The science of philosophical inquiries of the mind (2005)

"Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a persistent one" -Albert Einstein

He was walking peacefully by the sidewalk, surrounded by the bushes through which the light slipped. All of the sudden, anguish started to penetrate his veins as he questioned his own existence after death while the birds enjoyed the afternoon nap free of any worry. This may have been Aristotle or Plato, walking through Athens. He may as well be Aquinas, Descartes or an anonymous philosophy student seeking knowledge for the love of inquiry. No matter how long ago this account may be, the philosophical problem still remains: is there an entity separate from the body? Is this entity, referred by many as the mind or soul, immaterial? And if so, can it transcend physical death? In the era of substantial technological advances, the mind-body puzzle just described starts to trespass the frontiers of philosophical inquiry and merges closely with the scientific understanding of our human nature. In this paper, I seek to reconcile some differences of dualism, functionalism, and even the mind-brain identity theory by taking into account the newest discoveries in brain science.

A comprehensive definition of mind and body is needed to comprehend if these entities are different, and if so, if they interact causally. For the contemporary philosopher René Descartes, the body is that which is bound by some shape and uniquely fills up a position in space (Descartes, 19). This definition is in agreement with the description used by ancient and medieval philosophers, which conceptualized the body as the material substance that is publicly available to observation. However, an agreement over the definition of the soul or mind is not as readily available. There seems to be a consensus among the ancient, medieval and contemporary thinkers that the mind is hermetic and its current state is not evident. Furthermore, they all agree that there is an interaction between the mind/soul and the body that is reflected in both entities. But when evaluating the extent of this interaction, the immateriability of the mind, and the possibility of an immortal soul, certain apparently irreconcilable differences emerge.

A recent investigation done by radiologist Andrew Newberg initially put me in a stalemate as I sought my own encompassing understanding of the mind-body enigma. After capturing brain tomography images of Tibetan monks at the moment of enlightenment, Newberg detected a physical foundation of this mystical experience. In the images, the rear area of the brain turned a shade of blue, indicating a decrease in neural activity. This is precisely the area of the brain in charge of orientation in time and space, and what gives the body a sense of physical limits. Interestingly, in this type of transcendent experience the mystics describe a new state of consciousness in a timeless and spaceless dimension. This is accompanied by a surrender of the ego, a unity with an absolute being and ecstatic bliss.

Before providing a unifying theory, it is important to review first how this finding parallel with the three most accepted theories in the philosophy of mind. The mind-brain identity theory will readily argue that, because the mind is identical to the brain, the phenomenon reported by the Tibetan Buddhist monks is simply the result of changes in the brain that inhibit their ability to locate the boundaries of time and space. Since, according to this theory, states of consciousness are genuine internal states of the brain (Heil, 8), the connection between the body and mind is entirely biological. Thus, the existence of an immaterial substance beyond death is not a plausible alternative due to inherent nature of the relationship. In other words, the absolute being described by the monks is a hologram created by the mind, and the assurance gained after enlightenment that there is transcendence after death is merely an illusion.

The mind-brain identity theory directly questions the nature of reality, and thus is parallel to Cartesian skepticism. For instance, let’s pretend that as René Descartes sits next to his fireplace, an anonymous scientist monitors his brain activity using a SPEC machine. As Descartes deciphers the nature of a piece of solid wax, his brain, as seen in the tomography, becomes a multicolored vortex. As he starts meditating, the front of his brain becomes lit by his immense concentration, noting the beginning of his philosophical inquiry. As his nose senses the scent of the flowers from which the wax was collected, and his ears perceive the knocking in the solid wax, his temporal lobe becomes active. As he views how the wax melts while he puts it closer to the fire, his occipital lobe becomes a brilliant sphere as the color, shape, and size of the wax undergo metamorphosis. Meanwhile, the other parts of the brain that are not involved in sensing the wax become small specs of dark.

Do these footprints in the brain mean that the wax does not exist? Can we conclude that simply because there is a physical manifestation of a mental process in the brain, the process itself has to be completely material or biological? Let’s imagine for a second that when the monks reached this state of heightened awareness, the tomography would be identical to that of a sleeping brain in delta state. How could we know that those that reach enlightenment are unlike prisoners who enjoyed imaginary freedom during meditation?

All of this questioning is making me dizzier than Cartesian skepticism, and thus it is now crucial to analyze the other two perspectives in order to gain deeper understanding of Newberg’s experiment. The first one, functionalism, seeks to explain the mind and the body by dividing these entities into several components and then evaluating the whole system in terms of functional parts that perform a role. This implies that states of mind are related to functional roles (Heil, 8) that are nodes in a causal network of cause and effect (Heil, 102). Interestingly, this theory suggests that the functional roles are realized in the physical entity, for instance, in the nervous system, but have a certain degree of independence from the material structure. Applying these concepts to the neuroscience experiments, we can argue that a mystical transformation in an immaterial dimension resulted in changes in the physical body by means of the brain. Moreover, this theory suggests the possibility that the mind is independent of a particular type of body, and thus, the separation of a physical body after death seems to be possible if the appropriate structures that support the mind continue to exist.

