Consciousness: What is it, and Where is it Found?


This article Consciousness: What is it, and Where is it Found? published in the Sydney Traditionalist Forum offers reasons for thinking that though the brain and consciousness are frequently correlated, the brain does not actually generate consciousness. Oftentimes, the facts are not in dispute on this topic. It has more to do with their implications. When, for instance, there are cases of hydrocephalus where 95% of the brain is missing but the person has no cognitive deficits and is actually above average intelligence, the notion that brain mapping will get us very far seems slim; as does the fact of neuroplasticity where parts of the brain get repurposed after a stroke in a case of top down causation.

Placebos and nocebos seem to have mind over matter implications too and their existence was initially strongly resisted by materialist-minded scientists for that reason – meaning, they actually recognized the non-materialist possible ramifications.

Near Death Experiences also suggest that consciousness can exist without brains which is good news for anyone interested in the possibility of an afterlife. The cardiologist Pim van Lommel provides good scientific reasons for thinking that NDEs have nothing to do with residual brain activity during cardiac arrests or resuscitations. Apparently, for instance, manual manipulation of the heart during CPR is physically incapable of pumping enough blood around the body to restore consciousness, even partially.

The article ends with suggestions about the real relationship between minds and brains, and ideas about the nature and meaning of human existence.

37 thoughts on “Consciousness: What is it, and Where is it Found?

  1. Pingback: Consciousness: What is it, and Where is it Found? | @the_arv

  2. Pingback: Consciousness: What is it, and Where is it Found? | Reaction Times

  3. The traditional Thomist view is that wholly material entities, like the brain, can generate consciousness, though the Thomist would not accept the modern concept of matter. Animals, for example, have no immaterial intellect, but are nonetheless conscious.

    • Thanks for your comment, Thursday. I tend to imagine that consciousness precedes matter so matter couldn’t generate its own precursor. Also, when asked “Do dogs possess the Buddha nature?” I tend to imagine the answer is yes. Although, since this is a koan, I must just have this wrong entirely.

  4. @Richard – I think that before we can use evidence in understanding consciousness, we need to examine our fundamental assumptions concerning what is possible and how things work (ie metaphysics).

    In most mainstream consciousness research (a field I used to work in) it is a fundamental assumption that the brain supports consciousness – not a discovery but an assumption.

    And because it is an assumption; In Principle nothing that you say – nothing that happens, or has been or could be discovered – will challenge or overturn it. All the phenomena you mention are explained – necessarily – within the assumption that the brain supports consciousness; and if they can’t be explained yet, then in principle they could be in the future… That is how mainstream scientists see the world.

    My point is that using evidence cannot make any difference to what mainstream scientists think – because they will interpret any evidence using their existing assumptions.

    So, the only route to change is for people to adopt different assuptions – which perhaps first entails admitting that one has assumptions, and checking their coherence, plausibility, explanatory power etc.

    However, most scientists will not admit to their own assumptions being assumptions at all! – but will argue that they are a consequence of evidence.

    Denial of one’s own metaphysics is a *really* big problem in modernity – maybe the biggest of al problems!

    • @ Bruce – Thanks for reading, Bruce. Everything you say is entirely correct. Students quite often comment that some of what I say in my lectures they have just heard in, say, their psychology class, but there the fact of placebos or neuroplasticity is treated as entirely innocuous and non-threatening for the materialist worldview, without argument of course. Metaphysical assumptions are very nearly everything and are something I spend much of the semester on in Introduction to Philosophy classes. If one’s point of view differs from the mainstream, then it is nearly impossible not to think about assumptions. It is one of the reasons I keep coming back to Goedel’s Theorem in the things I write as it shows the ineradicable role of assumptions. Interestingly, one materialist, determinist philosopher I know insists GT has no application outside mathematics – although the phrase is “axiomatic systems,” not just “mathematical systems,” whereas a retired math professor I know agreed that GT has wider application without hesitation. At the absolutely bare minimum, the analogy with first principles is striking.

      I notice you use the phrase “supports consciousness.” That is actually sufficiently vague to keep a nonmaterialist potentially happy. If the word were “generates” then the difference in POV becomes starker.

