The Origin, Evolution and Functions of the Human Mind
considering the Brain’s Neurophysiology, Biochemistry, and Cognitive Psychology
Emotions, Memory, Recognition, Visualizations
Thought, Creativity and Intelligence, Ethics, Personality, Art.
Consciousness, Free Will, “Soul”, Spirituality, Religion
012811b – 080212
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Content of this essay: “The Evolution and Function of the Human Mind”:
1. Origin of the Brain and Mind: A New Energy Cycle leads to Mobility, Sensors, Memory, and Signal Processing for Strategy Formation
2. Fundamental Capabilities Leading to the Human “Mind”: Emotions, Memory, Recognition, Visualizations
3. The Basic Functions: Thought Sequencing and Focusing, Creativity and Intelligence by combinatorial expansion or recognition, Ethics, Personality, Art
4. The Abstract or “virtual” Functions: Consciousness, Free Will, “Soul”, Spirituality, Religion
1. Origin of the Brain and Mind: A New Energy Cycle leads to Mobility, Sensors, and Signal Processing for Strategy Formation
Human mental capabilities or functions are understood and described by a variety of linguistic concepts. These concepts are the result of the human effort to arrive at an understanding of the esoteric nature of human mental existence. The great thinkers of ancient Greece and Rome distinguished three aspects of human existence – soul (psyche = breath, principle of life, anima), mind (noos or logos, which also means “knowing” and “word”), and body. The early Christian era emphasized the key concept of soul as the essence of human “transcendental” existence (beyond the physical one). With the Renaissance and, more so, with the Enlightenment, the concepts of reason and emotions moved to the foreground. In modern times, psychology and neurophysiology (combined with cognitive psychology) arrived at new understandings of human mental functions or characteristics. In our time, the concepts of “human spirit” or “human mind” are most commonly used and, decreasingly, still the concept of “soul”. When going into further detail, there are several more concepts describing the specific functions of the human spirit or mind, namely reason, emotions, morals, personality, character, values, art, and more.
The two concepts of “human spirit” and “human mind” are similar in meaning but not fully identical. In the French language, only the concept of “ésprit humain” is commonly used and in German only “der menschliche Geist”. But the Italian and Spanish languages both permit the common usage of “spirito/espiritu” or “mente”.
In the English/American usage, the concept of “spirit” is commonly used to represent the totality of an individual’s thought, emotions, character, and behavior, almost like a homunculus within the brain, very close to the traditional concept of the “soul” (a concept still very much in use among religious and spiritualistic groups, where it is often seen as the center of human sensation, cognition, and, mainly, personality). The concept of “mind” is commonly used to denote the mental consequences of the functioning of the brain – but more so the thought processes than the emotional aspects of mental existence.
In a contemporary scientific perspective, emphasis is placed on the connection between the structure and functioning of the brain and that of human mental existence. Therefore, and for reasons of simplicity, the following essay will use only the concept of “mind” to denote the full spectrum of human mental capabilities or brain functions – emotions, thought, recognition, visualizations, mental creativity, ethical thought or judgment, personality, artistic or aesthetic sensitivity, religious sensations or visions, and more.
Linear nerve pathways permit reflexive behavior (if you burn your fingers, your arm twitches and retracts the hand with that finger). A significant step in evolution occurred when a nerve began to act on another nerve. Two nerves with feedback to each other allow the formation of a “flip-flop” for “on-off” behavior with memory. More complex interconnections allow for complex memory and complex responses, leading evolution to form networks of nerves and, finally, brains.
Evolution brought the development of a variety of “neurotransmitter” substances for the biochemical signal transmission at contact points between various nerves. This variety of neurotransmitters, some of them specialized for different functions in the body and brain, allowed for differentiated physiological influences on body and brain functions – as by other biochemical substances produced by the body, for example in connection with emotions, as adrenalin or dopamine – or by food as coffee or alcoholic beverages.
Large accumulations of interconnected nerves appeared close to the output of the most important sensors – for fast response, increasingly influenced by signal recognition by memory. This, in turn, led to the formation of the complex brain of mammals. The expansion of the brain cortex, mainly in its frontal regions, led not only to greater memory. Of equal or even greater importance was the increase in interconnectivity and greater addressability of memory elements. Thereby, higher capabilities for mental creativity (intelligence) and strategy formulation – commensurate with a higher degree of consciousness – and also language skills appeared.
Certain midbrain functions specializing on the processing of emotions must have developed very early in the evolution of animals, thus allowing for the fast and economic summary assessment of situations for basic reactions as “fight or flight”. “Emotions” are the foundation of ethics and our human system of values that give structure, direction, meaning, and “value” to our lives.
The cerebellum, almost a second brain, evolved to assume routine motor coordination and controls – including those of skillful athletes, drivers, and musicians. It is quite a mystery how this second brain could have been developed and function so efficiently parallel to the main brain. It is, however, the foundation of “multitasking”, as the capability to walk and pay attention to the environment – or talk while driving .
A variety of sensors evolved, preferably in the vicinity of the existing nerve concentration (the brain), facilitating fast and skillful food search, efficient competition with other organisms, and warning of predators. This evolution continued to let organisms prevail in territorial dominance, mating, and predatory or defensive behavior.
Not only sensors, but also memory – an ever larger quantity of memory and complex memory access – became a competitive advantage for evolving organisms. This evolution was emulated in our time by the evolution of computers and global data systems (for example, the success of Google).
2. The Fundamental Capabilities leading to the Human “Mind”:
Emotions, Memory, Recognition, Visualizations
Four significant steps in natural evolution occurred sometime during the last few hundred million years in establishing the human mind and controlling human life:
- the appearance of emotions
- the capability for extensive and interconnected neural memory
- the appearance of the capability for recognition of new perceptions relative to memory
- most importantly, the capability for “visualizations” in thought, hence increasing inventiveness
These capabilities appeared in a minor way in the brains of animals, then largely expanded and structurally differentiated in humans. All of these capabilities became the foundation of human evolution in the progress of civilizations, in the formation of behavior including creativity and intelligence (as in the analytical and mathematical pursuit of the sciences and in engineering), ethics (as the foundation of society formation), personality expression, and art. These evolutionary steps led to consciousness, possibly free will, and spirituality, also to perceived or indoctrinated religion. All are described in some detail below.
These evolutionary steps opened new dimensions in our existence!
Computer hardware and design can be studied by a branch of physics. But is computer software a branch of physics? The new field of “computer sciences” covers the software area. Does the creation of computer music or art belong to the “computer sciences”? More to the point, is the study of the “mind” a part of neurophysiology or biochemistry – as in the study of emotions, thought, creativity, ethical values, personality, and the sensitivity for art? To some extent, the fields of psychology and, more specifically, “cognitive” psychology have assumed the position of sciences of the “mind”. But is psychology reduced to the study of neural signaling in the brain? Is “cognitive” the right term to cover all of what constitutes the human “mind”? Maybe there is a need for a new branch of science to study the human mind and its unique dimensions, but based on what we increasingly know about the brain and biochemistry.
Following are discussions of the specific dimensions of the human mind as mentioned above:
Emotions evolved as neural functions that go beyond simple reflexes (which lead from sensation directly to consequent muscle movement). In primitive organisms with small brains, the need to assess danger and to very quickly avoid risk – or the need to fight – may be counted as the most basic “emotions” (if one does not count hunger, pain, and others sensations as basic emotions).
As can easily be observed, fear or aggressiveness do not simply lead to resulting reflexive action but can exist and continue independent of muscle movement, as when the muscles or behavior are restrained. In that sense, emotions are the setting of general predispositions or moods leading to behavior patterns. As we know from ourselves, they may be felt in awareness as intensely as sensory perceptions.
Emotions led to the valuation of human life and behavior and to human ethical “values” (not to be confused with economic/commercial values). Our public debate and our concerns for society return again and again to the question of the proper ethical “values” for our culture.
The ethical emotions were generated and anchored by natural evolution in certain centers in animal and human brains. They can be differentiated into three different categories and are described in detail in a separate chapter below:
ü the caring for offspring
ü reciprocity in behavior with chosen partners (friends) – occurring only among social animals
ü self-sacrifice for the good of the pack.
