David Eagleman on Robert Lawrence Kuhn’s YT channel Closer to Truth discusses the brain and mind and his views on consciousness.
Eagleman is a successful author and popular neuroscientist who has done much to educate the public on the workings of the brain and the fascinating findings of modern brain science.
At 3:45 of his interview he describes the Bushman-Radio-Brain as Receiver metaphor. Eagleman is not supporting this hypothesis, only allowing it as an opening to spiritual-religious-non-material explanations of mind and consciousness. Although he states that the mind and consciousness are dependent on the brain to exist-there could be something more and our modern science at this time may be way too young to discover if there is something else or what it might be.
Eagleman describes a Bushman in equatorial Africa who has no knowledge of modern technology or scientific theory being utterly mystified by the voices coming out of a radio when he turns it on. Not knowing anything of radio waves or electronics, transmitters and receivers and radios or speakers and antennas or broadcast bands of electromagnetic radiation, nor of induction of electric currents by those electromagnetic waves…the radio emitting human voices is complete magic.
This metaphor for the brain and it’s equally mystifying (to some in the philosophical community at least, and the public at large), production of consciousness, is said to suggest that we could be equally ignorant of some unknown force transmitting consciousness to the receiving brain-just like a radio…and that our science is just too young to have discovered such a process and the true source of our conscious experience sent to us somehow, from somewhere, by…someone, some thing?
There are 3 big problems with this analogy, this hypothesis of the brain being a receiver for consciousness:
1. It is another “God of the Gaps” argument-we don’t know how exactly something works at this point in time-SO it must be somebody or something, somewhere: possibly an intelligent agent causing the phenomena as proposed by many religions.
2. It pushes the problem off to another wholly unseen and utterly un-described mystical thing or process that must be even more complex than the incredibly complex brain which we are trying to understand and we know is necessary for any consciousness. Sort of a “the brain is too complex a thing for us to understand right now so there must be something even more complex that is doing the work for the brains…” But if we cant understand the complexity of the brain just how would we fathom anything even more complex? Not much of a solution is it?
3. We know a lot more about the brain than the Bushman knows about the radio.
You have to ask yourself with any hypothesis-how likely is it? Here’s what the Bushman-Radio metaphor entails:
A UCG -“Universal Consciousness Generator” is out there somewhere – utterly undetected and it’s equally undetected “Consciousness Waves” the CW’s- send the information that make neurons in all of the nearly 8 billion human brains on the planet today, fire just right to produce consciousness: being awake and aware and including all our conscious experience: such as thoughts, emotions, our concept of self, and “qualia”-the sensations of pain or perception-the redness of red for example (those neurons being mere matter just cannot do it by themselves!). The UCG must be doing it thru some as yet undetected and undefined force-CW’s which propagate thru space from somewhere to generate what our brains cant do on their own.
The analogy sounds plausible at first glance-that we just don’t have the knowledge yet-so there must be something more-but then when you delineate just what the assumption entails: a UCG and CW’s and the equally mysterious process by which they would make the brain do its thing…its start to sounds as preposterous as it truly is. Like many a spiritual assumption, it sounds reasonable on the surface-until you think it thru and discover what some spiritual explanation truly implies.
1. God of the Gaps arguments have an incredible track record of 100% failure. Damn good at it! Zeus, for example, who was supposed to explain the power and frightening sight and sound of lightning and thunder-never showed up (along with his buddies like Vulcan, or Neptune or…), and once we understood lightning to be electricity in the clouds-the whole idea of a god being responsible for a previously unknown, un-explainable phenomena faded away. So supposing something or someone somewhere is ultimately responsible for consciousness because at the moment we know so little about it sounds equally childish and silly as all the god-like agents humans have proposed to explain phenomena since the dawn of mythologies: that nobody believes in anymore.
2. This UCG- an intelligent agent in many religions, or the universe, or matter itself to those of panpsychic yearnings, again would need to be even more complex than our 83 billion neurons each with their thousands of synapses organized in the unique configuration and expanded wiring of our highly evolved human brains. And the process whereby the UCG affects our brains by way of some unknown CW’s is even more complex…that sure don’t sound like a very parsimonious or likely explanation…just sayin’:
“Gee I cant figure this damn thing out…it’s just too hard, too complex…SO, I KNOW let’s suppose its something mysteriously more complex-Gosh, now I feel so much better” (abject silliness does invite such ridicule).
3. We know a shitload more about brains than the Bushman in the analogy knows about a radio-and the whole thing fails as badly on this argument as the others.
