The question of where the mind is located is one that has puzzled philosophers since time immemorial. In this day and age a mode of thinking has emerged that attempts to explain the mind and intelligence in purely materialistic terms. The mind is seen as a product of a purely material brain and all thinking and perception is the product of this material brain. Consciousness is often dismissed as unimportant, a mere by-product of physical processes which has no impact upon the thinking process. In this view of the human mind, human beings become biological versions of digital computers where the mind is running some sort of algorithm which can ultimately be imitated in a non-biological device such as a computer. Human behaviour is therefore entirely predetermined and we are nothing but reactive robots. Indeed this is how much of modern psychology views human behaviour; as essentially reactive in nature as if human beings were some sort of Pavlovian dog.
There are however some very serious problems with this idea that the mind is some sort of computer and consciousness is an unnecessary by-product of physical processes. The first thing to point out is that without consciousness there is no objective world from a viewers perspective and therefore there is nothing to be intelligent about, nothing to apply intelligence to, nothing to ask questions about, indeed no knowledge of the world whatsoever. How can something that has no more knowledge of the world than a lump of rock sitting on the ground ever be intelligent?
The hard materialist might reply that modern computers prove that intelligence can indeed be non-conscious in nature because computers can display intelligent behaviour when sophisticated algorithms are programmed into them. There is however a very serious flaw to this argument and that is that the “intelligence” shown by such a computer was put there by consciousness, that is by human consciousness. If the “intelligence” in any algorithm was created by consciousness then how can it be called unconscious intelligence? It is the product of consciousness not of unconsciousness. To call a computer intelligent is a bit like calling a book intelligent. There is intelligence in a book but the book itself is not an intelligent entity. The same is true of a digital computer; the computer is a depository of intelligence not an actual intelligent entity. As such it can create the illusion of intelligence just as a book can create the illusion of intelligence, but nobody goes around mistaking the intelligence displayed in a book with the idea that the book is itself intelligent. A digital computer is likewise a display of intelligence, it is not intelligence itself. Without human consciousness, the computer wouldn’t even exist and hence consciousness must be the pre-eminent factor with regards to intelligence. It is an absolute necessity, an absolute pre-condition for intelligent conception of the world.
Another problem for hard materialists with regard to the nature of the mind and the importance of consciousness is the problem of perception. The hard materialist believes that all perception and thinking takes place in the brain and is nothing more than a form of information processing, again just like the processes that take place in a digital computer. But lets take a closer look at this idea using a particular perception such as the sense of sight as an example. The hard materialist view of this process is roughly as follows: Light enters the human eye and this light stimulates cells on the retina at the back of the eye which in turn produce electrical impulses that travel down nerve fibres until they reach the brain. The brain processes this information and produces an image which is the thing that we then see as a sight perception. There are however numerous problems with this explanation. We might first ask who or what views this image. We might also ask where is the image actually located. Since an image is something that can only be seen in consciousness the idea that consciousness is not playing a fundamental role here cannot be true. Indeed the whole argument is circular in nature. Any image produced by the brain must somehow be viewable by consciousness else there would be no awareness of the image. Consequently we are forced to conclude that in this scheme of things the brain must project an image which is in some way viewed by consciousness.
But if the brain projects an image, where exactly does it do this? Is the image inside the head? Since we see a three dimensional and apparently very large image, is there a sort of “hyperspace” within the brain where the image is projected? If so this is hardly a materialistic explanation. It is an explanation that requires something like an internal consciousness with a sense of space. But this seems absurd. Why would the brain project an image internally when it has an external world to be directly aware of? And how would it do this? Is it producing an internal hologram that is then seen by consciousness? To illustrate just how absurd this idea is consider the following put forward by professor Rubert Sheldrake of Cambridge University:
If the images you see are inside your head, then this means that when you look at the sky your skull must be beyond the sky!
I think even the most diehard materialist can see that this proposition renders as nonsense the idea that the images we see are located inside the head. It simply cannot be.
We are therefore forced to a very different conclusion; the images that we see are exactly where we see them, “out there” in the “real” world. There is direct perception of some sort going on and that perception takes place within awareness which is clearly non-local in nature. It is not merely in the head but exists everywhere.
Zen Buddhism has a very interesting little story that pertains to the nature of perception and the relationship between the senses and awareness. A Zen monk Yang-shan asks his Master the following question:
Yang-shan : How can one see into one’s self nature?
Chung-i: It is like a cage with six windows and there is within it a monkey. When someone calls at the east window, “Oh monkey, Oh monkey” he answers. At the other windows the same response is obtained.
In this story, the six windows are a representation of the six senses. (Many eastern traditions consider the intellect to be a sixth sense so we have the five senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell and sensation together with the intellect). The monkey is a representation of that awareness that perceives all. The individual consciousness’s of the six senses are perceived by an awareness that is all encompassing. There is nothing that is outside this awareness but since this awareness is as Zen put’s it “free of all characteristics” it is effectively invisible to the average person. This awareness does not engage in overt thought. It does not have desires or beliefs, it simply “is”. It is a persons real being but a person cannot perceive it as if it were an object separate from themselves, they can only “become” it. It is knowledge through identity rather than knowledge of an intellectual or observational kind. This is a persons real mind, the source of their very being and when a person “becomes” this awareness they perceive the senses to be essentially illusory in nature, to be “empty” in nature, manifestations within “emptiness” or awareness. The term “illusory” means that they have no existence except as an experience within awareness.