While “ethics” became an important branch of philosophy, not enough has been researched about natural “counter-ethics”, as in seeking revenge or retribution (as by difficult to quantize “punishment”) and in the feeling of offended pride or honor requiring satisfaction. These important counter-ethical behavior patterns still cause extensive damage to individuals and in society. There also are the minor, but often in their importance exaggerated ethical symptoms of requiring to say “please”, “thank-you”, or, mainly, to express apologies.
In sum, the significance of emotions has varied through natural evolution and includes:
- The fast, summary assessment of situations at low “neural cost” (brain involvement)
- The rise of a variety of differentiated emotions – emotions coming in many flavors – including hunger, desire, love, joy, pride, sadness, aversion, loneliness, despair, and many more
- The “ethical” emotions as foundation of ethical “values”, often appearing at the base of religious doctrine, there prescribed for individuals and society – in family life, business, politics, and more – and the phenomena of counter-ethics.
- Emotions and values as controlling or guiding the functions or strategies of cultures and general life – making life worth living or miserable, indicating what course to pursue or what to judge as acceptable or unacceptable.
The emotions – originally a simplified neural control mechanism – were greatly developed in higher animals and humans to the new phenomena of love, joy, empathy, pride, happiness – constituting the greatest gifts in human existence -- or burdens, when implying sorrow, pain, fear, loneliness, despair, commiseration, sympathy with loved ones, hopelessness – or leading to destructiveness as in imperialistic warfare or revenge. All of these emotions constituted new dimensions in progressing evolution, but they are the ones that give direction and value to our lives – or are our burden.
A curious human emotion is humor.
Some psychologists and philosophers want all emotions to be reduced to only one basic emotion, the one of feeling good or bad, happy or unhappy. This reduces all subsequent behavior to an effort to maximize personal benefit in feeling good (having fun, as teenagers say), similar to “utility” in business theory. In this approach, emotions such as love, pride, compassion, and humor are all lumped into one – with also, for example, hate, sadness, or boredom. Such compression of the consideration of emotions may be practical for some summary discussions, but does not do justice to the diversity of existence, and it provides poor guidance in the multiplicity of situations in real life. It even becomes dangerous when confusing ethical behavior, altruism, and fairness with merely seeking of personal benefit in happiness or “fun”.
Emotions guide not only instant behavior, but also thought sequences in meditations – possibly leading to later consequences. This occurs through “value”-proportional formation of synaptic connections between memory neurons, leading to preferential associative thought sequencing as discussed later (see the essay “Creativity” on the website www.schwab-writings.com).
There is some indication that the intensity of a person’s emotions changes in the course of time – from youth to old age! Can this intensity be maintained or modified – bad emotions restrained and good ones augmented? Can we acquire wisdom and “a clean heart”?
Memory is based on basic memory units and their interconnections in the brain.
Memory can exist without neural networks, as in cellular transformation (for example, a tan) or predisposition for certain external stimuli, either genetically given or acquired (imprinted).
A very important step in evolution occurred with the storage of sensory perceptions (and associated emotions) in groups of interconnected neurons (through formation of “synaptic” neural nerve endings forming couplings between nerves of varying permanence). Neural memory must be seen as the first step in the evolution of the brain and the evolution of mental capabilities.
The advantage of neural memory became apparent once the oxygen based energy cycle for organisms had occurred. Consequently, organisms had to search for organic food to “burn”. This required mobility and led to intense competition. The memory of prior sensory stimuli and their valuation given by their consequences allowed for the acquisition of experience and led to a higher success rate, whether in the search of suitable food or mates – or in conflict with competing or predatory organisms.
Most sensory perceptions utilize a large number of neurons for identification and retention of essential perception elements – but the less the better (how many memory elements in the brain are needed for a wild animal to recognize a certain predator?). This led to an ever-increasing demand for memory in the brain. Obviously, this required selectivity in acquiring memory inputs. After all, we are surrounded by, and our sensors perceive, millions of impressions all the time, most of which we do not bring to awareness or memory (the latter possibly following from the former).
The selectivity for memory input must be on the basis of significance of the perception element, a form of valuation. One should expect that the coincidence of a perception with a certain positive or negative valuation led to memorizing. The mechanism could have been a signal increase (increased firing rate of the neurons carrying the perception) upon strong valuation – leading to memorization. In the human brain, valuation is contributed by the Amygdala nucleus and some other brain nuclei (if not by signal amplitude). Memorization is guided by the Hippocampus nucleus of the brain.
This is an example of the co-activation of the analog-signaling capability of the brain (analog firing rate corresponding to valuation) with the discrete (digital) signaling in establishing synaptic formations (the individual memory pattern). Thereby, the brain becomes a combined analog and digital computer!
Human memory evolved to include much more than only sensory perceptions. It allowed memory of emotions (as in valuation of perceptions), memory of mental “visualizations” (elements of own thought) as explained later, also of verbal concepts (including the “inner voice” as explained later), of mathematical symbols, of space, and, quite mysteriously, of time or time increments. This let memory become the base for thought and consciousness, as explained later.
Memory, at least that of higher animals and humans, is symbolic, categorical, and hierarchical as explained in the following paragraphs.
As indicated, a fully detailed description of most perceptions would require extremely large amounts of data. Memory is limited and, consequently, must be reduced to the memorization of the essential elements of perceptions. This leads to the amazing capability of “symbolic” memory, (consequently also to symbolic visualization and symbolic thought, as discussed later), a fundamental and most important break-through in evolution. Without this “data compression” capability, practical amounts of memory and thought could not have developed. For example, what is a lion, since all lions are different from each other in appearance and possibly also in sound and smell? Yet, all lions must be readily recognized by their prey – in differentiation from other, not-dangerous animals. Symbolic presentation is somewhat related to the recognition of Aristotelian “ideals”.
Words are symbolic presentations – thereby becoming important to individuals and cultures as expressions of their inner substance. Is all of mathematics a handling of symbolic concepts?
All types of prey, or predators, or potential mates had to be recognized as such from memory in a “categorical” manner, as individuals belonging to that category – allowing the more efficient structuring, simplifying, and handling of memory and thought. As a matter of fact, the tendency of all human thought (and, more importantly, judgment) to be categorical may be very efficient, but may also result in severe deficiencies in judgment – as in prejudices against races or individuals!
The “hierarchical” structure of memory is an amazing capability, resulting in corresponding substantial efficiencies and large steps in associative sequences for thought. For example, a family pet named “Spot” may be associated with different hierarchical levels of perception – as a Terrier, a dog, a mammal, an animal, a living being – yet, retained in memory only as “Spot”. What is in memory a family, a nation, or a “democracy”. How is a letter recognized also as part of an alphabet – or a symbol of physics as a vital part of an equation, such as “e=mc2”?
When a new perception is very similar to an earlier memorized perception, this similarity is “recognized” by the mind. Such recognition is extremely important for the conduct of practical life – whether in the recognition of opportunities (as for food) or dangers (as predators).
Experiments could or should be made to explain what similarities between perceptions lead to the recognition of identity – as when walking against a stream of people and suddenly recognizing a friend – or in evaluating a multitude of measurements and suddenly seeing a significant pattern.
The comparison of new sensory perceptions with already existing memory requires the neural matching of the defining elements of the new perceptions with the memorized perceptions – leading to consequent neural activation when such matches were found. This can be accomplished when new perceptions follow the same neural pathways that had established the prior memory (see the extensive research having recently been done in the “mapping” of the brain). Coincidences lead to recognition. “Recognition” could have occurred through simple increase in neural activity (firing rate) of the new or the matching memorized perception, thereby causing awareness (foreground presence in the mind). Such coupling could also lead to warning or attracting emotions (and consequently developed valuations, as by the Amygdala nucleus in the brain). Thereby, it could lead to suitable behavior – as in feeding, mating, fleeing, or fighting.
The concept of “visualization” is used in this essay to describe the appearance in the mind of images, sounds, verbal or mathematical or other symbolic concepts, tastes, fragrances, or tactile sensations independent of sensory perception. In other words, the mind can present the images of objects or any of their characteristics – for example, we can visualize a flower or the face of another person – without that object being present. A writer can search for and have a verbal concept in his mind. A mathematician can handle complex equations of mathematical symbols in his mind. An advertising agent – or a preacher – can handle the symbolic significance of images or words. A musician can have in his mind a sound, harmony, or melody without any musical instrument actually being played – as every composer or musician knows.
