Our godless brains: Emerging science reveals mind-blowing alternatives to a higher power

Science has yet to uncover many mysteries of the mind. But there are more reasons than ever why God isn't necessary

Published April 26, 2014 8:00PM (EDT)

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Excerpted from "Mental Biology: The New Science of How the Brain and Mind Relate."

Physics is the mother science. As such, it holds the greatest power for discovering the true nature of the universe and life within it. Physicists these days seem preoccupied with astronomical issues, such as the origin and ultimate fate of the universe. But some physicists venture into the realm of biology, claiming that their unique experimental and mathematical skills give them special insight into matters of life and death.

I just hate it when physicists write about biology. They sometimes say uninformed and silly things. But I hate it just as much when I write about physics, for I too am liable to say uninformed and silly things—as I may well do here.

To digress briefly, I am reminded of the communication gap between people of science and everybody else, as so powerfully discussed by C. P. Snow in his classic book "Two Cultures." These days, within science there are also two cultures: physical science and biological science, and they don’t always speak the same language. The language of physics, for example, relies heavily on mathematics, which is rarely mastered by biologists.

For most of my career, biology was generally considered a “soft” science, unworthy of the same stature as physics and chemistry. The discovery of DNA structure gave biology new respect in the “hard science” community because DNA is simple, as clearly explainable as chemistry, and easy to measure with mathematics. But the rest of biology is still a second-class science. I remember my College-of-Science dean, a nuclear physicist, refused to allow me to offer a course in sociobiology, based on E. O. Wilson’s classic text, because the he did not consider such studies to be real science. He also objected to my publishing with experimental economists on the same grounds.

It’s hard for biologists to argue with physicists. Often physicists listen with detached bemusement because biologists can’t explain life with mathematics. Physics could not exist without math. Sometimes I think physicists get too enamored with math. I get the impression that they think that describing and predicting phenomena with equations is the same as explaining why and how such phenomena occur. Take the most famous equation of all, E = mc2. Just what does that equal sign mean? It implies that the variables on each side are the same. But is mass really identical to energy? True, mass can be converted to energy, as atom bombs prove, and energy can even be turned into mass. Still, they are not the same things. Not only are the units of measurement different, but the equation is only descriptive and predictive. It does not explain how mass converts to energy or vice versa.

The limits of math become more troublesome when physicists try to explain the origin of the universe. Math does not really explain how a universe can exist without a first cause. True, physicists invoke the “big bang,” a massive explosion of supercondensed matter. They call this the “singularity,” as if that explains things any better. Whatever words, or math, they use, they cannot explain what created the supercondensed mass in the first place. Where did that mass come from? If it was created by energy, where did that come from? You can see that such questions create an infinite loop of effects that have a cause. Scientists call this “infinite regression,” which is an untenable way to explain anything.

Even if you invoke the idea of a creator god, where did that god come from? So, you see, physicists and the rest of us are stuck with the unsatisfying conclusion that something can be created from nothing. I have only read one explanation for how this might happen, which I will discuss shortly, but it makes no sense to me.

Surely, many mysteries of the universe and of life itself are well hidden. Science is in the business of revealing hidden realities. What we call religious beliefs may be among those realities. Maybe we should revisit the view of the ancient Greek philosophers who held that there is “true” reality hidden by what we think is reality.

Today, physicists are starting to see previously unseen realities, as I am about to summarize. Such unseen realities may well include unknown kinds of matter and energy that give rise to mind. Maybe there is a counterpart mind, operating in parallel in a way that electrodes and amplifiers or magnetic imaging scanners cannot detect.

Only a few neuroscientists argue that the human mind is not materialistic. Neuroscientist Mario Beauregard and journalist Denyse O’Leary have written a whole book to argue the point. Their "Spiritual Brain" documents many apparent mystical experiences. These authors use the existence of such mental phenomena as intuition, will power, and the medical placebo effect to argue that mind is spiritual, not material. None of this is proof that such experiences have no material basis. Their argument seems specious. They have no clear definition of spirit, and they do not explain how spirit can change neuronal activity or how neuronal activity translates into spirit. They dismiss that the mind can affect the brain because it originates in the brain and can modify and program neural processes because mind itself consists of neural process.

