The Specter of Brain Science, or How the New Age Might Lose Consciousness

Those of the New Age persuasion often suppose that reductionist science threatens what makes us most human, the immaterial soul or spirit, and what makes life most meaningful, the existence of a transcendent non-physical realm. To escape the perils of materialism and mechanism, they take refuge in the fringe pseudo-science of paranormal and occult phenomena. But there's no need to resort to pseudo-science to defend our humanity or discover life's significance. The physical world is the marvelously sufficient basis for our highest capacities, including the capacity to discover meaning in a wholly natural universe.

A slightly modified version of this article appeared in Free Inquiry, May-June, 2006.

“The great specter of brain science is that it will demonstrate that we are merely conscious organic machines, that all our experience and behavior originate in the brain.”[1]


In a lengthy feature story in the June-August 2005 issue of What Is Enlightenment? magazine (“Is God All in Your Head?”), managing editor Craig Hamilton describes what New Age believers find most disturbing about the advance of science. Surveying neuroscientific research on the mind and religious experience, he encounters the menacing reductionism of those who would show consciousness, the human spirit, and the direct intuition of ultimate meaning to be nothing more than the brain in action. God, these scientists say, is just in the head. Such reductionism collides with the desire, shared by Hamilton and others of the New Age persuasion[2], to find something more beyond the workings of mere matter in the universe, and to find it within ourselves.

Hamilton is explicit in his objective: “preserving our humanity in the face of the mechanistic worldview” of mainstream science. Since such science and its reductive aspirations are the presumptive threat, the remedy, unsurprisingly, is to be found in the fringe or “frontier” science of New Age apologists. If the desire for “higher” levels of human experience and ultimate purpose find no nourishment in mechanism, then we must discover something beyond mechanism. There are any number of promoters of paranormal and occult phenomena willing to supply such transcendence, for instance “renegade” biologist Rupert Sheldrake and parapsychologist Dean Radin of the Institute of Noetic Sciences. The lure of what humanist philosopher Paul Kurtz calls the “transcendental temptation”[3] drives the flight from standard, peer-reviewed empiricism into the arms of a dualism that privileges the mental over the physical, the teleological over the non-purposive.

But is mechanism really such a threat, something to be blocked at the cost of sacrificing mainstream science to the fringe? Must we transcend the “merely” physical and its complex elaboration in the natural world to satisfy our existential yearnings? If our background assumptions about matter and mechanism include the intuitions that the “higher” is necessarily opposed to the “lower,” that the mind or self, in order to be properly free and dignified, must be ontologically something other than body, then the answer is most definitely yes. For normal, mainstream science will inevitably connect part and whole, higher and lower, and for it there’s nothing outside the physical, whatever physical turns out to be according to its latest lights. So if you want more than the material world, then you must indeed quit science. But if, on the other hand, you accept science’s finding that consciousness and our highest capacities in all their glory depend on materiality, then what was formerly “mere” matter is not so mere after all, and properly deserves its share of the limelight. Once we see that the reduction of the higher to lower is not to eliminate it, but only to explain it, then naturalistic accounts of consciousness and our higher capacities will seem less threatening, and more a satisfying unification of what seemed two different realms. Unification, after all, is what properly drives both science and the quest for meaning. And if certain types of meaning (or freedom or purpose) can’t survive critical scrutiny, perhaps we should rethink our desire for them.

Mainstream vs. fringe science

Central to Hamilton’s case against mainstream science is the argument that it can’t capture the living experience of what it is to be human, and that indeed there’s a basic incompatibility between its commitment to physicalism and acknowledging what’s most essentially human – the conscious, intelligent mind. Many scientists investigating the material basis of consciousness claim that the mind just is a properly orchestrated neural representational architecture, that nothing non-physical is needed to get our cognitive and emotional jobs done.[4] In which case, what becomes of the essential, irreducible me I thought I was? Since the conclusion that such a me doesn’t exist is unacceptable, then the premise that science gets the world right must go. And after all, isn’t the direct experience of the thinking, feeling, and knowing me unassailable? It sure doesn’t feel as if biologist and neuroscientist Francis Crick’s “astonishing hypothesis” is right, that all my joys, sorrows, and sense of personal identity are nothing but the activity of a pack of neurons.[5] The bottom line for Hamilton is that feelings – the direct experience of the transcendent – have evidential priority over science. This priority guarantees the right conclusion: that there’s a soul-like, essential me, and a god, and a purpose, all tied mentally together somehow in higher consciousness.

