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Neurophilosophical Inquiries

© Wim van den Dungen
Antwerp, 2003 - 2017.


taking consciousness really seriously

Let us start clean-clear : mental states are non-material, non-informational, non-reductive, non-extended in space, logically primitive, basic, and ontologically distinct but interdependent objects, always attributed or designated to a unique individual consciousness or subject of these states, defined by an exclusive point of view or vantage point. This individual subject apprehends from a first-person, subjective perspective and is known by others from a third-person, public viewpoint. As a first-person, every individual consciousness constitutes a "reality-for-me", an intimate, secret, inner, private, secluded experience of him or herself and his or her environment, "Lebenswelt" or milieu. This reality can only be described by way of private indexicals (PI). These words refer to components of mental states. This implies a special ostensive definition featuring private access only. Moreover, PI are completely defined by other words alone and thus private ostension is coupled with semantic isolation. Indeed, PI are the only words available to talk about human sentient experience. Hence, unless a human being has actually experienced the referent of one or more PI, no understanding of it is possible. Human imagination may try to conjure up an image or feeling of something it never experienced, but nothing can substitute an actual experience. This phenomenological uniqueness can not be reduced or taken away. Private experience is private and thus not intersubjective. Describing these states only conveys meaning if and only if the experience to which these descriptions refer are shared in a phenomenological sense, i.e. by way of first person experience. Saying "This music is wonderful." has no meaning for somebody who never experienced music and/or wonder firsthand.

Mental states are either based on sensation or are non-sensational. Hence, the subject of experience apprehends (possesses) only two kinds of objects : sensate objects and mental objects.

Sensation, as defined here, is the faculty through which the external world is perceived. Sensations have a clear bodily location and possess "raw feels" or qualia, defined by the five-tiered sensory input of the five physical organs of sense (smell, taste, touch, audition and sight). Sensations are always the experience of a conscious subject. Without this conscious experience, sensations are not.

Non-sensational mental states have no distinct, outer events associated with them. These states, also emerging without one being conscious of them, may be classified as. These non-sensational mental states can be classified as volitions, feelings, thoughts & consciousness.

  • quasi-perceptional states : hallucinating, dreaming, imagining, trance-visioning ;

  • emotions, feelings, affects : the complete range from utter disgust to sublime bliss, from violence to peace, from woe to happiness ;

  • conative states : wishing, wanting, intending, trying, acting ;

  • cognitions : thinking, reasoning, knowing, conceiving, understanding, intuiting, etc.

The affirmation of the independence and separateness of mental states comes at a time when materialism numbs most intellectuals, making them fideistically accept materialist monism as the only correct "frame" or credo to approach the philosophy of mind. Materialism must be rejected with finesse, but not without affirming the constant influence of the living brain on the mind and this to the point of changing the mental states of the individual. Indeed upward causation (brain to mind) goes hand in hand with downward causation (mind to brain).

Indeed, this exercise does not back the ontological supremacy of the brain over & above the mind (exclusive upward causation or emergentism), for this is in contradiction with evidence from psychosomatism, placebo/nocebo-effect, hypnosis, autosuggestion, bio-feedback, parapsychology, meditation, prayer, ritual, etc.

The brain is never :

  • over the mind : mental states are not always and only caused by neurological states ;

  • above the mind : mental states are not merely an inferior description of neurological states.

Likewise, the brain is not conceived as having a secondary role, on the contrary, for an individual, in order to manifest as a conscious entity (as a sentient, luminous, photonic being) in the physical continuum, needs a brain. Brain and mind are co-relative operators in a triune equation covering matter (hardware), information (software) and consciousness (userware). Mind refers to consciousness (C), whereas the brain is both material and informational (MI). The interaction between C and MI beings the crucial factor in this argument.

In this interactionist philosophy, individuality (a kind of higher-order mental object) is not a priori caused, generated, produced or made-up by the brain, the executant organ of human evolution in this material world, refuting the conjecture :

"... 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 behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules."
Crick, 1994, p.3.

Materialism stipulates mental states are caused, produced, reducible to, or somehow made-up as an epiphenemon of the living brain. It comes in many variations. Physicalism, reductionism, supervenience, epiphenomenalism, behaviorism or functionism will be studied and critized. Each branch has minor variations and offers interesting logical facilities. In functionalism, for example, the most refined & sophisticated species of materialism,

"... all our conscious experiences are explained by the behavior of neurons and are themselves emergent properties of the system of neurons."
Searle, 1997, p.22.

Avoid these positions by rejecting their common ground.

The common ground in materialism, is thinking the living brain as the cause, origin or root of consciousness, the mind and its mental states. These thoughts are associated with the dogmatic conviction mental states end when the brain dies. This materialist credo is used to highjack the secular ideal, for most religions accept the afterlife (evidence of this belief at least goes back to the Neanderthals, if not earlier). So this dogma conveniently causes a rift between science and spirituality. But is it correct ? I will argue this is not the case, but not by taking naieve spirituality on board, quite on the contrary. The ontological framework needs to be totally reconsidered.
The philosophical, metaphysical myth, dream or speculation, viewing the disincarnate, non-material mind as the water in touch with the cup before it was broken, eludes the monist. For the latter, the water and the cup are substantially identical "stuff". When the cup breaks, the water is spilled, transformed and as such lost. But, ad contrario, the fact consciousness is an extraordinary "property" should amend functionalism to regard this emergent property as another cause of change in neurons. But then monism would be lost, for the rule of identity applicable to substance can not longer be used. Two entities would then be designated : non-material mind & material brain, sharing extensiveness (mind temporally, the brain spatio-temporally). I fully agree with Popper & Eccles.

