Previous month:
March 2009
Next month:
May 2009

The Ghost in the Machine - More From 'Irreducible Mind'

I talked about Irreducible Mind here last year, but didn't completely finish reading it before I had to give it back to the library (well, it is 650 pages long). But the SPR have given it to me to review for their Journal, and I am now the proud owner of my very own copy. Yay.

As a result, I'm getting a better grip on the detail of its argument, that physicalist approaches to the mind-brain problem are seriously untenable. Or to put it another way, that it's time to give dualism another look. Those of us who follow psychical research take that for granted, but it's a lot to swallow for the academic psychologists who the book is aimed at. The fact is, mind-body dualism as a philosophical concept is deeply unfashionable; the term 'Cartesian dualism' - that the body is a sort of machine animated by the soul - is a cue for right-thinking scientists to cough and laugh up their sleeves. It's intellectually unrespectable. Not at all the thing. What lingers in the scientific mind is the verdict of the behaviourist Gilbert Ryle, that there is no ghost in the machine.

That was always a big problem for parapsychology. Psychical phenomena seem to demand a dualist approach to mind and brain, but there were no half-way convincing models that it could point to.  When I first got interested in it in the late 1980s the only source that I saw referenced was The Self and Its Brain by Karl Popper and John Eccles, and I got the sense even then that their arguments weren't really seen as overwhelming. (Irreducible Mind spells this out: the phenomena they referred to don't rule out physicalist explanations and they were attacking cognitive approaches that were already obsolete - it didn't help that Eccles's support for dualism was transparently motivated by his Catholic beliefs.)

John Beloff, a philosopher who helped establish the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at the University of Edinburgh argued for radical dualism - as opposed to the non-radical kind argued by John Searle, which sees consciousness as a distinct entity in its own right, but one still wholly dependent on brain processes -  but as far as I'm aware did not attempt to provide any kind of neurophysiological model.

Then in 1990 came the Emperor's New Mind by Roger Penrose, who argued from a mathematician's point of view that the brain could not be the sole origin of mentation, at least as currently conceived by computational theories. Penrose pointed out that computers work by means of algorithms and there are lots of things in maths that can't be calculated that way - we can discover them, and know them to be true, but only by using some non-algorithmic methods of calculation. His idea was that the brain must interact with something external, probably through a process of quantum gravity.

This too was a bit abstract, but Penrose subsequently teamed up with the quantum physicist Stuart Hameroff, who suggested in Shadows of the Mind that the kind of quantum processes Penrose had in mind could be performed by the 'micro-tubules' in the brain cells (there's a good summary of their argument here).

But neither Eccles-Popper nor Penrose-Hameroff related - as far as I'm aware - to abnormal mental phenomena, like stigmata, the placebo effect or savant syndrome, still less to the data of parapsychology such as remote viewing, ganzfeld, apparitional hallucinations, out-of-body experiences, etc -  which are surely the overwhelming empirical reason for taking dualism seriously. In any case, a rival quantum theorist named Max Tegmark popped up and claimed that Hameroff's claim didn't stand up, and that quantum processes could therefore not be implication in consciousness, which made it redundant as far as current neuroscience is concerned.

Personally, I'd always felt drawn to the analogy suggested by Aldous Huxley in the Doors of Perception, echoing the philosophers C.D. Broad and Henri Bergson, of the brain as a 'reducing valve' that filters undifferentiated Consciousness - or Mind at Large, as he called it - and narrows our focus on the business of physical life.

Huxley's insight came from his mescaline trips, which opened up huge, beautiful and potentially terrifying new reality. Much of the mystical content of psychedelic experience overlaps heavily with Eastern mystical philosophy, which itself - according to frequent mention in the Hindu Vedas, the earliest extant religious texts - emerges from the ingestion of soma, apparently some kind of psychedelic plant or fungus.  Mystical experiences can be triggered by stress or the contemplation of great beauty (music, sunsets, nature, etc), while religious experience is sought through fasting, pain, drumming, dancing, etc). At the other end of the spectrum, of course, are the religious delusions of schizophrenics.

Since modern neuroscience is not much interested in any of this, I'm not sure if anyone has seriously tried to explain these images, ideas, hallucinations and visions in terms of the same kind of computational processes that are supposed to account for ordinary day-to-day mentation. I'd love to see someone at least try, but I'm not holding my breath.  A much neater and more logical explanation, surely - if we don't have secularist or philosophical objections - is to view abnormal and psychical mental phenomena as glimpses of something that the brain normally screens out, as its functioning is momentarily compromised. 