But for Hamilton, as for most New Age believers, feelings aren’t quite enough, since he rightly recognizes that sometimes wishful thinking distorts our view of reality. He says “Are we willing to question our spiritual convictions deeply enough to grapple with what neuroscience has to say about [the sense of who we are]?” So he still feels the empiricist pull for independent, 3rd person validation of intuitions, validation that only science can provide. But since mainstream neuroscience, inimical to mind-body dualism, can’t get us to the desired conclusion, fringe science is brought in to fill the bill. It suggests there’s something objective to which our otherwise possibly delusive intuitions correspond. But, crucially, it leaves that objectivity sufficiently unspecified so that no mechanisms come into play. After all, mechanisms are exactly that which cannot be admitted into the New Age worldview, at least not in any central role. Brains, for instance, although they might help translate mental wishes into bodily action, can’t be us, since they are rapidly being analyzed as just such mechanisms, however astonishingly complex.[6] For Hamilton and perhaps most non-scientists, the brain is simply a “cognitive prosthesis” for the soul, and the task of fringe science and research into the paranormal is to show ( but not in too much detail, of course) how it does the soul’s bidding. The brain, Hamilton thinks, somehow evolved to perceive a higher order, “the very source and creative driver of the cosmos.” So according to this New Age picture, it’s less a “frightening organic computer” and more of a spiritual organ – partly physical, yes – but also tuned to receive signals from above.

The difficulty, however, is there is no account forthcoming from fringe science of how this direct perception of the higher order works, of how the mental gets received and transduced by the physical. Instead of specifying perceptual processes and mechanisms, Hamilton speaks of the miraculous and mysterious,[7] and indeed at one point he mentions Rupert Sheldrake’s “mysterious evidence” that “seem[s] to point to the ability of consciousness to reach beyond the parameters of the skull.” Of course, it’s no surprise that even evidence remains mysterious on this account, since the objective here is the protection of mysteries from analysis. Although Hamilton cites studies of intercessory prayer, telepathy, remote viewing and other psi effects (most not specifically referenced) to support of the reality of such trans-cranial phenomena, there’s no hint of an explanation for any of it. An explanation would necessarily show how all these work, and how they causally connect to the rest of the world we understand. An explanation would inevitably reduce these erstwhile mysteries to a set of processes and mechanisms, and show higher-level and lower-level phenomena to be of a piece, not ontologically separate. We can’t have explanations and mysteries - unless, of course, we pay lip service to empiricism without actually investigating the underlying processes. And that, regrettably, is the essence of New Age frontier science.[8]

Although in combating materialism Hamilton relies largely on New Age nostrums, he supposes that even mainstream science in its cutting edge developments gives comfort to dualism. He quotes Karl Popper as saying “Through modern physics, materialism has transcended itself, because matter is no longer the fundamental explanatory principle. Fields and energy are.” But, with all due respect to Popper, fields and energy are fully physical phenomena. As physicist Brian Greene puts it, they are part of the “fabric of the cosmos”, and this fabric is of a piece, not divided up into the merely physical and the transcendently non-physical.[9] Science simply can’t get us to god, or the mental, if these are conceived as categorically other than what’s found by the peer-reviewed empirical study of existence, which includes matter and energy, particles and waves, forces and fields, and physically-instantiated mechanisms and their higher-order organization. Since science only connects, Hamilton will have to look elsewhere to validate his dualism. Human beings and their higher powers are special, but not so special to have one foot (or neuron) in a transcendent non-physical realm, at least not if we stick with normal science.

Unconditioned freedom vs. dependent origination

Given that neuroscience has its sights set on understanding the brain as a causal system, it’s not surprising that Hamilton worries about the issue of freedom and responsibility. He asks: “If our actions are entirely caused by the brain, and the brain is in turn shaped entirely by the interaction between genes and environment, where does free will enter the equation?” Well, as most scientists agree, if by free will we mean the power to rise above causality in choosing our actions, then we don’t have it. Wanting such contra-causal freedom, or supposing we simply must have it to support a robust conception of responsibility, strongly motivates the rejection of physicalism. And indeed, to save free will Hamilton pins his hope on a dualistic version of the perennial philosophy:

From the Buddha’s elaborate teachings on the conditioned nature of mind to twentieth-century Russian mystic G.I. Gurdjieff’s proclamation that “man is a machine,” a central thrust of mystical teachings throughout the ages has been a call to transcend our conditioned, mechanistic existence and discover a freedom that lies beyond all conditioning.