The second perspective, Cartesian Dualism, holds that the body and the mind are utterly distinct. Descartes believed that the mental and material substances would causally interact, although he failed to provide a comprehensive view of how this interaction was carried out. The only possible explanation he provided was that the linkage might take place in the pineal gland, a structure in the center of the brain. Newberg’s experiments corroborates that, if this casual interaction does exist, it occurs in the brain as predicted by Descartes.

After carefully analyzing these three significant theories in the philosophy of mind, I still find that there is something lacking as I struggle to find a unifying view. Namely, all of these attempts have rational and intellectual thought as its pillar, and after centuries of seeking answers, the same question still remains. It is now vital to redirect the philosophical inquiry by approaching it from a new perspective: leave rational thought temporarily behind and immerse ourselves in the deepness of the mind through other means.

As Descartes wisely stated: "If I were to cease all thinking I would then utterly cease to exist" (Descartes, 19). At first this appears to be an adverse situation to be avoided by all means. But perhaps, there lies the lost key to resolve the mind-body problem. After all, how can we expect to understand the mind, while we observe our nature through the mind itself? Aquinas argues that the intellect understands by using the power of abstraction and consequently, in order to carry this process it must "lack all those things which of its nature it understands" (Aquinas, 37). So, how is it possible for the intellect to understand itself if that would imply that the intellect has to lack itself based on Aquinas premise? This paradox corroborates the view that it is essential to get a glance at the intellect from another viewpoint, leaving thought to the side.

Socrates wisely affirmed that philosophy is a preparation for death. Socrates believed that once his soul dissociated from the body after death, he would be able to engage in pure thought without any deceit from the senses. But, what if the Greek thinker could achieve this while still inside his body? This is precisely what the Tibetan Buddhist monks and the Franciscan nuns were doing. Instead of waiting for the answer to be suddenly exposed to them after death, they seek to resolve the mysteries while in their flesh.

Meditation is the complementary instrument to gain understanding of the multidimensionality of our minds. As ordinary thought is put aside the mind suddenly becomes exposed to direct observation as thoughts come to the mind, and readily leave. Perhaps this is not precisely "ceasing all thinking." Yet, as the SPEC images showed it is in fact a surrender of the ego that utterly results in "ceasing to exist."

However, a merely meditative approach is not the ultimate solution to the enigma. In order to attain a comprehensive understanding of the mind, it must be investigated through all possible alternatives; rational thought and meditation. Perhaps this has been precisely why the body-mind problem remains to be unsolved: mystical philosophers and reasoning philosophers seeking answers exclusively through one means when the answer to this Koan may be to merge these philosophical inquiries to gain insight about the nature of mind.

Most importantly, I believe that Newberg’s experiment showed that it is time to look for an all encompassing theory of mind that unifies the mind-brain identity theory, dualism, and functionalism. Instead of looking for the differences, it is indispensable to start looking for the truth that lies in each of these theories. I believe the mind-brain identity theory provides the needed biological outlook to the enigma. It can shed a lot of light into the biological mechanics of the relation between mind and body. Furthermore, functionalism offers an explanation of the dynamics of functions performed by the mind and body and the intricate network of cause and effect that seems to govern the interaction of theses substances. Finally, Cartesian Dualism provides the foundation to explain the possibility of transcendence after death. This theory provides the basis to explain the mystical transformation of the monks as they reached their understanding of the soul and its connection to the universe.

As we discover the true nature of reality through mystical contemplation and scientific understanding, the mind-body enigma will be once step closer to being solved. Along the path to answer the paradox of the mind and body, we might discover that we must allow a certain degree of uncertainty, as each individual reaches a unique solution to the maze that fits his understanding. This may lead contemporary authors such as Colin McGinn to believe that the mind-body problem might not have a solution. For now, we must use the resources in our hands and continue to reach for the answer in spite of it seeming to be far away. The joy of understanding our minds does not come from getting the answer, but in the effortful process that exposes our true nature. As authentic seekers of knowledge, we shall see through the veils of reality to decipher the mechanics of the body-mind interaction and discover the immense treasures that lie within ourselves. It is time for us to be walking by the sidewalk, to see the perfection in the clouds that allow light to reach us beyond the bushes in a cold winter day, to feel the adrenalin through our veins, and simply chuckle, knowing that we have figure it out, and authentically realizing for once that the answer was not as important.

Aquinas, Thomas. On Human Nature. Ed. Hibbs, Thomas. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co., 1999. 120-130.
Aristotle. De anima. Trans. R.D. Hicks. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1999. 9-72.
Descartes, René. Meditations on First Philosophy. Trans. Cress, Donald. Indiana: Hackett Publishing Co., 1999. 1-17.
Newberg, Andrew. Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. New York, Ballantine Books. 2001. 11-31
Heil, John. Philosophy of Mind. New York: Routledge 2004. 15-26.
Plato. Phaedo. Five Dialogues. Translated by G.M.A Grube. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co., 1981. 93-155.