John Eccles on Mind and Brain

By David Pratt

According to the prevailing scientific theory of the mind — known as "identity theory" — mental states are identical with physicochemical states of the brain. The brain is regarded as a supercomplex computer in which material processes in the cerebral cortex somehow generate thoughts and feelings. A supporter of this materialistic theory, Daniel C. Dennett, says that our brains contain

a cobbled-together collection of specialist brain circuits, which . . . conspire together to produce a . . . more or less well-designed virtual machine . . . By yoking these independently evolved specialist organs together in common cause, and thereby giving their union vastly enhanced powers, this virtual machine, this software of the brain, performs a sort of internal political miracle: It creates a virtual captain of the crew . . . —Consciousness Explained ,1991, p. 2 28

This "virtual captain" is what we normally regard as our "self," but according to Dennett it is really just an illusion produced by the global action of our brain circuits!

Distinguished neuroscientist and Nobel Prize winner Sir John Eccles rejects this theory, saying that it never goes beyond vague generalities; materialists believe that the problems will be resolved when we have a more complete scientific understanding of the brain, perhaps in hundreds of years, a belief which Eccles ironically terms "promissory materialism." Eccles feels that this "impoverished and empty" theory fails to account for "the wonder and mystery of the human self with its spiritual values, with its creativity, and with its uniqueness for each of us." (How the Self Controls Its Brain, pp. 33, 176.) He criticizes identity theory for allowing no real scope for human freedom. Extensive experimental studies have shown that mental acts of attention and intention activate appropriate regions of the cerebral cortex. An intention to move, for example, initiates the firing of a set of neurons of the supplementary motor area about 200 Milli-seconds before the intended movement takes place. If the mind is the brain, this would mean either that one part of the brain activates an other part, which then activates another part, etc., or that a particular region of the brain is activated spontaneously, without any cause, and it is hard to see how either alternative would provide a basis for free will.

Over the course of several decades, partly in collaboration with the philosopher of science Sir Karl Popper, Eccles has developed an alternative theory of the mind, known as dualist-interactionism. His basic philosophical starting point is one with which theosophists can wholeheartedly agree:

I maintain that the human mystery is incredibly demeaned by scientific reductionism, with its claim in promissory materialism to account eventually for all of the spiritual world in terms of patterns of neuronal activity. This belief must be classed as a superstition. . . . we have to recognize that we are spiritual beings with souls existing in a spiritual world as well as material beings with bodies and brains existing in a material world. —Evolution of the Brain, Creation of the Self, p. 241

According to Eccles, we have a nonmaterial mind or self which acts upon, and is influenced by, our material brains; there is a mental world in addition to the physical world, and the two interact. However, Eccles denies that the mind is a type of nonphysical substance (as it is in Cartesian dualism), and says that it merely belongs to a different world. (How the Self Controls Its Brain, p. 38.) But unless our mind (and the world in which it exists) is pure nothingness — in which case it would not exist — it must be composed of finer grades of energy-substance. Indeed, our inner constitution may comprise several nonphysical levels. Biologist Rupert Sheldrake, for instance, proposes that our physical bodies are organized by morphogenetic fields, our habits by behavioral morphic fields, and our thoughts and ideas by mental morphic fields. He suggests that our conscious self may be a higher level of our being which interacts with the lower fields and, through them with the physical brain and body. Theosophy adds to this list spiritual and divine levels, and describes all the different "layers" of our constitution as different phases of consciousness-substance.

Opponents of Eccles' view argue that mind-brain interaction would infringe the law of the conservation of energy. In his latest book, How the Self Controls Its Brain, Eccles, with the help of quantum physicist Friedrich Beck, shows that mind-brain action can be explained without violating the conservation of energy if account is taken of quantum physics and the latest discoveries concerning the microstructure of the neocortex. Eccles calls the fundamental neural units of the cerebral cortex dendrons, and proposes that each of the 40 million dendrons is linked with a mental unit, or psychon, representing a unitary conscious experience. In willed actions and thought, psychons act on dendrons and momentarily increase the probability of the firing of selected neurons, while in perception the reverse process takes place. Interaction among psychons themselves could explain the unity of our perceptions and of the inner world of our mind.

But Eccles' acceptance of the standard interpretation of the conservation of energy actually limits his theory. According to the first law of thermodynamics, the total energy of a closed system (i.e., one which does not exchange matter or energy with its environment) remains constant. Since materialists believe that the physical world is all that exists and therefore forms a closed system, they argue that the quantity of matter-energy within it must remain absolutely the same. According to theosophy, on the other hand, there is a constant circulation of energy-substances through the various planes or spheres of reality, none of which forms a closed system, and the conservation of matter-energy applies only to infinite nature as a whole. Orthodox quantum physics does in fact recognize that energy can be borrowed from the "quantum vacuum" provided it is paid back after a fraction of a second. Furthermore, over the past hundred years or so, a number of physicists, engineers, and inventors, beginning with Michael Faraday and Nicola Tesla, have built electromagnetic "free energy" devices that seem to produce more energy than required to run them, by apparently tapping on a larger scale the "zero-point energy of the vacuum" (or "energy of hyperdimensional space," as some scientists call it) — that is, nonphysical, etheric energy. (See R. C. Hoagland, The Monuments of Mars, pp. 370-4.) Some scientists believe that "cold fusion" has a similar explanation. (See H. Fox, Cold Fusion Impact in the Enhanced Energy Age, ch. 11.)

