This is the 12th blog in the series which began with The Brainless Bible and the Mindless Illusion of Self and is exploring ideas about free will, the mind, the brain and the self. The previous blog is Is the Brain Nothing but a Biological Computer? This blog series is based on the recent books of two scientists who are considering some claims from neuroscience about consciousness and free will: Michael S. Gazzaniga’s WHO’S IN CHARGE?: FREE WILL AND THE SCIENCE OF THE BRAIN and Raymond Tallis’ APING MANKIND:NEUROMANIA, DARWINITIS AND THE MISREPRESENTATION OF HUMANITY.
The notion that the brain is merely a computer, albeit a biological one, is not supported by science or experience, according to these scientists who defend the notion of free will. There is an operator and interpreter, a self, which is part and parcel to how the brain functions. The computer can do nothing without this operator – the human being – to determine and interpret the computations of the computer. Tallis notes that consciousness has been an obvious element in theories of the mind/brain for centuries; consider for example John Locke’s (d. 1704) theory of knowledge:
“All knowledge, he said, came from the senses. The mind at birth was a tabula rasa – a clean slate or blank sheet – and it was effectively constructed out of experiences organized only according to their associations. But if the mind starts off as a blank sheet, and is built up out of experiences, how does it manage to avoid ending up as just ‘a heap of impressions… There must surely be some innate basis for the organization of the material of which the mind was composed.” (Tallis, p 34)
That “innate basis” for organizing material is consciousness, the self. What the theories of the brain keep pointing to, but then denying is the necessary existence of a conscious self to understand the operation of the brain. Without human consciousness, the computer would not exist and would not be doing anything at all. Thus the comparison of the brain to a computer is a totally inadequate scientific understanding of the brain/mind.
Tallis especially hammers away at the point that what is required for science to exist is that there be a conscious observer of the process. Thus he defends the fact that consciousness is real, even if immaterial. Without consciousness, this awareness which is not coterminous with neural activity, materialist science would not be making any declarations against the existence of consciousness!
“Physics tell us that light is electro-magnetic radiation and this does not in itself have a colour or, necessarily, visibility. Yellow-in-itself is not actually yellow; and electromagnetic radiation outside a very narrow bandwidth is invisible. Only an appropriately tuned perceiver can confer brightness, colour and beauty on light.” (Tallis, p 96)
It is the conscious self which is needed for science to exist.
“The appeal to quantum physics … the ultimate constituents of the material world have definite properties… only in the presence of measurement – that is to say an observer. In other words, quantum phenomena require consciousness and so cannot generate it.” (Tallis, p 119)
As quantum mechanics show the observer is a necessary element in quantum physics itself. A self is needed for that physics to exist. A conscious observer is also needed for time to exist. Tallis brings this point out in a discussion on memory.
“… in the absence of an observer, time has no tenses; not only does the physical world not have past and future in which events are located but (and this seems less obvious) it doesn’t have the present. For an event to count as being present, there has to be someone for whom it is present…” (Tallis, p 132)
Time is an immaterial property of the universe. It is measurable and it is real in physics, but it requires a conscious observer for it to have any meaning.
“When I remember your request, however clear my memory, however precise the mental image I might have of your making the request, I am not deceived into thinking that you are now making the request. Your request is firmly located in the past. As for the past, it is an extraordinarily elaborated and structured realm. It is layered; it is both personal (memory) and collective (history); it is randomly visited and timetabled; it is accessed through facts, through vague impressions, through images steeped in nostalgia. This realm has no place in the physical world.” (Tallis, p 124)
Once again for Tallis, absolute materialism is stymied by science itself. Time and memories exist, and they represent an immaterial part of the empirical world.
“… memories are both in the present (they are presently experienced) and in the past (they are of something that was once experienced). They are the presence of the past.” (Tallis, p 125)
“A remembered smile is located in the past: indeed in a past world, which is … ‘a living network of understanding rather than a dormant warehouse of facts.’” (Tallis, p 128)
Memories, the experience of time, the fact that an observer is needed for quantum phsyics to exist, speak to Tallis scientifically and logically about the existence of “self” and also of beings that exist in the material world and yet experience and share an immaterial reality as well. Tallis is convinced that memories as well as perceptions are not equated with neural activity, though related to it as our way of experiencing reality.
Next: Free Will