    • Denial of one’s own metaphysics is a *really* big problem in modernity – maybe the biggest of all problems!

      Yes, very much this. It’s also interesting to think about how ideas evolve. If your metaphysics is pretty bad, pretty hard to defend, then your overall world view is going to seem more coherent to you and to others if that world view includes a virtual prohibition on talking about metaphysics. So, this idea that it’s bad form to talk about metaphysics is just naturally going to attach itself to larger systems of thought which have bad metaphysics.

      • @ DrBill – Yes. There is tremendous motivation never to offer arguments in support of physicalism in case it brings to awareness the fact that it is one view among many and may be in need of argumentative support. Even a good argument is dangerous in that regard as C.S. Lewis pointed out.

    • And what is the modern scientist’s first unspoken assumption?

      Denial of objective Supremacy, i.e., Perfection.

      And this ^^^ “works” for most modern doctors, too.

  5. That some connection obtains between the brain and conscious mind appears obvious, but it is not obvious that the brain merely generates consciousness, as Professor Cocks’ essay persuasively argues. Hart argues in The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, that mind/consciousness uses the brain, but is not a product of it. Hart lists numerous flaws in the materialist account of consciousness.

  6. The Placebo/Nocebo effect, in terms of a well documented empirical phenomenon, is really the nail in the coffin of any simple naturalistic or reductionist account of the mind. Like salt that has lost its saltiness, a philosophical naturalism or reductionism that is not simplistic loses anything that might give it metaphysical appeal.

    But it is often easy not to see the obvious when you don’t want to.

    • @ KD – Placebo/Nocebo effect is certainly a big one. An acquaintance engineering professor rejected out of hand the rat nocebo experiment when I described it to him, as impossible. Having looked further into it, he acknowledged its legitimacy. It’s just too well replicated as you say. But it means he clearly saw the threat to his worldview.

  7. @Richard

    Rupert Sheldrake has been arguing for the past 35 years that memories are not located in the brain… As you probably know Rupert is ultra intelligent, a very good arguer, very well connected and credentialed, immensely productive and energetic, and a very nice chap.

    Yet he has made zero impact on actual science. His ideas have not even been considered.

    Professional science has been for the past generation almost entirely corrupt – careerist bureaucracy merely; and most scientists (most scientists are biologists) hardly ever think for five minutes consecutively and honestly in their whole lives.

    Serious thinkers must work outside the system.

    • @Bruce – Agreed! Teaching Sheldrake contributed to me being fired at one place and getting in trouble, but not fatally, at another. Wikipedia editors have their knives out for Sheldrake and any attempt to present a more neutral point of view regarding him is reedited more or less immediately. There are about 50 vigilante editors around the world who diligently monitor this. And his Tedx talk was taken down after protests by opponents concerning giving him any forum to speak. I know this sounds paranoid and conspiracy theorist, but if you check Wikipedia you’ll see for yourself.

      • @pbw – re: Infogalactic – thanks for the reference. I knew that something like that existed, but I wasn’t sure of the name.

  8. I would happily refer people to this article, Rupert Sheldrake and all, were it not for the long extract from Afterlife Teaching From Stephen the Martyr, which cast a pall over the whole argument, and does not seem to contribute anything positive.

    There are two main problems. One is that this has the resonance of New Age ‘spirituality,’ including the now thankfully defunct channelling fad. A small army of con-artists emerged in this period, and did very well, thank you. A more disturbing aspect is that there were some ridgey-didge channels; more disturbing because of what they were actually channelling. In my experience, New Agers are deeply heterodox, and so it this example.

    “Therefore, the second of your duties is to love yourselves, for you are a part of God and He of you.”

    Oh dear. Paging Shirley Maclaine. Please, Richard, take this bit out.

    • @pbw – I’m sorry you feel that way. For me it adds to understanding the meaning of life. My father was quite aware of the dubious-sounding nature of channeling and spent years verifying the phenomenon described in huge detail in the book. In fact, he was so concerned about proving it that he originally began the book with the proof before actually mentioning what St. Stephen was on about, making the book quite unreadable. “St. Stephen” is also at pains to point out that what he is saying should be judged by its content and not who is saying it.

