How Do We Perceive Words?

If the meaning behind them medium is immaterial, then how do we perceive it?

If the meaning behind the media is immaterial, then how do we comprehend it? If you cannot see, hear, feel, taste, or smell the meaning carried by these black symbols that you’re staring at, then how do you know what they mean? For example, how could the brain possibly perceive the meaning behind the word three in a way that an abacus or book or a smartphone or a laptop cannot? (Or can they?) How do we perceive the meaning of the word red in a way that a camera cannot perceive it? (Or can it?!) How do we perceive the meaning of information? We’ve proven that it’s immaterial nature is an objective, testable, falsifiable, scientific fact. So how do we perceive the meaning behind the media of our trigonometry textbooks and music videos and fuel gauges? Even if biologists can theorize about how the brain evolved, that is totally and completely irrelevant to the fact that we are able to use our brains to process nonphysical meaning.

The Presupposition

The scientific establishment today skips the question “What are we perceiving?” and instead go goes straight to trying to explain how we perceive it. So they presuppose that we are our brains and that we will eventually discover, as a recent Scientific American article title put it, “How Matter Becomes Mind”.[i] Every branch of science that has taken an interest in consciousness starts with this same assumption. For example, here is MIT physicist Max Tegmark:

I approach this hard problem of consciousness from a physical point of view. From my perspective, a conscious person is simply food, rearranged. So why is one arrangement conscious, but not the other? Moreover, physics teach us that food is simply a large number of quarks and electrons, arranged in a certain way. So which particle arrangements are conscious and which aren’t?[ii]

Dr. Werner Loewenstein, former professor of physiology and biophysics at Columbia University and director of its Cell Physics Laboratory, is confident that scientists will eventually justify their presupposition:

What is it that pulls all those scattered sensory-information pieces together? What draws the results of the information processings in the various brain compartments into a whole? This is what among students of consciousness is known as the ‘binding problem.’ We will assume that Evolution solved it by standard neuronal communication, presupposing that conduction of information in digital form along axons or dendrites between the compartments is fast enough for the binding.[iii]

So also linguist Noam Chomsky operates on the same assumption:

Assuming that we’re organic creatures, and not angels, we have certain fixed capacities which yield the range of abilities that we have—but they impose limits as well…[Thought] is an aspect of matter, just as electrical properties are an aspect of matter.[iv]

As Dr. Richard Lewontin, Evolutionary Biology Professor at Harvard University, put it:

It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.[v]

Or as Francis Crick, co-discoverer (with James Watson) of the double-helix structure of DNA, put it in his book, The Astonishing Hypothesis, “‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”[vi] Did you notice the quotation marks he put around “You”? “The view of ourselves as ‘persons’ is just as erroneous as the view that the Sun goes around the Earth,” he explained in an interview with The New York Times. He said he hoped that “this sort of language will disappear in a few hundred years.”[vii]

Here is Tufts University Professor Daniel Dennett claiming that this presupposition is bland!

How come there are minds? And how is it possible for minds to ask and answer this question? The short answer is that minds evolved and created thinking tools that eventually enabled minds to know how minds evolved, and even to know how these tools enabled them to know what minds are…There is a winding path leading through a jungle of science and philosophy, from the initial bland assumption that we people are physical objects, obeying the laws of physics, to an understanding of our conscious minds.[viii]

“Bland assumption”? Seriously? To the contrary, this is an extremely consequential and profound assumption. It presupposes that every bit of intuition or feeling or inspiration or motivation or wisdom you have—that those are all, literally, physical things. You plus your personality plus your aspirations equal a 3-pound organ that’s in charge of a body. This “debate” between science and faith has everything to do with what we teach our high school students about the meaning of truth, humanity, morality, sexuality, etc. With all due respect to Dennett, this presupposition could not be more consequential.

No one better represents that establishment than Kenneth R. Miller, professor of biology at Brown University and coauthor of a major high school biology textbook. He has served as an expert witness in a couple of high profile court cases about whether Intelligent Design can be taught as an alternative to Darwinism in public schools, so he is very familiar with the debates. And like both Dennett and Crick, he considers materialism and monism to be easy presuppositions on which to base his work. In his book The Human Instinct (which is different from his high school biology textbook) Miller begins his explanation of consciousness this way:

Let’s assume the obvious, which is that human consciousness is a product of the workings of our nervous system as it interacts with the rest of the body and with the outside world. In other words, that consciousness is a physiological function in the broadest possible sense. What that means, of course, is that consciousness, like every other human characteristic, is a product of evolution.[ix]

First Dennett said it was bland, and now Miller says its obvious? Seriously?! We are obviously nothing more than our brains? No, there is nothing remotely obvious about that. To the contrary, there might be a good, non-delusional reason that 95% of the planet believes in some form of spirituality. No, to date the only thing that is obvious is that these naturalists are making assumptions. What is not so obvious is how the 3-pound organs in our skulls could turn salt molecules and cheeseburger molecules into the simplest of conscious thoughts. What if they can’t? Could the materialists’ assumption be wrong?

Now although Miller is a monist (as opposed to a dualist) he is also a devout Catholic. That may sound curious, but such stances are not at all uncommon. Many people will fully embrace both religion and materialism at the same time. To take an example from the Bible which undergirds Miller’s Catholicism, it says that many of the religious elite who opposed Jesus of Nazareth were devout Jewish teachers, called Sadducees, who passionately argued that there was no afterlife, nor any such things as spirits or angels. For them, religion was about politics and culture and the need for a moral authority. Any talk of spirituality simply referred to emotional experiences or perhaps ethical convictions.

