Previous: 6. Death and the Mind Up: Consciousness and the Physical World Next: 8.  The Self Writ Large

7.  The Nature of the Self

In this chapter we will examine the nature of the self, its relationship with the physical brain, and the issue of whether the self, or some portion thereof, could survive the dissolution of the brain at death

The question of whether the human mind or spirit survives the death of the physical body is one of the oldest and least tractable problems to confront human (and other hominid) philosophers, scientists and theologians.  As we have just seen, in more recent times, it was a central occupation of investigators in the early days of psychical research, the field that gave rise to parapsychology, and continues to be the central concern of a minority contingent of parapsychologists today.  

This problem has, however, receded into the murky background, due to its intractability, the existence of alternative explanations of the evidence for survival and to advances in modern cognitive neuroscience that have revealed the intimate dependence of the human personality on the state of the physical brain.   Writers such as Patricia Churchland (2002) have suggested that such dependence is so complete as to rule out the possibility that any souls or other nonphysical aspects of the mind exist.  This would seem to shut the door on the case for survival; however, I will argue below that any such door slamming is at best premature.  

In this chapter, I will be arguing for the existence of a persisting self or (or more likely a myriad of persisting selves) in each person.   However, such persisting selves may not in fact persist in the commonly understood sense of lifelong and continuous association with one particular physical body, yet may persist long beyond the deaths of the bodies they currently inhabit.  This seemingly paradoxical position will hopefully become clearer as the chapter goes on.  It will also be argued that such persisting fields of consciousness enjoy an ontological status that is not inferior to that of elementary particles such as electrons and quarks, as is commonly supposed, but may play a fundamental role in determining the outcomes of quantum processes and, as will be discussed in the next chapter, possibly even in the design and creation of the universe itself.  

The Persisting Self

Most of us (at least most of us who are not professional philosophers) believe that we have some sort of continuing self, a field of consciousness that persists from our birth to our death.  While this self may be thought to lapse during deep sleep and under conditions such as surgical anesthesia, most of us generally believe that the self that wakes up after each lapse is the same as the self that preceded the lapse.   There is perhaps no rational basis for such belief.  The self that wakes could be an entirely different entity from the self that inhabited the body prior to the loss of consciousness.  After all, if a self can somehow become “stuck” in a human body sometime after conception and released somehow at death, it stands to reason that such a self could also become stuck in the body well after the body’s birth and to depart long before its death. 

However, if the self that wakes is only able to access memories stored in the current brain, it would naturally come to believe that it experienced the events corresponding to these memories and hence is the same self that inhabited the body prior to the lapse in consciousness.  Meanwhile, the prior self (field of consciousness) might be waking up in a new body and quickly forming the belief that it had inhabited the (new) body all along.   In view of the occasional experience in which one is unsure of one’s location or even one’s identity for a few brief moments after waking, this “realization” (or possibly this delusion) may not be so sudden after all.

The Denial of the Self

However, as noted in Chapter 0, there are those, such as Daniel Dennett (1991), Susan Blackmore (1991a, 1993, 2002), Galen Strawson (1997), Patricia Churchland (2002) and Thomas Metzinger (2003), among others, who deny the very existence of any continuing self, or “Cartesian theater,” as Dennett calls it, even over a limited time period.  They assert that the self is merely a cognitive construct, a convenient “story” we tell ourselves in an attempt to render our experiences coherent and consistent.  As such, the self enjoys only a fictional existence.   Under this view, “we” (our illusory selves) are nothing more than the scattered contents (fleeting sensations, thoughts, and emotions) of “our” minds. As Metzinger (2003, p. 397) puts it, “no such things as selves exist in the world,” only mental models of the self.   

Stephen Priest (1991) has countered Descartes’ argument that “I think therefore I am” by asserting that thoughts do not imply the existence of a thinker.  Even William James (1890/1992) argued that there may be no substantial soul, but only an ongoing stream of consciousness. James’ view has been echoed by Thomas Clark (1995), who contends that a person is simply an assemblage of “qualia” or experiences and denies the existence of a self separate from the experiences themselves.

 The basic problem with this denial of the existence of the self is that one cannot have a stream of consciousness without a riverbed for it to flow through. One of the foremost modern deniers of the self is the philosopher Derek Parfit.  In Parfit’s opinion, in each person there is only a continuing series of thoughts, sensations, memories and feelings, with no continuing self to experience them. But in order to explain the unity and continuity of experience, Parfit (1987) is forced to assert that these thoughts, sensations and memories are experienced by the same “state of awareness.”  But this state of awareness is nothing more or less than the self or soul, assuming one is willing to equate the self with a field of pure consciousness.

Most people, following Descartes, find the existence of a continuing self to be immediately given and obviously true.  It is an integral part of our essential existence as commonly understood.   

As noted in Chapter 0, certain Eastern religious traditions, including Zen Buddhism, also deny the existence of a continuing self.  Motoyama (2002) traces the differences between the Eastern and Western concepts of the self to the fact that food was abundant and agricultural conditions were favorable in the Far East, whereas food was scarce and agricultural conditions unpredictable in the ancient Middle East, the birthplace of the three major Western religions.  One consequence of this unpredictable environment, Motoyama asserts, is that the Western religious traditions are characterized by a belief in a personal afterlife in which one’s present personality would experience a less uncertain and painful form of existence.  Motoyama notes that the Western religious traditions have often led to inter-religious wars, whereas there are no such wars in the Buddhist-dominated cultural spheres in Asia.  He notes that self-denial and submissiveness to nature and God are principal features of Asian cultures and lifestyles, whereas self-affirmation is a prominent feature of Semitic and European culture and lifestyles. 

The Buddhist denial seems more directed at the concept of the self as one’s personality, comprising one’s aspirations, motivations, cravings for material possessions, lusts, pride, and so forth, rather than at the existence of a field of pure consciousness.  Buddhist meditative practices are designed to distance oneself from these transitory elements and to attain an inner state of peace and tranquility.  In order to achieve such a state, the Buddhists teach that one must suppress and eliminate one’s cravings and greed, as such unfulfilled desires lie at the root of all human misery and suffering.  

Most branches of Buddhism and Hinduism teach that the true self is pure consciousness, not the contents or objects of consciousness, such as the swirl of memories, emotions, gleeful pride in our achievements, and the fears and hopes for the future that are continually swirling through the dark (perhaps Cartesian) theaters of our minds.  The Eastern philosophies teach that our personalities are transitory and not our true selves.  One’s true self in this view is the pure consciousness that in Hindu philosophy is taken to be identical with all consciousness, including that of the World Soul or Brahman.  It is thus not clear that these Eastern philosophies deny the reality of a persisting self in the sense of a field of consciousness, as opposed to the contents of one’s consciousness or one’s personality or motives (which obviously do not persist unchanged even from moment to moment).  

