Grokking the Hard Problem of Consciousness

By Robert H. Clark

(This is a guest essay. The opinions expressed as those of its author.)

Illustration of a synapse (from the book Why Materialism Is Baloney).

I think one can get a visceral, intuitive sense of how, what is often referred to as "the hard problem of consciousness," actually is "the impossible problem of consciousness," through a simple, thought experiment. Note that in this piece I am going to be using the following words interchangeably: mind, consciousness and you.

But first a reminder that "the hard problem" refers to the question of how the physical processes of your brain create consciousness: your self-awareness, the flow of your thoughts, feelings, and experiences, the totality of your subjective experience, i.e. YOU. This problem is considered by many to be not just a hard problem but the hard problem confronting science, because of the disconcerting but simple fact that there is nothing about the physical activity of the constituent particles of your brain, at any level of organization you choose to examine them, cellular, molecular, subatomic, etc., from which the qualities of subjective experience can be directly derived.

Not only is there nothing remotely like a flowchart in some neuroscience textbook, displaying a sequence of discrete, material steps or processes, describing a smooth transition from physical processes to you; "The hard problem" is one of the very few problems in science, for which there is not even, the beginnings, of an inkling, of a clue, of what a progression of causality from meat to self-awareness might look like. Forget theories, forget hypotheses, after over one hundred years of research, attempts to think about and then elucidate explanatory ideas about this progression of causality amount to vague notions that often reveal more about the limitations of language than "the hard problem" itself.

Think about this for a moment. For many phenomena in nature, scientists can with some confidence project that it is only a matter of time before they can reductively chip away at understanding how one physical process leads to the next, which in turn leads to better ideas about what the next sequence of physical processes will be, et cetera, right along the chain of causation until they get to the thing they are trying to understand. Most things science has described have a fairly clear, contextual place in the map of reality that has so far been worked out, all linked together in a vast network of things and causation. It is not an exaggeration to say that, consciousness exists outside this map. Roads that seem to lead there come to an abrupt cliff far from the final destination.

So Where Do Scientists Think Consciousness Comes From?

Here are brief descriptions of the three predominant working ideas, (at least among the dominant group of materialist scientists who believe that mind arises from and is completely contained in your physical brain), about where you come from.

The first is that you don’t really exist. In this view, you may think you are aware of yourself reading this as you, but you are not really, it’s just an illusion. Consciousness is an illusion. A major proponent of this view is philosopher Daniel Dennett.

The second is that brain activity is consciousness. This is often summarized with phrase "Mind is what brain does." What does this mean exactly? Well proponents don't seem to know either. Here is Dr. Susan Blackmore from her recent post Correlation is not a cause (undated) on
At the moment we have no inkling of how consciousness could be brain activity but my guess is that it will turn out that way. Once we clear away some of our delusions about the nature of our own minds, we may finally see why there is no deep mystery and our conscious experiences simply are what is going on inside our brains.
If these two positions seem incoherent to you, maybe you will like the third and probably most mainstream notion, Emergentism. This is the idea that mind emerges from the physical activity of the brain. To quote the Wikipedia entry linked to above:
A property of a system is said to be emergent if it is in some sense more than the "sum" of the properties of the system's parts. An emergent property is said to be dependent on some more basic properties (and their relationships and configuration), so that it can have no separate existence.
Unfortunately while every other emergent property known in nature, can be deduced directly as a consequence of the physical processes from which it emerges, with consciousness that is not the case. There is the physical activity of the brain, and then there is you, and in between there is a bottomless conceptual and evidential chasm.

Why do these three main ideas inform neuroscience, because they are the only possible choices allowed for a priori within the materialist paradigm, where nothing by definition, can exist outside the matter and energy fields that comprise the totality of reality, including mind. Current neuroscience research is hobbled by this dogma that the brain must produce mind regardless of any evidence to the contrary. Think about these three ideas after you go through the thought experiment.

