Eternal Mind

Eternal Mind

The god that theologians postulate as the first cause is usually portrayed as a conscious being, the Eternal Mind. This eternal mind is offered as an alternative to the unpalatable idea of eternal matter. Unfortunately, the pre­sumption that an eternal mind is more plausi­ble than eternal matter is not merely wrong. It is backwards.

Matter existed 13.8 billion years ago, perhaps earlier, and still exists as of this writing. Matter is durable and potentially eternal. (If it’s not eternal in our universe, it could be in other universes.)[1]

Among the world’s most long-lived animals, and therefore among the animals with the most enduring minds, is the Aldabra Giant Tortoise, native to some islands north of Madagascar. There are longer-lived species—including clams, sea urchins, and plants—but the tor­toise alone possesses a conscious mind that at least vaguely re­sembles a human mind. The most long-lived mem­ber of this tortoise species ever documented survived 255 years.[2] To put this lifespan in per­spective, we can dial down the timescales. If we compress the age of the universe to one year, the longest-lived human-like mind, that of the tortoise, per­sisted for a little over half a second.

This tortoise is the extreme case, the longest-lived specimen of the longest-lived species with a human-like mind. Com­paratively speaking, most animal minds rapidly flicker in and out of existence. On our compressed timescale, the lifespan of a dog or cat would flash by so quickly that you likely wouldn’t notice it. Matter’s being vastly more persis­tent than mind shouldn’t be surprising, given that minds are just one of the many products of matter.

Anyone who questions whether mind is a product of matter is in­vited to con­template, though not to conduct, the following two experi­ments. Experiment one requires you to scramble a portion of the gray meat of the human brain and observe that the mind invariably suffers a correlated loss of function. If you identify the region of the brain to be damaged, a neurologist can predict what mental functionality will be sacri­ficed.

For example, scramble a clump of neurons about the size of a fig newton, located in a section of the brain’s left hemisphere known as Broca’s area, and the subject will lose the ability to speak, though she can still understand what others are saying. Scramble the suprachi­asmatic nucleus, a marble-sized clump of tissue at the central base of the brain, and the victim’s circadian rhythm will be disrupted.[3]

As your second experiment, scramble the whole brain thoroughly and observe that the subject’s mind is ex­tinguished. Though the mind is destroyed, the matter that propagated the mind is merely rearranged and is in no degree reduced.

If our two brain-scrambling thought experiments are too violent for your tastes, contemplate the changes that occur in the brain, and con­sequently in our consciousness, as we progress from infant stage to maturity. Ponder the brain changes and the correlated con­scious­ness changes associated with the onset of Alzheimer’s dis­ease or during intoxication, sleep, or electroconvulsive therapy.

Cog­nitive neuroscientist Daniel Bor notes, “all brain scan­ning experi­ments to date have shown that even the subtlest of changes in con­sciousness are clearly marked by alterations in brain activity.”[4] Brain scanners detect neural activity linked to a deci­sion even before subjects become consciously aware of their having formed the decision.[5] There’s no plausible explanation for this other than that con­sciousness is caused by the brain.

Marcello Massimini of the University of Milan has devised a way to detect not only the pattern of neural activation that correlates to a state of mind or consciousness, but his team of researchers can also measure the degree of consciousness.[6] Admittedly, many mysteries remain. How matter propagates mind, what mind is, and why we even have minds are puzzles that remain unsolved.[7] But that mind emerges from matter and is dependent on matter is beyond reason­able doubt.

In his essay, The Myth of the Soul, Clarence Darrow, the famed de­fense attorney in the “Scopes Monkey Trial” of 1925, wrote:

 

Even many of those who claim to believe in immortality still tell themselves and others that neither side of the question is suscep­ti­ble of proof. Just what can these hopeful ones believe that the word ‘proof’ involves? The evidence against the persistence of personal consciousness is as strong as the evidence of gravita­tion, and much more obvious. It is as convincing and unassail­able as the proof of the destruction of wood or coal by fire. If it is not certain that death ends personal identity and memory, then almost nothing that man accepts as true is susceptible of proof.

 

Given that mind is a fleeting artifact of particular configurations of matter, one would expect skepticism toward eternal mind to be far more pervasive than skepticism toward eternal matter. Instead, people are hypnotically drawn to the notion of eternal mind like moths to a flame.

