A Spiritual Solution to the Hard Problem of Consciousness — Afterthoughts 2
This is the latest in a series of articles. In an earlier one I offered a spiritual solution to the so-called Hard Problem of Consciousness. This was based on two almost identical understandings of what it means to be human, one by Raynor C. Johnson, author of books on spiritual themes, and another by the Theosophical Society. Both say that a human being is a hierarchy of several bodies. If required, please consult that article for the details. Here I’ll consider whether there is any evidence to suggest that this scenario is correct. Some of the things I say are speculative, are not therefore being proposed as facts, and are unlikely to convince materialist scientists. That doesn’t matter. They are merely suggestions, which I’m hoping might prompt some further discussion and contributions from readers. My intention is merely to outline the difficulties which arise if one tries to stick to a materialist, ‘scientific’ worldview.
There are three questions to consider:
- is there any general evidence to suggest that these other bodies exist?
- in the lower level of the personality, in addition to body/feelings/mind, is there an extra etheric or vital body?
- is there a division between higher and lower levels of our being?
Perhaps the most significant evidence that humans have extra ‘bodies’, is the phenomenon of out-of-body experiences. I personally know three people to whom this has happened, and Jack Preston King, former prolific writer on Medium, has told me that he has also had this experience. The most obvious explanation would seem to be that this is the astral body, the next higher in the hierarchy above the physical, which has temporarily escaped the material plane. It’s worth noting that in New Age literature this phenomenon is sometimes called astral travelling.
A less dramatic version of this would seem to be the parapsychological phenomenon of remote viewing. Here consciousness has apparently left the body, since it can ‘see’ things in far away places which the physical eyes cannot. The viewer, however, has no sense that he or she has actually left the body; what is ‘seen’ is visualised internally (perhaps by the astral body?). This is not something that can be easily dismissed by sceptical scientists, since the CIA once had a remote viewing programme which achieved useful results. Two of the most successful exponents were Pat Price, and Joseph McMoneagle, who told his story in Memoirs of a Psychic Spy. One of his impressive successes is described by Dean Radin in The Conscious Universe¹.
Especially significant evidence for the existence of higher bodies are the problems associated with biological morphogenesis. This was discussed by the physicist Paul Davies in The Cosmic Blueprint², where he said: “Among the many scientific puzzles posed by living organisms, perhaps the toughest concerns the origin of form. Put simply, the problem is this. How is a disorganized collection of molecules assembled into a coherent whole that constitutes a living organism, with all the right bits in the right places? The creation of biological forms is known as morphogenesis, and despite decades of study it is a subject still shrouded in mystery”. (He was writing in 1989, and science can sometimes move forward quickly. I would be surprised, however, if significant progress has been made since then on the problems he outlines.)
He elaborates in the following quotations:
“The enigma is at its most striking in the seemingly miraculous development of an embryo from a single fertilized cell into a more or less independent living entity of fantastic complexity, in which many cells have become specialized to form parts of nerve, liver, bone, etc. It is a process that is somehow supervised to an astonishing level of detail and accuracy in both space and time. In studying the development of the embryo it is hard to resist the impression that there exists somewhere a blueprint, or plan of assembly, carrying the instructions needed to achieve the finished form. In some as yet poorly understood way, the growth of the organism is tightly constrained to conform to this plan. There is thus a strong element of teleology involved. It seems as if the growing organism is being directed towards its final state by some sort of global supervising agency” (p102).
If the information is stored in the DNA of the original fertilized egg, this implies that the plan is molecular in nature. “The problem is then to understand how the spatial arrangement of something many centimetres in size can be organized from the molecular level. Consider, for example, the phenomenon of cell differentiation. How do some cells ‘know’ they have to become blood cells, while others must become part of the gut, or backbone? Then there is the problem of spatial positioning. How does a given cell know where it is located in relation to other parts of the organism, so that it can ‘turn into’ the appropriate type of cell for the finished product?
“Related to these difficulties is the fact that although different parts of the organism develop differently, they all contain the same DNA. If every molecule of DNA possesses the same global plan for the whole organism, how is it that different cells implement different parts of that plan? Is there, perhaps, a ‘metaplan’ to tell each cell which part of the plan to implement. If so, where is the metaplan located? In the DNA? But this is surely to fall into an infinite regress”.
Davies continues to discuss further difficulties if the blueprint is genetic, then says: “The real challenge is to demonstrate how localized interactions can exercise global control. It is very hard to see how this can ever be explained in mechanistic terms at the molecular level” (p104). If that is true, then we presumably have to look to other higher levels in order to explain this indisputably real phenomenon. In the light of the current discussion, it is not hard to know where to look to find these higher levels. They are exactly those listed by Raynor Johnson and the Theosophical Society.
