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

Mind and the Nature of Reality

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The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

This is the story of your mind: what it is, where it comes from, and how it connects with your brain. "Mind," as we will use it, includes everything considered to be a mental phenomenon; simply put, it includes all your experiences: thinking, perceiving, dreaming, reasoning, emoting, and much more. Experience is foundational; it is the only thing we directly know, all else is conjecture based on our experience. For example, I believe I live in a material world because my experience leads me to believe that I do.

Even a casual inspection suggests that mind and brain are rather different sorts of things: a brain is more or less solid, we can hold it in our hand, feel its weight, and notice its location; a mind, on the other hand, seems to be weightless, and who knows where it is, exactly? About as substantial as a dream, the mind has been called a ghost in the machine. How could two things be more different? But despite their differences, we have compelling evidence that mind and brain interact. How do they do that? How does something as obviously physical as the brain connect with our ghost-like mind? In other words, how do we resolve what has long been known as the mind-body problem? Or the closely related "hard problem of consciousness" which asks why consciousness, a type of experience, exists at all.

The Nature of Reality

What makes experience happen? We can trace incoming information as it first causes activity in a peripheral sensory organ, like an eye, and then as it projects through various parts of the brain. At some point, experience enters the picture. But how? How does experience emerge from all that physical hubbub going on in the nervous system? It's fairly obvious that experience, itself, is not material. We can rummage around in the brain as long as we like, turn it upside down and inside out, and in the process we will find lots of biological goop, but what we will not find, and not be able to squeeze out of that goop, is experience, itself. If mind were material, we should be able to shake it out of the brain and point to it; if it were material we might expect it to have the decency to weigh something and be somewhere. If mind is not material, what is it? That's what the rest of this note will explore.

The best answer to the experience question begins from a rather simple, if far-reaching, idea: there is actually only one kind of stuff in the universe, but that stuff manifests differently depending on how we poke it. Every piece of the universe has many aspects, or facets. You know what an aspect is: a coin, for example, has two aspects, or faces; a standard die has six. While every chunk of reality has all of reality's aspects available to it, typically only a few of those aspects will be apparent in any specific event. Consider a single die. If we roll that die, all six of its faces are available to land face-up, depending on the roll. But, in the end, only one face will manifest face-up. The remaining five will not. So it is with the rest of reality, not all of its aspects will manifest in every situation.

Of particular interest to us, reality includes both material and immaterial aspects. If we zoom in to some of the smallest bits in the natural world — protons, neutrons, and electrons — even at this level we find these tiny bits have both material and immaterial aspects. Their material aspect is characterized by having mass and being local. The proton, for example, is located in the atomic nucleus, and has an estimated rest mass of 1.67262 × 10 -27 kg. The immaterial aspect is characterized by being non-local and massless. An electromagnetic field, for instance, extends infinitely beyond its anchoring atom, and is weightless. Why does any of this matter? The biological brain is material; the mind, is immaterial. They are instantiations of our multi-aspected reality.

Because different aspects are fundamentally distinct faces of reality, they do not "cause" nor "make" each other. That means that the immaterial cannot, in principle, be made from the material, or vice versa. Imagine, for example, that we have 100 coins, face-up on a table. Is there any way we can, without flipping them over, arrange these face-up coins to create a tails-up coin? Of course not, their aspects are exclusively either/or. We can't make tails by arranging heads. But being features of a reality unified at a fundamental level, different aspects are connected; wherever you find a heads, tails will be lurking about, just on the other side. All this means that the material aspect of the brain cannot, in principle, construct our conscious mind. But its immaterial aspect can, and does. Hold that thought, we'll come back to it shortly.

May The Force Be With You

If mind and brain are going to interact, they need a means to do so. They need a force to push each other around. Force is what brings motion to an otherwise static universe. And it would be nice and tidy if both mind and brain used the same force to do the pushing and pulling as they interact. What force might it be? There are four accepted fundamental forces, but only one of them behaves in a way consistent with what is known of mind-brain interaction: the electromagnetic force.

Magnets provide us with a nice demonstration of the connection between the material and immaterial. 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 move the north poles of two such magnets together. You can't see, hear, or taste it, but you feel an invisible force there, mysteriously pushing back. Forces from the two magnets are reaching out and acting on each other; 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 are felt in their material counterparts. We are witnessing how the material and immaterial aspects of magnets move each other around. The immaterial aspect of one magnet (its magnetic field) reaches out and applies force to the immaterial aspect of the second magnet, urging it to move. As the immaterial aspect of the second magnet moves, its counterpart, the material magnet, gets dragged along because these material and immaterial aspects are connected at the core of reality. You might think of it this way: if someone grabs your left hand and gives it a tug, your right hand comes along with the action because both hands are part of your body. The immaterial realm is like an invisible left hand, the material a right. Take away: material magnets interact via their invisible, immaterial aspects.

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Connections: Where the Magic Happens

It's not only permanent magnets. Consider a common iron nail with 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. They don't seem to be touching, what makes that happen? The immaterial aspect of the magnet connects with the immaterial aspect of the nail, drawing the two together. How? The 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 at the core of reality, the magnetic field forces are felt by the material aspects of the magnet and nail, resulting in an observable position change. Thus it is that magnetic phenomena provide us with clear demonstrations of a connection between two divergent aspect types: the material and immaterial.

