“Are minds confined to brains?” This question and the wider study of consciousness has captivated philosophers and scientists for the past 3,000 years. In modern times, and especially from the eighteenth-century onwards, the most pervasive position within scientific discourse has been the theory of materialism. Put simply, this is the view that everything that actually exists is material or physical. The materialist dogma ultimately reduces everything to unconscious matter — in fact, it implies that since everything is made of unconscious matter, including our brains, that the phenomenon of consciousness and “minds” should not exist at all. However, given that we are conscious, this poses a dilemma for the materialist: how does inert, physical matter give rise to consciousness and the capacity for subjective experience?
In philosophical terms, this is known as the “hard problem of consciousness”. In the materialist’s eyes, we ought to be unconscious — but we are not. This ultimately leaves the materialist with three options: firstly, they could argue that consciousness is an illusion; secondly, that we are conscious, but consciousness is just another way of talking about the physical activity of the brain; and finally, they could argue that consciousness is just an epiphenomenon, acting almost like a shadow — we are aware of its presence, but it doesn’t really do anything.
An important alternative theory of consciousness comes from the philosophical school of dualism. This position was first articulated by Rene Descartes in 1619, who claimed that the mental and the physical are, in some sense, radically different kinds of thing. The body was merely a “machine made of matter” composed solely of unconscious physical material. Even the human brain itself was included in this schema. However, the human mind was conscious and immaterial. This raised the question: how can an unconscious material brain interact with a conscious immaterial mind? Descartes’s solution was to propose what has come to be known as the “Ghost in the Machine”. In simple terms, the brain is a machine and there is a kind of homunculus, a little person, a “ghost” who works inside your head via the pineal gland controlling the machinery. Despite their differences, it is interesting to note how much the dualist and materialist theories focus on the interiority of conscious experience — in both schools of thought, the mind appears to be confined entirely within our heads, separating human experience from the continuum which exists between us and the external world.
This question has been explored by the author and biologist Rupert Sheldrake. Contrary to much of our inherited philosophical tradition and modern scientific discourse, Sheldrake claims that the materialist and dualist arguments are fundamentally flawed. He begins by asking: “Is your mind really all inside your head?”
Now, what’s interesting is that Sheldrake challenges both the materialist and dualistic positions and argues for something far more exciting, and enchanting.
He posits that the mind is not just confined to the brain. Rather, he says, ”the mind is field-like in nature.” Sheldrake compares our mind to an electromagnetic field. He argues: “For example, the field of a magnet is inside the bar magnet, and yet extends invisibly. Beyond it, it can attract other magnets, it can cause iron filings to line up in lines of force all around it, revealing the presence of the field. The Earth’s gravitational field is inside the Earth, and also stretches out invisibly far beyond it, keeping the moon in its orbit…minds are like that too, they’re like fields rooted in the brain and stretching out far beyond it.”
The idea of the ‘extended mind’ has become increasingly popular within philosophical discussion. We can see this view presented in the work of British philosopher Andy Clark, who has written a book called Supersizing the Mind. In addition, Alva Noë has written a book called Out of Our Heads, subtitled ‘Why you are not your brain, and other lessons from the Biology of Consciousness’. Their argument suggests that the mind is in fact an interaction between the brain and its environment, also known as the ‘inactive theory of the mind’.
Today, we are seeing more people who are drawn to this way of understanding consciousness and the mind. When we turn to individual and collective experiences, our conscious awareness of the world certainly extends beyond the confines of our head. Instead, our mind is something we experience in direct symbiosis with our surroundings. What stands out about this view is its emphasis on consciousness as a playing field which extends out into the world beyond our body, or head, and into the world of nature. This opens up further possibilities regarding the existence of consciousness independent of brains and nervous systems. We know from recent scientific studies that trees can communicate and support one another in intricate and complex networks — could this indicate the presence of cognition and even felt experience among plant life? For scientific discourse, this allows us to envision beyond the boundaries of our brains and into the potential consciousness of the world around us.
From here, we can then ask, how far does the mind extend? Sheldrake argues it can extend out into the universe itself: “if we look at a star, which is maybe say four light years away, I think our minds actually touch that star and in a sense go back in time as well. And it’s possible that if there were other planetary systems and a human looked at them, they might even be able to feel it or detect it…so there could be cosmic, literally cosmic, implications of this phenomenon.”
Sheldrake’s argument broadens our conception of how we understand consciousness and the philosophy of mind. What is possible if our minds are not just limited to being inside our head, or located within our brains? The materialist view has taken precedence in science, but it does not necessarily allow us to explore the nuances of awareness or what it means to be capable of subjective experience. Sheldrake’s argument opens the door to a more expansive understanding, offering unexplored insights into our understanding of consciousness itself.