In a neurophysiologic sense, a visualization occurs when the group of neurons required for an element of memory is activated and remains active – even beyond the duration or independent of such initial activation from outside. Such activation may occur not only through new perceptions but also through the synaptic linkage to neurons related to other memory elements as in thought sequences. Hunger can lead to the visualization of food, fear to the visualization of enemies, the mentioning of a town to the visualization of a person living there, et cetera. Visualizations can be not only static, like a slide show; they also can be dynamic, like a video show in the mind.
In the case of sequences of verbal concepts, this leads to the thought phenomenon of the “inner voice”, as if thoughts were expressed in the mind by the mind’s talking, see later discussion. Sequences of acoustic harmony “visualizations” may result in the “visualization” of melodies.
The most important step in the evolution of the mind – and consequent much later evolution of human civilization and culture – occurred when the brain became capable of the presentation of visualizations and their associative sequencing – while, most importantly, still differentiating in consciousness between mere visualizations and actual perceptions.
When this differentiation between visualization and actual perception is lacking, as in some forms of schizophrenia or hallucinations, thought patterns and behavior can become unrealistic. Examples are the origin of certain religions from the visualization of divine messengers taken for real – or the acceptance of some visualized divine orders – with not always positive consequences. Such situations are especially dangerous when the assumed divine origin of the visualization does not allow for ever being changed, even not partially! This has always rendered the position of religious leaders or priests as especially dangerous to society (Aztecs, Baal cult, and several more modern or still present religions)!
3. Basic Functions: Thought Sequencing and Focusing, Creativity and Intelligence by combinatorial expansion or recognition, Ethics, Personality, Art
The phenomenon of thought is discussed in detail in the two essays on “Mental Creativity” in the “Brain-Mind” section of the website www.schwab-writings.com.
Thought is the appearance of sequences of virtual, perception-like effects in the mind – whether of visual, acoustic, or other types. Thought permits the formulation of mental theories, strategies, or of product improvements. Thereby, the capability for thought became the most significant step in the formation of human civilizations and the evolution of practical progress.
It is typical for many neurons that they fire only for a limited period of time, as if tiring after that. As the firing of one active memory unit in the brain fades within a fraction a second or less, a next one, possibly the one with the strongest associative synaptic linkages to the previous one, begins firing. This establishes a sequence along the line of the strongest association – resulting in an associative thought sequence. This selection of the strongest associative link in thought sequencing is somewhat similar to Darwinian selectivity in the progress of the fittest.
If there are many memory elements, as in the human brain, all other memory element but the one addressed or preferably linked must be inhibited or kept from firing. This can be done by inhibiting neural cross-connections (bus connections in the white matter of the brain) as existing in the retina of the eye and the skin to improve the perception of motion or differences (spots or edges).
The “speed” of thought sequencing is given by neural characteristics – and may vary.
The strength of the associative link between memory elements – and, consequently, the direction of the thought sequence, is provided by several factors, principally by the emotional or biological value (as experienced poison, danger, or joy) of the stored memory element (provided via the amygdala and other brain nuclei), by the habitual usage of that link, and by the perceived value of the consequences of the train of visualizations.
Any new signal perception with high signal strength (for example, the ringing of a telephone) can interrupt the thought sequence through neural inhibition.
All of the above results in the mysterious capability for “thought” – to move in a virtual world, to simulate, and to project new objects or alternative developments – or mathematical symbols with their implied meaning – or art.
The combination of emotions and thought (based on memory and visualizations) can be seen as the appearance of “mind” among advanced animals..
Do animals think? Dogs can be observed dreaming – indicating visualization sequences – consequently indicating the capability for thought. Predators can develop hunting strategies – consequently they are capable of thought.
The question arrives, why is there always only one foreground thought at a time even though there are two halves of the brain, with limited connection between them, allowing only for limited inhibition of memory activation sequences between the two halves. In a mentally active state, the left (analytical) half of the brain usually prevails in awareness, while in rest the right half (more image and emotional related) prevails – leading to unique inventiveness in rest (as reported by great thinkers and scientists). The Cerebellum is capable of independent thought sequencing in automated behavior, as driving a car while talking.
Thought in association with verbal concepts is very common among individuals dedicated to speech or writing and appears as the “inner voice”. It may actually be a secondary phenomenon, with verbal formulation merely following the preceding perceptual thought (see some cases of mental creativity, verbal aggression and defense in debate, or some newer experiments related to the subject of “free will”). The inner voice may actually be a nuisance, whether as the tempting “voice of the devil” or in not letting the mind rest – but is the key capability of poets and writers.
The great importance of speech for human mental evolution results from the fact that the evolution of speech recognition and formulation led to the evolution of more complex concepts and systems of thought. Especially we humans developed a wide hierarchy of words, much beyond the capabilities of animals, substantially contributing to cultural progress. Simple words are descriptive of single actions or objects (walk, sit, chair, or table). But more advanced words are summary designations of complex sequences or of groups of objects (for example, furniture, voting, inventing, molecules, Americans). The most advanced words comprise the visualization or communication of complex thought patterns or interpretations of existence (for example, politics, research, religion, relativity theory). The use of such word concepts allowed for the very much faster progression and communication of thought, a deeper understanding of existence, and need for less memory.
Given the importance of language for human thought and cultural evolution, it is interesting to note that word concepts, not having any intrinsic invariable substance, have no unique value, varying widely from language to language and in time. Words do not only vary in sounds between different languages, but also in the fine nuances of coverage area of meaning, leaving some words not-translatable or becoming very practical new words in other languages. Since different cultures are sometimes distinguished by a different spectrum of emotions, their language becomes a distinct expression of this emotionality and, consequently is appreciated and guarded.
Mathematical thought, possibly not different from any other symbolic thought, became of high importance as modern science discovered that nature can be understood in mathematical terms, with mathematical expressions being independent of language or cultures – as a universal “language” to communicate universally (as the “language of Creation”).
A specific aspect of thought is the fact that only certain connections of visualizations are acceptable, that there is some “recognition of “truth”, some following of logic. This gave rise to the mental occupation of “philosophy”.
Equally important is the thought capability of differentiating between actual perceptions and (only) visualizations – between reality and dreams, between the actual surroundings and a TV-show – but being able to widely span space and time, far beyond our own existence. Pathological failure of these capabilities is readily recognized and dangerous, as indicated before.
The mental stimulation by a given task or the nuisance of an unresolved problem is memorized in the brain – most likely by means of the Hypocampus. It is postulated that this brain center, also regulating memory fixation, provides preference to thought associations related to the given task or problem, thereby forming a thought focus (see the essays on mental creativity on the website www.schwab-writings.com). The focus-related association preference may be accomplished through improved firing rate in those synaptic connections.
Without such thought sequence focusing, systematic mental work would be impossible due to the wandering of the mind in aimless thought. All human efficient life and progress in time depends upon this thought focusing capability – as teachers in school know very well.
Creativity is the capability of the mind to arrive at new concepts of thought, strategies, practical improvements, or problem solving. Creativity results from two different mental processes:
Firstly, creativity results systematically, from the combinatorial linking of memory elements or thought elements to form new, often more complex concepts – beginning with the skill for fire-making (possibly more than 1.5 million years ago) to tool and weapon usage, technical and agricultural innovation (as irrigation), building of empires, development of philosophical or religious systems of thought – or the invention of Coca Cola and the writing of this essay.
Secondly, creativity results from the “recognition” of solutions to problems in new perceptions or in pattern recognition within a multitude of test results or observations.
There are various forms of creativity and different steps in the progression of creativity. Distinction shall be made between practical creativity leading to new objects or concepts and artistic creativity leading to new sensations or emotional responses. One can also distinguish various levels of creativity, from the smallest steps in detail to new holistic, large-step insights or improvements – giving rise to distinction between different levels of “intelligence” or “wisdom”.
Practical creativity can go through various steps:
- Asking the right questions (the wording of the question often predetermines the final answer)
- Initiation of the right search or the invention of a suitable experiment
- Pattern recognition among multiple observations or results
- Finding or defining new mental concepts or practical structures
- Building a new or expanded system of thought, perceptions, or construction
Once an innovative thought has been discovered, the permutation of the various thought steps with similar thoughts can lead to new innovations.
