Richard V Sansbury, PhD ·
psychologist (ret)
psychologist (ret)

Mind and the Nature of Reality — notes to self

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Mind and Reality

This is the story of your mind: what it is, where it comes from, and how it's connected with your brain. We have good reason to believe your mind and brain are connected. Going beyond that, many philosophers and scientists have maintained that your physical brain creates your non-physical mind. But it doesn't. It's the non-physical or immaterial aspect of your brain that forges and communicates with your immaterial mind. But before I get too far ahead of myself, let's back up a bit and outline the necessary nature of a reality that includes mind.

The Nature of Reality

An apology: in order to keep our discussion manageable, we will ignore, a number of tantalizing wrinkles, touching only on those topics essential to our goal of creating a better understanding of mind.

In order to adequately explain the mind-body connection we need to tweak, ever so slightly, our picture of reality. The basic idea is an old one: there is only one kind of stuff in reality, but that stuff has multiple aspects. What do I mean by "multiple aspects"? A coin, for example, has two aspects, or faces; a standard die has six. Our model of reality includes at least three aspects: material, immaterial, and temporal. Everything in this reality has all of reality's aspects. In particular, everything has both material and immaterial aspects. If we zoom in to what is nearly the smallest bits of reality — protons, neutrons, and electrons — even at this level we find these bits have both material and immaterial aspects. Their material aspect is characterized by being local and having mass; the immaterial aspect is characterized by being non-local and massless. Different aspects are fundamentally distinct faces of reality. While they invariably accompany each other, neither "causes" nor "makes" the other. Being features of a single reality, different aspects are connected; a change in one will quite possibly, though not necessarily, be accompanied by a change in the other(s). Thus, while it is possible to lightly scratch only one side of a coin or die, flipping only one side of a coin or rolling only one side of a die can't happen, because the different aspects are solidly connected. A quick example may help. Imagine holding a permanent magnet in your hand. What you see and feel, from a simplified perspective, is the material aspect of the magnet; it has mass and is local. To our senses, it seems as though the magnet is nothing more than a metal bar. Now imagine that you attempt to force the north poles of two such magnets together. You can't see, hear, or taste it, but you feel something immaterial there, mysteriously pushing back. You are experiencing the very real immaterial aspect of magnets, an aspect that cannot be seen, has no weight, and cannot be put in a wheelbarrow, yet surely exists and has consequences that can be felt in the material magnets.

Like a magnetic field, mind is a manifestation of the immaterial aspect of reality: it is massless and non-local. The physical brain represents the material aspect. Once we accept that mind and brain are but different aspects of a single, unified reality, the standard mind-body problem formulation evaporates: the body's material aspect does not make or cause the immaterial mind. But because they are different aspects of a single underlying reality, a change in the material brain may be accompanied by a change in its immaterial partner, the mind, and vice versa. The rest of this discussion attempts to elucidate how this could be so.

Unpacking Reality, One Step at a Time

An immaterial pattern, or organization, may seem purely abstract, but it is every bit as real as the material that happens to express it. Every material thing has its immaterial counterpart. A rock, for example, may seem like a purely material lump, but it also comes packed with less obvious, associated gravitational, electrostatic, and electromagnetic fields (our discussion will ignore strong and weak nuclear forces/fields). The image below represents an arrangement of black and white wooden blocks:

A pattern emerges from this arrangement. Each material block occupies a distinct area (is local) and, at the same time, is part of a larger immaterial pattern. If each physical block is constrained to a specific location, how is the more extensive pattern created? That is, how do exclusively local blocks nonetheless participate in an extensive pattern? How can blocks be both local and non-local?

A similar problem has already been faced by physicists; they needed some way to explain how the presence of one item, far removed from another, can nonetheless affect the latter's behavior. That is, they needed to explain what was known as "action-at-a-distance." The physicists' answer? Fields. For example, a positively charged point in space will reach out with its immaterial electric field to influence any charged particle coming close enough. We generalize that explanation, here: immaterial fields reach out from each material node, extending far beyond the node's physical boundaries. When fields encounter other fields, relationships, or connections, are formed. Thus, the immaterial aspect of the blocks in our example spread out from the local blocks and combine with the immaterial aspect spread of their neighbors, creating the extensive pattern. To reiterate our important point: while the material aspect of a thing is local, its immaterial aspect is not. Instead, the non-local immaterial aspect spreads out from the material location. The immaterial aspect of some objects can extend quite far; gravitational fields, for example, organize the behavior of galaxies. Reality is both local and non-local.