Back to Irreducible Mind. The book has several authors, but it seems to be principally Edward F Kelly who is driving the dualism argument forward (he calls it 'non-Cartesian Dualist Interactionist, to distinguish it from the rather crude dualism of Descartes).   Kelly picks up on terms and analogies used by William James, who used the term 'permissive', as illustrated by the trigger of a crossbow that has a releasing function, or 'transmission', as light being refracted through a prism or the air going through an organ pipe. He also refers to Frederic Myers, whose work and thought is the central focus of the whole book. Myers posited a sort of a psychological 'membrane' that controls the passage of psychological elements and processes between the supraliminal and subliminal regions of consciousness. He saw the boundaries as being fluid, or 'permeable', with a constant exchange of material between regions.

Having established that the transmission/filter theory has some kind of pedigree, Kelly shows how it could be made to work, and he too opts for a quantum approach. His preference is for the work of Henry Stapp, a quantum theorist who, he approvingly states, is conservative, orthodox and serious about establishing connections with mainline psychology and neuroscience; he has also tried to improve technically on other theories like those of Eccles and Hameroff. Stapp's big idea is based around the brain process of exocytosis, in which, (pay attention now),

neurotransmitter molecules are released into the synaptic cleft. The release is triggered by arrival of calcium ions at critical sites in the transmitter storage areas, the vesicles. But as these small ions pass through their membrane channels (diameter circa 1 nanometer) their positions becomes nearly fixed; hence, by Heisenberg's uncertainty relation, what happens next must be represented as a cloud of possible trajectories in the vicinity of the vesicle. This injection of a true quantum uncertainty - that is, an uncertainty involving more than incomplete knowledge of classically conceived details - goes on constantly at every one of the trillions of active synapses in the waking human brain, and this by itself is sufficient to establish that the brain is subject to quantum principles.  This necessary entry of quantum uncertainties is also consistent with the findings of dynamic system theorists, who emphasize that in the waking state the brain operates continually on the edge of instability, with small changes in input potentially leading to large changes in overall behaviour. (p. 612).

The usual objection to quantum processes occurring in the brain is that brain processes are far too slow, and that they operate at macro level of bundles of cells, and at body temperature. However Stapp rejects this complaint. He says his proposal is 'entirely consistent with the observed spatial and temporal scales of brain activity in relation to experience and behaviour', and since these are 'saturated with quantum effects' the burden of proof falls on those who deny, not those who affirm the relevance of quantum theory to brain science (Stapp's words, my italics).

Kelly goes on:

The net effect of these quantum-theoretic developments... is to bring consciousness back into both physical science and brain theory at the foundational level. As Stapp... remarks, his model "makes consciousness causally effective, yet it is compatible with all known laws of physics, including the law of conservation of energy." This totally deflates the main arguments... that have routinely been advanced against interactive dualism. Indeed, far from ruling out dualism, as alleged by Dennett and numerous others: "Contemporary physical theory allows, and in its orthodox von Neumann form entails, an interactive dualism."

This is fighting talk. Kelly concedes that a great deal remains to flesh the theory out in psychological and neuroscientific detail. He thinks that the kind of mental phenomena that Stapp uses, as was also the case with Eccles, can be explained in conventional physicalist terms, which rather weakens the model's appeal to psychologists and neuroscientists. But that changes completely once one takes the 'rogue' phenomena described in Irreducible Mind.

Yes indeed. It will be interesting to see how well this model stands up, and whether it fares any better than Penrose-Hameroff's with its microtubules. A lot of the problem with quantum theory is that it's so beyond most of us - and that includes mainstream psychologists - that we are all in the hands of the experts. And it only needs one or two experts in the field to come along and rubbish Stapp, and that's the end of it. The sceptics can simply say that it's been debunked.

What we're up against, not just neuroscience but science generally, is that dualism introduces the idea of some external stuff - mind, soul, whatever - which, we suppose, must have some physical substrate but which we cannot presently trace. It's a serious difficulty too for people who worry about 'mysterian' non-solutions, and can't rid themselves of the feeling that people who support them do so for purely religious reasons, or because they don't like reductionist science. 

But I do feel that this is a big advance in the right direction. Irreducible Mind really is packed with empirical data that enforces the consideration of a dualist model - although interestingly the focus is more on the abnormal rather than the flat-out paranormal - and crucially, it takes the reader right to the end of the process. If it can be shown how dualism as a process might work, that might make it a bit easier for some of the sceptically minded to accept the reality of psi phenomena.