Sometimes we don’t see hidden realities even when they are right under our nose. Consider water, for example, which before the advent of science was grossly misunderstood. Now we can explain how water exists in several states: liquid, vapor, solid. You and I are mostly water. My point is that our mental essence may also exist in several states. At the moment, the only one you and I know about is the state of nerve impulse patterns. Just as water has no way to know which state it is in, I (so far at least) can only know about my impulse-pattern state.

By now readers know brains make sense (pun intended). That is, we know enough about the brain to know that conscious mind may someday be explained by science. We already know enough about the nonconscious mind of the brainstem and spinal cord to realize that what we call mind has a material basis that can be explained by science. Science may someday be able to examine what we today call spiritual matters. Consider the possibility that “spirit” is actually some physical property that scientists do not yet understand.

The idea of a material, biological basis of conscious mind may be offensive to those who believe in the mysteries of the soul and eternity. After all, many people of faith refuse to accept science’s doctrine of evolution. To these believers we could say that one of the least mysterious ways God works in the world is through the laws of chemistry and physics that govern the universe and all living things. Even God has to have methods for doing things. Educated believers surely have to admit the possibility that God created these laws as a way to create the universe and even the human mind. Otherwise, from that perspective, what are the laws for? Nobody knows how these laws came to be or why they exist.

Many scientists are not sanguine about their belief in a material mind. For example, one scientist-engineer, Paul Nunez, has suggested that some yet to-be-discovered information field might interact with brains such that brains act like a kind of “antenna,” analogous to the way the retina of the eye can be thought of as an antenna that detects the part of the electromagnetic spectrum we call light.

To me, other possibilities for discovering material attributes of “spirit” seem more likely. Modern physics, especially quantum mechanics and the theories of relativity, dark matter, and dark energy, has already shown that not even physicists understand what “material” is. I will now summarize the more likely possibilities for hidden realities of mind.

Quantum Mechanics (QM). Quantum mechanics is so weird that Einstein called it “spooky science.” Ironically, there remains a spooky weirdness in Einstein’s own relativity theories, which I will get to momentarily.

The heart of the QM enigma lies in the apparent fact that subatomic particles can be in two places at the same time. But that is not quite correct. What has been demonstrated experimentally is that photons or electrons can have characteristics of both waves and particles at the same time. Where the wave and/or particle is located depends on whether or not its location is pinned down by observation. That observation includes instruments, not just the human eye.

Moreover, the waves are actually mathematical wave functions of the probability of where a particle is located. The shape of the probability of the wave function as it evolves can actually be quantified by the so-called Schrödinger equation. When we observe where a particle is located, the probability function “collapses,” going from zero percent probability for all the locations where the part is not found to 100 percent for the place where it is observed.

But beyond the math, some particles, like photons, are clearly waves that oscillate at particular frequencies. The physics community was rocked in the 1920s by experiments that showed that electrons, known at the time to be subatomic particles, behaved like common waves, interfering with each other when their waves overlapped, much as two ripples in water do as the ripples move into each other. Electron interference seems to depend on a wave from one place crossing another wave from another place. How can that be? Max Born in 1927 found the answer: the waves are not physical waves but probability waves. Specifically, the size of a probability wave at any given point of location is proportional to the probability that the electron is located at that location. Stated in another way, the wave function tells us the probability of finding a particle at any given point of space. A profound consequence is that the probability wave applies to all locations in the universe.

Some of the experimentally demonstrable spooky things about QM include a seeming influence on elementary particles from distant parts of the universe with no time delay (called entanglement), particles jumping from one place to another without ever locating in places in between like successive frames in a motion picture (called tunneling), that particles can be in more than one place at the same time, and that the behavior of a particle is governed by its being observed or measured impersonally by instruments.

Knowing about QM is not the same as understanding it. Even Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, a bedrock of QM theory, has recently been called into question.

