
Below, I would quote a few paragraphs from Vivekananda.My guess is that-with your present understanding-you would find his arguments entirely acceptable.Once you understand the implications of Darwinian revolution, read this part again. I expect that most questions that haunt you now would have disappeared by then. As I quoted Dewey elsewhere, "Old ideas give way slowly ... They are habits, predispositions, deeply ingrained attitudes of aversion and preference. ... In fact, intellectual progress usually occurs through sheer abandonment of questions ... We do not solve them; we get over them."
Here goes Vivekananda:
"Certainly it is true even on the grounds of modern research, that man cannot be simply an evolution. Every evolution presupposes an involution. The modern scientific man will tell you that you can only get the amount of energy out of a machine which you have previously put into it. Something cannot be produced out of nothing. If a man is an evolution of the mollusc, then the perfect man, the Buddha-man, the Christ-man, was involved in the mollusc. If it is not so, whence come these gigantic personalities? Something cannot come out of nothing.
Thus we are in the position of reconciling the scriptures with modern light. That energy which manifests itself slowly through various stages until it becomes the perfect man, cannot come out of nothing. It existed somewhere, and if the mollusc, or the protoplasm is the first point to which you can trace it, that protoplasm, somehow or other, must have contained the energy.
There is a great discussion going on, as to whether the aggregate of materials we call the body, is the cause of manifestation of the force we call the soul, thought etc., or whether it is the thought that manifests this body. The religions of the world of course hold that the force called thought manifests the body, and not the reverse. There are schools of modern thought which hold, that what we call thought is simply, the outcome of the adjustment of the parts of the machine which we call body. Taking the second position, that the soul or the mass of thought, or however you may call it, is the outcome of this machine, the outcome of the chemical and physical combinations of matter making up the body and brain, leaves the question unanswered.
What makes the body? What force combines the molecules into the body form? What force is there which takes up material from the mass of matter around and forms my body one way, another body another way, and so on? What makes these infinite distinctions? To say that the force called soul is the outcome of the combinations of the molecules of the body, is putting the cart before the horse. How did the combinations come: where was the force to make them? If you say that some other force was the cause of these combinations, and soul was the outcome of that matter, and that soul, which combined a certain mass of matter, was itself the result of the combinations, it is no answer.
That theory ought to be taken which explains most of the facts, if not all, and that without contradicting other existing theories. It is more logical to say that the force which takes up the matter and forms the body is the same which manifests through that body. To say therefore that the thought forces manifested by the body are the outcome of the arrangement of molecules and have no independent existence, has no meaning; neither can force evolve out of matter.
Rather is it possible to demonstrate, that what we call matter does not exist at all. It is only a certain state of force. Solidity, hardness, or any other state of matter can be proved to be the result of motion. Increase of vortex motion imparted to fluids gives them the force of solids. A mass of air in vortex motion, as in a tornado, becomes solid-like and by its impact breaks or cuts through solids. A thread of a spider's web, if it could be moved at almost infinite velocity, would be as strong as an iron chain, and would cut through an oak tree.
Looking at it in this way, it would be easier to prove that what we call matter does not exist. But the other way cannot be proved."


PS: You asked:

>Now tell me, do you believe Swami Vivekananda, or do you think James
Randi should have confronted him too?
If he or anybody else (Mahesh yogi, for example) would allow themselves to be tested for their-or anybody elses( I remember Vivekanada telling his experience of meeting a yogi who can really materialize a rose out of thin air)- 'Sidhi's, I have absolutely no doubt that Randi foundation would gladly test those claims.

Anand Nair

Jan 4, 2010, 5:54:38 AM1/4/10

I read with interest, your discussion with Dr. Viswanathan regarding "superconsciousness". I would fully agree with Dr. Viswanathan on this. 

No one would deny that there is a certain variability in the mental & physical abilities that different human beings possess. Some of us have keener memories, some can learn a number of languages with ease, some can run faster, some are more athletic, some can compose music at the age of 9 and so on. These variations are a result largely of genetic differences, and also perhaps due to nutritional and social factors -- as also brain damage.

But you have made some extraordinary claims. Such as:-

a) When a man goes into Samadhi, if he goes into it a fool, he comes out a sage....