The neuroscientist of 2021 knows a lot about the chemistry, electrical activity, and vast interconnections of neurons and different brain areas. He may not have a precise explanation yet for qualia and consciousness, but he is not at all utterly dumbfounded and completely ignorant of the complexity of the brain as the Bushman is of the radio and its electrical activity and components and their wiring that make it work. The gap between the Neuroscientist and her knowledge of our brains and the Bushman’s complete ignorance of the radio is enormous. The analogy is not a good one at all.
Our neuroscientist knows not only of the different functioning structures of the brain and its neurons, firing, neurotransmitters, and the wiring between all these evolved components which run our perception, wakefulness, behavior, logic and language: she and her colleagues know more than just a bit about consciousness itself as well.
We can manipulate or eliminate consciousness and aspects of conscious experience altogether with anesthetics, psychedelics, and a whole host of psychoactive drugs that tweak the functioning of neurotransmitters at millions, billions of synapses throughout the brain. We can restore the function of motor and mood neuronal circuits with Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) and TMS-Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. We can manipulate qualia through conflicting input techniques like the marvelous Rubber Hand Delusion. (do click on this link and watch this excellent demonstration with the actor Paul Giammatti-its one of the best and only 3 minutes long).
Consciousness is not the complete mystery many of the philosophers and religionists make it out to be and it and the contents of conscious experience are always the product of a working human brain. Dead brains dont wake, or monitor and scan the environment, perceive, talk or binge watch TV minidramas. We know this: “Its the brain, stupid”. No external super-secret input required, nor detected.
From a Developmental Psychology perspective (my field) we know consciousness is vastly different in a newborn-wholly unaware of its own name or identity, absorbing every new perceptual input it is immersed in with no conceptual knowledge to start with – only a brain wired for pattern recognition, spatial and abstract conceptualization, statistical analyses of language components and causality. Their conscious experience is not that of a 5 year old, who now has a formidable sense of self and others, a ToM (theory of mind-his own and that of others), episodic memory, imagination, a growing sense of time, feelings of shame and guilt, understanding of multiple causal processes and on and on and on-a rich conscious experience that was not present at birth and grows in multiple phases and increments throughout childhood- so far beyond the minimal awareness and alertness of the new born infant. As the brain develops, so does consciousness and all its elements, building upon one another during infancy and toddlerhood-no mysterious leaps occur as if imbued by some outside force. It is a marvel to behold in every human child and this fact is usually left out of the “consciousness-as-unfathomable-mystery” discussion-much to the detriment of the discussion.
In addition, the neuroscientist, with a knowledge of modern physics, knows of the 4 forces in nature: the weak and strong nuclear forces, electromagnetism, and gravity,-and is aware of their properties and levels of interaction, all of which have miniscule or no effect at the level of molecules and cells in the brain: neurons with their sodium-potassium action potential gradients, the staggeringly complex chemistry of neurotransmitters and enzymes and receptor proteins at the synapse, and the huge network of neuronal interconnections. Some mysterious unknown force that must comprise the CW-emanating from a UCG-again somehow, from somewhere – we know isn’t one of those forces. IF there is some unknown CW force -then every physics experiment of the last 150 years has missed it somehow. How likely is it that there is such a thing?
Similarly, where in any of the 150 years of more of neuroscience knowledge is there the slightest hint of neurons or the brain at large acting as if it were some sort of receiver? Wouldn’t we have noticed that capability or process by now?. How likely is it that was missed in all that we have uncovered in neuron-brain investigation?
Currently, we have but a little understanding of the dark energy fueling the ultimate expansion of the universe, but we know of its existence thru evidence of its counter effects on the gravitational pull of matter and dark matter. So as we discovered the existence of dark energy from its effects, there is no such equivalent detailed data that something is transmitting somehow into the brain. There is no evidence for that at all. The existence of dark energy is well-motivated by the data and theory with formidable evidence, there is no such analog for some “conscious energy” affecting the human brain or any brain for that matter-or extending throughout the universe or somehow inherent in all matter. It is just an old and unfounded, embarrassingly simplistic assumption-left over from the childhood of our species: the idea of a mind or soul “energy” of some kind. There is no evidence for such a hypothesized energy whatsoever.
We are not at all in the same boat as the mystified Bushmen. We know a bit more about neurons and the brain than his utter ignorance of the radio and radio waves. There should be some evidence for the “brain as receiver” hypothesis and evidence however indirect (as with dark energy), for some supposed “conscious energy” of the universe beyond the musings of philosophers and the demands of religious authorities. They have both been mostly wrong about everything they have proposed…Where are those monads anyway, and why have the hundreds of their imagined gods never shown up to demonstrate their supernatural powers, or do their miraculous interventions in response to pious prayer?