A key enigma in QM is that we can only observe a tiny subset of what actually exists. In QM theory, you can’t make a complete observation, even remotely with instruments, of an object or event without disrupting its actual existence. The location of an object, for example, is one of several states: it may here or several places there. But in QM these states are specified as wave functions, not “here” or “there.” Wave functions are probability statements. The object has, for example, a 75 percent chance of being in one place and a 25 percent change of being in another. Where it actually is depends on whether or not we detect its location. This is confusing I know, but I will let physicists do the apologizing.

To date, there is no compelling evidence that QM operates at levels beyond subatomic particles. But how can we be sure? QM might even be a basis for what we would otherwise think of as nonmaterial consciousness. Indeed, views on QM consciousness are published in scientific journals, and one journal is devoted exclusively to QM consciousness.

The most recent idea I have read is that Shannon’s information theory lies at the heart of QM and can explain how something can emerge from nothing. Information, quantified as “bits” (0 and 1) is inversely proportional to the probability of an occurrence (with probability measured on a logarithmic scale). I always wonder why physical scientists like to express things in inverse relationships. Anyway, the equation says that “information” has only two properties: an event and its probability of happening. The equation applies to any kind of event, from occurrences today to the moment the universe came into being.

Moreover, the amount of information contained in an event is directly proportional to how unlikely it is to occur. Unlikely events do happen, and their rarity gives them the most information.

Physicist Vlatko Vedral, in his "Decoding Reality," asserts that QM can resolve disputes over whether the world is random or deterministic. The enigma is that quantum events are random, but large objects behave deterministically (that is, are effects with causes). The key point is that quantum events can also be deterministic (quantified by the Schrödinger equation). For example, experiments using a beam-splitter mirror show that a photon can seem to be in two places at the same time (that is, that it has gone through the mirror and has also been reflected by it). But when you try to detect where the photon is, it will randomly appear in only one place (behind the mirror or in front of it). The mere act of observing, even if you do it indirectly with some kind of instrument, affects where the photon is. If that is not spooky, what is?

The corollary is that this science seems to suggest that we humans create reality by observation. This point of view is philosophical solipsism, which was championed by Walter Seegers in a book chapter he wrote for an earlier book of mine. Seegers was a pioneer in the discovery of many of the mechanisms of blood clotting. Along the way, he came to the philosophical conclusion that science does not exist except in our own minds. He approvingly quotes Arthur Eddington, “We have found a strange footprint on the shores of the unknown. We have devised profound theories, one after another, to account for its origin. At last we have succeeded in reconstructing the creature that made the footprint. And Lo! It is our own.” In the solipsistic view, the conscious sense of self discussed earlier now has a new dimension beyond developing events along the continuum of womb to tomb.

Vedral’s view of reality is a little different. He has not explicitly integrated QM into solipsism, nor has anybody else as far as I know. But some of the ideas seem related. Vedral’s main point is that random events can exist as a deterministic reality when they occur without being detected—as was likely the case at the birth of the universe when there was presumably nothing around to do the detecting. Today’s reality is supposedly created by our observation, either directly or remotely via instrumentation.

QM gives a new dimension to information theory, for now quantification can be done in terms of “qubits,” which can exist in multiple states as any combination of yes or no, on or off, and the like. This view of reality assumes the universe is digital. But my experience with biology, especially brain function, is that life is analog. Analog properties vary continuously, not as digital events of on or off. We use digital sampling and measurement of life events as a convenience. In fact, it is so convenient that we come to mistakenly believe that the world really is digital.

The first thing that qubits have to explain is the first law of thermodynamics, which says that energy—and by extension, matter—cannot be created from nothing. The universe supposedly arose from the big bang explosion of supercondensed matter. Where did that matter come from? To explain the inexplicable, Vedral speculates that subatomic particles exist only as the labels we use to describe the outcomes of experimental observations. He claims that “any particle of matter . . . is defined with respect to an intricate procedure that is used to detect it.” If particles only exist in the presence of a detector, then the nothingness of the pre-universe developed a reality only when something that could detect a reality appeared. Sounds like gibberish to me. What was that first detector? Where and how did it appear?

There are multiple scholars who think consciousness may someday be explained by QM. With great trepidation, as a biologist suggesting to physicists how to study this matter, I would advise focusing on the wave function aspects of QM. Brain electrical currents, which are the currency of thought, still have magnetic properties, even though the current is carried by ions not electrons. There are sophisticated imaging devices that can monitor such magnetic fields, and they are used to produce a magnetoencephalogram.