Regardless, back to the topic of what constitutes “us”, Professor Miller teaches that we can assume materialism to be obviously true: “Consciousness is a process generated by the hugely complex interactions of highly active cells within the brain and associated nervous tissue.”[x]

Professor Michael S. Gazzaniga, professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and head of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind, takes the same position. For decades he has lead pioneering studies in how the two halves of the brain interact. His work with split-brain patients is absolutely fascinating. He can give the layperson a basic understanding of the brain’s breathtaking complexity.

Joining the recent trend in scientific studies of the mind, Gazzaniga has sought “to examine how matter makes minds” in his recent book, The Consciousness Instinct.[xi] When it comes to explaining consciousness, as with everyone else, Gazzaniga begins with the materialistic presupposition, but he does so by quoting another psychologist from 130 years ago. That scientist, William James, states the presupposition directly and emphatically, but it is a bit hard to follow:

The point which as evolutionists we are bound to hold fast to is that all the new forms of being that make their appearance are really nothing more than results of the redistribution of the original and unchanging materials. The self-same atoms which, chaotically dispersed, made the nebula, now, jammed and temporarily caught in peculiar positions, form our brains; and the “evolution” of the brains, if understood, would be simply the account of how the atoms came to be so caught and jammed. In this story no new natures, no factors not present at the beginning, are introduced at any later stage.[xii]

James is saying that although our minds might appear to be “new forms of being”, they are in fact nothing more than the same materials that make up everything else—from stellar nebula to human brains. There are “no new natures”. In other words, he assumes that we have no souls or any other such metaphysical things. Or at least that’s the only aspect of his writing Gazzaniga references. In the larger picture James had a less defined worldview. American Philosophy: An Encyclopedia identifies him with those who “took a more pantheist or pandeist approach by rejecting views of God as separate from the world.”[xiii]

This gold-plated, diamond encrusted presupposition provides the foundation on which the naturalists do their work. Do how do they suppose that we perceive the meaning of words?

The Naturalistic Explanation

Now the establishment faces a dilemma. On the one hand, they are passionately determined to explain how the physical brain comprehends the meaning of information. On the one hand, it is impossible to articulate, much less test, a theory of physical information. Indeed, to the extent that we know anything at all, we know that information is nonphysical. So how do the three-pound organs in our skulls perceive it? They call this the hard problem of consciousness.

In dealing with this dilemma, we should recognize the temptation that all these scientists face at times to flip-flop on their views—to embrace Platonism (the philosophical name for an immaterial reality) at some times and materialism at other times. For example, as mathematicians Reuben Hersh and Philip Davis once famously put it:

Most writers on the subject seem to agree that the typical working mathematician is a Platonist on weekdays and a formalist on Sundays. That is, when he is doing mathematics, he is convinced that he is dealing with an objective reality whose properties he is attempting to determine. But then, when challenged to give a philosophical account of this reality, he finds it easiest to pretend that he does not believe in it after all.[xiv]

We will see the same tendency again and again in almost all the scientific disciplines when they address the mystery of consciousness. On weekdays, when they are doing their experiments, they quietly operate with the assumption that immaterial data saturates the nature—from the quantum level to the quasar level. But on Sundays, when directly confronted with questions about this immaterial reality, they deny having any interest in it at all.

Other times, instead of flip-flopping, they will simply mash these two contradictory explanations together and pretend the result reveals some mysterious truth. For example, here is Harvard psychologist Stephen Pinker explaining how the circuitry of the brain can perceive the meaning of the word three (Just keep an open mind and read this carefully):

Humans, like many animals, appear to have an innate sense of number, which can be explained by the advantages of reasoning about numerosity during our evolutionary history. (For example, if three bears go into a cave and two come out, is it safe to enter?) But the mere fact that a number faculty evolved does not mean that numbers are hallucinations. According to the Platonist conception of number favored by many mathematicians and philosophers, entities such as numbers and shapes have an existence independent of minds. The number three is not invented out of whole cloth; it has real properties that can be discovered and explored. No rational creature equipped with circuitry to understand the concept “two” and the concept of addition could discover that two plus one equals anything other than three.[xv]

What?! What in the world does any of that mean? What could possibly be the “real properties” of the number three?! Does 3 have size or texture or smell or current or force or…?! Of course not! That would be as absurd as saying that the color red has a sense of humor. So what does he mean by Platonic forms that evolve with certain “real” properties? No matter how many questions you ask, you will get relentlessly esoteric answers. For, to quote Pinker’s colleague, Harvard Research Professor Dr. Lewontin, again, “We are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated.”

With that in mind, I will summarize two primary methods for how the establishment explains consciousness on the basis of these materialistic presuppositions: (1) they argue that consciousness is instinctive, and (2) they wax philosophical and poetic. There is some overlap in these methods, and many scientists will use one or all of them at various times, even saying one thing one day and then completely contradicting themselves the next.