From the unthinkably large distances between galaxies to the immeasurably small intra-nuclear spaces, movement is everywhere. And where there is movement, there is time. What we have just considered for spatial location can readily be generalized to include time. That means the immaterial aspect extends across space and time. Spatial, temporal, and spatiotemporal patterns include such diverse examples as checkerboards, songs, night and day, seasons, tides, and celestial orbits. Immaterial spread and combination across the temporal aspect may very well be a feature that plays a hugely important role in creating our experiences, including recalling the past and imagining the future. [more]

Here are a few examples of things we tend to experience mostly as either material or immaterial:

  • Material (physical things that have mass, often can be put in wheelbarrows):
  • e.g., dirt, water, rocks, air,
  • bacteria, plants, animals
  • Immaterial (do not have mass, cannot be put in a wheelbarrow):
  • e.g., relationships, information, songs, language, mind, energy, fields, waves, electromagnetism
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Interactions

Consider a common iron nail and its obvious material aspect. We know what will happen if we bring a powerful permanent magnet close to such a nail: the nail will move to the magnet. What makes that happen? The immaterial aspect of the magnet interacts with the immaterial aspect of the nail, combining and drawing them together. How? The immaterial magnetic field of the magnet applies a force on the magnetic fields of the individual atoms in the nail, causing them to align with the magnet's field and creating an over-all magnetic field in the nail. The two magnetic fields exert attractive forces on each other. Because the material and immaterial aspects are connected in reality, the magnetic field forces are felt by the material magnet and nail, resulting in physical (material) position change. This could well be the sort of interaction through which the immaterial mind causes changes in the material body/brain: the complex electromagnetic field that may be the measurable footprint of mind exerts top-down influences on the more local fields and, via their connection in reality, thereby change the material aspect of neuronal circuits. Am I suggesting that mind is related to some sort of electromagnetic field? Yes, I am. But much more on this later.

Emergence

Emerging from Reductionism

Emergence has been given numerous definitions and its exact meaning is still being debated. Here, we will use the basic notion of what is meant by emergence: what parts of a system do together that they would not do on their own; or emergence occurs when an entity is observed to have properties that its parts do not have on their own.

Like an onion, reality sports a layered structure, each layer emerging from the layer below it. Let's anchor our onion analogy at the sub-atomic level with proton, neutron, and electron constituents. As they interact, they self-organize into a variety of atoms, as illustrated by the periodic table of elements. Having emerged from the self-organization of protons, neutrons, and electrons, these different atoms/elements represent the next layer up in complexity. As the elements of this layer interact, they self-organize into more complex structures, called molecules. The new, molecular layer has its own set of properties created by the more complex relationships among the elements and their charge-associated fields. This step-wise creation of increasingly complex layers continues up the ladder of reality, finally generating the macro levels we are used to dealing with on a daily basis. [examples of emergence] [another look at layers]

It is important to note that while the process of emergence most certainly does create new properties (rules of interaction) for each new layer, it does not create new types of fundamental, material bits or immaterial forces. Complexity increases in a layered fashion, creating a hierarchy, or ladder, of complexity as we move from lower to higher layers. We might imagine that, at a fundamental level, bits of reality self-organize into material/immaterial patterns (atoms). Responding to the properties of their peers (still atoms and/or molecules), they self-organize into higher level, more complex, patterns. As we proceed up the layers of reality, we find increasingly complex patterns being created from the less complex patterns below. But note: at each step along the way, reality includes both aspects: material, and immaterial. These different faces of reality are just that, faces of reality. They do not create each other, they skip along together, holding hands.

Organization (immaterial relationship structure) is the key to emergence. Whenever we have multiple instances of something, relationship structures among those things arises. These immaterial relationship structures dictate how a set of one collection of things will interact with another set of things. In other words, new properties emerge from relationships among a collection of things. We are considering a process that is the exact opposite of reductionism: as you divide something into smaller and smaller parts, you destroy relationships among its population of parts and their resultant emergent properties. For example, as you focus on smaller and smaller parts of a drop of water, at the point of having only a few molecules left, you lose the emergent property of liquidity; as you chop up a song into smaller and smaller pieces, you destroy the song and are left only with disembodied tones. You are an emergent phenomenon. The organization among your cells allows them to create the system that is you, engaging in complex behaviors that no single cell in your body could accomplish. Organization is vital. If the organization of your cells were suddenly randomized, say in a blender, you would be having a very bad day.

