Trained to believe that every object as well as every act in the universe is matter, an aspect of matter, or produced by matter—that is, schooled to be a materialist—I scoffed at the two fellow students of mine in graduate school who regularly attended church. For me, at that time, the brain was the mind and God an illusion.
Sunday Morning in the Cathedral of Science
Seated in the front pew, my folded hands piously resting upon a worn copy of Newton’s Principia, I hear from the choir loft the voices of neuroscience graduate students droning their mantra, “The brain is the mind; The brain is the mind; The brain is the mind.” The mantra becomes the astonishing hypothesis in the Sunday morning sermon preached by the Reverend Francis Harry Compton Crick, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA: “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” With index finger pointing heavenward, Reverend Crick bellows the crux of the sermon: “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.”
In monophonic chant that hypnotizes the parishioners, the choir recites the liturgical reading of the day: “Every decision is a thoroughly mechanical process, the outcome of which is completely determined by the results of prior mechanical processes. Every human action can be explained mechanically.” In a higher octave, biologist Lynn Margulis trumpets, “For all our imagination, fecundity, and power, we are no more than communities of bacteria, modular manifestations of the nucleated cell.” Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins recites the second reading, “[Replicators] swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and in me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. They have come a long way, those replicators. Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines.”
Physicist Robert Cahn reads from the Book of Standard Model, “Given the masses of quarks and leptons, and nine other closely related quantities, [the current theory of particle interaction] can account, in principle, for all the phenomena in our daily lives.” In the same vein, Murray Gell-Mann, the first theoretical physicist to propose that the fundamental building blocks of matter are not protons, neutrons, and electrons, but quarks and leptons, intones, “All of us human beings and all the objects with which we deal are essentially bundles of simple quarks and electrons.” In a dark corner of the Cathedral of Science, in sotto voce Stephen Hawking murmurs, “The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet.”
The uninvited preacher, Marvin Minsky, a leading proponent of artificial intelligence, shouted from the last pew in the Cathedral of Science “Who am you? You are a ‘meat machine.’”
Not one grand pronouncement preached that Sunday in the Cathedral of Science has been established by experimental science. “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons” and “human beings… are essentially bundles of simple quarks and electrons” are for the majority of scientists unshakeable beliefs, ultimately religious dogmas.
Every sermon, every reading, and every mantra in the Cathedral of Science rests upon a central dogma: The universe, including all aspects of human life, is the result of the interactions of little bits of matter.
I was astonished to discover that a careful analysis of perception, the bare minimum of human living, easily shows that materialism is dead wrong.
Brain Function Alone Cannot Explain Perception
The human brain contains 86 billion neurons, or nerve cells. A large number of little branches, known as “dendrites,” extend from the cell body of the neuron and receive signals from other neurons, while an axon conducts neural messages to other neurons. Each neuron makes electrical connections, or synapses, with as many as 10,000 other neurons. The brain of a three-year-old child has approximately one quadrillion synapses. A quadrillion is roughly the number of people on 140,000 Earths.
One seemingly insurmountable obstacle for a neuroscientist intent upon reducing a person to “nothing but a pack of neurons” is to explain how wiring together 86 billion neurons can give rise to the love of Mozart’s Don Giovanni or to the joy of windsurfing at Maalaea Bay, Hawaii.
Surprisingly, the first step in applying the principle the brain is the mind falters; brain physiology alone cannot explain the most obvious human experience—we perceive. Textbooks typically gloss over the profound difference between sense perception and its necessary physical components. With regard to vision, Crick confesses, “we really have no clear idea how we see anything. This fact is usually concealed from the students who take such courses [as the psychology, physiology, and cell biology of vision].”