Timothy Sprigge (2002) has several observations to make regarding the self and the mind.  First, he notes that the mere existence of consciousness falsifies materialism, as materialistic science neither predicts nor is able to explain the presence of conscious experiences.  Sprigge sees no real difference between regarding a stream of events with a certain degree of connectedness as the successive states of an enduring individual (i.e., conscious mind or “Cartesian theater”) and talking only of the stream.   Thus, Sprigge asserts that it makes no sense to talk only of the stream of consciousness (as “self-less” philosophers such as Dennett and Blackmore do) without reference to an enduring individual (or “stream-bed” if you will).  To this, I would add that in Descartes’ experience and my own, the existence of a self in the form of a field of consciousness is immediately given (i.e., thoughts, sensations, longings and pain flow through me, or past me, therefore I am).  I would affirm Descartes’ intuition that the (at least temporary) existence of my field of consciousness is one of the few facts of which one can be certain, whereas even the existence of the material universe may be cast into doubt as a potential dream or illusion.  

Sprigge notes that the opposition between an “event ontology” such as that advocated by Blackmore and Dennett (in which there are only, say sensations, with no conscious self to do the sensing) and an ontology of “enduring substances or individuals” (read fields of consciousness) may be more one of language than of substance.  He suggests that consciousness may turn out to be identified with a physical field pervading the brain.  In an even more speculative vein, Sprigge postulates that conscious selves are “higher-order monads” that are in turn contained in a Divine Mind or “Absolute.”  Sprigge does not see how the physical world could subsume conscious experience in that part of it called the brain, without doing so more generally.  He asserts that the only two viable philosophical options are a mind-brain dualism or a form of panpsychistic idealism (in which all physical entities are assumed to have experiential components).  As a final note, he suggests that the common experience of “free will” suggests that forward causation (in which causes precede their effects) is much more prevalent than backward causation.   

As observed earlier in this book, during the past few decades it has been amply demonstrated that one’s sensations, feelings, thoughts, emotions, ideas, and even personality can be radically altered through electromagnetic, surgical, chemical, and accidental interventions in the brain.  If relatively minor modifications of brain states can substantially alter the nature of one’s experience and personality, how could your personality and experiences manage to continue on in a more or less an uninterrupted fashion after the far more drastic event of the destruction of the entire brain?  Also, many of the concerns that drive the structure of your personality have to do with the preservation of your own physical body and those of people who are closely related to you.  Perhaps, as Dawkins (1989) would have it, these concerns are primarily directed at the propagation of your “selfish genes.”  What would be the point of the continuance of these concerns once your physical body has been returned to dust and your ability to intervene in the physical world perhaps radically curtailed?

“Downloaded” into Heaven

Some philosophical functionalists, such as Hans Moravec (1988), Grant Fjermedal (1987), and Frank Tipler (1994) among others, have suggested that one’s thoughts, memories and personality could be “downloaded“ into a computer or robot, allowing one’s essential self to survive after death in a cybernetic world or as a cybernetic simulacrum operating in the physical world.   Of course, it would be just as easy to create multiple simulacra of oneself rather than just one.  It is counterintuitive to think that one’s “self” could really inhabit all the copies simultaneously, providing another indication that one’s self cannot be identified with one’s emotions, thoughts, memories and personality. 

In fact, a persisting self not only cannot be identified with the fleeting and ever-changing contents of consciousness, it also cannot be identified with the particular configuration of material particles that constitute one’s physical body or brain, as these too are continually undergoing change and replacement.  Due to the constant exchange of material substance with your environment, your present physical body shares few if any molecules with your body of 20 years ago.  You have already survived the death and dissolution of that earlier body Thus, any self or field of consciousness associated with the physical body that persists unchanged from birth to death (or even from hour to hour) cannot be identified with any particular physical body (configuration of material particles) or conglomeration of mental contents such as thoughts, feelings and personality traits, as neither of these (the body or the contents of consciousness) persists unchanged from moment to moment.

The fact that you have apparently survived the dissolution of your body of several years ago suggests that you may likewise survive the ultimate death and dissolution of your present body as well.  It is, however, unlikely that you would survive death with your personality traits and memories intact as suggested in the Western religious traditions (and by much of the research on survival conducted by psychical researchers), due to the dissolution of the brain activity and neural structures underlying your current personality traits and memories.  It is conceivable, however, that a field of pure consciousness might survive the ultimate death of the physical body much as it seems to have survived the “death” of the prior bodies that have been “shed” through a process of molecular replacement and recycling. 

Modern Dualists

The postulation of a continuing contentless field of consciousness brings us perilously close to Cartesian dualism, a once dominant philosophical position that has become increasingly out of favor in the current intellectual climate, which is dominated by several remarkably successful scientific disciplines that largely adopt a materialistic or reductionist stance toward the realm of mental events.  The postulation of a self or field of consciousness that is in some sense independent of, or external to, the brain, immediately raises the question of how such a self and brain could interact.

One of the last holdouts for a dualistic position during the latter half of the twentieth century was the Nobel laureate neurophysiologist Sir John Eccles.  (Eccles, 1979, 1980, 1983, 1987, 1989; Eccles & Robinson, 1984; Popper & Eccles, 1977), who proposed the existence of a conscious self lying outside (in a nonspatial sense) of the physical brain.  Eccles viewed this conscious self as being capable of receiving information from the brain and acting upon the brain.  At one point, Eccles (1977) used the term “psychokinesis” to describe the mediating vehicle whereby the mind or self influenced the brain. 

Modern science is generally at a loss to explain how a nonphysical mind could interact with a physical brain, hence its general denial of the existence of the former.   Thus, the terms “internal psychokinesis” and “internal clairvoyance” may be as good as any to describe such mind-brain interaction (assuming the existence of a nonphysical mind).  The use of the terms “internal psychokinesis” and “internal clairvoyance” in this context does not necessarily commit one to affirming the existence of psi phenomena as usually defined, which involve anomalous interconnections between internal and external events.  The provisional use of the terms “internal psychokinesis” and “internal clairvoyance” in the present context is intended merely as a way of recognizing our current state of bafflement as to how a nonphysical mind could interact with a physical brain.   

The “Shin” Model

As noted in Chapter 5, two writers to take Eccles’ suggestion that mind-brain interaction may be mediated by “internal psychokinesis” literally (albeit nearly three decades before Eccles got around to making the suggestion) were Thouless and Wiesner (1948).   They proposed that each brain has associated with it an entity they termed the “Shin.”  They proposed that the Shin becomes aware of brain states through a type of “internal clairvoyance” and that this awareness manifests itself in consciousness as various forms of “cognita,” to borrow a term from Carington (1949), such as sensations, emotions, memories, and impulses.  Conversely, the Shin controls the physical body and brain activity through internal psychokinesis.  Thouless and Wiesner postulated that psi phenomena as traditionally defined correspond to an “externalization” of the mind’s usual relation with the brain. 

Clearly, under the view that physical bodies are associated with immaterial minds that are conceived as fields of “contentless consciousness,” with virtually all of the activity underlying cognition and motor activity being embodied by material brain processes, some sort of theory analogous to that proposed by Thouless and Wiesner commends itself, if one wishes to adhere to a dualistic model in which consciousness is conceived as a component of the world that is in some sense “external to” (i.e., not identical with any part of) the physical brain.  

