What If Our Brains Aren’t Good Enough?

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I’ve always wanted to know the answers:  What creates consciousness?  How did the cosmos come to be?  What happens when we die?  Why are we here?  From a certain perspective, my life has consisted of a series of investigations into ways of discovering the answers to these kinds of questions.  In college, I became interested in philosophy.  In medical school, I became fascinated by neurology and simultaneously began my experiment with Buddhism.  I’ve learned a lot along the way and have settled at least the answer to the last question to my satisfaction (which, for interested readers, I detail in my forthcoming book The Undefeated Mind), but as to the others, a recent conversation with one of my brothers sparked an unhappy thought:  perhaps our brains are built in such a way that they can’t even properly conceive the answers.

For these questions clearly do have answers.  Consciousness arises somehowSomething happens to us when we die (our soul rushes off to some version of an afterlife, or gets reincarnated, or we enter oblivion, or something else no one has yet imagined), and the universe is here so it got its start in some fashion.

Or did it?  That last issue perhaps demonstrates the potential problem best.  Everything in our experience has a beginning and an end.  In fact, our minds rebel at the notion of infinity—the notion that something could be timeless or eternal—because we have no real experience of it.  We can say the universe has always existed, marching backward in time in our minds, but the idea that we could march backward forever—well, it’s like trying to imagine how many stars there are in the universe or how many neurons there are in our heads.  We can represent the ideas with numbers but our metaphorically-minded minds that must think of all things in comparison to something else really can’t grasp it.

On the other hand, the other possibility—that something (meaning, our universe) came from nothing—is equally impossible for us to imagine, violating, as it does, what appears to us as a fundamental law of the universe itself.  But what if the principle that something can’t arise from nothing isn’t a limitation inherent within the universe but only within our mind’s ability to conceive?  Perhaps we’re limited in a way similar to the characters in Edwin Abbott’s book Flatland, who lived in a two-dimensional space and couldn’t conceive of three dimensions to save their lives, so that objects which moved in three dimensions and crossed their plane of existence seemed to appear from nowhere (something from nothing?).  As Richard Dawkins discussed in his book The God Delusion, we evolved to interact with what he terms the Middle World.  That is, we can neither see atoms with our naked eyes nor fathom the distance to even the nearest star, largely because, he argues, we don’t need to in order to survive.  Though solid matter is largely composed of empty space, it feels solid to us because at the level of our interaction with them, it is.

In other words, as marvelous as our brains are, they’re principally constructed to help us survive and reproduce—not to answer the big questions.  After all, understanding the great mysteries of the cosmos doesn’t demonstrably convey a survival advantage.  The simple fact is that we may not have yet evolved enough brain power to be able to answer them at all.

To me, this is a depressing prospect.  For though I may not need to understand the answers to the big questions to survive, or even to be happy, I also evolved to care about meaning, so I want to.  But how can I—how can any of us—when in order to do so we likely need to be able to wrap our minds around ideas and experiences we’ve never had—and may in fact be incapable of having?

The principles of pure reason and mathematical truths may, as some believe, exist independent of our grasp of them, as principles for us to discover, or they may only be products of the way our minds work, accurately describing not only Dawkins’ Middle World but the worlds above and below it well enough for us to make wonderfully accurate predictions about them—but which may still fail to answer the big questions.  (Already math and physics can describe things we find difficult, if not impossible, to conceive:  how empty space can be curved by gravity, how parallel universes may exist, and so on.)

In Buddhism, there exists a principle that states the subjective wisdom of the Buddha is fused with objective reality, meaning in essence that we human beings are endowed with the capacity to perceive and conceive of the universe as it truly is.  Despite the fact that many recent advances in psychology that tell us our brains and our thinking are chock full of biases of which we can become aware but which we can only sometimes escape, Buddhism argues we retain the capacity to realize the “ultimate truth” of things.

As far as I can tell, the form of this ultimate knowledge—enlightenment—is principally an emotional state, a sense or a feeling about what the truth is, accompanied by ideas expressible in language that can only ever capture the experience of it incompletely.  The sense I have is that to become enlightened is to tap into a completely different way of knowing.

