Have You Ever Seen Your Own Brain?

On Experiencing No Brain

“Have you ever seen your own brain?”

This could have been a question that Bernardo Kastrup could have posed in his book consisting of popular essays: Science Ideated: The Fall Of Matter And The Contours Of The Next Mainstream Scientific Worldview (2021).

Obviously, you haven’t experienced your own brain–because you can’t.

On Having No Head

I’m reminded of Douglas Harding’s book on Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious (1961/2014). Harding’s discovery is that he has–that is, can experience–no head. When he sought to describe this experience to others, most balked at the seeming absurdity of his professed discovery. In his words:

Discussion… proved almost invariably quite fruitless. “Naturally I can’t see my head,” my friends would say. “So what?” And foolishly I would begin to reply: “So everything! So you and the whole world are turned upside down and inside out…” It was no good. I was unable to describe my experience in a way that interested the hearers, or conveyed to them anything of its quality or significance. They really had no idea what I was talk-ing about – for both sides an embarrassing situation. Here was something perfectly obvious, immensely significant, a revelation of pure and astonished delight – to me and nobody else! When people start seeing things others can’t see, eyebrows are raised, doctors sent for. And here was I in much the same condition except that mine was a case of not seeing things. Some loneliness and frustration were inevitable. This is how a real madman must feel (I thought) – cut off, unable to communicate.

On Being Almost an Idiot

When it comes to deeper introspective investigations, you need to be almost an idiot–or at least an innocent. Zen, as you’ve no doubt heard, speaks of “beginner’s mind,” but I find that such is even, perhaps, too sophisticated. Be very simple.

Consider what Sri Ramana Maharshi often suggested as a starting point for visitors’ investigations of their true nature. “You know,” he would tell them, “‘I am’ or ‘I exist.’ Of this, you can have no doubt. In which case, begin by investigating what this ‘I am’ truly is. Find out by going all the way.”

Few are naive enough to heed his words. What he suggests seems altogether too intellectually obvious–or perhaps too unsophisticated. But if you want to engage in what Nisargadatta called “authentic spirituality”–by which he meant finding out who you really are–then such naivete is of the first importance. Indeed, such almost stupidity can’t be bypassed since it is the way, or gateless gate.

Back to the Brain and Mind…: Feels Like Versus Looks Like

Suppose you’ve become quite convinced that materialism (or, what is the same thing, physicalism) is very probably metaphysically unjustifiable; suppose, that is, that you’ve come to reject the view that matter is fundamental. Perhaps, then, you’re open to the position of Advaita Vedanta, which is that consciousness is fundamental and, as such, everything is, in some form or another, consciousness.

“OK then, smarty pants, how do you describe the brain, huh?”

One way of clearly stating Kastrup’s point about how to redescribe the brain within an analytic idealist metaphysic would be to appeal to a distinction between “feels like” and “looks like.”

As in meditation, so too in this way of doing philosophy: we must begin with conscious experience. From a first person point of view, my conscious experience consists of perceptions (strictly speaking: just hearing, just seeing, just smelling, and so on arising), thoughts (just thinking arising), emotions (just feeling arising), sensations (just sensing arising), and desires (just desiring arising). I can describe–or be metacognitively aware of–what it feels like for seeing-red to arise, for thinking-of-elephants to arise, and so forth.

“Have I, from a first person point of view, ever seen my brain–or my head?” I’ve seen neither, nor from a first person point of view can I ever see either.

But someone else, from a third person point of view, can see an image–for her, a mental representation–of my thinking. From her third person point of view, my brain is what thinking looks like as a certain representation of an appearance. So Kastrup writes, “The idea is merely that what we call ‘matter’ is the extrinsic appearance of inner mental activity, just as our brain is what our thoughts look like when observed from the outside” (p. 165, my emphasis).

My brain could be called her schema of my arising thoughts.

To be sure, what my thinking feels like for me is correlative–but this only–with what my thinking looks like for her. The former could be called mind, the latter brain.

But where is this brain? The brain, being her representation, is still mental, is still–that is to say–an appearance in the field of consciousness.