Seagulls learn to break clam shells by lifting the clams to a certain altitude and dropping them on rocks. Apes learn to extract insects from hiding by means of small sticks and to use stones as breaking tools. The domination of fire may have been the most important step in early ingenuity and, specifically, in human creativity . Thus, the recognition and remembering of successful experiences for later repetition, the building of experience, may have been the beginning of creativity.
A significant factor in human life’s success or progress is the recognition of opportunities (as they occur in most lives from time to time). Equally important is the mobilization of initiative for their proper utilization of opportunities, and the pursuit of the next one, leading to a culture of innovation, as in the West.
As indicated above, the process of mental creativity is either “combinatorial”, consisting of combining existing memory elements or systems of thought with new perceptions or pattern recognition in observations or test results (see the two essays on mental creativity on the website “ www.schwab-writings.com”) – reminiscent of the original evolution of existence. Consequently, a greater volume, variety, or wider addressability of available memory elements – the expansion of memory and also of the interconnectivity of memory elements – leads to a higher level of creativity.
In teamwork, additional creativity is accomplished by the contribution by members of different educational background. Equally, new entrants to an established field or the entry of an individual into a new field of enquiry can contribute to new creativity. Initial usage of vaguely defined objectives or words leads to more associations and, possibly, higher creativity!
Innovation strongly depends upon an attitude of seeking and accepting innovation with self confidence – personally and within a supporting culture. The awarding of patent rights or the awarding of coveted Nobel prizes are important expressions of our “innovative” culture in the West.
Human creativity during human evolution was halting at first,. But creativity became increasingly appreciated, especially in Western societies, and progressed more rapidly in our time – leading to an overtaking of natural evolution, as in the genetic modification of plants and animals.
Basic ethical behavior – to be defined as behavior for the benefit of other individuals, even at one’s own expense – is genetically anchored by nature in consequence of selection for the benefit of prevailing in a harsh and competitive world – or, more importantly, among social animals, for the benefit of prevailing by means of group cohesion and efficiency in coordinated group action Ethical behavior is maintained by the natural reward in emotions of harmony or warm “love” (the Greek “agape”).
Natural ethical behavior – genetically anchored – can be observed in three ways:
- Caring for offspring and those close of kin, more intergenerationally forward directed and diminishing with genetic distance – leading to wonderful family coherence and, when largely extended, to social balance and support in society – but also to problems of “Cosa Nostra” duality of split morality between members of one’s own group and outsiders. Ethical behavior within groups may have resulted from delayed maturation of some species with multiple offspring growing up in common nests or dens (e.g. wolves).
- Occurring among social animals: individual reciprocity (as in congregating, mutual grooming, sharing of food, and assistance in fighting) – with the negative consequence in revenge for failed reciprocity or for cheating – leading to high values in friendship, to networking in business, and, ideally, to Christian love (“agape”) for other human beings – but also to problems of personal and tribal revenge behavior (including punishment). Furthermore, there are the effects of “honor” and “vengeance” for “satisfaction”. Special effects: “Please”, “thank-you”, demanded apologies.
- Sacrifice of own benefit, security, and even life for the benefit of the pack (as when the male animals fight approaching predators to let the female animals with their young gain safety) – leading to public service engagement for the benefit of society, military service, and taxation – but also to nationalistic extremes with negative consequences.
In sum, the origin, evolution, and function of societies and the accomplishments of civilizations or cultures are largely based on healthy and balanced ethical emotions and behavior among the members.
These natural ethical emotions are the foundation for the judgment of morally “good” or “bad” (often supported by religions as they evolved and made this a center of their teaching and power) and for the emotions of “pride” or “guilt”, as related to “conscience”, for the feeling of moral self-esteem, and for communal acceptance.
There are individual variations (and variations with age) in emotional intensity. There are pathological imbalances and deviations in ethical emotions and moral judgment.
All “ethical” behavior is associated with some degree of learning – beginning with the recognition which in a crowd of youngsters is the own offspring, sibling, or parent – and decreasing with genetic distance. Most learning results from selective observation (see, for example, great loves and those ending in divorce).
The development of more differentiated emotions and thought led to the appearance of ethical judgment beyond the genetically given, ultimately to the complex phenomena of cultural development in societies. This occurs through inclusion of an ever-wider range of individuals in the caring, reciprocity, and personal sacrifice sphere (including charitable aid to the most remote parts of the world). It also occurs in applying ethical behavior to more complex situations – ultimately leading to ethical values for family life, social coherence (civil rights), the conduct of business, politics, international relations, and more – even to the protection of wildlife and the environment.
Moral laws of acceptable social behavior, ultimately anchored in natural human needs but then historically becoming anchored in religious teaching or clan culture, evolved through human history. The first written records of “moral” laws are from Urukagina, King of Lagash, in Mesopotamia, also called Uru’inimgina, approximately 2,380 bc, establishing laws against abuse of the poor by the once powerful priests and presenting himself as the protector of the weak, the widows, and orphans. not too much later, certain writings with “moral” teachings appeared in Egypt. Then, a wave of religious and moral teachings went through mankind around 700 to 500 BC, with the appearance of Buddha, Lao-Tse, Confucius, and the composition of the Bible, including the emphasis on morals by Isaiah (about 750 – 700 BC). A new wave of moral teaching appeared with some Greek philosophers (Aristotle and the Stoic philosophy) and, mainly, with Jesus. Should one add in later times St. Francis of Assisi, Gandhi, Mandela, and others?
In our time, moral laws are increasingly determined by public law based on the same general and natural human needs – for security, fairness, freedom, and opportunity – including the punishment of the violators, free-loaders, and cheaters. Punishment can be seen as an expression of natural revenge emotions (or for a deterrent effect), or to isolate the incurably dangerous ones.
Modern public laws of behavior go far beyond the old religious moral laws – with differences in laws resulting from differences in emphasis between different cultures – as for security, protection of property, equal standing of women, balancing of individual interests, protection against misleading behavior, restraint in reciprocal “vengeance”, judgment and treatment of criminals, fairness in offering opportunities, and assistance to the needy.
The evolution of ethical values goes hand in hand with the evolution of modern societies – or the deplorable lack thereof in several parts of the world.
Still, there are two directions for moral laws – either the satisfaction of emotional needs or some utilitarian considerations (as their usefulness, their rendering of benefit). Religious laws are somewhere in between, having originated from utility (the Ten Commandments, not containing any law about charity), but having been expanded by rather emotion-based Christian morality.
There also are two distinct attitudes concerning the acts of morality: either of each step in the behavior (process ethics) or through the justification of acts by their moral final purpose (result ethics). Great conflicts can consist between the two and damage caused – in private life and in war (as in large-scale bombing of cities).
Finally, there is the difference between moral decision making such that the result brings most benefit for most people (maximizing of result) versus the ethical protection of each individual (civil human rights). During wars, especially also during WWII, horrible crimes were committed against large numbers of innocents in order to improve or accelerate the wars’ results for all.
The preference for one or the other of the above alternative approaches to morality is mostly not a black-and-white question as in extreme cases, but one of degree in gray-zones of decision making in daily life. In other words, observation of what is going on in society leads to the conclusion that the resolution of splits in morality – emotion vs. utility, process vs. result, and benefit for the most vs. personal protection ethics – depends upon the quantitative weight and urgency of the situations. For example, each individual in our modern society is protected in its basic rights. Lately, however, after 9/11, various governments decided to have their air forces shoot down civilian airplanes full of innocent people if a terrorist on board threatens to use the plane as a tool of attack against the center of a city.
An attempt is under way to let all moral laws of various religious or ethnic origin evolve into a “global” set of moral laws (see, for example, Hans Küng’s writings and proposals that were discussed at the United Nations). To arrive at such a global set of laws, one would need a globally accepted view of the future world, easy to define in the coverage of basic needs, but more difficult to define in higher goals and ambitions (for example, must the rich support the cure of self-inflicted addictive needs of the poor, does everybody have the right to unlimited propagation, are local natural resources for the benefit of local populations only, what migration is permissible – not to speak about divorce, abortion, and the human rights of various so-called “deviants” – and the consideration of the commonly occurring “unintended consequences”?).
