The Synthesis: Two Give Rise to One

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Written by Dr. Nash Popovic

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 an attempt to do just that and 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 elaboration.
  • As the above criticism of the materialist perspective shows, the mind cannot be identified with the brain. Even Aristotle argued that the mind must be immaterial on the basis that a material organ could not have the range and flexibility required for human thought. Similarly, in modern times, mathematician Gödel, for example, believed that his famous theorem showed that humans are capable of demonstrably rational forms of mathematical thought 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 merely an epiphenomenon. And, if this interaction is only between the environment and the body/brain (as behaviourism suggests), 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 and 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 this 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). Non-physical properties of consciousness (e.g. non-spatiality) suggests further 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 gravitational force, for example). However, including it can provide a more complete and coherent interpretation than reductive approaches. This 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 proposed here is that materialists are mistaken to identify the mind with the body, and dualists are mistaken to identify the mind with the soul.

[1] Some of them have already been mentioned and will be further discussed below.
[2] These three constituents have been also 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. The Vedanta school of Hindu philosophy also recognises three ‘bodies’.

The medium of the connection

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. Utilising these concepts makes a better grounded account possible. We start from the premise 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, when they 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, the philosopher Leibniz would say that ‘the imaginary number (such as √-1) 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)

We should highlight that 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 aspect are obviously those that cannot be fully explained in terms of brain processes. There are three such candidates: the self, awareness and intent (these cannot be illusions because they are the essence of our phenomenological experiences). Not surprisingly, considering the overall purpose of life, they coincide with the properties of the One. The following model is a very simple representation of this interaction:

The properties of one

The nature of these properties and their characteristics will be discussed later. For the time being, we will only present the support for their existence and non-material nature.

[3] It is tempting to think that imaginary numbers and the wave function are just a mathematical convenience,  but this is not the 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).


There are several reasons why awareness is unlikely to be the result of brain activity. We will start from the fact that the seat of awareness is nowhere to be found. You can be aware of different external and internal phenomena, but awareness is the property of none of them. For example, you can become aware of a chair, but the chair does not possess awareness. By the same token, you can become aware of your body, thoughts or emotions, but your emotions, for instance, are neither aware of themselves nor of any other part of you. So, if awareness cannot be identified with any mental process, it either resides in a discrete part of the brain or it is not in the brain at all. A part of the brain responsible for awareness (not sensations that provide the materials of awareness) has not been located. Considering the prominence of awareness, we can argue that if it has not yet been located, then it is unlikely ever to be located. True, waves of a certain frequency are present when we are aware, but they cannot be the source of awareness, otherwise a machine producing these waves should be aware too.

The above poses a problem for materialists, so awareness is sometimes considered an emerging property of brain activity that is evenly distributed, and therefore cannot be distinguished from the ‘noise’ (unspecified neuronal activity). However, if this is the case, awareness should be far less discriminatory. Yet, most of the processes in the brain do not trigger awareness, and there are no processes that we necessarily have to be aware of (including sensory, motor, cognitive and affective ones). You can have a sensation, but not be aware of it until you pay attention. For example, if you focus on your sitting in a chair, you will suddenly become aware of the sensations associated with sitting. Your nervous system has been processing these sensations the entire time, but you have not been aware of them until you have turned your attention to the sitting. This indicates that awareness does not automatically emerge from neuronal activity. On the basis of his own experiments, Libet concludes that awareness cannot be simply the result of brain complexity (as emergentists would like to believe):

Many, if not most, mental functions or events proceed without any reportable awareness… even complex functions, as in problem solving or intuitive and creative thinking. On the other hand, the simplest kind of mental functions can be accompanied by awareness/subjective experience, like awareness of a tap on the skin… It is not, then, simply the complexity or creativeness of a mental function that imparts to it the quality of subjective awareness of what is going on. The cerebral code for the distinction between the appearance or absence of awareness in any mental operation would seem to require a mediating neuronal mechanism uniquely related to awareness per se rather than to complexity, etc. (in Nunn, 1996, p.40)