Of course, such dualistic terminology may only be provisional.  Should a “Shin-o-scope” be invented that would allow the physical location and activity of Shins to be measured, it is likely that Shins would come to be viewed as physical components of brains.  We are, however, a long way from a complete, partial, or even minimal understanding of consciousness, and “Shin-o-scopes” do not appear to be in the immediate offing.  To the extent that such hypothetical Shins cannot at present be identified with any particular component of the physical world, it may be appropriate to continue to use the word “nonmaterial” to describe them, recognizing that such attribution of nonphysicality is provisional and may need to be withdrawn in the light of subsequent scientific discoveries.  Indeed, the fact that Shins seem to get “stuck,” however temporarily, in physical brains suggests that they exist in spacetime and therefore correspond to some sort of quasimaterial objects.  At the same time, if psi phenomena exist, this is an indication that minds may have nonlocal aspects and direct access to a “higher dimension” or at least a wider region of spacetime than is encompassed by the brain.  But the same could be said of all quantum objects and hence all matter. 

The Thouless and Wiesner Shin theory does carry one advantage over classical Cartesian dualism in that the apparatus of thought and cognition may be ascribed largely to the physical brain, whereas under many interpretations of Cartesian dualism, much cognitive activity is carried out in the nonphysical realm.  Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” may need to be replaced by “I am aware of my thoughts from time to time, therefore, I am.”  This is perhaps not as catchy a phrase, but does recognize the implications of modern research in cognitive neuropsychology showing the intimate connections between mental events, such as thoughts, emotions and perceptions, and brain processes.  If such research has not yet established the identity of mental events with physical events, it has certainly revealed the intimate dependence of the former on the latter.   

Naive Dualism and Split Brains

As noted in Chapter 5, the results of research on split-brain patients (which was largely conducted after the publication of Thouless and Wiesner’s paper in which they developed the concept of the Shin, but is now well emblazoned in the brains of all veterans of introductory psychology courses) pose devastating problems for any naive version of the Shin theory.   As discussed in Chapter 5, a split-brain patient may be unable to verbally describe an object held in his left hand, but will be able to point to a picture of the object with his left hand when later requested to do so.  This is a result of the fact that the sensory input from the left hand is fed into the right hemisphere of the brain. However, the right hemisphere has no means to transfer this information to the language centers in the left hemisphere in the brain due to the fact that the corpus callosum, the main neural fibers connecting the two hemispheres, has been disconnected.  Under the naïve version of Thouless and Wiesner’s theory, a single Shin should be able, through “clairvoyant” perception of the right hemisphere, to gain knowledge of the object held in the left hand and then be able to describe the object through “psychokinetic” influence of the language centers in the left hemisphere.   Thus, the findings of split-brain research would seem to directly refute the single Shin theory.  In fact, these findings are precisely the evidence Patricia Churchland uses to refute the existence of a nonphysical self or soul (Churchland, 2002, pp. 46-47).

Thalbourne (2004) has responded to this argument by Churchland by proposing that “a callosectomy causes one portion of the self to become unconscious to the main center” (p. 17, emphasis in original).  He then goes on to propose that one portion of the brain is controlled by the conscious aspect of the self and that the other portion is controlled by the unconscious self.  Thalbourne asserts that in such cases, “the self would maintain an overall unity, but be divided with respect to consciousness or unconsciousness of process” (p. 17).  However, instances of conflict between the hemispheres and the ability of the right, presumably unconscious, hemisphere to respond to verbal commands and to communicate itself (sometimes through such devices as a Scrabble set) makes it seem unreasonable to deny consciousness to that hemisphere.  Indeed, in the following sections it will be argued that many spheres of consciousness may somehow reside within a single human brain.  Thalbourne further suggests that the single self or Shin might be able through practice to reacquire the ability to “clairvoyantly” acquire information from one hemisphere and “psychokinetically” influence the other.  However, if such reacquisition occurs, it is likely only partial, as a full functional recovery from a severed corpus callosum would be nothing short of miraculous and would be widely reported in the scientific literature.   In view of the evidence for psi phenomena, a partial reacquisition might be possible (indeed, a partial reacquisition might be achieved in the absence of psi through the remaining subcortical neural channels connecting the hemispheres).  However, the existing neurological evidence suggests that inter-hemispheric information transfer likely depends primarily on neural pathways.  Also the instances of motivational conflict between the hemispheres alluded to above, as well the “minor” hemisphere’s ability to communicate messages sometimes at odds with its partner’s motivations, strongly suggest that there are multiple selves or Shins in split-brain patients that are likely to be, to use Morton Prince’s term, co-conscious.   Indeed, as argued below, it may be that there are multitudinous Shins lurking in a single brain, with many or most of them “buying into” the delusion that they are the Person and the sole center of consciousness residing in the body.  If in fact they are transient residents in the brain, as suggested below, it would not do from an evolutionary perspective for this fact to be widely recognized among the Shins.  The service of the genes may require that the Shins fall into the delusion that they are the Person (i.e., the body, memories, personality, etc.).     

In fact, the scientific and philosophical community has found it difficult agree on a clear line of demarcation between conscious and nonconscious beings.  Some (e.g., Descartes) would draw the line at humans and deny consciousness to animals.  This seems to me to involve a retreat to the pre-Copernican view that humankind stands at the center of the universe.  Others (e.g., the panpsychists) would extend consciousness all the way “down” the evolutionary chain to amobae or even to plants and elementary particles, as discussed in more detail below.  

We are complex organisms; each of our brains is composed of billions of amoeba-like neurons, much like a “Woodstock” for single-celled creatures.  Perhaps, as argued below, our brains may harbor multiple, perhaps countless “selves” (i.e., fields of consciousness), with the majority of them identifying with the body as whole and quickly falling under the pre-Copernican delusion that each of them is the sole “self” or consciousness inhabiting the body.  This identification of our “selves” with the body or the personality (the “Person”) is natural but, as we have seen above, a false identification.  To identify our true “selves” with our bodies and personalities is to fall into the same delusion that the Buddhists (and to some extent Blackmore and Dennett) have warned us against.  Our selves (conceived as centers of pure consciousness) persist unchanged, while our bodies (and our personalities) grow, blossom, metamorphose, wither and die.   From an introspectionist perspective, it seems clear that we are centers of consciousness that persist over macroscopic time intervals (contra Blackmore and Dennett).  If the self as a center of consciousness does not even exist, the problem of survival does not arise - there is simply nothing left to survive.  However, it is more plausible that, like the physical particles that make up our bodies, these centers of consciousness are continually entering and exiting the brain.  If memories are stored in the brain, a newly entering Shin would quickly come to believe that it had been there all along, its memories of its former incarnations lost like a misplaced scrap of paper on which an important phone number was scrawled.   The view that we are a single self that persists in the same body from day to day and year to year likely arises from the false identification of one’s self with one’s body and personality.  We may be constantly recycled, awakening in a new body in each morning with no memories of our real adventures the day before.   This view may be depressing to many, in that it does not involve the survival of the Person.  However, despite the fact this process may be random and “meaningless,” like so much else in this universe, it is “fair” in the sense that we all may share the experiences of being deformed and poor or handsome and wealthy.  Despite their centering in seemingly moral Agents and Principles, the “will of God” of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition and the karmic principle of Hinduism (responsible in part for the “caste wars” in India) seem much less fair than the purely random and frequent reassortment being proposed here.  The latter view may also promote the values of kindness and altruism (if only out of egoism), as you may find yourself housed in (or stuck to) the other’s body tomorrow.  The main downside is that such a view may promote a “seize the day” form of hedonism in which one would elect to maximize’s one’s pleasure now, with no thought of the consequences to the body or the “Person” the next day.   

