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3/2/10

Down The Rabbit Hole: Self-Transcendence, Brain Cancer, NDEs, & Consciousness

Raise the index finger on your right hand. There, that was easy, wasn't it? You just told the finger to lift and it did. Now I have something not so easy, a question. How did the finger get raised? You did it, you tell me. Sorry, but that's not good enough. Your finger is a physical object. In terms of cause and effect, a physical effect, your finger, can only be acted upon by a physical cause--you? Are you only physical, a lump of matter? To say your brain is physical and it lifted the finger is an acceptable answer, but what is the difference between you and your brain? Are you, your consciousness, physical?

You can say yes--that, at least, is a perfectly rational viewpoint, and one that has been developed by those who argue for emergent non-reductive physical systems. (Of course, others argue for it as reductionists.) The perspective is rational because it answers the problem of causal closure--a non-physical thing, consciousness, should not be able to act upon a physical thing, your finger. The answer from this vantage is that consciousness is a physical system and can be regarded as an emergent phenomenon, emergent from biology.

Obviously, if you accept this proposition, then you must also accept that you have no soul, no spirit, no ghost in the body machine. Your "you" along with your body is a lump of dust, so to speak.

Maybe, though, you don't accept the answer, or at least not so easily. If so, then you have company. Most people would share your viewpoint, but that is because they are what philosophers call naive realists--they really haven't thought about it.

Whether you accept or not, now that you are thinking about this, I want to take you on a trip down the rabbit hole, the same one Alice fell into. I must warn you, though, that once you start thinking about this kind of thing, Alice's pills won't help you. You will find yourself deep in the rabbit hole and will have to find your own way out if you seriously ponder the evidence of neuroscience and of those who have had feelings of transcendental unity, or experiences of Near Death. If followed relentlessly, the question of consciousness leads you to quantum physics and right back into metaphysics that a physicalist would avoid in order to have a rational, discussable model.

First this. People sometimes experience feelings of transcendence when their brains have been damaged by cancer. This can be construed as a wholly physical phenomenon. Feelings of transcending the physical world--as parts of religious experience, or other forms of spirituality--may find their explanation, then, in scientific evidence.

I quote: "The brain region in question, the posterior parietal cortex, is involved in maintaining a sense of self, for example by helping you keep track of your body parts. It has also been linked to prayer and meditation.

To further probe its role, Cosimo Urgesi, a neuroscientist at the University of Udine in Italy, turned to 88 people who were being treated for brain cancer."

Urgesi suggests that removal of neurons from the posterior parietal cortex--also responsible for personality change--may increase feelings of transcendence. According to this view. the sense of higher consciousness is only a biological phenomenon.

But could their removal simply widen the brain's bandwidth to attune with something it receives much as a TV set receives? I mean that there is another possible interpretation and it is this:
Our brains do not produce consciousness--as suggested by non-locality in quantum physics.

Rather, consciousness is in the world. Just as there are photon particles there may be an undiscovered consciousness particle. (Strange things have been indicated by quantum theory, such as the Many Worlds theory.) This view would support an analogy between the brain and a television or radio receiver. The brain is attuned to what is out there and the "external" world complements the "internal," both being necessary for consciousness. *

Although not to the above point, an interesting argument can be made of a kind of interactive cognition with the world. For that, see an article on Extended Mind, a theory posited by Andy Clark and David Chalmers. An interesting perspective is that of Stuart Hameroff. (Find him in the sidebar.)

There is also another vantage. Instead of a material explanation for transcendent experience, isn't it also possible that our brains are wired to tap into invisible realities? In his The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley wrote of the brain as a dimensional filter that reduced the world to what we can deal with. In this view, sometimes the filter does not work as well and we get glimpses of a greater way of being.

Near Death Experiences (NDE) with Out of Body Experiences (OBE) occur when a patient is flat-lined or brain-dead on brain monitors. Occasional and accurate instances of remote viewing are reported. If consciousness arises from neurons and they are not firing, how can a patient recover to describe accurately what instrument the surgeon was holding, what he said, and what the patient saw on another floor of the hospital, a floor which he or she had never seen before? In a study of over 600 NDEs, the majority regarded theirs as a life-changing experience. They lost their fear of death and became more compassionate toward others.

As Hamlet said, There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
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* Nothing is lost from the rigor of scientific inquiry by accepting this point of view. (Its findings have proven and objective predictive value; on the other hand, self-transcendence experiences are unique and subjective. Moreover, no objective replication and verification is possible for NDE patients, although they report astounding observations of the operating room and hospital while they were brain-dead.)

There are those, however, who are less than objective when they insist on as superstition that which holds views of other-dimensional reality. Of course, I include Richard Dawkins among them, but must include neuro-scientists who share his view. I am reminded of the so-called Expert Bias: The more expert one becomes in a field, the greater the resistance to assimilating information that can undermine her expertise.

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