Your Brain

Ok, we are just about to dive into our thought experiment, but first I suggest you read this short explanation of how our brains actually work. Trust me it will make the thought experiment that much more illuminating. This passage is excerpted from Why Materialism is Baloney by Bernardo Kastrup, which presents an excellent counter-narrative to both Materialism and Theism that I highly recommend if you wish to explore this topic further.
A very brief introduction to neuroscience
Before continuing our discussion we need a little more background on how the brain works. Although neuroscience is a complex discipline, its fundamentals are surprisingly simple. After you read the following few paragraphs you will have a fairly good overview of what happens inside your head. It’s simpler than you might suppose and anybody can understand it with little effort, irrespective of background. Moreover, these simple fundamentals will be more than sufficient for you to understand the rest of this chapter. All I ask of you is focused attention for the remainder of this short section.
Here we go. The brain is composed of two main types of cells: neurons and glial cells. Neurons do the actual work of processing information, while glial cells perform support functions like insulation, structural and metabolic support, etc. For the purposes of this book, we can ignore the glial cells and focus solely on neurons.
Each neuron is composed of three main parts: the neuron’s body, the dendrites and the axon. See Figure 1. The neuron’s body is the main part of the cell, responsible for coordinating all of the neuron's activities. The dendrites are extensions of the neuron's body that contain many branches. The axon is a long, thin, cable-like projection that extends far from the neuron's body so to connect it to other neurons. The tip of the axon typically branches out into several terminals.
The brain is basically a giant network of interconnected neurons. Roughly speaking, the axon of a given neuron connects, through its multiple branching terminals, to dendrites of many other neurons. See Figure 1 again. The point where an axon terminal meets a dendrite is called a synapse. The terminal and the dendrite don’t actually touch: a tiny gap remains in between them, which is called a synaptic cleft.
Here is how the whole thing operates: the body of a neuron generates an electric charge. The axon of the neuron carries this electric charge all the way to its terminals. If and when the electric charge grows strong enough to cross a certain threshold, it triggers the release of certain chemicals at the terminals, which are called neurotransmitters. When this happens, the neuron is said to have fired. The neurotransmitters released then drift across the synaptic cleft and stimulate the dendrites of the neuron on the other side of the cleft by fitting into chemical receptors. This is also illustrated in Figure 1. The corresponding stimulus can be an excitatory one – causing the other neuron to increase its own electric charge – or an inhibitory one – causing the other neuron to reduce its electric charge – depending on the neurotransmitter released.
Whether a given neuron fires or not – that is, whether it releases neurotransmitters or not – is thus determined by how many other neurons connected to its dendrites are firing or not, and by what type of neurotransmitters – inhibitory or excitatory – they release when they do fire. A neuron only fires when it has been stimulated with enough excitatory neurotransmitters released by other neurons and provided that it has not been too inhibited by inhibitory neurotransmitters. The entire process has electric aspects – namely, the buildup of electric charge – and chemical aspects – namely, the release of neurotransmitters. We thus say that the brain operates on the basis of electrochemical processes.
A neural network is basically a set of neurons connected together, through synapses, according to some network topology. There can be huge chains of interconnected neurons in the brain: neurons connected to other neurons, which in turn are connected to other neurons, and so on. These networks can also contain closed cycles, whereby a neuron at the end of a chain connects back to a neuron at the beginning of the chain. The brain can be seen as a superset of many neural networks.
Brain activity is associated with the firings of neurons in a neural network. Though there are many neurons in a network, typically only a subset of them is actually firing when observed. Neuroscientists can scan a living brain and see which subset of a neural network is actually active. We call each one of these active subsets a neural process. As we will see below, conscious experience correlates with certain neural processes in the brain, which are then called the neural correlates of consciousness. Naturally, neural processes can be excitatory or inhibitory, depending on whether the neurotransmitters they release respectively increase or decrease the electric charge of connected neurons.
That’s it. Not too difficult, was it?"