The three mentioned material building blocks come with fundamental forces. Protons and electrons have both mass and charge, neutrons exhibit mass. Mass and charge are "fundamental" because, for this discussion, we are unable to peer behind the curtain and see where they come from, what makes them what they are. They are essentially magic to us. And remember, the "properties" of a material are often just a short-hand for the ways in which it interacts with other things. Those properties arise from the structure of the electron cloud/electron-generated fields surrounding the molecule or atomic nucleus. As you combine elements in different ways, you create different electron clouds/fields in the resulting molecules which, because of their structures, interact with other things in characteristic ways which we call properties.

Material and immaterial aspects are separate branches on the tree of reality, influencing each other via their mutual connection to reality's multiple-aspect structure. Mind is a manifestation of the immaterial aspect/branch. To the extent that mind is created from more basic mindness bits, these bits must also be immaterial: the separation between material and immaterial branches does not allow one to directly create the other. To make apple juice, you start with apples, not oranges. This all means that the material aspect of the brain, such as neurons, do not create mind. Rather, if mind is created by the brain, it must be created within its immaterial aspect/branch. In fact, if no special magic happens along the way, elements with mindness properties must be present at the most fundamental stratum of reality. Let me put that another way: like mass and electromagnetism, mindness must be a primitive attribute of reality. It isn't magically created from any material thing, it's present at the most basic level. It is, of course, always possible that some immaterial force, some "vital spirit" exists at the fundamental level that our instruments have been, as yet, unable to detect. I'll return to this possibility at the end of our discussion. For now, immaterial electromagnetic forces associated with material protons and electrons are the most likely known suspect for the basic bits of mindness. That doesn't mean that all mindness bits are conscious, of course, or even that they resemble the complex event we call mind. The most basic and ubiquitous mind-bits are surely(?) not conscious. But as they are combined in more and more complex mindness structures, eventually, consciousness emerges.

Complexity

In a barbershop quartet, each member sings a different part of the over-all arrangement. In complex systems language, that's bottom-up influence: an emerging pattern is created by a collection of individual inputs. As they sing, their voices mix in the air around them, so that each is hearing all four parts combined in an organized whole. And as they experience the ongoing song, each member attempts to harmonize with the pattern. That's top-down influence: the over-all song is shaping the behavior of its creating constituents. That means the song created by the singers acts to shape the behavior of the singers. That's called a feedback loop. In a similar manner, the mind, inhabiting the immaterial aspect of brain/body activity, immediately feeds back on the brain/body and shapes its behavior. How? Here's one way: a changing magnetic field creates an electric field. This would alter the pre-existing electric environment and thereby change the neuron's ability to fire. Rather than being an epiphenomenon, the immaterial mind shapes activity in the material brain.

Our brain is a complex system that includes top-down, bottom-up, as well as sideways (nodal) influences at play. There are both the material elements such as neurons, supporting cells, neurotransmitters, general fluid baths, etc., and the immaterial aspects such as the network organizations, synaptic clefts, electromagnetic fields permeating everything, and countless relationships among the constituents of the brain/body.

All living cells are awash in electromagnetic fields, if for no other reason than the constant ion movement in and around them. Neurons, however, specialize in creating these fields, taking it to an entirely different level. That's not surprising: cells forming different organs are typically specialized so they can efficiently carry out their function. Neurons are especially adept at creating and manipulating electromagnetic fields. That's another reason electromagnetic fields seem like an interesting candidate for the footprint of mindness. The function of neurons? To process information, and apparently creating electromagnetic fields helps with that task.

Free Will, Epiphenomenalism, and the Mind

Free will is a perception, an event in the conscious mind. We correctly experience ourselves as being an agent who decides, or chooses. As such, we are responsible for our choices. It is the experience of agency that we are referring to when we say we have free will.

Perceptually, we live in the past. A conscious perception is essentially a model, or representation, of an event in reality that is constructed by the mind/brain before it finds its way into consciousness. Basically, it takes time for a perception to get its act together, to get ready to enter consciousness. Imagine sitting in a dark room, when a small light is suddenly turned on in front of you. It takes time for the light to reach your eyes, it takes time for your retina to become excited about its light-hearted visitor, it takes time for the resulting neuronal signal to reach the back of your brain and to radiate out from there. It takes time for your mind to assign meaning to the information it has taken in. Because all of these processes precede conscious experience, our conscious perception is a perception of what used to be, the past.