"I think that science has gone too far in breaking down man's belief in his spiritual greatness and in giving him the idea that he is merely an insignificant material being in the frigid cosmic immensity. Now this strong dualistic-interactionist hypothesis we are here putting forward certainly implies that man is much more than is given by this purely materialistic explanation."
Popper & Eccles, 1981, p.558.

It is not because the mind ceases to be "in touch" with the surface of the brain, that mental states may not exist in their own "world", Hilber space or set of co-relative event-points. If the brain is a car and consciousness its driver, then the "living" brain does not, under normal circumstances, allow its mind to leave the car. By virtue of life in the physical continuum, the mind has only the brain to act as a kind of "false door" or "input/output-device" between the material neuronal networks and the non-material mind and its states. 

"'And besides,' Cebes rejoined, 'if it is true, Socrates, as you are fond of saying, that our learning is nothing else than recollection, then this would be an additional argument that we must necessarily have learned in some previous time what we now remember. But this is impossible if our soul did not exist somewhere before being born in this human form ; and so by this argument also it appears that the soul is immortal.'
'But, Cebes,' said Simmias, 'what were the proofs of this ? Remind me ; for I do not recollect very well just now.'
'Briefly,' said Cebes, 'a very good proof is this : When people are questioned, if you put the questions well, they answer correctly of themselves about everything ; and yet if they had not within them some knowledge and right reason, they could not do this. And that this is so is shown most clearly if you take them to mathematical diagrams or anything of that sort.'"
Plato : Phaedo, 72-73 (translated by Harold North Fowler in 1914), my italics.

On the one hand, no philosopher dismisses that since the days of René Descartes (1596 - 1650), it has been difficult to explain how & where the mind "interacts" with the brain. Indeed, often circular explanations or endless regressions ensued.  Hence, research in that area was deemed uninteresting. Only recently has a joint venture between a philosopher and a neurologist been able to propose an alternative model (Popper & Eccles, 1981), whereas the physics of interactionism was recently studied by Mohrhoff (1999) and others. These propositions will be studied at length.

"... it follows that material particles are the only source of the electromagnetic field, and that the non-material self can only influence the summary effect -represented by the electromagnetic field- of the action of particles on particles."
Mohrhoff, 1999, p.181.

On the other hand, there are also great difficulties involved with accepting the non-extended (mind) as emergent or caused by the extended (brain). Indeed, it is highly problematic events located in physical spacetime may cause events which are not affected by the physical continuum. In the many variations on materialism, the unique, luminous splendour of the self-reflective capacity of consciousness, experienced by the individual in his or her inner intimacy and the necessary and sufficient ground of human freedom (cf. ethics), is reduced to the point of equating the human being with the intelligent primate (cf. sociobiology). Moreover, where in nature do we see material objects cause mental objects to emerge ? Materialist answer : because the brain is so complex. We will see whether this argument is strong enough.

beyond both monism and dualism

The solution proposed could be called "triadism". 

The event-continuum, the sum total of all existing concrete, particular entities (or concrescences of events), is conceptualized as the unity of three logico-functional basics or primitives, each characterized by an irreducible function or task, which it puts into operation thanks to a set of unique arrangements, enabling it to discharge its function in such a way as to make different events work together :

  • matter (M-events) : the physical continuum of the brain & its nervous system = hardware or the executive branch;

  • information (I-events) : abstracts, universals, codes, laws & algorhythms embodied in M-events = software or the legislative branch ;

  • consciousness (C-events) : meaning, autostructuration, identity, mentality & degree of freedom = userware or the judicial or intentional branch.

Three unique sets of arrangements or "worlds" follow :

  • the material world : real numbers, dispersive, centrifugal, entropic : composed out of periodical elements (especially hydrogen & helium), liquids, crystals, four physical forces, living organisms (the nucleotides), the human body, the world of physical objects & the five senses (perception) ;

  • the informational world : natural (binary) numbers, integrative, algorhythmic, natural & cultural forms, limited but integrated set of expert-systems : composed from products of nature and the human mind stable enough to be expressed in universal codes (like DNA) and well-ordered propositions (or : the residue of a tradition of shared intersubjective dialogue & experiment - cf. Clearings, 2006). This symbolical world contains natural & human languages, theories, works of art, science and technology. This information is either carried by or processed in the material world (as glyphs, i.e. well-ordered states of matter) or exists disembodied as logical possibilities so far not fully explored. The issue of the objective existence of this world (cf. Husserl) is a separate issue ;

  • the intentional world : complex numbers, paradoxical, centripetal, conscious, meaningful, identity, individuality, cognition, affectivity and mentality, ranging from animal to rational and beyond : composed from individuals with their particular mentalities, expressed as a series of mental states attributed to a first person perspective. It includes all states & contents of consciousness and also all psychological dispositions and non-sensational mental states like quasi-perceptional states, feelings, conative states and cogitations.