But Hamilton has, I think, misrepresented the Buddha’s teaching, which never asserted the existence of an unconditioned freedom beyond mechanism. Rather, the Buddha’s central insight was the interdependent arising of all phenomena, or dependent origination; that nothing, including the self, has a permanent, substantial existence. As persons we exist as relatively stable collections of properties, all of which are a function of countless circumstances and influences, and all of which will eventually disappear. There is no self independent of these circumstances that could exert a contra-causal power, in which the self gets to cause without itself being fully caused in turn. The Buddha, anticipating Enlightenment philosophers such as Hume, as well as modern neuroscience, exploded the fiction of the atman – the human soul or essence that could have contra-causal free will – in his anatta philosophy of no-self.

This means that an alternative basis for responsibility and accountability must be found, and indeed philosophers, ethicists and neuroscientists are engaged in vigorous debate on how best to respond to the dawning realization that we aren’t causally privileged over nature.[10] Clearly, we must continue to hold each other accountable for our actions, because accountability is essential in shaping good behavior. Dispelling the myth of contra-causal freedom, however, may have significant implications for just how we hold people accountable, since the notion of the deeply deserving, freely willing agent no longer applies. Seeing that all motives and behavior are a function of various causes, we might become more compassionate and more effective in our accountability practices. Hamilton seems not to have considered the possibility that neuroscience might actually be doing us a favor in showing persons and their brains to be deterministic systems.[11]

The bogey of eliminative reductionism

For Hamilton, it’s the strongly reductive nature of scientific explanation that most threatens what’s essentially human. He thinks that if consciousness were shown to be the operation of complex neural processes and mechanisms, it would necessarily be eliminated from our catalog of what really exists. But this worry holds water only on the assumption that consciousness must be something more than such processes. From a neuroscientific perspective, and indeed from an everyday non-scientific perspective, consciousness wouldn’t suddenly disappear if we eventually concluded that phenomenal experience is the same thing as a set of representational processes carried out by neurons. We can only “lose consciousness” to scientific explanation if, as for Hamilton and other New Age proponents, it must involve something categorically non-physical. But such an assumption is exactly the sort of pre-theoretical intuition that science is meant to test. After all, maybe full-blown phenomenal consciousness is a higher-order property of physically instantiated intelligent systems, something that needs no immaterial component. By falsely equating reductionist explanations with eliminativism, Hamilton is forced to deny the heart of the scientific project, which is to construct unified explanatory accounts that connect phenomena across categories and levels.

In his haste to discredit reductionism, Hamilton also mischaracterizes recent work on emergence theory. He seems to think emergence and reductionism are opposed, when in fact they are complimentary ways of looking at phenomena. He says

Emergence theory holds that interactions between lower-order phenomena can give birth to higher-order phenomena with properties which cannot themselves be reduced to the lower-order interactions. Just as the wetness of water cannot be found in the hydrogen and oxygen molecules that make it up, so the complex qualities of mind, like reason, decision-making, reflection, and emotion cannot be found in the behavior of our neurons.

It is of course true that consciousness and other higher level cognitive capacities can’t be understood in terms of single neurons, or even low-level neuronal structures, but nevertheless these capacities emerge as a function of properly organized and intercommunicating higher-level assemblies and functional modules, all neurally realized. There is nothing categorically non-physical or mysterious about the entities and organization that support such emergence, and understanding how mind emerges from brain is precisely a matter of determining the various roles, at various levels, played by neurally instantiated processes. Such understanding is benignly reductionistic, in that it shows how higher-level processes, those we traditionally designate mental, arise from nothing but properly organized and functioning lower level processes we designate physical. Ultimately, barring the discovery of some new category of phenomena,[12]the complex qualities of mind are based in the behavior of neurons, suitably elaborated; and that’s the amazing (although not literally miraculous) thing about matter: it actually does give rise to mind.

As biologist Ursula Goodenough, neuroscientist Terrence Deacon and others have argued, emergence looks at how novel properties come into being as we work our way up the hierarchy of organization, while reductionism takes things apart as we work our way down.[13] This explanatory strategy is central to normal scientific practice, not the province of a few visionary researchers hostile to materialism, as Hamilton seems to think. Emergence grants the existence of properties that can only be understood in terms of the interactive relationships between underlying physical components, while reductionism reminds us that nothing more than these components, properly organized, is needed to generate those properties. There is no intrinsic conflict between emergence and reduction: we get “something more from nothing but,” as Goodenough puts it. Yet as she points out, the properties of complex systems “are often described, approvingly, as somehow taking us beyond the material”.[14] Indeed, Hamilton approves of emergence theory precisely because he imagines it takes us beyond the material, when in fact it shows just how astonishingly rich the material world can be. So there is no dualist hope for Hamilton in emergence, only another perspective on the unity of nature.

