“We have to recognize that we are spiritual beings with souls existing in a spiritual world as well as material beings with bodies and brains existing in a material world.”
–Nobel Prize winning neurophysiologist Sir John Eccles.
The title of this essay presents an important question because, if there is no reality beyond the physical, it stands to reason that our existence as sentient beings ends when our physical bodies die. Denying the existence of anything transcending the physical (or material) plane is the route most often taken by those wishing to do away with notions such as the existence of consciousness outside of the body (i.e. “the soul”).
The perception that there is nothing beyond the physical, material realm is a persistent one in part because our experience would tend to suggest that it is so. After all, I cannot perceive a soul, or God, etc…with my five senses, but I certainly can perceive the chair I am sitting in.
Indeed, the persistence of this deeply seated, culturally situated belief is anchored by its roots in the concepts of reality passed down to modern man from the ancient Greek philosophical tradition known as “atomism” (founded by the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus). This point can be illustrated by an examination of the Greek word “atom:”
“Atom” is constructed from two different words: “a,” meaning “un” and “tomos,” meaning “cut-able“…hence, “un-cut-able.” The ancient Greek “atomist” stance that the atom is irreducible (un-cut-able) betrays the atomists’ belief that the material realm is the most irreducible, and therefore fundamental plane of existence. But modern science (with the help of atom smashers) has shown the atom to be far from irreducible.
One of history’s most prominent apologists for atheism, Bertrand Russell, helped to articulate materialism (the belief that reality is fundamentally material) into a philosophical worldview when he said, “all experience is likely to resemble the experience we know.” Existence of life after death in eternal realms such as heaven and hell can be easily dismissed as fairy tale using this line of reasoning because such concepts don’t “resemble the experience we know” through our five senses. But Russell would have been well advised to take to heart Hamlet’s reminder that “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
And what Shakespeare knew intuitively when he wrote Hamlet, Nobel Prize winning physicist Anthony Hewish knew logically when he wrote:
“The ghostly presence of virtual particles defies rational common sense and is non-intuitive for those unacquainted with physics. Religious belief in God, and Christian belief that God became Man around two thousand years ago, may seem strange to common-sense thinking. But when the most elementary physical things behave in this way, we should be prepared to accept that the deepest aspects of our existence go beyond our common-sense intuitions.”
In his book Life After Death: The Evidence, Dinesh D’Souza exposes Russell’s very common error of reasoning to the light of modern physics:
“We experience space in three dimensions and time in one dimension; Einstein brought them both together into the new four-dimensional entity of spacetime. Scientists [post-Einstein] tell us that reality is divided not into four but rather eleven dimensions, ten of space and one of time. So where are the other dimensions? Well, string theorists say they are hidden dimensions, somehow positioned so that they are invisible and inaccessible to us. As physicist Lisa Randall puts it, ‘We are in this three-dimensional flatland…Our world is stuck in this three-dimensional universe, although extra dimensions exist. So we live in a three-dimensional slice of a higher-dimensional world.’”
Indeed, using his flawed reasoning as a guide, Bertrand Russell became a purveyor of what George Gilder called “the Materialist Superstition.” Gilder poignantly states that “the central fact of the 20th century…is the overthrow of matter.” He goes on to say that “scientists no longer see the foundation of all matter as inert, blind, impenetrable particles. Rather, physicists now agree that matter derives from waves, fields, and probabilities. To comprehend nature, we need to stop thinking of the world as basically material and begin imagining it as a manifestation of consciousness…”
Einstein knew this, and that was what led him to comment,
“Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe–a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble.”
So did the Nobel Prize winning physicist Max Planck (the founder of quantum theory), which is why he said,
“As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.”
Planck also said, “I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.”
The knighted physicist Sir James Jeans said:
“The stream of knowledge is heading toward a non-mechanical reality; the universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a machine. Mind no longer appears to be an accidental intruder into the realm of matter; we ought rather hail it as the governor of the realm of matter.”