Relativity. Einstein never came to grips with QM. I’ve had physicists tell me that had Einstein seen the evidence gathered since his death, he would surely have become a believer in what he had called “spooky science.” Yet Einstein’s own discoveries have their own spookiness. His theories have stood such a long test of time that some scientists are lured into thinking they understand relativity better than they actually do.

Most people know that Einstein discovered relativity. First, there was special relativity, which held that time is a fourth dimension that is relative depending on the location and speed of objects used as a frame of reference, that increasing speed of an object causes time to slow down, and that the only constant time is the speed of light. And of course there is the famous E = mc2 equation that holds that mass and energy are interconvertible. Most of these seemingly wild ideas have been experimentally verified.

But nobody talks about the possible relevance of these ideas to brain function and consciousness. Of course, relativity effects are measurable only at high speeds. Does anything in the brain moves at high speeds? What about the propagation of voltage fields associated with nerve impulses? The brain does have a high-speed passive spread of voltage fields from multiple moving ionic currents.

Also, what about the energy generated as electrons whip through protein chains in mitochondria? Only some of the energy is trapped in phosphate bonds of adenosine triphosphate. We assume that all the other energy is lost as heat. How can we be sure relativity is irrelevant to energy capture? Energy is well established as crucial for consciousness.

Many years later Einstein added variable movements and gravity to his theory to produce the general theory of relativity. In this perspective, time and space are wedded in an inseparable space-time continuum in which space is filled with the gravitational forces of stars and earths that cause space to bend and stretch “the fabric” of space-time. Think of space as a three-dimensional rubber sheet that is bent where bowling balls (stars and planets) occur within it. We think we know what this means on cosmic scales. What does it mean at the level of cells in the brain and the microgravity of their cellular mass and the time course of their chemical activities?

An added complication is that recent research confirms Einstein’s original conjecture that gravity exists as ripples in the curvature of space-time that propagate as a wave, traveling outward from the source. Thus, we should think of gravity radiation as a form of energy release by objects with mass. There is a group at my own Texas A & M University actively engaged in study of such radiation.

But all studies of gravity radiation are done at the macro level of the universe. Does not our own body have mass? The molecules within our body have mass. Do they not have microgravity radiation? If so, what does such radiation do? Gravity waves oscillate, in theory at a variety of frequencies. Could this have anything to do with rhythms in the brain? Most scientists would probably discount such possibilities because gravity waves are so weak. But the ones we study, from distant galaxies, are weak because they are so far away. The mass in our body may emit weak gravity that is close at hand.

Moreover, think about the implications of general relativity’s “continuum.” That implies infinity. Our being and life locate on this space-time continuum. Maybe death is just one (temporary) point on the continuum.

String Theory. Physicists agree that relativity and quantum mechanics are in conflict, yet both theories stand on solid experimental ground. A major thrust of physics research today is devoted to finding how to reconcile these two views of the universe. String Theory is one of several mathematical approaches to resolving the conflicts. String theory holds that ultimate reality exists not as particles but as miniscule vibrating “strings” whose oscillations give rise to all the particles and energy in the universe and—nobody mentions—in our brain! The requirement for oscillation in vibrating strings should resonate with our emerging understanding of the role of oscillation in brain function and also with what was said above about gravity waves. What information is contained in the vibrating strings inside the atomic particles of neurons? Where did the vibrating strings come from? If string theory is correct, it will likely have great explanatory power for all living matter.

Parallel universes. Mathematically, string theory only works correctly if there are 11 dimensions or “universes.” If there are such parallel universes, where are they “out there?” Some physicists imagine our universe like an expanding bubble inside a froth of space that is spawning multiple universe bubbles. Moreover, like foam in beer, each bubble might contain some portion of the properties of the parent source of froth.

Does the matter of our bodies simultaneously exist in more than one universe? Can bubbles in the froth of multiple universes interact, perhaps through quantum entanglement, or even coalesce? Perhaps what happens in our own inner universe of the brain is mirrored in another universe.