Or maybe not.  Enlightenment could be nothing more (though this would be far from nothing!) than a supremely joyful state in which we feel all matter and life contained within the universe are one.  Though Buddhism presumes the knowledge and wisdom one can gain from enlightenment actually reflects the truths about the cosmos, the skeptic in me recognizes this to be a first principle—meaning it’s unprovable.  And the scientist in me recognizes that our brains—again, marvelous as they may be—may actually not be marvelous enough, and that the experience of enlightenment (a life-state that’s entirely reasonable to believe is possible given that many have reported experiencing it) doesn‘t actually describe the way things are, but simply represents the most enviable life-state we can experience.

Then again, science may eventually become capable of testing ideas that enlightened people argue are true.  I wonder, though, if that happens, whether only enlightened people will be able to understand the results.

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  • Thanks for the post, Alex. I have pondered religion, philosophy, believers, non believers, quantum physics, Adam and Eve, the big bang theory and on and on. I think a lot things ARE beyond human comprehension. Especially the concept of God. I think for too long, too many people have tried to contain God to a book, a box or a building. They try to get a handle on him, wrap their minds around him. I really do believe it’s beyond the realm of human thinking. And.. I’m okay with it. I like the lyrics to the Iris Dement song. Let the mystery be.

  • You often express in such clear language inchoate thoughts that I have, and you have done it once again with this article. The ideas that you are dealing with here are not easy to express, so thank you for putting them down and offering them here.

  • Something happens to us when we die (our soul rushes off to some version of an afterlife, or gets reincarnated, or we enter oblivion, or something else no one has yet imagined), and the universe is here so it got its start in some fashion.

    Is this only humans? What happens when a fly is swatted, squashed? Or a steer is dispatched with a blow to the head?

    I would guess oblivion for all organisms, including ourselves.

    Facing death is one of our deeper challenges.

  • The great (one of my favorites) linguist, Ludwig Wittgenstein, said: “The limits of our language are the limits of our world.” I’m a basic English writing skills teacher/workshop leader, and I have often told my students that the most important things we can conceive—as Homo sapiens—cannot be languaged. I wonder, Dr. L., if we will evolve to create a simple way to encode and decode via our hearts/spirits. What would the Buddha say? What do you think?


    Roxana: There is a saying in Nichiren Buddhism: “The true entity of all phenomena can only be understood and shared between Buddhas.” Will we ever evolve a simple way to encode and decode via our hearts/spirits? Frankly, I doubt it, but who knows?


  • When you consider the advancements that have been made in our scientific understanding over the last seventy-five years—perhaps not yet knowing all the answers but at least coming up with intriguing new possibilities that were literally inconceivable before—it’s tough to think that we’ll never know the answers to some of the questions you’ve posed. Impossible to know when and certainly our progress will not be steady and linear but at some time in the future we’ll almost certainly be further along the path than we are today.

    In the meantime, you and I can only deal with what’s in front of us and try to keep our minds and hearts open. I’ve got a feeling that, whenever some of this stuff is finally figured out, the person who does it will echo the words that are supposed to have been Steve Jobs’ last: “Oh, wow. Oh, wow. Oh, wow.”

    P.S. Have you seen the movie, I Am, by the way? It a popularization of some of these issues but a heartfelt, entertaining, and intriguing one.

    George: No, haven’t seen it. I’ll check it out.


  • Here’s a novel thought. What if we’re a by-product of a highly intelligent, self-creating universe and our sole purpose is to evolve into some grand finale for the eventual creation of another universe or even to protect our own? As the universe expands, our minds evolve faster and we develop a greater and broader understanding of the magnificence that we are a part of.

    Rebecca: The first part of your theory is essentially the fundamental theory of Nichiren Buddhism (the difference being our sole purpose is to become happy and help others to become so as well).