In the traditional rationalistic and hence dualistic approach of the body/mind relationship, M-events and I-events were taken together, opposing "brain" (M + I) or "res extensa" MI plus "mind" (C) or "res cogitans". The Cartesian soul was conceived as a closed, self-referential identity. This "I" did not emerge symmetrically with the "other", but had a logical priority over otherness, and so failed to incorporate a historical, intersubjective approach of the individuals (the minds, the souls). The concept of mind evoked here will be Cartesian insofar as pluralism or triadism (which calls for an interaction between all three classes of events) and the emphasis on self-reflective consciousness are concerned, but it radically rejects the Cartesian concept of the closed, windowless (monadic) substance-soul. Instead, the soul is defined as the functional own-Self of an individual (cf. Intelligent Wisdom, 2007), existing disembodied in its own C-world, and, potentially interacting on its own plane with all other own-Selves of the "great assemby" (or "collegium ad spiritum sanctum"). Together with Plato (427 - 347 BCE) and the Buddhadharma, let us speculate consciousness may have existed before the birth of the physical body and its brain and will continue to do so after its death. The driver leaves the vehicle only after he arrived at his destination and/or his vehicle finally broke down.

"When finally a brain stops acting altogether, or decays, that special stream of consciousness which it subserved will vanish entirely from this natural world. But the sphere of being that supplied the consciousness would still be intact ; and in that more real world with which, even whilst here, it was continuous, the consciousness might, in ways unknown to us, continue still."
James, W. : Essays in Religion and Morality, Harvard University Press - Cambridge, MA, 1989, pp.85-86, my italics.

"The physical basis of the mind is the brain action in each individual ; it accompanies the activity of his spirit, but the spirit is free ; it is capable of some degree of initiative. (...) The spirit is the man one knows. He must have continuity through periods of sleep and coma. I assume, then, that this spirit must live somehow after death. I cannot doubt that many make contact with God and have guidance from a greater spirit. But these are personal beliefs that every man must adopt for himself."
Penfield, 1969, pp.73-83.

As the three worlds are irreducible logico-functional primitives, materialism (only M-events), idealism (only I-events) and spiritualism (only C-events) are avoided. Moreover, these three operators are co-relative, implying they always refer to each other although each has elements of its own and exists in its own world. The accepted notion of emergent evolution implies a novel event with unexpected and unpredictable properties, much like a great work of art is new. 

"'Creativity' is the universal of universals characterizing ultimate matter of fact. (...) 'Creativity' is the principle of novelty. (...) The novel entity is at once the togetherness of the 'many' which it finds, and also it is one among the disjunctive 'many' which it leaves ; it is a novel entity, disjunctively among the many entities which it synthesizes. The many become one, and are increased by one."
Whitehead, 1978, p.21.

The various systems of invariant laws are not limited enough to prevent the emergence of new, ordered properties. Determinism as a doctrine is Newtonian and has been superseded by probabilism (terminism).

The crucial "emergent events" listed below may be classified under three major headings : being, life & humanity.

  • the Big Bang, with hydrogen and helium present ?

  • the "soup" of the heavier elements ;

  • the formation of stars like our Sun ;

  • the start of life of Earth and very likely elsewhere ;

  • the emergence of the brain ;

  • the manifestation of human consciousness ;

  • creative C-contributions to an objective I-world, and M-world (glyphs).

The notion a single living cell executes some C-events makes sense. Brains existed before human consciousness manifested on Earth. Excellent states of animal consciousness are realized in many species. The specifics of the brain of Homo Sapiens sapiens are not old, but well adapted to execute the arrival of "intelligent" consciousness, with its typical creative features, evident in the creative contributions to the informational world. On Earth, the human brain is indeed the most complex MI-system.

If the experience of the Divine (ranging from everyday to mystical encounters) has a neurobiological seat in the living brain, then surely the materialists are refuted on their own ground.  Kant (1724 - 1804) denied man his "intellectual perception" because it is not given to every man automatically. Laplace (1749 - 1827) argued "God" could not be quantified and thus had no role to play in the equations of celestial mechanics. Lenin (1870 - 1924) and all leading atheist communist thinkers with him, rejected religion as the "opium" of the people. Historical materialism and physicalism, the cornerstones of the great "scientific" edifice of communist thought, conjectured they had no need for "God". Logical positivism & radical behaviorism proposed a reductionist and eliminativist approach. Fascinated by the technological revolution, these thinkers were unaware their rejection of an irreducible first person perspective implied a "contradictio in actu exercito", like somebody walking saying "I stand still." This absurdity has thrown in a difficulty which is self-defeating ... for the "greatest and most interesting riddle" (Popper, 1981) is denied existence a priori. Phenomenology, depth-psychology, observational psychology, cultural anthropology and quantum mechanics etc. have all shown the influence of the observer on the observed is indeniable both in principle ("objects" refer a priori to "subjects" - cf. transcendental logic) as in practice (a posteriori observation entails the subjective). To integrate consciousness in the equations of science will be the great achievement of the XXIth century.

