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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Receptacle Hypothesis: Could Your Mind Have Come From an External Source?

One of the biggest problems of philosophy is the problem of consciousness. How is it that our brains, made of matter, are able to produce human consciousness? Matter seems to be something completely different from consciousness. So for a brain to produce consciousness almost seems like blood dripping from a stone, a case of one thing producing a totally different type of thing.

There have been numerous attempts to explain the production of consciousness by the brain, but none have been very satisfactory. It may be time to consider a radically different hypothesis about consciousness. What if consciousness is not actually produced by the brain? What if consciousness arises from some external source, and the brain is merely a receptacle for consciousness? (A receptacle is an object or space used to store something.)

Such a theory may seem outrageous at first, because the average person always observes consciousness associated with brain activity. So does that not prove that the brain causes consciousness? Not necessarily. What we observe is consciousness correlated with brain activity. Whenever we observe consciousness, we also see brain activity. But correlation does not prove causation. The fact that x is always observed with y does not prove that x causes y or that y causes x.

Let me give a simple example that will illustrate this point, one that will actually help to suggest a theory of consciousness very different from conventional theories. Imagine a very young girl who lives in a house with a flower garden in its backyard. The small girl hasn't yet gone to school, and knows nothing about the details of flowers or bees. The only times she ever observes bees is when she sees them hovering near the flowers in her garden. For this young girl, there is a 100% correlation between the observation of bees and the observation of flowers.

The girl then comes up with what seems to her to be a perfectly reasonable explanation for where bees come from. She concludes that bees are produced by flowers-- that flowers make bees just like apple trees make apples. This theory fits with all of her observations and knowledge. The actual truth is quite different – the bees come from a distant source (a bee hive) and they are attracted to flowers. But since the girl knows nothing of bee hives, she doesn't think of this explanation. The girl misidentifies something local (the flower) as the cause of something (the bee) which actually comes from something distant (the bee hive).

It could be that the average person who concludes that consciousness is created by brain activity is just like this little girl. It could be that each human consciousness arises from some distant external source, and then is somehow attracted to a newborn human. It could be that a human body acts as a kind of receptacle for human consciousness, but does not actually produce that consciousness. This external source of consciousness could be rather like the beehive, a person's consciousness could be rather like the bee, and a human brain could be rather like the flower – something to which consciousness that arose from elsewhere is attracted towards, and hovers around. Somewhat like the little girl mentioned above, we may be misidentifying something local (our brains) as the cause of something (our consciousness) which may actually have originated from something distant (some unknown external source of consciousness outside of our bodies).

receptacle theory of mind

Let us consider another case that will illustrate this point that correlation does not prove causation (and which will give another example where something local is misidentified as the source of something with a distant source). Imagine a scientist in the year 1700 trying to explain comets. The scientist would consider all the observations he knew about comets – that comets seem to appear rather suddenly out in space not far from  planets such as Mars and Jupiter. The scientist might then conclude: planets produce comets. He might guess that comets are occasionally burped out from planets rather like a man spits out food. Given his limited knowledge, he would have almost no other way of explaining comets.

Again, this would be a case where a local source is misidentified as the cause of something which comes from a distant source. Now we know that comets come from a ring-like cloud of comets called the Oort Cloud located far beyond the orbit of the most distant planet. The comets come from the distant source we cannot see because they are attracted (by gravity) to things we can see (the sun and the planets). Similarly, it may be that a human consciousness arises from some distant source we know nothing of, and that an individual consciousness is somehow attracted towards some local thing that we can see, a newborn human body.

It might be that the human brain is not what is producing our consciousness. It might be that the human body is just acting as a kind of receptacle for consciousness that originated from some distant source.

This receptacle theory of consciousness may appeal to anyone who thinks that human consciousness is something that is too wonderful and amazing to be produced by a few pounds of gelatinous mass like a brain. If you think that things such as the plays of Shakespeare or the theory of relativity or the symphonies of Beethoven or the dialogues of Plato are something too sublime to have been produced by a few pounds of flesh, you may be attracted to the idea that our consciousness comes from some higher external source – perhaps something (material or immaterial) that is a lot more lofty than a few pounds of flesh.

One advantage of such a theory is that it removes the difficulty of explaining how natural selection was able to create all the wonders of human consciousness. As explained in this post, it is hard to explain how Darwinian evolution was able to produce quite a few features of human consciousness (such as aesthetic appreciation, spirituality, and philosophical reasoning abilities) that do not seem to have any survival value, from a Darwinian standpoint of "surviving until reproduction." But if our consciousness comes from elsewhere, this difficulty goes away.

We know that brain states can have an effect on the current state of our consciousness – for example, someone with Alzheimer's disease can lose his memory, and someone with a stroke can lose some mental abilities. Does that prove that your brain produces your mind? Not necessarily. The state of your television set affects how good a picture you see, and if you smash your TV set with a hammer, you won't see your programs as well as before. But that does not show your television set produces the television programs. The television programs come from elsewhere. Similarly, your mind could have originated from an external source, and the current state of your brain could act as a kind of limit on the current state of that mind.

Now let's consider: what, if anything, might be evidence to support such a receptacle theory of consciousness? It seems that anything suggesting that human consciousness can exist outside of the body might be evidence against the assumption that consciousness is produced entirely by the human brain. We might say that any such evidence, if it exists, would tend to enhance the credibility of this receptacle theory, or at least “raise its stock” by quite a few points.

Evidence for near-death experiences (NDE) might therefore tend to lend credence to this receptacle theory. If your consciousness somehow originated from an external source, and then somehow came to dwell in your body, then we might expect that your consciousness might survive for at least a while after your brain function stopped.

Near death experiences seem to be quite incompatible with the idea that the brain is the sole producer of consciousness. If these experiences are not just hallucinations, then one almost needs some kind of miracle to account for some of these near death experiences, under the assumption that the brain is the sole producer of consciousness. But if we postulate that our minds came from some external source, then something like a near-death experience follows rather naturally from such an assumption. Returning to the analogy of the hive, the bee, and the flower, we should not be surprised if the bee leaves the flower if the flower is severed or dies.

Of course, the meaning of near-death experiences is certainly debatable. My purpose in this post is not to show the likelihood of this receptacle hypothesis of consciousness, but merely to present it as an interesting alternative to the conventional idea that consciousness is entirely produced by the human brain.

It may be argued that the theory I have suggested isn't really a theory, because it makes no predictions. To the contrary, there are some predictions that seem to follow from such a theory. These include the following: (1) all attempts to exactly explain the production of consciousness by analyzing neuron activity will be futile; (2) we will never be able to transfer or store minds by replicating brain states; (3) we will discover further evidence along the lines of near-death experiences and other phenomena suggesting consciousness can exist when the brain is not functioning. I don't know whether any of these things will come true, but at least they seem to be predictions that follow from a receptacle theory of consciousness.