the imaginative conservative logo

John Carew Eccles Seated at Desk

Sir John Carew Eccles

“The Nature of Man is the ultimate quest of Science.” —Sir John Carew Eccles

“Let us kill Mind!” Otto Neurath declared in 1921. Such was the mental death warrant the West went and issued against itself four centuries after the first modern philosopher declared the triumph of Mind as the only basis of the “I” to know its-Self. The morbid Mr. Neurath, high priest and patriarch of Viennese anti- Reason dogma, and his merry band of latter-day nihilists had stood waiting, grins wide and arms akimbo, at the finish line of Man’s Search For Himself as it came flying down the headless horseman path of post- Cartesian Western philosophy and straight into the twentieth century, hooves caked, cracked and bloodied with Dialectical Materialism, Positivist Marxism, Psychological Determinism and Behaviorial Reductionism greasing the gait. With that, the Mind, the Self, and the “I” were trampled out of existence.

The journey had been a tortured one, indeed. In the rebirth of Rationalism in the sixteenth century, modern philosophy posed its first and principal Question: How does one know when one knows that one knows one knows? This, in turn, begged the next Question of whether or not there was any actual thing to be known. If that thing constituted Reality, what determined that that reality was the objective reality of the world outside the ‘I’ and not the subjective reality of the inner life of the ‘I’? And if these two realities were different, which they inevitably were, on what did one base any claim to one Reality being more real than any other Reality? Exasperated with this, the first modern, Rene Descartes, decided to split Mind from Body, and the ‘I,’ the Conscious Self, was Mind—only it could apprehend experience. The second modern, David Hume, concluded that Mind was captive to sensation; therefore, the ‘I’ had to give the Body the upper hand. A third, Thomas Hobbes, said that Mind was a self-constructed illusion and as such there was no ‘I’ to speak of, and the fourth philosopher, George Berkeley, said that illusion was the result of a self-constructed Mind, therefore, the ‘I’ was a falsehood and a danger; an obstacle to Truth. Auguste Comte said the ‘I’ is incapable of reading its own Mind, and thus can never be conscious of its-Self; Karl Marx said Mind is incapable of knowing the ‘I’ without the Self- consciousness of class. Jean-Paul Sartre said that existence is a fraud so what does it all matter, while Ludwig Wittgenstein reduced the ‘I’ to his “beetle in the box” theory—that of an enclosed, irrelevant thing that knows only its own subjective sensation.

Finally, in his Manifesto calling for the banishment of conscious experience from philosophical discourse, the English psychologist John Watson, whom the unpleasant and brilliant Bertrand Russell declared the greatest analytical thinker since Aristotle, announced in 1910: The Soul is Dead. Thus, the history of Western philosophy, ever searching, like poor Diogenes with his lantern looking for an honest man, to define the external world through empirical or transcendental understanding, had come to a laughing (not even a screeching) halt. It had gone from the Logic of knowledge to the Metaphysics of knowledge to the Limits of knowledge to the Doubt of knowledge to the Mockery of knowledge, arriving at its final station stop: the Absurdity of knowledge. By 1925, expressions and words such as “conscious experience,” “thought,” “inner speech,” “mental image,” “meaning,” even “feeling” had been purged from academic vocabularies. Now, so many centuries after cultivated rationalists asked how must the ‘I’ know itself in order to know knowledge, cultivated irrationalists answered, there is no ‘I’ with which to know knowledge, which cannot be known anyway! The Love of Wisdom, now contaminated by the psychologizers, academ-ologues and philostitutes, was too on its deathbed, its grandeur mainly kept alive by a valiant group of renaissance Poles who, as members of the Warsaw “Golden Age of Logic” in the 1930s and 40s, persisted in maintaining sanity and rationality in that field of human knowledge. But not even they could stem the tide of the strangely zealous degradation of man-the-Thinker, man as Mind.

