The Unconscious and the Silent Brain

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    The dissected brain cannot have insight. That is as true metaphorically as it is literally.

    Insight, whether as a flash of direct perception in a given context, or a state of unmediated awareness without limit, is always whole.

    The neuroscience popularizer and Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel was on the Charlie Rose Show recently, promoting his new book, “The Age of Insight.” He’s a frequent guest (seems like weekly lately), a co-host of the ongoing Charlie Rose Brain Series, and Rose has coronated him “a friend of this program.”

    For the umpteenth time, as if repeating it makes it true, Kandel uttered his mistaken assertion that “the brain is a creativity machine.” No, the brain is not a machine. Thought operates like a machine in some respects, but a machine, like thought, will never have an insight. Only the whole mind/brain has insights, much less comes upon a state of insight.

    Kandel says he is keenly interested in ‘the unconscious processes of the human brain, and how the science of mind engages with art.’ There are a lot of assumptions, premises, and distractions enfolded within that introductory statement.

    Placing his view of human nature squarely in Vienna of 1900, where he was born, Kandel spoke misleadingly about the “continuity in evolution,” before understatedly saying, “The human mind is not completely rational.”

    Quoting but not heeding a pioneering Viennese physician, Kandel, referring to human psychology, “Truths are hidden from the surface.” There are indeed “things below the surface that you don’t see,” and with all due respect to Kandel’s achievements, he does not see them.

    Science dissects and reduces, necessarily. Insight, however, is whole, even when it occurs in the context of science. And the state of insight has no context, except the universe itself.

    For religious experiencing to occur, the mind/brain has to be deeply, essentially quiet, still. The state of insight is direct awareness of creation, destruction, death, and love. The intellect and knowledge have to yield, so that the mind can be essentially still.

    For Kandel and most scientists, this is incomprehensible heresy, because for them there is no god but science. Indeed, the question of God does not deserve a mention, except with a disparaging reference, dismissively referring to how prior to Vienna in 1900 humans were viewed as “specially created by God.” Thus, a straw man has been set up and incinerated with a puff of the magic dragon’s benevolently fiery breath.

    Kandel speaks of understanding “unconscious mental processes” as the holy grail of both science and art. But the unconscious is actually little more interesting and no more important than the conscious mind. By privileging it, Kandel reveals his bias toward thought, rather than seeing it as essential to functioning and knowledge, but an impediment to experiencing what is.

    “It is the central challenge of science in the 21st century to understand the brain in biological terms,” Rose gravely quotes Kandel as saying. That may be, but can the mind know itself, and the human being liberate himself and herself, by dissecting the brain through a process of reductionism?

    No, and the inherent limitations of science and knowledge are revealed at this point. Science can and must understand a great deal more about the brain, including the mind (as thought) and its pathologies, but it will never understand the mind as awareness.

    Is the “attempt to bridge art and brain science” a Trojan horse for neuroscience into the humanities? Certainly Kandel and his colleagues view neuroscience as the context within which we can understand the appreciation (in the brain of the beholder) of great works of art. It’s a short step from there to crowning neuroscience as the explainer of all experience, including religious experiencing. That is simply false, and deeply misleading.

    “The information we take in is a fraction of what’s out there. We don’t see reality as it is, we reconstruct it in our own brain…we have memories of previous experience, and we use that to compare what’s coming in with what we’ve experienced before.” Ah, there’s the rub, and Kandel is out of his depth in asserting it as a given.

    The essential intent and action of methodless meditation is to quiet the mechanism of memory, association, and comparison, however unconscious, allowing unmediated experiencing to occur. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “You must return and become like children.”

    The first question is not what is the relationship between the humanities and science, since both are products of the human mind. The first question is: What is the relationship between religious experiencing (sans belief, theology, and tradition) and science?

    “Knowing a little bit about how facial perception works biologically, and how empathy works in the brain enriches your understanding of how you respond to art.” That’s true in a limited sense, but it can also overshadow, indeed enshadow one’s capacity to respond to art, and to life, by giving primacy to knowledge over direct experiencing.

    Few scientists bother to ask the first question: What is the mind? Of course, they’re not philosophers– though philosophy has been largely reduced to a sub-discipline and imitation of science.

    I don’t have anything against Eric Kandel personally. He seems like a nimble old gentleman who has made tremendous contributions to science. But frankly as a philosopher, he stinks. He represents the leading edge of a movement in science to deny the actuality, much less the primacy of religious experiencing, by placing it in biological and reductionistic terms.

    Since organized religion is already dead, why the assault on religious experiencing? Because unconsciously Kandel and his kind know that the insights from neuroscience are delineating the limitations of science in human life. Paradoxically, neuroscience is pointing toward the necessity and potential in ordinary human beings for religious experiencing.

    When attention is effortlessly gathered in passive observation, in which the infinite regress of the separate observer has been negated in lightning awareness, the mind as thought falls silent. Then the question emerges: Is the universe itself in a state of meditation?

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