  • Regarding the questions, “What creates consciousness?  How did the cosmos come to be?  What happens when we die?  Why are we here?” I’m not so sure that they “clearly do have answers”—at least not in any absolute sense. Science may have some reasonable theories about these one day, but I think it would be naive to expect any such theory to be final or immune to being overthrown by another one later on. (This is not to say science isn’t valuable, just that its answers are not ultimate.)

    As for the answer that enlightenment might give, one possibility to consider is that these questions are not so much answered by enlightenment as revealed to be based on assumptions that have no ultimate foundation. Perhaps the direction to look for enlightenment is not outward for some new evidence or theory or conclusion (which the mind may or may not be able to grasp with science), but inward to examine the assumptions that underly such questions. Enlightenment may be a kind of knowledge that is more like realizing we know nothing than finally grasping a theory of everything. This is good news, since then we don’t need to be concerned about having enough brain power to comprehend it.

  • Alex,

    Thanks for another thoughtful post!

    A few of the thoughts I had on it.

    Our current approach in science will not be able to “discover” the “ultimate truth.” Modern science theory states that science can ever only be an approximation of reality (i.e. building ever better models that try to explain reality). These models will never be able to describe reality fully (e.g., there is no reason to believe that quantum theory will be the last word). It’s a bit like the Buddha comparing his words to the finger pointing at the moon, but not being (and never be able to be) the moon itself. That is what our current modern science is. A great endeavor, though one cannot hope to reach the “ultimate truth” with it.

    So not only might we require another brain, we also would require a new—from our current view hardly imaginable—scientific approach for this.

    Greetings from Germany,


  • Your words are a gift that help me grow as a human. Thanks so much,


    Tom: My greatest hope. Thanks so much for writing to tell me.


  • Couldn’t help but relate this post to a recent article on where Science can (and can’t) take us.


    I would love to hear your take—as an MD as well as a philosopher—on the article’s implications.

    As far as Enlightenment goes, how about this: a state of understanding that results in the feeling of being in harmony with everything in the world.

    rdp: An interesting article that points out an old problem, the crucial difference between correlation and causation. Far more studies are done showing the former than proving the latter because proving the latter takes longer and is far more expensive. Further, we have an innate cognitive bias to infer causation when all we actually see is correlation. It requires a great discipline of thought to resist the urge to conclude we see causation when in most cases we don’t.


  • My son has severe cognitive disability, to the point where he will never live independently. Yet he knows perfectly well how to let go, how to live in the moment, how to decide what is important and what makes for happiness.

    His brain is not-enough and yet more-than-enough at the same time. He is my teacher. Me may be a Buddha or an angel. I consider him evolved to a very great degree.

    Chris: This is my favorite comment yet.


  • Chris—I believe you have absolutely captured the essence of the challenge we face. I just finished reading V.S. Ramachandran’s book The Tale of the Brain and found it fascinating. The hypothesis exists that our “conscious mind” represents only 1/200,000th (no misprint) of the total processing power of our brains. The tiny fraction that we ascribe to our “us-ness” is minute compared to all that we actually are. Somehow I find this comforting. It really highlights the illusion (for me) of my high-falutin’ ideas of who I really am. It seems to me that the meaning of it all truly is the meaning we give it… Thanks for yet another great post, Alex. Peace

  • I came across this story a while ago but I’m sure you have seen it before on Buddha’s reply to the universal questions on life.


    The Buddha was sitting in the park when his disciple Malunkyaputta approached him. Malunkyaputta had recently retired from the world and he was concerned that so many things remained unexplained by the Buddha. Was the world eternal or not eternal? Was the soul different from the body? Did the enlightened exist after death or not? He thought, “If the Buddha does not explain these things to me, I will give up this training and return to worldly life.”

    He put these questions to the Buddha who replied, “Now did I ever say to you that if you led a religious life you would understand these things? It is as if a man had been wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends, companions relatives were to get a surgeon to heal him, and he were to say, ‘I will not have this arrow pulled out until I know who wounded me, of what caste he is, what his name is, whether he is tall, short or of medium height, what colour his skin is, where he comes from, what kind of bow I was wounded with, what it was made of, whether the arrow was feathered with a vulture’s wing or a heron’s or a hawk’s…’ Surely the man would die before he knew all this.”