      Concerning the sentence “Therefore, the second of your duties is to love yourselves, for you are a part of God and He of you.” that meets with your particular disfavor, as far as I know it has the advantage of being true. Notice that is just the second of your duties. Logically, loving yourself is a prerequisite for following the suggestion to “love your neighbor as yourself.” The “you are part of God and He of you” is fairly standard theology as far as I know. It is certainly part of the perennial philosophy, I think. If Shirley Maclaine agrees, more power to her.

      • Sorry it has taken me so long to get back. I don’t know about evangelical theology, but it seems to me that, if I am a _part_ of God, then God is likely composed of all of the parts of creation, plus maybe something else. This is not a Christian notion, nor Judaic. God is other than His creation. If we say that God is comprised, in part or whole, of the creation, then, in my understanding, we are talking pantheism.

        That the grace available through Jesus Christ enables us to be drawn into the inner life of the Trinity, to become sons of God; to be divinised. But this is a special dispensation of the Creator to a part of His creation. It is an echo of the mystery of the Incarnation.

        In that sense you might say, “You are part of God,” but I don’t see that you can say, “God is part of you,” without descending into some sort of paganism. God is the ultimate Other, and we, and all created things, are stuff that He has made.

      • @pbw – Thank you for your comments. I’m not evangelical. My father is an Oxford-educated Anglican minister if that helps situate theologically him and me. Acts 17:28 – “It is in God in whom we live and move and have our being.” God is not wholly other than his creation, otherwise Christ could not exist. The son part of the Trinity includes incarnation. The universe shares in God’s divinity from which the universe is wholly derived. God is the Logos providing cosmic order. I have heard it claimed that in theory God could withdraw from the universe, but this I find incomprehensible and inconsistent with Christian theology. I find it more plausible that God sustains Being moment to moment and think that is regarded as theologically sound.

        It is a Christian platitude that God is within you. We cannot be alienated from Him literally, only in imagination. Devoting ourselves to Christ is devoting ourselves to reality and God’s love.

        God as the ultimate Other would be my version of Hell. We are indeed his creation and as such are unalterably linked with Him. The made is not other than the Maker, but its product. Pagans like Plato and Aristotle have been adopted by the Church and large parts of their theologically-informed philosophy incorporated within Christian theology. The made seeks its Maker. Plotinus, that neo-Platonic pagan, suggests beauty reminds us of our true home which is spiritual. I would like to think that Christianity could find that notion congenial.

        I subscribe to panentheism which, as far as I know, is a recognized Christian theological position. I’m not sure what your position is called.

      • Richard,

        Having read a little about panentheism, I would say that my position is called theism. It seems to me that theism describes the position of the Catholic and Orthodox churches, and was Luther’s position. I don’t know about Calvin or Arminius.

        As to the lovely phrase, “In him we live and move and have our being,” I would say that it bears varying interpretations. The context is Paul speaking to the Athenians. “The God who made the world and everything in it…does not live in shrines…nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything…Yet he is not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring’.”

        I read this as Paul quoting from “some of your poets.” And I read that in turn as an instance of Paul’s approach. “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” (In 1 Cor 9:19-23) That is, I read this as Paul’s evangelising rhetoric, not necessarily as his theology. I’m unaware of anything comparable in his letters to the churches.

      • pbw – I suspect you’re wishing to provoke, but perhaps your reading misled you. You’ll be happy to hear that we are in complete agreement then. I too am a theist. Let us shake on it!

        The passage you quote is indeed Paul evangelizing. He is finding a point of agreement between ‘some of your poets’ and Christianity. Otherwise, what’s the point? Just waxing lyrical? Perhaps two Christians might come to different conclusions about this one? I haven’t read that the Church disowned the comment.

      • Richard, I assure you that there is not an iota of provocation in what I have written. There is a fundamental difference between what Christians and Jews have traditionally believed about the relationship between Creator and creation–an important element of theism–and any form (and there seem to be a few) of panentheism. I am surprised that you brush this difference aside.