Bernardo Kastrup, "Why Materialism Is Baloney: How true skeptics know there is no death and fathom answers to life, the universe and everything" (Winchester, UK: Iff Books, 2014) 27 - 30.
That’s all the prep we need. Let me just add that the current estimate for the number of neurons in a human brain is roughly one hundred billion. 

The Thought Experiment

Take a few deep breaths, clear your thoughts, relax...

Imagine a telephone switchboard operator circa 1945:

She is connecting many incoming electronic signals (phone calls) by physically connecting wires that run between telephones or sub-stations, in a fashion not too remotely dissimilar from the neurons in your head.

Of course neurons can’t think, so if she confuses you, replace the human operator with the racks of mechanical relays that performed the same function starting in the 1950s.

Now imagine those phone calls coming in and our operator spending her day plugging and unplugging wires or if you prefer, a relay clicking open or closed as it makes or breaks an electro-mechanical connection between two wires in the international network of the telephone system.

The result of each unit of activity, is pretty straightforward right? There is simply the making or an unmaking of an electrical connection, eventually resulting in a mundane and expected physical activity; a phone call being completed or disconnected.

Now pan back and visualize two relays, then four, then a whole room full of them. There are still just a bunch of simple mechanical actions going on, electrical connections being made, and phone calls being completed. Now try to imagine racks and racks of telephone relays as far as the eye can see, all doing their electro-mechanical thing. Imagine yourself rising into the air until you see relays receding to the horizon in all directions. Imagine you are looking down at one hundred billion of them. Try to imagine all that electro-mechanical switching. Wow what a racket!

So, what would you expect the outcome of all that activity to be? A whole lot of phone calls that’s for sure. How about this, how about YOU! There you are in all your self-aware and not so self-aware glory. You have emerged from all this electro-mechanical activity. Maybe at this very moment you are feeling a complex rush of excited emotions because someone you have recently fallen in love with has unexpectedly entered the room. Can you envision how the qualities of that experience, your awareness of them, your very self, might come from the activity of all those relays? No? Now replace the relays with neurons as described above, making electro-chemical rather than electro-mechanical connections. Can you envision a giant network of them going off in all directions, as far as the eye can see? Now ask yourself the same question, one or one hundred billion, can you envision yourself somehow being the bonus result of all those squirting chemicals and electrical signals being passed around? Does the question even make any sense to you?

What could possibly be happening as we add neurons, so that somewhere between one and one hundred billion, full blown, self-aware, human consciousness, spontaneously emerges, even though there is no change in what each neuron physically does either alone or in-network?

That is the "hard problem of consciousness." That is the impossible gap that materialist scientists and philosophers must fill, in order to explain how your brain and you can be the same thing. I urge you to remember this the next time you read about the latest experiment purporting to show how scientists are "unraveling the mystery of consciousness" or other such public relations hyperbole.

You are probably thinking that this exercise is some kind of trick, that I have purposely left something out, or exaggerated or underplayed some critical element of brain operation or crucial detail of what the various materialist positions are.

I haven't.

Copyright © 2014 by Robert H. Clark. Published with permission.

Ripples and whirlpools

(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

Whirlpool and ripples.

Yesterday I gave a long and extremely engaging interview to Rick Archer, of Buddha at the Gas Pump. Rick pressed me very intelligently on the distinction I make between idealism and panpsychism; that is, between the notions that everything is in consciousness and that everything is conscious. As my readers know, I reject panpsychism: I reject the idea that everything, like a rock or your home thermostat, is conscious. But I strongly endorse the notion that everything is in consciousness and exists only insofar as it is in consciousness. To Rick, this distinction wasn't clear, and he argued his case very well. I replied to him as best as I could during the interview, but wanted to clarify the point with some more structure in this brief essay.