Ghost-in-the-machineThe nail on the coffin was given one last pounding in the field of Neurology, which as a growing science with psycho-physiological implications, took up the mantle from the Phenomenologists, the Existentialists, and the Behaviorialists as the anti-‘I” doctrine of choice, asserting scientifically that there was no Mind, only Brain. In 1949, The Concept of Mind, written by the highly regarded Oxfordian neurologist Gilbert Ryle, was published to great acclaim. Mr. Ryle wanted Cartesian “Dualism”–Mind as distinct from and superior to Body/Brain—literally off the books, the ones in student libraries. His was the famous “Ghost-in-the- Machine” argument: that there was no “ghost”—no floaty, spiritual aether in the head of man that constituted some kind of “I.” It was, instead, all about nuts-and-bolts gray-matter; raw material brain activity. Mr. Ryle argued that “Mind“ came down to neurophysiological mechanisms driving particular behaviors, ruling out the possibility of conscious mental experience. With the publication of this landmark book, researchers in neurology—and that science’s groupie entourage in psychology and philosophy—came to believe with almost cultish fervor that there was no such thing as a “Self“ as an abstract, independent element within homo sapiens aloof from the mere functions of stimuli and response. Radical Behaviorists, such as the creepy B.F. Skinner (yes, he raised his baby daughter in a box; no, she did not, as later reported, commit suicide), insisted there are only reward-and-punishment physical entities; no “mental” events or experiences. The Radical Materialist sect grew up around this and by the 1980s denied there was any such thing as “Consciousness” at all. Ryle’s followers continued on, trying to destroy Self, Mind and, above all, the “I.” They did not.

“The debasement of Man has gone too far—quite too far.” The voice was that of Sir John Carew Eccles, the Australian ray of light who was to set the world of neurology and neurophysiology on fire as the most clear, not to mention poetic, dissenter in the Mind-Brain debate. An Evolutionist-Creationist Catholic (or a Catholic-Creationist-Evolutionist), born in 1903 in Melbourne, the infectiously energetic Mr. Eccles was imposingly tall, the father of nine children, loved Australian folk-dance, was life-long friends with J.R.R. Tolkien, and penned some of the most breathtaking works on the Science of Mind in the twentieth century. For little did Mr. Eccles realize when he entered Magdalen College at Oxford University one fateful day in the 1920s “merely“ to study brain and spinal synaptic activity under his hero, Sir Charles Sherrington, that he would emerge so many years later—Knighthood to his name, Nobel Prize in hand—firmly convinced not only of the existence of a Mind, Soul and Spirit, but of “a Divine Providence operating over and above the materialist happenings of biological evolution”, as he wrote in his 1979 classic, The Human Mystery.

This “debasement” Mr. Eccles had decried in his 1974 book, The Self and Its Brain, authored with his good friend, the philosopher Sir Karl Popper. “It is said that we had to learn from Copernicus and Darwin that man’s place in the universe is not so exalted or so exclusive as man once thought,” the two men wrote. “But since Copernicus and Darwin we have learned as a civilization to appreciate how wonderful and rare our little Earth is in the universe,” and to contemplate, they continued, “the unique position of man among his fellow creatures.”

Such was how one of the greatest and least-known intellectual debates of the twentieth century took shape at that particular campus ravaged, as it then was, by an epidemic of genius so vast as to give the magic land known as “Oxford University in the 1920s” almost Arthurian levels of mystical sheen. In one corner were Mr. Wittgenstein, Mr. Russell, Thomas Huxley, Mr. Watson and Mr. Ryle arguing, with various levels of intent, against the ideas of Mind, the Soul, Consciousness, as anything more than transient “states”. On the opposite side were Mr. Sherrington, Mr. Eccles, and Mr. Sherrington’s early student, the American-born Wilder Penfield, future author of The Mystery of the Mind, one of the most fascinating–and readable–works of the last century on the “unanswered questions” of neurology. Again, these latter were “Dualists”: believers in Mind the driver; Brain the car; in the non-material Mind as fundamentally different from the physical body; in the reality of the world of Mind being “as real” as the reality of the material, physical world. In other words, the belief that we are “spiritual beings with souls existing in a spiritual world, as well as material being with bodies and brains existing in a material world,” wrote Mr. Eccles in his 1991 Evolution of the Brain: Creation of the Self.