        One of the most elementary difficulties would be determining the nature and source of evil. Judaism gradually embraced the belief (incredible to others) that the single Creator is all good. “Why do you call me good? No-one is good but God alone.” The locus of all evil is in the rebellion of creatures. If the whole of creation is but a part of God, then all evil is also within God. I’m sure there are hi-jinks that can be performed to work around that, but that single issue is a gulf between theists and panentheists. It deserves more attention than to be brushed aside.

      • pbw – I believe you. Panentheism is a particular brand of theism; hence the inclusion of “theism,” quite visible, in the word. In fact, all of Christianity is a brand of theism – hence my suspicion/supposition that you were cracking wise in your suggestion that our views could be contrasted in that manner.

        Your solution to the problem of evil sounds remarkably like Gnosticism, with a God who is wholly Other. The universe is evil because created by the evil Demiurge while the One resides entirely outside it and above it all. But, as Plotinus says, the world is the child of the Father. If the Father is good, so too is his child. If his child contains evil, then we still have the problem of a good Father with evil offspring.

        God declared his Creation good. Was he mistaken? Creation is good yet evil exists within it. One way Christian theologians have tried to solve the problem is to suggest that evil has no real, separate existence. If God is the light, then evil is the absence of light with no substantive existence of its own.

        The problem of evil is a problem for all Christian theologians, not just me, with which all must contend. You seem to think that you have found a solution. I can see its attraction. I suspect good and evil exist within the realm of the Relative, but disappear in the realm of the Absolute. If our true nature is to be an immortal soul, then no real harm can befall us and hence evil has no absolute existence. But the meaning of life is to learn to love in all circumstances and to make love manifest. To love your neighbor as yourself and to love one’s enemies. God is love. Love is connection. That is the Absolute. Life is about combining the truth of the Absolute, connection, with life in the Relative where separation seems to exist.

        Avicenna writes that God causes, has knowledge of, controls and wills the existence of everything. Nothing can happen that He does not wish to happen. And what he wishes is for free will to exist since love is only meaningful where feeling not-love is a possibility and this explains why a good God permits evil to exist. Avicenna, admittedly, is a Sufi; but the Sufis were influenced by Syriac Christianity and Greek thought. Tom Bertonneau commented that Avicenna reads as a good Neo-Platonist.

        There can be no gulf between panentheists and theists since panentheism is a species/subset of theism, the superset. If anyone else is reading this, I would be interested in the origins of the notion that God is wholly Other and what Biblical support can be found for it. Or perhaps in what Church council it was decided.

        I find myself in a comparable situation to Thomas Nagel. He said he did not wish to live in a universe that had a God connected with it. I don’t want to live in a universe without such a God or a God from whom I could be literally separated. Such a thing is the stuff of nightmares for me. If that puts me beyond the pale and necessarily performing “hi-jinks” in your eyes, so be it. If you are a real Christian theist and I am the wrong kind of theist, I can live with that. In case it’s of any interest, when I wrote to Nagel saying that it was interesting that my desires are the complete opposite of his and asked him if he cared to expand on why he would not wish to live a God-filled universe, he wrote a terse “I have said all I intend to say on the matter” reply.

      • Richard & PBW:

        This might help elucidate the orthodoxy of the panentheist proposal – it’s really more like an emphasis within classical theism – by nailing it down a bit more precisely in Aristotelian terms:

        God is in all things; not, indeed, as part of their essence, nor as an accident; but as an agent is present to that upon which it works. For an agent must be joined to that wherein it acts immediately, and touch it by its virtue … therefore as long as a thing has being, God must be present to it according to its mode of being. But being is innermost in each thing and most fundamentally inherent in all things since it is formal in respect of everything found in a thing … Hence it must be that God is in all things, and innermostly.

        … Although corporeal things are said to be in another as in that which contains them, nevertheless, spiritual things contain those things in which they are; as the soul contains the body. Hence also God is in things containing them; nevertheless, by a certain similitude to corporeal things, it is said that all things are in God; inasmuch as they are contained by Him.

        – Summa Theologica 1.8.1

        With this short passage, Aquinas clarifies the nature of divine transcendence and of divine immanence, as well.

