CRPS, or Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (Type 1), is a change in the nervous system that's usually triggered by a very painful episode. The bad kinds affect the brain, nerves, muscles, skin, metabolism, circulation, and fight-or-flight response. Lucky me; that's what I've got. ... But life is still inherently good (or I don't know when to quit; either way) and, good or not, life still goes on.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Mind, brain, spirit, and the im/pertinence of death

I referred to this material in an earlier post, where I described the online conversation that started it. My first thought was to turn it into a coherent essay. On reflection, I realized that digesting what my co-conversationalists said was not necessarily going to improve the content, as they're very eloquent and have distinctive voices. So I chose to let them speak for themselves.

Note to non-academics and other civilized beings: I find that, with academics as with working engineers, it's more important to be clear than to be sweet. Caveat emptor.

This thread is from James Croft's blog on "State of Formation," an excellent venue for lively conversations. It started with Jim F., as I secretly suspect a lot of the most interesting arguments do:

Jim F. says:
[...] Injuries to the brain from accidents or from disease like tumors or strokes can lead to radical changes in personality and/or character. In Lamont’s opinion, there are no real good reasons for believing that consciousness is something that can exist without the body. Therefore, when the body dies, so does the mind.

Isabel says:
February 28, 2011 at 2:30 am
Jim, I’ve mulled that relationship a lot. (Lifelong interest in neurology, now with neurologic disorder.) My studies and experience leave me certain that it’s a seductive mutuality, but not an absolute connection. It’s certainly not a simple one.

While mental states are associated with neuroendocrine activity, the subjective experience is inevitable _only_ to the extent that it’s unaware — or, of course, volitional.

This seriously disturbs the structure of the idea that "mental state doesn’t exist without physical state." And that doesn’t even go near the eternal chicken/egg question — whether the chemical shift or the feeling it’s supposed to transmit comes first.

Go on to look at more organized ways of managing one’s mentation & neuroendocrine flow, like meditation or yoga or "inward" martial arts, and the question of connection and control becomes not just loose, but flaccid.

The more I think about awareness, and the more I learn about neurophysiology and endocrine behavior, and the further I go on the personal inquiry into how to navigate this neurologic disruption, the less I’m persuadable that the mind depends on the brain. That concept totally fails in the face of this experience — the clinching argument for me, obviously — but it also fails to describe those experiences that are _not_ as unaware, uncontrolled, and are experienced as irreflectively as those of animals. We are richer beings.

When my neurochemistry is whacked, I’ve gotten pretty good at finding other ways to hold my mind in a bearable state. That would be impossible if the brain were the only determinant of mental state. And I know I’m not so special that this capacity MUST be rare if I have it.

I’ve never found a good explanation for that part of the mind that can participate with and respond to neurochemistry, without being pwned by it (in hacker parlance.) It sure is an interesting inquiry, though I don’t need an answer. I just need to continually improve my command of it, since so far this condition is incurable. (We shall see.)

I’m glad you raised the mind/brain issue. More philosophers should study neuroendocrinology — and meditation.

Jim F. says:
March 1, 2011 at 7:21 am
Responding to Isabel. I have always found Hume to be pretty persuasive on this subject, even though he was without the benefit of modern neuroscience. In his essay, “The Immortality of the Soul”, he wrote:

"[...]— Sleep, a very small effect on the body, is attended with a temporary extinction, at least a great confusion in the soul. — The weakness of the body and that of the mind in infancy are exactly proportioned, their vigour in manhood, their sympathetic disorder in sickness; their common gradual decay in old age. The step further seems unavoidable; their common dissolution in death."

//Isabel comments: Hume must have had curious nightmares. My own dreams tend to be rich and narrative; not as rich as waking life but often more encouraging.
// Hume's understanding of mental development is clearly in step with his own time, which is to say, very uninformed: the brain of an infant is in the most quickly-developing, rationally evolving period of the person's entire lifetime. Never again are we as aware, as able to learn, and as able to prune away useless thoughts as we are in infancy. The tiny fledgling bodies we have are needy indeed, but again, the capacity to recover from proportional insults to the body and brain is better than it ever will be again. Still, the brain function far exceeds the body's function in infancy. Not proportional at all.
// The mutual disorder of the body and mind in sickness is rarely proportional, and as I have worked with sick and injured people for most of my life, I am the authority there. Sorry, Hume. Normally-healthy men are vile patients, making their tenders miserable while refusing to mend themselves; old women typically manage their way through pain and physical disruption that would have most of us on our knees in howling agony -- unless it kills them. And of course, the rest of us fall in between these extremes, depending more on our personalities and cultures than on a proportional response to the illness or injury.
// Senility in old age is not a given, either: some people's bodies rot long before their minds do, and with others, their minds go fast while their bodies soldier mercilessly on for decades. Any true proportionality between a fading body and fading mind is so rare that, in my clinical experience, it's the exception and not the rule. (It would be fun to find a study on that, if only to discover the name of a doctor who has the nerve to tell us what degree of disintegration is "proportional.")
// Thus, while Hume's prose is wonderfully telling, his conclusions are not.

"[...] Every thing is in common betwixt soul and body. The organs of the one are all of them the organs of the other. The existence therefore of the one must be dependant on that of the other. — The souls of animals are allowed to be mortal; and these bear so near a resemblance to the souls of men, that the analogy from one to the other forms a very strong argument. Their bodies are not more resembling; yet no one rejects the argument drawn from comparative anatomy. The Metempsychosis is therefore the only system of this kind that philosophy can harken to.