As my readers will conclude from my book Why Materialism Is Baloney, I make a distinction between inanimate objects on the one hand, and living beings on the other hand:

Inanimate objects: these are excitations of consciousness, like vibrations are excitations of a guitar string or ripples are excitations of water. There is nothing to a vibrating guitar string other than the string itself, yet the string manifests a discernible behavior that we call vibrating. Analogously, there is nothing to a ripple other than water, yet water manifests a discernible behavior that we call rippling. Both behaviors obey certain patterns and regularities that can be modeled mathematically, which is what science does. Now, in exactly the same way, inanimate objects are simply 'vibrations' or 'ripples' of consciousness and, ultimately, nothing but consciousness itself. They are images in mind of excitations of mind. (Here, as in the book, I use the words 'mind' and 'consciousness' interchangeably.)

Living beings: these are images of processes of self-localization of consciousness, like a whirlpool is the image of a process of self-localization of water. However, in exactly the same way that a whirlpool causes disruptions of the water flow surrounding it, mental self-localization also causes excitations of consciousness in their surroundings. Because of this, living beings can also be perceived as objects. Do you see the point?

While mental self-localization causes excitations of consciousness, not all excitations of consciousness arise because of mental self-localization. In other words, while living beings are also perceived (especially by other living beings) as images in consciousness, not all images in consciousness are of living beings. Some are merely of inanimate objects. The key difference between the two is that there is nothing it is like to be an inanimate object, while there is something it is like to be a living being. There is something it is like to be you, but I don't think there is anything it is like to be the electronic device you are using to read this essay. The electronic device exists in consciousness, but you are conscious. You ground a subjective, localized point-of-view into reality at large. The electronic device doesn't, although it is part of the same reality.

Living beings are split-off, dissociated segments of the one mind, while inanimate objects are merely images in that mind. Here is another analogy to help you grasp this: inanimate objects are paintings on the canvas of mind ('vibrations' of the canvas would be more accurate for dispensing with paint, but bear with me), while living beings are particular segments of the canvas. One is a painting on the canvas, the other is a part of the canvas itself. Do you see what I mean? You, I, other people, and all living beings, are dissociated segments of the one mind behind all nature. Inanimate objects are paintings on that mind.

How to gain intuition into this dissociation I am speaking of? Think of Dissociative Identity Disorder, which WebMD describes as follows (the italics are mine):
Most of us have experienced mild dissociation, which is like daydreaming or getting lost in the moment while working on a project. However, dissociative identity disorder is a severe form of dissociation, a mental process which produces a lack of connection in a person's thoughts, memories, feelings, actions, or sense of identity. ... Dissociative identity disorder is characterized by the presence of two or more distinct or split identities or personality states that continually have power over the person's behavior. ... there's also an inability to recall key personal information that is too far-reaching to be explained as mere forgetfulness. ... The "alters" or different identities have their own age, sex, or race. Each has his or her own postures, gestures, and distinct way of talking.
My claim is that each living creature is a dissociated 'alter' of the one mind underlying nature. The process of dissociation is a process of mental localization (a 'whirlpool' in mind). The image of the process of dissociation is what we call life. Inanimate objects, therefore, are not dissociated 'alters': they are just images in mind; that is, excitations of mind.

When the unified mind behind all nature 'breaks up' or dissociates, each dissociated 'alter' will appear to the others and to itself as an image: a biological body. When we see other living creatures, we see these images of other split-off 'alters' of the one mind. After all, just like a whirlpool causes disruptions in the water flow surrounding it, the process of self-localization/dissociation also causes excitations (that is, images) on the broader canvas of mind. But an 'alter' is more than just the image it causes: it has inner life, in the sense that there is something it is like to be it. An inanimate object, however, is just the image (that is, just the excitation), without the inner life. It is a painting on the canvas, not a dissociated segment of the canvas.

Though both whirlpools and ripples are nothing but water in movement, ripples aren't whirlpools. Idealism holds, not panpsychism.