The "I" irreducibly accompanies all "my" mental states, which are executed, computed, processed by the living brain or "informational matter" (hardware with excellent software). Who is this "I" ? Although the first-person perspective is fundamental, nobody has directly observed an "individual", but only a physical body behaving as one. This brings us to the distinction between, on the one hand, a testable proposition ("It is raining outside.") and, on the other hand, a statement which is untestable, but only arguable, or : the demarcation between empirico-formal sciences & metaphysics.


Neurospirituality (or neurotheology) implies the neurobiology of spiritual experience, the processing by the brain of the set of common or "routine" religious experiences, intense religious experiences and full-fledged mystical experiences, called "nonordinary and transcendent experiences" (Braud, 2002).

"Neurotheology is an emerging discipline that integrates religious and spiritual concepts with neurological and neuropsychological analysis. Thus, both the neurological and theological perspectives must be considered if one is to find the best way of understanding both the human brain, and how that brain perceives and experiences religion."
Newberg & Iversen, 2002, p.247.

"Neurotheology" has been correctly criticized (Pigliucci, 2002) as being no theology at all. Traditional orthodox theology, the study of the attributes of the Divine, is supposed to grant us knowledge about the "nature" of the Divine, independent of human minds (as something "out there"). According to these dogmatic theologies, such knowledge can only be given by the Divine and hence all theology is rooted in revelation, or the Divine being Present in our largely material world, unveiling its Names to mystical & religious individuals, entertaining a relationship with Its own Divine periphery, and explaining "Its Wishes" ... (cf. the prescriptive command versus the creative command in Sufism). These theologies take for granted the Divine exists, although a rational definition of the Divine, insofar as it is transcendent, seems unlikely (cf. Does the Divine exist ?, 2005).

As what happens to the brain during a spiritual experiences is a measurement of neural events, the best such analysis can do is to provide us with an understanding of the executant structures of the brain when the latter is supposed to compute or process these extraordinary, isolated (sacred), radical experiences of the "supernatural" or "totaliter aliter" in general and the Divine in particular, such as in intense religious experiences and mature mystical states and stations of consciousness. 

"Quiconque est capable de se plonger dans la contemplation et d'ouvrir son âme à l'impression, devra 'reconnaître' le sacré d'après des critères intimes dont la règle est inexprimable et aura, dans le sentiment pur, la 'vision de l'éternel dans le temporel'. S'il y a un Éternel, un Sacré dans lequel se mêlent et se pénètrent les éléments rationnels et non-rationnels, téléologique et indéfinissables, comme nous avons cherché à le comprendre et à le décrire, c'est ici qu'il est apparu de la façon la plus puissante et la plus manifeste."
Otto, 1995, pp.223-224.

Intense religious and mystical experiences should not be equated with habitual, common, "routine" religious experiences, which are always in conformity with a communal and spirito-social symbolization or shared superstructure (Staal, 1975), rather than a direct, individual experience of an extraordinary nature (i.e. uncommon or nonordinary).

These "experiences", involving the awareness of Divine Presence, are always mediated by the particularities of a given brain, and so do not inform us about the Divine as an independent object of experience (in an absolute sense), but only (at best) as a dependent one (this is an example of the rules of the game of "true" knowing, stipulating observation is always theory-laden, a fact supported by the neurophilosophy of sensation). Moreover, the neurotheological "model" arrived at, will necessarily be based on the standard average & standard variation of the experimental groups. Individual case-studies are necessary, but risk being too anecdotal and rhapsodic, as parapsychological research has shown (Griffin, 1997). In this definition of "theology", neurotheology indeed fails in providing us with any information about the Divine as such. Terminologically, "neurotheology" is too near theism and its concept of a "God" ("theos") and so "neurospirituality" or "contemplative neuroscience" is to be preferred.

Neurospirituality tries to define the neuronal executants of this extraordinary experience, namely the direct experience of a transcendent presence.

Pigliucci's argument regarding the absence of knowledge about God in neurotheology is solid. So, applying it to dogmatic theology, we may ask : Have dogmatic theologies succeeded in giving us a solid model of the Divine ? In detail, many antinomic models of the Divine may be distinguished, whereas the general bi-polarity of the Divine is a returning characteristic in most, if not all, ancient and contemporary traditional theist theologies (Egyptian, Hindu, Judaic, Buddhist, Christian, Islamic). Of course, the Dharmic religions, like Taoism and Buddhism, advanced a non-substantial model of the Divine.

Most theist theologies stress the essence of the Divine is unknown in principle, i.e. ineffable (cf. mystical theology). So, only the "Divine Names" are known. These are "revealed" to the seers, enlightened teachers, gurus, masters, messengers of the Divine, apostles, prophets & prophetesses, people of good will, etc. Hence, dogmatic theology does not provide us with any information about the Divine as such, for the latter is veiled by un-saying. Only God knows God. Traditional, katapathic theology is a path to the Names only. They are the ladders left behind when the clouded & nameless top is reached. Hence, no direct, objective knowledge about the essence of God is possible, as strict apophatism makes clear. The best theology can do is to provide us with indirect knowledge based on revelation backed by "the light of faith".

