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3. The Head Doctrine

The cerebral cortex (is) where matter is transformed
 into consciousness ... .   - Carl Sagan, Cosmos, 1980 -

   In western thought and mainstream science, it is generally assumed that the neurological activities of the brain generate human consciousness and the mind.  The mind is identified with the brain in the head, and it is assumed that consciousness and the mind disappear with the disintegration of the brain.  This is the essence of the head doctrine.
    Kenneth Pelletier, in Towards a Science of Consciousness (1978) labels this “the under the hat theory of consciousness.”  He writes:
Our present science and common sense support the concept that awareness resides predominantly at a point behind the eyes, between the ears, and above the neck.(p.22)
Pelletier himself considers alternative views but begins by establishing this basic assumption underlying consciousness research and theory.  This seems quite reasonable.   Thus, Roger Sperry, a prominent neuroscientist, voices the widespread assumption:  “I don’t see any way for consciousness to emerge or be generated apart from a functioning brain.”
    The head doctrine assumes that the origins of consciousness are in matter, produced by neurological activity within the brain; and not in spirit, soul or anything immaterial beyond the physical realm.  The mind and brain provide the foundation for experience, self or “I,” for human intelligence and self-consciousness.  These are fundamental assumptions underlying so-called exact psychology and science. 
  Carl Sagan embraces this basic assumption regarding the nature of human consciousness and mind.  In The Dragons of Eden, he explicitly stated:
My fundamental premise about the brain is that its workings–what we sometimes call  ‘mind’–are a consequence of its anatomy and physiology, and nothing more. ... because of the clear trend in the recent history of biology and because there is not a shred of evidence to support it, I will not in these pages entertain any hypotheses on what used to be called the mind-body dualism, the idea that inhabiting the matter of the body is something made of quite different stuff, called mind.  (1977, p.7)
Contemporary scientists take human beings to be higher primates that have evolved through random genetic changes and the process of natural selection.   There is no immaterial mind, spirit or soul, and the highest or most noble human faculties are regarded as being dependent upon the cerebral cortex.  These themes run through Sagan’s writings:
The cerebral cortex (is) where matter is transformed into consciousness ... . The cortex regulates our conscious lives.  It is the distinction of our species, the seat of our humanity.  Civilization is a product of the cerebral cortex. ...  What distinguishes our species is thought. The cerebral cortex is a liberation.  We need no longer be trapped in the genetically inherited behavior patterns of lizards and baboons. (Cosmos, 1980, pp. 277-8)
Thinking and reasoning, language faculties and various other cognitive abilities can be localized within various areas of the cerebral cortex.  Further, neurologists have identified the sensory-motor strip of the cortex as a site of bodily sensation and control; while emotions, drives and passions are related to the limbic system and mid-brain structures.  All such findings suggest the general notion that consciousness and mental states are dependent upon the brain, particularly the cortex which is so richly developed in the higher primates.  Cortical areas are required for abstract thought and language faculties, and hence are regarded by Sagan as the “seat of our humanity.”
    Nevertheless, Dr. Sagan steps out on a limb in declaring that “the cerebral cortex is where matter is transformed into consciousness ... .”  (p.277)  He  does not define consciousness, nor elaborate what it is, nor where and how it is transformed out of matter.  These are simply declarations that are unsubstantiated by evidence.  While it may seem natural to identify human consciousness most intimately with the cerebral cortex, there is still something fundamental missing in these accounts from a scientific perspective.
  In 1995, Dr. Sagan continued to maintain this same basic position.  In an interview in Psychology Today, he comments:
“... the mind is merely what the brain does.  There’s nothing else, there’s no soul or psyche that’s not made out of matter, that isn’t a function of 10 to the 14th synapses in the brain.”  (p. 65)