Scientific vs. mystical objectivity

Another snare for Hamilton in the quest to protect us from science is his problematic understanding of subjectivity and objectivity. He quotes meditation researcher Andrew Newberg on the brain and the subjective experience of reality:

Let’s say we were to take the materialist position that the only way we experience anything is through the brain. This means that the only way we can tell whether something is real is through our brain. The brain is the organ that discerns what is real. Okay, now this presents a slight problem for the materialist position because when people have mystical experiences, they universally report that they have experienced something that is more real than our everyday material reality. Which means that the brain perceives God, or pure consciousness, to be more real than anything else. So if the brain is what determines what is real and what isn’t, and this is a universal experience of human brains across cultures, where does that leave us?

Well, if we stick with science as our guide to ultimate reality, this simply leaves us with facts about people’s experience of feeling that some things are more real than others.[15] There’s no reason to suppose that subjective experience necessarily maps reality correctly, however widespread and intense such experience might be. Mass delusions are not unheard of, after all. Unless there’s independent experimental and observational evidence of what these experiences refer to, there’s no scientific basis for claiming that god or pure consciousness exist. Individual experiences don’t determine what’s real, science does.

Hamilton himself says that “…even if we take the materialist position that the brain is the sole mediator of experience and the final arbiter of truth, we are left with the fact that human brains across the ages have universally concluded that the spiritual reality glimpsed in mystical experience is in fact of a higher order than the ordinary reality we experience every day.” But again, if we count ourselves empiricists, the human brain is not the final arbiter of truth. Rather, it’s the scientific community, which peer-reviews the pronouncements of any and all brains, checking them against the evidence. This means that “human brains across the ages” could be wrong about drawing the conclusion, based on mystical experience, that there’s a realm that transcends the physical universe. And if we take objectivity to be conferred by science, not mysticism, then indeed nothing can or does transcend that universe. Science unifies what it discovers to exist into a single, natural world.

Making peace with science

New Age believers such as Hamilton and his cohorts at What Is Enlightenment? magazine would very much like it to be the case that the human brain somehow has a direct perceptual link to mystical objectivity, to “the very source and creative driver of the cosmos.” If we had such a link, we wouldn’t need science to do the hard work of mapping reality. But there’s no good evidence that we’re wired to perceive a god outside our heads, which explains why Hamilton and the researchers he cites are notably silent on what sorts of processes (dare we say mechanisms?) might be involved in the direct apprehension of ultimate reality. However, this criticism will cut no ice with Hamilton, precisely because he’s placed his cognitive bet not with the scientific mainstream, but with frontier pseudo-science.

Which is too bad, since mainstream science is not inimical to grand conclusions, even of the sort which help drive the quest for meaning, conceived non-dualistically. We don’t need to leave materialism behind either to account for the rich, subjective complexity of lived human experience or to satisfy our craving for connection. In the context of thinking about the mind-body problem, Hamilton comes very close (perilously close, his New Age peers might think) to seeing this when he says

In the course of my research, one thought experiment I’ve grown quite fond of is imagining that my consciousness really is being generated by my brain. Think about it—this whole three-dimensional experience of sound, color, thought, feeling, and movement all somehow arising out of the organic functions of this wrinkled slab of tofu-like substance in your head. It seems hard to imagine, but if it were true, what would that say about the nature of matter itself? In fact, if I think about it in this way long enough, I start to wonder which would really be more earth-shattering—to find out that the brain doesn’t create the mind, or to find out that it does.

Precisely! Here Hamilton glimpses (but later abandons) the startling conclusion that mainstream science is drawing about the brain, which is Crick’s “astonishing hypothesis”: the physical brain creates subjective experience on its own - no trans-cranial connection to mysterious mental fields or an irreducible “higher” reality is necessary. Matter, properly organized, is enough for mind; we don’t need anything categorically mental in our catalog of what exists to get from neurons to consciousness. As Hamilton says, this is indeed an earth-shattering conclusion for dualists, since it explodes half their world. But perhaps it’s more accurate to say it’s a earth-welding conclusion, since it finally and irrevocably connects what were heretofore two distinct realms. We are not, according to neuroscience, of two different natures, and so the status of “mere” matter rises accordingly as we see that, as a necessary substrate for functional organization and representational intelligence, it delivers all the goods of consciousness and higher human capacities. A naturalistic solution to the mind-body problem promises to be the last nail in the coffin of dualism, and good riddance.