// Hume is always delicious to read, but he is ignorant of the better-developed spiritual traditions which characterize the spiritual body as overlapping and interacting with the physical, but not being either a clone or tied into lockstep with it. These (both Asian and European) traditions therefore fundamentally differ from his base assumption about the twin-image nature of the body-mind relationship.

Concerning meditation, Rick Heller has been writing on the neurological basis of meditation in The New Humanism. He is himelf a practioner and teacher of meditation and also a convinced naturalist and physicalist.

// I'll have to look him up. Could be interesting.

There seem to me a lot of problems with the sort of psychophysical dualism that Isabel seems to be defending. If it is true then this would seem to violate some of the most basic laws oh physics. Maybe such basic laws like the laws of the conservation of energy and of momentum are not completely valid, but most natural scientists are going to requires lots of very strong evidence to be so persuaded. Dualists have yet to come up with a convincing account of how a nonphysical mind can interact with the physical body. Dualistic interactionism therefore seems to violate a general heuristic principle of science: the causal closure of the physical world. And at this point we can invoke Ockam’s Razor to argue that we really have no need to posit any sort of a mental substance that exists apart from the physical organism.

// The assumption that mind is necessarily physical because the brain is, is a false conclusion. This nonbrain attribute is generally considered to be energetic in nature. Energy interacts with matter all the time, or none of us could (for instance) access this web site, let alone think the thoughts we bring to it. Hence the law of conservation is easily observed.
// Given how the body parts transmute so nothing is wasted, it remains reasonable to suppose that the energetic component transmutes as well, without being lost. Unrecognizable, perhaps, as Paul indicates below — but not annihilated. That would indeed contravene a number of laws of physics.

Returning to Corliss Lamont, one of the other arguments that he made was that even in the Abrahamic religious traditions, there is the tacit assumption that a body is required for conscious existence. Hence, the doctrines concerning the resurrection of the dead that exist in all three of the major Abrahamic religions. Eastern religions likewise have their doctrines concerning reincarnation

// I've been content to agree with the theologists/spiritual philosophers who explain that this is a metaphor for the benefit of the many-headed, i.e., a handy lie; the inward self continues in a way that does have its own integrity, but re-inserting the energetic "self" into the physical body is not something that happens literally. It makes a useful concept for the bulk of the laity to work with, to reinforce the idea that they are going to be held responsible for what they do to themselves.
// (While I object to using religion as a form of terrorism, it _is_ an ancient form of crowd-control. In the times of short lifespans, societies were run by adolescents and post-adolescents; therefore, these kinds of down-to-earth metaphors could be very useful indeed.)
// Physical experience has no exact correlation in the nonphysical realm; therefore, certain kinds of understanding can only be reached by means of in-carn-ation -- allowing the spiritual/energetic/durable self to become embodied. This is one of the most basic theses in many traditions which consider both life and afterlife to be valid memes.
// It would be more accurate to speak, not of "conscious existence", but of incarnate life that's perceptible to itself. This leaves an obvious logical gap: What about perceiving non-incarnate "life", or un-embodied types of consciousness? That's a much more sophisticated question than, "is there continued existence after bodily death", and requires a degree of intellectual care on everyone's side.
// Why so much intellectual care? Partly because, to assume that spiritual life must be consistently observable only through a narrow spectrum of physical means, is to overlook one or two (or a million) basic realities of matter, energy, logic, and so on. And partly because, if spiritual theses can't be described in plain language, they probably need rethinking. Thus, both sides need to approach that question with consideration, care, and (ironically) good faith.

Paul J. G. says:
March 2, 2011 at 3:49 pm
So thought-provoking as always. You just can’t help yourself can you?

// obviously, I didn't even try to :)

Something cannot become nothing. What is it precisely that we want from an ‘afterlife’? What did the Star that went Supernova ‘want’? It probably wanted to keep being a Star. It could never have imagined its afterlife to be human cogitation, and Happy Meals, because it lacked the vision and imagination to see its new emergence as an afterlife. So maybe the Star thought it had no afterlife. I would disagree. Brian Swimme leads us down this road.

[...] What’s more, we don’t need to wait till some ‘final’ death (in the way we usually talk about death of a person as a person) to identify our many continuation bodies– the infinite ways that our life, energy, heat, thoughts, words, bodies, breath continue. Just because we are not sensitive enough to identify all of these continuation bodies, teaches Thich Nhat Hanh, does not mean they are not there. It just means that we fail to see. Hanh teaches this because the Buddha teaches that there is no annihilation.

I think there is no such thing as a final death– and that’s what is meant by afterlife: endless going on, eternal life. But, I agree with Charles Hartshorne who says, eternal life is not some eternal human career after death. To think that is an offense against the lavish exuberance of cosmic creativity. Human beings are not the end. Maybe we are merely embryos, or blastocysts, or zygotes of what is yet to come!

Isabel says:
March 2, 2011 at 9:52 pm
Well put, Paul. Yeah.

Further thoughts on stroke and brain injury ...

These are good examples of unprepared-for, unawarely-encountered changes in the brain state, and these are the kinds of conditions that most disrupt the mind. Without a chance to become aware of the interface between your mind and your brain, and without a chance to learn and practice the techniques that give you some conscious leverage over it, the damage that these injuries do to the mind – that energetic aspect of the self, the one that may or may not outlive your body – can be devastating indeed, because the injuries to the brain specifically disrupt your ability to understand and deal intelligently with that interface. The injuries that disrupt the personality are perhaps the most difficult to overcome, because access to your accustomed "self" is specifically disrupted.

Practical note: It's much easier to manage a well-hydrated brain. Drink more water.

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