Davies goes on to observe that the traditional mechanistic, reductionist approach is based on the particle concept of physics, but that particles as primary objects have been replaced in physics by fields. He notes, however that “so far the field concept has made little impact on biology” (p105). He then suggests a possible solution to the above problems: “A possible escape is to suppose that somehow the global plan is stored in the fields themselves, and that the DNA acts as a receiver rather than a source of genetic information” (p106).
I would suggest that this is indeed the case, or at least that such an idea, if true, fits neatly with the idea of downward causation as expressed by Raynor Johnson and the Theosophical Society. Are these ‘fields’ a scientific way of describing what spiritual people call etheric or astral bodies, or even the soul? And, like the DNA, is the brain also the receiver of information from these bodies, rather than the programmer that scientists assume?
More evidence to suggest that we have these other bodies is that, even though all the molecules in our bodies are continually dying and being replaced, to the extent that at some point nothing of our previous physical self remains, our bodies, sense of identity, and memories nevertheless remain intact during this process of regeneration, of which we are completely unaware. It is reasonable to ask how this can be possible, and one suggestion would be that we are maintained in our being by one or more of these higher bodies, or ‘fields’ as Davies might say.
This problem is addressed by biologist Rupert Sheldrake in his book The Science Delusion³. He quotes Francis Crick: “How then is memory stored in the brain so that its trace is relatively immune to molecular turnover?” Materialist scientists believe that the brain is the source of everything to do with consciousness, and therefore that memories must be stored in the brain as material traces. Where else could they be? However, as Sheldrake points out: “Attempts to locate memory traces have been unsuccessful despite more than a century of research, costing many billions of dollars”.
He provides details of some specific experiments:
- Some animals “could still remember what they had learned even after large amounts of brain tissue had been removed”, and “learned habits were retained after the associative areas of the brain were destroyed. Habits also survived a series of deep incisions into the cerebral cortex that destroyed cross-connections within it. Moreover, if the cerebral cortex was intact, removal of subcortical structures such as the cerebellum did not destroy the memory either”.
- “Even in invertebrates specific memory traces have proved elusive. In a series of experiments with trained octopuses, learned habits survived when various parts of the brain were removed”.
- “The region of the brain (of young chicks) involved in the learning process was not necessary for the retention of memory”.
- When a caterpillar is metamorphosed into a moth “in the pupa, almost all the caterpillar tissues are dissolved before the new structures of the adult develop. Most of the nervous system is dissolved as well”. Yet a team of scientists “found that moths could remember what they had learned as caterpillars in spite of all the changes they went through during metamorphosis”.
Erik Kandel, Nobel Laureate in 2000, said in his acceptance speech that these problems of understanding how memory works “will require more than the bottom-up approach of molecular biology”. This obviously means that they would require a top-down approach, otherwise known as downward causation, which is exactly what is claimed by the hierarchy-of-bodies theory under discussion. Perhaps memories are stored in the higher bodies. Further evidence that this might be the case is that there are numerous examples of children who remember details from their past lives. This obviously could not happen if memories are stored in, and die with, the brain. (I have discussed this phenomenon in earlier articles, click here and here.)
Turning now specifically to the question of the etheric body, according to both Raynor Johnson’s and the Theosophical Society’s scenarios, this exists at a level close to but above the physical. Johnson says: “During the life of the physical body, this etheric structure never wholly withdraws from it, but tries to maintain the health of the nervous system”. Along similar lines, the TS says that it is “an indispensable factor of the living man”. What evidence is there for the existence of this body?
We know that our physical bodies are capable of extraordinary feats of self-healing, for example blood clotting, broken bones mending, wounds healing. Materialist biologists would have to say that these abilities have emerged and evolved through a process of natural selection. I have my doubts. The body acts as if it were being directed by some hidden intelligence, a mysterious healer. Perhaps this is actually the case, and the mysterious healer is this etheric body. Interestingly, blood clotting was one of several items that biochemist Michael Behe, in his groundbreaking book Darwin’s Black Box⁴, identified as being impossible to have come about by the gradual process of natural selection. He says that it is “a problem that has resisted the determined efforts of a top-notch scientist for four decades. Blood coagulation is a paradigm of the staggering complexity that underlies even apparently simple bodily processes” (p 97). “No one at Harvard University, no one at the National Institutes of Health, no member of the National Academy of Sciences, no Nobel prize winner — no one at all can give a detailed account of how the cilium, or vision, or blood clotting , or any complex biochemical process might have developed in a Darwinian fashion” (p 187). In this book he coined the term irreducible complexity in relation to this phenomenon, and advocated Intelligent Design as a better explanation. Perhaps the etheric body is part of this intelligent system which maintains the health of the body.
