Friday, 20 November 2015


This is a slightly enhanced text of the talk I gave at the November 14 Philosophers’ CafĂ©.

It’s hard to know what to think about reincarnation.  The Dalai Lama says he does not remember his previous lives.  Shirley MacLaine says she remembers all of hers.  So did the Buddha, according to the legend, although he advised his disciples not to think about the afterlife – they weren’t going to find out anything about it.  His Tibetan disciples of later times thought a great deal about reincarnation and still do.  They think the most urgent task of life is to strive for moral perfection so as to escape the seemingly endless cycle of birth and rebirth that humans are fated to endure.  Not exactly a recommendation.

Reincarnation is the religious or philosophical belief that a human life does not end at death, that in some manner an essential aspect of a person survives and is born into a new body with a whole new life to live.  We have to define the term rather abstractly because different traditions hold different notions about what it is exactly that reincarnates. 

Reincarnation is not a mainstream belief in western cultures, but it is well established in many others:  the ancient Greeks (Plato), Hindus, Buddhists, West Africans, North American natives, even early Christians.  Some modern esoteric philosophies embrace the doctrine as well.
Mainstream philosophy these days tends to be materialistic and oriented towards science, math, and logic as the only reliable sources of knowledge.  Most mainstream thinkers, therefore, are dismissive or even contemptuous of all supernaturalistic beliefs.  Hence, there is not much literature on the subject of reincarnation.

I had not taken much of an interest in reincarnation before starting work on this talk.  Frankly, the thought of this life being only one of an interminable series of existences I found rather depressing.  But philosophers must face music of all kinds, so I started to find out what current (and respectable) literature is available.  In addition to the ever-helpful Wikipedia, I read three recent books on the subject, each approaching the subject from a different point of view.  Robert Thurman’s Infinite Life was written from the standpoint of an expert on Tibetan Buddhism and spirituality.  Ervin Laszlo and Anthony Peake’s The Immortal Mind aims for a synthesis of empirical research and quantum physics in search of a paradigm shift in how we should think about human life and afterlife.  Life Before Life by Jim B. Tucker is a strictly scientific study of children’s stories about their previous existences.

Does it surprise you to learn of scientific interest in reincarnation?  A considerable body of serious research into the subject has accumulated over nearly 50 years. There are many books that contain the stories of people who remember their past lives, but I have confined my attention to the work of two researchers at the University of Virginia, Dr. Ian Stevenson and Dr. Jim B. Tucker.  Together they have compiled and evaluated over 2500 cases of children's memories of previous lives. Dr. Stevenson, who wrote the introduction to Life Before Life, is the preeminent expert in the field, having specialized in this type of research for over 40 years.

Time does not allow for recounting even one of the stories, which tend to be lengthy and detailed, so I will restrict my remarks to the scientists' methods and their conclusions. Researchers in this field are working in the domain of social psychology. That means the data they are interested in are the reports or stories they are told by their subjects, in this case children who have or had memories of previous existences. The research requires travel to the homes of the children, detailed interviews with the children, their parents, and other adults who may be familiar with the stories, and careful checking of the stories by interviewing anyone who might have known or known of the previous person.

The researchers adopted a strictly open-minded, analytical approach, as required by any scientific investigation. The goal of the project is “to determine the best explanation for the statements by the children and to see if science should consider reincarnation as a possibility.” The broad approach is that of systematic skepticism: reject any case as unsolved that could possibly be accounted for by normal explanations; resort to paranormal explanations as a last resort.

The subjects of the research were usually children, who began to tell their stories between 2 and 4 years of age. The basic pattern of the stories is that a young child repeatedly claims to have memories of a previous life and gives enough details to identify a deceased individual whose life matches the child's statements. The remembered lives tend to be recent, the median time between death and the new life being only 15 – 16 months. Almost always only one life is described. Physical marks, behaviors, and emotions seem to carry over as well as memories. The children always speak from the viewpoint of the previous person, e.g. “I was your grandmother.” “You are not my parents; I need to get back to my real parents.” “This is my house.”