Physicist Erwin Schrödinger argues that science is incapable of explaining how we see: “If you ask a physicist what is his idea of yellow light, he will tell you that it is transversal electromagnetic waves of wavelength in the neighborhood of 590 millimicrons. If you ask him: But where does yellow come in? He will say: In my picture not at all.” Carl von Weizsäcker, also a physicist, agrees: “Light of 6,000 Å wavelength reaches my eye. From the retina, a chemicoelectrical stimulus passes through the optical nerve into the brain where it sets off another stimulus of certain motor nerves, and out of my mouth come the words: The apple is red. Nowhere in this description of the process, complete though it is, has any mention been made that I have had the color perception red. Of sense perception, nothing was said.”
Although Schrödinger and Weizsäcker employ technical language, their insights into the nature of perception are based on straightforward observations. Let me restate their argument. Suppose sunlight is reflected from a red apple into the eye of a landscape painter. The sunlight passes through the lens of the eye and strikes the retina, a sheet of closely packed receptors—4.5 million cones and 90 million rods. Activated by the incoming sunlight, chemical changes occur in the rods and cones, which are then translated into electrical impulses that travel along the optic nerve to the brain. Further electrical and chemical changes take place in the brain. In terms of physiology of seeing this description is complete; however, the sensation red has not entered into this scientific account of perception. The landscape painter experiences the red of the apple, not the myriad chemical and electrical changes that are necessary for seeing.
What is true for seeing is true of the other senses: Physical-chemical changes in the brain are insufficient to explain any sensory perception. The sensible qualities a person perceives never appear in the brain as such. The brain itself is shrouded in complete silence, even while a person hears the deafening roar of a jet aircraft engine. Likewise, the brain, encased in the skull, is covered with darkness even while a person perceives the brilliance of the sun’s glare. Our brains do not become colder when we touch snow or harder when we touch iron. Not a single sugar molecule passes from the chocolate candy in the mouth to the gustatory region of the cerebral cortex—and yet we perceive sweetness notwithstanding. The brain tissue itself takes on none of the sourness of a tasted lemon or the acrid odor of the skunk’s spray that we smell.
Charles Sherrington, the founder of modern neuroscience, points out that physics and chemistry “bring us to the threshold of the act of perceiving, and there to bid us ‘goodbye.’” In the scientific picture of the world, colors, odors, sounds, flavors, and textures are absent. Thus, Schrödinger concludes that scientific “theories are easily thought to account for sensual qualities; which, of course, they never do.”
Mechanical, chemical, and electrical changes themselves are not thoughts, desires, and emotions. The toolbox of physical science is limited to air pressure, chemical changes, electrical impulses in nerves, brain cell activity, and other measurable properties of matter. Science is mute about hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, and touching. The reason is obvious: The interior life of a person is nonmaterial—perceptions, emotions, and thoughts cannot be touched, smelled, tasted, heard, or seen.
The majority of my physicist colleagues and all the neuroscientists I know, except for one, attempt to evade Schrödinger’s argument by invoking the doctrine of emergentism. An emergentist recognizes the genuine novelty in nature at each successive level of organization and affirms the hierarchy of natural beings. Biologist Peter Medawar puts it simply, “Each higher-level subject contains ideas and conceptions peculiar to itself. These are the ‘emergent’ properties.” Life, sensation, and mind are considered to be among these. In his paper, “More Is Different,” condensed-matter physicist Philip Anderson maintains that “psychology is not applied biology, nor is biology applied chemistry.” According to the doctrine of emergenticism, when 86 billion neurons are wired together in the right way, consciousness emerges from the non-conscious basic elements; more is different.
Indeed, in physics, sometimes more is different. In Newtonian physics, for example, a particle moving through empty space experiences no drag. If a huge number of these particles are put together to form a fluid, and if these particles interact with each other, then every particle moving in the fluid experiences a drag that causes a stickiness of the fluid, called “viscosity.” Clearly, viscosity is an example of where more is different. However, the motion of a single particle through space and the motion of a viscous fluid are commensurable, meaning they are both measurable in terms of mass, force, momentum, and acceleration, which is not true in the case of the “emergence” of perception, for as Schrödinger, Weizsäcker, and Sherrington point out air pressure, chemical changes, electrical impulses in nerves, brain cell activity, and other measurable properties of matter are not commensurate with smell of lavender, the sound of middle C bowed on a violin, or the golden light that envelops the high desert of Northern New Mexico at sunset.