Brian Cox and the idolatry of nerds

(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

Jeroboam's Idolatry. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

A couple of weeks ago, a Twitter war broke out between Deepak Chopra, a well-known proponent of integrative medicine, and Brian Cox, a physicist and TV-star who is famous for science documentaries on UK television. The war was covered in a highly tendentious way in an article in the New Statesman. Here, however, I want to focus on what the Twitter exchange seems to reveal about the appalling state of our culture. To give you a flavor of the exchange, I want to start with specifics. Then, I will move to broader, more generalized commentary.

Specific commentary

The contentious part of the discussion seems to have started with the exchange illustrated in the figure below. Chopra’s point is philosophically sound and quite easy to understand. As Bertrand Russell stated, science can only explain one thing in terms of another thing [Russell, B. (2007). The Analysis of Matter. Nottingham: Spokesman Books]. This way, one can never scientifically explain the primary creation event, for there would be, by definition, nothing else in terms of which to explain it. For example: we can scientifically explain the human body in terms of tissues; tissues in terms of cells; cells in terms of molecules; molecules in terms of atoms; atoms in terms of subatomic particles; and subatomic particles – tentatively – in terms of an imagined Big Bang. But we cannot explain the Big Bang, or whatever else science considers the primary creation event, in terms of anything else. After all, by definition, nothing else existed. Chopra’s intent is clear: with the term ‘Big Bang’ he is actually referring to the primary creation event, whatever that may be called in today’s cosmology. In his necessarily-short Twitter message, he says ‘Big Bang’ simply because that is popularly understood to mean the primary creation event.

Yet, Cox replies to Chopra’s statement as if it had been false and naïve. That he felt the need to add an infantile hashtag is as disturbing as it is revealing but, for the sake of substance, let’s leave that silly detail aside for now. In his reply, Cox refers to the theory of eternal inflation, clearly suggesting that it offers a scientific cause for the Big bang. It’s outside the scope of this essay to elaborate on the theory, but the essential point is this: eternal inflation only offers a scientific cause for the Big Bang if we drop the notion that the Big Bang was the primary creation event; that is, if we assume that there was something else prior to the Big Bang. Indeed, eternal inflation simply pushes the primary creation event further into the past [Linde, A. D. (1986). Eternally Existing Self-Reproducing Chaotic Inflationary Universe. Physics Letters B, 175 (4), pp. 395–400]. It leaves the epistemic hole pointed out by Chopra completely intact. As such, Cox’s reply doesn’t at all refute the essence of Chopra’s message and Cox obviously knows this. Yet, he seems to have willfully chosen to use his authority to – there is no other way to say it – mislead his Twitter audience for the sake of making someone else look like a fool. What can possibly motivate such behavior from a scientist and public educator? Answers later. For now, bear with me.

Cox goes on to throw highly-specialized scientific literature at Chopra. Under different circumstances, this would be an entirely valid attempt to claim the scientific high-ground. But, in this case, Cox obviously already had the scientific high-ground to begin with, for he is the physicist in the discussion. So what is he trying to accomplish? The implicit but clear message seems to be this: because Chopra is not a physicist, he is not qualified to conclude anything from physics in order to interpret the broader aspects of reality. Only physicists, as the new priesthood of modern culture, are supposedly qualified to do that. Yet, this contradicts Cox’s own outreach efforts to explain physics to the common men and women on the streets. The whole point of that effort can only be to equip people to interpret their broader reality on the basis of physics. That Chopra does precisely this is either entirely legitimate or Cox should give up his TV-star role as science educator for the masses. One can’t have it both ways.

