MindScience Academy Logo
Close this search box.
focus on February 2024

"The enigma of consciousness and the mind-brain-reality relationship" by Enrico Facco

Consciousness is the greatest and unresolved problem since the origins of philosophy: everything we see, do, encode, decide, and even science itself, are products of the mind and inhabit the world of consciousness. The entire worldview, culture, and science depend on consciousness and the mind-reality interface.
The piano (1920), Georges Valmier (French, 1885 – 1937) artvee.com

The topic is truly an enigma, but we can attempt to outline some essential points concerning not only consciousness itself but also its place in the world. Consciousness, in fact, is the greatest and unresolved problem since the origins of philosophy: everything we see, do, encode, decide, and even science itself, are products of the mind and inhabit the world of consciousness. The entire worldview, culture, and science depend on consciousness and the mind-reality interface. Therefore, what is considered objective does not surpass the level of shared subjectivity, and its "objectivity" is definable as the level of correspondence between theories and facts.

The science of consciousness as such emerged in the 1980s, more than three centuries later than the birth of Galilean sciences. Despite having a large amount of scientific data on consciousness today, perhaps we remain at a level comparable to where physics stood in Galileo's time, for complex historical-political reasons rather than scientific ones. Science has, in fact, only concerned itself with the physical world, and medicine with the earthly machinery of the Cartesian body, as the soul has been delegated solely to the expertise of theology. Moreover, modern psychology itself did not originate from medicine but from philosophy.

Consciousness emerges from the brain in a still mysterious way. If consciousness is considered by neuroscience as an emergent product of the complexity of the brain, it is not clear at all how qualia (elements of experience), ideas, concepts, and meanings emerge from brain circuits, nor what the interface between these two dimensions is. However, if consciousness is an emergent property, by definition, it cannot be entirely reduced to brain circuits; even if reductionism were to complete its project, only electrical activity and neurotransmitters would remain in the end, and consciousness would disappear. Therefore, in the resulting model, there would no longer exist qualia or meanings. For example, what is the redness of red? It is not a wavelength of light but an irreducible experience elicited by it. Red (and thus all perceptions) are not objective properties but ways of perceiving reality; they have their correlation with its physical properties, but they are not the same thing. Additionally, normality is a conventional concept of a statistical nature: if we were all colorblind and only 1% of the population could see colors, their vision would probably be considered a strange form of hallucination. The same applies to pain, a clinically significant issue. Pain is indeed a subjective experience and cannot be reduced to the stimulation of pain fibers, as physicalists would suggest. Therefore, it is essential not to remain trapped in the narrow confines of eliminative materialism, losing the lived experience without which neither science nor reality (as perceived and known) would exist.

Poiché in ogni dato momento storico la conoscenza scientifica è parziale, anche della coscienza (come di ogni altro fenomeno) abbiamo una conoscenza limitata; è dunque ragionevole ritenere che ci siano proprietà della coscienza ancora sconosciute e che la sua natura rimanga sfuggente. Riusciamo a definire meglio i suoi aspetti ordinari: sono sveglio, mi rendo conto di me stesso e degli altri, penso, sono autocosciente e così via. Tuttavia abbiamo un’idea almeno in parte ingenua della normalità della coscienza. Definire la coscienza normale è tutt’altro che facile, se possibile. La coscienza infatti è diacronica (ossia si modifica nel tempo) e la sua espressione è culturalmente selezionata (quella di un occidentale, di un orientale e di un aborigeno non sono affatto identiche), ma anche nello stesso gruppo sociale i suoi confini sono assolutamente incerti. Possiamo immaginare la sua distribuzione come una gaussiana molto allargata, i cui confini sono tra il santo illuminato da una parte e lo psicopatico dall’altra, fatto che ha da sempre suggerito una parziale sovrapposizione di genio e follia (in quanto entrambi fuori dalla norma, se pur su versanti opposti). È inoltre opportuno astenersi da una rigida classificazione dicotomica in termini di normalità o patologia e includere una vasta area nel mezzo costituita da espressioni non ordinarie della mente (NOME); queste ultime non sono disfunzionali né di per sé meno valide della coscienza “normale”, ma appaiono apparentemente strane per la loro deviazione rispetto alla Weltbild (immagine del mondo) accettata e allo Zeitgeist (lo spirito del tempo) in cui si è immersi.

In other words, NOMEs have profound epistemological implications. Moreover, it should be considered that science itself, as Antiseri states, is a history of beautiful theories blown apart by contrary facts, where discoveries and theories that overturn previous knowledge are usually rejected a priori and fiercely criticized before asserting themselves, as happened in the 20th century with the theory of relativity and quantum physics. As Schopenhauer affirms, truth arises as a paradox and dies as an obvious fact. When Einstein in 1905 hypothesized that the existence of ether was unnecessary if one admitted that time was not universal, he appeared as the only "mad-genius" supporting such an oddity in a world that couldn't comprehend it. The differential diagnostic criterion between genius and madness was already well defined by Plato in Phaedrus: "There are two kinds of madness, one produced by illness and the other produced by divine release from the yoke of customs and habits." In other words, the great scientist can be (and perhaps must be) visionary because science, like art, has the task of making the invisible visible. As Lao Tze more penetratingly states, "The wise person is one who sees the invisible, that is, what is invisible to the fool".

