The god that theologians postulate as the “first cause” is usually portrayed as a conscious being, one who possesses knowledge and wisdom. He is often represented as the Eternal Mind. This eternal mind is offered as an alternative to the unpalatable idea of eternal matter. But the presumption that an eternal mind is more sensible than eternal matter is not merely wrong. It is backwards.
After all, matter existed 13.8 billion years ago and perhaps earlier, and it still exists, at least as of this writing. Matter is unquestionably old and might, for all we know, be eternal.[i]
Now, take a moment to contemplate all the minds you have ever known. How many of them are 13.8 billion years old? If our experience in the real world is any guide, the notion of eternal mind is far less credible than eternal matter. It may even be infinitely less credible.
Among the world’s most long-lived animals, and therefore among the animals with the most long-lived minds, is the Aldabra Giant Tortoise, native to some islands north of Madagascar. There are some longer-lived animals, such as particular species of clams and sea urchins, and there are plants that live longer, but the tortoise, unlike these other life forms, possesses a conscious mind that at least vaguely resembles a human mind. The most long-lived member of this tortoise species that has ever been documented survived 255 years.[ii] To put this in perspective, we can dial down the timescales as follows. If the age of the universe were compressed to one year, the longest-lived human-like mind (that of the tortoise) would have persisted for a little over half a second. While the universe ticks along, the tortoise is long dead.
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 the scale we have been discussing, the lifespan of the typical dog or cat would flash by so quickly that you may not even notice it.
The evidence from nature is definitive: matter is vastly more persistent than mind. That should not 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 actually conduct, the following experiment. Scramble the gray meat of the human brain slightly 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 fairly accurately predict what mental functionality will be sacrificed.[iii] Next, scramble the brain thoroughly and observe that the mind is extinguished. Though the mind is totally destroyed, the matter that propagated the mind is merely rearranged and is in no degree reduced.
If our brain-scrambling thought experiment is too violent for your tastes, try contemplating the changes that occur in the brain, and consequently in our consciousness, as we progress from infant stage to maturity. Think about the brain changes and the correlated consciousness changes associated with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease or during intoxication, sleep, or electroconvulsive therapy.
As noted by cognitive neuroscientist Daniel Bor, “all brain scanning experiments to date have shown that even the subtlest of changes in consciousness are clearly marked by alterations in brain activity.”[iv] Brain scanners can detect neural activity linked to a decision even before subjects become consciously aware of their having formed the decision.[v] There is 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.[vi] Admittedly, many mysteries remain. How matter propagates mind, what mind is, and why we even have minds are puzzles that remain unsolved. 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. Yet that is not the case. 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 so many people subscribe to a mode of thinking that is so radically out of tune with the evidence. Any widespread belief this divergent from reality demands an explanation, and it probably isn’t going to be flattering. Such pervasive irrational beliefs must tap into some inherent mental limitation of our species.
And there is a pertinent mental limitation. 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?[vii] We worry about our legacy because, as we age and are forced to face our own mortality, we chronically project ourselves into the future beyond our deaths. The notion of eternal mind owes its popularity largely to this incapacity of the human imagination to accept the utter annihilation of consciousness. Our idea of a Cosmic Mind is at least in part the byproduct of an innate narcissistic quirk.
[i] Even if time is not eternal in our universe, perhaps it is in others. For this discussion, I also leave open the possibility that “eternal” might or might not include an infinite past (as explained in chapter 1 of Religion Refuted). See also: Max Tegmark, Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality (Knopf, New York, 2014), p. 65.
[ii] The reason turtles and tortoises (and lobsters) live so long is that they do not degrade their telomeres the way humans and most animals do. The 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, but once the telomeres are exhausted (on average after about 50 replications), the DNA cannot be as readily repaired. Thus we accumulate damage as we age.
[iii] For example, if you cut out a clump of neurons about the size of a fig newton from a part of the brain’s left hemisphere known as Broca’s area, the subject won’t be able to speak, though she can understand what others are saying. Excise the tiny marble-sized clump of gray matter known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus from the base of the brain and the victim’s circadian rhythm will be disrupted. Distributed across the temporal lobe is a sensory map of the body, where one section of the brain lets us feel our nose, another lets us feel our fingers, and so forth. Incidentally, the part of the brain where the toes are mapped is adjacent to the part where our genitals are mapped. Sometimes signals from these two regions encroach slightly on one another, which appears to result in crossed sensations. In some individuals, touching the toes can stimulate the genitals. The anatomy of the brain thereby sheds lights on why some people have a foot fetish. And you thought they were just kinky.
[iv] 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.
[v] 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
[vi] 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
[vii] 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.”