Eccles says that the interaction between brain and mind "can be conceived as a flow of information, not of energy." (How the Self Controls its Brain, p. 9.) But information must surely be carried by some form of matter-energy, and if the mind can alter the probability of neural events, it is more likely that it does so by means of subtler, etheric types of force or energy, acting at the quantum or subquantum level. Eccles says that his theory can account for ordinary voluntary actions, but that "more direct actions of the will are precluded by the conservation laws." (Ibid., p. 163.) This is significant, for even if there is no measurable violation of energy conservation in ordinary mental phenomena, this may not be the case with certain paranormal phenomena, especially psychokinesis and materializations. Eccles, however, does not take paranormal phenomena seriously. (Evolution of the Brain, p. 242.)

Eccles is in basic agreement with the neo-Darwinian theory that evolution is driven by random genetic mutations followed by the weeding out of unfavorable variations by natural selection, but he also believes that "there is a Divine Providence operating over and above the materialist happenings of biological evolution." (Ibid., p. 239.) He accepts that mammals (such as dogs, cats, horses, and monkeys) and possibly birds are conscious beings, which experience feelings and pain, but denies conscious experiences to invertebrates and lower vertebrates such as fish and even amphibians and reptiles which, he says, have instinctual and learned responses, but no awareness or sensation. He maintains that the mental (or psychon) world, and therefore conscious experiences, came into existence with the development of the complex neocortex of the mammalian brain, and that the neocortex evolved by natural selection because it enabled the increased complexity of sensory inputs to be integrated, and therefore offered survival advantages. Then,

with hominid evolution there eventually came higher levels of conscious experiences, and ultimately in Homo sapiens sapiensself-consciousness — which is the unique life-long experience of each human SELF, and which we must regard as a miracle beyond Darwinian evolution. — How the Self Controls Its Brain, p. 139.

In theosophy, rather than the physical world giving rise to the mental world, lower realms are said to unfold from higher, more spiritual realms through a process of emanation, differentiation, and concretion, and all the various planes, and the classes of entities composing and inhabiting them, are manifestations of consciousness — the ultimate reality. In the words of H. P. Blavatsky:

Nature taken in its abstract sense, cannot be "unconscious," as it is the emanation from, and thus an aspect (on the manifested plane) of the ABSOLUTE consciousness. Where is that daring man who would presume to deny to vegetation and even to minerals a consciousness of their own. All he can say is, that this consciousness is beyond his comprehension. —The Secret Doctrine 1:277n

Thus not only are all animals conscious; plants too have a primitive form of sentient, conscious existence, as various researchers have established. (See "Our Intelligent Companions, the Plants," John Van Mater, Jr., SUNRISE, April/May 1987.) As for the mineral kingdom, "panpsychists" such as B. Rensch and C. Birch believe that all physical matter, including atoms and subatomic particles, possesses a protoconsciousness. Eccles rejects panpsychism on the grounds that modern physics does not admit memory or identity for elementary particles. However, physicist David Bohm believed not only that all forms of matter were alive and conscious to some extent, but also that, at deeper levels, every particle of a particular species is distinguishable and unique, rather than being completely identical as is assumed in orthodox physics. (Causality and Chance in Modern Physics, p. 157; Science, Order & Creativity (with F. D. Peat), pp. 210-11.) Furthermore, newly synthesized chemical compounds have been found to crystallize more readily all over the world the more often they are made — implying the existence of some sort of memory. (See Rupert Sheldrake, The Presence of the Past, p. 131.)

A further weakness in Eccles' approach is his attachment to the ape-ancestry theory. The hominid family includes not only our own species, Homo sapiens, but also more primitive (now extinct) human forms. The oldest generally accepted hominid genus is Australopithecus, which appeared in southern Africa about 4 million years ago in the early Pliocene. Some researchers have tried to trace a progressive line of evolutionary ascent from Australopithecus through Homo habilis and Homo erectus to modern humans, but such a simplistic interpretation of the fossil record is hotly contested, even among Darwinists. The origin of the hominid family itself is even more problematic. The prevailing theory is that humans and the modern anthropoid apes had a common ancestor, thought to be closely related to the extinct Miocene apes known as the dryopithecines. But as the Encylopaedia Britannica states:

Exactly when the Hominidae, as a separate and independent line of evolution, became segregated from the anthropoid-ape family (Pongidae) is not certainly known; indeed, it is still the most serious gap in the fossil record of the Hominidae. (15th ed. 18:933.)