Multiple Selves

As intimated above, one way around the difficulty posed by split-brain patients would be to propose that the right and left hemispheres are associated with separate Shins or selves.  It could be postulated that the two Shins were present prior to the callosectomy or that a second Shin was acquired during or shortly after the callosectomy.  Each Shin would be restricted to interaction with its own hemisphere.   As Eccles (1980) notes, many prominent split-brain researchers, including Puccetti, Sperry, Bogen and Gazzaniga, have postulated the existence of two spheres of consciousness in split-brain patients, although Gazzaniga has since modified this view (Gazzaniga, 1992).   Libet (1994) has postulated the existence of “conscious mind fields” (CMFs), which he sees as being produced by brain activity.  CMFs are capable of causal action upon brain activity and provide the means whereby diverse neural activity is synthesized into unified perceptions and experiences.  He notes that the existence of CMFs would be compatible with a variety of philosophical positions on the mind-body problem.  Following the lead of the above researchers, Libet speculates that there may be two CMFs in split-brain patients.  Libet asserts that CMFs are not describable in terms of any externally observable physical events or of any the currently constructed theories of physics. 

Incidentally, not all may be sweetness and light between the selves of the two hemispheres.  Mark (1996) describes a 33-year-old female split-brain patient, who displayed oppositional behavior between her two hands.  She also gave contradictory verbal responses to questions (she had previously been demonstrated to have language centers in both hemispheres via the Wada test).  Spence and Frith (1999) report on two cases of “alien hands” in which the left hands of patients who exhibited lesions or pathology in the corpus callosum actually attempted to strangle the patient.  They also report instances of motivational conflict between the hands of such patients, such as when the one hand fastens a button, which is then immediately unfastened by the other hand.   

Perhaps the most convincing line of evidence for the existence of separate selves in the two cerebral hemispheres comes not from research on humans but rather from research on our cetacean friends.  As pointed out by Patricia Churchland (1986, p. 181), dolphins sleep one hemisphere at a time.

A Proliferation of Selves

Two conscious selves may, however, not be enough, as there are more ways to divide up (or dissociate) a brain than are dreamt of in the classical split-brain paradigm.  Take for instance the phenomenon of blindsight.   “Blindsight” is a term coined by Lawrence Weiskrantz to describe a syndrome in which cortically blind subjects respond appropriately to visually presented stimuli even though they report no conscious awareness of such stimuli (Sanders et al., 1974; Weiskrantz, 1986; Marcel, 1988; Rafal et al., 1990).   Cortical blindness refers to blindness that is a result of damage to the visual cortex in the occipital lobes of the brain.  Even though the eyes of such patients may be normal, they may be blind in part of their visual field because of such damage to their visual cortex.   If you present a small dot of light to such patients in the blind areas of their visual fields, they will say that they saw nothing.  However, if you ask them to just take a guess by pointing to where the dot of light might have been, they frequently point at the exact location that the dot occupied.  If you present erotic pictures to such a patient in the blind area of the visual field, the patient may blush or giggle or say things such as “That’s quite a machine you’ve got there, Doc!”  They will still, however, deny having consciously seen anything.  Interpretations of words may be biased by information presented in the blind area of the visual field, and eye movements may be altered by such stimuli (Rafal et. al., 1990).  Many researchers have speculated that blindsight is mediated by a secondary visual center in a subcortical area of the brain known as the superior colliculus, although some researchers have challenged this view.  Francis Crick (1994) has noted that other areas must be involved as well, in that blindsight sometimes involves responsiveness to color differences, and there are no color-sensitive neurons in the superior colliculus.  

The phenomenon of blindsight might lead one to postulate the existence of a secondary center of consciousness, perhaps located subcortically in the superior colliculus.  However, some writers, such as Flanagan (1992) and Marcel (1988), have argued against any attribution of full consciousness to this secondary center, insofar as information acquired through blindsight is not generally acted upon.  For instance, the patient may be thirsty, but will not respond to the sight of a water fountain presented to the blind area of the visual field.  It would be possible to argue that this secondary center cannot move the patient’s body of its own accord as it is a subordinate “module.”  (Actually, most researchers feel that the primary function of this secondary center is to guide eye movements, and perhaps this is not a role that one would want to associate with consciousness.)   Young (2006) suggests that phenomenal consciousness is required for the initiation of action and that Marcel’s thirsty subject failed to reach for the water because the information gained through blindsight does not reach conscious awareness.  In a commentary on Young’s article, Spence (2006) cites evidence that intentions are subject to electrical disruption for up to 200 msec after the motor act has occurred.  Thus, he argues, conscious intentions are slow to cohere and are not responsible for the initiation of motor acts.

In addition to the superior colliculus, many other regions of the brain have been nominated as “centers of consciousness.”  Indeed, it would almost seem that no region of the brain has been omitted from the list of brain regions that form the primary center of consciousness according to one researcher or another.  As noted in Chapter 1, these proposed centers of consciousness or mind/brain interaction have included the “liaison” brain (the “liaison” being between mind and brain) predominately located in the cerebral cortex of the left hemisphere (Eccles), the higher brain stem, or diencephalon (Penfield, 1975), the frontal lobes of the brain (Ramachandran, 1980), the linguistic apparatus of the brain (Ledoux, 1985), the septohippocampal region involved in mental representations of the world and memory formation (O’Keefe, 1985), the hippocampus and neocortex (Oakley, 1985a, 1985b), the supplementary motor area of the cerebral cortex (Libet, 1989, 1991a), the thalamus (Cotterill, 1995), more specifically the intralaminar nucleus of the thalamus (Churchland, 1995), the right parietal lobe (Damasio, 1994), the temporal lobes (Ramachandran & Hirstein, 1997), patterns of synchronous firings of neurons (Burns, 1993, Crick, 1994), nonrandom, coherent deviations of the brain’s electromagnetic field from its resting state (John, 2003), the anterior cingulate gyrus, amygdala, and temporal lobes (Ramachandran & Blekeslee, 1998) and, last but not least, water in the microtubules composing the cytoskeletons of neurons (Penrose, 1994; Hameroff, 1994).  Each of these authors presents a cogent argument in favor of their candidate for the area of the brain (or brain process) that is the center of consciousness (or of the interaction between consciousness and mind).

With this many candidates for the primary center of consciousness (or of interaction between the conscious mind and brain), it may begin to seem that no center is primary and that many different brain centers and processes may be associated with their own conscious activity, and that these centers of consciousness may not be mutually accessible to one another, at least in a direct sense.

A Hierarchy of Selves

The notion that the human mind may be composed of an assembly of interacting centers of consciousness is an old one.  It may be traced as far back as Aristotle, who postulated the existence of “vegetative soul,” a “sensitive soul” and a “rational soul” in each person.  F. W. H. Myers (1903) hypothesized the existence of several independent selves within the unconscious or “subliminal” mind.  William McDougall (1926) proposed that the normal human mind is composed of a hierarchy of “coconscious personalities,” each carrying out its own separate function.  McDougall used Morton Prince’s term “coconscious” rather than the usual terms “subconscious” or “unconscious” to describe such secondary personalities in order to emphasize their self-awareness.  Ostensible cases of multiple personality (if genuine) may represent instances in which one or more of these subordinate personalities has rebelled against the primary, executive personality.  In support of McDougall’s view, many lines of psychological research, including studies of subliminal perception, posthypnotic suggestion, preattentive filters, and automatic motor performance suggest that the human mind is capable of conducting a great deal of sophisticated mental activity outside of the field of awareness of the primary personality.  

