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Skeptical Argument: Self-Awareness Is Just a Brain Function

Skeptic’s Question: “If the ‘I’ does, in fact, survive bodily death, I’d like to know where the ‘I’ goes under general anesthesia. Where does it go during sleep (for those of us who don’t recall dreams)? Where does the ‘I’ go in someone who is in a coma? And is the ‘I’ still the same, fundamental spirit, for lack of a better term, if a stroke transforms the personality into something totally different from what it was like before that stroke? What I’m trying to do is to separate the ‘I’ from the brain – if it’s in fact possible to do so. Unless it’s possible to do so, then clearly the ‘I’ is annihilated at bodily death.

Stanislav Grof

“I work in a lab where we study human learning and memory using functional MRI, and I spend a lot of time studying the brain and trying to make sense of the various pathways and chemical processes at work. The more that I’ve learned, the more that I’ve come to believe that who we are – the ‘I’ – is an emergent property of the brain. It’s unique and unexpected, but at the same time, it couldn’t exist without the highly connectionistic pillars of the brain.

“If you ablate area 17 of the occipital lobe, you lose vision. Ablate Broca’s area, and you take out speech. If you ablate the temporal lobes, you take out morality. Ablate the frontal lobe, and you radically transform personality, volition, and so on. What devastates this whole issue is that we know that the ‘I’ is a function of the physiology and neurochemistry of the brain, so when the brain dies, what can possibly be left, aside from oblivion?

“I was deeply alarmed to realize that damage to the frontal cortex could produce a serial killer like Jeffrey Dahmer. C.S. Lewis might as well have been on drugs when he said that each human has a sense of morality which is God-given. Nonsense. Morality is conditioned into the human organism, localized to the temporal lobe (along with religious concepts and abstractions), and mediated by the frontal cortex of the brain. I was even more troubled to reflect on the story of Phineas Gage, who in a rail accident had a piece of metal pierce his brain, and it caused profound (negative) personality changes.”

Kevin Williams, B.Sc.: “So if I ablate pieces of my television set, I can then distort the picture or stop the sound. But that doesn’t mean the television set is the actual source of the images it displays which we know it’s not.” (Kevin Williams)

Dr. Kenneth Ring: “These are philosophical or metaphysical questions, and they can’t be answered definitively through empirical research. However, on these questions, I have found the writings of Paul Brunton very helpful – he wrote many books in the 30s, 40s and 50s, and they are still available. These, however, are deep and thorny questions, and a great many philosophical perspectives are already extant from which to explore them. Research of the NDE, however, certainly suggests, but can never prove, that there is an ‘I’ that is independent of the brain, but whether it continues to survive intact after death is a debatable matter.” (Kenneth Ring)

Dr. Jeffrey Long: “One concern of NDE skeptics is the concept of a dual physical and spiritual life presence, with the spiritual presence surviving bodily death. The physical presence is easily discernible, while the spiritual presence is generally not easily discernible. It is very helpful to personally have an NDE or NDE-like experience to address such concerns. For virtually all near-death experiencers, an NDE cures NDE disbelief. However, only approximately 4% of the United States adult population have a personal history of NDEs. Others find they are opened to the possibility of a dual physical/spiritual life presence through other spiritually transformative life events.

“These life experiences may include, but are not limited to, markedly serendipitous events, other personal paranormal experiences, and acceptance of other people’s accounts of their spiritually transformative experiences. I personally believe that if such spiritually transformative experiences are sincerely sought, they are likely to be encountered. NDE research is somewhat unique due to the subjective nature of the experience. This subjectivity precludes certain conventional scientific methods of studying NDEs, such as replicating NDEs or studying physical changes associated with the experience.

“This inability to study NDEs via certain accepted methods of conventional scientific verification results in the need for some element of faith to accept the reality of NDEs. I think this necessary element of faith is a problem for many people in accepting the reality and significance of NDEs. Mitigating against this concern is the fact that NDEs are relatively common. Millions of people have had NDEs. NDEs are quite varied, but the consistency of the NDE elements (OBE experience, tunnel, light, meeting other beings, etc.) is striking. There is no plausible biological explanation of NDEs. There is no other human experience so dramatic, shared by so many people, and so relatively consistent in its elements. The preceding suggests faith in the validity of NDE accounts is the most reasonable conclusion from the evidence.” (Jeffery Long)

Dr. Robert Jordan: “On the issue of general anesthesia, some individuals under general anesthesia are able to report details of events occurring in the operating room such as what music was playing and what the operating room personnel said – often to the embarrassment of those present. If nothing can be recalled by the individual under general anesthesia, this cannot be interpreted to mean that the ‘I’ goes away. It may simply mean that the person’s ability to pay attention and to remember has been short-circuited. I work with alcoholics who black out and remember nothing of their experience during the black out. Apparently, when a person under acute intoxication blacks out, the neural pathways in the hippocampus and elsewhere, which are fundamental to retaining memories, are not functioning. Nevertheless, they are able to act and think (too much!) like themselves during that period about which they later have no recollection.