The last sentence seems to suggest that a specific brain mechanism should be associated with awareness, but Libet was not able to identify any (besides duration of the stimuli). In fact, even duration and intensity do not always  correspond to awareness. It is remarkable that one can become aware of the sensations transmitted through the nervous system or not, without any qualitative or quantitative changes in the activity of the nervous system (the above mentioned sensations associated with sitting in a chair are an example). Further, experiments show that the threshold of awareness is lower after one has become aware of a sensation. If awareness and the brain process are identical, the relation between the intensity (or duration) of the stimuli and experience of a sensation should be fixed, but this does not seem to be the case as the threshold of awareness can vary.

Other empirical data and experiments support further the view that awareness is not a brain function. Electrical stimulation of the cortex is a case in point. It is well known that stimulating some parts of the brain by an electric current (usually during a brain surgery) can generate memory flashbacks so realistic that they are perceived as real experiences. This is sometimes taken as evidence in support of the materialist view. However, the very neurosurgeon who conducted these electrical stimulations, Wilder Penfield, drew a very different conclusion. He noticed that patients were actually aware of both, the triggered memories as well as being on an operating table – at the same time. He reasons:

The fact that there should be no confusion in the conscious state suggests that although the content of consciousness depends in large measure on neural activity, awareness itself does not… If the brain mechanism is busy creating the mind by its own action, one might expect mental confusion when the neuronal record is activated by an electrode. (1975, p.55)

Finally, transpersonal experiences (e.g. dislocated or expanded awareness that sometimes occur in meditation) and some experiments in parapsychology that have produced small but statistically significant positive results under unusually stringent conditions[4], also point in the same direction – namely that awareness cannot be reduced to brain processes.

In conclusion, we will quote Penfield (ibid., p.80) again:

After years of striving to explain the mind on the basis of brain-action alone, I have come to the conclusion that it is simpler (and far easier to be logical) if one adopts the hypothesis that our being does consist of two fundamental elements.

If one of these two fundamental elements is not in the brain/body system, it must be non-material. There is good ground to believe that the same apply to intent too, to which we will turn next.

[4] See, for example, Bem and Honorton (1994) and Schlitz and May (1998).


Despite the opposition of materialistically orientated scientists[5], common experience provides overwhelming support for the existence of intentional, self-initiated activity. Libet, who achieved fame for his experimental work on volitional acts, writes:

…that mental processes can influence or control neuronal ones, has been generally unacceptable to many scientists on (often unexpressed) philosophical grounds. Yet, our own feelings of conscious control of at least some of our behavioural actions and mental operations would seem to provide prima facie evidence for such a reverse interaction, unless one assumes that these feelings are illusory.  (1994, p.120)

Empirical findings are actually congruent with common sense. Libet’s experiments showing that an action can start before the conscious decision to act may be an interesting case. The conclusion is that a decision does not always initiate action, so it is sometimes inferred that action itself triggers neural activity, reducing consciousness to its interpretative or inhibitive role at most. Yet, it is established that a brain module can be activated without corresponding action, which goes against this possibility:

…neural activity (as indicated by measurements of regional blood flow or metabolic rate) has been shown to increase selectively in the supplementary motor area (SMA) when the subject is asked to imagine moving his fingers without actually moving them. (ibid., p.124)

Thus, a more plausible explanation is that a pre-verbal and even pre-thought energy impulse – an intent – initiates an action that is, in turn, faster than formulating the impulse (which is a cognitive process known as decision).

The reason why materialists try to deny intent is not only their affinity for physical determinism but also the fact that the seat of intent cannot be found in the brain. There are modules of the brain that are associated with vision, movement or language, however, these modules are not responsible for intending to move, speak or perceive. Of course, there are some other factors that can activate these brain regions, but it is universal experience that people often move, speak or even perceive because they intend to do so. Yet, no source of intent itself has been located in the cortex. One part of the brain can affect another (e.g. chemicals produced in the amygdala can affect electrical activity in the frontal lobe). However, these are invariably non-intentional effects – any part of the body, including the brain, if left to itself, should operate on the basis of physiochemical laws – it does not have intent.