Most of the children stop talking about their previous lives at 6 or 7 years of age. Some even deny remembering, which is not surprising. At this age many childhood memories are lost,  (“early childhood amnesia”).  They almost never talk about what happened between the lives, and rarely offer any words of wisdom. The focus is on people and events.

After confirming the statements that could be confirmed, the scientists were faced with the question of how to explain these bizarre stories. They considered two types of explanation: normal and paranormal:
  • Normal: fraud (intentional lying by adults), fantasy, coincidence, knowledge acquired through normal means, faulty memory, and genetic memory (not generally accepted by scientists).
  • Paranormal: telepathy, clairvoyance, spirit possession, and reincarnation.
In Life Before Life, Prof. Tucker describes in detail the meticulous process of ruling out normal explanations for the cases the researchers categorize as “strong.” No single explanation applies to all the features of a given case. Birthmarks and birth defects; childrens' statements; past-life behaviors; and children's recognitions of persons still alive may call for different normal explanations to be applied. All the normal explanations failed in the strongest cases. For those the researchers were forced to consider the paranormal.

Overall conclusion

Tucker, Stevenson and others working in the field have become convinced “that reincarnation is the best - even though not the only - explanation for the stronger cases we have investigated.” As Prof. Stevenson put it, “Memories, emotions, and even physical injuries can sometimes carry over from one life to the next.” However, they insist, the evidence does not warrant postulating a soul as the vehicle of reincarnation. Exactly how the personal characteristics move from one life to the next remains a mystery.

Tucker admits this is an astounding conclusion but insists it is not more so than some currently accepted in theories in physics (“weird science”). Therefore, he says, as required by good science, we must be willing to consider reincarnation as a possibility. He is careful to point out that this conclusion requires the assumption that (non-physical) consciousness is a fundamental part of the universe.

In my opinion Tucker's conclusion is somewhat too conservative. Since there is no scientific law that precludes reincarnation as defined in the studies, philosophers have known all along that reincarnation is a possibility. There is no contradiction in the notion that consciousness can exist independently of the body, which partly explains why people throughout history have found it easy to imagine a soul going to heaven or hell, ghosts returning to haunt the living, spirits taking over a person's mind, and so on. What the modern studies have added to the tradition is empirical evidence that reincarnation is a fact. Again, the claim is about evidence, not proof. Proof of the sort found in mathematics and physics is not attainable in this domain. But it seems to me that the evidence contained in the researches we have been examining warrant the conclusion that reincarnation is to some degree probable, not merely possible.

All scientific conclusions and predictions are more or less probable.  Well established theories in physics and chemistry enjoy a high degree of probability.  Social sciences have to settle for a lower standard, but the best results in those domains nevertheless qualify as knowledge.  There is no reason to expect less from a scientific study of stories of past lives.  Here is the basic argument of the reincarnation project:
  1. We have lots of data - stories told by children in all regions of the world about past lives they remember.
  2. Working hypothesis: at least some of these stories may not be explainable through normal means; a paranormal explanation may have to be employed. 
  3. Investigation and analysis have revealed a number of cases (deemed 'strong') that cannot plausibly be explained through normal means.
  4. Other paranormal explanations are useless (unverifiable, unfalsifiable).
Therefore, reincarnation is the best explanation for the strong cases.  I contend that if Tucker and company want their investigations to be regarded as advancing the cause of science, that is, as new knowledge, they should be willing to say that reincarnation is probably real.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015


By now we are all beginning to realize that one of the most intractable problems is that of defining problems.    -  H. Rittel and M. Webber

