THE SYNTHESIS PERSPECTIVE: TWO GIVE RISE TO ONE

It does not seem that the above possibilities provide an adequate explanation for the relationship between the brain and the mind. Although many of the theories have some elements that ring true, none of them are fully satisfactory. To summarise the main problems, materialism does not adequately explain experience and agency, while dualism cannot explain the interaction between mind and matter. A fresh look at the issue is required. As philosopher McGinn puts it, ‘consciousness is an anomaly in our present world-view and, like all anomalies, it calls for some more or less drastic rectification in that relative to which it is anomalous.' (1995, p.226)

 

The model described below is based on the following postulates:

  • The mind heavily depends on the nervous system (including the brain) and its development. This is not controversial, so it does not need further discussion.
  • As the above criticism of the materialist perspective shows, the mind, however, cannot be identified with the brain. Even Aristotle argued that the mind must be immaterial on the bases that a material organ could not have the range and flexibility that are required for human thought. Similarly, in modern times, mathematician Gödel, for example, believed that his famous theorem showed that there are demonstrably rational forms of mathematical thought that humans are capable of, which could not be exhibited by a mechanical or formal system of the sort that mind would have to be if only physical. Brentano's notion of the irreducible flexibility of intellect, points in the same direction.
  • Rather than being a discrete entity (as a brain is), the mind is considered a convenient name for the sum of mental events belonging to one person. These mental events must be interactive processes, otherwise the mind would be an epiphenomenon. And, if this interaction is only between the environment and the body/brain (behaviourism), the mind would be again just a passive observer in the best case. The mind cannot be reduced to the interaction between the various parts of the brain either, because it has certain features that the brain in all its complexity does not have[1]. A direct interaction between the brain and the mind (dualism) is also implausible, because it would make the mind too independent from the brain. To make a parallel, if the brain is a car, a road the environment, the journey itself can be called the mind. The journey does not interact with the car - it is the result of an interaction between the car and the road, and also between the car and the driver.

To follow up the above analogy, in order to account for qualia and agency, an equivalent of the driver is indeed necessary. Something that is not an integral part of the car, but interacts with the car and by doing so, affects the journey. Its existence is not only supported by common sense and transpersonal experiences, but also (contrary to popular belief), by findings from contemporary experimental research. For example, the already mentioned temporal discrepancy between neural events and conscious experiences indicates that something else is involved:

The cortical activities evoked by some sharp stimulus to the hand in conscious human subjects took as long as half a second to build up to the level for giving consciousness; yet the subject antedated it in his experience to a time which was the time of arrival of the message from the periphery onto the cerebral cortex, which may be almost half a second earlier. This is an extraordinary happening, and there is no way in which this can be explained by the operations of the neural machinery. (Popper and Eccles, 1977, p.476)

Considering all the above, it is not surprising that such an entity is not and cannot be found in the brain (the point of agreement between materialists and dualists). In fact, non-physical properties of consciousness (e.g. non-spatiality) strongly suggests that a non-material component is involved, which may even, as McGinn puts forward,  pre-date the matter:

...the origin of consciousness somehow draws upon those properties of the universe that antedate and explain the occurrence of the big bang. If we need a pre-spatial level of reality to account for the big bang, then it may be this very level that is exploited in the generation of consciousness. That is, assuming that remnants of the pre-big bang universe have persisted, it may be that these features of the universe are somehow involved in engineering the non-spatial phenomenon of consciousness. (1995,  p.224)

Of course, there cannot be material evidence for this non-material aspect, its existence can only be extrapolated through its consequences (as with gravitation and the other forces). However, including it can provide a more complete and coherent interpretation than reductive approaches. The Synthesis model is, therefore, tripartite: the mental (or the mind) is considered the result of an interaction between the two qualitatively different aspects of a living being: one material and one non-material, but it cannot be identified with either of them[2]. This model differs from materialism because it acknowledges the existence of a non-material element and differs from dualism because it does not equate the mind with this element. In other words, the view is that materialists are mistaken to identify the mind with the body, and dualists are mistaken to identify the mind with the soul.

The medium through which this interaction can occur needs to be discussed. As already mentioned, Descartes failed to provide a plausible explanation in this respect, which is not surprising considering that at that time certain phenomena such as waves and fields were unknown. A better grounded account is possible if these concepts are utilised.