Much as the science of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo dismantled the illusion that the earth is the center of the universe, modern physics has dismantled the illusion that our reality is fundamentally material. Richard Foster makes this point in his book Celebration of Discipline:
“The materialistic base of our age has become so pervasive that it has given people grave doubts about their ability to reach beyond the physical world. Many first-rate scientists have passed beyond such doubts, knowing that we cannot be confined to a space-time box. But the average person is influenced by popular science which is a generation behind the times and is prejudiced against the nonmaterial world.”
And if nature is a manifestation of consciousness, and not matter; then our existence too is grounded in consciousness rather than matter. Consciousness preceded matter, and matter arose from consciousness, not vice versa. The claim that consciousness cannot exist beyond our physical bodies does not hold water because our physical bodies are themselves manifestations of consciousness. Believing that a person’s consciousness dies with their body is dependent upon the assumption that consciousness exists only as a product of physical (brain) processes. Jeffrey M. Schwartz, a Research Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA, however, reveals this assumption to be discredited in his book The Mind and the Brain:
“The shift in understanding inspired by neuroplasticity and the power of mind to shape brain undermines the claim of materialist determinism that humans are essentially nothing more than fleshy computers spiting out the behavioral results of some inescapable neurogenetic program. ‘The brain is going to do what the brain was always going to do,’ say the materialists. But modern physics and contemporary neuroscience reply that they are wrong. The teachings of faith have long railed against the perils of the materialist mindset. Now neuroscience and physics have joined them at the barricades.”
In a fascinating documentary entitled The Day I Died, the BBC explores this understanding of the mind and brain as separate in light of what are known as near-death experiences. In the annals of near-death experiences are documented cases in which conscious awareness appears to continue past the complete cessation of brain activity. (The best places for a more detailed exploration of NDEs are iands.org and nderf.org ).
Researchers featured in this documentary propose the theory that the brain can better be understood as a sort of radio receiver for consciousness, rather than the producer of consciousness (as in the popular brain-as-computer model). In this theory, consciousness emanates from another realm, but is anchored to the physical realm by the brain. (Please view this brief video from the Today Show featuring NDE researcher Dr. Jeffrey Long and and NDE experiencer. Please also view this NDE that occurred to a Harvard University neuroscientist).
Please click here to read and view videos about the NDE experienced by a Harvard University neuroscientist, in which he encountered God.
[As an aside, it should be noted that atheists experiencing NDEs often return to traditional religion after their experience. Several such fascinating cases are documented by the following videos: atheist NDE 1 , atheist NDE 2 , atheist NDE 3 , NDE: Man Visits Heaven and Hell] Additionally, please visit this website for further NDE testimonies regarding the existence of heaven and hell.
The brain-as-computer model does not hold water philosophically, either. In his book The Devil’s Delusion, philosophy and mathematics professor David Berlinski reminds us that “a machine is a material object, a thing, and as such its capacity to do work is determined by the forces governing its nature and by its initial conditions. Before an inclined plane can do work, it must be inclined…An inclined plane cannot incline itself. This pattern, along with its problem, recurs whenever machines are at issue, and it returns with a vengeance whenever computers are invoked as models for the human mind.”
Berlinski’s point becomes more clear when dovetailed with insights from computer science. To this end, we return to George Gilder:
“The usual materialist assumption is that the brain – the hardware – comes first and the mind somehow emerges from it. But the computer offers a contrary example. The computer design is itself a software design and determines the structure of the electronic circuitry that constitutes the computer…It is the human mind that brings meaning to the syntax of the machine, whether hardware, software or wetware. The higher-level languages of software lend significance to the dumb electrons circulating through the system.”
Reduced to its simplest form, Gilder’s argument can be stated as such: The hardware (the brain) is nothing but a physical construct of the software (the mind). It is a flaw of reasoning to suggest that the reverse is true. Consciousness is not the product of the brain anymore than radio waves are the product of a radio receiver.