Many scientists will argue that our ability to do language or math (which, as we explored in “What Are Words?”, are one and the same thing) is instinctive, innate, and intrinsic to being human. Just consider the titles of some of the more robust books on the subject: The Language Instinct by psychologist Stephen Pinker, The Number Sense by neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene, The Math Instinct by mathematician Keith Devlin, The Human Instinct by biologist Kenneth Miller, and The Consciousness Instinct by cognitive neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga.

They all make more or less the same argument, so I will only quote the first and the last of them. So here again is Dr. Stephen Pinker in 1994:

Language is not a cultural artifact that we learn the way we learn to tell time or how the federal government works. Instead, it is a distinct piece of the biological makeup of our brains. Language is a complex, specialized skill, which develops in the child spontaneously, without conscious effort or formal instruction, is deployed without awareness of its underlying logic, is qualitatively the same in every individual, and is distinct from more general abilities to process information or behave intelligently. For these reasons some cognitive scientists have described language as a psychological faculty, a mental organ, a neural system, and a computational module. But I prefer the admittedly quaint term “instinct.” It conveys the idea that people know how to talk in more or less the sense that spiders know how to spin webs. Web-spinning was not invented by some unsung spider genius and does not depend on having had the right education or on having an aptitude for architecture or the construction trades. Rather, spiders spin spider webs because they have spider brains, which give them the urge to spin and the competence to succeed.[xvi]

Pinker is a great writer, and the research that leads to this conclusion is fascinating. Our ability to do language comes as effortlessly as our ability to pull our hand away from fire or our ability to drink water when we are thirsty. “The crux of the argument is that complex language is universal because children actually reinvent it, generation after generation—not because they are taught, not because they are generally smart, not because it is useful to them, but because they just can’t help it.”[xvii]

Again, it is wonderful to hear the scientific research that backs up that last statement. Regardless, for a materialist to call our linguistic ability instinctive is, at its best, not a scientific explanation: we can do language because we are programmed to do language?

That does not actually make any sense…at all. After all, an instinct is something we do automatically, without thinking, because its programmed into our DNA. Beavers build dams and spiders build webs for the same reason that antilock brakes kick in when you slam on them: that’s what they are programmed to do. But it goes way beyond begging the question to use that as an explanation for how the brain comprehends words and sentences and soliloquies. After all, you can’t communicate without thinking. You cannot, for example, comprehend this sentence if you’re on autopilot. (And when you are on auto-pilot, you’re most assuredly thinking about something else!) Nor can you comprehend the meaning of a sentence like “What’s the square root of nine million?” without concentrating your mind just a bit. Smart phones and supercomputers can simulate such calculations instantly because that is what they are programmed to do. But they don’t perceive the meaning of those calculations any more than my colon comprehends the meaning of the Krebs cycle. Our minds, however, can perceive the meaning.

So the question remains, how do we do it? How do children do it? How could the brain possibly perceive the meaning of the word three in a way that a book or an abacus or a smartphone or a laptop can never perceive it? That’s still an excellent question.

Here is cognitive neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga in 2018 admitting that this is not a scientific explanation but that he is still wrestling with the mystery of why we are able to use our instincts (i.e. use our minds).

An instinct calls upon a physical structure to function. Yet using the structure calls upon an “aptitude,” which apparently comes along for free. Finding the physical correlates of an instinct’s physical apparatus is doable, but how do we learn how it comes to be used? Does it just happen? Not a very scientific answer.[xviii]

The “aptitude” for using the physical structure of an instinct “comes along for free”? That may not sound like much of an unscientific concession until you realize that it opens the door for other abilities, such as, say, free will. Gazzaniga quotes William James again (the psychologist who stated the materialistic presupposition over a century ago) and says beliefs, ideas, and thoughts just happen.

When acting together in a coordinated way, even simple systems can make observers believe other forces exist. James’s stance is clearly stated: “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.” This proclamation is consistent with the idea that beliefs, ideas, and thoughts can be part of the mental system. The symbolic representations within this system, with all their flexibility and arbitrariness, are very much tied to the physical mechanisms of the brain. Ideas do have consequences, even in the physically constrained brain. No despair called for: mental states can influence physical action in the top-down way![xix]

So Gazzaniga says that along with consciousness comes our linguistic ability and our sociality—all as instincts! With the last sentence of his book he concludes that consciousness is simply included with evolution the way grits are included with any proper southern meal. “Grits come with the order, and so does what we call consciousness.”[xx]

Similar to taking consciousness for granted as instinctive and innate, many scientists simply want to take information completely for granted—which is like a fish taking water for granted. They presuppose that if they can explain the complexity of the brain, consciousness will just ride along for free.

I gave several examples of this in the article titled “Who perceives information?” But I will give a couple more here. Sean Carroll, theoretical physics professor at The California Institute of Technology, says that consciousness is “a complex interplay of many processes acting on multiple levels.”[xxi] He says that these processes are all governed by a massively complex set of physical laws that he calls the Core Theory.