I am sure Cox would react to what I just said above by claiming that Chopra’s understanding of physics is simply wrong. He would claim that his reference to technical papers makes this clear. Peer-reviewed scientific papers, as such, seem to be considered by Cox as sufficient to give legitimacy to an ontological position, even if they don’t necessarily prove it. Are there, then, peer-reviewed scientific papers corroborating Chopra’s main claim that reality is not objective but, instead, entirely in consciousness? There are plenty. Here are just some, all of which have been published in the most respected scientific journals in the world:
  1. Kim, Y.-H. et al. (2000). A Delayed Choice Quantum Eraser. Physical Review Letters 84, pp. 1–5. The authors show that observation not only determines the reality observed at present, but also retroactively changes the history of what is observed accordingly. This is entirely consistent with the notion that reality is fundamentally a story playing itself out in mind.
  2. Gröblacher , S. et al. (2007). An experimental test of non-local realism. Nature 446, pp. 871-875. The authors show that reality is either entirely in consciousness or we must abandon our strongest intuitions about what objectivity means. As far as the practical applications of Chopra’s claims are concerned, the differences between these two alternatives are not so significant., in a related article, went as far as to claim that ‘quantum physics says goodbye to reality.’
  3. Lapkiewicz, R. et al. (2011). Experimental non-classicality of an indivisible quantum system. Nature 474, pp. 490–493. The authors show that, unlike what one would expect if reality were independent of mind, the properties of a quantum system do not exist prior to observation. Renowned physicist Anton Zeilinger, in a related New Scientist article suitably titled “Quantum magic trick shows reality is what you make it,” is quoted as saying that “there is no sense in assuming that what we do not measure about a system has [an independent] reality.”
  4. Xiao-song Ma et al. (2013). Quantum erasure with causally disconnected choice. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 110, pp. 1221-1226. Again, the authors show that no naively objective view of reality can be true, which is consistent with Chopra’s claim that reality is fundamentally subjective. A less-technical explanation of the experiment in this paper, as well as its results, can be found here.
  5. A bunch of others, too numerous to comment on individually:
    Aspect, A. et al. (1981). Experimental Tests of Realistic Local Theories via Bell’s Theorem. Physical Review Letters 47(460).
    Aspect, A. et al. (1982). Experimental Realization of Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen-Bohm Gedankenexperiment: A New Violation of Bell’s Inequalities. Physical Review Letters 49(91).
    Aspect, A. et al. (1982). Experimental Test of Bell’s Inequalities Using Time-Varying Analyzers. Physical Review Letters 49(1804).
    Tittel, W. et al. (1998). Violation of Bell Inequalities by Photons More Than 10 km Apart. Physical Review Letters 81(17).
    Weihs, G. et al. (1998). Violation of Bell’s Inequality under Strict Einstein Locality Conditions. Physical Review Letters 81(23).
So where does this leave us? The conclusion is inescapable: according to Cox’s own values, Chopra’s key message that reality is in consciousness cannot be cavalierly dismissed as New Age woo or nonsense. Rigorous science lends more than merely suggestive support to it. What motivates Cox’s behavior then? Answers shortly. For now, I want to beat this dead horse a little more.

As Carl Jung put it, consciousness – that is, subjective experience itself – is the only carrier of reality anyone can ever know. The very act of knowing is an act of consciousness. Can you know what you aren’t, have never been, and will never be, conscious of? Materialist scientists like Cox infer a fundamentally unknowable, unprovable and abstract universe outside consciousness because they believe that this is the only way to explain empirical reality. If reality is fundamentally subjective, like a dream, how do we then explain the fact that we all seem to share the same reality – that is, the same ‘dream’? How do we explain the undeniable correlations between brain activity and subjective experience? How do we explain the effect of psychotropic drugs or physical trauma to the head, both of which undeniably and reliably alter consciousness? How do we explain the undeniable fact that the laws of physics are utterly independent from our egoic volition? After all, if you jump off of a building you will fall, whether you change your mind about it during the fall or not. How do we explain the fact that the world goes merrily on while we sleep in apparent unconsciousness? Etc.

