The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.
Can human consciousness exist independently of a functioning brain? Absolutely not, many scientists say. But two recent books by brain experts have called that basic conclusion into question.
The conventional materialistic worldview, held by many, posits that all consciousness results only from the brain itself—from neurons firing electrical impulses. When the brain ceases to function, that view maintains, so does consciousness.
But another emerging worldview offers a completely different perspective—that consciousness goes far beyond the material structures of the brain, exists independently of it, and transcends the physical. That’s the Baha’i view:
It is evident, therefore, that man is dual in aspect: as an animal he is subject to nature, but in his spiritual or conscious being he transcends the world of material existence. His spiritual powers, being nobler and higher, possess virtues of which nature intrinsically has no evidence; therefore, they triumph over natural conditions. These ideal virtues or powers in man surpass or surround nature, comprehend natural laws and phenomena, penetrate the mysteries of the unknown and invisible and bring them forth into the realm of the known and visible. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 81.
The books that challenge the conventional view, written by a neuroanatomist from Harvard and an experienced neurosurgeon and professor from Duke University, both report the continuing existence of human consciousness despite severe brain impairment—and do so from personal experience.
Here, from their websites, are two summaries of those severe impairments and the effects they had:
Jill Bolte Taylor was a 37-year-old Harvard-trained and published brain scientist when a blood vessel exploded in her brain. Through the eyes of a curious neuroanatomist, she watched her mind completely deteriorate whereby she could not walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life. Because of her understanding of how the brain works, her respect for the cells composing her human form, and an amazing mother, Jill completely recovered her mind, brain and body. In My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey, Jill shares with us her recommendations for recovery and the insight she gained into the unique functions of the right and left hemispheres of her brain. Having lost the categorizing, organizing, describing, judging and critically analyzing skills of her left brain, along with its language centers and thus ego center, Jill’s consciousness shifted away from normal reality. In the absence of her left brain’s neural circuitry, her consciousness shifted into present moment thinking whereby she experienced herself “at one with the universe.” – http://drjilltaylor.com/book.html
Dr. Eben Alexander, a highly trained neurosurgeon who had operated on thousands of brains in the course of his career, knew that what people of faith call the “soul” is really a product of brain chemistry. Near-Death Experiences, he would have been the first to explain, might feel real to the people having them, but in truth they are simply fantasies produced by brains under extreme stress.
Then came the day when Dr. Alexander’s own brain was attacked by an extremely rare illness. The part of the brain that controls thought and emotion—and in essence makes us human—shut down completely. For seven days Alexander lay in a hospital bed in a deep coma. Then, as his doctors weighed the possibility of stopping treatment, Alexander’s eyes popped open. He had come back.
Alexander’s recovery is by all accounts a medical miracle. But the real miracle of his story lies elsewhere. While his body lay in coma, Alexander journeyed beyond this world and encountered an angelic being who guided him into the deepest realms of super-physical existence. There he met the Divine source of the universe itself. – http://ebenalexander.com/books/proof-of-heaven/
After his own experience, Dr. Alexander wrote Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, a book about his realization that human consciousness does not depend solely on the biological brain.
Both of these scientists previously believed in the dominant paradigm—that human consciousness emanates only from physical structures. But after their own debilitating, life-threatening experiences with a severe stroke and near-fatal bacterial meningo-encephalitis, both learned a new way to view reality. With their brains severely impaired, they both realized, their consciousness did not diminish or disappear—instead, it expanded, grew and became more aware of the spiritual aspects of life.
That belief in the human spirit, the unseen knowledge of a life that extends beyond the material, resides at the very center of the Baha’i teachings:
The philosophers of the world are divided into two classes: materialists, who deny the spirit and its immortality, and the divine philosophers, the wise men of God, the true illuminati who believe in the spirit and its continuance hereafter. The ancient philosophers taught that man consists simply of the material elements which compose his cellular structure and that when this composition is disintegrated the life of man becomes extinct. They reasoned that man is body only, and from this elemental composition the organs and their functions, the senses, powers and attributes which characterize man have proceeded, and that these disappear completely with the physical body. This is practically the statement of all the materialists.
The divine philosophers proclaim that the spirit of man is ever-living and eternal, and because of the objections of the materialists, these wise men of God have advanced rational proofs to support the validity of their statement. Inasmuch as the materialistic philosophers deny the Books of God, scriptural demonstration is not evidence to them, and materialistic proofs are necessary. Answering them, the men of divine knowledge have said that all existing phenomena may be resolved into grades or kingdoms, classified progressively as mineral, vegetable, animal and human, each of which possesses its degree of function and intelligence. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 240.
Our human consciousness, then, reflects a higher one—and proves that it exists. We each have the power, the Baha’i teachings say, to access that higher consciousness, and “live in conscious at-one-ment with the eternal world:”
… the world of existence does not culminate here. If this were so, existence itself would be sterile. There are many worlds of light. For even as the plant imagines life ends with itself and has no knowledge of our existence, so the materially-minded man has no knowledge of other worlds of consciousness. – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, p. 123.
… just as man is in need of outward education, he is likewise in need of ideal refinement; just as the outer sense of sight is necessary to him, he should also possess insight and conscious perception; as he needs hearing, at the same time memory is essential; as a body is indispensable to him, likewise a mind is requisite; one is a material virtue, the other is ideal. As human creatures fitted and qualified with this dual endowment, we must endeavor through the assistance and grace of God and by the exercise of our ideal power of intellect to attain all lofty virtues, that we may witness the effulgence of the Sun of Reality, reflect the spirit of the Kingdom, behold the manifest evidences of the reality of Divinity, comprehend irrefutable proofs of the immortality of the soul, live in conscious at-one-ment with the eternal world and become quickened and awake with the life and love of God. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 328.
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