Consciousness seems to be an intrinsically collective phenomenon, a way of talking about the behavior of complex systems with the capacity for representing themselves and the world within their inner states. Just because it is here full-blown in our contemporary universe doesn’t mean that there was always some trace of it from the very start. Some things just come into being as the universe evolves and entropy and complexity grow: galaxies, planets, organisms, consciousness.[xxii]

Follow the grammar and try to simplify that sentence: Consciousness seems to be a way of talking about the behavior of systems with inner states. And Carroll says that we have these “inner states” because “some things just come into being”—just like Gazzaniga said grits come with a southern meal! Once you are persuaded to take consciousness for granted, it should come as no surprise that Carroll then wants to take the very infrastructure of rationality (and all of science) for granted as well:

If the particles and forces of the Core Theory are what constitute each living being, without any immaterial soul, then the information that makes up “you” is contained in the arrangement of atoms that makes up your body, including your brain. There is no place for that information to go, or any way for it to be preserved, outside your body. There are no particles or fields that could store it and take it away.[xxiii]

As explained by Hersh and Davis, Carroll here is acting like a Platonist on weekdays, but on Sundays avoids discussing the matter at all. He just wants to quietly have his immaterial cake and eat it, too. Indeed, he doesn’t talk about the nature of information anywhere in his 480-page book—an extremely loud omission for a theoretical physicist. It would be like an astronomer writing a book about astronomy but not bothering to explain what stars are, or a neuroscientist writing a book about how the mind creates mathematics but not bothering to explain what numbers are. Carroll’s omission is all the more glaring considering the title of his book, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. Meaning? What in the world is meaning?

Let’s listen to a neuroscientist. Dr. Christof Koch taught for 27 years at California Institute for Technology and now serves as President and Chief Scientific Officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. Although he rejects pure materialism and calls himself a “covert Platonist”, he nevertheless resorts to saying that consciousness is an intrinsic ability.

He also embraces what he calls panpsychism and says that there must be something else—“something fundamentally different from the material thing causing it and that it can never be fully reduced to physical properties of the brain.” He postulates that such a “something” could be analogous to an electric charge.

As far as chemistry and biology are concerned, charge is an intrinsic property of these particles. Electrical charge does not emerge from matter. And so it is with consciousness. Consciousness comes with organized chunks of matter. It is immanent in the organization of the system. It is a property of complex entities and cannot be further reduced to the action of more elementary properties. We’ve arrived at the ground floor of reductionism (that is why the reductionist of the subtitle of this book is tempered by the romantic).[xxiv]

Although this view certainly sounds spiritual, it is quite different from classical dualism—the belief in a soul as a separate entity from the body. Instead, Koch calls it property dualism holds that everything material has an element of individual consciousness to it. He says panpsychism has “an ancient and storied pedigree, not only within Buddhism, but also within Western philosophy: from Thales of Milet, a pre-Socratic thinker, to Plato and Epicurus in the Hellenic period, Spinoza and Leibniz in the Enlightenment, Schopenhauer and Goethe in the Romantic era, and on into the twentieth century.”[xxv]

Common to panpsychism in its various guises is the belief that soul (psyche) is in everything (pan), or is ubiquitous; not only in animals and plants but all the way down to the ultimate constituents of matter—atoms, fields, strings, or whatever. Panpsychism assumes that any physical mechanism either is conscious, is made out of conscious parts, or forms part of a greater conscious whole.[xxvi]

For a decade he worked closely with Francis Crick to develop a physiological theory for consciousness, which he spelled out in a book titled The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach. Since then he has embraced panpsychism, so now he teaches what’s called Integrated Information Theory, one of the leading neuroscientific explanations of how the mind works. It espouses what Koch calls “property dualism”.

The theory of integrated information postulates that conscious, phenomenal experience is distinct from its underlying physical carrier. Informationally speaking, the experience of being sad is a crystal, a fantastically complex shape in a space of a trillion dimensions that is qualitatively different from the brain state that gives rise to sadness. The conscious sensation arises from integrated information; the causality flows from the underlying physics of the brain, but not in any easy-to-understand manner. That is because consciousness depends on the system being more than the sum of its parts. Think of this crystal as the twenty-first-century version of the soul.[xxvii]

The conscious experience of sadness is “a crystal, a fantastically complex shape in a space of a trillion dimensions”? How does Koch say the brain gives to consciousness? In answer to that he praises the work of another neuroscientist, Giulio Tononi, who first proposed Integrated Information Theory in 2004.

To be conscious, then, you need to be a single, integrated entity with a large repertoire of highly differentiated states. Although the 60-gigabyte hard disk on my MacBook exceeds in capacity my lifetime of memories, that information is not integrated. For example, the family photographs on my Macintosh are not linked to one another. The computer does not know that the girl in those pictures is my daughter as she matures from a toddler to a lanky teenager and then a graceful adult. To my Mac, all information is equally meaningless, just a vast, random tapestry of zeros and ones. Yet I derive meaning from these images because my memories are heavily cross-linked. And the more interconnected, the more meaningful they become. Indeed, Tononi’s IIT postulates that the amount of integrated information that an entity possesses corresponds to its level of consciousness.[xxviii]

There’s that word state again. Instead of being a soul you are “a single, integrated entity with a large repertoire of highly differentiated states”? What is an entity and what exactly are states?

IIT is an attempt at reverse engineering. Rather than starting from observations and moving toward postulates and conclusions—the usual process scientists use—Giulio Tononi and his colleagues instead start with an understanding of consciousness and then try figure out what physical systems would be required to make it happen. They propose five essential properties, or axioms, of consciousness—intrinsic existence, composition, information, integration, and exclusion—and then proposes five physical requirements, or postulates, to account for them.