Ethics is also the subject of the rather verbose and involved field of moral philosophy – from Plato and Aristotle to the great teachers of various religions, the thinkers of enlightenment (for example, regarding the question of hypothetical vs. categorical imperatives [Hume vs. Kant]), to modern thinkers – with new contradictions among them appearing all the time (for example, in the old question whether morality is, ultimately, only selfish [Hobbes vs. Feinberg, Gauthier]). “Metaethics” attempts to provide a better definition and understanding of the terms used in the discussion of morality and attempts to distinguish between rational and emotional aspects of moral thought. Normative ethics attempts to provide prescriptive basic rules for moral behavior. Applied ethics is concerned with the analysis of practical ethical behavior. Being part of the wider field of philosophy, moral philosophy attempts to use rationality (for example, in the application of the “prisoner’s dilemma” to mutual disarmament). This leads into problems when discussing the emotionality of so much of morality. While addressing some major questions, moral philosophy is not very suitable to decide daily conflicts between contradictory moral demands (for example, between family and public or charitable demands – and self-realization). Debates among moral philosophers are often reduced to emotionally weighing their skillfully worded but contradictory intellectual arguments.
Modern thought and analysis of moral emotionality and behavior is largely related to analyzing the functioning of the human mind – consequently to the functioning of the brain and biochemistry. Therefore, there should be a new field of “neuro-moral-philosophy” to analyze the old questions of ethics in a new light and understanding. More realistic findings could be expected.
Differentiation between individuals of the same species is a basic tool of evolution when used for the subsequent prevailing of the fittest. Among humans, such individuality is significant in self-esteem and in finding purpose or direction in life. More importantly, personality influences thought, behavior, consciousness, “free will”, and spirituality – and practical success in life.
Is the “personality” (the thought, value, and behavior pattern) of an individual a nature-given constant? Is there an evolution of personality – for individuals or for societies? One should consider the stability, variability, and also the multiplicity of expressions of individual personality (see the essay on “Personality” on the website www.schwab-writings.com in the “Brain-Mind” section).
Personality – the behavior pattern and even the thought and value pattern of an individual – is considered stable and characteristic for a given individual. But this assumption is not comprehensively correct.
- Personality varies somewhat with age (especially during adolescence and in advanced age).
- Personality varies quickly but only temporarily in consequence of biochemical effects (drugs, alcohol, certain foods or gases)
- Personality may be changed or supported by cultural influence, but only for as long as being immersed in or supported by that culture (as by being a member of the military, of a monastery, of a “congregation”, or of an ideological party)
- Personality can change instantly under the influence of situations – in reaction to irritation, success, or catastrophes
- Personality can change with own thought, as in role-playing, following role models, or in consequence of own determination
- Personality can change in consequence of accidents, brain tumors, and diseases
Brain physiology establishes the strength of signal projections between various mid-brain nuclei and the strategy-formulating forebrain – or the lack of such signal strength, possibly in consequence of birth defects, accidents (see the famous Gage case), or medical afflictions.
The biochemical functioning or sensitivity of the body can be equally variable, as demonstrated by degenerative diseases, as, for example, Parkinson’s. More so, the introduction of biochemically active products into the human body can vary behavior patterns and, consequently, “personality”. For example, a cup of coffee in the morning renders a person perkier, sedatives more tranquil. Too much alcohol or addictive drugs can have devastating behavioral influences. Medicines are available to correct some medical, behavioral, or mood problems.
Perception of the environment can result in changes of valuations of mental associations and can bring about biochemical changes in the body (for example, during phases of rage!).
Adaptation to the surrounding culture is widespread and leads to the regional or national character of populations. It also leads prescriptively to community formation as in selective schools (in a positive and in a negative meaning), congregations, monasteries, or the military.
Learning and indoctrination in religious or ideological institutions can lead to variations in the acceptability of behavior and to the stimulation or restraint of behavior.
Reaction to momentary situations demonstrates the multiplicity of potential personality expressions for each individual.
This variability indicates the possibility for induced or controlled personality change by means of setting the right circumstances for the desired personality expressions – an often overlooked but exceptionally important approach to influencing personality or personality-expression modification, whether in personal development (children), in personal relations (marriage and friendship), in business relations, in communities, or in international relations.
Own thought can have substantial influence on behavior stimulation or restraint. It can lead to the following of role models or to role-playing – another form of multiplicity of personality expressions.
This indicates a degree of personal responsibility for one’s own character as given by the chosen personality expression.
Considering the large amount of resources individuals, families, and communities spend for art – in their homes, on public spaces, in the form of museums and theaters, in the often expensive architectural design of buildings, or in the time spent admiring art and reading fiction or poetry – one must see art as an especially important accomplishment of human evolution. For a more detailed discussion, see the essay on “Aesthetics, Art, and Culture” in the section “Brain-Mind” on the website www.schwab-writings.com.
There appear to be four different foundations of art as defined in our time:
- Aesthetic sensitivity
- Emotional stimulation or communication (affection)
- Attention-getting (including advocacy)
- Focusing on detail
Aesthetic sensitivity, mysterious as it is, is sometimes related to simple physical correlations – as in musical harmonics being related to even multiples of resonating lengths – see the work by Pythagoras, who exalted his findings into religious teachings. The ideal proportions of ancient buildings offer another example. Still, the basic sensitivity for aesthetics appears to be genetically provided and a common gift of nature to mankind (and to a few animals, even some birds!). Simple decorations appear on all primitive pottery in the history of mankind. All primitive cultures developed music, melodic and rhythmic – and possibly dance. The enjoyment of fragrances, tastes, tactile sensations (for example, the preference of silk over cotton) can be found in all cultures at all times.
Emotional stimulation (affection) or communication is mostly accomplished through symbolic presentation – the image of a great leader, the statue of a god, the picture of a hero or saint – and, in “romantic” periods, images of beautiful scenery or of familiar settings. Stimulation can be negative – battle scenes, pictures of disasters. Music often stimulates emotions – joyful ones, religious or sentimental ones, and longing or negative ones.
Use and abuse of the affective functioning of art occurs in politics, in ideological groups, in advocacy, and in commerce (marketing) through attention-getting, emotional formation, and attention-focusing. The arousal of positive feelings of attraction by art is channeled toward the issue to be propagated. The most common is the attempt to associate youthful beauty and attractiveness with the respective issue. On the other hand, technical aesthetics (e.g., the shape of a modern airplane), while being attractive, cannot be equated with being emotionally “good” or “bad”.
Modern art increasingly uses attention-getting effects, independent of aesthetics. Such effects are too often admitted as art, even the most exotic ones – and are readily exploited in marketing or advocacy.
Focusing on detail can bring aesthetic, emotional, or intellectual responses and, thereby, become a method with which to produce “art”. This is effective, since our life is over-flooded with sensory inputs – far beyond what we can become “aware” of – and since modern art has opened the door to almost anything that includes either an aesthetic or an emotional effect – with positive or negative value. The concentration on almost any detail of, mainly, visual perception can lead to the observation of aesthetic, emotional, or attention-getting reactions. Just select a detail of observation, for example the last small leaves at the end of a twig or a small patch of grass, frame it or set it on a pedestal, and it is accepted as art – and may be interesting, if not enjoyable.
4. The Abstract or “virtual” Functions: Consciousness, Free Will, “Soul”, Spirituality, Religion
Some phenomena of the human mind appeared in evolution as emerging characteristics of humans and, therefore, as new dimensions in existence. On account of their virtual nature, they became concerns of philosophy, for example, consciousness and free will. Beyond that, there appeared in evolution the new phenomena of human spirituality and the appearance and evolution of numerous religions with their concept of the “soul”. In the dialogue with progressing science, the question arises, whether these phenomena are real or just “virtual” phenomena of the mind?
A meaningful discussion of this subject requires agreement on concept definitions. In this essay, consciousness shall be defined as the knowing of oneself as a person and of the surrounding world in space and time – and the resulting capability to reflect upon both within the limits of thought capability. This definition, while commonly prevalent, is not always followed in the very wide discussion of consciousness through the centuries. For many philosophers, there is often no clear distinction between momentary “awareness” – as of sensory perceptions or thought – and basic “consciousness” as defined above. As in the case of so many philosophical concepts, one can easily get lost in discussions of semantics and word definitions. Science has not sharply defined the concept of consciousness either, with different scientist using different definitions.
