Consciousness, the Mind and the Wonder of the Human Person

Sir John C. Eccles, Nobel Prize winning neuroscientist

Sir John C. Eccles, Nobel Prize winning neuroscientist

“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.

About William Ockham

I am a father of two with eclectic interests in theology, philosophy and sports. I chose the pseudonym William Ockham in honor of his contributions to philosophy, specifically Occam's Razor, and its contributions to modern scientific theory. My blog (www.teilhard.com) explores Ignatian Spirituality and the intersection of faith, science and reason through the life and writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (pictured above).
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12 Responses to Consciousness, the Mind and the Wonder of the Human Person

  1. Lynda says:

    This is so interesting. Thank you for the link to Fr Purcell’s notes. I will have to read them again to digest what he is saying with more clarity. I really appreciate your blog because you expose me to articles and concepts that I wouldn’t explore otherwise. Blessings.

    • Thank you for the kind words Lynda. If you find Fr. Purcell’s notes useful, I would strongly recommend his book as he elaborates on those subjects in much greater detail. Set forth below are links to a book review by David Walsh and podcast interview from America Magazine on Fr. Purcell’s book.

      Book Review
      Podcast Interview

      Peace,
      W. Ockham

  2. Ponder Anew says:

    I figured I would find it, a click on the link about Churchland reveals her Descartes root. In his second meditation in “Meditations on First Philosophy”, Descartes places the imagination into a material category because he cannot see all that wax can be transformed into. There he has no recourse: the only real thing is thinking. “But what therefore am I? A thinking THING.”

    I recall a joke from a philosopher prof. Descartes is in a bar and the bartender asks him if he wants a drink.
    “I think not,” says Descartes.
    *Poof*

  3. Erik Andrulis says:

    Good post, thanks for introducing Eccles to a broader audience. I read Eccles as part of my theoretical research. In his book, “Evolution of the Brain,” I was convinced that I was on the right track when I found his concluding remarks regarding the Self, the Soul, God, and Creation. (pp. 236-238)

    Alas, however, he, like all great scientists that I have been and am still, neglected to include his own Self in those remarks. He neglected to mention of even consider the well-know Eastern premise that Atman *is* Brahman, or Self is God. Of course, no card-carrying scientist would admit to being God, lest his colleagues think him to be crazy.

    Peace, Ik

  4. jjhiii24 says:

    I’m intrigued and surprised by the notion of a Catholic lay program focused on developing husbands and fathers including human consciousness as a topic. While it is clear that this subject has broad implications for all human beings, and considering that such a conversation might directly improve a man’s understanding generally, improving or enhancing our ability to fulfill the role of husband and father, at least in the immediate sense, normally suggests a more specific emphasis on our moral and filial responsibilities, particularly at the level of a parish group. I find encouragement in knowing such groups are active in a church setting.

    One of my favorite quotes from Chardin’s essay, “The Growth of Consciousness:”

    “When observed through a sufficient depth of time, (millions of years) life can be seen to move. Not only does it move, but it advances in a definite direction. And not only does it advance, but in observing its progress, we can discern the process or practical mechanism whereby it does so. Research shows that there is a persistent and clearly defined thrust of animal forms towards species with more sensitive and elaborate nervous systems. There is a continued heightening–a rising tide of consciousness–which visibly manifests itself on our planet in the course of the ages.”

    Eccles work on synaptic transmission won him a well-deserved sharing of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley in 1963, but my admiration for his work springs more from his collected thoughts in his book entitled, “Facing Reality,” in 1970, where, according to his biography, he formulated “…a philosophy of the human person that is consonant with the whole of brain science.” We need this kind of integration of philosophy and neuroscience in order for that “rising tide” to continue.

    Regards….John H.

    • Hi John:

      Thank you for your comments. I was not familiar with Eccles previously and his work is on my (way too long) reading list. As you likely know better than me, there is a tremendous amount of research that has occurred in this area in recent decades, but I am not sure we are closer to truly understanding what consciousness is, both on the individual level or the collective level. It is a fascinating area and I appreciate your insights.

      Yes, I really like that quote from Teilhard de Chardin also. It is on the list for a future “Teilhard de Chardin Quote of the Week”.

      Peace,
      W. Ockham

  5. Brother Burrito says:

    Thanks William for the “heads-up”! I have just bought the Kindle version of Fr Purcell’s book (£6.17) and am relishing the prospect of diving in.

    You may know that I obliterate human consciousness for a living, though thankfully reversibly! After 25 years of doing so, I remain in a state of awe and wonder about what I am actually doing.

    Christ is the consciousness that beholds all creation, and enlightens all men. He’s got the whole world in His mind, you might say.

    • Brother Burrito:

      I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the book. It is a bold and comprehensive synthesis of philosophy, theology, history, biology, genetics and astrophysics. Fr. Purcell is a philosopher by background but he does an outstanding job of understanding and describing other areas as well as not being overly technical in his philosophy.

      You may enjoy Fr. Purcell’s speech to the 2012 International Eucharistic Congress. As you point out, it is all based in Christ, the Alpha and the Omega:

      “We’ve already mentioned how the entire creation can be seen as aimed not only at the creation of the human, but towards the Incarnation of Christ as its highest point—where creation re-enters in Him into the Trinity. So let’s speak of going beyond the Big Bang and see the Eucharist at the heart of cosmic, evolutionary and human history.

      * * *

      [A]t the heart of evolutionary process is the mystery of life, and at the heart of all life is the One who said ‘I am the Life.’ The ‘living bread’ of the Eucharist, transforming the Earth’s gifts of bread and wine, offers us the nourishment of the Life of the Incarnate Word—assuring the immortality of our one day to-be-resurrected bodily life.

      Going beyond Plato’s remark that ‘society is man written large,’ philosopher of history Eric Voegelin has said that ‘History is Christ written large.’ Christ ‘with divine imagination’ has ‘invented the Eucharist.’ He’s found a way to remain, and make himself present in every corner of the earth throughout the centuries-in the culminating moment of his love-’

      The gift of the Eucharistic Presence of the Incarnate Word is the Father’s invitation to the entire human family to join into the continual renewal of the new and eternal covenant, when, as we pray in the Third Eucharistic Prayer, ‘you never cease to gather a people to yourself, so that from the rising of the sun to its setting a pure sacrifice may be offered in your name.’”

      Peace,
      W. Ockham

  6. recent progress of acknowledging consciousness indicates that this may actually emerge from the brain and body acting together – medical research will possibly conform that a tune up would address both the electromagnetic heart pulse and a brainwave optimization… I think.
    ~ Eric

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