“My understanding of the psychophysiological research on dreaming is that everyone dreams whether they remember the dream or not. Often, people who report that they don’t dream, recall dreams quite vividly if they are awakened during REM sleep.

“Where does the ‘I’ go when we have no recollection of the ‘I?’ This is a question with many possible answers. One possible explanation is that the ‘I’ disappears into the non-‘I’-ness, which I believe is the deeper reality.

“I think scientists, if we possess any sense of humility, must acknowledge that science cannot provide us with Ultimate Truth, only little hints of understanding about how the universe operates. Scientists are appropriately taught that today’s comprehensive theory is merely tomorrow’s special case of an even more comprehensive theory. Personally, I feel that I have learned more about what is really true by meditating and thereby emptying my mind of concepts, rather than by creating theories or doing experiments.” (Robert Jordan)

P.M.H. Atwater: “Neither near-death research, nor any other type of scientific inquiry, can address this question. I suggest you turn to spiritual or religious sources for clues. Actually, what you seek is not contained within the providence of the mind, but only through the heart.” (P.M.H. Atwater)

Dr. Stanislav Grof: From the NDE video, Life After Death, Episode 8, Wellspring Media, Dr. Stanislav Grof had this to say about consciousness:

“I had my training as a psychiatrist, a physician and then as a Freudian analyst. When I became interested in non-ordinary states and started serving powerful mystical experiences, also having some myself, my first idea was that it (consciousness) has to be hard-wired in the brain. I spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out how something like that is possible.

“Today, I came to the conclusion that it is not coming from the brain. In that sense, it supports what Aldous Huxley believed after he had some powerful psychedelic experiences and was trying to link them to the brain. He came to the conclusion that maybe the brain acts as a kind of reducing valve that actually protects us from too much cosmic input. So, I don’t see, for example, that experiences of archetypal realms, heavens, paradises, experiences of archetypal beings, such as deities, demons from different cultures, that people typically have in these states that they can be somehow explained as something that comes from the brain. I don’t think you can locate the source of consciousness. I am quite sure it is not in the brain not inside of the skull.

“It actually, according to my experience, would lie beyond time and space, so it is not localizable. You actually come to the source of consciousness when you dissolve any categories that imply separation, individuality, time, space and so on. You just experience it as a presence.

“People who have these experiences can either perceive that source or they can actually become the source, completely dissolved and experience that source. But such categories as time and space, localization coordinates, are not relevant for that experience. You actually have a sense that the concepts of time and space come from that place. They are generated by that place; but, the cosmic source itself, the cosmic consciousness cannot be located certainly not in the material world.” (Stanislav Grof)

Kevin Williams, B.Sc.: “From what Grof said in the previous paragraph, changes to the reducing valve function of the brain alters the way it reduces the cosmic input to produce personality. According to Grof, consciousness itself is not changed by such things as drugs and NDEs. It is personality that is changed because personality is the product of the reducing valve feature of the brain. As Grof theorizes, consciousness may not even be produced by the brain, only altered. Interestingly enough, reports of NDEs involve the experiencer feeling as if they are expanding into the universe after death. This suggests that the brain actually restricts consciousness to produce a personality. After brain death, consciousness becomes unrestricted and the personality becomes pure consciousness.

“Many near-death experiences involve the experiencer’s consciousness expanding until it fills the entire universe – even beyond. This experience has been described as literally becoming the universe by near-death experiencers. Here are some examples from NDEs to demonstrate this:

Mellen-Thomas Benedict: “Suddenly I seemed to be rocketing away from the planet on this stream of life. I saw the Earth fly away. The solar system, in all its splendor, whizzed by and disappeared. At faster than light speed, I flew through the center of the galaxy, absorbing more knowledge as I went. I learned that this galaxy, and all of the Universe, is bursting with many different varieties of LIFE. I saw many worlds. The good news is that we are not alone in this Universe! As I rode this stream of consciousness through the center of the galaxy, the stream was expanding in awesome fractal waves of energy. The super clusters of galaxies with all their ancient wisdom flew by. At first I thought I was going somewhere; actually traveling. But then I realized that, as the stream was expanding, my own consciousness was also expanding to take in everything in the Universe!” (Mellen-Thomas Benedict)

Virginia Rivers: “The stars seemed to fly past me so rapidly that they formed a tunnel around me. I began to sense awareness, knowledge. The farther forward I was propelled the more knowledge I received. My mind felt like a sponge, growing and expanding in size with each addition. The knowledge came in single words and in whole idea blocks. I just seemed to be able to understand everything as it was being soaked up or absorbed. I could feel my mind expanding and absorbing and each new piece of information somehow seemed to belong. It was as if I had known already but forgotten or mislaid it, as if it were waiting here for me to pick it up on my way by.” (Virginia Rivers)

Thomas Sawyer: “And in your life review you’ll be the universe and experience yourself in what you call your lifetime and how it affects the universe.” (Thomas Sawyer)

Jayne Smith: “I was involved in this tremendous pouring forth of gratitude and joy and as that was going inside me, this white light began to infiltrate my consciousness. It came into me. It seemed I went out into it. I expanded into it as it came into my field of consciousness.” (Jayne Smith)

