“Mind over Matter” Spock (Star Trek)

Spock applying the Vulcan ‘mind meld’ to Captain Kirk

Spock applying the Vulcan ‘mind meld’ to Captain Kirk

“Mind over Matter”

Spock (Star Trek)

These words, in this case taken from the television series Star Trek, were spoken by the alien character Spock.  He advised his fellow crew members to let their mind overcome things of the physical realm.  Through mental power you can control your emotions and, quite possibly, your physical body.  The logic of Spoke was that mind rules matter.

Against Spock we have modern science in a rush to prove that within matter we find the riddle of “mind”.  Most scientists believe that all “mental” events are a product of brain chemistry, electronic activity, etc.  It is the imbalances of the brain’s workings that cause mental issues.  By using various chemicals many mental conditions, specifically illnesses, are altered and cured. Much of psychology, once known for advocating “the talking cure”, has been reduced to a practice of dispensing drugs – a branch of pharmacology.  Of course, this movement towards chemical-based treatments is grounded in some good science.  As one example, the successful use of anti-depressant drugs for treating bi-polar disorders, and in curing other mental problems, including hyperactivity in some children, has been a testament to the power of chemicals, physical in nature, affecting things of the mind.  The recreational drugs commonly in use these days only reinforce this world-view – matter rules mind.

I believe that wholeheartedly accepting the proposition that there are physical explanations for all mental events is erroneous.  To go as far as postulating that mind is matter is a mistake – this thesis, that mental events equals brain events, is known as “Scientific Materialism” in the field of philosophy.  This theory involves the belief that the physical world, as seen by the natural sciences, is all that exists.  Ideas of mind (soul, god, etc.) are simply manifestations of physical happenings in the brain.  The chemical reactions, firing of synapses and other activities in the brain give rise to the magnificent phenomenon we know as “mind”.  There is not a Cartesian duality of mind and body… there is just body.

There is strong (irrefutable) evidence that poses a direct contradiction to the thesis that is known as Scientific Materialism.  Evidence that I believe is irreconcilable. This argument originates from the universe of “ideas”.  Everyone agrees that an idea, in its purest form, is outside of the physical world.  There is nothing in space that physically connects an idea to a material object… no invisible substance in the ether of ideas that could possibly touch our brain physically.  Yet I can outline four non-material events that can affect our body’s brain and emotions.

First, I’m coming back from a long holiday by rail. I get a call from my daughter saying she’s at the train station with my granddaughters. An idea, an image pops into my mind, of my granddaughters running towards me as I step off the train creates a smile and warm, cosy feelings.  Second, a friend sees a movie where the hero dies in the same fashion her father passed away a year ago. She goes into two days of depression.  Third, a man is walking down the street and he looks up and sees a half-naked woman on a billboard. He becomes sexually aroused in his mind and body.  Fourth, a patient is given a pill which is in fact a placebo but she’s told it is a new miracle medicine that will cure her disease… her condition improves. A simple “idea” has caused her to be cured and engulfed in a sense of well-being as serotonin is released into her physical brain.

All of the above examples are factual events.  These are all representing ideas that affect our own physical body/brain.  There is no connection, no chain of physical events that connects the idea to the effect.  It is not like a billiard ball crashing into another and changing its course.  Simply stated, there is no direct causation.  In each case discussed the mind is dramatically influenced. Yet there is no magical fluid or force that floats from the images or ideas into the brain.  A placebo, a fake pill, curing a patient?!  Yes, it does happen.

Spock was partly right as mind over matter is a regular occurrence in daily life.  And, as we’ve seen, the opposite is also true – matter can rule mind.  There is however a “thing” that may partly explain how both theories can be factual.  This thing sits outside of the whole paradigm of mind and body.  It is what I call the “quiet observer” that resides outside of what science refers to as mind.  I argue that is impossible to experience thoughts without some other thing that recognizes, or sees, those same thoughts.  Let us look at a movie theater as a metaphor.  Imagine a film is playing on the screen but there is no audience.  Regardless of the fact that there is a movie playing, there is nothing being seen.  In a way, the movie does not exist.  This example is similar to the old riddle:  if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there does it make a sound?  The answer is no.  Sound is a subjective manifestation of our hearing.  Sound waves created by a falling tree are not “sound” until they hit a receptor, like our ear, which turns the waves into some sort of sound in our head. 

One more example will help to define the need for our silent observer.  Close your eyes and conjure up an image of a flower… unless there is some “thing” else in this exercise, some “thing” to see the flower, then there is no flower in your mind.  It would be like an empty movie theatre (where the film is playing but no one sees it).  The need for this duality in our mind, in this case, an image and an observer, points to the enigma of our consciousness. Science has found nothing in the brain that fulfills a monitoring role – that some “thing” that observes the activity of thought and images in our mind/brain.

What then is this quiet observer?  What is this necessary conspirator that enables us to notice and then recognize our thoughts?  Who or what is seeing the flower in our mind?  It is the core subject of most religions and psychology.  The idea of soul springs from this phenomenon.  Freud and Jung were very interested in that as well. The self – critical superego may partly describe our quiet observer.  They are complicit – at least.  I call it pure subjectivity.    A mediator perhaps, but neither mind or matter. Beyond science and outside of space and time. Incomprehensible.