For instance, his investigations into hypnotic phenomena led Ernst Hilgard (1977) to propose what he called the “neodissociation” theory of hypnosis.  Hilgard asserted that the hypnotized person was associated with a subconscious “hidden observer” that was aware of events for which the primary, conscious personality had no knowledge because of hypnotically induced amnesia, anesthesia, or negative hallucinations (e.g., when a hypnotized subject is instructed not to see a particular person or object).  Hilgard was able to hold conversations with such “hidden observers,” and the latter frequently reported awareness of events (posthypnotic suggestions, pain, etc.) for which the primary personality claimed no knowledge.  However, many scientists have asserted that Hilgard’s “hidden observers” were the result of suggestions; thus, they were created by Hilgard’s hypnotic suggestions rather than being autonomous entities that were “discovered” by Hilgard.  Spanos and Hewitt (1980), for instance, were able to evoke a hidden observer that felt less rather than more pain than the primary subject.  They hypothesize that this “hidden observer” was an artifact manufactured through their own hypnotic suggestions.

Ramachandran and Blakeslee (1998) cite dreams in which another character tells an unexpected joke to the dreaming self as further evidence  of the existence of multiple centers of consciousness within a single brain.

In the decades since the “cognitive revolution” in psychology, research into the “cognitive unconscious” has led to the creation of many hierarchical models of the mind, such as the “Massachusetts modularism” proposed by Jerry Fodor (1983), in which the mind is seen as being split into modular “computational” components.

Michael Gazzaniga (1985, 1989) likewise rejects the notion of a unitary consciousness in favor of the view that the mind is composed of a collection of independently-functioning modules that he, following William McDougall, describes as “coconscioius.”  As evidence for this modular view of the mind, Gazzaniga cites post-hypnotic suggestions, apparent unconscious (or coconscious) problem-solving activity (in which the solution to a complex problem suddenly emerges full-blown into consciousness), blindsight, the existence of separate procedural and episodic memory systems, and split-brain research.  Gazzaniga tends to identify the  “conscious self” with the module that is in control of the language centers of the brain, and he refers to this module as the “executive module.”  He cites many instances in which the executive module uses confabulation to explain behavior that was in fact generated by other modules.  For instance, a person who acts under a posthypnotic suggestion to close a window may claim that he was cold.  Gazzaniga also cites several instances of confabulation by the left hemisphere to explain actions performed in response to directions given to the right hemisphere in split-brain patients.  It might not be far-fetched to suppose that all or most modules might likewise maintain the illusion that they were the sole center of consciousness or in sole control of the body.  For instance, modules hearing the mouth issue verbal utterances may be under the illusion that they were primarily responsible for producing those utterances.  They might naturally identify with the body as a whole rather than with the particular brain region in which they are located.  

In particular, Gazzaniga and Roser (2004) contend that the “left-hemisphere interpreter” may be responsible for one’s feelings that one’s consciousness is unified.  Gazzaniga and Roser suggest that either consciousness may have a “graded relationship” to brain activity or possibly that consciousness results whenever brain activity exceeds a particular threshold.  They note that brain activations correlated with consciously perceived stimuli and those associated with unseen stimuli display differences in intensity and spatial extent.

Daniel Wegner (2002), in his recent book The Illusion of Conscious Will, notes that the well-known brain researcher Jose Delgado (1969) found that movements produced by direct electrical stimulation of the motor areas of the were experienced as voluntarily produced, thus supporting the hypothesis that “free will” may in many cases be an illusion.  Wegner does however affirm the existence of the self, which he defines in terms of a continuous memory structure.  He asserts that in cases of fugue, multiple personality or apparent “possession,” a new self exists if the person has amnesia for the prior self. 

The Perceived Unity of Consciousness

As discussed in Chapter 1, Francis Crick (1994) has ascribed the unity of consciousness to global 40 Hz (cycles per second) waves of coordinated neural activity.  Farber (2005) has suggested that if consciousness corresponds to such 40 Hz synchronous oscillations, the conscious experience should “quantize” into discrete moments of awareness.  Farber notes that such quantization of brain activity was originally proposed by Rudolfo Llinas. He notes that Llanis and his coworkers found that people were able to distinguish auditory clicks that are separated by at least 13 milliseconds.  However, when the time interval separating the clicks was 12 milliseconds or less, then the clicks were perceived as one single click, in support of Llinas’ quantization hypothesis (Joliot, Rubary, & Llinas, 1994).

Koch (1996) proposes that visual awareness arises from the firing of coordinated sets of neurons for 100 to 200 milliseconds.  He notes that stimuli presented within shorter periods are not perceived as separate stimuli.  For instance, a red light presented for 20 milliseconds followed by a green light presented for 20 milliseconds is typically reported as a yellow light.  This finding supports Llinas’ notion of a “quantization” of consciousness.  Koch asserts that the vast majority of neurons are not associated with awareness but rather with unconscious processing.  He conjectures that unless a group of neurons projects to prefrontal “planning” areas of the cerebral cortex, their activity is probably not consciously perceived. 

Clark (2005b) asserts that the role of consciousness is to make information available over time in the absence of direct stimulation.  In Clark’s view, conscious states permit the organism to engage in novel, non-automatized behavior and allow thus allow spontaneous, goal-directed behavior.  He proposes that phenomenal (conscious) experience is associated with widely distributed, but highly integrated neural processes, involving communication between multiple subsystems in the brain.  One of Clark’s central theses is that that the brain produces representations of the world, but that there is no conscious observer of such representations over and above the representations themselves.  He asserts that qualia (i.e., “raw feels’ such as red patches and sharp pains) are merely nonconceptual representations of the world.  

The Location of Consciousness

In general it seems that fields of consciousness are blissfully ignorant of their physical location and sphere of activity.  After all, Aristotle and many other ancient philosophers located the seat of consciousness in the heart rather than the brain.   Also instructive is a short science fiction story entitled “Where am I?” by Daniel Dennett (1981).  In Dennett’s “story,” sensory information is transmitted to a human brain from a robot or decerebrated human body, and the brain’s motor commands are in turn relayed to the remote body or robot, thus controlling its activity.  Dennett’s story leaves no doubt that the brain would locate its center of consciousness in the remote body or robot under these circumstances and not in its “real” location in the physical brain.  

Ramachandran and Blakeslee (1998) describe an experiment in which a subject held his hand under a table while it and the table top were simultaneously stroked.  Subsequently, the subject exhibited a large galvanic skin response when the table was hit by a hammer.  Ramachandran interprets this as suggesting that the table’s surface had been incorporated into the subject’s body image. 

Thus, our centers of consciousness may thus not be located where we think they are.  

Each “module” or center of consciousness may subscribe to a “unitararian” philosophy of the self or soul, in which it believes itself to be unitary and indivisible and in sole control of the body.  If such modules in fact correspond to centers of contentless consciousness that are fundamental constituents of the universe existing prior to the evolution of complex organisms, they may be correct in regarding themselves as unitary and indivisible but sadly mistaken in the view that they are in sole control of the body. 

