28.5.20

The mind beyond the brain and the search for the meaning of the world

Gustavo Rodrigues Rocha

Would the ultimate nature of reality be only material? 
So is consciousness just an illusion caused by our brain or a fundamental part of the fabric of reality?


Who answers these questions is the philosopher and historian of sciences Gustavo Rodrigues Rocha, who transformed the Sursem Group experience into a case study in his postdoctoral position at the University of California at Berkeley, in the United States.

Tell us a little about your experience in the Sursem group. 
It is in the context of the epistemic battle for the inclusion or expulsion of a human image from the universe, which began in 1998, at the Esalen Institute Theory and Research Center, an alternative education and research space located in Big Sur, on the California coast, in the United States. United States, a multidisciplinary research initiative that brought together between 40 and 50 researchers from all over the world. The Sursem group (an acronym for “Big Sur seminars”) worked on the subversive and dissident thesis within the context of the contemporary academic-scientific system, according to which the mind could not be understood, explained and reduced entirely to the functioning of the brain . Defending the effectiveness of conscience against being restricted by the dominant neurosciences and cognitive sciences, the Sursem group intends to present empirical evidence, theories and models that suggest that consciousness is independent of the brain and, perhaps, that “something” of our mind can survive the bodily death. In fact, the acronym Sursem also means, alternatively, “survival seminars”.

What is the relevance of the research developed by the Sursem Group? 
I reproduce the words of the theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg, who in a book of scientific dissemination stated that, "the more understandable the universe seems, the more meaningless it appears to our eyes". The worldview presented by the dominant neurosciences, cognitive sciences and philosophies of the mind, that is, more commonly found in the modern academic system, seems to support Weinberg's point of view.

At the beginning of the last century, sociologist Max Weber, in his essay “Science as a Vocation”, found that what we know through astronomy, biology, physics and chemistry not only could not teach us anything about the meaning of the world, how, quite the contrary, these knowledges dried up the faith in the existence of anything that can be considered as “sense” of the world. In other words, modern empirical sciences have rendered the search for the “meaning” of the world inoperative.

Nevertheless, as the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl pointed out in his career dedicated to the attention of psychic illnesses caused by what he called “the proliferation of the existential vacuum”, the human being has always sought, in all places, at all times, a “meaning last ”for its existence. Thus, the relevance of the research carried out by the Sursem group, in regaining consciousness as something that constitutes the fabric of the cosmos, consists in alluding, in a way, to this “sense of the world”, a vision that changes, completely, at least when compared to the conventional scientific hegemonic view, our view of ourselves, society and human identity, as well as our understanding of reality.

Consciousness, as we experience it, forms our sense of identity, purpose, meaning and freedom. Thus, if consciousness is part of reality (that is, if the mind is ultimately irreducible to the brain), the search for the meaning of the world (or meaning of existence) becomes, again, legitimate and relevant.

Is that the basis of your online course “Mind beyond the brain”? 
My job as a researcher in the history and philosophy of the sciences is not to endorse or challenge these dissident researches, but to understand them from the historical, philosophical and epistemic perspectives. I had never met a group of academics of such scope, with such a solid and consistent construction, proposing to face, from a multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary perspective, such thorny issues of the modern knowledge system.

First, in the neurosciences and in the cognitive sciences, there is a plurality of experimental methods, tools and protocols, but a lot of conceptual confusion. Thus, one should initially clear this conceptual terrain. Second, there is a huge empirical basis ignored or insufficiently studied by the mainstream. I address all of this in my course, using clear, easy and accessible language, including studies on near-death experiences, secondary centers of consciousness, paranormal phenomena, “apparition” crises, “deathbed visions”, states altered consciousness and mystical experiences.

Does consciousness survive the death of the physical body? Is it home to our spiritual "DNA"? 
It is difficult to even ask this question, since an adequate definition of “I” (ego or self) is assumed, that is, what survives bodily death - the problem of knowing the nature of consciousness and its relationship with the our sense of identity. Furthermore, as “being born” and “dying” are mutually defined based on the concept of life, it is also necessary to understand it (its origin, its nature, its relationship with its material substrate). This is what he sought to investigate, for example, the physicist Erwin Schr√∂dinger, in his famous seminal essay, from 1944, "What is life?". Anyway, in spite of what our scientific culture may want to lead us to believe, we are just crawling on that understanding.

The philosopher Wittgenstein, in his most celebrated work, stated that "even if all possible scientific questions have been answered, our life problems will not even have been touched". It is likely, therefore, that many of these issues are even beyond the reach of scientific scrutiny, that is, that they do not make sense, or have no expression in our scientific vocabulary. The question is whether we are just a “computer made of meat” (as MIT cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky put it) or “something else”. The mind-brain problem, namely, the question about the relationship between brain processes and our subjective experience, may be the best chance to address this issue in contemporary scientific-philosophical language.

Ana Elisabeth Diniz