Koch and Tononi authored a paper together, Consciousness: here, there and everywhere? (Everywhere as in panpsychism.) Here is how they define consciousness according to Integrated Information Theory:

The axioms and postulates of IIT say that consciousness is a fundamental, observer-independent property that can be accounted for by the intrinsic cause–effect power of certain mechanisms in a state—how they give form to the space of possibilities in their past and their future. An analogy is mass, which can be defined by how it curves space–time around it—except that in the case of experience the entities having the property are not elementary particles but complexes of elements, and experience comes not in two but in a trillion varieties. In this general sense, at least, IIT is not at odds with panpsychism.[xxix]

Now just follow the grammar and then simplify that explanation: “Consciousness is a property that can be accounted for by the power of mechanisms in a state…The entities are complexes of elements, and experience comes in a trillion varieties.” By combining broad, abstract ideas with weak verbs they’re making room for all kinds of vague implications and baseless assumptions. And then when they compare consciousness to gravity—when “mass curves space-time around it.” But the main thing I want to draw your attention to is their use of “intrinsic cause-effect power”, a noun phrase they use repeatedly as they weave together their five axioms and five postulates. Consciousness is a property that can be accounted for by the intrinsic cause–effect power of mechanisms in a state.

Neuroscientists ultimately want to know how the conscious mind causes the physical body to exert power—the mind-over-matter mystery—in actions as simple as turning the head or as complex as launching a rocket ship. Now you would probably need to get a PhD before you understood IIT well. Nevertheless, in Koch and Tononi’s explanation one thing stands out loud and clear: they call this cause-effect ability an intrinsic power. Ultimately, we still have to take the mind’s ability to control the body for granted as innate—just as the cognitive psychologist Pinker said we have to take our linguistic ability for granted as instinctive, just as physicist Carroll said we have to take consciousness for granted because “some things just come into being,” just as cognitive neuroscientist Gazzaniga said, “Grits come with the order, and so does what we call consciousness.” All the best scientists keep coming to the same conclusion.

Now Tononi and Koch try their best to do exhaustive, thorough, methodic science, so they do something none of the others have yet tried: they offer a definition of information.

Note that the notion of information in IIT differs substantially from that in communication theory or in common language, but it is faithful to its etymology: information refers to how a system of mechanisms in a state, through its cause–effect power, specifies a form (‘informs’ a conceptual structure) in the space of possibilities.[xxx]

Again, look at the grammar and simplify that sentence: information refers to how a system in a state specifies a form. That’s pure (nonphysical) abstraction after abstraction after abstraction. How does a system in a state specify a form? “Through its cause-effect power.” Given such lofty, esoteric ideas, it’s no surprise that they talk at times of a mysterious panpsychic “something” that fills the universe—the something which Koch compared to an electric charge. “It is in the air we breathe, the soil we tread on, the bacteria that colonize our intestines , and the brain that enables us to think.”[xxxi]

Koch is coming very close there to the second main strategy that materialists use to explain consciousness and our ability to comprehend the meaning behind any media. The first strategy is to call that ability instinctive, innate, and intrinsic. And the second one is to simply wax poetical and philosophical.


Dr. Alan Jasanoff is an associate investigator of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, where he is a professor of biological engineering with joint appointments in the departments of brain and cognitive sciences and of nuclear science and engineering.

In the age of neuroscience, we can doubt neither the life of our minds nor the central role of our brains in it. But at the same time, we cannot doubt that external forces extend their fingers into the remotest regions of our brains, feeding our thoughts with a continuous influx of sensory input from which it is impossible to hide. We also cannot deny that each of our acts is guided by the minute contours of our surroundings, from the shapes of the door handles we use to the social structures we participate in. Science teaches us that the nervous system is completely integrated into these surroundings, composed of the same substances and subject to the same laws of cause and effect that reign at large—and that our biology-based minds are the products of this synthesis. Our brains are not mysterious beacons, glowing with inner radiance against a dark void. Instead, they are organic prisms that refract the light of the universe back into itself.[xxxii]

That quote comes from Jasanoff’s book, The Biological Mind, the main point of which is that our brains are intimately connected with our bodies and our environment. Instead of saying that we are our brains, he says we should say that we are our bodies interacting with our environment. Regardless, when it comes to explaining what our minds are, although Jasanoff has done some wonderfully interesting research, the very best he can do is to say that they are “organic prisms that refract the light of the universe back into itself.” That’s similar to when Koch called sadness a crystal—“ a fantastically complex shape in a space of a trillion dimensions that is qualitatively different from the brain state that gives rise to sadness.”

As beautiful as such analogies are, they nothing more than a poetic way of stating naturalism’s presupposition: the mind is a “biology-based” thing. They have not offered one scintilla of scientific data with which to back up this presupposition, much less a coherent theory of how the brain comprehends information. Yes, the brain is complex, no one questions that. What we question is how naturalists could possibly argue that the brain comprehends immaterial phenomena—how it could be said to comprehend anything at all.

Danielle S. Bassett is an associate professor in the department of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, and Max Bertolero is a postdoctoral fellow in Bassett’s Complex Systems Group. He received a doctorate in systems neuroscience from the University of California, Berkeley. They wrote an article for Scientific American titled, “How Matter Becomes Mind”. They start with the presupposition: “In the most fundamental sense, what the brain is—and thus who we are as conscious beings—is, in fact, defined by a sprawling network of 100 billion neurons with at least 100 trillion connecting points, or synapses.”[xxxiii]

It’s all very interesting, but throughout their article they repeatedly compare consciousness to music.