Thus, one means of addressing the problems posed by split-brain research and other neurological findings (e.g., blindslight) would be to propose that each person is composed of an aggregation of selves or fields of consciousness associated with local brain regions.  This raises the question of what characteristics are necessary for a brain region to “host” (or comprise) a field of consciousness.  Must the region be large (an assembly of thousands of neurons)?  Or could it be “medium-sized” (a single neuron) or small (a single quark)?  Perhaps, as some writers (e.g., Bohr, 1958; Eddington, 1935; Hodgson, 1991; Leggett, 1987a, 1987b; Margenau, 1984; Squires, 1990; Stapp, 1992; 1996; Beck, 1994; Penrose, 1994; Hameroff, 1994; Walker, 2000) have suggested, consciousness may reside in the “hidden variables” that govern the collapse of quantum mechanical state vectors in the brain.   

It should be noted, however that contrary views have been expressed by Mohrhoff (1999) and Wilson (1999), who have argued that any action of a nonphysical mind on the brain would entail the violation of physical laws, such as the conservation of energy and momentum and the requirement that the outcomes of quantum processes be randomly determined.  However, conscious selves might turn out to be physical or quasi-physical entities possessing physical energy.  Also, it might turn out that the outcomes of quantum processes inside complex systems such as brains are not randomly determined but are governed by fields of consciousness, whereas those in simpler systems are not so governed.  In fact, many parapsychological researchers, going back to Schmidt (1970), have produced evidence that conscious minds may be capable of determining, or at least biasing, the outcomes of quantum processes.  


How small a brain region could be represented by a center of consciousness?  Many of the writers listed above have suggested that a relatively large “suborgan” of the brain (such as the cortex of the left hemisphere or the thalamus) is the center of consciousness.  However, David Skrbina (2003, 2005) has recently provided a comprehensive and brilliant defense of the philosophical tradition known as “panpsychism.”  Under this doctrine, all matter is imbued with consciousness.  Skrbina argues for instance that an electron must somehow sense the presence of a proton in order to respond to its attractive force.  An electron may even enjoy a certain degree of freedom of action due to quantum indeterminacy and may be able to sense a quantum field that is highly complex and global in nature.  As Srkbina notes, the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus contended that atoms have a form of free will, and can initiate contact from other atoms in order to deviate from a “predetermined” course.

Skribina observes that the eighteenth century mechanist Julien LaMettrie, who was a staunch materialist who denied the existence of a nonphysical soul, opposed Descartes in denying conscious to animals (although he did extend Decartes’ view that animals were essentially machines to humans).  In Skrbina’s view, LaMattrie’s position is basically that of a panpsychist, granting consciousness to all matter, although LaMattrie never explicitly developed this position in detail.

Skribina also points out that the prominent eighteenth century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer also viewed all matter (including magnets and thrown rocks) as possessing will.  Skribina notes that the German philosopher Eduard von Hartmann further developed Schopenhauer’s thesis, postulating that each living cell has a form of consciousness.  Von Hartmann postulated that the unity of consciousness in the brain was achieved via neural connections.

The Neuron as the Self

Recently Jonathan C. W. Edwards (2005), a physician and cell biologist, has “gone von Hartmann one better,” proposing that a conscious self resides in each neuron, with each person thus housing billions of selves.  He notes that the hypothesis that the single neuron is the center of consciousness solves the “binding problem,” which is how to account for the fact that that a single unified conscious experience can arise from an array of diverse neurons.  For instance, when one looks at an apple one has a single, unified experience of the apple, despite the fact that the neurons that fire in response to the apple’s color and shape reside in different areas of the brain.  Edwards asserts that the idea that there is a single “soul” in each person is simply a confabulation by the brain, with each neuron under the delusion that it is the sole self.

Edward compares his view with the “polyzooism” of William James, as propounded in James (1890/1983).  However, as Edwards notes, James later abandoned this position in favor of the hypothesis that there is a single pontifical cell in the brain that comprises the center of consciousness.

Edwards notes that each neuron in the brain has thousands of synapses, each of which can receive tens of messages per second.  To Edwards, this may be sufficient to account for the complexity of conscious experience.  He observes that “we think we are aware of hundreds of things at once, but it may be much fewer” (Edwards, 2005, p. 69).  

Edwards also postulates that a limited form of consciousness may reside in other cells of the body.  As noted before, the bodies of humans and other multicellular creatures are really just armies (in some cases platoons) of one-cell amoeba-like creatures.  On the panpsychist view, even a single amoeba is thought to be associated with a center of awareness.

Edwards notes that all cells may fall under the illusion that the human body is “me.”  He notes that while each neuron may be aware of a wide range of stimuli, it is likely that 99% of volitional acts by the “Person” are “decided upon” elsewhere in the brain.  In his view, most of our decisions and thoughts are “unconscious” (i.e., carried out by other cells).  However, each neuron has access to the “story of the self” concocted by neurons in the left hemisphere and falls under the delusion that it is this self (i.e., the Person). 

Edwards suggests that “me” cells may not be located in the cerebral cortex, as is the prevailing belief among neurophilosophers, but rather in the thalamus or the brain stem.  He notes that the thalamus is richly supplied with sensory input and that areas of the brain stem are involved in maintaining and “turning off” consciousness.  

He also proposes the alternative (or perhaps qualifying) hypothesis that consciousness resides in the electrical waves of the cell membrane. He notes that many physical systems are nonlocal, and observes that a single photon passing through a 1000-hole “micro-colander” is somehow aware of all 1000 holes.

One difficulty with Edward’s proposal that the neuron corresponds to the conscious self is the intuition that the self is a unified, single persisting entity and thus (to reiterate the introspective conclusions of Descartes and others) cannot be identified with an aggregate (entity composed of numerous and changing parts, such as a cell).   This problem might be avoidable if one assumed that the self corresponds to an “elementary” particle such as an electron, which is conserved over time (give or take an identity change from time to time) or to some field or entity yet to be discovered by physicists.  Such a field or entity (such as a mini-Shin) would perhaps qualify as “nonphysical,” at least in the context of current theories of physics.   However, it may “become physical” if incorporated in physical theories yet to be developed.  

Willard Miranker (2005) has also proposed that the individual neuron can sense synaptic activity and thus acts as a center of awareness.  Miranker notes that this view should not be construed as meaning that individual neurons are homunculi, only that they have a primitive psychic capacity.  He notes the similarity of his ideas with panpsychism.  He proposes that the psychic activity of the neuron is causally effective in changing the strengths of the synapses with other neurons; thus this psychic activity is not epiphenomenal in Miranker’s view.  He proposes that there is a hierarchy of fields of awareness, with higher-level fields guiding the activities of assemblages of neurons, and still higher-level fields of awareness governing more macroscopic brain systems.  Miranker proposes that sensory awareness becomes more magnified as one ascends the levels of the hierarchy.