"To recover an adequate sense of God, as expounded in the great religious traditions of the world, it is important to stress both the ability of God to respond creatively to events in the finite world and the complete transcendence of God over any of our categories of thought. The dialectic must remain between the compassionate Lord and Saviour of the world, and the eternal, immutable and fully actual unlimited ocean of being who remains unmoved by all things finite, but is their ultimate foundation. (...) These modes cannot be confused with one another, and yet they must be said to be modes of one and the same being, and not just to parallel one another by some sort of similarity."
Ward, 1993, p.159.

The Divine is unlike anything material. It shares with information its non-materiality (bits have no mass) and non-spatiality, and with consciousness its intentionality. This Presence is overwhelming, irreversible and crisis-inductive (because of this Presence, cognitive, affective and motoric processes have to reequilibrate on a higher level). Why has our brain evolved the capacity to dream, experience and remember what is invisible (hallucinations, perceptual illusions, the dreamworld, the hereafter, souls, spirits, angels, communion with Divine Presence, etc.) ? For materialists, these are all symptoms of neuronal malfunction, as if such a statement explains how so-called dysfunctional people can be so highly creative. Moreover, the core result of a successful mystical experience is a heightened moral sense, not the presence of hallucinations. Pathological states do not lead to otherness, but to more selfishness ...

religious versus mystical experiences

Let us distinguish between, on the one hand, common but special experiences (like orgasm, strong & intense emotions, awe, falling in love, serendipity, Aha, inventivity, intuition, etc. - Laski, 1980) and, on the other hand, common and uncommon religious experiences and mystical states and stations of radical otherness (of "Ultimate Concern" - cf. Tillich, 1952). Another, more fundamental distinction exists between (nonordinary) religious experiences and mystical experiences, although both belong to the category of "spiritual experience", or the felt "presence" of the numinous, sacred, holy and Divine. Only intensity and impact differ.

Common special experiences are intermediate, dynamical states of consciousness, prone to change and determined by continuous (linear, cyclic, chaotic) processes (or changes of events in phase-space). These experiences do seem to contain traces or sparks of the "presence" of the Divine and its co-relative tendency to break through "nominal", "common" barriers. However, the experience of "radical otherness" ("totaliter aliter") is either part of a living religious tradition (invoking a dogma shared by a living religious community) or present in a direct mystical experience of the most individual and intimate kind (and liable to radically transform an individual's sense of "I-ness" or reality-for-me). In this definition, private religious experiences are always mystical experiences (in other words, religious experiences are public and constitute a reality-for-us).

We focus on uncommon religious experiences and mystical experiences.

Strong religious experiences (re)connect an individual or a group with a fascinating larger, totalized whole, experienced as awesome and mysteriously transcending the ordinary (cf. Otto's "mysterium tremendum et fascinans"). This whole may be identified with intense natural phenomena, nature as a whole, Divine kingship, the God-man, the ancestors, the Deities, a Pantheon or one Supreme Being, approached with intellectual love (cf. Spinoza), etc. All these components may have different relationships and operational contexts. Together they constitute the storehouse of all human religious ideologies. Since the Cro-Magnon and especially in the Paleolithic and early historical periods, shamans and priests specialized in religious matters. Religion, although invoking a subjective, individual component, was and is fundamentally communal and serves the convenant between a holy "numen praesens" and a people, a nation, or a unified humanity.

Let us call this larger whole, to which the uncommon
, deep religious experience seems to point, "radical otherness". This is experienced as a "presence" or "Gegenstand", opposing an individual's everday conscious identity in a radical way, exposing one's ego to the transformative powers "from above". In religious experience, "radical otherness" is always mediated by a superstructure (a set of beliefs, a system of virtues and a "canon" of sacred rituals). In the direct experience of the Divine, which only befalls mystics, the radical and complete form of this urge to move beyond limitations has become observable. In this case, "otherness" can in no way be compared with our (socio) nominal experience of otherness in nature, in the world and even in our fellow human beings. Nor can it be identified with a tradition, for indeed, mystics are founders or perfectors of traditions, often causing revolution and the rejection of certain dogmata. Mystics experience "otherness" as an outstandingly exclusive nondual presence and this has a dramatical impact on the subject of experience. Hence, in mysticism "otherness" is a truly "radical" Divine Presence. This experience can be superstuctured in a theist, deist or Dharmic way.