        Aquinas is obviously not at any odds with the classical tradition of Christian and Jewish theism. On the contrary: he is its archon.

        As for the Problem of Evil, panentheist theologians ascribe it – quite properly – to creaturely defection from the perfect Good. It’s the pantheists who ascribe it to God. It’s pantheism that argues creatures are part of God, simpliciter; panentheism rejects that notion.

      • Thanks for that, Kristor. And with regard to your following contributions re: Aquinas and Paul – what he said! (He = Kristor)

      • Richard and Kristor,

        Yes, the Creation is good. Evil is the creation of rebellion; the rebellion of the angels, and the rebellion of our first parents. Evil is the creative novelty of creatures, arising out of the freedom to love or not to love. As a result, individual human natures are now created in a state of defection from God, and each must be redeemed. The heavens and the earth are also in a corrupt state; hence the need for new heavens and a new earth. Should God turn his attention away from the creation, it would vanish. It is held in being by the Creator. But, can the Creator destroy himself, or even one particle of himself? And is the evil, created by the creatures, a part of God?

        When you introduced me, Richard, to panentheism, I went to the SEP, which I generally find to be non-partisan, or at least not shrill, in its surveys of philosophical topics. From that article, I got the impression that there are many threads of panentheism. The devil is in the definition. Subsequently, I have found a useful short article by an Arminian theologian, Roger E. Olsen, which stresses the variations in panentheism. His touchstone is, “Does this person believe in creation ex nihilo?” It’s a fair cop.

      • @ pbw: If we are a thought in the mind of God, then we are coextensive with the Thinker; but very much the created, not the Creator. The Thinker can cease to think a thought without destroying Himself; not even a particle.
        Is a thought ex nihilo or not? I guess that would be the answer. It’s not there. Then it’s there. Then, in a flash, it’s gone.

        I believe I have already addressed the ontological status of evil.

      • … the variations in panentheism. His touchstone is, “Does this person believe in creation ex nihilo?” It’s a fair cop.

        It’s actually even simpler than that. The test is, “Does this person believe that creatures are parts of God?” If so, he is a pantheist. If not, he may be a panentheist, or not; but, he is at least an orthodox theist.

        As to creatio ex nihilo, here’s the entirety of a short post I wrote on the subject a couple years ago:

        Every contingency is brought into being from a state of affairs in which it does not actually exist; from a condition of things in which it is nowhere to be found. And as this is true of each contingency, so therefore is it true of all contingencies, and of the whole lot of them taken together. Contingent being as such comes into being from a prior state of its own non-being.

        In a state of affairs in which there are no contingent beings, there is nothing but necessary being. If contingent beings are to be brought into existence from this state of affairs, there are only two possibilities: either they are made from God, and he furnishes from his own actuality the matter of their becoming; or he creates them from nothing. If the former, then, as departments of God, contingencies are in fact necessities. They aren’t contingent in the first place. This is monism. It radically contradicts experience as such, which it has no alternative but to declare our lives illusory and radically unintelligible. So it can’t be true: we can’t really even think it might be true.

        Creatio ex nihilo must therefore be true. Having come into existence from nothing turns out to be an inherent aspect of contingent being.

        There is a lot of good further discussion of creatio ex nihilo in the comments to that post. But I would skip my exchange with Steven Hoyt.

      • It might be useful to consider the complete text of the bit of the Summa already quoted:

        On the contrary, A thing is wherever it operates. But God operates in all things, according to Isaiah 26:12, “Lord . . . Thou hast wrought all our works in [Vulgate: ‘for’] us.” Therefore God is in all things.

        I answer that, God is in all things; not, indeed, as part of their essence, nor as an accident, but as an agent is present to that upon which it works. For an agent must be joined to that wherein it acts immediately and touch it by its power; hence it is proved in Phys. vii that the thing moved and the mover must be joined together. Now since God is very being by His own essence, created being must be His proper effect; as to ignite is the proper effect of fire. Now God causes this effect in things not only when they first begin to be, but as long as they are preserved in being; as light is caused in the air by the sun as long as the air remains illuminated. Therefore as long as a thing has being, God must be present to it, according to its mode of being. But being is innermost in each thing and most fundamentally inherent in all things since it is formal in respect of everything found in a thing, as was shown above (I:7:1). Hence it must be that God is in all things, and innermostly.