Further evidence for the existence of the etheric body can be found if we consider sleep. We know that it’s essential for our health, that sleep deprivation has a seriously bad effect upon us. We take it for granted, it’s completely normal, we all do it, and don’t even think about it; we just become tired and fall asleep. You may be surprised to discover, therefore, that scientists do not really understand why we need to sleep. In an article on Medium by Markham Heid, Dr. Leila Kheirandish-Gozal, a sleep research and professor of pediatrics at the University of Missouri School of Medicine, was quoted: “Despite years of scientific research and studies, we still don’t completely understand why we need to sleep”. Dr. Carl Bazil, director of the Division of Epilepsy and Sleep at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, said: “We know sleep is useful, but when you ask why we do it in the first place — why every animal, including insects and worms, go through it — there’s really no answer to that. All we can really say is that it’s important”. In an article in New Scientist magazine, Michelle Carr, a sleep researcher at Swansea University, said: “Despite spending roughly a third of our lives in the land of nod, what exactly sleep is for, and why it is so crucial to our health, largely remains a mystery”.
Every time I hear a scientist say that something is a mystery, my first reaction is to wonder whether the answer lies in a more spiritual understanding. That may well be the case here. Why do scientists find the need to sleep mysterious? Perhaps because they cannot see beyond the body and the brain, and think that these alone are responsible for the maintenance of health. The scientists can therefore see no reason why the brain cannot do its job just as well when we are awake.
This does not seem to be the case, however. One might think that brain activity would be reduced when we are unconscious and resting (doesn’t the brain need to rest too?). The opposite is the case, however; brain activity increases while we are asleep. As the first article says, “what experts do know is that sleep is a surprisingly active and fertile time for the brain”. This increased activity may well be the etheric body working on the brain and the body. Since sleep is essential for our well-being, my suggestion is therefore that this etheric body can do its work better when the ego-self is asleep. As the first article states: “While your brain is able to engage in some of these chores while you’re awake, the hours you spend asleep seem to do all this more thoroughly and efficiently”. On this point, it’s also worth noting that, when people have a life-threatening condition, the doctor sometimes puts them into an induced coma. Why? Presumably because they know the body is better able to heal itself while unconscious.
When contemplating the existence of these etheric and astral bodies, there is a suggestion of the supposedly discredited theory of Vitalism, the belief that there is some kind of animating principle required by the physical body to enable it to live. (Both Johnson’s and the TS’s scenarios use the word ‘vital’.) Perhaps death comes when the etheric and astral bodies are no longer capable of maintaining the physical body in being. Many people present at the bedside of someone dying report their impression that something appears to leave the body. That doesn’t of course mean that it’s true, but it certainly makes a lot of sense.
To advocate Vitalism is currently a biological ‘heresy’. Everything about a human, so many scientists claim, or would like to believe, can be explained solely by reference to the body and the brain. My observation would be that when you rule out spiritual explanations, you may well end up with mysteries you can’t explain, as in the case of sleep, as the scientists quoted above concede.
Another such mystery is that of homeopathy. This has been deemed ‘pseudoscience’ by sceptics, and sometimes derided and abused. Several years ago in Britain there were even demonstrations outside chemists selling homeopathic remedies, on the grounds that they did not work, and were therefore fraudulent.
The problem for materialist science is that one of the claims of homeopathy is that a proposed remedy should be distilled, sometimes up to the point when not one molecule remains of the healing agent. Even though no material trace remains, the claim is nevertheless that it still works.
I once had the good fortune to be introduced at a party to a practising homeopath. He was convinced that homeopathy worked, but was also a trained ‘scientist’, and therefore had all the expected reservations and doubts. He explained to me how this conflict was tormenting him, and that he was at a loss to know how to resolve it. I would say that he at least had the courage to hold this tension in his mind, unlike more conventional scientists, who avoid such discomfort by rejecting homeopathy, and other alternative medical approaches, without full and proper investigation.
Is this dismissal of homeopathy just another example of materialism being unable to contemplate a more esoteric, spiritual understanding? The great German dramatist and philosopher Gotthold Lessing wrote of the esoteric healer Paracelsus: “Those who imagine that the medicine of Paracelsus is a system of superstitions that we have fortunately outgrown, will, if they come to know its principles, be surprised to find that it is based upon a superior kind of knowledge that we have not yet attained, but into which we may hope to grow”⁵. Perhaps we also need a superior kind of knowledge to understand homeopathy, and indeed other alternative medical practices like acupuncture. That superior knowledge would, of course, be a more spiritual understanding. If homeopathy indeed works, one possibility is that the healing is taking place at the level of the non-material etheric body. This would be something similar to what I said above about memories being stored in the higher levels. Perhaps the etheric body absorbs some kind of memory of the distilled healing agent.
That is my best effort at coming up with evidence for the existence of these higher bodies. I’d be interested if any readers have further ideas on this topic. I’ll address my third question about the higher and lower levels of being in the next article.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics, and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).
1. HarperOne, 1997, p214
2. Unwin Hyman Ltd., 1989
3. Coronet, 2012
4. The Free Press, Simon & Schuster, 1996, my copy 2003