These are all valid questions. The thing, however, is that they have been answered. The latest, most contemporary set of answers to these questions is in my own book, Why Materialism Is Baloney, where I take pains in 250 pages to tackle each of these points logically, rigorously, and with plenty of empirical substantiation. But I haven’t been the first one to do this. Already in the early 18th century philosopher George Berkeley did it. To this day, he remains a respected figure in philosophy. It’s true that many non-philosophers are put off by Berkeley’s use of the concept of ‘God’ in his argument, which was an entirely legitimate move in his own time. However, as I elaborate upon in the video below, we can very clearly and logically articulate and defend the notion that all reality is in consciousness – a notion called ‘Idealism’ in philosophy – without using the concept of a deity.

Now, the moment we can show that Idealism has enough explanatory power to make sense of all reality, including scientific observations, it must be accepted as the preferred, default ontology. The reason is as simple as it is irrefutable: consciousness is the primary datum of existence; it is the one undeniable element of reality and necessary precondition for all knowledge. If one can explain everything without postulating anything beyond consciousness itself, parsimony comes into play and we must refrain from multiplying hypotheses unnecessarily. Postulating a universe outside consciousness when reality can be explained entirely as complex excitations of consciousness is akin to believing in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. And if Brian Cox thinks that I am deluded in claiming this, I herewith challenge him to debate me publicly on the matter. Since he is gutsy enough to call Deepak Chopra a “whining teenager” while referring to himself as a “rational grown-up,” he should have no problem accepting this challenge and proving to the world that I am a fool.

The apparent counter-intuitiveness of Idealism is merely a reflection of deeply-ingrained, hardly-conscious prejudices embedded in our culture. Often, as I illustrate in the video below, materialists beg the question when disputing Idealism. In other words, they assume materialism in their argument to defend it, which is obviously a fallacy.

Our culture, somehow, has come to completely invert the situation: when we say that all reality is in consciousness, most people believe it to mean that reality is inside our heads. In fact, it is materialism that says that the reality we experience is entirely inside our skulls, since experience is supposedly generated by our brains. If, instead, reality is in consciousness, then our heads are in consciousness – not the other way around – and the world we experience around us is, indeed, outside our heads. Idealism, in other words, grants reality to be exactly what it seems to be. But our culture, somehow, has come to attribute to materialism the intuitiveness of Idealism, while attributing to Idealism the absurd implications of materialism. See the video below.

General commentary

It is this inversion that allows Brian Cox, and others in science, to get away with the dangerous combination of narrow-mindedness and hubris that he displayed in his exchange with Chopra. As I discussed in an earlier essay, science-as-you-know-it has come to deface reason by uncritically co-opting the metaphysics of materialism. By turning itself into a church of materialism, science-as-you-know-it no longer represents an unbiased and ontologically neutral method of investigation. And because our culture mistakenly takes technological success to be evidence for a deep understanding of the nature of reality, we are all guilty, at least by omission, of allowing the new priesthood of science to appoint themselves arbiters of ontological truth. This is as insane as appointing a 5-year-old kid, who happens to break records playing computer games, chief architect at Apple Inc. because the kid’s game-playing prowess must imply deep understanding of computer engineering. Or must it not? The fact that one has figured out, through trial and error, how to play the game of technology does not imply any deep understanding of the nature of reality.

Because of our growing cynicism as a culture, long ago has wisdom been abandoned by our value systems. We have given up on the idea of elders: those who, irrespective of formal education, are firmly in touch with the full spectrum of their humanity and its intimate connection to the universe at large. We have given up on our poets, artists, healers and philosophers as guides. But the archetypal human need to receive guidance and reassurance from an external source remains intact. We naturally need to place our projections of wisdom and superior knowledge onto something or someone else. The gap left had to be filled. And in our technology-obsessed culture, we tragically filled the gap with the spokespeople of science. Having done so, we now find ourselves in the insane position of expecting wisdom and guidance from – pardon my blatant sincerity – semi-conscious nerds; intellectual specialists who can solve abstract mathematical puzzles but are largely disconnected from life and the depths of their own psyche. No teenager would make this silly mistake among his or her own circle of friends, as a visit to any schoolyard will show you. Yet we, as a culture, do it all the time.

