"Know Thyself" is an Ancient Greek aphorism that seems like very good advice. But while it sounds simple enough, we run into trouble almost right out of the gate. How can we know who we are, if we don't even know what we are? What is the essence of you? Your mind? Good start. But what is your mind? If you've ever puzzled over that one, that makes two of us, and we're not alone. Philosophers, including those cleverly disguised as scientists, have been wrestling with that question for millennia. Thankfully, all that is about to change. I am about to humbly offer you an amazingly good answer to that old conundrum. An answer that's profound in its simplicity, and sweeping in its import. Admittedly, it's not an answer I am particularly happy with. On its surface, it seems almost mundane, not nearly as spectacular as what I had hoped for. A few tweaks in how we think about reality, and the rest just tumbles out. Once again, it turns out that we are not so special, after all. What specialness there is, and there is specialness, lies at the very foundations of reality, where the magic happens. The rest is pretty much just magically imbued Legos. Wait, what!? Magic Legos? Maybe that's pretty special, after all.
Join me for a delightful, if brief, tour around the mind-body connection. You'll see old ideas made new as we torture neutral monism, enjoy countless similes and metaphors as we endeavor to wrap our heads around mind, and be entertained by some of the most outrageous, if spot on, speculations you'll find anywhere. You don't want to miss this mind-expanding, and just plain fun, adventure in thinking about you!
We begin gently, by noticing that we are embodied; most of us have the nearly constant experience of inhabiting a physical body. But even more immediately, we are aware that we have private, subjective experiences available to ourselves... and no one else. In other words, there is the physical thing, such as a chair, toaster, or our body, and there is our subjective experience of that thing, such as the sensory experiences of our body. "I'm hot." "I'm hungry." "That tickles!" We have very good reason to believe that what happens in our body/brain is closely related to what happens in our mind. It seems inevitable that we would wonder about how our brain and mind relate, that we would tangle with the enigmatic mind-body problem.
Over the ages, more than a few ideas have been put forward to explain the mind-body connection. Some of the basic types include: everything is pure mind and the apparent physical reality is simply an elaborate hallucination; everything is physical and/or mind is merely an epiphenomenon or a passive observer along for the ride; and finally, both mind and body/brain separately exist and interact in some exotic, unknown way. This last proposal leaves us with the question, "How?" How in the world could an idea of an apple change something in the physical brain, or vice versa? Each of these possibilities requires some rather fancy footwork to succeed as an explanation. Yes, they are sort of plausible, but none is particularly compelling or emotionally satisfying.
We can do better: Let's suppose that the universe is made of only one kind of stuff, but that stuff has multiple aspects: material, immaterial, temporal, subjective (inside), objective (outside)... What do I mean by "aspects"? Think of the faces of a coin (2 aspects) or a standard die (6 aspects). For our purposes, we do not need to know how many aspects Reality has; we do need to know that Reality has at least three: material, immaterial, and temporal. Apology: in order to keep our discussion manageable, we will ignore, for now, a number of tantalizing wrinkles, touching only on those topics essential to our goal of creating a better understanding of mind.
Everything in Reality has all of Reality's aspects. In particular, everything has both material and immaterial aspects. If we zoom in to even the smallest bits of Reality, say, protons, neutrons, and electrons, we find these bits have both material and immaterial aspects. The material aspect is characterized by being local and having mass; the immaterial aspect is characterized by being non-local and massless. Different aspects are fundamentally distinct faces of reality. They do not "cause" or "make" one another, yet they do belong to one another, like husband and wife or peanut butter and jelly. Different aspects of Reality are connected, of course; a change in one will likely, though not necessarily, be accompanied by a change in the other(s). Thus, while it is possible to lightly scratch only one side of a coin or die, flipping only one side of a coin or rolling only one side of a die can't happen, because the sides are connected, in Reality, like separate branches sprouting from the same tree trunk. A quick example may help. Imagine holding a permanent magnet in your hand. What you see and feel, from a simplified perspective, is the material aspect of the magnet; it has mass and is local. To our senses, it seems as though the magnet is nothing more than a metal bar. Now imagine that you attempt to force the north poles of two such magnets together. You can't see, hear, or taste it, but you feel something immaterial there, mysteriously pushing back. You are experiencing the very real immaterial aspect of magnets, an aspect that cannot be seen, has no weight, and cannot be put in a wheelbarrow, yet surely exists and has consequences.