Transitional forms leading from ancestral apes to hominids (distinguished, for example, by an erect posture and bipedal locomotion) have not been discovered, and are found only in the fanciful illustrations that decorate popular science publications. Furthermore, there is abundant evidence — in the form of stone tools, incised bones, and skeletal remains — that human beings of the modern type existed in the Pliocene, the Miocene, and even in early Tertiary times, millions of years before our supposed apelike ancestors are thought to have appeared! Most of this evidence was discovered by reputable scientists in the 19th and early 20th centuries, before the modern truncated time scale of human evolution was established, None of this evidence is reported in modern textbooks, but has been buried and forgotten. (See Michael A. Cremo and Richard L. Thompson, Forbidden Archeology (1993), 952 pages; abridged version, The Hidden History of the Human Race (1994); cf. The Secret Doctrine, 2:10, 675, 678, 686, 714n, 740.)

A comparison of the skeletal and muscular features of living apes and humans shows that apes have developed a more complex and specialized structure, while humans have preserved a primitive mammalian simplicity, with only the cerebrospinal system, necessary for the manifestation of self-conscious intelligence, being highly developed. If apes and humans descended from a common ancestor, that ancestor must have been simpler in anatomical structure than modern apes. Significantly, as we go back in time, fossil apes are found with simpler, more hominid-like features (e.g., in teeth, jaw, and skull), while hominids show no convergence towards the apes. So unless the hypothetical ancestral apes were as simple in structure as modern humans, which no Darwinist would claim, there must have been a reversion from specialized to simpler anatomical features after the separation of the hominid line, and science knows of no comparable cases where this has occurred.

The Finnish anthropologist Dr. Björn Kurtén has proposed an alternative interpretation of the fossil record, which turns orthodox Darwinism on its head. He states: "the most logical answer suggested by the fossil evidence is this: hominids are not descended from apes, but apes may be descended from hominids." (Not from the Apes [1972], p. 42.) This is consistent with the theosophical teaching that apes arose in the Miocene from interbreeding between less progressed human (Atlantean) stocks and an extinct animal stock, whose ancestors were the product of similar interbreeding at a much earlier period. As for the more primitive hominid fossils that have been discovered, rather than being our direct ancestors, they may have existed alongside advanced civilizations (some of them on now submerged islands and continents), just as civilized and primitive peoples co-exist today.

Eccles at least recognizes that Darwinian evolution cannot account for our self-conscious mind:

Since materialist solutions fail to account for our experienced uniqueness, I am constrained to attribute the uniqueness of the Self or Soul to a supernatural spiritual creation. To give the explanation in theological terms: each Soul is a new Divine creation which is implanted into the growing foetus at some time between conception and birth. —Evolution of the Brain, p. 237

Theosophy, too, assigns human beings a spiritual ancestry, but rejects the belief that they were created by a supernatural, extracosmic, an thropomorphic God. If nature is infinite, divinity cannot be outside nature but must be coeval with it and pervade every atom of life. At the heart of every entity is a spiritual monad — a deathless spark of divinity, or center of life-consciousness — which imbodies in an endless variety of forms in an endless variety of worlds in the course of its eternal evolutionary development. The earth is merely the latest station on the evolutionary journey of our spiritual monads. The first protohuman forms on earth were huge, ethereal, nonself-conscious beings which slowly materialized, declined in size, and assumed the present human shape. When these physical forms had attained the necessary degree of complexity, the gradual awakening and unfoldment of our latent intellectual and spiritual powers could begin. (See G. de Purucker, Man in Evolution, ch. 19, "Lost Pages of Evolutionary History"; The Esoteric Tradition, ch. 10, "Esoteric Teachings on the Evolution of Human and Animal Beings.")

As for what happens after death, Eccles says:

we can regard the death of the body and brain as dissolution of our dualist existence. Hopefully, the liberated soul will find another future of even deeper meaning and more entrancing experiences, perhaps in some renewed embodied existence . . . in accord with traditional Christian teaching. —Evolution of the Brain, p. 242

Given his belief that a new human soul is created for every newborn child, Eccles is probably not referring here to reincarnation on earth. But if our souls are to learn from the past and evolve, it would seem logical that they must not only reap what they have sown (in accordance with the law of karma), but must also reap where they have sown, and must continue to incarnate on earth until they have learned all the lessons the earth can teach.

Thus, although Eccles recognizes that the mind is relatively independent of the brain and works through it rather than being identical with it, his views still remain limited by several materialistic and theological dogmas. Nevertheless, his attempt to reach out beyond scientific materialism and develop a more spiritual vision is refreshing. Towards the end of his latest book, he writes:

I here express my efforts to understand with deep humility a self, myself, as an experiencing being. I offer it in the hope that we human selves may discover a transforming faith in the meaning and significance of this wonderful adventure that each of us is given on this salubrious Earth of ours, each with our wonderful brain, which is ours to control and use for our memory and enjoyment and creativity and with love for other human selves. —How the Self Controls Its Brain, pp. 180-1

(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, June/July 1995. Copyright © 1995 by Theosophical University Press)


Sunrise Back Issues Menu