For further reading on this subject, please consult The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul by Montreal Neurologic Institute neuroscientist Mario Beauregard.
Also, please review the article entitled Is Your Brain Really Necessary? by Roger Lewin, M.D. This article provides strong evidence that consciousness does not reside in the brain.
Additional quotes relevant to this subject matter appear below:
“The materialist critics argue that insuperable difficulties are encountered by the hypothesis that immaterial mental events can act in any way on material structures such as neurons. Such a presumed action is alleged to be incompatible with the conservation laws of physics, in particular of the first law of thermodynamics. This objection would certainly be sustained by nineteenth century physicists, and by neuroscientists and philosophers who are still ideologically in the physics of the nineteenth century, not recognizing the revolution wrought by quantum physicists in the twentieth century.”
–Nobel Prize winning neurophysiologist Sir John Eccles.
“The human brain cannot account for the yawning chasm between [the] utterly unique characteristics of humans and the repetitive instincts of animals.
Therefore, a non-physical addition must unite with the human brain, converting it into the human mind.”
“. . . The human brain cannot explain the human mind—there must be a non-physical ingredient, beyond our microscopes, test tubes, electrodes and computers. To the truly open-minded individual, it is fruitless to physically rationalize the uniqueness of mind. There must be a non-physical essence—a ‘spirit’—in man.”
“. . . Evolutionary theorists point to the similarity among human and ape brains to corroborate their views. It is ironic that, in reality, they have stumbled on to the most significant scientific observation in history, irrefutably attesting to the non-physical component which converts the output of the human brain into mind. Without this non-physical factor, man could be nothing more than a super-ape, more intelligent than the chimp to the same degree that the chimp is more intelligent than a less complex mammal.”
–Brain researcher Robert L. Kuhn
“Although the content of consciousness depends in large measure on neuronal activity, awareness itself does not… To me, it seems more and more reasonable to suggest that the mind may be a distinct and different essence.”
–Famed neurosurgeon and brain researcher Wilder Penfield.
“Descartes founded the image of the human mind as a sort of nebulous substance that exists independently of the body. Much later, in the 1930′s, Gilbert Ryle derided this dualism in a pithy reference to the mind part as ‘the ghost in the machine.’ Ryle articulated his criticism during the triumphal phase of materialism and mechanism. The ‘machine’ he referred to was the human body and the human brain, themselves just parts of the larger cosmic machine. But already, when he coined that pithy expression, the new physics was at work, undermining the world view on which Ryle’s philosophy was based. Today, on the brink of the twenty-first century, we can see that Ryle was right to dismiss the notion of the ghost in the machine—not because there is no ghost, but because there is no machine.” [Italics added]
–Physicists John Gribbin and Paul Davies, from their book The Matter Myth.
“Cognitive scientists talk about neurons, for example. But ‘neuron’ itself is an abstract concept that arose from the researches of biologists. For the materialist, then, even this concept of ‘neuron’ is nothing but a neurological creation; it also is a pattern of neurons firing in someone’s brain. If this sounds like a vicious circle, it is. We explain certain biological phenomena using the abstract concept ‘neuron,’ and then we proceed to explain the abstract concept ‘neuron’ as a biological phenomenon—indeed, a biological phenomenon produced by the activity of neurons. What we are observing here is the snake eating its own tail, or rather its own head. The very theory which says that theories are neurons firing is itself naught but neurons firing.”
“…Why should anyone believe the materialist, then? If ideas are just patterns of nerve impulses, then how can one say that any idea (including the idea of materialism itself) is superior to any other? One pattern of nerve impulses cannot be truer or less true than any other pattern, any more than a toothache can be truer or less true than another toothache.”
–Physicist Stephen Barr commenting on the materialist belief that consciousness is the result of brain activity, as quoted in his book Modern Physics and Ancient Faith.