Many of my posts here at Mind Matters News entail debunking nonsensical materialist theories of the mind–brain relationship. It is altogether fitting and proper that I do so. But, at times, thoughtful and very promising ideas are proposed by modern neuroscientists. One of those ideas is discussed in an essay in Discover Magazine by neuroscientist Robert Epstein.
Epstein, the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today Magazine, is a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology in California and holds a doctoral degree from Harvard University. He proposes that we re-examine a theory that has had a number of prominent proponents over the past several centuries.
It is the theory that the brain is a type of transducer, that is, a device or an organ that converts one signal to another signal, commonly from one medium to another. A microphone, for example, is a transducer that converts sound waves to electrical current. Your eye is a transducer that converts light to vision.
Epstein points out that a host of perplexing neurological problems, such as blindsight (the ability of some blind people to be aware of objects in their environment that they cannot consciously see), mindsight (the phenomenon during some near-death experiences of congenitally blind people in which they are able to see normally), terminal lucidity (the brief period of clear consciousness that sometimes precedes death in dementia patients), hallucinations and such diseases as schizophrenia, among many others, could be explained by the inference that the human brain focuses and transduces consciousness rather than generates it.
In this sense, the brain acts as a transducer between our existence in this world and our consciousness which can access a different realm. This perspective may sound strange, but it has had many reputable defenders, including William James (1842–1910) who proposed it in the late 19th century and is considered the father of modern psychology.
Epstein’s article is fascinating. He goes into considerable detail about the evidence that supports his transduction theory of consciousness. As an example, he considers trying to explain to a 17th-century scientist how a cell phone works. The scientist would be profoundly misled in his study of the cell phone unless he knew that the cell phone was a transducer of a human voice that was being transmitted through the phone rather than generated entirely in and by the phone.
Epstein points out that many theories in modern science are far more incredible than transduction theory. Quantum mechanics is famously counterintuitive and bizarre, and modern physics takes quite seriously theories that entail multiple hidden universes. He points out that transduction theory and the mind–brain relationship would be particularly easy to study in that, unlike the situation in many aspects of modern physics, the transduction device (i.e. the brain) is available for immediate in-depth study.
I believe the transduction theory has a great deal to offer in our scientific study of the mind–brain relationship. It is, of course, a dualist theory. It provides a framework for understanding the close link between brain states and mental states, yet at the same time, it explains mental states in a way that does not invoke nonsensical materialist metaphysics.
A successful understanding of the mind–brain relationship will necessarily involve understanding the brain as a transduction device in one way or another. Such an understanding could prove enormously fruitful and can help us move beyond the current materialist framework in which neuroscience is practiced, which has has held us so far back in our understanding of the mind and the brain. The brain is obviously material but it is just as obvious that the mind has immaterial abilities.
We accept that the ear is a transducer for sound to hearing and the eye is a transducer for light to vision. It is reasonable to infer that the brain is a transducer for thought to body. Transduction theory is a plausible approach to understanding the connection between the mind and the brain. It should be taken seriously by neuroscientists and philosophers of the mind.
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