Nor can the source of intent be identified with the whole. This would contradict the principle of causal grounding stating that ‘the causal efficacy of any complex… is entirely dependent upon the causal efficacy of the basic constituents of its physical instantiation’ (see Seager, 1995, p.276). To use an example, one part of a car or computer can affect another, but a car or computer as a whole does not affect its constituent parts. Analogously, mental causation cannot be explained by overall activity of the brain. Therefore, if the notion of intent (leading to a self-generated action) is accepted, it makes sense to conclude that it is a property of a non-material component of the human being.

The objection is sometimes raised that non-material intent would break the law of conservation of energy or the first law of thermodynamics (stating that the total energy in a closed system remains constant). However, there are several ways to account for this. The physical world generally and the brain specifically are better perceived as open systems. Any energy gain or loss in one place could easily be stabilised by gains or losses elsewhere, and even if any deviation from the first law existed, it could never be ascertained by measurements. This is especially the case considering that the mass of the deflected electrical current is almost equal to zero so that there is no problem in compensating for a switch which changes the direction of the current in the brain. Furthermore, as Schrödinger states, energy is equal hv, where h is a constant, and v is frequency. So, energy is proportional to the frequency, and frequencies have statistical averages. This is very much relevant for neuronal activity, because the statistical element in the frequencies of the waves would allow for intent without breaking the first law. And if this is not enough, there is solid ground for a notion that in this case, the law of preservation of energy may not play a role in the first place. Scott writes:

The Hodgkin-Huxley equations, which describe the dynamics of the nerve impulse on an axonal tree, are not, after all, constrained by the conservation of energy. Instead this is a system of nonlinear diffusion equations which – like a lighted candle – balances the rate of electrostatic energy release from the membrane to the power that is consumed by circulating ionic currents. Since the electrodynamics of an individual neuron is not constrained by the First Law of thermodynamics, there is little reason to expect this law to constrain a system at a higher level of organization. (1994, p.156)

In conclusion, there is no reason to reject the possibility that intent (whose nature will be discussed in more detail shortly) is non-material. In fact, this claim, however strange it may sound to those who are used to operating within a materialist paradigm, is arguably more consistent with experience and reasoning than other claims. It remains to consider whether the self, that we argue to be the source of awareness and intent, makes sense or not.

[5] Willis Harman, who was a distinguished scientist himself, points out that ‘”downward causation”, causation-from-consciousness, is for the most part considered unacceptable as a scientific concept in spite of the fact that it is one of the most impressive facts in our practical experience’ (1994, p. 141).

The self

All the materialists (e.g. Crick, Dennett and others) argue correctly that there is no audience, no homunculus (an ‘observer’) within the brain. As a result, in order to remain faithful to their ideology, they must reject the existence of the one who is aware, who is experiencing, despite the fact that this contradicts common sense. Note that there is neither empirical nor rational support for such an assertion – it is purely ideological. In fact, there is much support from various perspectives that the self as the source of our unique first-person perspective does exist (although not necessarily within the brain or body). For this reason, examining whether the notion of the self can be justified will be the priority here. There is already a consensus that no single cell or group of cells is likely to be the site of conscious experience – so if the self exists, we can safely conclude that its nature cannot be material.

Hume declared that the self does not exist because he could not find it anywhere. However, this conclusion does not necessarily follow from the premise. Self cannot be directly aware of itself because it is the source of awareness, like a torch that can illuminate everything except itself, or an eye pupil that can enable seeing many things, but not itself. It is not surprising then that the self cannot be ‘found’. Still, it can be recognised as a source –necessary to have the first person perspective. We can compare the self to the conductor of an orchestra. When listening to an orchestra the conductor cannot be heard, yet the role is indispensable (although, in this case ‘the orchestra’ is often ruled by other factors than the self). Hume is making a categorical mistake when he regards the self as ‘nothing but a bundle of different perceptions’. Perceptions – that is, thoughts, sensations and so on, is what the self is aware of (they are the materials of awareness), so it cannot be reduced to them. Popper writes:

One might be tempted, under the indirect influence of Hume, to think of the self as the sum total of its experiences… But it seems to me that this theory is directly refuted by the memory experiences… At the actual moment at which the memory delivers something to us, neither the delivering memory nor the object that it delivers to us is part of our selves; rather, they are outside of our selves, and we look at them as spectators (thought we may be active immediately before and after the delivery) and, as it were, watch the delivery with astonishment. We can therefore separate our conscious experiences as such from our selves. (Popper and Eccles, 1977, p.488)

Some scholars consider the self an emergent property of the whole brain, but this does not seem to work either. If the brain and the mind are the same, and the self is distributed in the brain, it should be distributed in the mind too. However, this does not correspond to our experience. Take, for example, an ordinary dream. In a dream there are usually many characters that, from this position, should be all the result of neural activity. Yet the self identifies with only one character (you know in a dream who is yourself and who are others). If the self is the sum of all the processes, it should equally identify with all the characters which is clearly not the case – a single point of view, the defining feature of the self, is always present. Moreover, as discussed above, if the self is identified with a whole (rather than being a distinct element), it could only be an epiphenomenon, which doesn’t seem to be the case and contradicts our immediate experience.

The sense of self is universal to all human beings and possibly other life forms: a unique (subjective, first person) perspective that we all have and machines do not, however ‘clever’ they are, indicates its existence. In an attempt to dismiss it as an illusion, the self is sometimes compared to perceptual illusions. However, as already pointed out, there is a fundamental difference between these two. The sense of self is not based on perception, and therefore cannot be an illusion. It is a phenomenological experience not mediated by the senses that can trick us. Dismissing such experience as an illusion is on the same level as dismissing that reality exists (‘maybe we are all dreaming…’). Nagel writes:

It is impossible to exclude the phenomenological features of experience from a reduction in the same way that one excludes the phenomenal features of an ordinary substance from a physical or chemical reduction of it – namely, by explaining them as effects on the minds of human observers… The reason is that every subjective phenomenon is essentially connected with a single point of view, and it seems inevitable that an objective, physical theory will abandon that point of view (1981, p.393).

Some empirical evidence also supports the idea of the self. For example, split brain surgery (the removal of the corpus callosum that links the brain hemispheres) conducted by Roger Sperry in the 1970s and followed up by Victor Mark and others, show that even when the two sides of the brain are separated, the person is not usually aware of it and acts normally. There is a sense that the two hemispheres still form an integrated entity, although the information they share is minimal. Brain stem and cross-perception (perceptual stimulation of both hemispheres at the same time) may play a role, but they are not sufficient. It is observed that split-brain patients can perform complex activities such as playing the piano that require a high level of synchronisation between left and right hands (and therefore two hemispheres). Some of that integration must happen somewhere else. Only sometimes or under experimental circumstances does it become transparent that the hemispheres do not communicate directly and may even conflict with each other. Some draw a conclusion from such instances that split brain leads to split self, but this is based on confusing the self and the personality[6].

Even ordinary people often have internal conflicts (one part of the person wants to go out while the other wants to stay in), but this is not to say that a single perspective, from which a whole conflict can be experienced, is not retained. Of course, such conflicts are impressively amplified in these experiments as they rely on short term memory and verbal reports that heavily depend on the brain (in the latter case, mostly on one hemisphere). Even so, the fact that the self can be aware in the experiments of the processes in both hemispheres (although not necessarily able to formulate them), identify with one, or shift between them, indicates its existence and  relative independence from the brain.

