Phantoms in the Brain

Phantoms in the Brain — Human Nature and
the Architecture of the Mind

V.S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee.
Fourth Estate (1998)

Ian Fleming from Dunedin sent two quotations from the book. The first is from chapter 7, "The Sound of One Hand Clapping":

"Unlike other animals, humans are acutely aware of their own mortality and are terrified of death. But the study of cosmology gives us a sense of timelessness, of being part of something much larger. The fact that your own personal life is finite is less frightening when you know you are part of an evolving universe — an ever-unfolding drama. This is probably the closest a scientist can come to having a religious experience.

"The same goes for the study of evolution, for it gives you a sense of time and place, allowing you to see yourself as part of a great journey. And likewise for the brain sciences. In this revolution we have given up the idea that there is a soul separatefrom our minds and bodies. Far from being terrifying, this idea is very liberating. If you think you're something special in this world, engaging in a lofty inspection of the cosmos from a unique vantage point, your annihilation becomes unacceptable. But if you're really part of the great cosmic dance of Shiva, rather than a mere spectator, then your inevitable death should be seen as a joyous reunion with nature rather than as a tragedy."

This is the book's concluding paragraphs:
"During the last three decades, neuroscientists throughout the world have probed the nervous system in fascinating detail and have learned a great deal about the laws of mental life and about how these laws emerge from the brain. The pace of progress has been exhilarating, but — at the same time — the findings make many people uncomfortable. It seems somehow disconcerting to be told that your life, all your hopes, triumphs and aspirations simply arise from the activity of neurons in your brain. But far from being humiliating, this idea is ennobling, I think. Science — cosmology, evolution and especially the brain sciences — is telling us that we have no privileged position in the universe and that our sense of having a private nonmaterial soul "watchingthe world" is really an illusion (as has been emphasised by Eastern mystical traditions like Hinduism and Zen Buddhism). Once you realise that far from being a spectator, you are in fact part of the eternal ebb and flow of events in the cosmos, this realisation is very liberating. Ultimately this idea also allows you to cultivate a certain humility — the essence of all authentic religious experience. It is not an idea that's easy to translate into words but comes very close to that of the cosmologist Paul Davies, who said: ‘Through science, we human beings are able to grasp at least some of nature's secrets. We have cracked part of the cosmic code. Why this should be, just why homo sapiens should carry the spark of rationality that provides the key to the universe, is a deep enigma. We, who are children of the universe — animated stardust — can nevertheless reflect on the nature of that same universe, even to the extend of glimpsing the rules on which it runs. How we have become linked into this cosmic dimension is a mystery. Yet the linkage cannot be denied. "What does it mean? What is Man that we might be party to such privilege? I cannot believe that our existence in this universe is a mere quirk of fate, an accident of history, an incidental blip in the great cosmic drama. Our involvement is too intimate. The physical species homo may count for nothing, but the existence of mind in some organism on some planet in the universe is surely a fact of fundamental significance. Through conscious beings the universe has generated self-awareness. This can be no trivial detail, no minor by-product of mindless, purposeless forces. We are truly meant to be here.’"
Ian concludes: "Are we? I don't think brain science alone, despite all its triumphs, will ever answer that question. But that we can ask the question at all is, to me, the most puzzling aspect of our existence."

[V.S. Ramachandran was the author and presenter of the 2003 Reith Lecture series, "The Emerging Mind"]