It was a daunting task—one that called upon these men, led by Mr. Eccles, to argue scientifically on behalf of a separate Mind from Brain that could “will” itself beyond the mechanical responses of electro-chemical reaction. Keep in mind that Mr. Eccles’ “Dualism“ was not that of Descartes’: The French philosopher believed that Mind was a “substance,” whereas Mr. Eccles believed Mind was “the spiritual existence of the self,” and that the challenge before him was to explain how this spiritual self controls the brain. But his team happily took up the challenge: For, it is, they argued, precisely the Ghost-in-the Machine that is responsible for everything that makes us distinctly human, including conscious self-awareness, free will, personal identity, creativity and even emotions such as love, fear, and hate. Man’s ghostly spiritual presence, wrote Mr.  Eccles, exerts “just the whisper of a physical influence on the computer-like brain, enough to encourage some neurons to fire and others to remain silent.” In a December 1982 article in Science Digest entitled, “Scientists in Search of the Soul,” the writer John Gliedman wrote of Mr. Eccles: “Boldly advancing what for most scientists is the greatest heresy of all, Eccles also asserts that our non-material self survives the death of the physical brain.” Mr. Eccles and his comrades-at-arms saw in their undertaking nothing less than the dignity of man at stake.

The Human SoulIt has been said that philosophy can be defined as a blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat that is not there. The “Philosophy of Mind” is all of that, framed by a hall-of-mirrors inside a funhouse. First, there is the terminology to grapple with, confounded, as it is, by hair-splitting nuances. “Mind” is often “Spirit,” sometimes “Soul,” always the “I”; it is “Consciousness” and “Self-Consciousness.” Even German, the language of philosophy, softens its sharp-corners and finely beveled-edges on the matter: Gemüt (nature, as in man’s); Geist (spirit) and Seele (soul) all blend at times. When Immanuel Kant was trying to create an “anatomy of Mind” for his Critique of Pure Reason, he could not come up with a precise enough term for the sense he sought to unify sensibility, understanding, reason and judgement. Descartes, a century earlier, defined Mind as the “Third Eye,” which he located in the pineal gland. David Hume, in a moment of endearing candor rare in a philosopher, noted of his own tussle with Mind: “I dine, I play backgammon. I am merry with my friends and when after three, four hours amusement I return to these speculations, they appear cold, restrained and ridiculous. I cannot find it in my heart to enter into them further.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe then entered the fray, declaring-that Mind simply is what Mind does, while Continental enfant terrible Julien Offray de La Mettrie, just was not having any of it, calling man a “soulless creature ruled by laws of Nature” in his glum 1748 book, L’ Homme Machine (“Man The Machine”).

The ancients were more ethereal on the issue: The oldest books revealing man’s introspection were the Assyrian “Dream Books” of the fifth and sixth millennia, records of dreams, anxieties and concepts of shame. The Egyptians regarded the human soul as a breath that infused life. Beautiful passages in The Iliad and The Odyssey attest to thymos as the “stuff“ of life—a vaprous breath-soul that meant courage, vigor, spirit, while the Greek concept of psyche was something more solemn—a spirit of the body after death; a mere shadow-semblance of its past life. The Pythagoreans put forth the doctrine of the incorporeality of the soul, while Socrates has been called the first European to have had a clear conception of the soul as a moral personality. The pre-Socratic philosopher Anaxagoras is credited with having invented the refined concept of “Mind“ as nous, “the finest and the purest of all things”; for Plato, nous was “the pilot” driving man. Ancient Greece’s “materialists“ had their say, as well: Alcaemon of Croton was the first Greek thinker to have located sensation and thought (which he distinguished) in the brain. Hippocrates, in his On the Sacred Disease, asserted that the brain is the messenger to sunesis—translated in English as “consciousness.” Democritus, perhaps the most scientific thinker of the ancient Greek philosophers, explained all natural and psychological processes mechanically as the movement and collision of atoms.