A significant line of evidence for it all just being brain processes beyond all we do know about neurons and brains and the utter lack of any inkling of evidence for the “receiver hypothesis”, is the manipulation of qualia by tweaking the normal input of sensory info to the brain. The rubber-hand delusion linked above is one obvious and striking example. Without proposing of some ethereal transmission to produce qualia or more importantly change our normal qualia-we can change how you feel, where you perceive stimulation in your own limbs. By tricking the brain with conflicting input, which, due to us being primates with vision as our dominant distance receptor, visual input wins out as it were (as it does in other cases), and we suddenly feel a switch of feeling the stroking pattern from our hidden hand up into the seen rubber hand on the table top. Vision wins in the end and the feeling of touch jumps a few inches up into the rubber hand we can see being stroked in the identical pattern. Qualia manipulated before our very eyes by altering the input into the brain.
So don’t tell me qualia, i.e.our conscious experience, has to come from “somewhere out there” as with the Bushman and the disembodied voices coming from the radio. No other input is necessary- we can and do effect and affect our own qualia-by manipulating the brain-and not its hidden antennae! When we fuck with the right sub-populations of the right neurons, normal qualia changes in bizarre ways. Did we invoke a different soul? Did we just alter the “cosmic energy”, or tweak the dial on the brains receiver circuit? How silly all this is.
When we have too much blood alcohol and it seeps into the fluid in our vestibular system, changing its density and messing up the signals into the brain- we experience movement, vertigo, when our bodies (or the room itself) are neither shifting of spinning. It works best when we close our eyes and the only input to the brain is the incorrect vestibular output which gives us the feeling of the room spinning around us. Yet when we open our eyes the delusion reduces or disappears altogether-and why? Because vision is our primary sense input and its correct output that the room (and you) are not spinning at all-is dominant and the feeling diminishes or ceases completely. Qualia: meddled with once again by conflicting input into the conscious area of the brain from the sensory processing areas. Normally the world around us is consistent and our brains evolved to map that consistency and predict movement and behavior, but when we provide impossible input (as with well-known optical illusions) we can tweak our own qualia. Tell me why this never happens independent of our clever manipulations as if it just “came from outer space” and happened all on its own? (My brain antennae must need adjusting because I just scratched my right hand but felt it in my left kneecap…I hate it when that happens).
I do agree when Eagleman says our science is young, but from that I draw the opposite conclusion- it is WAY too early in the neuroscience game to contemplate preposterous, spiritually-appealing explanations for our conscious experience.
Modern cognitive neuroscience using fMRI, TMS, MEG, EEG, and the like, is barely a few decades old-we are only at the very beginning of an in-depth inquiry into brain processes. Consider that it took over 250 years from the mid 1600’s with Galileo’s and Newton’s incredible descriptive work on gravity, to reach Einstein’s theoretical explanation in 1915 with his General Relativity Theory. We knew how gravity worked to precise detail-yet it took over two centuries to arrive at an explanation of WHY it works the way it does. We know now, and Eagleman readily explains, that consciousness requires a working human brain, yet leaves the door open for absurd spiritual hypotheses. Neuroscience itself is barely 150 years old and our modern techniques for brain investigation are decades younger. The brain is ridiculously more complex than gravity and other subjects of physics-most physicists will tell you that their field, tho incredibly difficult, is easier on another level than the complexity of biological processes like cellular systems or anything as complex as a brain.
I do think Eagleman is just pandering to our spiritually imbued culture, in allowing for any sort of unknown and implausible “conscious energy” or spiritual explanation-a philosophy he ascribes to called: Possibilianism, and being a bit disingenuous when he doesn’t point out the absurdity, the far-fetched hypotheses of a UCG or CW’s that stem from the Bushman-Radio metaphor. He knows better and ought to communicate what I have tried to explain throughout this essay.
And the philosophers who make “in-principle” arguments that consciousness must be something more than just the brain, are just as unfounded in their thinking as religionists who harken back to primitive, childish explanations of mind or soul, separate from the brain and created and controlled by some god-to explain human conscious experience.
It could be that we might discover one day that the brain needs something more-or that it doesn’t (I think all the evidence points toward the latter), but that is an empirical question yet to be determined. That may take many more decades, maybe even a century or two of brain research, though I’m betting on that in a few decades we may grok consciousness fully as a materially produced process, just like how we figured out that life itself was not spiritually mediated-when for millennia the world believed something beyond mere matter just had to be responsible for the fact of life. Religionists and philosophers blew that one too.
You cant blame the Bushman, but when modern day thinkers propose there must be something more, they share the blame for not thinking it through and sharing that reasoning that leads to absurd and highly improbable conjectures with the public as well-just to appease Joe and Jane Average Citizen for having been brainwashed into accepting very old spiritual, non-material, unscientific, and ultimately absurd explanations as plausible realities – which pervade our modern culture even now in the 21st century. The brain as receiver idea is as improbable as any…
end religion now.