Josiane Antonette: “I am love; I am understanding; I am compassion! My presence fills the room. And now I feel my presence in every room in the hospital. Even the tiniest space in the hospital is filled with this presence that is me. I sense myself beyond the hospital, above the city, even encompassing Earth. I am melting into the universe. I am everywhere at once.” (Josiane Antonette)

Dr. Timothy Leary: “You must be ready to accept the possibility that there is a limitless range of awareness for which we now have no words; that awareness can expand beyond the range of your ego, your self, your familiar identity, beyond everything you have learned, beyond your notions of space and time, beyond the differences which usually separate people from each other and from the world around them.” (Dr. Timothy Leary)

Rudolf Steiner: “So you see, stage by stage we expand into the planetary spheres, like light that has been contained within a darkened glass, when finally uncovered and released goes out into the boundless universe. The moral disposition we carry over with us allows or prevents us from moving on in a conscious manner. Seeing how we expand toward the stars and planets after death, it’s no wonder we look at the night sky in awe with feelings of reverence and maybe even memories. After death, we expand into heavenly planetary realms. Our inward spirituality allows us or prevents us from moving on in a conscious manner. After this experience with the planetary realms, we fall asleep and the cosmic forces act directly upon us preparing us for the next earthly experience. Our cosmic rest regenerates us and prepares us for the time when the desire to reincarnate starts to work on us. When that happens, we begin the process of going back through the planetary realms picking up what we will need from each in order to fulfill our purpose in the next Earth life.” (Rudolf Steiner)

Margaret Tweddell: “I felt caught up in all of this to the very depths of my being. I felt myself expanding and expanding until I thought, ‘I’m going to burst!’ The moment I thought, ‘I’m going to burst!’, I suddenly found myself alone, back where this being had met me, and he had gone.” (Margaret Tweddell)

Dr. Susan Blackmore: After hovering around New York, Blackmore floated back to her room in Oxford where she became very small and entered her body’s toes. Then she grew very big, as big as a planet at first, and then she filled the solar system and finally she became as large as the universe.” (Dr. Susan Blackmore)

Kevin Williams, B.Sc.: “Dr. Blackmore believes her NDE was only a product of her brain much like a hallucination. If she is correct, then NDEs are nothing more than a mass hallucination. The problem with this is that dead brains do not hallucinate. And even if they did, the brain cannot retain such unconscious memories.

“This suggests to me that personality is likely a function of the brain and dies along with brain death. But consciousness itself, unrestricted by the brain, is everywhere and nowhere in particular.

“Skeptics often rely on reductionism to prove that altered brain function produces NDEs. But they may only be defining the trigger in the brain that allows consciousness to expand to produce an NDE. Using an analogy, we can reduce a television set to its basic components: circuits, tube, transistors and wires. But we are unable to quantify the television signals of the program, such as I Love Lucy as opposed to Jay Leno, by examining the individual components themselves. The television signals of the program are not restricted to the television set. They are located everywhere in the airwaves as well. Continuing with the analogy, when a television is turned on (the brain is functioning), the components of the television processes the signal (the brain alters consciousness) and creates a derivation of the signal, a television program (personality).

“Scientific evidence demonstrates that certain drugs can produce hallucinations in the brain. Some scientists theorize that the same process in the brain that produces hallucinations, also produces NDEs. But, Dr. Peter Fenwick, a neuropsychiatrist and the leading authority in Britain on NDEs, disagrees with this theory. In the documentary, Into the Unknown: Strange But True, Dr. Fenwick explains:

“The difficulty with those theories is that when you create these wonderful states by taking drugs, you’re conscious. In the NDE, you are unconscious. One of the things we know about brain function in unconsciousness, is that you cannot create images and if you do, you cannot remember them.”

Dr. Fenwick describes the unconscious state of the NDE:

“The brain isn’t functioning. It’s not there. It’s destroyed. It’s abnormal. But, yet, it can produce these very clear experiences … an unconscious state is when the brain ceases to function. For example, if you faint, you fall to the floor, you don’t know what’s happening and the brain isn’t working. The memory systems are particularly sensitive to unconsciousness. So, you won’t remember anything. But, yet, after one of these experiences (an NDE), you come out with clear, lucid memories … This is a real puzzle for science. I have not yet seen any good scientific explanation which can explain that fact.” (Peter Fenwick)

“So it appears that we may never know exactly what an NDE is and what produces them, until science can define exactly what consciousness is. We may have a long way to go to learn this.” (Kevin Williams)

Dr. Susan Blackmore: “I think it is possible, in principle, to separate the ‘I’ from the brain. The brain is a physical object. The ‘I’ is a construction – a story that a brain tells, a fantasy that it weaves – an illusion of a real self who has consciousness and free will. This fantasy is constructed all the time we are awake and our brain is functioning normally. We are trapped in this fantasy world that seems to separate us from everything else. Under anesthetic and near death this false sense disintegrates because the brain can no longer build the story, but usually it comes back again. When we die, the story stops for good – except in the minds of other people who knew us.” (Susan Blackmore)