Neuromania has become popular as a term for scientists and others who have been so dazzled by advances in neuroscience in the last few decades that they have persuaded themselves that brain science can explain everything about the human mind, consciousness, and selfhood.  Prof. Joe Herbert is afflicted with neuromania, but at least he understands the fundamental problem that is blocking progress toward preventing and treating mental disorders.  It is that we cannot answer the question: How does the brain produce consciousness?  Let’s call this the Standard Question.
One serious problem with this formulation is that it rules out approaches by psychoanalysis and other branches of psychology that have a lot to say about consciousness and mental problems but do not concern themselves with the brain.  Could it be that many so-called mental disorders can be understood as problems of living that are best dealt with by the methods of talking therapy and not by drugs or other brain treatments?  If so, then a balanced approach should be interdisciplinary, which calls for abandoning the Standard Question in favor of a more open definition of the problem.  My suggestion is explained below. 
Part of the reason why science has failed to find an answer in several hundred years is that the question is not amenable to investigation by the experimental methods of brain science.  The brain is objective; it is observable.  Consciousness is subjective.  It cannot be observed.  Your thoughts, feelings, and dreams are private.  No one can know what they are unless you choose to say what they are.  So, to learn anything at all about what a brain event means, neuroscientists have to ask the subject what she is experiencing.  Even neuromaniacs know this.  What they don’t seem to realize is that by doggedly sticking with the Standard Question they beg the prior question, does the brain produce consciousness?  If it doesn’t, then there is no hope of finding out how the brain produces consciousness.  If you define a problem incorrectly at the outset, your chances of hitting upon the right solution are nil.
Does the brain produce consciousness?  Let’s make this specific:  does the brain produce thoughts?  There is not the slightest evidence that it does.  ‘Produced’ is a causal metaphor taken from agriculture and manufacturing.  In both of those we can watch the process of production take place - a farmer’s field produces crops, products roll off an assembly line.  We can see the beginning, we can watch the process unfold, and we see the product at the end.  By contrast, no one  has ever seen a brain produce a thought.  Here’s an ordinary thought from arithmetic:  5 + 7 = 12.  When you think that thought, will a neuroscientist be able to see it in your brain with his scanner?  Of course not.  What’s in the brain is physical; the neurons have mass; the energy of their activity can be measured.  A math equation is not visible, has no mass, no measurable energy, no physical characteristics whatsoever.  Therefore, it cannot be in the brain, nor can it be produced in any simple sense by the brain.  ‘Production’ is a bad metaphor for our purposes.
To realize this is not to deny that our brain interacts with our mind.  It clearly does, and neuroscience is making great progress in learning more about brain-mind correlations.  But because of its narrow focus, neuroscience never gets beyond this basic premise:  the brain is a necessary condition for mental activity to occur.  No brain, no thoughts or feelings.  Damaged brain, impaired thinking or feeling.   Take off the tunnel viewer and we realize the brain is only one item in a large network of necessary conditions, including our cardio-vascular system, our digestive system, and the other parts of our bodies that are essential to life and therefore to the proper functioning of the brain.  So the whole body is involved along with other, non-body conditions that I will discuss later.  Neuromania commits the Fallacy of the Single Cause:  the assumption that because the brain is a necessary condition, then it must be the sole and sufficient cause of our mental lives.  That’s plainly false.  (It’s not science, by the way, since no experiment supports the assumption.  It’s bad philosophy.)
The Standard Question also ignores the fact that the relationship between brain and mind is a two-way street.  It is inter-action.  Mental activity can bring about changes in the brain.  Neuroplasticity and the placebo effect are just two items of evidence that demonstrate this.
The brain does not produce thoughts, feelings, dreams or any other experience.  So to ask “How does the brain produce consciousness?” is to mis-define the problem.   It sends researchers off in a direction that cannot fail to mystify them in the way so poignantly described by Prof. Herbert in his Aeon piece.  In my previous post I asked three questions that pose no difficulty for any six-year-old child but leave neuromaniacs scratching their heads.  Here they are again:
1. If I imagine my mother’s face, why can’t a neuroscientist see the image in my brain, even with his state of the art scanning machine? 
2. If pain sensations occur entirely in my brain, why do I feel the pain of a sore toe in the toe and not in my head?
3. Suppose I spot a bird in a tree and point it out to a friend.  If seeing the bird takes place entirely in my brain, why do I point away from my head toward the tree? 
Here are the straightforward answers that anyone not afflicted with neuromania understands perfectly well:
1.  Because the image of my mother’s face is not in my brain.  