Aggregates and the Self

As we have seen, the panpsychists argue for a form of consciousness (perhaps rudimentary) in all physical matter.  Elementary particles that are not incorporated into larger, more complex aggregations would be associated with a rudimentary consciousness.  Skrbina (2005) notes that Ernst Haeckel, one of first major philosophers to embrace Darwin’s theory of evolution, proposed that in order to account for the attraction of molecules, the molecules must somehow “feel each other” (Haeckel, 1899/1929).  More complex forms of consciousness may be associated with aggregates of matter, such as single neurons, or large assemblies of neurons such as hippocampi and cerebral hemispheres.  (However, it should be noted that such aggregates of matter, much like one’s personality and physical body do not persist over time and thus cannot form the basis of a continuing self.  Also, fields of consciousness appear to be unitary and indivisible, much more like a quark than like a molecule or a neuron.)   

Skribina notes that Nagel (2002) extends consciousnesses to subsystems of aggregates such as cell assemblies, neurons and even possibly atoms and elementary particles.  The problem confronting Nagel is how to account for the merger of these consciousnesses into a single point of view.  He notes that Seager (1995) asserts this problem of combination was a “showstopper to any viable reading of panpsychism” (Skribina, 2005, p. 243), but observes that Seager himself offers quantum nonlocality and quantum superposition as one way around this stumbling block.

Quantum “Hidden Variables”

For many writers, such as Walker (2000), who equate consciousness with the “hidden variables” that govern the collapse of the quantum mechanical state vector, the physical arena over which consciousness works is often assumed to be restricted to local areas of the brain (such as Eccles’s “liaison brain”) or specific networks of entities within the brain (e.g., quantumly-entangled water molecules in microtubules, as proposed by Penrose, 1994).  If the area is deemed to be a wide region, encompassing virtually the entire brain, such a theory might be based on the influence of nondeterministic events governing synaptic transmission, as proposed by Eccles, Walker and others.  In this case, the conscious mind (if assumed to be single and unitary) would be unable to overcome the effects of a severed corpus callosum in split brain-patients and might be supposed to experience a field of consciousness fluctuating between awareness of one hemisphere and the other.

As is by now well known to any consumer of the literature on “new age” physics (or Chapter 2 in this book, for that matter), quantum systems exhibit nonlocality.   For instance, the quantum state of a proton may be instantaneously influenced by measurements made on another proton light years away from it, if their quantum states are entangled.  It might be thought that local areas of the brain might be “connected” of “entangled” with larger areas of the brain though such nonlocal quantum interconnections and thus local regions might in some sense be “aware of” or have “knowledge” of a wide array of brain activity.  If the quantum wave governing its activity is presumed to be sufficiently complex and to contain substantial nonlocal information, perhaps even a single proton could be said to possess awareness of large portions of brain activity   Thus, even a proton could constitute one of a myriad of selves, each under the illusion that it is was the sole self associated with the body.  However, it should be noted that Penrose (1994) has proposed that the collapse of quantum state vectors may require a minimal amount of mass-energy or gravitational potential that would likely exceed that of a single proton. 


What could form the physical basis of a “self,” conceived as a field of consciousness that seems to persist despite rapid turnover in the contents of consciousness, such as sensations, thoughts and feelings, and despite the constant turnover of physical matter in the underlying brain region?  If the self is a proton or a quark, it would be expected to survive the physical death of the body and thus to constitute a “soul-like” entity (although it would likely retain no memory of its previous life once it became disentangled from the brain state).

The self might instead be an aggregate self or “compound individual” of the sort proposed in the “panexperientialism” of David Ray Griffin (1988a, 1988b, 1994, 1997).  Such compound individuals are composed of, or arise from, a hierarchial collection of more primitive selves or “individuals.”  For instance, a neuron would be a compound individual in relation to its individual constituents such as molecules, and a “suborgan” such as the hippocampus that is composed of neurons would be a compound individual somewhat further up the hierarchy.  All such “individuals” would have both mental and physical aspects under the panexperientialist view, although only hierarchically-ordered structures would be assumed to have a highly organized and structured consciousness.  Less well-organized structures, such as rocks, would be ascribed only vague “feeling responses” according to Griffin’s panexperientialist theory.   Again, it is doubtful that conscious selves can be identified with aggregates of matter in that selves seem to persist through time periods in which the configuration and composition of such aggregates change and the fact that fields of consciousness seem to be unitary and indivisible whereas such aggregates are not.


A compound individual (in the panexperientialist sense) would only be able to survive death (of the body or its associated neural structure) if its identity is not dependent on the aggregate structure that supports it remaining intact (e.g., if it is a field of consciousness associated with or acquired by the structure rather one emerging from the structure and depending on the latter’s exact composition for its existence).  Such a view would be analogous to postulating mini-Shins (in the sense of Thouless and Wiesner) associated with localized brain regions.  Such mini-Shins could be thought to possess global awareness of brain activity both through entanglement with complex and global quantum states as well as through classical (neural) connections.  If its awareness of brain activity were sufficiently global, each such mini-Shin might develop the delusion that it was the supreme executive module governing the activity of the body (as it is likely that its primary identification would be with the entire body rather than with the local brain region with which it was directly associated).   For instance in Libet’s famous experiment (see Libet, 1991a), subjects believed that their “will” spontaneously controlled the flexing of their hands, even though the neurological record showed a “readiness potential” building in their brains for 350 milliseconds prior to the time the subject’s “will” decided to act.  Thus, the subjects’ “fields of consciousness” in Libet’s experiment may only have thought they were in control of the entire body and could move it at will, when really their “wills” were at least in part the result of prior brain activity outside of their knowledge or control.  However, it should be noted that as Metzinger (2003) points out, Haggard and Eimer (1999) found that when subjects were asked to report when they “first felt the urge to move,” the reported time was on average 296 milliseconds prior to the onset of electromyographic movement, although the standard verbal reports regarding the moment of decision replicated the finding of Libet. 

Levy (2005) has also challenged Libet’s identification of this unconscious brain activity with the intention or decision to act rather than with a growth of the urge or desire to act.  Thus, Levy asserts, Libet’s experiments do not challenge the doctrine of “free will.”  In Levy’s view, Libet’s subjects may have delegated the motor task to their unconscious minds.  Levy further observes that the “controller” cannot control the control system, as this notion would lead to an infinite regress.

Young (2006) argues that the awareness of the moment of conscious decision is a second-order introspection and therefore it is not surprising that Libet found the reporting of the awareness of the decision to come 350 msec after the initiation of the readiness potential, as the awareness of the decision must follow upon the decision itself.  

 Other recent findings that suggest multiple consciousnesses associated with a single human brain include Alvarez and Cavanagh’s (2005) finding that people can track twice as many objects when the objects are presented to both the right and left hemispheres of the brain that when they are presented to only one hemisphere, which Alvarez and Cavanagh interpret as evidence for two attentional foci in the brain.

 Also, Massimini et al. (2005) found that, as sleep sets in, the communication between the different parts of the cerebral cortex breaks down (i.e., induced activity in one subsystem of the brain no longer spreads to other subsystems).   Mashour (2005) notes that such cognitive “unbinding” also occurs in anesthesia. Massimini, et al. conjecture that such communication among subsystems may be a prerequisite for consciousness.  Massimini et al.’s results also suggest a central role for consciousness in integrating brain activity.  Their findings suggest that the role of consciousness may be somehow tied to the integration of brain activity, which might imply that we may be more akin to mini-Shins or Walker’s quantumly-nonlocal “protoconsciousnesses” than to Edwards’ conception of the individual neuron as the basis of the self.  However, there may be many surprises for us lurking in future theories of physics and consciousness.  Our conscious selves may prove to correspond to a type of particle, field or entity that is quite far beyond our current understanding of the world.   