Like a magnetic field, mind is a manifestation of the immaterial aspect of Reality. Body represents the material aspect. Once we accept that mind and body are but different aspects of a single, unified Reality, the standard mind-body problem formulation evaporates: the body's material aspect does not make or cause the immaterial mind. But because they are different aspects of a single underlying Reality, any change in the immaterial mind may be accompanied by a change in its material partner, and vice versa. The rest of this discussion attempts to elucidate how this is so.
In our Reality, an immaterial pattern is every bit as real as the material that happens to express it. The image below represents an arrangement of black and white wooden blocks:
A pattern emerges from this arrangement. Each material block occupies a distinct area (is local) and, at the same time, is part of a larger immaterial pattern. If each physical block is restrained to a specific location, how is the more extensive pattern created? That is, how do exclusively local blocks nonetheless participate in an overarching pattern? How can blocks be both local and non-local?
A similar problem has already been faced by physicists; they needed some way to explain how the presence of one item, far removed from another, can nonetheless affect the latter's behavior. That is, they needed to explain what Einstein called "spooky action-at-a-distance." The physicists' answer? Fields. For example, a positively charged point in space will reach out with its immaterial electric field to influence any charged particle coming close enough. We generalize that explanation, here: immaterial fields reach out from each material node, extending far beyond the node's physical boundaries. When fields encounter other fields, relationships, or connections, are formed. The immaterial aspect of some objects can extend quite far; gravitational fields, for example, organize the behavior of galaxies. Of course, not all immaterial extension is that great. If we separated our blocks by, say, a mile or so, any pattern would become difficult to discern. Patterns like the one emerging from our wooden blocks are not simply products of our mind/perception, they also have other consequences in the material world. To reiterate our important point: while the material aspect of a thing is local, its immaterial aspect is not. Instead, the non-local immaterial aspect spreads out from the material location. In other words, Reality is both local and non-local. It manifests as either, depending on how we interact with it... how we look at it.
From the unthinkably large distances between galaxies to the immeasurably small intra-nuclear spaces, movement is everywhere. And where there is movement, there is time. What we have just considered for spatial location can readily be generalized to include time. In other words, the immaterial aspect extends across space and time. Spatial, temporal, and spatiotemporal patterns include such diverse examples as checkerboards, songs, night and day, seasons, tides, and celestial orbits. Immaterial spread and combination across the temporal aspect may very well be a feature that plays a hugely important role in creating our experiences, including recalling the past and imagining the future. [more]
Here are a few candidates we tend to experience mostly as either material or immaterial:
Consider a common iron nail and its obvious material aspect. We know what will happen if we bring a powerful permanent magnet close to such a nail: the nail will move to the magnet. What makes that happen? The immaterial aspect of the magnet interacts with the immaterial aspect of the nail, combining and drawing them together. How? The immaterial magnetic field of the magnet applies a force on the magnetic fields of the individual atoms in the nail, causing them to align with the magnet's field and creating an over-all magnetic field in the nail. The two magnetic fields exert attractive forces on one another. Because the material and immaterial aspects are connected in Reality, the magnetic field forces are felt by the material magnet and nail, resulting in physical (material) position change. This could well be the sort of interaction through which the immaterial mind causes changes in the material body/brain: the large complex field that may be the measurable footprint of mind exerts top-down influences on the more local fields and thereby changes the material aspect of neuronal circuits. Am I suggesting that mind is related to some sort of electromagnetic field? Yes, I am. But much more on this later.