I see no reason why anyone should believe that this (spontaneous emergence of knowledge in the brain) is possible, unless we have extraordinarily strong evidence to support such wild claims. Do you have any?

b) whether there is an immortal soul, whether there is a God, whether there is any supreme intelligence guiding this universe or not, are beyond the field of reason

Available evidence as on date strongly suggests that there is no God or non-material supreme intelligence. Such entities are NOT required to be postulated to explain the emergence of life on consciousness. 

c) that mind reading is possible

This is again an extra-ordinary claim that calls for extraordinarily strong evidence before we can accept this. Do you have this?

d) telepathy is possible

Unlike you mean through a mobile phone, this is too is most probably a fake claim. Can any one demonstrate "telepathy" in fraud proof conditions?

The upshot is that there is most probably no such thing as "super-consciousness". Why should there be?


Muralidharan Enarth Maviton

Jan 4, 2010, 11:11:50 AM1/4/10
I am not very sure if some of your "skepticism" is only   because you have not yet got the opportunity of reading  up enough about the issues that you have raised. It is easy enough for those that are so inclined, to browse through books and the many sites on the web to get enough explanations for every fraud or  pseudo scientific claim. But perhaps you have well past the stage of being deluded by claims of this genre.

   For every "supernatural" phenomenon that as been explained by science there could be ten more esoteric and fascinating phenomena that one could still  find if one looks around. The onus of explaining it then passed on to the skeptics since the scientists wouldn't touch it. The past few centuries has been of one  revelation after another that should have be enough to convince all but the steadfast believer that there is nothing in the vast unknown yet-to-be explored universe that  needs to be supernatural and requiring anything but  the method of science. The nature of consciousness admittedly is one which has not yet been sufficiently understood to scientists, but to me it still is not an area where we need to come up with outlandish hypotheses and theories. Some thought provoking prose from a deluded mind - that may be all that Vivekananda    is today. ( I have not read Vivekananda or bothered much about Ramakrishna either).    

Your  asd rays if hypothesized to explain something real and observable would have been acceptable to science even if only transiently. But here which observable phenomenon do you have which needs to be explained? Which claim are you going to take to James Randi for claiming the $1 million?


2010/1/4 asdofindia <>
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Jan 5, 2010, 4:45:25 AM1/5/10
to Brights India
Thank you.
I now understand what I need to do next - Read some modern.
And I now know what went wrong, old swami's are the same as new
swami's just that they weren't ever confronted, and therefore their
claims never tested.

A man is what he reads. How true!

I will tell you what happened to me. I read two books - the complete
works of swami vivekananda, and the autobiography of a yogi. while the
latter is complete rubbish, the former was better. So I thought the
better one was right too. Actually both are wrong.

"In any case, I request you to pause reading 19th century stuff like
Vivekananda for a while, and read Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett,

This single sentence. My God! I am a fool to have wasted two years in
unnecessary doubt.
By the way, I'm a XI student in Science stream.


And in between I got a possible reason why people believe.
Without access to the few websites, blogs (from the internet section)
and some books which will rarely be found or read that talk about it,
how are people in the world thinking about a godless world.
I mean we are overloaded with books, I mean literature about God, and
malnourished with rational thinking. Whatever books are written by
people who think rationally they are about useful science. And so
nobody gets to know the other side. Isn't that a probable reason why
people are continuing to believe? Don't we need more literature???

Anand Nair

Jan 5, 2010, 12:39:19 PM1/5/10

Till the 19th century, many scientists saw nothing wrong in openly proclaiming their belief in a personal God who would interfere in the affairs of the material world. This position became increasingly untenable by the start of the 20th century. But we still had a few scientists (like Schroedinger) who made statements supporting "spiritualism" of the classical vedanta variety.

Today, it is difficult to find any reputed scientist who would openly declare his or her belief in a personal God (who would interfere in the affairs of the material world) or in the possible existence of any variety of non-material entity (Brahman, Atman, Soul etc) that can possess intelligence, memory or intent.  All these three are inextricably tied to matter and CANNOT manifest independent of matter.

Ordinary people who are ignorant of the state of knowledge of modern science may well continue to hold on to superstitious beliefs. While we respect their political right to do so, we would exercise our own right to point out the error in such beliefs....