Put simply, your thoughts, feelings, quirks, flaws and mental strengths are all encoded by the specific organization of the brain as a unified integrated network. In sum, it is the music that your brain plays that makes you.[xxxiv]

Let me just point out that they have skipped the question “What are we perceiving?” (answer: information) and moved straight to trying to explain how we perceive it. For example, if they had first asked what exactly music is then they would have faced a profound mystery. Although we are most familiar with music being translated as sound waves, it can just as easily be translated onto paper (Consider, for example, that Beethoven first recorded his 9th Symphony on paper when he was deaf!), or as bumps on a DVD, or as electromagnetic waves, etc. What exactly is being translated? Although we may not know what it is, we do know what it is not. It is not physical.

The materialistic line of reasoning leads to relentlessly foggy philosophical explanations that inevitably beg the question. That is to say that “soul” by any other name—a qualia calculator, a meme machine, a superseded ontology, a global neuronal workspace (the theory which holds that information itself becomes conscious), an emergent entity, etc.—is still an intangible mystery. Similarly, to argue that meaning itself is a physical phenomenon—such as vibrating neuronal microtubules or a fifth phase of matter, etc.—leads to incoherent conclusions.

When you consider that both mathematics and langue are immaterial phenomena, it becomes clear that taking both information and our perception of information for granted is indistinguishable from taking spirituality for granted.

So now let us consider the classical dualistic explanation.

The Dualistic Explanation

Consider the possibility that our minds are, like information, immaterial. According to this view we use our physical brains, in principle, the same way that we use our hands and our laptops and our cars. Although it’s called dualism we actually would want to identify three distinct things—physical media, nonphysical meaning, and the nonphysical minds that can perceive and author meaning. But we will simply stick with the term dualism. Let’s go back to square one and see if this explanation works.

Physicist Henry Stapp, now age 91, Stapp worked closely with such twentieth century giants Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg, and John Wheeler. He published many papers pertaining to quantum mechanics’ non-local aspects, which reveal that an object can be moved or affected without being physically touched. He says that no physicist can deny the overwhelming empirical evidence that scientists have found for such faster-than-light action-at-a-distance.

Furthermore, Stapp says that contemporary orthodox quantum mechanics points clearly and directly to an immaterial mind, and has been doing so ever since physicist Werner Heisenberg discovered evidence of such in 1927.

Heisenberg’s discovery was that the process of observation—whereby an observer comes to consciously know the numerical value of a material property of an observed system—cannot be understood within the framework of materialist classical mechanics. A non-classical process is needed. This process does not construct mind out of matter, or reduce mind to matter. Instead, it explains, in mathematical terms, how a person’s immaterial conscious mind interacts with that person’s material brain.[xxxv]

Stapp says that in the beginning, Heisenberg and his colleagues were so baffled by the results that they did not try to use them to challenge the prevailing materialistic worldview. Instead, they simply identified a series of principles which would guide them in their experimentation. Only later did they realize that their conclusions demanded a paradigm shift in physics. The classical, materialistic view of the world was being replaced by something radically different. Why?

Quantum mechanics accounts with fantastic accuracy for the empirical data both old and new. The core difference between the two theories is that in the earlier classical theory all causal effects in the world of matter are reducible to the action of matter upon matter, whereas in the new theory our conscious intentions and mental efforts play an essential and irreducible causal role in the determination of the evolving[xxxvi] material properties of the physically described world. Thus the new theory elevates our acts of conscious observation from causally impotent witnesses of a flow of physical events determined by material processes alone to irreducible mental inputs into the determination of the future of an evolving psycho-physical universe.[xxxvii]

Stapp emphasizes that this shift followed entirely objective research, and that it was not at all ideologically driven. “The strangle-hold of materialism was broken simply by the need to accommodate the empirical data of atomic physics, but the ontological ramifications went far deeper, into the issue of our own human nature and the power of our thoughts to influence our psycho-physical future.”[xxxviii]

In one of the first quantum mechanics textbooks, written in 1932, the Hungarian mathematical physicist John von Neumann explained the already massively confirmed conclusion that wave function collapse happened through the intervention of an observer rather than through static physical laws. Furthermore, it was already clear that the observer (i.e. the scientist who was doing the experiment) was “a new entity relative to the physical environment”. As unusual as this may sound in the 21st century, Neumann very naturally observed that it agreed with what we all intuitively know to be true—that we have free wills that can directly affect actions in the physical world (i.e. the mind-over-matter mystery):

Let us now compare these circumstances with those which actually exist in nature or in its observation. First, it is inherently entirely correct that the measurement or the related process of the subjective perception is a new entity relative to the physical environment and is not reducible to the latter. Indeed, subjective perception leads us into the intellectual inner life of the individual, which is extra-observational by its very nature (since it must be taken for granted by any conceivable observation or experiment).[xxxix]

This next point might sound odder still, but it is interesting to hear how these scientists were processing what they learned the laboratory. Neumann went on to explain that the boundary between the observer (“the new entity relative to the physical environment”i.e. a soul) and the observed physical system was arbitrary, but that the observer was located within a scientist’s body.