Clearly, Western man all along has been quite tongue-tied as to the definition of the very thing that most distinguishes him from all other creatures, and, as an individual, from all other men. Suffice to say that this may be a case where poetry has the upper-hand over science in both precision and persuasiveness, and that we are better off defining this secret something, this Self-awareness and its elusive identity, as that which prompted Giovanni Battista Pergolesi to compose the Stabat Mater on his deathbed at age twenty-six; which compelled Osip Mandelstam to continue to write his epic poetry while freezing to death in a gulag at Vladivostock; which overwhelmed King Xerxes of Persia, who, according to the famous account of Herodotus, suddenly wept at the sight of his armies on the Hellespont, knowing he was sending them to certain slaughter…If such imagery best elucidates the “I”-inside, then so many terms and definitions are perhaps no longer so important….

But what was important to these Dualists was where, exactly, this “I” came from and how it got “inside.” To the French sixteenth century medical doctor, Jean Fernel, the leading proponent of Dualism after Descartes, Mind was but an “immaterial mystery.” It was this obscure figure whose views on Mind-Brain dualism fascinated Mr. Eccles’ mentor, Sir Charles Sherrington, and who thereby played the role of indirect catalyst for those Oxfordians’ lone and impassioned defense of Mind in the twentieth century.

Mr. Sherrington, by the turn of the century a cutting-edge leader in synaptical neuro-science for which he would receive the Nobel Prize, at first wobbled on the peripheries of scientific atheism. He began by arguing for a mind made strictly of material, as for him the idea of a “Mind” not ruled by Brain and of an immortal soul were “a flight into the rainbow’s end.” Yet by the time of the publication of his 1937 work, Man: On His Nature at the age of eighty, Mr. Sherrington had strong doubts about his own views. Three things were confusing him: first, the ‘manifold variety of the mind’ as he put it; second, the problem of personal meaning, and third, the ongoing problem of the subjectivity of experience. Mr. Sherrington could only conclude: “The human mind is strangely placed….”

His brilliant young student Mr. Eccles, meanwhile, had been making a name for himself studying the physiology of synaptical transmission (connection-points) between nerve cells and nerve membranes. Along the way, however, he became convinced that man’s mental development as explained by theories of evolution only went so far. As neurological research progressed to understand the correlation between conscious experiences such as visual perception and emotive responses with underlying neural structures and processes, neurology as a field still could not explain how conscious experiences arise.

As he moved between leading research posts at universities in New Zealand, Australia and the United States, Mr. Eccles began to formulate and refine his theories on the “self-conscious Mind.” As summarized in one article, “The Evolution of Consciousness,” of May 1992, Mr. Eccles proposed the following: The world of Consciousness, the mental world, is located in the neocortex, the largest part of the cerebral cortex, covering the two brain hemispheres. Consciousness is microgranular, with mental units called psychons. These psychons act upon dendrons, fundamental neural units, of which humans have approximately forty million, located in the cerebral cortex. (Primitive mammals have no more than 200,000 dendrons). In mind-brain interaction, one psychon (mind) is linked to one dendron (brain)—the “liason brain“ in this process—through synaptic communication based upon principles of quantum physics. When it comes to “will” or “intention,” the psychon acts upon the grid of synapses available to it on the corresponding dendron, increasing the “quantum probability“ of firing off the willed-action to follow. In evolution, dendrons developed in a more sophisticated manner through natural selection as the brain sought more efficient integration of the increased complexity of sensory input (light, sound, touch, taste, etc.).

These dendrons themselves have no mental-experience properties. Psychons—the world of pain, intentions, feelings, memories in humans—became the “unintended“ consequence as this complexity grew, forming the mental-world of conscious experience, each psychon being a unitary experience in consciousness. In Darwinian evolution, base-line consciousness in mammals would have occurred approximately 200 million years ago, when the evolving cerebral cortex was getting its synaptical communication gear into just the right order. Mammals have psychons—advanced creatures are said to have emotional attachment—but on a rudimentary level. For humans it is far different, Mr. Eccles concludes in his article. Evolution could explain “the origin of consciousness in primitive mammals but [it] could not account for the highest levels of consciousness in homo sapiens sapiens—self-consciousness—the unique experience of each human self.”