Harish M Tharayil

Jan 5, 2010, 11:22:42 PM1/5/10
Very well said. You have hit right on the nail. The most unfortunate and disturbing thing in our education is the over emphasis on God, spirituality etc and the sidelining of scientific thinking. I hope Akshay will make earnest effort to improve on his knowledge and do something beneficial to humanity. 

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Dr. Harish. M. Tharayil
Assistant Professor of Psychiatry
Government Medical College
Kozhikode 673008, Kerala

Sashikumar kurup

Jan 6, 2010, 10:59:43 AM1/6/10
It is heartening to see young Akshay acquiring so much knowledge and
critical viewpoints at his age, inspite of the indoctrination he mest
have freshly recieved..........sashi


Ajeesh Kumar

Jan 9, 2010, 12:08:19 PM1/9/10

Ray Tallis on Consciousness

Published by Steven Novella under Skepticism 
Comments: 27

Raymond Tallis is an author and polymath; a physician, atheist, and philosopher. He has criticized post-modernism head on, so he must be all right.

And yet he takes what I consider to be a very curious position toward consciousness. As he write in the New Scientist: You won’t find consciousness in the brain. From reading this article it seems that Tallis is a dualist in the style of Chalmers – a philosopher who argues that we cannot fully explain consciousness as brain activity, but what is missing is something naturalistic – we just don’t know what it is yet.

Tallis has also written another article arguing that Darwinian mechanisms cannot explain the evolution of consciousness. Curiously, he does not really lay out an alternative, leading me to speculate what he thinks the alternative might be.

The Evolution of Consciousness

While Tallis is clearly a sophisticated thinker, who does not appear to have an agenda (and therefore deserves to be taken seriously) he constructs what I feel is a very flawed argument against the evolution of consciousness.

His primary point seems to be that consciousness is not necessary and would not provide any unique survival advantage, and therefore purely Darwinian mechanisms would not select for it. He writes:

Even if we were able to explain how matter in organisms manages to go mental, it is not at all clear what advantage that would confer. Why should consciousness of the material world around their vehicles (the organisms) make certain (material) replicators better able to replicate? Given that, as we noted, qualia do not correspond to anything in the physical world, this seems problematic. There may be ways round this awkward fact but not round the even more awkward fact that, long before self-awareness, memory, foresight, powers of conscious deliberation emerge to give an advantage over those creatures that lack those things, there is a more promising alternative to consciousness at every step of the way: more efficient unconscious mechanisms, which seem equally or more likely to be thrown up by spontaneous variation.

One error is Tallis’s reasoning is the unstated assumption that evolution will always take the most advantageous path to survival. There may be more efficient methods of survival than consciousness, but so what. One might as well ask why birds fly, when it is such a waste of energy and there are more efficient ways of obtaining food and evading predators.

Life through evolution does not find the solution to problems, but many solutions. Life is also constrained by its own history – so once species heads down a certain path its descendants are constrained by the evolutionary choices that have been made.

Consider, for example, that many forms of life on earth have very limited (if any, depending on your view) consciousness. The entire invertebrate world, including clams, sea stars, worms, etc. lack sophisticated central nervous systems and do just fine without anything approaching human consciousness.

In fact Tallis’s point that there are more likely solutions than consciousness conforms nicely to the natural world – evolution seems to have solved the problem of survival much more often without resorting to consciousness. Humans are the exception, not the rule.

His arguments are ultimately extremely evolutionarily naive. They are excessively adaptationist, for example. Not everything that evolves was specifically selected for in all of its aspects. There are many epiphenomena – properties of life that arise as a side consequence. That is because life is messy.

Tallis also fails to consider possible advantages for even primitive consciousness, or how it may emerge out of neural functions that themselves provide useful functions. M.E. Tson goes over this issue in an interesting article. But I will give my take.

The most primitive roots of consciousness may have been in the affinity and aversion to various stimuli in the environment – the ultimate roots of emotion. This could be as simple as a bacteria moving toward food and away from toxins.

As behavior became more complex, so did the systems of aversion and affinity, allowing for pleasure and pain, which in turn allow for a reward system. Once you have a chemical system that rewards certain behaviors and discourages others, you have a foothold into the evolution of complex psychological motivations and emotions. But these have to be experienced by the organism in some way – the foreshadowing of consciousness.

