To be clear, it is by no means the intention of this consideration to contest any of the quantitative observations by admirable men and women of the scientific endeavor in general, nor in the field of neuroscience in particular. In the first place, I am not possibly qualified to dispute findings of neurology with a neuroscientist. In the second place, I see no reason why the facts that they present should not be entirely correct, nor if they are not, why further experiments in that discipline itself will not rectify any eventual mistakes. The argument of this piece is against the metaphysics that underlie our physical sciences, and attempt to explain the context of these facts—where they came from and what they point to. In particular, this consideration means to contest the reductive, materialistic inferences that have so successfully overrun our modern world-conception. These hidden philosophical precepts evade our defenses of healthy skepticism because we fail to notice the former until we have already assimilated them. To wit, foregone metaphysical premises of materialistic science enter our hearts and minds concealed within the Trojan Horse of physical experiments. Bedight with the ornaments of myriad technological marvels, this epistemic subterfuge presents an attractive appearance indeed. Its price, however, is nothing less than the human soul. But given that the latter does not actually exist (as the quotes in this first section of this consideration suggested), this strikes one today as quite a bargain. Nevertheless, even to conceive of such a calculation merely demonstrates that the exchange is a fait accompli and has already been transacted without our understanding.
I hope to offer my voice for the advancement of a new theory (i.e. theoria, “way of seeing”) that can again recognise the human soul, and thereby serve as an alternative to the reductionistic physicalism that tends to overwhelm all educated discourse on the subject of mind and brain. Given that physicalism is a metaphysical doctrine that denies its own origin, one could draw far healthier conclusions with the same facts that seem to support materialistic ontologies. It can hardly be overemphasised that no finding of neuroscience proves that “you…are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules,” or that the brain generates the illusion of conscious experience as an epiphenomenal froth upon the ocean of neurological processing. That scientific findings seem to do this is actually a confirmation bias of a foregone conclusion, a petitio principii, akin to a conjuring trick of pulling the rabbit of reductionism out of an hat after one subconsciously inserted it in the first place. Philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty explicitly describes this phenomenon when he writes that ‘‘thought itself […] put[s] into things what it subsequently finds in them.” This is not to say that reality is a mere hallucination; all rabbits do not fit in all hats, so to speak, and therefore cannot forthwith be produced from them. Instead, the world simply fails to appear to us if we do not approach it with fitting intentionality. A poet looking for a symbol of ideal beauty, a botanist looking for a flowering specimen of the genus rosaceae, a florist looking for a marketable item, and an enthusiast looking for an ersatz cork for his half-full (or half-empty?…the answer is definite but not separable from your way of looking) bottle of Zinfandel, will see something different in a newly-budding rose, while someone looking for his wallet will likely scarcely notice it and therefore see nothing altogether. By the evidence of analogy, the world clearly lends itself to “materialisation,” which is to say, “interpretation according to a materialistic intentionality.” Still, by further evidence of this sort, a materialistic interpretation of the world remains hopelessly incomplete. Indeed such an interpretation demands that one “consign” what is most living, vibrant, and beautiful about the world “to the trash heap” because it fails to conform to one’s Procrustean theory: how can one possibly understand a smile without reference to the joy that is its cause?
The demand that all observation must be loaded into single theory is no longer appropriate in our postmodern Zeitgeist. The world will mirror back to us in outer richness what we cultivate in ourselves as inner wonder. We must allow experience to educate us in the inexhaustible evolution of new theories. The latter reveal new dimensions of experience, which in turn summons new theories ad infinitum in the eternal call-and-response between the spiritus mundi and the anima humana—the dialogue of the human soul and the world spirit. The true ideal of science must be to study phenomena on their own terms, and not to reduce them to other ones in the interest of convenience or convention. As the great polymath Johann von Goethe wrote, “Every object, well-contemplated, develops a new organ of perception in us.” Obviously Goethe does not imagine the devoted scientist sprouting new anatomy for every specimen she confronts. These “new organ[s] of perception” are not physical but spiritual: they are what one has called above “new theories.” Still, no less than eyes for the blind, such spiritual organs may disclose new worlds to our eventual comprehension, and indeed the value of each theory shall be known according to the fruits of its revelation. “Our sophistication, like Odin’s, has cost us an eye” but a new organ of perception may deliver us from blindness. Let us attempt to conceive a theory of the brain that will allow us to perceive the mind that moves it.
The brain is obviously crucial for ordinary consciousness—scientific observations have repeatedly demonstrated this fact. Still, this only seems to prove that the brain generates consciousness—that “reality is all in your head,” as eminent neuroscientist David Eagleman writes in The Brain: The Story of You—if one has already adopted such a theory. One could employ the same argument and arrive at extraordinary conclusions indeed based on the simple and repeatedly-demonstrated fact that a violin is necessary to play Vivaldi. Still, if one posits merely the physical instrument and ignores the spirit that moves it, one will remain with an anemic conception. The observations that correlate brain activity to ordinary consciousness could be marshaled to support a more healthy (i.e. from Old English hælþ, “wholeness, a being whole, sound or well,” and cognate with “whole” and “hale”) theory: that the body is the soul’s instrument in the sensible world and the ramifications of the nervous system are its manifold strings. As the radiant god Apollo plays upon his lyre, so the soul plucks axons and strums dendrites while the “pulse doth temperately keep time” and issues the tune of experience. The German theosophist Jakob Böhme enunciates his mystical insight of this conception in De signatura rerum:
Thus likewise the Signature of Nature in its Form is a dumb Essence; it is as a prepared Instrument of Music, upon which the Will’s Spirit plays; what Strings he touches, they sound according to their Property.
Indeed, the visual cortex sounds a different note from Broca’s area, or from the sympathetic ganglia of the spinal cord, for instance. In harmony and in sequence, however, these tones commingle as tributaries to the flowing stream of consciousness. The “lighting up” of discrete brain-regions as per fMRI scans (i.e. functional magnetic resonance imaging; a measurement of blood-flow) or EEG measurements (i.e. electroencephalography; a measurement of brain-waves) represent the traces of the spirit’s action, like a trail of sparks that follows the dance of Apollo’s fingers.
It should be no surprise that we struggle to investigate supersensible phenomena since we have no scientific tradition to study the soul and spirit, and no instruments to quantify what is immeasurable. Indeed, our scientific tradition was founded on precisely the exclusion of these imponderable aspects to study instead a model of the world wrought by the preferential abstraction of its quantifiable phenomena. Nevertheless, a theory to recognise the spiritual dimension of the world represents an urgent complement to our impressively-hypertrophied material sciences. No physical investigation could discover why 3 follows 2 in logical sequence, nor measure the principle of Goodness, nor appreciate the essential aspect of the colour yellow without reducing it to an abstraction that might just as well be the study-object of someone who was colour-blind. Materialistic science recognises the necessity of sustenance for the body; no one would dispute the veracity of winter squash, Coca-Cola, or amino acids. Instead, the latter are evaluated according to their healthiness. In a similar matter, a spiritual science must weigh the healing virtue of our ideas, as the nourishment of our souls. It is my hope that a “Sound Hypothesis” May replace the “Astonishing” one, and we will come to see the body as an organ of the spirit. Let us allow ourselves, in conclusion to take inspiration from Goethe’s Faust, archetypal scientist and representative of his discipline’s ever-striving to surpass itself:
This spirit world is not sealed off;
your mind is closed, your heart is dead!
go, neophyte, and boldly bathe
your mortal breast in roseate dawn!
Originally published in December 2017 on the Lizard-press, which is to Theoria-press as Zeus is to Athena.