More striking still, people attribute to mind the astounding ability to create matter, despite our having witnessed only the reverse, matter generating mind. According to the Gospel of Thomas (saying number 29), Jesus gasped, “If the flesh came into being because of spirit, that is a marvel, but if spirit came into being because of the body, that is a marvel of marvels.”

The real marvel of marvels is that popular opinion is so radically out of tune with the evidence. People have immense difficulty envi­sioning the demise of the only mind they know inti­mately. Who among us has not absurdly fanta­sized about watching his or her own funeral ceremony?[8] The lure of Eternal Mind reflects our denial of mortality.

 

 

[1] Max Tegmark, Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality (Knopf, New York, 2014), p. 65

[2] The reason turtles and tortoises (and lobsters) live so long is that they don’t degrade their telomeres the way humans and most other animals do. Telomeres are the material that terminates the ends of strands of DNA, analogous to the little plastic tips on shoelaces. Material is pulled from telomeres to repair damaged DNA during replication. Once the telomeres are exhausted (after about 50 replications), the DNA can’t be as readily repaired. Thus we accumulate damage as we age.

[3] Distributed across the temporal lobe is a sensory map of the body. One section of the brain lets us feel our nose, another lets us feel our fingers, and so forth. Toes and genitals happen to be mapped to adjacent parts of the brain. Signals from these two regions occasionally encroach on one another, resulting in crossed sensations experienced by some people who have a foot fetish.

[4] Daniel Bor, The Ravenous Brain: How the New Science of Consciousness Explains Our Insatiable Search for Meaning (Basic Books, 387 Park Avenue South, New York, NY, 10016-8810, 2012), p. 6.

[5] Patrick Haggard and Benjamin Libet, Conscious Intention and Brain Activity, (cited 7/10/2013) www.l3d.cs.colorado.edu/~ctg/classes/lib/cogsci/haggard.pdf

[6] Makiko Kitamura, “Brain Shaking Technique Offers Measure of Consciousness” (Bloomberg, Posted 8/14/2013 2 PM ET) www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-08-14/brain-shaking-technique-offers-measure-of-consciousness.html

[7] Some experts say consciousness is an epiphenomenon. This means that consciousness, caused by the brain, does not in turn causally influence the brain. In other words, causation runs in only one direction. Folk wisdom holds that if I decide to perform an action, perhaps pick my nose, my conscious desire to pick my nose, through a labyrinthian chain of causal events, culminates in my arm reaching up toward my nostrils and my finger being extended. The epiphenomenalist says that, to the contrary, my decision to pick my nose and my limb motion were both dictated by underlying neural architecture. My “decision” was a side-effect of my neural firings, much as heat emanating from my skin is a side-effect of my being warm-blooded.

But if our conscious thoughts and intentions never alter our physical brain state, why are we conscious? Why aren’t we mindless zombies? After all, natural selection is frugal, breeding out talents or traits that don’t contribute to survival. If consciousness is merely incidental, why has it been bred into so many species?

These questions presume that it would be more biologically efficient to eliminate consciousness. That may not be so. In the case of skin, radiating heat can be beneficial or detrimental, depending on environmental circumstances, so it’s subject to natural selection, giving rise to different body shapes and subcutaneous fat layers. But consciousness, if it doesn’t influence brain states, can have no such implications for our fitness and must therefore lie beyond the reach of natural selection.

Answering tough questions about consciousness may be impossible until we understand the physiology of consciousness. Like the philosopher Colin McGinn, I’m pessimistic that we’ll discover a solution soon, if ever. Philosopher Jerry Fodor said, “…consciousness is a mystery. We not only don’t know what it is, and not only don’t have a theory of it, we don’t even know what it would be like to have a theory of it.” (interviewed by Sean Crawford, published by Philosophical Overdose on June 12, 2015) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hs82SsczIpE

[8] Religion is especially prominent during funerals. Most funeral ceremonies consist of ten percent praise for the deceased and ninety percent praise for the deceased’s religion. This fact assures me that my own funeral will be very brief. Whoever presides over my funeral will say, “Well, he was a decent fellow, I suppose, give or take a few incidents. He’s dead now, though. Okay, so, I guess that’s it. Drive safely.”

 

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