This holiday season, this celebration of birth and renewal, seems a fitting time to look at the various ways that science looks at mind, the essence of what most people consider the person.
The basic problem for everybody from philosophers to scientists to religious leaders to quite ordinary people like me is that consciousness doesn’t seem to have a physical reality. My thoughts and feelings seem absolutely real to me, just as everybody else’s does to them. But we can’t see or measure any aspects of consciousness directly. Yes, we can see blips on the MRI scan, we can isolate parts of the brain that light up when certain thoughts or activities are undertaken, but these physical signs might merely be correlations that occur alongside thought. The most sophisticated data in the world cannot tell someone outside the person what it is that he is thinking or feeling. We might guess, and we might often guess right. But we can’t see another person’s consciousness directly.
Many people assume that scientists all are convinced that consciousness is no more than an incredibly complex molecular combination which one day we will be able to unlock, and even create. But not all scientists take this reductionist view.
Henry Stapp, a physicist at the University of California at Berkeley, offers a fascinating alternative. Research using quantum physics has shown that on the level of subatomic particles, particles can continue to influence each other even though they are separated by huge distances. Not just the distance between New York and San Francisco, but billions of light years. Mysterious as it is, we’ve got scientific proof that this happens.
But we don’t seem to have any evidence that it happens in the bigger world in which we live. We don’t know what is going on in the next room let alone half way across the world if we don’t have some identifiable medium of communication.
But although we haven’t seen it yet, Stapp thinks that it is possible for us to communicate across the same great distances on the macro level in which we live as particles do on the infinitesimally small quantum level.
People who have had Near Death Experiences inevitably report out-of-body perspectives, and some seem to have acquired knowledge during that time that they could not have learned had they been located in the same place as their body, usually prone on a hospital bed being frantically worked on by a medical team trying to revive them.
So do we possess some form of life, what we experience as consciousness, and which some people call spirit or soul, that can exist independently of the body, even when we die?
Some scientists think this idea is ridiculous. In fact, probably most scientists think the idea is ridiculous.
But it was Einstein who said “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”
Best wishes to all for a merry and happy new year.