There are other diverse views within mainstream psychology as to what consciousness entails, and how it is produced or localized within the brain.  Sometimes, different states of consciousness are  identified with different divisions of the brain;  for example, with the left and right hemispheres, or with MacLean’s triune brain model (i.e., the reptilian, old mammalian, and new mammalian brains).   Other theorists regard the sub-cortical areas as more directly involved in generating consciousness, particularly the reticular activating system and the brain stem. These structures are involved in mediating arousal, wakefulness and the control of attention.  Thus, while scientists put forth various possibilities concerning the generation and localization of consciousness, they share the basic assumption that consciousness and the mind are centred exclusively in the brain, in the head–hence, I call this “the head doctrine.”
     Nobel laureate, Francis Crick, is another prominent theorist who articulates the head doctrine.  Given the conventional viewpoint that he espouses, the title of Crick’s recent work The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul (1995), is quite misleading.  His “astonishing hypothesis” is anything but “astonishing.”  Crick merely restates the common belief, or assumption, held within psychology and science for the past century:
The Astonishing Hypothesis is that “You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assemble of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased it: “You're nothing but a pack of neurons.” This hypothesis is so alien to the ideas of most people alive today that it can truly be called astonishing. (p. 3)
Crick’s point is that this hypothesis is astonishing when contrasted with the popular belief in spirit and the existence of the soul. The subtitle of Crick’s book is misleading, however, in that he makes no effort to review the scientific work of scientists who do search for the soul, or who explore alternate views of consciousness.  Instead, Crick deals exclusively with attempts to explain how consciousness might be generated by neurons within the brain.  How astonishing!
    Although Crick suggests the need for a broader investigation of the nature of human consciousness, he focuses exclusively on trying to understand visual awareness.  He explains that the neural substrate of visual awareness involves various cortical areas (layers 4, 5 and 6), which subserve visual analysis in association with activity in the thalamus. #   In summarizing his work, Crick expresses a number of reservations:
So much for a plausible model. I hope nobody will call it the Crick Theory of Consciousness. While writing it down, my mind was constantly assailed by reservations and qualifications.  If anyone else produced it, I would unhesitatingly condemn it as a house of cards.  Touch it, and it collapses.  This is because it has been carpentered together, with not enough crucial experimental evidence to support its various parts.  Its only virtue is that it may prod scientists and philosophers to think about these problems in neural terms, and so accelerate the experimental attack on consciousness. (p. 252)
What is most contrived about Crick’s model of consciousness is that it is based exclusively on an analysis of visual awareness processes, and leaves aside all of the other psychological processes which are subjectively experienced–such as thoughts, emotions, sensations, desires, self awareness, digestive problems, sexual arousal, and so on.
    Crick himself recognizes the tentative and incomplete nature of his model, and his main aim is to encourage scientists to focus their efforts on this “mystery of consciousness.”  He  notes that the issue of consciousness has been widely ignored by both psychologists and neuro-scientists, and yet it constitutes the fundamental enigma in the life sciences.
    Crick notes that “this book has very little to do with the human soul as they (readers) understand it.”  Certainly, this is true, as he never gives the soul hypothesis any serious attention.  Most importantly, Crick recognizes that the issue of the existence of the soul is intimately tied to the issue of the nature of human consciousness;  and it is high time that scientists face this critical issue.  Further, he recognizes that his theory is simply a “hypothesis,” which is  “plausible,” but not established with any certainty.  In fact, it may be little more than a “house of cards” ready to collapse with the slightest breeze.  Crick portrays the mystery of consciousness as a central problem in science which must be addressed, yet he assumes, from the outset, that the question to be answered is simply which neurons in the brain produce consciousness. Crick’s theory has no substantive basis in experimental fact and is simply another fiction of cognitive science.