Hemispheres NewerThis is but the very tip of the iceberg of Mr. Eccles’ researches. Yet it was through such studies—far more detailed and complicated than can be presented in this space—that he began to extrapolate his philosophical views, developed over decades. Those views are as follows: that this Mind is a mental entity of consciousness that exercises top-level control over neural excitations. It is distinct from, superior to and exercises surveillance-powers over Brain. The self-conscious mind “emerged“ as a synthesizing agent to make order out of the disparate neural events of the brain, which knows no such order, no such unifying capability. This Mind, in turn, does a “marvellous integrating and driving and controlling job on the neural machinery of the brain“, as Mr. Eccles writes. The Mind is not, as said earlier, composed of a “substance“, as Descartes would have it (not a pineal gland, not a goo, not special-edition gray matter, not a beetle, not a black cat) but is a spirit, and one that survives death—a conclusion Mr. Eccles came to as a result of his scientific research, not a hypotheses he randomly, or hopefully, started with. This self-conscious mind does not fit other known physical phenomena or known physical laws.

The “I“, in turn, has its origins and home-base in Mind. This “I“ is an “experienced unity“ that is created through the linking-by-memory of conscious states that are experienced at widely different times spread over a lifetime. In order that there may be “I“, there must be a continuity of mental experiences and, particularly, continuity in bridging gaps of consciousness. This is the extent, in other words, to which the poet moved to write from a gulag; the Stabat Mater on a deathbed, the King crying in pain for the fate of his troops, can be described by neurology. But the why of such actions eludes all science.

“I am constrained,” Mr. Eccles wrote in his 1991 book Evolution of the Brain: Creation of the Self, “to attribute the uniqueness of the Self or Soul to a supernatural spiritual creation.” Darwinian Evolution, he continued, just fell too short. The facts require “Divine creation” because “no other explanation is tenable; neither the genetic uniqueness with its fantastically impossible lottery, nor the environmental differentiations which do not determine one’s uniqueness, but merely modify it. This conclusion is of inestimable theological significance…”

It was on the basis of this steadfast belief that Mr. Eccles took on the establishment. In a December 1984 article for US News and World Report entitled “Science Cannot Explain: Who Am I? Why Am I Here?” he wrote, “Many scientists argue that someday science will explain values, beauty, love, friendship, aesthetics and literary quality. They say: ‘All of these will eventually be explicable in terms of brain performance. We only have to know about the brain’. [This is] a superstition that confuses both the public and many scientists.”

Such views were certainly not welcome. In a piece by Charles Krauthammer in The New Republic in July 1981, Mr. Eccles gave a speech at Harvard University during which he stated, Mr. Krauthammer wrote, “that although evolution could account for the brain it could not, in his view, account for the mind, with its mysterious capacity for consciousness and thought: only something transcendent could account for that.” Then, Mr. Krauthammer noted: “The audience began hissing.”

Inspired by Mr Eccles’ fight for the uniqueness of Mind, Wilder Penfield, another eminent Sherrington student and later a brain surgeon, kept the torch lit and flag flying on behalf of these revolutionary views through a series of dramatic neurological experiments. One of his patients suffered terribly from epilepsy. As Mr. Penfield reported in his 1975 work, The Mystery of the Mind:

“When I have caused a conscious patient to move his hand by applying an electrode to the motor cortex of one hemisphere, I have often asked him about it. Invariably his response was: ‘I didn’t do that. You did.’ When I caused him to vocalize, he said: ‘I didn’t make that sound. You pulled it out of me.’ When I caused the record of the stream of consciousness to run again and so presented to him the record of his past experience, he marveled that he should be conscious of the past as well as of the present. He was astonished that it should come back to him so completely, with more detail than he could possibly recall voluntarily. He assumed at once that, somehow, the surgeon was responsible for the phenomenon, but he recognized the details as those of his own past experience. It may be said that the patient thinks of himself as having an existence separate from his body.” (pp.76-77)

In his 1967 book, somewhat cheekily entitled Ghost In The Machine, Arthur Koestler quotes Penfield from a speech at a University of California symposium in 1961:

“Once, when I warned a patient of my intention to stimulate the motor area of the cortex, and challenged him to keep his hand from moving when the electrode was applied, he seized it with the other hand and struggled to hold still. Thus one hand, under the control of the right hemisphere driven by an electrode and the other hand, which he controlled through the left hemisphere, were caused to struggle against each other. Behind the brain action of one hemisphere was the patient’s mind.” (pp.203-204)

As a result of such experiments, Mr. Penfield wrote: “In the end I conclude that there is no good evidence in spite of new methods such as the employment of stimulating electrodes, the study of conscious patients and the analysis of epileptic attacks, that the brain alone can carry out the work that the mind does…The Mind is a distinct and different essence.”