My physicist friends always point to superconductivity as the paradigm of emergenticism. While superconductors were unexpected states of matter, eventually these surprising states of matter were understood through the quantum mechanical behavior of electrons, not through some new laws of matter. Ordinary resistive conductors and superconductors are commensurable, both are understood through the quantum mechanical behavior of electrons moving through a metallic lattice. At a low enough temperature, electrons form Cooper pairs, composite bosons that can condense into the same ground state, a superconducting state of the metal.
Emergentists believe that something analogous happens with neurons and perception. Suppose that when 86 billion neurons are assembled in the right way that the perception of Middle C or the smell of lavender emerges, then to rationally understand why this happens, there must be an underlying connection, or link, between neurons, neurotransmitters, and action potentials and the sound of Middle C and the smell of lavender, but no link exists, as one does with superconductivity. The whole point of the Schrödinger argument is that these realms are totally different with no causal connection.
Emergentists adhere to the unshakeable belief that “the universe, including our own existence, can be explained by the interactions of little bits of matter” and as a result encounter an insurmountable barrier: The properties of matter are incommensurate with the experiences of the interior life. For an emergentist to overcome this barrier by simply declaring that from an assembly of 86 billion neurons consciousness emerges is magical thinking.
A Tour of Beethoven’s Brain
In order to observe what is going on in Beethoven’s brain, a neuroscientist shrinks himself down to the size of a nerve cell and purchases a ticket from Great Western Microtours. He sees the intricate chemical changes at the synapses, making possible the transmission of a nerve impulse from one neuron to another. As the microtour bus zips through the brain, he witnesses electron transport, ion interactions, and the furious chemical activity of enzymes within each cell. Nowhere does he see or taste the Rhine wine being enjoyed right now by the brain’s owner, even though the tour guide points out a particular series of electrical impulses that correlate with those sensations. Nowhere does he see Beethoven’s remembrance of his first meeting with Mozart. No emotions are discernible either. He never recognizes this particular spatiotemporal pattern of neuronal activity as anger at having gone deaf, or that complex electrical pattern of nerve cells as joy, or fear, or despair. At every level, the neuroscientist meets only with the physical correlates of sensations and emotions, never with the experiences themselves; correlation is not causation. He cannot explain why Beethoven experiences vivid colors, pungent odors, or vibrant tones. The reason for this is that the interior life of a human person is nonmaterial and, thus, cannot be found in the brain.
Most scientists fail to see that the nonmaterial does not mean ethereal, spooky, or that the nonmaterial necessarily can exist separate from matter. The visual memories encoded in a person’s brain are nonmaterial, but they do not exist separate from his brain. Neurologist Oliver Sacks reported that a patient under his care had suffered a sudden thrombosis in the posterior circulation of the brain, which caused the immediate death of the visual parts of the brain. The patient became completely blind—and did not know it! Sacks’ questioning revealed that the patient had lost all visual images and memories—yet had no sense of loss. The patient had no memory of ever having seen; he was unable to describe anything visual and became bewildered when hearing the words “seeing” and “light.” An entire lifetime of visual experience had been erased from memory in an instant.
Everyone knows that memories of seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching are stored in some manner in the brain, but what memories are encoded there cannot be read by scientific instruments; the neuroscientist must rely upon what the owner of the brain reports.