Emergence has been given numerous definitions and its exact meaning is still being debated. Here, we will use the basic notion of what is meant by emergence: what parts of a system do together that they would not do on their own; or emergence occurs when an entity is observed to have properties that its parts do not have on their own. Let's consider a simple example. Imagine a small, metal, well-polished rod, about 1/16" in diameter and 1" long. Now, imagine that we have about 500 such rods and we arrange them in parallel so that they float next to, and easily slide by, one another. We have created a well known toy that makes what is called "metal pin art". If you press your hand, or any object, against one side, its topography will be transferred to the other. The collection of pins (a system) has a property that no single pin has. That property is the ability to create a representation of things pressed against them; in other words, image creation. That property is not present in any individual pin, but "emerges" from the collection of metal pins. Another simple example. We start with a single tone. It has a frequency, loudness, duration, etc. Now imagine we have a large collection of assorted tones and we organize them in such a way that a song emerges from the collection. While the song arises from the collection of tones, it is distinct from any individual tone. If we organize the same tones in a different pattern, creating a different set of relationships, we would get a different song. In both of our examples, we can easily detect the constituents from which the new property emerges: we can still hear the individual tones and see the individual pins.
Next, consider a slightly more complex situation, one in which we cannot see the players, the constituent units, even before we restructure them in a new way. For example, what happens when we force two gases, hydrogen and oxygen, to combine to make water? We certainly cannot see or hear either constituent gas in the newly created water. Why not? It takes a few steps to answer that. All chemical properties emerge from the organization of more basic units: protons, neutrons, and electrons. That means the macro properties of our starting gases are already the result of emergence from more fundamental bits of Reality. Basically, the properties of a chemical are created by the shape/energies of the chemical's electron cloud/electromagnetic field. When hydrogen and oxygen combine, their basic units are rearranged to create a new electron cloud structure across the molecule, and it's that new emergent structure/pattern that creates the properties of water. The constituent units, the protons, neutrons, and electrons, are a few levels/scales down from the macro level we see, and are thus hidden from our casual observation. It is important to note that while the emergence of water from the combination of hydrogen and oxygen is certainly not predictable from the properties of hydrogen and oxygen, water remains in the same chemical category, a category created (emerging) from various organizations of the three basic units: protons, neutrons, and electrons. In other words, when we combine hydrogen and oxygen we find neither a toaster nor an elephant emerging. We find, instead, another chemical. This seems to be a characteristic of the emergence process: the emergent property or thing stays within the general category created by its originating constituents. Hydrogen and oxygen are both chemical elements. The water that emerges from their combination is also a chemical. Same general category. Toasters and elephants, however, belong to higher, or more complex, category. Complexity increases in a step-wise fashion, creating a hierarchy, or ladder, of complexity. We might imagine that, at a basic level, bits of Reality self-organize into material/immaterial patterns (atoms). Responding to the properties of their fellow patterns (still atoms and/or molecules), they organize into higher level, more complex, patterns. As we proceed up the scale of Reality, we find increasingly complex patterns building on the patterns below. But note: at each step along the way, Reality includes two aspects: the material aspect, and the immaterial aspect. These different faces of Reality are just that, faces of Reality. They do not create each other, they skip along together, holding hands.
Organization (immaterial relationship structure) is the key to emergence. Whenever we have multiple instances of something, relationship structures among those things arises. And new properties emerge from those relationships among the items. We are considering a process that is the exact opposite of reductionism: as you divide something into smaller and smaller parts, you destroy relationships among its population of parts and their resultant emergent properties. For example, as you focus on smaller and smaller parts of a drop of water, at the point of having only a few molecules left, you lose the emergent property of liquidity; as you chop up a song into smaller and smaller units, you lose songness and are left only with disembodied tones. You are an emergent phenomenon. The organization among your cells allows them to create the system that is you, something no single cell in your body can claim. Organization is vital. If the organization of your cells were suddenly randomized, say in a blender, you would be having a very bad day.
Everything material you see around you — indeed — your body, itself, is made from different organizations of protons, neutrons, and electrons. These three building blocks make all the elements in the periodic table and, ultimately, all material things are made from these elements. The secret is this: different organizations of the three building blocks create different "emergent" properties in the elements and materials they create. In other words, organization (relationship structure) leads to emergence of new properties.