    “Whether the view is held that the world is eternal or not, Malunkyaputta, there is still re-birth, old age, death, grief, suffering, sorrow and despair—and these can be destroyed in this life! I have not explained these other things because they are not useful, they are not conducive to tranquility and Nirvana. What I have explained is suffering, the cause of suffering, the destruction of suffering and the path that leads to the destruction of suffering. This is useful, leading to non-attachment, the absence of passion, perfect knowledge.”

    Thus spoke the Buddha, and with joy Malunkyaputta applauded his words.

    Majjhima-nikaya, Sutta 63

  • Some of your questions remind me of some of Spinoza’s ideas of the universe—that an attribute of the universe is not needing a “beginning” in order to exist; and also the awareness of oneness as enlightenment. Although he didn’t have to take any religious or superstitious leaps to get there. He did it rationally. Anyway, really cool reading as usual—well-articulated questions.

  • Hi,

    I think what serin said through a small story “THE PARABLE OF THE ARROW” is the most relevant thing to capture. Why to even think about the hi-fi questions? Just live the best life and spread happiness the way Buddha has suggested; since, the answers to these questions are irrelevant to our living and being happy and spreading happiness in this world.

    What do you think Alex?



    Pawan: Answering some of these questions becomes especially relevant, I think, for how we choose to live. For example, if an afterlife exists, how do we attain it? Does what we do now affect our experience of it? Also, some of the answers might affect how we choose to live in ways we can’t now predict.


  • Alex: Suppose you enjoy a heart-full, enjoyable and happy journey in hills, mountains, waterfalls or on a sea-sand beach and live your life to the fullest possible mark, and then your leave ends. You have to return home; you have to restart the routine life. What will you do when you reach home? Certainly, you will share the memories of your leave and journey with your family, friends and relatives; you will show them pictures and videos of the place where you have been. Isn’t it?

    Now apply the same analogy to the afterlife.

    Think that you have been sent to earth on a leave. God sent you on leave, and one day, your leave ends. You die and return to God’s abode, which to me is the place where the “afterlife” exists [it starts, ends from that point—God’s abode]. Sorry I can’t say much about how to attain the afterlife, or the best afterlife, since I am not an expert on that matter, but I can certainly say that good deeds in this life will bestow us with the best afterlife, and I am sure about what to do once I reach there. Share the experience of this life.

    Pawan: Except what if you’re wrong and God and the afterlife doesn’t exist?


  • You are searching for answers to existential questions and the supernatural world through scientific inquiry. Science, which deals with observable and measurable things in the natural world, cannot answer those questions.

    Why care about it all anyway if the Buddhist’s ultimate end is total extinction? What difference will knowing these answers make to you? Maybe you need to reconsider your suppositions.

  • I discovered your blog from a comment posted on the recent NYT article about PTSD and heart attack survival. If you have not already found it, I think you will like “Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience” by Pim van Lommel. Van Lommel is a Dutch cardiologist who takes a very methodical and scientific approach to questions you pose in this post. Among other things, he explores the relationship between the brain and consciousness and includes some fascinating neurobiological studies.

    I came to this book, and many other inquiries, since struggling to overcome PTSD following a car crash that included an atypical near-death experience and the subsequent development of a serious heart arrhythmia which was only partially cured by an eventual ablation. It took quite a long time to get the correct diagnosis. There is nothing more confidence-destroying than to be written off again and again as “just anxious.” I found many of the dismissive comments about the PTSD piece in the NYT to be both literally and figuratively disheartening.

    This morning I stumbled on another interesting NYT opinion article, “The Haunted Heart,” a first-person account of living with an arrhythmia. https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/25/haunted-heart/ I have asked myself many of the questions you pose in your blog post Overcoming the Fear of Death. I don’t want to leave here either, even though I don’t love it here anymore. Nothing kills love the way fear does, and sometimes the struggle to recapture that love of life and a sense of well-being is overwhelming.

    Tanya: Thanks for this comment and for the article suggestions. I’ll definitely check them out.