The following is excerpted from The Intelligence of the Cosmos by Ervin Laszlo, published by Inner Traditions.
What about mind? If the world is vibration, is also mind and consciousness a form of vibration? Or on the contrary, are all vibrations, the observed world, a manifestation of mind?
Although it is true that when all is said and done all we know is our consciousness, it is also true that we do not know our own consciousness, not to mention the consciousness of anyone else. We do not know what consciousness really is or how it is related to the brain. Since our consciousness is the basis of our identity, we do not know who we really are. Are we a body that generates the stream of sensations we call consciousness, or are we a consciousness associated with a body that displays it? Do we have consciousness, or are we consciousness? Consciousness could be a kind of illusion, a set of sensations produced by the workings of our brain. But it could also be that our body is a vehicle, a transmitter of a consciousness that is the basic reality of the world. The world could be material, and mind could be an illusion. Or the world could be consciousness, and the materiality of the world could be the illusion.
Both of these possibilities have been explored in the history of philosophy, and today we are a step closer than before to understanding which of them is true. There are important insights emerging at the expanding frontiers where physical science joins consciousness research.
On the basis of a growing series of observations and experiments, a new consensus is emerging. It is that “my” consciousness is not just my consciousness, meaning the consciousness produced by my brain, any more than a program transmitted over the air would be a program produced by my TV set. Just like a program broadcast over the air continues to exist when my TV set is turned off, my consciousness continues to exist when my brain is turned off.
Consciousness is a real element in the real world. The brain and body do not produce it; they display it. And it does not cease when life in the body does. Consciousness is a reflection, a projection, a manifestation of the intelligence that “in-forms” the world.
Mystics and shamans have known that this is true for millennia, and artists and spiritual people know it to this day. Its rediscovery at the leading edge of science augurs a profound shift in our view of the world. It overcomes the answer the now outdated materialist science gives to the question regarding the nature of mind: the answer according to which consciousness is an epiphenomenon, a product or by-product of the workings of the brain. In that case, the brain would be like an electricity-generating turbine. The turbine is material, while the current it generates is not (or not strictly) material. In the same way, the brain could be material, even if the consciousness it generates proves to be something that is not quite material.
On first sight, this makes good sense. On a second look, however, the materialist concept encounters major problems. First, a conceptual problem. How could a material brain give rise to a truly immaterial stream of sensations? How could anything that is material produce anything immaterial? In modern consciousness research this is known as the “hard problem.” It has no reasonable answer. As researchers point out, we do not have the slightest idea how “matter” could produce “mind.” One is a measurable entity with properties such as hardness, extension, force, and the like, and the other is an ineffable series of sensations with no definite location in space and an ephemeral presence in time.
Fortunately, the hard problem does not need to be solved: it is not a real problem. There is another possibility: mind is a real element in the real world and is not produced by the brain; it is manifested and displayed by the brain.
Mind beyond Brain: Evidence for a New Concept of Consciousness
If mind is a real element in the real world only manifested rather than produced by the brain, it can also exist without the brain. There is evidence that mind does exist on occasion beyond the brain: surprisingly, conscious experience seems possible in the absence of a functioning brain. There are cases—the near-death experience (NDE) is the paradigm case—where consciousness persists when brain function is impaired, or even halted.
Thousands of observations and experiments show that people whose brain stopped working but then regained normal functioning can experience consciousness during the time they are without a functioning brain. This cannot be accounted for on the premises of the production theory: if there is no working brain, there cannot be consciousness. Yet there are cases of consciousness appearing beyond the living and working brain, and some of these cases are not easy to dismiss as mere imagination.
A striking NDE was recounted by a young woman named Pamela. Hers has been just one among scores of NDEs;* it is cited here to illustrate that such experiences exist, and can be documented.
*For a more extensive sampling see Ervin Laszlo with Anthony Peake from The Immortal Mind (Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2014).
Pamela died on May 29, 2010, at the age of fifty-three. But for hours she was effectively dead on the operating table nineteen years earlier. Her near-demise was induced by a surgical team attempting to remove an aneurism in her brain stem.
After the operation, when her brain and body returned to normal functioning, Pamela described in detail what had taken place in the operating theater. She recalled among other things the music that was playing (“Hotel California” by the Eagles). She described a whole series of conversations among the medical team. She reported having watched the opening of her skull by the surgeon from a position above him and described in detail the “Midas Rex” bone-cutting device and the distinct sound it made.
About ninety minutes into the operation, she saw her body from the outside and felt herself being pulled out of it and into a tunnel of light. And she heard the bone saw activate, even though there were specially designed speakers in each of her ears that shut out all external sounds. The speakers themselves were broadcasting audible clicks in order to confirm that there was no activity in her brain stem. Moreover, she had been given a general anesthetic that should have assured that she was fully unconscious. Pamela should not have been able either to see or to hear anything.
It appears that consciousness is not, or not entirely, tied to the living brain. In addition to NDEs, there are cases in which consciousness is detached from the brain in regard to its location. In these cases consciousness originates above the eyes and the head, or near the ceiling, or above the roof. These are the out-of-body experiences: OBEs.
There are OBEs where congenitally blind people have visual awareness. They describe their surroundings in considerable detail and with remarkable accuracy. What the blind experience is not restored eyesight, because they are aware of things that are shielded from their eyes or are beyond the range of normal eyesight. Consciousness researcher Kenneth Ring called these experiences “transcendental awareness.”