Another factor that could lead to consciousness is the need to filter all the information coming into the organism. With a certain amount of sophistication of visual, auditory, sensory, and chemical sensing systems the organism’s programmed responses can be easily overwhelmed. The world is complex, and not every shadow is a predator. There can also be multiple competing simuli – should an organism go after food or avoid a predator?

It is easy to imagine that the same neural system that collects all this information input would also develop a system to filter out the most useful information from the less useful, or even distracting, information – to prioritize inputs. This is a functional equivalent of attention, which is a component of consciousness.

Life does not have to evolve down such a pathway, nor does this even have to be the most likely pathway. It may, in fact, be very unlikely. It just needs to be possible.

The brain and consciousness

Tallis begins this article by acknowledging that consciousness does in fact correlate with brain activity – there is no consciousness without brain activity. He also acknowledged that most neuroscientists are content with the notion that the brain causes consciousness and is a sufficient explanation for it.

He therefore departs from the self-serving and patently false propaganda of intelligent design dualists who would have you believe that neuroscientists are abandoning materialism in droves (right, just like they are abandoning evolution), or who will pretend that consciousness does not correlate closely with brain activity (just search my blog for Michael Egnor to read my dismantling of these arguments).

Here is where Tallis departs from the mainstream of neuroscience:

It is about the deep philosophical confusion embedded in the assumption that if you can correlate neural activity with consciousness, then you have demonstrated they are one and the same thing, and that a physical science such as neurophysiology is able to show what consciousness truly is.

Here is commits a bit of a straw man in saying that the position of neuroscience is that brain activity and consciousness are “one and the same thing.” I prefer the summary that the mind is what the brain does. But understanding consciousness cannot be reduced to neurons firing any more than an appreciation for a masterwork painting can be reduced to the chemical structure of paint or wavelengths of light. There is a higher order of complexity to art, just as there is to consciousness.

But this subtle straw man opens the door for Tallis to exploit, unintentionally, vagueness in the language to create the impression of contradictions where none exist (ironic for someone who has been such a foe of post-modernism). For example, he then writes:

Many neurosceptics have argued that neural activity is nothing like experience, and that the least one might expect if A and B are the same is that they be indistinguishable from each other. Countering that objection by claiming that, say, activity in the occipital cortex and the sensation of light are two aspects of the same thing does not hold up because the existence of “aspects” depends on the prior existence of consciousness and cannot be used to explain the relationship between neural activity and consciousness.

I find this paragraph to be an incoherent linguistic mess. You can see how the straw man of saying that brain function and consciousness are the exact same thing leads to his curious rejection that the brain explains consciousness. He then introduces another straw man – that the brain and consciousness are aspects of some third thing.

The core problem of understanding here is that language is inadequate to capture the nuance of concepts needed to wrap one’s brain (pun intentional) around the concept of consciousness and its relationship to the brain. The brain is an object. Consciousness is a brain phenomenon – a dynamic manifestation of brain function.

He extends this point when he writes:

If it were identical, then we would be left with the insuperable problem of explaining how intracranial nerve impulses, which are material events, could “reach out” to extracranial objects in order to be “of” or “about” them. Straightforward physical causation explains how light from an object brings about events in the occipital cortex. No such explanation is available as to how those neural events are “about” the physical object. Biophysical science explains how the light gets in but not how the gaze looks out.

Again, I find this little more than word play, originating from the false premise that the neuroscience position is that consciousness is identical to the brain. And what does he mean – exactly, operationally – by “aboutness”. Does he mean the abstract concept? How an object is represented in the brain? These all have neural correlates too.

He next makes a point that I have not encountered before, so he gets some points for originality. But I think he should have consulted a neuroscientist before making this point, for he does not acknowledge what seems to me to be the obvious answer. He writes:

My sensory field is a many-layered whole that also maintains its multiplicity. There is nothing in the convergence or coherence of neural pathways that gives us this “merging without mushing”, this ability to see things as both whole and separate.

He is saying that neuronal activity cannot explain how we have experience of multiple independent things at the same time, without those information streams becoming mushed together. But in fact our understanding of brain function accords nicely with the experience Tallis describes.

Our brain are massively parallel in their organization. And there are neurons that make millions of connections to thousands of other neurons. Networks of neurons are discrete, and can store and convey discrete sensations, thoughts, memories, etc. And yet they are meshed with numerous other networks of neurons with other discrete sensations. This setup is perfect for allowing meshing without mushing.