Religion at Easter

Recently I've found myself thinking as much about religion as about psi. I'm aware that the two aren't necessarily related, and that some people take survival of consciousness seriously without believing in God. That said, the logic is that paranormal and religious experience are closely linked - most obviously in mystical and near-death experiences. And considering how much documented data there is about these and other such things it interests me that the spiritualism/New Age take on religion it informs is so little known or discussed.

I notice that especially now at Easter, a time there's so much religious commentary about. These days, post Dawkins, a lot of it comes from atheists.  First up is Roland White, who writes jokey columns in the Sunday Times. Cornered by his daughter with the God question he panicked - as a disbeliever, what on earth was he to say? His problem, he explained, is that nobody could ever give him a convincing argument for the existence of God?

The best we're usually offered is that there is some powerful force that guides us, a force beyond human comprehension. We cannot discover it, we must simply have faith. Add the words "the truth is out there" and you have the theology of The X Files. I'm sorry to say this at Easter, but the older I get, the more I think Richard Dawkins might be on to something. How depressing is that?

White cited a recent discussion between the Archbishop of Canterbury and John Humphrys, the acerbic broadcaster who it seems lost the last vestige of religious belief after the mass murders of children in the Russian town of Beslan. The archbishop, trying to win him back, argued as follows:  'God is the agency that's at work in everything and has set up the world in such a way that not only is evil possible, but moments are also possible where something breaks through of healing, or miracle. Where and when it breaks through might be guided by the power of prayer.' White comments: 'I don't think it persuaded Humphrys, and it certainly didn't convince me.'

White was quite funny about Vincent Nichols, the new Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, who last week accused the football authorities of showing disdain for Christians by holding Premier League matches on Easter Sunday. Why should the Godless hordes sit around twiddling their thumbs during a religious festival that means nothing to them? Would it be OK if they kicked a ball around in the park with sweaters for goalposts? What about a slightly more formal amateur level match?  A fourth division event? How far up the footballing hierarchy before the archbishop detects disdain?

This is light, knockabout stuff. But the shadow of Richard Dawkins looms large. Over to the Guardian, where Madeleine Bunting discerns a growing distaste among thinking folk for 'the polemics of the New Atheist debate and its foghorn volume'.

Just this week, [author] AN Wilson announces in a thoughtful cover article for the New Statesman that he has apostated, abandoning his fellow atheists. Or take another example: in the Third Way, a Christian magazine, the poet Andrew Motion reflects wistfully, "I don't believe in God - though I wish I did, and I can't stop thinking about it so who knows what might happen one day?" Wilson and Motion talk of uncertainty, doubt and faith in terms that are probably far more familiar to the vast majority of the British - many of whom still describe themselves as believing in God, whatever they mean by that - than the certitudes used by Dawkins. New Atheism may come to be regarded as winning a battle but losing the war.

Bunting speaks of atheists' 'egotism and arrogance'. She sees the New Atheists mirroring a particular strain of fundamentalist Christianity with no knowledge of the vast variety of other forms of religious faith, and sharing 'the inner glow of complete certainty'. She cites the historian of religion Karen Armstrong, who argues that it's a mistake to see religion as a matter of belief in a set of propositions, when it's more about doing, acting with compassion.

She also approves of the philosopher and writer Alain de Botton, who calls himself an atheist but runs a quasi-religion School of Life, complete with Sunday sermons and 'pilgrimages' to fill the widespread longing for wisdom and insight. "Even if you're an atheist, there are a huge number of insights in religion," he says. "We're in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater."

That brought a come-back, also in the Guardian, from non-believing philosopher Julian Baggini, who pointed out that atheists are increasingly seen as shrill, bishop-bashing fanatics who are tone deaf to the spiritual. There's no point them complaining about this caricature, he added; if they publish books with titles like The God Delusion and God is Not Great then obviously they are going to be seen as anti-religious zealots.

Baggini's main point is that this extremism leaves the field free for people like Bunting who insist that religion is not to be taken literally, and that its creeds are not factual descriptions of the real world. This gets him going:

The idea that it is a modern distortion to think of religious beliefs as being factually true is manifest nonsense. If people thought their tenets of faith were metaphors, why did they torture or kill people who disagreed with them. Did doctrinal differences about Christ's divinity have no role in Rome's split from the Orthodox church? If literal truth is not what matters, why is it so hard to find a practising Muslim who's prepared to say that the Angle Gabriel didn't really dictate the Qur'an to the prophet?