The three mentioned building blocks come with fundamental forces. Protons and electrons have both mass and charge, neutrons exhibit mass. Mass and charge are "fundamental" because, for this discussion, we are unable to peer behind the curtain and see where they come from, what makes them what they are. They are essentially magic to us. The "properties" of a material are essentially the ways in which it interacts with other things. And those properties arise from the structure of the electron cloud/electromagnetic field surrounding the molecule or atomic nucleus. As you combine elements in different ways, you create different electron clouds/fields in the resulting molecules which, because of their structures, interact with other things in characteristic ways which we call properties. Of special importance to us, Mindness is also fundamental. I'll defend this outrageous claim below. Our mind almost certainly arises from more basic bits of Reality that feature mindness qualities, organized into the complex process we call mind. Think about this: biology does not create new fundamental forces, it builds with them. It rearranges bits that come with fundamental forces to create new structures from which new, higher-level properties emerge.
Material and immaterial aspects are separate branches on the tree of Reality. There is a firewall, or barrier, between these aspects so that they only indirectly influence one another via their mutual connection to the Reality. Mind is a manifestation of the immaterial aspect/branch. To the extent that mind is created by more basic mindness bits, these bits must also be immaterial: the separation between material and immaterial branches do not allow one to create the another. In particular, the material aspect of the brain, such as neurons, do not create mind. Rather, if mind is created by the brain, it must be created via its immaterial aspect/branch. In fact, if no special magic happens along the way, elements with mindness properties must be present at the most fundamental stratum of Reality. Let me put that another way: like mass and electromagnetism, mindness must be a primitive property of Reality. It isn't made from anything else, it's present at the most basic level. The immaterial electromagnetic forces associated with material protons and electrons make lovely candidates for basic bits of immaterial mindness. That doesn't mean that all mind things are conscious, of course. The most basic and ubiquitous mind-bits are surely(?) not conscious. But as they are combined in more and more complex mindness structures, eventually, consciousness can no longer be avoided. As you know, things go downhill from there.
In a barbershop quartet, each member sings a different part of the over-all arrangement. In complex systems language, that's bottom-up influence: an emerging pattern is created by a collective of individual inputs. As they sing, their voices mix in the air around them, so each is hearing all four parts combined in an organized whole. And as they experience the ongoing song, each member attempts to fit in with the pattern. That's top-down influence: the over-all song is shaping the behavior of its creating constituents. That means the song created by the singers acts to shape the behavior of the singers. That's called a feedback loop. In a similar manner, the mind, inhabiting the immaterial aspect of brain/body activity, immediately feeds back on the brain/body and shapes its behavior. That means rather than being an epiphenomenon, the immaterial mind shapes activity in the material brain.
Our brain is a complex system that includes top-down, bottom-up, as well as sideways (nodal) influences at play. There are both the material elements such as neurons, supporting cells, synapses, neurotransmitters, general fluid baths, etc., and the immaterial aspects such as the network organizations, electromagnetic fields permeating everything, and countless relationships among the constituents of the brain/body. Is there a clue, here, about the nature of the mind? It seems like it. The mind is a field-like phenomenon, extending across time and space. Electromagnetic fields show similar behavior and thus are an interesting candidate for mind. To give you a flavor of how things may fit together, here's a greatly simplified (and highly speculative!) overview of how things might unfold: as we think about something, different neurons or neuronal circuits change their activity — that's the material component to the thought. This change in activity changes the configuration of the cell's contribution to a wide area field over the brain. When we are in the process of thinking about something, we typically have a number of different thoughts, each making its own contribution to the complex over-all field. As wave after wave of field variation sweeps across the wide area field both additive and destructive interference influence the field's shape. Ultimately, the thoughts coalesce into a decision as the fluctuating field settles into a more stable complex wave profile. This stability signals a coherent influence on the downstream effector circuits that, unconflicted, carry out the decision.
All living cells are awash in electromagnetic fields, if for no other reason than the constant ion movement in and around them. Neurons, however, specialize in creating these fields, taking it to an entirely different level. That's not surprising: cells forming different organs are typically specialized so they can efficiently carry out their function. Neurons are especially adept at creating and manipulating electromagnetic fields. That's one reason electromagnetic fields seem like an interesting candidate for the footprint of mindness. The function of neurons? To process information, and apparently creating electromagnetic fields helps with that task. Our mind may be what it's like, from the inside, to be a type of complex electromagnetic field.
At the same time... just as we know that not everything in the material aspect is a diamond, not everything in the immaterial realm, is a mind. A checkerboard pattern is likely just a pattern, not a mind. Similarly, not every electromagnetic field need be a mind. What we experience as a conscious mind may only emerge from fields of sufficient complexity. Given sufficient complexity, am I equating electromagnetism with mind? Almost.