But also – there is mushing in that memories do merge together. We get information mixed up all the time, because the discreteness of memories in the brain is not perfect. But this probably goes along with the fact that our brains are excellent at pattern recognition – one network of neurons overlaps or connects in some way with another network, and so one thought reminds us of another – we make connections, we see patterns and associations – we mesh, with some mushiness.

This objection of Tallis is simply not valid. Nor is his next:

“A synapse, being a physical structure, does not have anything other than its present state. It does not, as you and I do, reach temporally upstream from the effects of experience to the experience that brought about the effects. In other words, the sense of the past cannot exist in a physical system.”

Tallis is just overthinking the issue. What is the distinction between a “sense of the past” and storage of information about the past? Storage of information is a present physical state, but the information is about the past.

In fact neuroscientists have discovered neurons in the brain that “time stamp” events. This is where a little more knowledge of the latest in neuroscience would have helped Tallis immensely. Understanding time is just another function of the brain.

In fact Tallis next makes a very telling statement:

This is consistent with the fact that the physics of time does not allow for tenses: Einstein called the distinction between past, present and future a “stubbornly persistent illusion”.

First, he shows how he is overthinking this issue, trying to understand the brain’s understanding of time as a basic feature of physics. But if we take Einstein’s quote at face value, that time is an illusion, that accords nicely with the standard materialist neuroscientific view of consciousness – that it is analogous to an illusion our brains construct for our conscious selves to experience. That would include a sense of time.

This is absolutely not to say that reality is an illusion. Reality exists. But we have an internal model of reality in our brains – a very dynamic model that is part of our internal processing or self-reflection. That model is a constructed “illusion” – it has a very functional an adaptive relationship to external reality, but it is not a simple reflection of it. What we call “optical illusions” are just one manifestation of the ways in which our internal model of reality is an imperfect representation of external reality.

Tallis’s final points are these:

There are also problems with notions of the self, with the initiation of action, and with free will. Some neurophilosophers deal with these by denying their existence, but an account of consciousness that cannot find a basis for voluntary activity or the sense of self should conclude not that these things are unreal but that neuroscience provides at the very least an incomplete explanation of consciousness.

I don’t think these three things can be conflated. The notion of self is again a function of the brain – there are parts of the brain, networks, that produce the sense of self as part of our model of reality. A distinct but related function is to place our sense of self inside our physical bodies, and to make it separate from the rest of the universe. These are clearly identified brain functions – functions we can localize, and turn off with interesting results.

Initiation of action also localizes, and there are disorders (such as Parkinson’s disease) that interfere with the ability to initiate actions. There are parts of the brain that generate activity – keep the neurons firing, and provide for the initiation of specific thoughts or actions. Rather than thinking about initiation as firing up neurons from nothing, it is more accurate to imagine neurons firing throughout the brain all the time (at least while awake) and this activity follows different patterns depending upon external stimulation and the internal conversation.

Free will is a more difficult concept to deal with. There are certainly those who believe free will does not exist because the brain is a deterministic (if very complex) machine. A meaningful discussion of this topic is beyond the scope of this blog post. I will just say that I think the discussion of free will falls victim to semantics as well.

What is clear is that people can make choices. Sure, those choices do not occur as a result of some non-material external will. They are just another function of brain activity.

The bottom line is that free will does not present a problem for the neuroscientific view of consciousness. The extent to which we can say that it exists is also the extent to which we can say it is a brain function.


In my opinion Tallis does not put forward one valid argument against a purely materialistic neuroscience view of consciousness – that consciousness is brain function. His evolutionary arguments misrepresent evolutionary theory. His neuroscientific arguments are simply false, and do not reflect the state of the science. And his philosophical arguments are failed semantic gambits that are ultimately incoherent.

But I am curious as to what Tallis thinks consciousness is, if it is not brain function and its existence cannot be explained by Darwinian evolution. I acknowledge he has written a great deal that I have not read – I do not claim to have exhaustively searched for an answer. But he is certainly being coy in these two articles, which is an interesting omission.

I am especially curious as Tallis seems to be an intellectual with whom I likely agree about a great deal. I’ll have to do some more digging.

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