Religion at Easter
Uri Geller

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.


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Hi --

I've written an essay-review of IR, which is in the current issue of the European Journal of Parapsychology. I think that it's a very important work, if not perfect.

Stapp's theories: The question is not whether some counter-experts rubbish Stapp, but whether they do it convincingly. Wegener was rubbished for BOTH his unconventional methods and theory, but that didn't stop his theory of continental drift being eventually accepted.

Secondly, even if Stapp's ideas are not borne out, there is still more than enough evidence, in my view, to argue for a far richer view of the mind. One thing that recent extensive reading into mainstream models of consciousness has convinced me of is that they really *are* crap.

Dualism, etc.: one reason that dualism is rejected is that it is seen as spooky or occult. However, exactly this objection was levelled at Newton's theory of gravitation. The idea of action at a distance was imported into the mechanistic universe of Descartes and Leibnitz because they could not get a purely mechanistic model of planetary movement to work. The clockwork universe was therefore a fudge from the start!

I think that we are in a similar situation with the mind-sciences. My own view is that in the long run, we cannot get away with ignoring the observer in a system. I do not think that the mind is an extra 'substance,' but I suspect that it may have properties that might need the importation of some ideas from dualism to be better understood.

One issue is that phrases like 'mind,' 'matter,' 'substance,' 'causation' etc. are all relatively vague terms that have meant different things at different times. Even today there is no real consensus about *any* of these terms. What we have in physics, for instance, are sets of equations that work and give us useful results. But what 'is' matter? What 'is' mind? What sort of reality do these categories really have outside our minds?!

Perhaps all we are doing is trying to project vague metaphors onto a complex universe which will never quite fit into our limited categories....

I think one other serious problem, as IR states, is to disentangle the overblown rhetoric of the 'experts' from the evidence. This is too rarely done, and a careless reading of the literature gives the false impression that 'they' know more than they really do. Therefore, let's not be intimidated by the often ideologically biased 'experts,' but instead look at the evidence and think for ourselves.

Hi Matt - 'exactly this objection was levelled at Newton's theory of gravitation.' - good point.

I agree with almost all of this, but my view is that in the short term there's a distinction with final truth, which is what we are interested in, and the truth as it's currently *perceived* by most scientists.

That's why Stapp's ability to hold his own against sceptics matters. A counter-view doesn't have to be plausible, as we know from the way sceptics rubbish psychical phenomena - it just gives them the excuse they need not to bother with it.

In the end, it's when some kind of critical mass occurs, in the number of psychologists and consciousness workers who are prepared to take these ideas seriously, that progress will start to be made.

Will be interested to see your review.

Short term vs. long term: As Henry Bauer is fond of pointing out, time is often the real judge in scientific controversies. As you say, critical mass is what matters.

Sceptics: I agree, but I also think that we need to keep the skeptic thing in perspective. Most skeptics are probably best understood as 'science groupies' (Bauer's term), e.g. not scientists themselves but followers of what 'Science' says. They also behave as footsoldiers or policemen on the scientific fringe, keeping dissidents in line with (metaphorical) batons and/or tasers.

Now, one does not go to policemen if one wants legislation changed. One goes to the legislators who pass down the orders to their minions. So ultimately, as I've said before, the real debate must be as much as possible within science, rather than with 'skeptics,' who will probably miraculously lose their skepticism if the mainstream views of the mind, etc. change. Groupies do this; their skepticism is assigned by a higher authority. They're not really independent thinkers at all.

What I'm trying to say, I think, is that too much engagement with organised skepticism is a waste of time. One is better off strengthening one's theoretical arguments, getting empirical data and sidestepping the 'skeptics' where possible.

Sheldrake did this at a conference recently, where he requested that his work be reviewed by scientists who were NOT committed skeptics. e.g. genuinely impartial or truly sceptical people -- of which, BTW, I would like to think I am one.

'Skeptics' are the LAST to acknowledge change, as you pointed out in our talk.

Good point Matt.

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