Free will is a perception, an event in the conscious mind. We correctly experience ourselves as being an agent who decides, or chooses. As such, we are responsible for our choices. It is the experience of agency that we are referring to when we say we have free will.
Perceptually, we live in the past. A conscious perception is essentially a model, or representation, of an event in reality that is constructed by the mind/brain before it finds its way into consciousness. Basically, it takes time for a perception to get its act together, to get ready to enter consciousness. Imagine sitting in a dark room, when a small light is suddenly turned on in front of you. It takes time for the light to reach your eyes, it takes time for your retina to become excited about its light-hearted visitor, it takes time for the resulting neuronal signal to reach the back of your brain and to radiate out from there. It takes time for your mind to assign meaning to the information it has taken in. Because all of these processes precede conscious experience, our conscious perception is a perception of what used to be, the past.
We have both a conscious and unconscious mind [more]. That is, there are different kinds of mental events: those we are aware of, and those we are not. For ease of exposition, we will act as if consciousness is all-or-nothing. Please keep in mind that that is not actually the case. There are a great many processes that are handled at the unconscious level. And among these, there are many degrees, or shades, of consciousness. Unconscious mental events work behind the scenes as they participate in the model construction process that precedes conscious awareness. If our perceptions are invariably perceptions of the past, then our perception of agency will be of agency in the past. In other words, we make our choices before we are consciously aware of making our choices; perception is downstream of the event. Does that detract from the voluntariness of our choices? Not at all. It simply means our unconscious aspect is faster — and sometimes may make choices we do not consciously understand. Have you ever asked yourself, "What was I thinking?" or "Why in the hell did I do that?" We might think of consciousness as being something like an echo; it's what happens when the unconscious mind becomes aware of itself, when it detects it's own behavior. Having the option of reviewing its scripts in consciousness prior to implementation gives us the chance to edit/improve them... to our evolutionary advantage.
Let's take an outrageously speculative dive into how consciousness may arise. We start by reminding ourselves what we mean by "aware". A is "aware" of B if A encodes information about B in a way that includes electromagnetic fields. In the case of our central nervous system, that will often include responding to B by encoding some sort of internal representation of B in neuronal activity. Biological inputs to cortical neurons cause them to become more active and thereby create or enhance an electromagnetic field, (EMF). That means, in response to a stimulus there are both material and immaterial changes in the brain. That EMF is an immaterial event that includes mindness properties and thus may be part of our unconscious mind. We can measure an EMF, objectively. The experience of our unconscious mind, however, is subjective, a private matter. The changing EMF, triggered by the stimulus, feeds back on the originating cortical cells, modifying the behavior of those cells, which of course, modifies the EMF those cells produce. In other words, the EMF feeds back on its source, changing the source's behavior, which then changes the EMF. In other words, the EMF is responding to, and encoding information about, itself, which, in our model, means it is aware of itself, what it is doing. Awareness of awareness is our working definition of consciousness. Our cortical EMF bootstraps itself into consciousness. Neurons are not the only material actors contributing to this drama. There are many others. There are, for one example, more neuroglia cells in the brain, than neurons.
We have been characterizing mind as an electromagnetic field, and that's almost right. Actually, the mind is a dynamic pattern that rides on the electromagnetic field created by the brain. In short, your mind is a song your brain sings. The "notes" in that song-that-is-you are values of an electromagnetic field, spread across space and time. In other words, your mind is a temporal pattern in an electromagnetic field. An analogy might be The Mormon Tabernacle Choir as a model of the cortical columns in your brain, with each member singing its part, contributing to the whole. It would be more accurate, but less punchy, to say that the varying electromagnetic field around your cortex is the measurable footprint of your mind. That makes it the objective aspect of mind. The objective aspect is the view from the outside. For example, the objective aspect of a house is the view from outside the house. Your experience is the subjective aspect, the view from inside the house. Your mind, then, is the experience of what it's like to be an electromagnetic song your brain sings. One of the features of a song is that the same song can be played on different instruments, or sung by different singers. Isn't that interesting? Immortality, anyone?