Specifically, “awareness” is a concept different from consciousness and should be used only for the foreground presence of specific mental focus – as a worm beginning to wriggle when being poked with a stick or an animal suddenly becoming “aware” of a predator or hunter – or we being aware of a specific foreground phase of thought or actual perception.
The human mind can present only one focus or one thought in awareness at any one time – even though multitasking is possible by means of subconscious thought, fast awareness-switching , or use of the cerebellum part of the brain. Awareness must be analyzed in neurological terms. The neural explanation of awareness – mainly of visual perceptions – has been well presented Christof Koch in his book The Quest for Consciousness (Roberts & Co., 2004, ISBN 0-9747077-0-8) – even though confusingly equated with “consciousness”.
Awareness is already given when sensory input leads to a muscular reflex, as in primitive organisms. Awareness becomes more complex when it leads to the call-up of memory and, more so, when memory elements lead to competition in consequent behavior selection or when trains of “thought” are stimulated in the human brain. At that point, awareness flows into consciousness, especially when leading to new memory.
“Consciousness”, discussed for some time by philosophers and more recently by scientists, is a somewhat fuzzy concept. It is generally understood to be a holistic concept for the capability to be aware – when and if focusing on this subject – of oneself and the surrounding world in space and time . There is also the concept of the “subconscious”, the momentary or continued mental activity that does not reach awareness – as when driving along a familiar road. When a subconscious thought reaches awareness (possibly through subconscious recognition of its importance and consequent increase in neural firing rate), it is considered an “intuition”.
For many philosophers and for some scientists, “consciousness” is the most mysterious essence of being human. In general and for scientists, it is very surprising that consciousness can be explained simply as a virtual effect resulting from the capability for memory recall of past sensory perceptions, visualizations, or past own thought within the concepts of time and space – thereby allowing us to gloriously transcend our individual existence. This can include all kinds of memory – visual, musical, or other.
Therefore, it is posited hereby that a certain amount of memory of past sensory perceptions, past visualizations, and past own thought – in their full coverage in space and time – is necessary and sufficient for a resulting amount of “consciousness”, as defined above, to occur.
As indicated earlier, memory elements in the brain are synaptically interconnected, providing for associative linkage in thought. If a primitive person has seen only one chair before in a hut, then the concept of “chair” will be mentally connected only to the hut and possible events that occurred surrounding the chair. But when another person is a professional designer of airplane seats, then the concept of “chair” may have a much wider variety of associations, from materials used to applications and experiences with that product – rendering a much greater addressability of the concept “chair” by means of such synaptic connectivity – and rendering that person’s “consciousness” that much wider and more complex.
In sum, consciousness is as developed as:
- the quantity and refinement of memory (to also include, for example, elements of emotions, verbal concepts, and timing)
- the addressability or connectivity (the complexity) of all memory.
Is consciousness restricted to humans? Every dog that scratches where it itches (and stops chasing its own tail) is aware of itself. Every predator with a strategy for capturing prey is aware of the surrounding world.
A definition of free will should be at the beginning of any discussion of this subject but usually is lacking – because it is difficult to arrive at and agree upon it. One may have to distinguish “free will” from predictability of behavior. More importantly, one may also have to ask how a person with a “free” will would decide differently from a person who lacks “free will”. Is unrestrained expression of personal preferences equal to free will? Do moral and public laws establish restraints on free will? Does lack of physical or mental capabilities or lack of knowledge – factual or cultural – form a restraint on free will?
The answers come easy in extreme cases (black-and-white discussions), but are more difficult to find in gray-zone cases. People do not generally jump from bridges. In that sense, they are predictable. But that does not mean they lack free will. They just do what they deem best. Addicts need drugs to satisfy their addiction. Do addictions render people totally un-free? Or do addicted individuals also only do what they deem best for themselves? In general, decisions are made based on one’s natural constitution or on what one has learned, experienced, or is expected to do within one’s culture.
There can be various perspectives in the discussion of free will:
- Determinism: Neural determinism including brain structure and signal timing effects
- Qantum mechanical effects in the brain, rendering expressions of will as a phenomena of Chaos Theory.
- Unpredictability occurs also on account of complex feedback phenomena in the brain
- Free will in the sense of a fully independent will, defined as being independent of the will of other individuals (for example, political or religious dominance)
- Free will as an expression of personality and selection of personal preferences. How else would an un-free will decide?
- Newer insight into decision-making processes as found in economic theories.
Determinism is the strongest argument against free will, indicating that preconditions invariably determine outcome. Mental determinism can be seen on the physical level – the neurophysiological level – or on the psychological level – the learning and environmental level.
Decisions are made by brain processes. They follow synaptic connections and biochemical conditions. In sum, there is a neurological aspect of free will and determinism. The old philosophy of determinism in the physical world (for example, by Laplace) was dissolved by the random effects of probability of quantum mechanics and by the unpredictability indicated by Chaos Theory. The study of the brain (see above) indicates a vast amount of deterministic causality of all neural effects. But the study of the brain also indicates vast areas of unpredictability of synaptic expressions and signal timing – and the effect of personal preferences on neural synaptic strength formation due to personal valuations – and, consequently, on subsequent thought and decisions. This leads back to the statement that free will becomes the expression of individual personality and personal preferences – some given by nature, some acquired inadvertently, some resulting from personal deliberation. This may render a person’s decisions predictable, yet remaining the expression of a free will.
The newest experiments with decision making in the brain indicate a “subconscious” brain activity preceding the conscious decision . This is seen by some philosophers and scientists as an indication of determinism of will under the influence of neural brain functions. There may be a problem with the interpretation of this finding as determinism. Subconscious thought is a form of “thought”, after all – see the two essays about mental creativity on the website www.schwab-writings.com. Subsequent and “aware” thought follows associative sequences in the brain, then leading to verbal explanations – sometimes to “a-posteriori” verbal justifications. It is often this subsequent verbal awareness that remains remembered as the decision point. The original and subconscious thought still was the expression of that person.
Limits in decision-making result from limitations of knowledge and personality strength or weaknesses – for the latter, including the influence of the environment and culture, see the essay on personality on the website www.schwab-writings.com. In sum, expressions of will result from the sum of what was genetically given and what was learned. This allows for some predictability. It also leads to mitigating considerations in judging other people, specifically in criminal justice, and to approaches for the treatment of people, whether they are considered normal or not (“challenged”).
How would a person with a “free” will ever decide differently from a person lacking “free will”? Would not either strive to express himself or herself? In other words, why should a “free” person want to be somebody different?
Actors can play roles. Most people can assume different personality traits under different circumstances. Decisions can be changed in consequence of challenged behavior or own thought. Even “arbitrary” behavior can result from such a challenge – at least the opposite of what would have to be expected – see adolescents in opposition to their parents.
Independently free will – beyond self-expression on what one ever learned or liked and the known constraints and expression of given personality – would require omniscience and total independence of personality factors – still leaving, for example, the search for common benefit in a cultural setting – constituting another restriction to “free will” in a philosophical sense.
Could preferences remain? One person may prefer one color over others, one taste over others, or one fragrance over others. Does that constitute lack of free will? Would free will require absolutely no preference? That would make many decision situations unresolvable – leaving the need for action to arbitrary choice – even requiring external decision tools such as dice when personal decisions are no longer possible.
People who cannot decide are not well suited for practical life. Nature appears to have provided for decision mechanisms in uncertainty – most likely to be found in neural signal-balancing within the brain, combining sensory inputs, midbrain signals (emotions), and frontal cortex processes (thought).
It is interesting to note that even when individuals possess vast knowledge, effects that are distant in time and space are heavily discounted (for example, maintenance tasks, the need for saving for a “rainy day” or for retirement, prevention of global warming and climate change in the future).
If there is no “free will”, would we just be like the balls in a game of pool, without true “values”, with no freedom and, consequently, no responsibility? In sum, while “freedom of will” cannot be “proven” and is lost in philosophical semantics, the hypothesis of “free will”, the freedom to express oneself, still provides the more viable approach to life – leaving “determinism” as an obsessive concern, if not an excuse – but also leaving the need for understanding and proper treatment for those who got into trouble and are or feel “guilty” – and leaving the challenge to do right in our lives.