Visual awareness in the blind joins a growing repertory of experiences collected and researched by Stanislav Grof: “transcendental experiences.” As Grof found, these beyond-the-brain and beyond-here-and-now experiences are widespread—more widespread than anyone would have suspected even a few years ago.
There are also reports of ADEs, after-death experiences. Thousands of psychic mediums claim to have channeled the conscious experience of deceased people, and some of these reports are not easy to dismiss as mere imagination. One of the most robust of these reports has come from Bertrand Russell, the renowned English philosopher. Lord Russell was a skeptic, an outspoken debunker of esoteric phenomena, including the survival of the mind or soul beyond the body. He once wrote, “I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive.” Yet after he died he conveyed the following message to the medium Rosemary Brown.
You may not believe that it is I, Bertrand Arthur William Russell, who am saying these things, and perhaps there is no conclusive proof that I can offer through this somewhat restrictive medium. Those with an ear to hear may catch the echo of my voice in my phrases, the tenor of my tongue in my tautology; those who do not wish to hear will no doubt conjure up a whole table of tricks to disprove my retrospective rhetoric.
. . . After breathing my last breath in my mortal body, I found myself in some sort of extension of existence that held no parallel as far as I could estimate, in the material dimension I had recently experienced. I observed that I was occupying a body predominantly bearing similarities to the physical one I had vacated forever; but this new body in which I now resided seemed virtually weightless and very volatile, and able to move in any direction with the minimum of effort. I began to think I was dreaming and would awaken all too soon in that old world, of which I had become somewhat weary to find myself imprisoned once more in that ageing form which encased a brain that had waxed weary also and did not always want to think when I wanted to think. . . .
Several times in my life [Lord Russell continued] I had thought I was about to die; several times I had resigned myself with the best will that I could muster to ceasing to be. The idea of B.R. no longer inhabiting the world did not trouble me unduly. Befitting, I thought, to give the chap (myself) a decent burial and let him be. Now here I was, still the same I, with the capacities to think and observe sharpened to an incredible degree. I felt earth-life suddenly seemed very unreal almost as it had never happened. It took me quite a long while to understand that feeling until I realized at last that matter is certainly illusory although it does exist in actuality; the material world seemed now nothing more than a seething, changing, restless sea of indeterminable density and volume.
This report “from beyond” appears hardly credible, were it not that it is supported by other ADEs. One of the most striking and difficult to dismiss of these ADEs is the case of a deceased chess grand master who played a game with a living grand master.*
*For details see Laszlo with Peake, The Immortal Mind.
Wolfgang Eisenbeiss, an amateur chess player, engaged the medium Robert Rollans to transmit the moves of a game to be played with Viktor Korchnoi, the world’s third-ranking grand master. His opponent was to be a player whom Rollans was to find in his trance state. Eisenbeiss gave Rollans a list of deceased grand masters and asked him to contact them and ask who would be willing to play. Rollans entered his state of trance and did so. On June 15, 1985, the former grand master Geza Maroczy responded and said that he was available. Maroczy was the third-ranking grand master in the year 1900. He was born in 1870 and died in 1951 at the age of eighty-one. Rollans reported that Maroczy responded to his invitation as follows.
I will be at your disposal in this peculiar game of chess for two reasons. First, because I also want to do something to aid mankind living on Earth to become convinced that death does not end everything, but instead the mind is separated from the physical body and comes up to us in a new world, where individual life continues to manifest itself in a new unknown dimension. Second, being a Hungarian patriot, I want to guide the eyes of the world into the direction of my beloved Hungary.
Korchnoi and Maroczy began a game that was frequently interrupted due to Korchnoi’s poor health and numerous travels. It lasted seven years and eight months. Speaking through Robert Rollans, Maroczy gave his moves in the standard form: for example, “5. A3 – Bxc3+”; Korchnoi gave his own moves to Rollans in the same form, but by ordinary communication. Every move was analyzed and recorded. It turned out that the game was played at the grand-master level and that it exhibited the style for which Maroczy was famous. It ended on February 11, 1993, when at move forty-eight Maroczy resigned. Subsequent analysis showed that it was a wise decision: five moves later Korchnoi would have achieved checkmate.
In this case the medium Rollans channeled information he did not possess in his ordinary state of consciousness. And this information was so expert and precise that it is extremely unlikely that any person Rollans could have contacted would have possessed it.
There are also firsthand testimonies of consciousness without a functioning brain. The well-known Harvard neurosurgeon Eben Alexander, who was just as insistently skeptical about consciousness beyond the brain as Lord Russell had been, gave a detailed account of his conscious experience during the seven days he spent in deep coma. In the condition in which he found himself, conscious experience, he previously said, is completely excluded. Yet his experience—which he described in detail in several articles and three bestselling books—was so clear and convincing that it has changed his mind. Consciousness, he is now claiming, can exist beyond the brain.
The above-cited cases illustrate that there is remarkable, and on occasion remarkably robust, evidence that consciousness is not confined to the living brain. Although this evidence is widespread, it is not widely known. There are still people, including scientists, who refuse to take cognizance of it. This is not surprising, given that the evidence is anomalous for the dominant world concept. Those who strongly disbelieve that such phenomena exist, not only refuse to consider evidence to the contrary, they often fail to perceive evidence to the contrary.
Nonetheless, the view that consciousness is a fundamental element in the world is gaining recognition. The Manifesto of the Summit on Post-Materialist Science, Spirituality and Society (Tucson, Arizona, 2015) declared: “Mind represents an aspect of reality as primordial as the physical world. Mind is fundamental in the universe, i.e., it cannot be derived from matter and reduced to anything more