There is no “inner theater” inside my brain equipped with a little screen on which my imagined pictures are projected.  The same goes for my dreams.  So, you may ask, if not in my brain, then where are they?  This is another misguided question.  People assume everything real has to have location in space, but we have seen already that this belief is false.  Thoughts are real, so are dreams and the phantoms of my imagination, but because they have no physical characteristics, they are not physical realities and therefore cannot be located in our very physical brain.  And if they are not in my brain, then they are not anywhere at all.  There may be a way to avoid this strange conclusion, but if there is it won’t be through the dogmas of neurophilosophy. 
2.   Because the pain you feel is actually in the toe, not in your brain. 
This is laughably obvious.  Only a neuromaniac would try to persuade you that you are really feeling the pain in your brain, as if there were no difference between a toe-ache and a headache.  Of course, that’s not how the point is usually stated.  Materialist philosopher Daniel Dennett says that experiences like painful toes are illusions.  The pain seems to be in the toe, but that’s an illusion created by the brain, which is where the pain really is.  Surprise!  Your brain is a sly illusionist that has evolved over millions of years in order to fool you about the nature of your most ordinary experiences.  How the species survived all this time while trying to adapt to an illusory world is not explained.
3.  Because you are seeing the bird in the tree, not in your head.
There is a story going around about a psychiatric patient who was convinced that he had a squirrel in his head.  Now a condition of that sort is not impossible if the squirrel is small enough, but a bird in a tree is another matter altogether.  The tree is too big. 
Squirrel in Head 
No doubt I will be accused of trivializing the serious ideas of highly paid professors of philosophy and neuroscience.  My bad, but these absurdities are just the logical consequences of trying to cram all of our experiences into a 3-pound lump of meat and then poking around in it to somehow find them again in the tangle of 86 billion neurons that make up the meat. 
Back to our main issue - if the Standard Question is poorly formulated, how should we state the mind-body problem?  I suggest we scrap it altogether because, as we have seen, it is based on faulty assumptions and has unbelievable implications. 
1. The Standard Question assumes that the brain alone is fundamental (materialism) and mind is secondary - a mere product or epiphenomenon. 
2. It assumes that the brain is like a factory, “producing” thoughts and feelings like the liver produces bile. 
3. It implies, weirdly, that mental activity begins and ends in the brain and that our experience of a body and a world outside the brain is an illusion. 
4. It implies that brain science is the only reliable source of knowledge about consciousness and the only path to discovering treatments for mental dysfunction.
5.  Strangest of all perhaps is that the materialist project dismisses the most basic conviction people hold about how their lives work, namely that it is the self who thinks, perceives, feels, and acts.  Here is world-famous neuromaterialist Patricia Churchland who has worked long and hard to convince herself that she is just a brain in a skull:
           My brain and I are inseparable. I am who I am because my brain is what it is. Even so, I often think about my brain in terms different from those I use when thinking about myself. I think about my brain as that and about myself as me.  I think about my brain as having neurons, but I think of me as having a memory. Still, I know that my memory is all about the neurons in my brain. Lately, I think about my brain in more intimate terms as me.
All of these ideas have been seriously damaged, if not demolished, by philosophical criticism.  Since we are very far from a significant consensus among scientists and philosophers on these matters, there is no good reason to stick with the Standard Question.  Philosopher Colin McGinn argues that we cannot answer it, because the human mind lacks the basic concepts to link the subjective realm of mind with the objective realm of the physical brain.  This is another way of recognizing that the Standard Question is a badly formulated problem. 
Can we do better?  Yes, but we are not likely to get a simple, all-encompassing question that can guide our investigations.  Here are the facts we have to work with: 
1. I am a conscious person whose essential nature is awareness.  I am aware of my inner world of thoughts, perceptions, memories, dreams, emotions and a lot of other interesting phenomena.
2. I am intimately related to my body without which I would have no life or consciousness.  My body is part of an external world of objects and events with which I interact constantly.
3. I live in relationship with other beings who have inner lives and with whom I must achieve mutual understanding and work cooperatively.
Each of these aspects of my world is taken as a domain of investigation by various branches of inquiry:  introspective psychology and spirituality, the physical sciences, and the social and cultural sciences, respectively.  Each is defined by its own broad, orienting question:
1.  Who am I?  What can I know about my own mental activities and potentialities?
2.  What can we know about the world we live in?
3.  What can we know about our relationships with others and how we should behave towards them? 
After a 400-year philosophical digression into an unfortunate debate about mind and body, we have circled back to the Big Three Questions that have always defined the project of philosophy.  It feels like coming home. 
Is there a way to integrate these great fields of inquiry, to show how they all fit into a larger map of knowledge and reality?  Perhaps, but that’s a story for another time.