To open the mind to NOMEs, it is necessary to start from William James' definition (1917):

Our ordinary consciousness is nothing but a particular type of consciousness [...] while everything about it includes entirely different potential forms of consciousness. We can go through life without even suspecting their existence, but apply the necessary stimulus, and in an instant, they are there in their completeness, definite types of mind that probably have their field of application and adaptation somewhere. No account of the universe in its entirety can be definitive if it does not consider these other forms of consciousness.

We can then reconsider the theory of the three worlds introduced by Popper & Eccles in the 1980s, and in particular, its recent neurophenomenological version: 1) World 1, i.e., the world of physical reality; 2) World 2, consisting of the brain, sense organs, and brain encoding processes; 3) World 3, consisting of consciousness and the unconscious, including language, philosophy, science, art, myths, and everything belonging to the inner world. World 3 is the result of interpretations of information we have received from World 1, so it is Weltbild. It follows that sciences can provide effective partial models capable of making correct predictions rather than knowing the intimate nature of reality. World 2 is the transducer that collects information and allows its transformation into mental images. I like to call World 3 the room of mirrors because it reflects reality without being it. It is the eternal metaphor of the mirror, so much so that we have always used the verb 'reflect' as a synonym for thinking. Between World 1 and 3, there is an inseparable interrelationship but not identity, and this relationship is bidirectional because with creativity, the products of the mind collapse into reality, becoming part of World 1; in fact, it has modified World 1 so pervasively that today we are living in the Anthropocene, with all the merits and great dangers related to the looming ecological catastrophe.

The relationship between mind and brain is based on the extreme complexity and plasticity of both the brain and the mind. We are dynamic creatures in constant transformation (like the rest of the cosmos). The concept of identity, that is, what persists in total transformation, raises aporias of difficult solution, already posed in ancient Greece with the myth of the ship of Theseus. In fact, we are always the same from birth to death but in continuous and total transformation of the mind and body (including the replacement of the molecules that constitute it). This suggests that our identity is located against the backdrop of space, time, and matter. The unity of mind-brain-body transforms with experience, training, study, professionalism, with everything we pursue in life, where motivation plays a prominent role.

The mind is not a passive epiphenomenon of brain circuits, as the axioms of materialism pretend. Today there is clear evidence of the ability of intentional introspective techniques, such as meditation and hypnosis, to functionally and even plastically modify brain activity. Thus, there is not only a bottom-up hierarchy from the brain to the mind (the only one allowed by the materialist view), but a bidirectional hierarchy - more akin to the Taoist paradigm with its Yin-Yang polarity and the principle of complementarity of quantum physics - where the brain and mind mutually modify each other. In other words, the critical problem in the foundation of the science of consciousness is metaphysical. According to Chalmers, the study of consciousness implies two problems. The easy problem and the hard problem. The first is the one we know, i.e., the search for the neurocorrelates of consciousness. Let's be clear, it's not easy at all, indeed it's very complex and far from concluded, but it's easy because it does not pose epistemological problems: the method is available, and we know what we have to do. The hard problem, on the other hand, consists of the nature of subjective experience, i.e., that of qualia, which is not translatable tout court into neurotransmitters and brain circuits.

The problem is essentially metaphysical because the idea of reduction from mind to brain is an assumption of a monistic materialistic nature, while in the heated debate on the foundation of consciousness, those who consider that experience is not reducible to the brain have been "accused" of dualism (a kind of insult from the perspective of the "hard" scientist). In the realm of consciousness, the monistic materialist deals only with neurocorrelates, while those who support the hard problem recognize the value of experience and its meaning. These are by no means incompatible positions unless one rigidly adheres to a limited perspective; they are two sides of the same coin, requiring a broader perspective and an expansion of the paradigm. Fortunately, there is a growing dissatisfaction with the rigidly materialistic view in the literature, and broader monistic views that include both the material and mental dimensions have recently been introduced, a necessary path to overcome the limitations of both materialism and dualism.

In any case, it is worth emphasizing that materialistic monism is metaphysically self-contradictory. It admits only matter, rejecting a priori what appears immaterial. Not demonstrating its non-existence, to reject the immaterial dimension, it must implicitly admit it, thus remaining in a latent dualistic position. Furthermore, the materialist relies on his mind - therefore, on what he rejects - to argue his own beliefs. As wisely stated by Zhuangzi, the great Taoist philosopher of the 4th century BC: "To adopt what is affirmed is also to adopt what is denied". Rationally, materialism is therefore not sustainable.