It might be useful at this point to note that what we call the brain includes both matter, such as cells, fluids, and ions, as well as immaterial electromagnetic fields anchored by that material stuff. Charged material, such as ions, exude electromagnetic forces, and electromagnetic forces affect charged material. The brain's over-all field is created by the summation of a multitude of smaller fields within and around neurons. In turn, this over-all field exerts forces back on those smaller electromagnetic fields. In other words, the brain's over-all electromagnetic field both arises from, and feeds back on (modifies), the physical brain. This is a classic feed-back loop. In our search for the mind-body connection, the fact that neurons specialize in manipulating electromagnetic fields should have been a clue. It is not an accident. The brain's over-all electromagnetic field is closely related to our experiential mind, and the feedback loops between brain and its electromagnetic field provide a two-way mechanism connecting mind and brain... resolving the mind-body problem.

A Song Your Brain Sings

The electromagnetic field, or "elf," spun up by your active brain is anything but static; it churns across both time and space with different regions of your brain contributing different amounts, and those amounts varying over time. It's a bit like The Mormon Tabernacle Choir: choir members, standing in different locations, each contribute a fluctuating harmony to the over-all song. In a similar way, your brain sings an electromagnetic song. Your mind is the private experience of that song. Let's acknowledge, in passing, that the essence of a song resides in the pattern of its notes, not the notes themselves.

Up til now, we have been mostly discussing the physical realm of reality. Material matter and immaterial electromagnetic fields are both physical, and, as magnetic phenomena demonstrate, are connected at a fundamental level. But reality contains more than just the physical realm. It also includes non-physical stuff, such as information, abstract structure, and what is particularly interesting for our discussion, an experiential aspect. Let me be clear about this: while experience is very much a part of the universe, it is not a part of the physical universe.

Many of us are more or less familiar with the notion that the electromagnetic force, or elf, includes both electric (charge) and magnetic components. Visible light, for example, includes both magnetic and electric components. But reality packs more into that bundle. Every elf is also associated with a largely hidden, component: experience or mind-stuff. We can measure the physical elf in and around the brain. But we do not yet have instruments that can directly measure subjective experience. While experience may be inferred from behavior, it cannot be directly observed... except privately. Thus, we can think of "mind" as a hidden elf-component in and around the brain. That means if reality is manifesting a physical electromagnetic field, it is also manifesting a non-physical experience. Every elf includes experience. Now, I know that's a big red pill to swallow. After all, we like to think of ourselves as special, somehow different and better than the rest of the universe. Science has slowly been chipping away at that treasured myth, but still! Must we now give up the belief that we are not alone in having experience? That instead it is found throughout universe? Yes... but we can still save an island of specialness. Keep reading.

What about the hard problem of consciousness? Why does consciousness, or experience, exist at all? In our model, every electromagnetic field (elf) includes an experiential aspect. Since elfs and their experiential aspects are everywhere in the universe, mind-stuff is everywhere. While mind-stuff is ubiquitous, our specific flavor of experience, or consciousness, almost certainly is not.

It's not news to say that we are made of star dust. Many of the atoms that make up your body were built in solar furnaces. And we are used to thinking that the atoms in our body are just like those throughout the universe. Modern Physics tells us that these very small atomic "bits" are put together in astonishing variety to create every material thing we see around us. But every atom also has an associated elf; as nature builds with material atoms, she is also building with small "bits" of elf and, hence, experience, putting them together in an equally astonishing variety of experiential/consciousness structures. Our human consciousness is only one possible structure within a nearly infinite sea of possibilities. While experience is everywhere, our human style consciousness is not, I think. That's all very nice, of course, but it begs the question, which now becomes "why do experiential "bits" exist at all?" or "why is an experiential aspect included with the electromagnetic force?

The best answer I can offer is another question: why does anything exist at all? In our many-aspect model of reality, consciousness, or subjective experience, is an expression of a fundamental aspect of reality, there is nothing else like it. Unfortunately, we aren't ready to answer the metaphysical question of "why" reality takes the form it does. Heck, we are still pondering "what" the nature of reality is. "Why" questions will have to wait until after later. One day, we may be able to answer that "why" question, but there is no guarantee of that. It may well be beyond our understanding, like calculus is for an ant.

Wrap-up

If we consciously know anything, we know that we have experience. And our experience consistently tells us of the material world we live in. The challenge has always been to understand how the two connect: how does our physical body connect with our non-physical experience. We have seen how a many-aspect reality easily connects mind and brain because the two are simply different aspects of one and the same thing, different sides of the same coin. In this world, because we can't make one aspect from another, we can't make mind from anything that doesn't already have mind-stuff qualities. In other words, mind-stuff must be present at the most fundamental layers of reality, with emergence being the process that ultimately yields the large, complex elf / experiential structures of our mind.

If the objective aspect associated with the mind is an elf, it seems reasonable to expect that different mental events might have different elf configurations or signatures. Thus, for example, since vision is a radically different experience than audition, the visual system's elf signature must be different than the auditory system's. (hint: it has a different shape.)

So, on a global level, the puzzle is resolved; now you know what your mind is (it's a manifestation of the experiential leg of the electromagnetic force, or elf, within and around your brain), where it comes from (it's a fundamental aspect of reality), and how it connects with your brain (it connects via the material-immaterial connection so nicely illustrated by magnets).