Saturday, December 13, 2014

Timidly Touching the Border

Having revisited the Planet of the Robots yesterday morning, in the afternoon I chanced across Wilder Penfield’s The Mystery of the Mind (Princeton University Press, 1975). The book’s subtitle is “A Critical Study of Consciousness and the Human Brain.”

Penfield is perhaps best known for stimulating neural cells of awake subjects and, doing so, eliciting super-sharp memories the subjects spontaneously produced. Examining such reactions—in which the subject was simultaneously aware both of the memory and his or her current presence in the operating room—as well as doing other experiments where pictures were shown to the subjects to be named—while Penfield occasionally inhibited the subjects’ abilities to produce words—Penfield gradually reached the conviction that the mind was independent of the brain and, indeed, made use of a source of energy of all its own. He could not determine if that energy came from some external source or was produced by the brain for the mind. But that a separate energy was definitely involved became quite clear to him (link on this site). He was confident that, someday, we would discover what that energy was.

Penfield died a year after his last book was published. A brief look suggests that science has indeed continued to concern itself with the brain-mind subject since Penfield’s death. The general tendency of that research, however, has been to deny Penfield’s notion of a possible brain-mind dualism, first by linking the “energy” to quantum phenomena and, second, tentatively identifying new brain structures which could explain the mind’s seeming “independence”—thus denying that independence.

For a while there one scientists had timidly touched the border between the physical and something else. But the overwhelming bias of science has been and continues to be in the other direction: back to the comforts of materialist monism. I use the word “timidly” because, in that book, Penfield, while stating his own convictions, does so with an obvious awareness that he is, most definitely, stepping off the reservation.

A recent post on The Zennist says that “Usefulness and truth are different” (link). The useful aspects of Penfield’s work were aimed at the understanding and treating epilepsy by surgery—to which he made significant contributions. The utility of knowing that mind and brain are different would appear to be quite slight. Moreover, it does not really require a scientific proof; good philosophy suffices. One sort of hopes that the special “energy” the mind uses will not be discovered. If it is, it might well be abused…

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