Mr. Eccles, for his part, could not completely stave off a growing pessimism with regard to the ideological state of mankind. At the end of The Human Mystery, he writes: “I repudiate philosophies and political systems which recognize human beings as mere things with a material existence of value only as cogs in the great bureaucratic machine of the state, which thus becomes a slave state. The terrible and cynical slaveries depicted in George Orwell’s 1984 are engulfing more and more of our planet.” He sought a renewed faith for humanity; a re-energizing of philosophy and religion.

“Each of us lives within the universe—the prison—of his own brain,” wrote the American neurologist Vernon Mountcastle in a dramatic summary of the Mind-Brain relationship that Mr. Eccles quotes in The Self and Its Brain. “Projecting from it are millions of fragile sensory nerve fibres, in groups uniquely adapted to sample the energetic states of the world about us: heat, light, force, and chemical compositions.” Mr. Mountcastle continues: “At the level of sensation, your images and my images are virtually the same […] Beyond that, each image is conjoined with genetic and stored experiential information that makes us uniquely private. From that complex integral each of us constructs at a higher level of perceptual experience his own, very personal, view from within.”

That view from within was Mr. Eccles’ obsession with the Question of the Why of existence—yet one, we suspect, he felt answered by a wink from Above. The knightly Sir John was the brilliant combination of science and faith; of profound love of life on Earth and of the soul’s realm in Heaven; of the fullfillment of individual human potential and human genius, but with responsibility; with humanist care for the larger, moral well-being of mankind. Excellent job, fighter! Civilization has only to thank you—no, not from the bottom of the individual heart, but from the wonderful reaches of that irrepressible mystery: the human Mind.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
6 replies to this post
  1. I don’t comprehend the pheomenologists as “anti-I”: has the author read Husserl? There were also plenty of resisters besides Poles: Collingwood, Oakeshott, Whitehead, Voegelin, Anscombe.

  2. “George Berkeley, said that illusion was the result of a self-constructed Mind, therefore, the ‘I’ was a falsehood and a danger; an obstacle to Truth.”

    OK, I happen to be working on a book on Berkeley for an academic press. I can’t think of what led the author to believe this describes Berkeley!

  3. Mr. Callahan,

    Firstly, you have misread my reference to the Poles.

    I did not reference them as resisters in the framework of the Mind-Brain debate. I brought them in as Philosophers who kept or struggled to keep politics, ideology and sociology out Logic, at which they excelled, forming a renown school of their own. They strove to keep the study of Philosophy (their branch of it) clean, so to speak.

    As for Berkeley, well we know that “academic presses” are often full of pure nonsense themselves, are they not. I stand by what I write, my reference, in this case, being George Henry Lewes’ *History of Philosophy*, printed in London 1867. I am sure you have heard of it.


    Marcia Christoff-Kurapovna

  4. Magdalen College, Oxford?

    Well, quite relevant to your article, there was C.S. Lewis penning his “The abolition of man” (which came out in 1942, I think).

    It’s not about neurology, but it certainly is about man’s soul and the attack under way against his capacity to know.

  5. You’ve palpated a tender spot. On the one hand, Bacon’s reductionism catapulted science to technological marvel, but on the other, it left out what matters most. We forgot that removing the ‘I’ was meant as an heuristic, not a metaphysic.

    Brilliant piece. Thanks for sharing.


  6. It’s a keeper, already preserved on the hard-drive. Well done, madam! You end with just a hint of how this matter will look from the Hereafter. The physical issue of how inspiration or mere observation reaches us is, after all, physics…or chemistry or biology or plumbing, and oughtn’t to be the only important thing. Again, well done!

Leave a Reply