Blind sight experiments seem to lend further support to the above. It is observed (in animal and human subjects) that if a segment of the occipital cortex is damaged or surgically removed, the subject is not aware of a part of his visual field (although his visual apparatus works properly). However, if asked to guess what is in that part of their visual field, they guess correctly in a number of cases far above the statistical average. This means that neuronal processes cannot be identified with awareness and its source. It is more likely that the occipital lobe plays the role of a relay station, producing waves accessible to awareness. Scott, a scientist with a special interest in consciousness, concludes:

…the split-brain and blind sight experiments, among others, provide objective evidence for the existence of a mental monitor that might or might not be in operation during a particular act of visual response. (1995, p. 162)

The so-called binding problem is also relevant in this case. Everyday experiences and experiments on seeing and hearing demonstrate that there is a unifying quality to consciousness. In other words, all elements of an experience ‘hang together’ and can also be closely related to and integrated with our past experiences, beliefs, attitudes, actions, expectations, concepts and evaluations. However, the brain contains no corresponding kind of unity. Binding – or the unitary character of the experience – is not reflected in its structure or functions. Constitutive parts that make up our perceptions (a movement, colour, shape, sound, smell, texture, etc.) are processed in different parts of the brain. Considering this segregated nature of the brain and the relative absence of multi-modal association areas in the cortex, the question is how neuronal inputs are synchronised and overlaid to form a single unified and meaningful perception. A simple example: the image on the retina is processed in over twenty different areas of the cortex, each of them dealing separately with specific features of the image. Neural machinery that could recombine the output of these specialised visual feature detectors is not found in the brain. So, it is unlikely that these ‘point-events’ are fully integrated again by purely physiological activity. This observation of Neurophysiologist and Nobel laureate, John Eccles, is still relevant:

…all the time we are learning more and more about feature extraction neurones and how they come to make more and more complex patterns but never does it get beyond the stage of showing us more than little flashes of simple geometrical fragments to which each cell is responding specifically. (Popper and Eccles, 1977, p.533-534)

There are, of course, several levels of integration: the integration of a simple image such as the shape of an object; the integration of the shape with colour and movement; the integration of a complex image (such as scenery); integration with abstract elements (e.g. a name). Indeed, some binding dependent on intrinsic properties of the stimuli (such as direction of movement, time, edges, intensity, etc.) may occur on a sub-neuronal level, on the level of neurons, and some binding probably also occurs on the higher level of neural organisation (cortical regions). But this is not enough:

All we were working with there are patterns of impulses signalling progressively more complex features. There has to be an interpretational read-out. This is what we believe to give us a unified picture and it is a picture involving all kinds of features such as light and colour and depth and form. ( ibid., p.534)

This integration is, therefore, not an ‘objective’ (as, for example, the integrative character of a computer programme), but ‘subjective’ one that can only derive from the focal point that keeps it all together – the self[7]. In order to preserve materialistic dogma and avoid this simple commonsensical explanation, a number of complicated theories are employed to explain the binding problem (Chaos theory, Quantum theory, Object Template Constrained Feature Processing theory, etc.). Yet, with all that armoury none of them can account for all the cases of everyday visual perception, let alone other types of binding commonly experienced. Most of these theories boil down to variations of Hume’s claim that the elements of perception are bound by spatiotemporal association. However, Hume’s contemporary, philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) already pointed out the shortcomings of associationism. We must actively bind the various features of objects together, so that what we see are the synthesised constructions of our world. Therefore, intentionality (to use Brentano’s term) must be involved. The relatively recent empirical research, such as the work of Ann Treisman (1986, 114-125) on illusory conjunctions (‘mistakes’ in binding) also indicates that attention, which can be defined as intentional awareness, is essential to binding.

So how can that work? As already suggested, on the level of brain processing, waves or oscillations that are a product of neural activity are likely to play a role. Indeed, research demonstrates that assemblies relatively far from one another synchronise their activities at a frequency between 40 and 80 Hz (the gamma range). They become phase-locked oscillations. However, this does not solve the binding problem as some scientists are tempted to declare. Nunn (a neuroscientist himself)  writes:

…all that has been achieved is to show that temporally determined groupings are important to brain activity as well as spatially related groupings… This is an important step forward but it does not obviously get us any nearer towards accounting for awareness.  (1996, p. 35)