The starting premise is that the medium of interaction must be something that has a dual nature. The phenomenon that fits this requirement is the wave. Waves sometimes behave like particles, but not always (for example, they can propagate through a vacuum - no particles are involved). That waves transcend matter is transparent even in its mathematical expression.  √-1 that is necessary to describe a wave does not correspond to anything material. Heisenberg, one of the founders of quantum physics, wrote that if particles are not seen as material bodies, then they show ‘a distinct formal similarity to the  √-1 in mathematics' (1952, p.62). Much earlier, philosopher Leibniz would say that ‘the imaginary number is a fine and wonderful recourse to define spirit, almost an amphibian between being and non-being'. Waves too can be seen as an amphibian between two realities[3]. The waves travelling at the speed of light can be considered the top limit of the material world and the bottom limit of the non-material one. They connect these two worlds and at the same time separate, set the boundaries, to them. The renowned psychologist, Carl Gustav Jung writes:

the psyche... robs bodies of their reality when the psychic intensity transcends the speed of light. Our brain might be the place of transformation, where the relatively infinite tensions or intensities of the psyche are tuned down to perceptible frequencies and extensions. But in itself the psyche would have no dimension in space and time at all. (in Laszlo, 1993, p.191)

The importance of the wave patterns in brain activity is well recognised:

Just how the neurotransmitters affect the mind itself is un­known. But everything indicates that they affect the rhythms of the brain and the rest of the body. Molecules of dopamine and other neurotransmitters in the brain do only one thing: they excite or inhibit nerve cells, and thus they control the ‘firing pattern' of nervous tissue. There are thousands of different patterns of such firings within the brain and elsewhere. Every­where there are patterns and rhythms of activity... More obviously, the firing patterns within the brain can be driven by sensations coming from the ‘outside'. Flashes of light or pulses of sound, touch, odours, or taste are well known for their ability to capture and ‘drive', or ‘entrain', rhythmic neural activity. For instance, repetitive drumming, known as ‘trance drumming' - performed in great variety in every corner of the world - is ritually used to implant new rhythms, by subduing and ‘taking over' personal rhythms. It does not take long in listening to classical Indian music to realise that such music - through intricate and interlocking beats, tones, and rhythms - actually operates on our neural codes and thereby works on our emotions. Literally hundreds of different vocal practices of chanting, singing, and recitation have been discovered to affect different regions of the body and to musically excite or calm the mind through harmonic manipulations and resonances. (Podvoll, 1990, p.184)

Any image, thought, or word can be expressed as a wave function. The Gabor-transforms that limit the infinite Fourier-transforms (the ways of converting complex patterns into component waves) enable a precise match between any brain activity or cerebral network and the corresponding waveform. Waves, therefore, could indeed be the medium through which the brain interacts with a non-material aspect (and vice versa). Cortical regions responsible for visual perception, for example, can decode incoming light signals into waveforms of specific frequency and amplitude. So, rather than assuming that the brain constructs information from the input of a sensory nerve it is more accurate to suppose that the centres of the nervous system resonate to this input (see Gibson, 1980). Of course, only waves of a particular frequency serve as the medium of communication between the two aspects. Relatively recent research indicates that the synchronisation of neuronal activity at about 40Hz can be linked to consciousness (Crick and Koch, 1990; Llinas and Ribary, 1993).

Phenomena that can be associated with the non-material part are obviously those that cannot be explained in terms of brain processes (those that do not have neuro-correlates). There are three candidates: the self, awareness and intent (they cannot be illusions because they are the essence of our phenomenological experiences). Not surprisingly, considering the overall purpose, they coincide with the properties of the One. The following model is a simplified representation of this interaction:

What these properties are and their characteristics will be discussed later, for the time being only the support for their existence and non-material nature will be presented.

  • [1]. Some of them have already been mentioned and will be further discussed below.
  • [2]. It is worth noting that these three constitutes have been recognised in a number of spiritual traditions. For example, this was a dominant view in Christianity (using the term spirit instead of mind) until the year 869, when the Church reduced them to body and soul. Vedanta also recognises three ‘bodies'.
  • [3]. It is tempting to think that imaginary numbers and the wave function are just a mathematical convenience, but this is not he case. As Nunn puts it, ‘the wave function is nearly as real as anything else that passes for reality. And the implications of complex numbers have to be taken seriously' (1996, p.46).