Because religious experiences are always mediated by a superstructure (cf. infra), insanity is more likely to be the outcome of a dogmatic religious education than of mystical practices leading up to greater insight, intense well-being, all-encompassing feeling of unity of all in All etc. Indeed, psychotics report religious scenes and hear religious figures whispering to them or see angels and prophets appear. But they are unable to integrate this "sacral" spirituality in their everyday life as do genuine mystics, who no longer need any "mediation" or "scala perfectionis", for they create their own conditions of spiritual happiness. Although both are strong believers, so that "religious terrorists" (ranging from crusaders to suicide bombers) and mystics display an increased temporal activity, the former are more likely to be driven insane and indulge in extreme (sadistic) violence (cf. Joseph, 2002). This is indicative of the steering role of the prefrontal pole of the spiritual function, for mystics display an increased creative ability and a hightened sense of morality (Bucke, 1961). Due to their experience, their world becomes highly integrated, not fractioned, as in psychotics.

Recurrent mystical experiences not only allow consciousness to encompass the "process" of the coming and going of the transcendent presence, but they also make it possible to observe the relationships between the color of "the glass" (the state of consciousness) and "the water" (the Divine Presence), so to speak "poured into it". At some point, the mystical stations (mostly ending in waking consciousness) rotate around one central mystical state, constantly enlightening the waking state (like an open door through which light enters into the rather dimmed room of nominal consciousness). The pendulum-movement (Deikman, 1971) and phase-changes (Sundén, 1969), which are characteristic for the stations, are then replaced by the integrated state of living with and in Divine Presence. This is an "awakened mind".

A rising scale may be set forth :

  • occasional experience of connectedness & totality or the everday spiritual experience ;

  • ritualized approach of radical otherness or the common religious experiences ;

  • intense, creative experience of the Divine during ritual, prayer and meditation or the uncommon religious experience ;

  • direct, nondual experience(s) of Divine Presence or mystical experience(s).

Consider the following schema. It runs from founding mystical experiences to religious traditions with their canon and dogma :

  • a gifted, mature mystic (Buddha, Christ, Mohammed) has as immediate access to the direct, nondual experience of radical otherness, triggering superstructures which may or may not be made explicit ;

  • the companions are guided by this mystic and collect (after his or her death) the stable components of what they think (or have been told) the superstructure of the founder looked like, making it into a religious dogma or a particular canonical discourse on the founder's experience of radical otherness ;

  • those who adhere to the dogma -usually calling for an imitation of some of the practices of the founding mystic- may indirectly experience radical otherness through the eye-glasses of the particular dogma, veiling & limiting the original. This then animates their uncommon religious experience ;

  • a religion is born if the soteriological (salvic) power of the dogma triggers the formation of a solid spirito-social structure (i.e. the companions have followers). This can only mean the eye-glass was strong enough to allow for a succesfull, albeit derived and indirect, imitation of the founder's mystical experience, transforming it into the deep religious experiences of the disciples who claim to walk "in the footsteps of their master" ... ;

  • the more time has elapsed between the mystical experiences of the founder and the uncommon religious experiences of the followers of the companions, the more likely the original superstructures (of the founder) become intermixed with elements foreign to the original direct experiences of radical otherness, moving the religion away from the message of its founder (as has been the case in all world religions).

neurospirituality and "God"

Neurospirituality furthers a non-dogmatic approach of Divine Presence, and so a concept of "God" not soly dependent upon a sacralized and eternalized revealed scripture. Instead of holy words, the individual experience of the holy is intended. And surely, words remain a path to this too as long as this variety of "grand God-talks" remains inspirational. These "grand stories" about Divine Presence are cultural superstructures, and constitute the many conceptualizations of this direct experience of the Holy. Their invention generally moves hand in hand with the socialization of the religious movement (the establishment of its canon, tradition or "magister fidei"). Hence, a concept of "God", or even the use of the word "God" is broader than what is aimed at in neurospirituality, to wit : the understanding of spiritual experiences on the basis of the executant, processing, computing, expressive features of the brain, in particular the right temporal lobe, in particular the amygdala-hippocampal complex.

In the past, religious & mystical experiences were studied using dogmatic theology, instead of trying to repeat, deepen and understand the experience of Divine Presence itself. Contemplative science is therefore far more better placed than dogmatic theology to assist people in deepening and understanding their religious experiences and, if they wish so, realize a mystical experience of Divine Presence for themselves. The model of neurospirituality is in accord with what is known about the neuronal executants of the experience. Hence, instead of being exclusively rooted in supposedly authentic religious traditions, its suggestions are inspired by neurobiology. 

With the discovery of the "abode of God" (Joseph, 2002) in the limbic system, in particular the role played by the right, anterior, temporal lobe and the amygdala-hippocampal complex or "God-spot" in computing extraordinary presence, profoundness & realness (Saver & Rabin, 1997), the biological deep-rootedness of Homo Sapiens sapiens' affinity with these extraordinary experiences has been confirmed. Spirituality is not an opiate, a fiction or an invention, but an integral part of the biological make-up and wiring of the brain. For there is a neurological area in the living human brain which is so intimately linked with religious & mystical experience, that the metaphorical title of "God-spot" (the domain of the neuronal executants for this privileged "experience of the Divine") seems justified. Interestingly, this same area in large part also executes sexual, bizarre, unusual & fearful memories, dissociative states, depersonalization, hallucinogenic and dreamlike recollections (Gloor, 1997), "déjà vu", illusions (Weingarten, 1977), as well as feelings of fear, terror and rage. Fear being the common reaction associated with the activation of the amygdala (Davis, 1997).

