Is consciousness a product of the functioning brain?


Mainstream western scientific thinking is based on the assumption that consciousness is a material product of the functioning brain. This thinking has its roots in the mechanistic model of the universe enunciated by the Newtonian-Cartesian model. The primary assumption of this model is that the universe in its entirety can be understood by understanding its parts, the universe being nothing else but the sum of its parts. Based on this assumption, the human body could be understood by understanding the functioning of its different parts such as respiratory system, the cardio-vascular system, the immune system etc.  The second assumption is that these parts do not interfere with the functioning of each other if they are far apart. Therefore, the functioning of one human body does not interfere with the functioning of another human body unless there is observable direct action to do so. Put it another way, the functioning of the circulatory system in one body is unaffected by the functioning of the circulatory system of another body. This mainstream thinking in western scientific communities received its first jolt with the challenges posed by quantum physics[i]. Scientists such as Niels Bohr and Ernst Rutherford et al had to come up with the Copenhagen interpretation[ii] of quantum physics to create some basis for their findings that at the microscopic level the formalism of classical mechanics did not apply. Others such as Albert Einstein disagreed[iii] and tried to show that quantum physics was in fact an incomplete theory with “hidden” variables that would eventually be found and the universe made more deterministic[iv]. However, subsequent experiments have shown that the assumption of local realism[v] is false.

While quantum physics has over the years shown a different direction, mainstream western scientific thinking remains classical and mechanical. One such principle in the medical community is that of consciousness being a product of the brain. Generally speaking, the mind is assumed to be a product of the brain function and when the brain ceases to exist, the mind ceases to exist. This view is in stark contrast to other eastern philosophies such as Buddhism. In Buddhism, units of mind are separate entities from the units of matter. The units of mind have the power to bring within their influence the units of matter and the entry of a unit of mind into a fertilized egg of a human or animal, life as we know it is conceived. The unit of mind is spread throughout the body of the person (or animal) while it may be more concentrated in certain places such as the heart and the brain. In Buddhism, mind is also treated as a sense organ without which other sense organs cannot function. A dead body also has the sense organs of eye, ear, nose, tongue and skin but they do not function because the mind has left the body. That is why in Buddhism, the functioning eye is referred to as Cakkhu Vinnana which translates as ‘eye-consciousness” as the eye cannot function without the activity of the mind. Similarly, there are Shrotha, Ghana, Jhiva and Kaya Vinnanas meaning hearing consciousness, smell consciousness, taste-consciousness and touch-consciousness, respectively.

I am not in favour of trying to validate Buddhism through western science since I do not believe that western science has even come close to the comprehensive understanding of a Buddha. Moreover, understanding based on prathyaksa cannot be equated with a knowledge system based on the abstract conceptualization of western science. In other words,  there are no theories in Buddhism and everything the Buddha preached was based on experiencing it by himself (prathyaksha). In western science, theories are constructed based on induction and generalization are accepted or discarded from time to time depending on their usefulness in applying to given situations. Quantum physics and Einstein’s special theory of relativity are both being taught and used despite their mutual contradiction.

However, I thought it worthwhile to bring to the attention of the discerning reader, the following developments in non-mainstream western intellectual circuits, which not only veers away from mainstream western thinking but challenges the very roots of the assumption that the mind is an integral product of the brain. Needless to say, this is very similar to what is taught in Buddhist texts and the research remains out of the mainstream of western intellectual activity. So here goes:

  1. Stuart Hameroff is a Professor of Anesthesiology and Psychology at the University of Arizona and along with the esteemed mathematician Sir Roger Penrose, Hameroff is the co-author of the highly controversial Orch OR model of consciousness (Orchestrated Objective Reduction ) — the suggestion that quantum phenomenon, rather than classical mechanics, can explain conscious awareness. The theory presents a new kind of wave function collapse that occurs in isolation, called objective reduction. This wave function collapse, they argue, is the only possible non-physical thing that can account for a non-computable process, namely consciousness. They speculate that this could happen inside the brain’s microtubules. [vi]
  2. The existence of people living normal lives without a brain continue to amaze scientists[vii] while some die prematurely. The widely known “miracle-baby” died when he was 3 years old. Even this is a “miracle” for without a brain how could one live for 3 years! But there is also the story of a mathematics graduate from Sheffield University who had no brains! See here
  3.  Research conducted by Dutch cardiologist Dr. Pim Van Lommel on near-death experiences conclusively proves the validity of such experiences and the fact that the mind leaves the body during such experiences. He has written a book, “Consciousness beyond life” which extensively details his work. An article on the subject entitled “ NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCE, CONSCIOUSNESS, AND THE BRAIN- A NEW CONCEPT ABOUT THE CONTINUITY OF OUR CONSCIOUSNESS BASED ON RECENT SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH ON NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCE IN SURVIVORS OF CARDIAC ARREST “ can be found here. Below is an interview with Dr. Lommel.

Finally, for a Buddhist view on what happens after you die, listen to Ven. Ajahn Brahm.

[i] some refer to this subject as quantum mechanics which simply shows how the word mechanics is integrated into the western psyche as quantum physics works on principles totally different to that of the principles of mechanics


[iii] with the famous saying that “God does not play dice.”

[iv] See EPR paradox

[v] The assumption that objects should have an objective value of a parameter for it to be measured. Local realism is a significant feature of classical mechanics, of general relativity, and of electrodynamics; but quantum physics rejects this principle due to the theory of distant quantum entanglements, an interpretation rejected by Einstein in the EPR paradox but subsequently proven by Bell’s inequalities. See “Local realism and the crucial experiment”


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