To understand why brain activity alone cannot account for a person’s experience of remembering we must look at what all encodements have in common. Consider Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” It can be spoken in English or German, written in Arabic or Chinese, tapped out in Morse code, given in raised dots of paper (Braille), or encoded on audio tape by magnetizing the tiny pieces of iron oxide embedded in the tape. Clearly, a code is arbitrary, not natural. There is no logical or necessary physical connection between a code and what is encoded. The meaning of “four score and seven years ago” is not sounds in English, black marks on paper, raised dots, or magnetic patterns. Without a decoder, the patterns of raised dots of paper are meaningless. The raised dots are not the meaning they encode. “Four score and seven years ago” has two elements—the meaning and the medium of the encodement. The medium is material, while the meaning is nonmaterial. The meaning of the “Gettysburg Address” cannot be reduced to the mere arrangement of sounds in English or impressions on paper nor can it be measured in terms of mass, length, time, and electric charge.
The memories encoded in the brain are analogous to the sounds recorded on an audio tape. Just as the magnetic patterns on an audio tape are not the “Gettysburg Address,” the chemical and electrical patterns in the brain are not the memory of New York Governor George E. Pataki reciting the “Gettysburg Address” in a tribute to the victims of the 9/11 attacks on America. To go from the magnetic patterns on the tape to sound requires a decoder (a tape player). Similarly, no matter how sophisticated the study of a person’s brain, neuroscientists can never read the memories stored there; the decoder in this case is the brain’s owner.
The Primacy of Mind
Yet, the hope that someday physics, chemistry, biology, and computer science will eventually explain mind lingers. Neurologist Antonio Damasio, for instance, believes the “simple sensory qualities to be found in the blueness of the sky or the tone of sound produced by a cello…will be eventually explained neurobiologically, although at the moment the neurobiological account is incomplete and there is an explanatory gap.” Neuroscientist Christof Koch maintains that all facets of consciousness—visual, olfactory, linguistic, even the self—are “elaborations of a common biological process,” and in his laboratory he is searching for “a discrete set of neurons that might be in twenty different areas [of the brain] but share some set of properties that are responsible for generating consciousness.”
At a public lecture sponsored by the Santa Fe Institute, I heard Crick publicly admit that the inability of neuroscientists to explain sensory qualities in terms of the brain activity seems insurmountable. Yet, he hoped that the problem would unexpectedly disappear, like other seemingly impossible difficulties had in science. In a joint paper, Crick and Koch ask, “What Are the Neural Correlates of Consciousness?” And answer, “So far no one has put forward any concrete hypothesis that sounds even remotely plausible.”
Neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran, too, acknowledges that explaining perception in terms of brain function alone is an impasse for neuroscience, and for materialism in general: “No matter how detailed and accurate [the] outside-objective description of color cognition might be, it has a gaping hole at its center because it leaves out” the experience of redness and all other perceptions. He laments that the impasse results from a limit of present-day science: “Perhaps, science will eventually stumble on some unexpected method or framework for dealing with qualia—the immediate experiential perception of sensation, such as the redness of red or the pungency of curry—empirically and rationally, but such advances could easily be as remote from our present-day grasp as molecular genetics was to those living in the Middle Ages.”
Biologist H. Allen Orr agrees that “how such mere objects [as a brain and its neurons] can give rise to the eerily different phenomenon of subjective experience seems utterly incomprehensible.” Despite this, he holds that materialism need not be rejected for two reasons. The first reason is “more a sociological observation than an actual argument. Science has, since the seventeenth century, proved remarkably adept at incorporating initially alien ideas (like electromagnetic fields) into its thinking.” This opinion is essentially Crick’s hope that the problem of qualia will somehow disappear in the future. Orr’s second reason for not conceding that materialism is a failed philosophy is based on a conjecture about why qualia and consciousness pose an insurmountable obstacle to present-day science: Our inability to see how certain material structures produce subjective experience is that our evolved, finite brains cannot “fathom the answer to every question that we can ask.” Orr is willing to believe matter gives rise to mind but scientists will never know how, a belief that violates the central tenet of modern science—a theory in some way must be open to experimental refutation. In this way, Orr exposed that his unshakeable belief that “the universe, including our own existence, can be explained by the interactions of little bits of matter” is an irrational ideology.