        Reply to Objection 1. God is above all things by the excellence of His nature; nevertheless, He is in all things as the cause of the being of all things; as was shown above in this article.

        Reply to Objection 2. Although corporeal things are said to be in another as in that which contains them, nevertheless, spiritual things contain those things in which they are; as the soul contains the body. Hence also God is in things containing them; nevertheless, by a certain similitude to corporeal things, it is said that all things are in God; inasmuch as they are contained by Him.

        Reply to Objection 3. No action of an agent, however powerful it may be, acts at a distance, except through a medium. But it belongs to the great power of God that He acts immediately in all things. Hence nothing is distant from Him, as if it could be without God in itself. But things are said to be distant from God by the unlikeness to Him in nature or grace; as also He is above all by the excellence of His own nature.

        Reply to Objection 4. In the demons there is their nature which is from God, and also the deformity of sin which is not from Him; therefore, it is not to be absolutely conceded that God is in the demons, except with the addition, “inasmuch as they are beings.” But in things not deformed in their nature, we must say absolutely that God is.

      • It should be noted also that when Paul in Acts 17:28 quotes the statement of his countryman, the Stoic Aratus, that “in him we live, and move, and have our being,” he is not misleading the Athenians into believing the Gospel because it agrees with Aratus when, in fact, it does not. He is not telling a pretty lie. On the contrary; he is showing them that their own Stoic poet agrees with the Gospel; that, i.e., Aratus is here speaking the plain truth. He thereby explicitly asserts the dogmatic truth of the Stoic assertion.

        Paul is never shy, or coy. There are lots and lots of places where he condemns error and falsehood with tremendous force, and indeed wrath. This is not one of them. Here, *he agrees with Aratus.*

      • If God is Perfection as revealed by The Perfect Man then we can conceive both an absolute objective separation from God AND an unmitigatedly desirous connection to Him…

        In the West, “white man” is broken because he just plain rejects objective Supremacy, i.e., (P)erfection. And so he cannot be in possession of any relationship other than a deformed and self-annihilating relationship to the Father.

        In other words, the “white” West dies because the son is deracinated and hates his father(s).

        And high IQ “white” Christians are not bringing this solution to the fore because this collective racial die-off is not [regarded as?] an actual problem.

        A white Supremacist would call this “Evil discarnating.”

  9. A consequence of the receiver model of the nervous system is communication with spiritual persons; at the very least, our spiritual selves. So I have no problem with spirtual communication, per se. The most notable documented example I know of is Socrates communication with his “daemon;” or to be more precise, the daemon’s communication with Socrates. Xenophon is an excellent source for this, and he gives no impression of having an axe to grind, so he takes Socrates at his word.

    This communication is so remarkable because of Socrates’ position at the fountainhead of Western philosophy.

    • @pbw – Yes. One of the nice things for me is that NDEs, communication with personal daemon’s, descriptions of the spiritual realm (Phaedrus), a thorough-going theism, are all inextricably part of the dialogs of Plato and are therefore an ineradicable part of Western philosophy.

  10. thanks for the excellent essay.

    I think brain scientists and philosophers often conflate consciousness with the content of consciousness. In trying to make two problems into one they create an insurmountable task by starting with a false assumption. it is obvious that whatever brain channels create vision and sound for example are disconnected from the observer through which both are united. The mere closing of my eyes totally changes my inner world but has no effect on me, the subjective observer that is still and sits in judgement of all this activity in the senses. Indeed the complexity of nerve signals can generate the moment to moment activity of thoughts and sensations but the observer of those sensations has a much more personal and durable nature is not so easily explained as a byproduct of neural activity.

    for a defense of interactive dualism see:

    for a speculative panpsychic metaphysics see

    • Thanks, Lorenzo. Becoming aware of the observing self seems consistent with my middling Zen practice. Focusing on the products of consciousness rather than conscious itself does seem to lead to all sorts of errors. I’ll take a look at your articles. Panpsychic interactive dualism sounds congenial!


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