Newer theories of decision-making in economics require the differentiation in the assessment between “economic values” (utilities), often measurable, and beliefs (as in the assessment of estimated probabilities and risks), often given incorrect weight. Both can have emotional content.
It is an important capability of the human brain that it can arrive at decisions in uncertainty – and, in most situations of practical life, does so within a relatively short time – as the resources and time for deeper analysis of situations are mostly not given.
“Soul”, differently defined by different writers, is a linguistic concept that attempts to describe some ultimate essence of a person, like a spiritual homunculus within that person (residing in the head, the heart, or in the gut).
A person’s “character”, while also an expression of a person’s personality, is readily recognized to be virtual, merely a practical linguistic concept without any form of actual “existence”. A person’s “soul”, however, had been seen as an abstract form of a person’s actual existence.
Historically, the idea of a “soul” existing independently of the body may have resulted from a reflection upon the status of dreaming, related to the human capability for spirituality (discussed below), religions, and beliefs in an afterlife after death. How could it be that somebody who was fully with you one moment, being fully alive, then, the next moment after death, was seen as an immobile body, as if that person were just dreamingly absent.
Is there a “soul”? What would it be? The “essence” of a person should include that person’s personality (based largely on individual neurophysiology, biochemistry, and cultural experience), that person’s capability for perception (for example, to perceive an afterlife), and some of that person’s memory, at least to know who he or she is and relates to.
Why would the soul exist independent of the body or the brain? Why would the soul not be just an expression of the brain (its memory and its “personality”)? All indications point to a total interdependence within the biological body-brain “system”– as demonstrated by the outcome of accidents, diseases, or aging on the brain and personality. There are no indications to ever observe the essence of a person (soul) being independent of bodily givens. In other words, the “soul” would be as variable as the conditions of the brain, changing as those do. This leaves the concept of “soul” only as a practical linguistic expression, to describe the mental aspects of a person in a holistic way – but without any “real” content – similar to the concept of “culture” for an ethnic group.
“Spirituality” refers to mental phenomena beyond emotions, memory, or logical thought (see discussions above), expected to provide additional insight – as in visions, holistic understanding, or spiritual capabilities – as for healing. Certain spiritual experiences occur unexpectedly, others are searched for in meditation and, thereby, personally induced.
Brain research has found that dominant and routine daily thought occurs primarily in the left side of the brain and is more detailed or quantitative. Only upon the calming of active thought does right-sided activity of the brain prevail and reach awareness. This is mostly of a more geometric (visual) and holistic nature. This has led to better recognition of some situations in life and to greater creativity, even in scientific research and technical innovation (see the article on mental creativity on the website). But it also led to “spiritual” experiences (see religious personalities who went to live in the “desert” to gain greater insight, including Buddha and Jesus).
Extreme cases of meditation, sensory withdrawal, and physical imbalance through dieting (in the desert) can lead to “hallucinations” and virtual recognitions without real content, as in Buddhist “enlightenment” – which never permitted the solution of any social or practical problem.
It is known that body biochemistry influences emotions. It is equally known that emotional states can influence the body, including endocrine functions and immune responses. The correlation of meditative, “spiritual” settings with emotions can lead to medically disturbing or to medically healing effects. “Seeing” bad ghosts can lead to loss of hair color, rashes, and digestive dysfunction; yet, spiritual phenomena can also be very helpful in healing.
In most cases, moderate forms of spiritual pursuits – as meditation, the consequent calming and regaining of a holistic view of life – can be very beneficial.
The concepts of “religion” or “transcendental” refer to phenomena beyond the physical world and scientific understanding (which always require verification by reproducible, factual experiments and measurements, leading to “knowledge”).
Most religions attempt to explain the origin and functioning of our world and are also connected with moral, social, and, occasionally, hygienic teaching – even though this is not a necessary connection.
The theme of “Religion” is discussed in detail in the essay “Religion: What Is Religion? What Should Religion Be?” to be found on the website “www.schwab-writings.com” in the section on “Philosophy/Theology”. That essay covers the following aspects of religion:
- What is the origin of religions?
- What provides for the stability of religions?
- What provides for the change or evolution of religions?
- What would be a beneficial approach to the question of religiosity?
- What benefits and problems derive from organized religion – congregations, churches?
- Would other “conscious”, extraterrestrial beings in the universe have any religion?
- What is “cosmotheology”?
What is the origin of religions? Historically, religions are a universal phenomenon of mankind – naturally evolving from the universal human search for causality in natural phenomena beyond understanding. The universal capability of the human brain for visualizations of the mind led to the assumption of unseen, “spiritual” causations of such otherwise unexplainable phenomena (the movement of the sun, wind, lightning, earthquakes, diseases, unforeseen probabilistic accidents). Once another, transcendental, virtual world was seen, the phenomenon of death, the parting of a living being, led to the concept of ongoing life in that other world, to the immortality of the “soul”.
From the belief in transcendental forces (gods) resulted the universally found attempt to favorably influence such spiritual forces, leading to various forms of sacrifices, and rituals.
Sooner or later, all religions connected presumed divine favors or misfortune with proper human behavior or lack thereof. This evolved into the search for divinely acceptable moral laws in meditation, intuition, or divine revelations – as often proclaimed by religious leaders and priests.
In times past, the struggle for survival and basic needs was predominant. Throughout most of history, people were tied to their occupations – as farmers, fishermen, or in the trades. In our time, there is some surplus in resources and, mainly, there are more choices in life regarding occupation and priorities in values. There is more pressure on demonstrating personal value and accomplishment in real or idealistic terms. Furthermore, the sciences and general education have brought more knowledge about the world we live in and its evolution in time – concerning the universe, natural evolution, and historic development of mankind. This led to new questions concerning the essence of life and of existence – often leading to conflict with established religions.
Our modern time, more than any other, has emphasized the human search for a meaning in life – a search for purpose, and direction. Religion is expected to provide explanations concerning meaning or purpose and guidance for our lives and actions. Traditional religions are often not able to convincingly fulfill this need for the modern, scientifically trained mind – leading either to a retreat to dangerous religious fundamentalism (some violent) or aimlessness. Answers were presented in Chapter 2 of this essay under the title of “Interpreting Our Existence: Meaning of Existence, Personal Direction, Values”.
Only very selective observation has allowed the maintaining of the belief that sacrifices and “acceptable” behavior (or following of the “laws”) leads to divine favors – and their neglect to divine punishment or misfortune in this world (even though attempts are made to teach and prove this correlation still in our own time). Observation shows that, too often, the “bad” individuals fare well and too many innocent or “good” individuals suffer in this world – just read the newspaper for a few days. A valid religion cannot be only the one of the survivors and lucky ones, but should also be valid for the innocent ones who perished and suffered in spite of their good deeds and in spite of their most urgent prayers for help.
Religions found a solution to this dilemma in the concept of a judgment of the souls after death and a compensating afterlife – for the “good” in paradise or in Nirvana, for the “bad” tormented in hell.
Most religions still show some of the above elements – maintaining sacrifices and ritual for the presumed pleasure of the gods combined with a morally acceptable behavior to obtain divine favors or avoid punishment in this world – combined with a belief in a last judgment and a compensating afterlife – and mental visualization permits to believe this.
Concerning the questions of meaning, purpose, and direction in life, the different religions, as they evolved, came to similar conclusions – finding the only answer in a single-perspective view – in the effort to get out of this world and into the next one as safely as possible, through collection of merit in this world – with merit generally described in moral or charitable terms and in terms of providing the sustenance (if not wealth) for monasteries or churches and their hierarchies.
In the practical world, a remnant of older human goals and directions remained, mainly among the governing and warrior classes – in values described, for example, by fidelity, honor, courage, and conquest. Then came the Renaissance, bringing with it an emphasis on learning, mental exploration, and the arts as a significant field of human expression and experience and, thereby, fulfillment or purpose in life. This development was accelerated by the rise of the middle class, specifically during the industrial revolution and in democracies.