What Damasio, Koch, Crick, and Orr cannot face and what Ramachandran suspects is that materialism is dead and cannot be resurrected. Undeterred by the advent of quantum physics and chaos theory in the twentieth century, neuroscientists persist in reading nature as a machine, a view inherited from Newtonian physics, and thus cannot see that qualia along with all aspects of the interior life are the fundamentals of human life, not the chemical and electrical activity of the brain.
Despite theoretical claims to the contrary, neuroscience does not account for a person’s interior life in terms of matter alone. No researcher begins with neurons, neurotransmitters, and action potentials and then explains how sensations and emotions arise from these basic elements. Furthermore, the interior life of a person is not open to observation. Instead, neuroscientists in practice take perceiving, feeling, thinking, and willing as primary and then attempt to correlate brain activity with what the human subject reports. The chemical and electrical activity in the brain is understood in terms of the interior life of the human being. In practice, neuroscience affirms that the mind is primary, not matter. The mantra chanted daily by many neuroscientists and certain philosophers—the brain is the mind—invokes a hopeless cause, an old way of thinking.
Neuroscientist Roger Sperry, discoverer of the different roles of the left and right hemispheres of the brain, describes how when science is freed from a materialistic outlook the mind is primary: “Mind and consciousness are put in the driver’s seat, as it were: they give the orders, and they push and haul around the physiology and the physical and chemical processes as much as or more than the latter processes direct them. This scheme is one that puts mind back over matter, in a sense, not under or outside or beside it…. The causal potency of an idea, or an ideal, becomes just as real as that of a molecule, a cell, or a nerve impulse.” With this outlook, brain physiology, neurons, and neurotransmitters are the physical structures that allow a painter to see nature, a novelist to explore the interior life, and, yes, a neuroscientist to understand the brain.
I was amazed to discover, as Schrödinger did years before me, that the scientific picture of the real world and real human beings is extraordinary deficient. Science is, in the words of Schrödinger, “ghastly silent about all and sundry that is really near to our heart, that really matters to us. It cannot tell us a word about red and blue, bitter and sweet, physical pain and physical delight; it knows nothing of beautiful and ugly, good or bad…. Science sometimes pretends to answer questions in these domains, but the answers are very often so silly that we are not inclined to take them seriously.”
Despite my gypsy heritage and my outsider life, I was seduced at an early age by the picture science paints of the world. The beauty of relativity and quantum physics made me a true believer. Unless a person is born with the quirky ability to do higher mathematics, it is almost impossible to understand that seeing the beauty of theoretical physics is akin to a mystical experience. At twenty-one, I was convinced that science was the sole path to truth and scoffed at the several people I knew who were studying philosophy and made fun of the two physics graduate students who attended church regularly. Like the vast majority of scientists, I believed religion belonged to the Dark Ages that preceded the Age of Enlightenment. Men and women could only be truly free when they cast off the chains of the past. I thought I had the great advantage of not having a religious upbringing, so I was free from the ridiculous ideas instilled by religious authorities.
Later in life, I discovered that all human beings suffer from a fatal intellectual flaw, the propensity to take one truth and make it the only truth. For the vast majority of scientists, science is a new religion, and unlike Schrödinger, they refuse, like all true believers, to see that the emperor has no clothes, close their eyes to the limitations of the experimental method, and willfully deny that the philosophy of materialism they embrace gives “silly” answers to the most fundamental questions about human life. For me, and I suspected for a growing number of young people, I had to divest myself of the “silly” ideas instilled in me by science, not religion; in the twenty-first century, science, not the Church, is the oppressor that champions a worldview that has to be cast off.
In my quest for the meaning of human life, I soon grasped that science is only one path to truth, to truths that are not the most interesting part of life, although they are beautiful and surprising. Among J. Robert Oppenheimer’s last written words were “science is not everything, but science is very beautiful.” Physics and chemistry examine the piping, the infrastructure of life, not the ultimate reality of the universe or human life. To hold that the ultimate reality of a performance of Suite No. 1 of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Six Unaccompanied Cello Suites is the scraping of horsehair on cat gut is philosophical absurdity, not to mention human insanity.