We have both a conscious and unconscious mind [more]. That is, there are different kinds of mental events: those we are aware of, and those we are not. For ease of exposition, we will act as if consciousness is all-or-nothing. Please keep in mind that that is not always the case. In some cases, there are degrees, or shades, of consciousness. In other cases, unconscious mental events work entirely behind the scenes as they participate in the model construction process that precedes conscious awareness.

If our perceptions are invariably perceptions of the past, then our perception of agency will be of agency in the past. In other words, we make our choices before we are consciously aware of making our choices; perception is downstream of the event. Does that detract from the voluntariness of our choices? Not at all. It simply means our unconscious mental processes are faster — and sometimes may make choices we do not consciously understand. Have you ever asked yourself, "What was I thinking?" or "Why in the world did I do that?" We might think of consciousness as being something like an echo; it's what happens when the unconscious mind becomes aware of itself, when it detects it's own behavior. Having the option of reviewing possible future scripts in consciousness prior to implementation gives us the chance to edit/improve them... to our evolutionary advantage.

Consciousness Emerges

It seems almost certain that consciousness emerges from the unconscious. But how? In our model, which attributes mindness to an electromagnetic field, it must mean that there is some sort of change in the electromagnetic field, EMF, from an unconscious to a conscious configuration. The unconscious configuration would be an initial EMF resulting from a neuronal activity change following, say, sensory stimulation... an unconscious awareness. Then, either automatically or due to some outside input, the initial EMF shifts to a different form that corresponds to a conscious configuration. [explain how that might happen]

A Song Your Brain Sings

We have been characterizing mind as an electromagnetic field, and that's almost right. Actually, the mind is a dynamic pattern that rides on the electromagnetic field created by the brain. In short, your mind is a song your brain sings. The "notes" in that song-that-is-you are values of an electromagnetic field, spread across space and time. An analogy might be The Mormon Tabernacle Choir as a model of the cortical columns in your brain, with each member singing its part, contributing to the whole. The varying electromagnetic field around your cortex is the measurable footprint of your mind. That makes it the objective aspect of mind. An objective aspect is a view from the outside. For example, the objective aspect of a house is the view from outside the house. Your experience is the subjective aspect, the view from inside the house. Your mind, then, is the experience from the inside of what it's like to be an electromagnetic song your brain sings. One of the features of a song is that the same song can be played on different instruments, or sung by different singers. Isn't that interesting? Might it be possible that the song-that-is-you could be sung by an instrument that is not biological?

Qualia

We have suggested, in broad strokes, how consciousness may arise. But consciousness isn't a "stand-alone" event. If we are conscious, we are conscious of something. In other words, we are experiencing something, and that experience has a distinct quality, or "quale" about it. The quale of a color "red," for example, is distinct from that of "green," or the sound of a bell, or the tactile feeling of a brush. In our model, the quale of "red" is a unique experience of what it is like to be inside a particular electromagnetic field structure. In other words, the objectively measurable spatiotemporal pattern of an electromagnetic field is invariably related to the subjective quale (experience) that accompanies that field. Like electrical current, magnetic flux follows the path of least resistance, or greater permeability. Different materials have different permeabilities. Thus, if neurons in, say, the visual and auditory systems have different sorts of magnetic permeabilities, they would then have different electromagnetic field structures, creating different qualia. Or the neurons might be the same, but their respective support cells might have different permeabilities. Returning to our Mormon Tabernacle Choir analogy, we might suppose that each singer is contributing its mini-magnetic field/quale to the over-all field/qualia that is our mind.

What's Next?

If we know anything, we know that we have an immaterial mind, we experience it almost constantly. And our experience convincingly tells us of the material world we live in. The challenge has always been to understand how the two connect. We have outlined here how a multiple-aspect reality easily connects mind and brain because the two are simply different aspects of one and the same reality. In this reality, material cannot create immaterial, and that means mind-like stuff must be present at the fundamental layers of reality, with emergence being the process that ultimately yields complex electromagnetic fields, the measurable footprint of mind. Our story of mind has presented it as viewable from inside or outside. From the outside, mind appears as an electromagnetic song your brain sings. From the inside, it is the experience of being such a song. Our story has included a great many, at least plausible, speculations that will need to be confirmed before taken too seriously. We have made a good beginning, but many more steps remain before we truly understand the enigmatic mind.