While not represented by any of the great teachers of mankind or ideologies, our modern world actually accepted a triple perspective on meaning and purpose of life and direction to pursue – personal development in mental growth and exploration, in moral and moral goodness or service to others, and in a pursuit of the arts. Lately, environmental protection was added as a perspective.
Faced with the practical problems of our rising societies, all religions accepted the need for mankind to somehow look after law and order and to provide some public balancing of economic fortune by means of tithing or taxation.
In some cultures, this allowed the ruling Imams, Mullahs, or kings and nobility to see this task as their God-instituted mandate, as an extension of God’s power and action in this world. Democracy did not accept this mindset.
Many aspects of the old religions have disappeared in our time – with different rates of fading among different populations – sometimes resulting in liberation of the people, sometimes leaving them in mental or moral insecurity, even as left without support by their God in deep loneliness. The loss or absence of religion, while greatly liberating for some, may be heavily felt by the suffering and lonely ones – specifically when social bonds do not step in to help or to provide an avenue for own corrective action.
Where religions only spiritually enhanced observations (visualizations) of the human mind of the functioning of life on Earth – subject to clarification as mental knowledge set in? If ethics resulted as a social benefit from natural evolution, does that also apply to moral laws?
What is left of evolving religions? Even in our “scientific” time, the question of the origin of the universe is still the most fundamental enigma leading to transcendental if not religious explanations in our mind, beyond the sciences. The basically intellectual characteristics of the nascent universe, called “Creation” in the religious view – energy (as fields in the vacuum), particles, forces, natural laws, basic principles, constants of nature, and quantum mechanics – all made understandable to the human mind by physics and mathematics – can or must be found in a transcendental origin-causing “essence” or spirit – an ultimate Essence of Existence – to which one can either not give a name or can call “God” (or just “X”).
Yet, the assumption of a transcendental origin of the universe does not imply an ongoing involvement of this originating Essence in the following natural evolution or human history (the question of the “living God”) or a personal helping responsiveness of this Essence to human prayer (the “personal God”) or a final “judgment” of “souls” after their death.
And what are religious or divine “revelations”? The brain’s capability for the visualization of speech, appearing as the common phenomenon of the “inner voice” – see the discussion of “visualizations” above – can lead in the believer’s mind to the perception of verbal divine religious inspirations. Depending where one stands denominationally, such verbal visualizations or revelations are either accepted as of divine origin or are totally rejected as such (see the voices experienced by early Christians, by Mohammed in perceiving the Koran, by Joseph Smith in perceiving the Book of Mormon, by certain preachers of our days in various religious sects, or as reported by numerous individuals from their daily lives, whether sane, insane, or criminal). In any event, psychology knows the various phenomena of split personality and of hallucination in schizophrenia which can lead to the loss of distinction between visualizations and reality, at least temporarily. This leads in the believer’s mind to assuming visualizations of speaking angels as actual appearances. Their “divine” messages must be followed and cannot be modified ever after – freezing religious evolution.
An additional warning: While one always sees an exception for one’s own religion from criticism, it is easily piled on other religions – and vice versa. But unrealistic religious expectations lead to a misdirected life and can bring great suffering to the believer and the world.
On the other hand, one should not overlook that benevolent religions can bring comfort and strength to the weak, suffering, lonely, and hopeless people, where nothing else can – sometimes for their support and benefit, but sometimes preventing them from activating their own remaining strength to pursue a more beneficial course in resolving their problems.
Religious people fear that the abolition or loss of religiosity would lead to loss of morality, excessive selfishness, greed, licentious behavior, and aimlessness in life. This may not be true. Basic ethical emotions are genetically anchored by nature and a necessity for continuation of life – specifically, for social life (caring for offspring, reciprocity in friendship or networks, sacrifice for the group, respect for others). The basic human nature and strictly practical considerations will not only continue to support basic “moral” laws, but their expansion is visible in all the civic and criminal laws of modern nations. The so much older Ten Commandments do not contain any charity or the prohibition of cheating. They were merely the minimal practical laws for social life.
Religions tend to promote a very human image of God. Does the observation of the universe allow any conclusions regarding the nature of the Creating Spirit, God? Does the fact that causality is at the root of the functioning of the universe indicate that “time” and reliable physical causality are part of the creating spirit? Does the fact that we sense human love and compassion allow the expectation of love and compassion in the creating spirit? Does all the horrible cruelty and senseless destructiveness in nature and history indicate such a character of “God”? The abstract nature of the Structure Providing and Spiritual Essence of Existence, far above the human mind, does not allow such simple conclusions as taken from the human world.
Organized religions can easily become closed systems of thought, incapable of further evolution or of keeping pace with the evolution of human knowledge, thought or cultures. It can happen that this incapability for evolution holds up the evolution of the underlying culture and society. The stagnation of societies dominated by religious hierarchies are examples.
The evolution of religion appears to occur, as the evolution of species in nature, to be subject to random events of history and the appearance of variations of thought (in the minds of the reformers) and in accordance with borderline conditions and opportunities. Jesus, Mohammed, and Buddha were individuals embedded in their time and culture, and so were Luther and Gandhi – and brought innovations commensurate with opportunities – Buddha gained India, then lost it all – but won all of China – Luther gained only northern Europe, impacted the rest of the world only over centuries.
The above-mentioned essay on “Religion” on the website indicates that the wide variety of cultures with their different states of evolution and the wide variety of human individuals on Earth needed and possibly still need a certain variety of religions:
o The old cults of symbolic sacrifices and giving thanks to the forces of nature and destiny in a simple way – for those who live close to nature and for the simple of mind.
o The strict faith in moral laws and a divine judgment – for our urban societies as they become wealth-, power-, and basic pleasure oriented in prevalent selfishness.
o The faith in humanly addressable, merciful forces of destiny, in forgiveness, love, and the Christian concept of a merciful “God-Father” – for the many sensitive individuals who struggle in life, who sincerely search, and must often suffer so very much in this world, also in compassion – and also for the gratefully joyous ones to direct their thanks.
o The view of a totally abstract Structure Providing and Spiritual Essence of Existence of the grandiose, dynamic universe with its finely tuned forces and natural laws – for the thinking, sensing, and acting living beings in our modern world – with their search for meaning, purpose, and direction – with emphasis on not relying on an all-interfering god, but on personal responsibility and initiative – in the often desperate effort to fulfill the basic needs in sustenance and caring for family and clan, in the often very harsh struggle for further security and means for action, and, under favorable circumstances, in the mental fulfillment of one’s own life – and in contribution to the improvement of the surrounding world – through personal exploring development, through caring and compassionate (Christian) service to others, the community, and our environment – and with joy in observing the beauty of Creation and the arts – but also with acceptance of the unavoidable.
 This was already recognized by the earliest thinkers and represented in various sagas, for example, the one about Prometheus bringing fire to mankind.
 This is possibly given by the Hippocampus nuclei in the brain that provide for short-term (and long-term) memory and may lead, through signal enhancement and by means of cross-connections within the brain (see the white matter under gray cortex or the Claustrum, as suggested by Crick), to temporary signal suppression from other brain areas. See the essays on “mental creativity” on the website www.schwab-writings.com.
 Different definitions of “consciousness” or “awareness” or the confusion between these two terms can lead to different conclusions and, sometimes, to great confusion or to rather unique philosophies. See, for example, Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, ISBN 0-395-32932-9. This confusion also rendered rather ineffective the later work by Francis Crick (co-inventor of the DNA helix, later in La Jolla, California), supported by Christof Koch, Caltech, concentrated on the investigation of “consciousness” (see Koch’s Quest for Consciousness, Roberts & Co., 2004, ISBN 0-9747077-0-8).
 The experiments by Benjamin Libet were first published in 1985, more extensively in 1999 in the book, The Volatile Brain, PDC, ISBN 0-907845-11-8, and in 2004 in Mind Time, Harvard Univ. Press, ISBN 0-674-01846-x (presently not yet available). Libet himself does not question “free will”.
 On October 19, 2004, the German publication Gehirn und Geist published a “manifest” signed by eleven leading international scientists in the field of brain research, including Christof Koch (who had worked with Crick in California), Gerhard Roth, and Wolf Singer. They postulate the anchoring of mind and consciousness in the neural system of the body and their evolution commensurate with it.