[Advaita-l] Neuroscience - Perspective On Consciousness

S Jayanarayanan sjayana at yahoo.com
Sun Jan 1 13:23:27 CST 2006

A common misconception among people who have a bit of a scientific background
is that neuroscience can somehow explain Consciousness. Since science has
explained so many things of the universe, it can also explain Consciousness -
so goes the reasoning.

Neuroscience has not only not explained Consciousness, it has centered on it as
being amongst the most important unsolved problems in science.

I've been reading the book "Phantoms in the Brain" by Prof. V.S.Ramachandran,
one of the foremost neuroscientists of today, and he explains why Consciousness
poses the greatest problem in the field.

The problem here is the reconciliation of the First-Person vs. Third-Person
viewpoints in perception. For example, this is one statement of the problem:

When a person ("patient") is shown a red rose in front of him, he perceives it
as a red rose. The redness of the rose is not perceived by the eye, as the eye
can be perfectly fine yet the patient will not see the red rose if his optic
nerve (the nerve from the eye to the brain) is cut. Therefore, the redness of
the rose is perceived not by the eye, but by the brain (or so it is believed by
neuroscientists). Somewhere in the brain, there arises the idea that a red rose
is being perceived.

The neuroscientist observes the brain of the patient and records his
observations. But most unfortunately for the neuroscientist, no observation of
the brain will reveal a red rose inside the brain.

Third-Person (Neuroscientist's) Viewpoint: "There is a material entity (brain)
with billions of grey neurons that are excited by electrical impulses, and
affected by chemical substances such as drugs and proteins."

First-Person (Patient's) Viewpoint: "I see a RED ROSE."

The problem is - how and why is the sight of a RED ROSE appearing out of grey
neurons constituting the brain? If a scientist peers into the brain, he will
never observe how the perception of the red rose arises out of the grey
neurons. So far as the neuroscientist is concerned, perception of the red rose
is a phantom in the brain - i.e. it doesn't exist in the brain. But it is
common sense that perception of the red rose does happen - if not in the brain,
where else can it happen?

It appears that the brain is not only an object ("Grey Matter"), but also a
subject ("Seeing of Red"). But how exactly the brain can be an object as well
as a subject of perception is far from being explained by science.

Here is Prof. Ramachandran's exposition (Page 229):

  "The central mystery of the cosmos, as far as I'm concerned,
  is the following: Why are there always two parallel 
  descriptions of the universe - the first-person account
  ("I see red") and the third-person account ("He says that
  he sees red when certain pathways in his brain encounter a
  wavelength of six hundred nonometers?")? How can these two
  accounts be so utterly different yet complementary? Why
  isn't there only a third-person account, for according to 
  the objective worldview of the physicist and neuroscientist,
  that's the only one that really exists? (Scientists who hold
  this view are called behaviorists.) Indeed, in their scheme
  of "objective science," the need for a first-person
  account doesn't even arise - implying that consciousness
  simply doesn't exist. But we all know perfectly well that
  can't be right. I'm reminded of the old quip about the
  behaviorist who, just having made passionate love, looks
  at his lover and says, "Obviously that was good for you,
  dear, but was it good for me?" This need to reconcile the
  first-person and third-person accounts of the universe
  (the "I" view versus the "he" or "it" view) is the single
  most important unsolved problem in science. Dissolve this
  barrier, say the Indian mystics and sages, and you will
  see that the separation between self and nonself is an
  illusion - that you are really One with the cosmos."

"It is the mind which creates the body, the brain in it and also ascertains
that the brain is its seat."
-"Talks" with Ramana Maharshi, 17th January, 1937.

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