The physical world provides an intense, rich interior life, which includes the impersonal, stark beauty of mathematics and physics as well as the pungency of Stilton cheese, the softness of cashmere, the dance of cherry blossoms, the smell of the ocean salt air, the wonder and mystery of nature, and the poetry, drama, and music that touch the transcendent.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
 For instance, see Eric Kandel, Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis, and the New Biology of Mind (Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Publishing, 2005), p. 39.
 Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis, (New York: Scribner’s, 1994), p. 3.
 Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen, “For the law, neuroscience changes nothing and everything,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society London B (2004) 359: 1781.
 Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, “Strange Fruit on the Tree of Life,” The Sciences 26 (May-June 1986): 43.
 Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 21.
 Robert Cahn, “The 18 Arbitrary Parameters Of The Standard Model In Your Everyday Life,” Review of Modern Physics 68 (1996): 951.
 Murray Gell-Mann, “Let’s Call It Plectics,” Complexity 1 (1995/1996), no. 5.
 Stephen Hawking, quoted by David Deutsch, The Fabric of Reality (New York: Viking, 1997), pp. 177-178.
 The quotation “the brain happens to be a meat machine” is widely attributed to Marvin Minsky, although I could not find the phrase “meat machine” in any article or book written by him.
 Crick, p. 3.
 Ibid., p. 24.
 Erwin Schrödinger, What is Life? with Mind and Matter and Autobiographical Sketches (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 153.
 C. F. von Weizsäcker, The History of Nature, trans. Fred D. Wieck (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949), pp. 142‑43.
 Sir Charles Sherrington, Man on His Nature, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963), p. 238.
 Schrödinger, What is Life?, p. 164.
 P. B. Medawar and J. S. Medawar, The Life Sciences: Current Ideas of Biology (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), p. 165.
 P. W. Anderson, “More Is Different,” Science 177 (4 August 1972): 393.
 H. Allen Orr, “Awaiting a New Darwin,” The New York Review of Books, vol. 60, Number 2 (February 7, 2013).
 Recently, I discovered that Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, in 1714, gave an argument similar to “A Tour of Beethoven’s Brain.” He wrote, “Perception, and that which depends upon it, are inexplicable by mechanical causes, that is to say, by figures and motions. Supposing that there were a machine whose structure produced thought, sensation, and perception, we could conceive of it as increased in size with the same proportions until one was able to enter into its interior, as he could into a mill. Now, on going into it he would find only pieces working upon one another, but never would he find anything to explain perception.” See Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, The Monadology in Discourse on Metaphysics and The Monadology, trans. George R. Montgomery (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1992), No. 17, p. 70.
 Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (New York: Summit, 1987), p. 39.
 Antonio Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotions in the Making of Consciousness (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999), p. 9.
 Christof Koch, quoted by Julie Wakefield, “A Mind for Consciousness,” Scientific American 285 (July 2001): 37.
 Francis Crick and Christof Koch, “What Are the Neural Correlates of Consciousness?” in 23 Problems in Systems Neuroscience, ed. J. Leo van Hemmen and Terrence J. Sejnowski (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005). p. 474.
 V. S. Ramachandran, The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human (New York: Norton, 2011), p. 248.
 Ibid., p. 249. Ramachandran’s definition of qualia is on page 248 and is incorporated in this quotation.
 Orr, “Awaiting a New Darwin.” Italics in the original.
 Roger Sperry, “Mind, Brain and Humanist Values,” in New Views of the Nature of Man, ed. John R. Platt (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), pp. 78, 82.
 Erwin Schrödinger, Nature and the Greeks and Science and Humanism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 95.
 J. Robert Oppenheimer, quoted by Richard Rhodes, Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), p. 578.