Thus, it is likely that each “person” is composed of a multitude of fields of consciousness, with many of them under the illusion that they are the “executive module” controlling the entire body.  Should these fields of consciousness be comprised of elementary particles, such as quarks, mini-Shins in the sense of Thouless and Wiesner (1948) or particles, fields or other entities that are yet to be discovered, they might be supposed capable of surviving the death of the body.  Indeed, such mini-Shins may frequently transit in and out of the body during its physical lifetime.  

The idea that one’s self or soul becomes attached to one’s body shortly after conception and remains attached until death is likely the result of the false identification of one’s self with one’s body and one’s personality (i.e. ongoing saga of brain states).  This self is, perhaps as Blackmore and Dennett insist, likely to be a story that we tell ourselves.  The “purpose” of such a story in an evolutionary sense might well be to preserve the physical body and combination of one’s genes.  Such stories and the fear of death they engender would serve to preserve the organism and thus may be the result of evolutionary processes. However, our true selves (fields of pure consciousness) should not be confused with these “heroes” of our own personal fables.  One source of the fear of death is precisely the identification of selves with “persons” in the sense of physical bodies conjoined with personalities.  The “person” is not likely to survive the death of the physical brain.  But we are at once much more and much less than persons. 

Note that the identification of the self with the quantum mechanical wave function governing the brain or with some other sort of field surrounding the brain is also likely to be a false one, just as is the identification of the self with the physical body and personality.  Such functions and fields undergo constant change and are in essence divisible into parts, unlike fields of pure consciousness, which appear to be changeless and unitary.  Even Edwards’ identification of the self with a single neuron runs into the same trouble, in that the constituents of neurons change over time and in that neurons, like physical bodies are aggregates, whereas the self interpreted as a pure “point of view” appears intuitively to be indivisible and persisting over macroscopic time intervals.  

The mini-consciousnesses or “proto-consciousnesses” proposed by Walker (2000) to govern the collapse of state vectors corresponding to events that are remote from human observers might be thought to correspond to mini-Shins in the sense of Thouless and Wiesner, if such mini-Shins are viewed as corresponding to, or containing, some of the “hidden variables” that determine the outcomes of quantum processes (whether in a human brain or elsewhere). 

Mini-Shins so construed may persist after the death of the physical body.  However, it is unlikely that they would retain much in the way of memory for events occurring during their association with their former bodies, traces of former personalities, or other contingent psychological characteristics.  

One main feature of the universe appears to be conservation, whether of mass-energy, momentum, spin or baryon number.  Things and quantities are not thrown away in such a universe; they are conserved and constantly rearranged.  It is likely that the universe is at least as fond of mini-Shins as it is of, say, total quantum spin and might be expected to go to great lengths to conserve both items.

Indeed, physical bodies may continually be acquiring and expelling such mini-Shins, much as they do material particles.  Such mini-Shins might then be reacquired by new bodies or incorporated into new “compound individuals” in Griffin’s sense.  Thus, each of us, if a mini-Shin, may be “dead” long before we suspect we will and possibly even long before the death of our current physical bodies, the good news being that we won’t in fact suspect our deaths or remember our lives for that matter, having no access to the memories stored in our former brains and being completely absorbed in new cognitive tasks.  Thus, life and death may equally be illusions.  

The Riddle of the “Now”

If centers of consciousness are indeed fundamental components of the universe, whether being identified with elementary physical particles, the “hidden variables” that determine the outcomes of quantum processes, or mini-Shins á la Thouless and Wiesner (these possibilities not being necessarily mutually exclusive), one fundamental mystery would be solved.   As noted in Chapter 0, if each of us is identical with his or her physical body (or a component thereof), it is most surprising that we would find ourselves conscious at the present moment of time.  A human lifespan is but the flicker of an eyelash in comparison to the age of the universe.  But somehow, the one moment in time that has, in some mysterious fashion (hitherto unexplained by science), been selected from the vast history of the universe to be the “now” just happens to be a moment in your lifetime.  The probability that the particular set of genes that make up your body would ever have come together is also practically zero.  Thus, on the view that you are your physical body, it is virtually impossible that you exist now.  But here you are.

If, however, fields of consciousness or mini-Shins are fundamental constituents of the universe, it is conceivable that they may be somehow “breathed out” and “breathed in” by physical bodies in much the same way as those bodies acquire and expel material particles.  Under this view, the probability that your conscious self would exist now may be something approaching one.

The Self as “Recyclable”

In the oft-quoted words of Voltaire, it is no more surprising to be born twice than it is to be born once.  On the view advocated here, it may not even be surprising to be born (and die) every several hours, as one’s center of consciousness is acquired by and expelled from various physical bodies and other material systems.  (During its association with a particular brain, the field of consciousness might even be under the illusion that it is in sole control of the body, as discussed above, not realizing that a “team effort” is likely involved.)  One would of course have no memory of one’s former (possibly fleetingly brief) “lives,” as such memories (and former personality traits for that matter) are presumed to be located in, or at the very least highly dependent on, the activity and structure of brains to which one no longer has access.  Of course, many such lives may consist of associations with animal brains, quantum computers, and possibly even plants or other material or nonmaterial systems deemed to possess consciousness (such as Walker’s “proto-consciousnesses” that govern the collapse of state vectors remote from physical observers).  Such survival of consciousness after dissociation from a particular human brain would thus not correspond to the sort of afterlife proposed in traditional Western religious traditions, in which memories and personalities are presumed to survive relatively intact (or perhaps only partially intact, as in the shades that inhabited the realm of Hades in ancient Greek mythology).  But it would go a long way toward explaining the amazing fact that one finds oneself conscious “now” (which is highly improbable on the basis of the standard materialistic view as noted above).  Just because we cannot explain consciousness does not imply that consciousness plays any less fundamental a role or enjoys less of a permanent status in the universe than do material particles.   We may not be ontologically inferior to protons after all.  (Indeed, we might even be quite proton-like ourselves, in light of the above discussion. Or perhaps we might be much more, as discussed in the ensuing chapter.)

Ian Stevenson’s research into children who report memories of past lives (see Stevenson, 1987) has uncovered little in that way of evidence of the operation that a moral principle such as karma governs the process of reincarnation (even assuming for the moment the unlikely possibility that memories can be transferred from life to life).  However, the idea that we are mini-Shins housed only temporarily in our present bodies does, as noted above, introduces an element of fairness.  We may not be trapped for long in suffering bodies and may not for long enjoy the pleasure of bodies born into luxuriant circumstances.  We each may sample many (and possibly all) of the human and nonhuman lives open to us, thus spreading around not only the suffering but the pleasure.  Also, we should treat others well, if only out of self-interest.  It might not be long before we find ourselves guests in their “body hotels.”  

Indeed, it may well be that such “human hotels” would not earn a “four star” status from such rating boards as may exist beyond our ken.  A human body may not be the ideal place to be.

Next we turn to ultimate questions regarding the role of consciousness in the physical world as we examine the possibility that the world may in fact have been designed, however poorly, to house and “entertain” conscious observers.

Previous: 6. Death and the Mind Up: Consciousness and the Physical World Next: 8.  The Self Writ Large