Friday, 9 October 2015

Most of our organs can be treated as repairable machines. Why can’t we treat mental illness by simply fixing the brain?
An article bearing the above subtitle landed in my inbox this morning.  Written by an eminent neuroscientist, emeritus professor Joe Herbert, the essay laments the fact that medical science has not been able to achieve anywhere near the success in treating mental disorders that it has in treating, say, heart disease.  The heart, he writes, is no longer a mystery.  We know so much about how it works that many diseases and malfunctions of the heart that once killed people or ruined lives can be prevented or fixed by modern medical treatments.  We can even transplant hearts as a last resort.
Not so with the brain:
Our understanding and treatment of mental disorders is primitive. Why is that? The burden on our society is huge. A quarter of women will have an episode of depression at some stage in their lives (it’s about half that for men). Most will never reach a doctor or be diagnosed. About 40 per cent of those who do won’t respond to the first antidepressant they are prescribed, and about 60 per cent of those won’t respond to the second. About half of schizophrenics will get better or manage to live reasonable lives: the other half will relapse or never recover in the first place. Anorexia nervosa claims the lives of more patients proportionately than any other mental disorder.  But mental disorders are only one category – a rather artificial one – of brain disorders. *
The reason for this, says the author, is that the brain is vastly more complex than any other organ in the body.  Despite huge advances in the last few decades in our knowledge of brain function, the brain is still a mystery.  We cannot yet use our brain science to predict what neural state will lead to a change in mood, a decision, or a thought.  That’s why there is still a huge gap between psychology/psychiatry and neuroscience.  He holds out hope that one day that gap will be closed, psychiatry will be replaced by neuroscience, and “then the scourge of mental illness, a tragic and crippling burden for individuals and society, might at last begin to be lifted.”
Most people, I suppose, would read this description with an appropriate mixture of concern and hope.  It reflects the mainstream view of scientists and philosophers that the problems threatening our ability to lead healthy lives are physical in nature and will gradually be solved by advanced science and technology.  Mental disorders are particularly difficult but will eventually yield to better drugs and neural interventions yet to be discovered (much better than electroshock therapy, we hope) .  Have we any reason to doubt this hopeful scenario?  Along with many psychologists, philosophers, and even some neuroscientists, I believe we do.  What if the entire approach is misguided because the problem itself has been badly misunderstood?
One of philosophy’s main tasks is to identify assumptions in any train of thought that may harbor mistakes.  A mistake at the beginning, as in a mathematical problem, will yield an erroneous conclusion.  In the case of a policy decision, the result can be, not merely a false conclusion, but a real-world disaster.  Think of the assumptions behind the U.S.’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003.  If Prof. Herbert’s analysis is wrong, the result could be a waste of billions of dollars in a search for pharmaceutical solutions to mental problems that are not amenable to such solutions at all.
In the first paragraph of the essay, Herbert assumes that mental disorders are brain disorders.  This is hardly self-evident, but it reflects the mainstream theory of human nature that prevails among philosophers and scientists these days: that a human is just an organism, a product of biological evolution, more complex than any other type, but still basically just a body with a highly complex brain.  This philosophy is known as materialism.  In the current context, materialism implies that the mind and the brain are the same thing or that mental states are nothing more than brain states.  Prof. Herbert understands full well the main problem that ‘bedevils’ a materialist philosophy of human nature.  