Hamilton ultimately flinches at this prospect, saying “By exposing the impersonal mechanisms behind our cherished personalities, [neuroscience] may inadvertently be helping to clear the way for the discovery of that which the great masters [of mysticism] have always said lies beyond them.” But neuroscience strongly suggests there is nothing beyond; impersonal mechanisms are us, in all our unique personhood.

The conclusion that we can indeed get something more (consciousness and the sense of a subjective self) from nothing but (neurons), is perhaps not quite what those seeking transcendence want, just because of the bad rap matter and mechanism have been saddled with for centuries. But, should we buy the astonishing hypothesis, something quite remarkable happens: we can relax. We no longer need escape our material being to discover our better nature or our true home. We don’t have to fudge the science and we don’t have to indulge in wishful thinking to find a sufficiently grand place for the human animal. We discover our authentic selves, with all their precious individuality and subjectivity, to be instantiated right here in this body, and this body in turn is right at home where it came from: the product of 3 billion years of evolution on earth, preceded by another 10 billion years of cosmic history.

Those for whom this story about the self, its powers, and its precursors isn’t grand enough, or comforting enough, will continue to seek shelter from science. But it’s a cognitively and emotionally difficult task to keep reputable science at bay, as Hamilton’s hard-fought battle with neuroscience attests. If those chasing New Age mysteries manage to see that science, in its naturalistic explanations, doesn’t alienate us from ourselves, but instead connects us to the cosmos in each and every aspect of our being, they might relax, and come to terms with our magnificent materiality.

© Thomas W. Clark, Center for Naturalism, November, 2005


[1] Hamilton, C., (2005) “Is God All in Your Head?,” What Is Enlightenment? issue 29, June-August 2005, p. 98.

[2] Hamilton and his peers at What Is Enlightenment? abjure the term “New Age” in favor of “evolutionary enlightenment,” but for the purposes of this article I’ll use the more familiar, broader term.

[3] See Kurtz, P., (1991) The Transcendental Temptation, Prometheus Books: Amherst, NY.

[4] See for instance Thomas Metzinger’s book Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity (2003, MIT Press: Cambridge, MA) and Clark, T., (2005) “Killing the observer,” Journal of Consciousness Studies, 12, No.4-5, pp. 38-59, online at Killing The Observer.

[5] Crick, F., (1995) The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, Scribners: New York.

[6] About intuitions of dualism, see Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen, “For the Law, Neuroscience Changes Nothing and Everything,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (Science B), 359 (2004): 1775–1785, online at, and Paul Bloom’s book, Descartes Baby (2004, Basic Books: New York).

[7] E.g., “… in what may be the greatest miracle we know, life somehow managed to evolve an organ capable not only of reflecting on itself but of perceiving something higher than itself…” (p. 99) Searching the article for mentions of “mystery,” “mysterious,” and “mysteriously” brings up 29 instances.

[8] Dean Radin of the Institute for Noetic Science inadvertently supports this point when he says “The only reason that [evidence for psi effects is] not accepted by the mainstream is that there is no clear, theoretical reason to accept it. It’s not accepted because people don’t know how to explain it.” (p. 92) Quite right. Unless some explanation for a purported effect is tendered that links it to accepted science, it’s legitimate not to accept the effect as real, especially when the statistical significance of findings are contested, as they very much are for psi phenomena.

[9] Greene, B., (2004) The Fabric of the Universe: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality, Knopf: New York.

[10] See for instance Garland, B., Frankel, S., eds., (2004) Neuroscience and the Law: Brain, Mind, and the Scales of Justice, Dana Press: Washington, DC.

[11] For examples, see the paper by Greene and Cohen referenced at note 5, which suggests that a deterministic understanding of ourselves might lead to a less punitive criminal justice system, and see also the papers at the Criminal Justice page.

[12] Some, like philosopher David Chalmers, think such a discovery is probably a necessary component of any solution to the mind-body problem.

[13] See Goodenough, U. and Deacon, T. W., (2003) “From biology to consciousness to morality,” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 38 (December), pp. 801-19.

[14] Goodenough, U., (2005) “Reductionism and holism, chance and selection, mechanism and mind,” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science V 40, #2, pp. 369-380 (quote p. 373).

[15] Factual reports about others’ experience are what philosopher Daniel Dennett calls, in his book Consciousness Explained, the raw data of “heterophenomenology.” It is the scientist’s task to explain these data as parsimoniously and productively as possible.

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