Western post-Aristotelian thought has based rational knowledge on first principles and unproven axioms, the results of which necessarily remain dóxa (relative knowledge, opinion), as affirmed by Aristotle himself. This has unconsciously led to projecting mental categories onto reality, constraining Nature within its own schemes, and then believing that what has been thus known is "objective." Science, and especially quantum physics, has progressively dismantled all the immutable certainties (or perhaps pseudo-certainties) sought for 2000 years, often permeated by naive realism and the dogma of immaculate perception (i.e., believing that reality is what is seen as it is seen), a problem already well-defined by Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason as the inevitable natural illusion of man, who takes names, concepts, and labels for reality itself. This illusion corresponds to what Vaselli has defined as a modern heresy, from which even science is not immune.

Returning to NOMEs, at least some of them, such as meditation, hypnosis, and higher states of consciousness (ranging from self-development to Jung's individuation, to spirituality, and even to enlightenment), can be considered, more than altered states of consciousness, as a plus compared to ordinary consciousness for their cognitive and metacognitive value. This is why I have long proposed overcoming the concept of an altered state of consciousness (a cauldron including both physiological and pathological conditions) and gathering non-pathological states under the concept of NOME, a term that highlights the deviation from the dominant Weltbild and not a dysfunction of consciousness. It is worth mentioning that spirituality – a traditional stumbling block for the materialist scientist – has recently been considered by the World Health Organization and the World Psychiatric Association as a fundamental element for health and well-being, for the sense and quality of life.

Experiences of pre-death (or near-death experiences, NDEs) challenge our current knowledge of the physiology of consciousness. They occur in all conditions where there is an abolition of consciousness in critical conditions, but sometimes they also occur in physiological conditions. They include several main elements such as: a) entering a tunnel with or without light at the end; b) encountering or seeing an entity, often defined as a being of light; c) having an out-of-body experience where one sees their own body lying and doctors resuscitating it; d) a holographic review of one's life; e) encountering deceased relatives or unknown individuals with a communication different from ordinary verbal communication, as if it were telepathic; f) feelings of serenity and unconditional love; g) communication from relatives or entities encountered to return, followed by a return to one's own body. The mentioned elements of NDEs are similar worldwide; they are therefore universal, one might say archetypal. There is no evidence that NDEs are merely the product of a brain disorder; indeed, delirium in intensive care is well known to have a completely different phenomenology. There are also several connections between NDEs, mystical experiences, meditation, and hypnosis.

Scientific interpretations of a mechanistic nature have provided no evidence, and some of them have already been refuted by other known facts incompatible with them. The problem can be properly addressed by distinguishing facts from assumptions and hypotheses from demonstrations, considering their epistemological aspects, including the scientific biases related to them. For example, out-of-body experiences during NDEs are entirely different from autoscopies reported by psychopathic patients, and consciousness appears even more lucid than normal. In rare but well-documented cases, witnesses have reported what happened during resuscitation maneuvers. The first and most famous is the case of the denture man, published in The Lancet in 2001 as part of a study on 344 cardiac arrests. This patient's denture was missing after resuscitation maneuvers, and he testified where the denture was (removed to facilitate intubation) and everything that happened during resuscitation maneuvers, having seen them from above while out of the body. In another study in 2014 on 2060 patients in cardiac arrest, of which 85% died, one patient saw and recognized those who had resuscitated him and heard the voice of the automatic defibrillator saying, shock the patient. In this account, there is an important temporal aspect. The protocol provided 2 minutes of cardiopulmonary resuscitation followed by the analysis of the ECG trace of the automatic defibrillator (which requires 1 minute) before giving the indication for defibrillation. Therefore, the patient had at least 3 minutes of persistent consciousness in cardiac arrest, the last minute without cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and thus in complete absence of circulation. Since it is a well-documented fact, it cannot be rejected because it appears seemingly incompatible with what is currently known about brain physiology. The problem is strictly scientific, not parapsychological, metaphysical, or religious.

The phenomenology of NDEs strongly and concretely readdresses the dimension of the end of physical life, the problem of the definition and pathophysiology of consciousness, and the mind-brain relationship, i.e., the hard problem. In fact, the ability to maintain one's identity and consciousness while in circulatory arrest seems paradoxical and suggests that the nature of consciousness and some of its properties are still elusive and require accurate interpretation, a fact that might require an expansion of the paradigm. My critique of scientific reductionism does not concern the validity of the method itself but only the claim of its exclusivity, which reduces reality only to what is compatible with it, transforming it from a valid method into a sort of theology of the paradigm. If the quantification of phenomena that science allows with its mathematical approach is useful, not everything can or should be quantified: as Cameron states

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts

In accordance with Heidegger, the calculating thought that dominates modern Western society is the thought that aims to control and manipulate the "ontic" dimension of the world in the denial of being; therefore, it discriminates and separates the subject and the object, and the latter in its parts, where its value, including living beings, depends only on its utility and exploitation. If this is the case, the time is ripe to move beyond the limits of the vision that dominated the 20th century.

Share this article

Other entries

focus on February 2024
focus on February 2024