Commenting on Libet’s experiments on temporal discrepancy (that we live up to half a second behind the times), he concludes that ‘the main casualty of accepting the obvious interpretation is any hope that coherent EEG activity on its own can account for the binding problem in relation to awareness since epochs of coherent activity are reaching their end before awareness occurs’ (ibid, p.42). Furthermore, the discharges were also found in a wide range of states not connected to stimulus interpretation, so synchronous oscillations may be necessary, but cannot be sufficient for feature binding. For the final level of binding, these phase-locked oscillations need to be selected and ‘picked up’. Only then they can be connected into a meaningful whole. To enable these particular connections out of numerous possibilities (even within the restrictions of time-space associationism), awareness, intent – and the self as their source, seem to be essential:

This read-out by the self-conscious mind involves the integration into a unified experience of the specific activities of many modules, an integration that gives the pictured uniqueness to the experience. (Popper and Eccles, 1977, p.388)

This can also explain why the same group of neuro-connections can be used in presentation of different objects. Many other phenomena point in the same direction. For instance, a changing brain would not be able to perceive a change without a non-changing element and yet, there is not an unchanging part of the brain. Some neuroscientists, such as Sperry and Doty, who are not dualists, also acknowledge that integration seems to be best accounted for in the mental. Eccles (ibid, p.362) concludes:

…it has been impossible to develop any neuropsychological theory that explains how a diversity of brain events comes to be synthesized so that there is a unified conscious experience of a global or gestalt character. The brain events remain disparate, being essentially the individual actions of countless neurones that are built into complex circuits and so participate in the spatiotemporal patterns of activity… the experienced unity comes, not from a neuropsychological synthesis, but from the proposed integrating character of the self-conscious mind.

This sort of binding is not only necessary for perception but also for a meaningful, intentional action. At least some actions must be the result of an interaction with something outside the system. Admittedly, such interactions could be between the brain and the environment, which is why behaviourists adopted the belief that we are conditioned by our environment. Yet, common sense tells us that this is not so simple. It is true that we are influenced by our environment but every person is also, to a degree, an agent. Purposeful causation (actions being determinised by not-yet-existent, future goals) is common to human beings. We are often motivated by the future that only exists in our mind. In other words, many actions are meaningful – and such a teleological pull is different from a conditioned push.

An important difference between these two is that a purposeful activity requires something that can grasp the causal relationship between an activity and its outcomes. Such an element needs to be, as it were, outside any specific process that contributes to the action. An analogy with a factory as a complex system may be helpful here. The production of the factory may consist of many relatively discrete and specialised processes. Each of them is part of the whole, but none of them determines the whole. Only something that can grasp the whole and its relation to the external world can determine a meaningful direction. This does not require interfering with or being aware of all the individual processes. Back to purposeful actions, particular units of the body, such as the digestive system, can act independently, but they are only enablers rather than initiators of directed activities that involve the whole body. The same applies to the brain with its modules that have specific functions – in most cases these modules will carry on unabated by the choices a person makes, and yet they serve them.

All the above suggests that the postulate of the self makes more sense than its repudiation, and that the universal experience of the first person perspective is in line with empirical findings and rational enquiry. However, as already mentioned, everybody agrees that the self cannot be found in the brain. That the self is located in other parts of the body is even less likely (which is apparent from spinal cord injuries that lead to paralysis but not a loss of self). And if it is not in the brain/body, it must be elsewhere. Concluding that it is an element of non-material reality seems unavoidable. After all, if it is accepted that we are aware and act intentionally and if awareness and intent are not material, then that what is aware and intends – or the self – is not likely to be material either.

The ‘mind-body’ problem was discussed having the human being in mind. We would like now to go further and make a case for a claim that a non-material aspect is an integral part of life as a whole. We will see that not only human beings but all life forms, including simple organisms, can be better understood as an interaction of the material and non-material. To do so, we need to consider the nature of life itself.

[6] We will clarify this difference shortly. At this point, we just want to demonstrate that the belief in the existence of the self or the first person perspective is justified.
[7] This applies even in the extreme cases of so-called split personality, which are most likely the result of an impermeable segmentation of that with which the self identifies. Sufferers of this disorder still maintain a unique, first-person perspective that enables them to become aware of or dis-identify with some personalities.