    David Chalmers, of the philosophy department at the University of Arizona, is another prominent mainstream consciousness theorist. Chalmers suggests that the search for the neural correlates of consciousness (or NCCs) is “the cornerstone in the recent resurgence of the science of consciousness.” (2000, p.1)  He defines a neural correlate of consciousness as a neural state that directly correlates with a conscious state, or which directly generates consciousness.  In a paper on NCC’s, Chalmers lists a number of proposal which have been forwarded to explain the nature and location of consciousness.  These include:

40-hertz oscillations in the cerebral cortex
Intralaminar nuclei in the thalamus
Re-entrant loops in thalamocortical systems
40-hertz rhythmic activity in thalamocortical systems
Extended reticular-thalamic activation system
Neural assemblies bound by NMDA
Certain neurochemical levels of activation
Certain neurons in inferior temporal cortex
Neurons in extrastriate visual cortex projecting to prefrontal areas
Visual processing within the ventral system         (2000, p. 1)

All of these suggestions or hypotheses are variants of the head doctrine and localize consciousness within one or more areas of the brain.  Each is derived from research investigating the neurological basis of particular mental processes, and none really deal with the issue of the substance of consciousness, or with its subjective nature.  Although many researchers recognize the enigmas and mysteries of consciousness, the possibility that consciousness might exist outside of, or apart from, the neurological activity of the head brain is never given any consideration.  The head doctrine is the basic assumption underlying most modern consciousness research and speculation.

    Theorist John Searle (2003) writes about “The Problem of Consciousness,” at his website, www.ecs.soton.ac.uk; and his comments again illustrate the assumptive basis of the head doctrine:
“The most important scientific discovery of the present era will come when someone–or some group–discover the answer to the following question: How exactly do neurobiological processes in the brain cause consciousness?  This is the most important question facing us in the biological sciences .... By ‘consciousness’ I simply mean those subjective states of sentience or awareness .... Above all, consciousness is a biological phenomenon. ... Conscious states are caused by lower level neurobiological processes in the brain and are themselves higher level feature of the brain. ... the critical functional elements are neurons and synapses. ... we simply know as a matter of fact that brain processes cause conscious states.  W don’t know the details about how it works and it may well be a long time before we understand the details involved. ... Given our present explanatory apparatus, it is not at all obvious how, within the apparatus, we can account for the causal character of the relation between neuron firings and conscious states. But, at present, from the fact that we do not know how it occurs, it does not follow that we do not know that it occurs.  Many people who object to my solution of the mind-body problem, object on the grounds that we have no idea how neurobiological processes could cause conscious phenomena.  But that does not seem to me a conceptual or logical problem.  That is an empirical/theoretical issue for the biological sciences. The problem is to figure out exactly how the system works to produce consciousness, and since we know that in fact it does produce consciousness, we have good reason to suppose that there are specific neurological mechanisms by way of which it works.”
     Searles’ comments illustrate the assumptive basis of the head doctrine; and how assumptions end up being taken as ‘facts.’  At one point, Searle admits that we have no idea how neurobiological processes produce consciousness, but a moment earlier, he has just stated: “... we simply know as a matter of fact that brain processes cause conscious states.”   The facts seem to have disappeared from Searle’s account, and it is instead plagued with assumptions.  Searle has “promissory science” to offer us–promising in the future to fill in the gaps in the mysteries of consciousness–and he certain consider that he has no need for any metaphysical considerations.

    A last illustration of the head doctrine, and its assumptive basis, is provided by G. Roth’s recent Scientific American article: “The quest to find consciousness.”   Roth maintains that: “Individuals  consciously perceive only that information processed in the associative regions of the cerebral cortex.  But many regions that operate on a subconscious level participate in the various states of consciousness.”   (2004, p. 35)   Under the title of “The Seat of Consciousness.” Roth offers a picture of the cerebral cortex showing its various lobes, responsible for varied mental functions.  At the same time, Roth does admit that there is “no consensus” as to how consciousness arises, nor of what it consist, but all the while he assumes it is simply figuring out which of the brain’s interactive processes produce it.  Roth also ends on a promissory note:

“For now, no definite explanations exist, but that is not likely to remain true forever.  Consciousness has a rather unique character, but at least some of the mysteries that surround it should nonetheless–eventually–fall away in the face of persistent scientific inquiry.”  (p.39)

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Zero Point Dynamics

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