These esoteric ideas are gradually coming within the scope of experimental science. The new Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator on the Swiss-French border is designed to test string theory among other things. If the theory is correct, the collider should generate a host of exotic particles we never knew existed. One example is the Higgs boson, tentatively confirmed in 2013.

Another line of evidence might come from the Planck satellite to be launched by the European space satellite consortium. Some string-theory models predict that there is a specific geometry in space that will bend light in specific ways that the satellite is designed to detect.

String theory is not accepted by all physicists. But most agree that the known facts of physics do not fit any alternative unifying theory. Whatever theory emerges from accumulating evidence, it will, like Darwin’s theory of evolution, revolutionize our thinking about the world and our life.

Dark matter. One of those parallel universes may be right under our nose. I’m talking about the massive amount of “dark matter,” which astronomers believe to have mass because they see light being bent, presumably by gravity. This light bending occurs in regions of space where there is no observable matter to generate the gravitational force. This unseen matter is also inferred because it is the only known way to account for the rotational speed of galaxies, the orbital speed of galaxies in clusters, and the temperature distribution of hot gas in galaxies.

Last Spring, a fifteen-month census of the universe’s matter by the European Space Agency calculated that this invisible matter accounts for 26.8 percent of the universe and that our ordinary matter accounts for only 4.6 percent. Everything else is energy.

Another thing to ponder: galaxies differ in their amount of dark matter, depending on the size of the galaxy. The really interesting questions deal with possible interactions of dark matter and detectable matter. Are they totally independent? Or do they interact in some way we don’t know about?

If dark matter is spread around the universe, and living things are created out of the matter of the universe, shouldn’t some dark matter reside inside of us? Are properties of regular matter mirrored in dark matter? Is any part of us mirrored in dark matter? Similar questions could be asked about dark energy. 

Dark energy. In 1998, two teams of researchers deduced from observing exploding stars that the universe is not only expanding but doing so at an accelerating rate. Forces of gravity should be slowing down expansion, and indeed they do seem to hold each galaxy together. But the galaxies are flying away from each other at incredible, accelerating speed.

Think of the “big bang” theory as a supercondensed hand grenade, which when it explodes sends shrapnel in all directions. The difference is that when the universe was born the pieces of its shrapnel (stars and planets, organized as galaxies) started accelerating as they moved apart.

The only sensible way to explain accelerating expansion is to invoke a form of energy, a “dark” energy that we don’t otherwise know how to observe, that is pushing galaxies farther apart in a nonlinear way. Clearly, this dark energy is by far the most powerful force in the universe.

Why wouldn’t some of that dark energy be within us? If so, it would obviously have to be present in relatively miniscule amounts, lest we blow up. All that we know is that energy has to be absorbed by its target to have any effect. When we get a sun burn, for example, enough of the sun’s energy is absorbed in our skin to damage it. In the case of radiation, like x-rays and gamma rays, the absorption is ionizing: that is, electrons are knocked out of atoms as the energy is absorbed, leaving positive ions in the wake. An x-ray print shows the image created as a result of the rays that passed through your tissue hitting the photosensitive molecules in the film to darken them. Bone, for example, appears white because it is more likely to absorb x-rays and not allow them access to the photographic plate. Gamma rays have much more energy, and when they are absorbed by tissue they can cause greater damage, even setting up DNA changes that can lead to cancer.

So what about dark energy? To push galaxies apart, it must impart some of its energy to the cluster of stars and planets to give them a push. What must dark energy be doing to us? Obviously, its push is not greater than the gravity that keeps us fixed to earth. But if that energy is absorbed by the galaxy, surely some of it must be absorbed in us. But what could such absorption do? Would such dark energy interact with the regular energy that we know about—like the energy in our brain? Could it act on consciousness?

There are still larger questions. Science is still trying to explain how ordinary matter and energy arose from the “big bang.” Science does not even know how to start investigating where dark matter and dark energy came from.

Excerpted from "Mental Biology: The New Science of How the Brain and Mind Relate" by W.R. Klemm (Prometheus Books, © 2014). Reprinted by permission of the publisher. 

By W.R. Klemm


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