If the concept of the Divine is more than a fiction, belonging to the informational world of believers and executed by neuronal structures computing intellectual construction & imagination (processed by the frontal lobes), then neurospirituality may have a firmer handle than dogma, namely neurobiology. Ideally, it first conceives religious & mystical experiences in terms of their executant material structures, and then tries to find ways to trigger the direct experience of Divine Presence. 

As parts of these particular executant neuronal structures are not acquired (through a learning-process) but are indeed endogenic to the structure and dynamics of the systems of the living human brain, then surely, the least one should affirm is that religious and mystical experiences (like cognitive and motoric experiences) have a series of privileged neuronal executants. The exclusive element being the fact other skills need training to acquire (causing new neuronal networks to form), whereas the limbic "God-spot" is part of an already acquired, automatic (internal) hardwiring, given at birth, and part of human evolution at least since the time of the Neanderthals, if not earlier (Homo erectus).

If "God" is : nowhere (Laplace), invoked to still fears (Feuerbach), a drug one must refuse (Marx, Lenin), "dead" (Nietzsche), a sublime cultural father-fiction of the human mind (Freud), etc. ... then surely the direct experience of the Divine should not be part of the natural hard -and software of the brain, i.e. part of its endogenic hardwiring. The presence of the "God-spot" implies the experience of the Divine is part of the natural set of basic experiences the brain (as a sublime executant) has in store as a result of the forces of its biological evolution.

not a new "proof of God" 

The study of the "God-spot" does not entail a biological "proof of God" (cf. Does the Divine exist ?, 2005). But is does point to the fact the human brain seems to be called to execute spiritual experiences. As the "spot" is not necessarily a "circuit", human consciousness is required to bridge the gap between what is only a possibility (a potential) and the actual occurence of deeply religious to advanced mystical states and stations of consciousness. So neurospirituality allows us to redefine "enlightenment" as the dissolution of the "spotlike" nature of the "God-spot" and the emergence of a new wave-like circuit in the brain, playing out the brain to its own evolutional advantage, resulting in an enhanced mental efficiency, a more inspired creativity and a continuous inner well-being (greater conscious steering of neuronal functions). 

Why did the brain adapt to the point of producing the "God-spot" in the amygdala-hippocampal complex ? Materialism proposes the thesis of the naked ape. Without structures to execute the illusion of the hereafter, this creature would have been eliminated because of its awareness of self and so of its own possible annihilation. Without a brain arranging a meeting with its ancestors in a dream, this intelligent animal would not have moved beyond its existential loneliness and anxiety. Without adapting, by shaping a "God-spot", man would not have been able to make sense of it all and survive on this planet ...

"Si Dieu n'existait pas, il faudrait l'inventer."

Joseph (2002, p.184) responds by saying that if there was nothing to experience visually, we would not have evolved eyes and a visual cortex. So, should the same evolutionary principle not apply to religious and mystical experience, i.e. the activity of the spiritual function of humanity ? Some neurons seem to be naturally selected to execute the experience of the Divine. Is the "God-spot", the limbic area of our mammalian brain which has the potential (like an antenna we calibrated) to receive the "messages" of the "other shore of being", able to compute the numinous aura of and the fear for a higher, holy being, experienced as profoundly real and present ?

human freedom taken seriously ...

This bring us to conscious human choice, moral conscience and free will to act and change the world. 

"Voluntas est animi motus, cogente nullo, ad aliquid vel non amittendum, vel adipiscendum."

Augustine, De duabus animabus, X.14 ("The will is a movement of the soul to, in absence of all coercion, either not to relinquish something, either to acquire it.")

Earlier, Plotinus (204 - 270) had, contrary to Greek standards, attributed will to "the One" :

"If then, we are to allow Activities in the Supreme and make them depend upon will -and certainly Act cannot There be will-less- and these Activities are to be the very essence, then will and essence in the Supreme must be identical. This admitted, as He willed to be so He is ; it is no more true to say that He wills and acts as his nature determines than that his essence is as He wills and acts. Thus He is wholly master of Himself and holds his very being at his will."
Plotinus, Enneads, VI.8.13.

Can, in a materialistic philosophy of mind, human freedom be taken seriously ? In not, ethics is impossible (cf. Behaviours, 2006). Freedom contradicts strict determinism. Freedom is unthinkable without a first person perspective. To be free one needs more than just an abstraction. Freedom must imply the activity of an element beyond all possible determination or lawfulness. This factor abides in its own intentional world and can purposefully interact with the material and informational worlds, causing environmental change far more tremendous than any other known aggregate of typical events.

Can M-events harbor such a nondetermined cause of change ? Clearly not. That is why materialism has no higher, spiritual values and disregards others for adhering to them. It is materialism's "Archilles heel". Higher human concepts such as freedom, equality, fraternity, truth, justice, beauty, goodness etc. have no meaning and use without intersubjectivity. When recorded in language they become third person perspectives, but never do they have their origin in the outer world of M-events. Neither is their active intentionality an I-event, for the latter can also be defined as a imperative codation and be poured into "glyphs" of states of matter. The concept of human freedom is intimately linked with a first person positioning of objects, typical for a self-consciousness able to act without constraints in its own intimate reality and interacting with both M-events and I-eventsSo, are we willing to take ourselves seriously and take the first person perspective for granted, or shall we continue to hide ourselves behind the fabric of our own conceptualizations, rationalizations & mental obscurations ?