(If it had come a few days earlier, the news that Mel Gibson and his wife are splitting up would have reminded the atheists of a perfect example of this kind of mind-boggling literalism. Gibson, a sort of ultra-traditionalist Catholic as I recall, was reported as saying that while he would make eternal salvation, his wife would not because she was a Protestant,  even though he considered her to be 'saintly' and it was rather unfair.)

Like many atheists, Baggini seems chiefly offended by the traditionalist extremists, but also derides the 'fluffy brigade', with their 'doctrine-lite' faith, whose idea of religion corresponds not to the reality, as expressed by traditionalist zealots, but to what they would like it to be. He doesn't care if people want to retain a sense of being religious, he says, as long as what they believe stands up to intellectual scrutiny.

As I say, in all this babble of voices there's very almost no reference to a body of research which in many ways offers new insights and possibilities, and offers tentative answers to the questions that stymie so many people.  Atheists always say: where's the evidence? There is no evidence. Go away.  Well, for me there is evidence: the fact that humans have psychic and religious experiences. Atheists of course are sceptics and think this experience is based on fraud, misperception, hallucination and wishful thinking. But most of them know little or nothing about it, and are just following the intellectual consensus, fed in the media by folk like Randi, Wiseman and Blackmore.

Some people can filter it out, but the fact is, these experiences and perceptions of many different kinds - apparitions and poltergeists, automatic writing, ouija board and other mediumistic communication, ESP, out-of-body and near-death experiences, and children's memories of past lives, and others - in their various ways all provide a detailed, multi-faceted picture of survival of death. Moreover, an abundance of channelled communications provide a very detailed picture of what kind of experiences may await us in the post-mortem state. The very least one can say is that humans are in some way subjecting themselves to an extraordinarily detailed and convincing illusion that they are psychic and immortal beings. If the power of the illusion isn't generally recognised, that's surely because there's a sort of taboo on taking psychical research seriously, so relatively few people know about it.

The point is, none of this would have to be proven beyond doubt - and of course it isn't - to be a part of the debate. Take the Beslan children that so upset Humphrys, the implausibly cruel God argument. The abundant indications that some children, in some circumstances, have memories of having lived before, offers some support - and some people would say, quite powerful support - of the Hindu and Buddhist claim that humans live more than once, and quite possibly many many times, a claim backed up by channelled communications and also in the data about the visions brought on by LSD and other hallucinogens. This offers a quite different idea of religion, of the world as essentially a kind of classroom, a learning experience, in which cruelty and suffering are a means, among many,  by which we mature into fully spiritual beings. Of course, this raises other objections, like why should that be necessary, and might be seen as equally repugnant as a capricious God. But it's much more logical, and it's backed by evidence - of a kind. 

Nor is it just about psychism and the paranormal. I've just been having another go at Irreducible Mind, and I'm astonished by the wealth of examples in it - relatively few of them from psychical research - that imply that the conventional view of consciousness, as a product solely of brain processes, is untenable and that the brain is much better conceived in terms of a device that transmits or filters some external factor. That factor doesn't have to be a soul, as traditionally conceived, but it seriously weakens one of the pillars of atheism, that the mind dies with the brain.

So there's plenty of food for thought here, and it would take the debate to a different level. Where I sort of sympathise with Baggini is his puzzlement as to what the basis of the 'fluffy doctrine-lite' religion actually consists of. What do people like Bunting actually believe? Is it a sort of tailored down version of Christianity, a nice friendly religion based on compassion and tolerance and quietly ignoring all the difficult and implausible bits. In that case how do they justify it? Where does it come from? Also, why don't they come out and condemn the excesses, cruelties and stupidities of the traditionalist zealots, instead of implying that that's not important or that it's a misrepresentation of religion by atheists?

Actually, I think Bunting is tapping into a kind of sympathetic agnosticism which I guess probably is pretty widespread in Britain and Europe and other parts of the developed world (I don't know about the US, which seems to be a somewhat different case). I've noticed - Bel Mooney's book Devout Sceptics based on a radio series, is a good example - that when famous folk are asked for their religious views they fiddle about on the margins of belief, rather like Andrew Motion, sometimes wanting to believe, but not really finding the justification for it.

I might well feel like this too if I hadn't happened to be curious about near-death experiences and the like, and spent some time getting to grips with it. I'm absolutely with the atheists on this one: there's no point in believing something without evidence. It's academic now, but I doubt whether the mere feeling that 'there is some powerful force that guides us, a force beyond human comprehension' would ever have made me religious, even vaguely and fluffily. I just wish I could collar all these people and say, stop wasting your time on anxious, puzzled speculation, and get reading. Then we can start to have a real conversation.