It must be possible to describe the extra-physical process of the subjective perception…That is, we must always divide the world into two parts, the one being the observed system, the other the observer. In the former, we can follow up all physical processes (in principle at least) arbitrarily precisely. In the latter, this is meaningless. The boundary between the two is arbitrary to a very large extent…but this does not change the fact that in each method of description the boundary must be put somewhere, if the method is not to proceed vacuously, i.e., if a comparison with experiment is to be possible. Indeed experience only makes statements of this type: an observer has made a certain (subjective) observation; and never any like this: a physical quantity has a certain value.[xl]

What is abundantly clear, according to Stapp, is that Neumann and his colleagues were drawing conclusions without regard to any presuppositions or any “a priori adherence to material causes”. By contrast, Stapp says the modern obsession with materialism shows a reckless, stubborn disregard for empirical evidence. (After what we have read, that should come as no surprise. If naturalists refuse to even acknowledge the immaterial nature of information, how much easier will it be for them to ignore physicists’ more complex discovery of a direct link between consciousness and our physical actions and behavior?) Stapp is aghast:

Given this recognized major importance of the mind-brain problem, you might think that the most up-to-date, powerful, and appropriate scientific theories would be brought to bear upon it. But just the opposite is true! Most neuro-scientific studies of this problem are based on the precepts of nineteenth century classical physics, which are known to be fundamentally false. Most neuroscientists follow the recommendation of DNA co-discoverer Francis Crick, and steadfastly pursue what philosopher of science Sir Karl Popper called “Promissory Materialism”.[xli]

Now quantum mechanics points to much more than an immaterial mind. To be more precise, it reveals an immaterial free will. A century ago physicists discovered a “causal gap” between the questions that they asked and the answers which laboratory experiments gave. In other words, they found not only that future physical actions were truly unpredictable—as opposed to following the sort of predetermined physical laws that govern bouncing billiard balls—but they also realized that the scientists themselves were the cause of that unpredictability. As simple as this discovery might sound, it pointed to a radical paradigm shift into our view of the physical world: our decisions are entirely free, in the most profound sense of that word, and they have a permanent impact upon future events. As Nobel Prize-winning Dutch Physicist Gerard t’Hooft put it:

Indeed, when one attempts to construct models that visualize what might be going on in a quantum mechanical process, one finds that deterministic interpretations usually lead to predictions that would obey his inequalities, while it is well understood that quantum mechanical predictions violate them. In attempts to get into grips with this situation, and to derive its consequences for deterministic theories, the concept of “free will” was introduced. Basically, it assumes that any ‘observer’ has the freedom, at all times and all places, to choose, at will, what variables to observe and measure.[xlii]

Although many of the scientists that we quoted in this chapter wanted to assume free will to be an intrinsic phenomenon that we should just take for granted, whether illusory or not, none of them could even begin to make any sense of it, for materialism requires that such lofty beliefs be considered completely irrelevant. By contrast, Stapp says quantum mechanics reveals exactly, measurably, how an immaterial mind can cause small-scale changes in the brain that can lead to large-scale changes in the world.

It is exactly this problem of the connection between physically described small-scale properties and directly experienced large-scale properties that orthodox quantum theory successfully resolves. To ignore this solution, and cling to the false precepts of classical mechanics that leave mind and consciousness completely out of the causal loop, seems to be totally irrational. What fascination with the weird and the incredible impels philosophers to adhere, on the one hand, to a known-to-be-false physical theory that implies that all of our experiences of our thoughts influencing our actions are illusions, and to reject, on the other hand, the offerings of its successor, which naturally produces an image of ourselves that is fully concordant with our normal intuitions, and can explain how bodily behavior can be influenced by felt evaluations that emerge from an aspect of reality that is not adequately conceptualized in terms of the mechanistic notion of bouncing billiard balls?[xliii]

Thus quantum mechanics confirms what we intuitively know to be true: we have free will in choosing what to do with our bodies, whether that choice is as simple as raising your hand or as complex as designing and launching a rocket ship to mars. If we let go of materialism and allow for the presence of a soul—with genuinely subjective experiences (as opposed to calling them illusions or hallucinations) and free will and intentionality, etc.—then all the scientific facts fit together beautifully. Stapp says there is nothing goofy or weird, not to mention unscientific, about figuring an immaterial mind into the equations—literally, part of the equations.

Quantum mechanics thereby provides a rational science-based escape from the philosophical, metaphysical, moral, and explanatory dead ends that are the rational consequences of the prevailing entrenched and stoutly defended in practice—although known to be basically false in principle—classical materialistic conception of the world and our place within it.[xliv]

Now as to our place in the world, so far as we know it is confined to our bodies. So what would a disembodied mind/soul be able to do? Where would it exist? I am quite sure that I definitely will not try to speculate on such matters. We have these astronomically complex, amazingly powerful brains—brains which the materialists have done amazing work in studying and explaining—that we can use to put men on the moon and to compose symphonies and to compose chili. But after our bodies die? That’s an excellent question.