"The proper study of mankind is man."
Multatuli, 1868.

To guarantee "I am free.", philosophy of mind must acknowledge "I" exist. Twentienth century philosophy has been reluctant in precisely doing that. As a result, higher human values have been desubjectified (objectified), so as to turn human beings into producing and consuming automatic devices (cf. Chaplin in "Modern Times"). Public indexicals cannot be reduced to private indexicals. The end of alienation (a worker having lost touch with his product) precisely comes with this "prise de conscience", which is the vital, sympathetic, attracting, clear, luminous, photonlike component overlooked in the description of intentionality. The end of intentionality is unthinkable in concepts. 

Because of free will, "I am" the nondetermined cause of autopoiesis (self-production), autoregulation & reprogramming affecting my mind profoundly, while causing changes in the neuronal wirings of my brain (cf. neuroplasticity), affecting others. Consciousness is the source of choice and the intersubjectivity of language, socialization, culture and spiritual emancipation (metanoia). To accept this, is to allow C-events their irreducible, primitive, basic ontological status as part of a triadic & interactionistic metaphysical research program.

building a memory-theatre of the brain

To close, let me justify the use of a visualized model of the brain. This is the third, emancipatoric move of this investigation. After having localized the executant structures involved with the computing of religious and mystical experiences, a neurofeedback mechanism is proposed. This is initiated by visualizing one's own brain in its natural skull. Next one tries to allocate and "follow" the processes projected to happen in this "mindmind", i.e. a "brain" visualized by the "mind" in the "space" of one's own physical brain.

Biofeedback and studies of the physiological correlates of meditation have demonstrated the influence of consciousness over processes of the autonomous nervous system, such as galvanic skin response, heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, EEG patterns etc. (Jevning, Wallace & Beidebach, 1992). In certain cases, mental states may stop the natural bleeding-reaction when their skin is pierced or in some way mutilated (cf. the image of the fakir on his nailbed). Hypnosis may suggest mental realities profoundly affecting the physical limitations of the bodies of those under hypnosis, often extending them beyond what the normal waking consciousness of these individuals would expect as possible (cf. walking on burning coals). The placebo-effect is real, as well as its reversal, the nocebo (Vroon, 1992). Parapsychology has shown phenomena like telekinesis, telepathie, psychometrie etc. are factual, although difficult to repeat and control (Griffin, 1997). The power of suggestion is one of the fundamental truths of marketing. 

Why not use these findings to the evolutionary advantage of the living brain and its mind (the brainmind) ? Restructuring the brain by the mind to allow for a more conscious steering of its own neuronal processes ?

The driver who can visualize his vehicle while driving it, tries to extend his awareness to its limitations (to apprehend volume) and then aims to understand the processes going on in it or potentially given with its structural characteristics and dynamics. Likewise, by trying to visualize -with the mind's eye- a complete picture of the brain (aligning the visualized "mindbrain" exactely with the "brainmind"), the initiating step is taken to envisage the extensions and dynamics of this special organ. This step is needed to proceed to influence the brain by means of this mindbrain, a visualized, imaginal "brain" construed by the mind and featuring all the integrated, conscious knowledge an individual has of his or her own brain, which is, of course, still quite limited.

Experiments with real time EEG-scans show extraordinary states of consciousness are correlated with combinations of four types of brainwaves (Cade, 1989, Wise, 2002). These categories refer to the building blocks of the mind-executive function of the brain : Beta, Alpha, Theta & Delta. Thanks to biofeedback, everybody who trains sufficiently long enough, may learn to steer these electromagnetic patterns, especially the reduction of Beta-waves, the increase of Alpha-waves, a better access to Theta-waves and a refined use of Delta-waves, confirming the notion of changing states and structures of the brain by means of repeated mental states (albeit a visualized "model" of the brain). Neuroplasticity is a fact and can be caused. The exercise itself, when repeated, will by itself and over time cause new neuronal pathways to appear in order to facilitate the "imaginal mindbrain" to instruct the brainmind and vice versa.

In this way, an evolution or emancipation takes place, stretching from the natural brainmind, with its potential to experience the Divine, to the imaginal mindbrain, with its actual power to alter neuronal events by means of repeated trained mental choice (volition), in this case, aimed at the modification of the brain in order to increase (quantity) and refine (quality) its activities (at least increase the number of neuronal connections). Thus, what is a potential, biologically given "God-spot", may become an actual, creative "God-circuit" in the brain, influencing all major neuronal modules and networks. This natural genesis of human capacity also encompasses the stages of cognition, from mythical to nondual thought (cf. Intelligent Wisdom, 2007).

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initiated : 01 V 2003 - last update : 26 IX 2009 - version n°3