Psychology is a description of what the brain does: neuroscience aims to describe how the brain works. The mysterious and seemingly unfathomable gap between them bedevils not only psychiatry, but all attempts to understand the meaning of humanity. We are what our brain is, and our wonderful hands allow us to carry out its commands. But if we can’t explain precisely how we decide to make a movement, let alone how we learn to perform it more accurately, how can we even attempt the greatest task of all: explaining how the brain produces consciousness?
How indeed?  And if we can’t explain how the brain produces consciousness, then we don’t know how it produces mental disorders like depression, and therefore we don’t know how to cure them.
Let’s look at depression again. We have some ideas about which parts of the brain are responsible for generating emotion, and even some (rather sketchy) information about which parts of the brain might be dysfunctional in depression (assuming this is a single disorder, which it most certainly is not). But until we have precise knowledge about what distinguishes the brain of a depressed person (or a schizophrenic, or an obsessive one, or whatever), we won’t know how to put it right.
Despite this serious difficulty, Herbert holds out hope that materialist science will one day solve the problem.  This is the kind of promissory note that we were handed some 15 years ago by the apostles of genetic biology who were certain a whole panoply of diseases would be eliminated in a few years by genetic medicine and genetic engineering.  We are still waiting.
And, I contend, we will be waiting till the Second Coming for neuroscience to solve the problem of mental dysfunction as well.  Why?  Because the problem has been misdefined.  Consider Herbert’s own words again:  ...“how can we even attempt the greatest task of all: explaining how the brain produces consciousness?”  If Herbert had been trained in philosophy as well as in science, he would realize that this formulation is based on the assumption that the brain produces consciousness.  Does it?  In a future post, I will argue that this assumption is seriously misleading, that it is only partly true, and to make it the whole truth about our lives as conscious beings is to diminish our conception of human nature and to encourage disastrous social policies.
But first, let us understand clearly what this doctrine says.  When Herbert, et al., claim that the brain produces consciousness, they don’t mean that consciousness is in any way independent of, outside of, or other than the brain.  The brain doesn’t produce a thought like a factory produces computer chips.  No, the claim is quite radical:  all conscious activities are nothing more than brain activities.  They begin and end in the brain.  Depression, for example, is a condition that exists entirely in some region of the limbic system.  It is a disorder in the way that neurons interact with one another.  And so it is with thinking, imagining, sense experience, and so on.  They all happen in the brain.  They are all  just the zipping around of electrochemical impulses in our hugely complex brains.  This assumption raises some awkward questions:
· If I imagine my mother’s face, why can’t a neuroscientist see the image in my brain, even with his state of the art scanning machine?
· If sensation occurs in the brain, why do I feel the pain of a sore toe in the toe and not in my head?
· If seeing a bird in a tree takes place in my brain, why do I point away from my head toward the tree? 
On the assumption that the brain produces consciousness, questions like these will remain forever baffling.  Once the notion is seen for the absurdity that it is, the answers fall into place rather easily, as I will argue in my next post.  
* To read the article quoted here, go to