Stapp, for his part, takes a very bold stance on spirituality and religion:

This situation is concordant with the idea of a powerful God that creates the universe and its laws to get things started, but then bequeaths part of this power to beings created in his own image, at least with regard to their power to make physically efficacious decisions on the basis of reasons and evaluations. I see no way for contemporary science to disprove, or even render highly unlikely, this religious interpretation of quantum theory, or to provide strong evidence in support of an alternative picture of the nature of these ‘free choices’. These choices seem to be rooted in reasons that are rooted in feelings pertaining to value or worth. Thus it can be argued that quantum theory provides an opening for an idea of nature and of our role within it that is in general accord with certain religious concepts, but that, by contrast, is quite incompatible with the precepts of mechanistic deterministic classical physics. Thus the replacement of classical mechanics by quantum mechanics opens the door to religious possibilities that formerly were rationally excluded. This conception of nature, in which the consequences of our choices enter not only directly in our immediate neighborhood but also indirectly and immediately in far-flung places, alters the image of the human being relative to the one spawned by classical physics. It changes this image in a way that must tend to reduce a sense of powerlessness, separateness, and isolation, and to enhance the sense of responsibility and of belonging. Each person who understands him-or herself in this way, as a spark of the divine, with some small part of the divine power, integrally interwoven into the process of the creation of the psycho-physical universe, will be encouraged to participate in the process of plumbing the potentialities of, and shaping the form of, the unfolding quantum reality that it is his or her birthright to help create.[xliiv]

[i] How Matter Becomes Mind,” by Max Bertolero and Danielle Bassett. Scientific American, July 2019, Volume 320 Number 6. Pp. 26-33.

[ii] Max Tegmark. Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. Alfred A. Knopf. 2017. (p.284-285)

[iii] Werner R. Loewenstein, Physics in Mind (New York: Basic Books, 2013), pp. 221.


[v] Richard Lewontin, “Billions and Billions of Demons,” a review of The Demon-Haunted World (by Carl Sagan, 1997), The New York Review of Books, January 9, 1997, 31.

[vi] Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis (London: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 3.

[vii] Margaret Wertheim, “SCIENTISTS AT WORK: FRANCIS CRICK AND CHRISTOF KOCH,” New York Times, April 13, 2004,

[viii] Daniel Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2018) Kindle Location 184-195.

[ix] Kenneth R. Miller, The Human Instinct (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), 150.

[x] IBID 168.

[xi] Michael S. Gazzaniga, The Consciousness Instinct (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), 7.

[xii] William James, The Principles of Psychology (1890), in Great Books of the Western World, vol. 53, ed. by Robert Maynard Hutchins (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952), 95.

[xiii] American Philosophy: An Encyclopedia, ed. by John Lachs and Robert Talisse (New York: Routledge, 2007), 310.

[xiv] Philip J. Davis and Reuben Hersh, The Mathematical Experience (Boston: Birkhäuser, 1981), 362.

[xv] Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate (New York: Viking, 2002), 192.

[xvi] Stven Pinker, The Language Instinct (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), 4-5.

[xvii] IBID 20.                                       

[xviii] Michael S. Gazzaniga, The Consciousness Instinct (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), 232.

[xix] IBID 235-236.

[xx] IBID 238.

[xxi] Sean Carroll, The Big Picture (New York: Dutton, 2016), 310-311.

[xxii] IBID 357-358.

[xxiii] IBID 210.

[xxiv] Christof Koch, Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012), 132.

[xxv] IBID 132.

[xxvi] Koch, Christof. The Feeling of Life Itself (The MIT Press) . The MIT Press. Kindle Edition. Location 4198.

[xxvii] Christof Koch, Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012), 152.

[xxviii] Christof Koch, “A Complex Theory,” in The Secrets of Consciousness, November 18, 2013,Scientific American Editors, Kindle Locations 1310-1316.

[xxix] Giulio Tononi and Christof Koch, Consciousness: here, there and everywhere?, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences. (The Royal Society Publishing, 2015), 370: 20140167,

[xxx] IBID.

[xxxi] Christof Koch, Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012), 132.

[xxxii] Alan Jasanoff, The Biological Mind (New York: Basic Books, 2018), 170.

[xxxiii] Max Bertolero and Danielle Bassett, “How Matter Becomes Mind,” Scientific American, July 2019, Volume 320 Number 6. (pp. 28)

[xxxiv] IBID 32

[xxxv] Henry Stapp, Quantum Theory and Free Will (Springer International Publishing, Kindle Edition, 2017), Kindle Locations 339-342.

[xxxvi] Physicists talk about time evolution, which is when a wave collapses at a particular configuration of space (the most fit configuration) to form a particle.

[xxxvii] Henry Stapp, Quantum Theory and Free Will (Springer International Publishing, Kindle Edition, 2017), Kindle Locations 47-52.

[xxxviii] IBID 759-761.

[xxxix] John von Neumann, Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics, published 1932, translated from the German edition by Robert T. Beyer in 1949 (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1983), 418.

[xl] IBID 419-420

[xli] Henry Stapp, Quantum Theory and Free Will (Springer International Publishing, Kindle Edition, 2017), Kindle Locations 870-874.

[xlii] Gerard t’Hooft, “On the Free-Will Postulate in Quantum Mechanics”, arXiv (January 15, 2007)

[xliii] Henry Stapp, “Minds and Values in the Quantum Universe,” in Information and the Nature of Reality, ed. by Paul Davies and Niels Henrik Gregersen (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 108.

[xliv] Henry Stapp, Quantum Theory and Free Will (Springer International Publishing, Kindle Edition, 2017), Kindle Locations 1706-1708).

[xliiv] Henry Stapp, “Minds and Values in the Quantum Universe,” in Information and the Nature of Reality, ed. by Paul Davies and Niels Henrik Gregersen (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 117-118.

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