“There are two absolutely unpredictable happenings in the story of the cosmos. The first was the origin of life, the second the origin of the mind.”
— John C. Eccles, Nobel Prize, Medicine, 1963 “How the Self Controls Its Brain”, p. 167
For the past several years, I have been a member of a men’s group at my local parish. We follow a program called That Man is You! (TMIY), a Catholic lay program that focuses on developing husbands and fathers (The sponsor, Paradisus Dei sponsors separate women’s and youth programs). There are two aspects to the TMIY program. First, is the content, which harmonizes current social and medical science with the teachings of the Church, especially that of the Second Vatican Council and Pope John Paul II. Second, is the social aspect which allows men to share ideas and be vulnerable in a confidential setting.
There is a core group of approximately 30 of us that meet every Wednesday morning at 5:45 a.m. for nine months of the year (summers off) so it is a fairly dedicated group. Most of us are either middle-aged and hitting the mid-age crisis (that would be me:-) or retired. It is a unique environment and it has done wonders for both my spiritual life and my relationships with my wife, children and broader community.
Yesterday, I attended the second session of the “Fall Semester” (I missed last week due to work travels) and the topic was human consciousness, a subject that fascinates me. Specifically, I am interested in the relationship between the mind and the brain. This is a very complex area that touches neuroscience and ontology but there are two broad camps:
- The materialists who believe that nothing exists other than the physical universe. This group believes that mind and brain are the same thing. This position is exemplified by people like neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland in this interesting interview on NPR’s On Point.
- The spiritualists who believe that the mind, or human consciousness, exists independently of the brain and that the brain is a transmitter between the spiritual mind and the material world. This position is exemplified by most major religions (yes, there are differences among the types of religious such as Buddhism which ascribe to an aspect of the nonself and Christianity which ascribe to a belief in an individual soul but those distinctions pale in comparison to the divine between the materialists and the spiritualists).
One of the leading neurologist philosophers of the spiritual school of the last several decades was Sir John C. Eccles. Set forth below is an abbreviated version of his biography from Wikipedia:
Eccles was born in Melbourne, Australia. At age 17, he was awarded a senior scholarship to study medicine at the University of Melbourne. As a medical undergraduate, he was never able to find a satisfactory explanation for the interaction of mind and body; he started to think about becoming a neuroscientist. He graduated (with first class honors) in 1925, and was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to study under Charles Scott Sherrington at Magdalen College, Oxford University, where he received his Doctor of Philosophy in 1929. In the 1950s he researched the brain synapse, which work led to him winning the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1963. In 1975 he retired to work on philosophy, specifically the mind-body problem. Eccles published until his death in 1997 at the age of 94. The summary of Eccles’ research is as follows:
“The essential feature … is that the mind and brain are independent entities … and that they interact by quantum physics … There is a frontier, and across this frontier there is interaction in both directions, which can be conceived as a flow of information, not of energy. Thus we have the extraordinary doctrine that the world of matter-energy is not completely sealed.” — John C. Eccles, How the Self Controls Its Brain, p. 9 Springer (1994) (cited in TMIY materials)
Other scientists and philosophers are continuing to study the relationship between the mind and brain. For example, neuroscientist Richard Davidson of University of Wisconsin has founded the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds which stems from his research on the brain scans of the Dalai Lama and other Buddhist monks who practice prolonged meditation.
My favorite research in the intersection between science and philosophy and what it means to be human is by Fr. Brendan Purcell who recently wrote the outstanding book: From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution. This book, published in 2012, is the most comprehensive treatment of what it means to be human that I have read. I hope to do a book review on this in the future, but in the interim, here is a link to notes by Fr. Purcell for a presentation he gave in 2012 at the 50th International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin.
Aside from the core issue of consciousness, we learned other interesting facts about the human body from TMIY yesterday, all of which point to an organizing Mind behind the creation of the universe and humans, rather than the material world being a random collection of atoms and chemicals:
- One thousand, million, million, million, million atoms combined into 75 trillion cells.
- One billion neurons, stretching over one million miles, processing 38 thousand trillions bits per second.
- 120 million rod cells and 6 million cone cells sending information down 1.2 million nerve fibers.
- 20,000 hair cells sensitive to one billionth of an atmospheric pressure.
- 100,000 heart beats, pumping 2000 gallons of blood through 60,000 miles of blood vessels every day.
- 700 million alveoli containing 300,000 million capillaries, breathing 29,000 times per day.