Why do we behave like this? What are we getting from this insane projection of wisdom onto some of the least sighted amongst us? A cogent analysis of none other than Brian Cox himself, by James Sheils, helps shed some light on the question. Sheils argues that “Cox’s science documentaries stupefy the public into remembering disconnected and obscure ideas they do not understand.” Yet, the public is fascinated by these documentaries because the obscure mysteries they hint at instigate a misplaced sense of amazement and awe. This “amazement and awe,” Sheils continues, “do not advance a person’s understanding of scientific ideas. And to settle for this response is to encourage your audience to be satisfied with feeling bewildered and overwhelmed.”

Shiels is on to something here. Our progressive abandonment of our relationship with the mysteries of transcendence since the Enlightenment has left a gaping hole in the human psyche. Our culture is desperate to get intellectual permission to believe something else instead, to peek into some new and obscure mystery, so long as it inspires the same amazement and awe previously reserved for transcendence. The new priesthood of science sensed an opportunity and rushed to fill the gap not with real science, but with the science fiction of parallel universes and the like that Brian Cox is so fond of. Cox, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking, Laurence Krauss, Richard Dawkins: scientists or TV stars? Men of wisdom or priests of misplaced wonder? Here is Brian Cox – whose lectures discuss “obscure quantum mechanical assumptions used to introduce counter-intuitive effects and explain obscure astronomy,” to quote Shiels again – arrogantly blasting Deepak Chopra because of the latter’s obscure appeal to quantum mechanics. How ironic. And here is Neil deGrasse Tyson preposterously suggesting that science has rendered philosophy redundant, a position whose absurdity and danger has been made painfully clear by Prof. Austin Hughes. And they all get away with it! What’s going on?


It is we, as a culture, who project onto figures like Brian Cox maturity, authority and wisdom they’ve never had. And, as any psychologist will tell you, those who receive such projections begin to believe them themselves, in a process sometimes called inflation (no pun intended). They then take their preferred methods, values and particular way of thinking to be the only valid ones, snubbing all others. As a consequence, true intuition, imagination and direct experiential knowledge are disregarded today in favor of purely conceptual exercises in abstraction. Our projections have given semi-conscious nerds the power to impose their idiosyncratic values and dominant psychic functions onto the rest of us. This has been costing more to our culture than we can imagine today, but will realize one day with jaw-dropping horror.

All this said, we can also withdraw our projections and change this tragic state of affairs rather quickly. In doing so, we need not give in to woo, hysteria, intellectual nonsense, or any such drivel. We only need to learn and separate style from substance, personal taste from content, argument from conclusion. Personally, I also have distaste for New Age jargon and style. I’ve always had it and never made a secret of it. I also think that a lot of the New Age ideas and theories are complete and utter bunk; even dangerous bunk. You will find in me no sympathy for lack of intellectual rigor or lack of skepticism; much to the contrary. But my idiosyncratic taste and preferences are no basis for dismissing Chopra’s claim that reality is in consciousness, because that simply is the best explanation around. My idiosyncratic taste and preferences are no basis for dismissing Chopra’s claim that our psychic state is directly related to our physical health because, as I articulated in an earlier essay, that is also quite likely and reasonable. He was saying these things before I ever had the maturity to even contemplate them as possibilities, so I can only respect him despite any difference in style or values. The fact that Chopra may have never articulated his positions with the degree of thoroughness and rigor that I personally require does not mean that he is wrong. By pre-judging the claim based largely on his distaste of the claimant’s style and way of communicating, Cox is committing an ad hominen fallacy whose cost is enormous: he is desensitizing his large audience to hypotheses about the nature of reality that aren’t only very likely to be true, but also essential to our physical, psychological, and spiritual advancement as a civilization.

Finally, if Brian Cox thinks I am foolish or in any way wrong, the least he can do is to accept my challenge for a public debate. Please wipe the floor with me, Brian, if you can. Or, to paraphrase your comment to Chopra, just “shut up.”