Does the Brain Create the Mind?

What we now call science used to be known as natural philosophy. Quantum physics continues to deserve the latter name. To understand why, read Paul Nunez, who is a physicist working in electroencephalography (EEG), a pioneering researcher in neurology, a student of higher-order mathematics, and by inclination and impact a philosopher as well.

We heard from Nunez earlier as he considered the limits of computing power with regard to moving between levels of organization in nature – physics, chemistry, biology, etc. – our 2nd proposed answer to the Free Will Problem. In his book titled Brain, Mind, and the Structure of Reality, Nunez also addresses questions such as consciousness, cosmology, and quantum physics in a manner similar to Roger Penrose, but with an extraordinary emphasis on the human brain as computational engine.

In the last blog before this one, I described a rough, commonsense distinction between will and willpower. My will about which foods and how much I would like to eat in the coming week becomes known through a decision that I make at a comfortable, relaxed time on Sunday afternoon. Willpower, then, is my ability through the week to fulfill the resolution of will made on Sunday.

The message of that blog was that science has a lot to inform me about willpower, but that my will to choose, as best I can, to follow a healthy diet may not be entirely scientific. Nevertheless, science also has much to say about the formation of choices even when we are relaxed and contemplative.

In his Chapter 2, titled States of Mind, Paul Nunez recounts the work of Benjamin Libet, a renowned neurophysiologist who worked at the University of California, San Francisco. Libet asked his research volunteer to flick her wrist at any time she might choose. He recorded brain activity by EEG and also had the volunteer report the position of a dot revolving in a circle on an oscilloscope as soon as she was conscious of her decision to flick her wrist. As might have been predicted, consciousness of the decision (timed by the position of the dot) occurred 200 msec before wrist movement. Surprisingly, subconscious brain activity by EEG preceded wrist movement by 500 msec – that is, 300 msec before consciousness of the decision. This was only one of many experiments that Libet performed in the area of consciousness and decision-making.

Many have taken Libet’s experimental results to favor the notion that real decision-making is subconscious and therefore not free, because subconscious brain activity precedes consciousness of the decision. Not so, according to Libet himself. In a classic paper titled “Do We Have Free Will?” in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, he penned these closing remarks:

My conclusion about free will, one genuinely free in the non-determined sense, is then that its existence is at least as good, if not a better, scientific option than is its denial by determinist theory. Given the speculative nature of both determinist and non-determinist theories, why not adopt the view that we do have free will (until some real contradictory evidence may appear, if it ever does). Such a view would at least allow us to proceed in a way that accepts and accommodates our own deep feeling that we do have free will. We would not need to view ourselves as machines that act in a manner completely controlled by the known physical laws.[1]

In reviewing Libet’s work, Nunez is just getting started. In Chapter 8 he poses a common question of science fiction enthusiasts and philosophers of mind – Can a computer develop a conscious mind? – and gives the following answer:

If consciousness requires fully accurate simulation of tissue, including all cross-scale interactions, fundamental limits on computer power may forever preclude the creation of artificial consciousness even if, as assumed by many scientists, the brain actually does create the mind.[2]

Nunez goes further to challenge the idea that human brains create human minds from unconscious matter. He describes a concept in quantum physics called nonlocal realism. Experimental evidence on electron spin obtained at widely separated detectors has shown effects called “entanglement” or correlation of spin that seems to involve transmission of information between particles faster than the speed of light. The experimental data are truly astonishing, because Einstein’s well-established theory of special relativity forbids particle velocities above light speed.

The tantalizing prospect of information transfer faster than the speed of light launches Nunez into new speculation about consciousness. Employing a bold overarching viewpoint (which we disallowed in our Rule #2, but as an exploratory strategy it is welcome here), he proposes

To me, consciousness seems more analogous to fundamental physical properties like charge and energy than secondary properties like electrical conductivity, temperature, pressure, strength of chemical bonds, and so forth. Given this argument, I posit that any serious study of consciousness must adopt a conceptual framework that allows for the possibility that consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe.[3]

He then recalls Max Planck, who originated quantum theory around 1900, saying that matter may derive from consciousness.

Nunez formulates a hypothesis that consciousness fundamentally belongs to a largely unseen and unexperienced universe. What we see, hear, handle, smell, and taste consists of locally real information, but the larger realm is one of Ultra-Information supporting “nonlocal realism” and “entanglement.” My (or your) individual consciousness derives from the operation of my (your) brain acting as a sort of antenna for the Ultra-Information that inherently is conscious.[4]

You can almost hear the word “God” echoing in the background as Nunez discusses conscious Ultra-Information (his capitalization). But he goes only so far with his “‘crazy’ conjecture” as to ask at the very end of his book –

Does the brain create the mind? Or do brain and Mind act as partners to create the mind? Your guess is as good as mine.[5]

Try, if you will, to meditate a while on these 2 questions and the single answer. I find them sublime.


Next post: Does God Bestow Free Will?

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Images: EEG bonnet (c) Zuperpups | EEG waves (c) Dule964 |

[1] Libet, B. Do we have free will? Journal of Consciousness Studies. 1999;6:47-57, at, accessed 7/25/2016 .

[2] Nunez, P.L. Brain, Mind, and the Structure of Reality. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 176.

[3] Ibid. p. 251.

[4] Ibid. Chapter 12.

[5] Ibid. p. 275.


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