Consciousness Without a Brain?

Question from Lukas:

I came across one thing which I had a really hard time explaining and still can’t find the answer.

I hope it doesn’t bother you SmartLX that I have so many questions but I come from Slovakia where there are many people who desperately want to believe in magic and I as a non-believer sometimes must face their challenge. Secondly I want to thank you very much for the answers and this site and I hope you will never stop doing this because its like a shelter for those who want to keep a rational mind in a sometimes irrational world. Thanks very much but now for the question.

The thing I came across is case of Nickolas Coke who according to the media had some form of consciousness:

Nickolas had anencephaly, meaning he was only born with a brain stem. Most babies with that condition are still born or die shortly after birth. But Nicholas lived a remarkable life.

Some of the final images of Nickolas Coke show him smiling at a pumpkin patch. “He was laughing because he thought it was funny that we couldn’t get him to stay still enough to roll off the pumpkins,” said Sherri Kohut, Nickolas’ grandmother.

Taken from:

How this is possible that he has some form of consciousness?? When people with anencephaly is usually blind, deaf, unconscious, and unable to feel pain. Some individuals with anencephaly may have a partial brain stem, which means that certain reflex actions (such as breathing or responding to touch or sound) may occur. However, the lack of a working cerebrum entirely rules out the possibility of ever gaining consciousness.

Taken from:

I even posted this on the Skeptic Society forum. They told me that the grandmother could have interpreted this as a smile and laugh because grandmothers think of their children this way.

Here is the link:

I would like to know your thoughts about this because dualists take this as evidence of their survival hypothesis – because they are taking it that there is no brain but there is a form of consciousness.

Thanks for reading this and your time. Have a nice day.

Answer by SmartLX:
Hi Lukas. Successive questions aren’t a problem, especially when we’re not otherwise busy, and it’s great to provide answers when and where they’re needed.

I might have been more impressed by the story of Nickolas Coke if I hadn’t just come back from the local Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, where I was reminded of the story of Mike the Headless Chicken. Briefly, in 1945 a rooster was left with most of his brain stem intact after he was clumsily beheaded for the dinner table, and continued not only to survive but to act exactly like a rooster. He walked, jumped, perched, even tried to preen and crow with the beak he didn’t have. His owners worked out how to feed him through the neck with an eyedropper, and he lasted another 18 months. Very complex behaviours clearly required only a very small and relatively primitive part of the brain. (I just hope the hatchet robbed Mike of the ability to register pain.)

Compare this with Nickolas Coke, who had about as much brain as Mike and apparently did a lot less. There’s video of the kid in your first link; his eyes were open, his mouth and body moved, but his responses to stimuli don’t appear to extend beyond instinct. During the pumpkin patch episode, for example, the fact that they were trying to keep him still might have meant they were physically touching him enough to provoke a primal response to that alone.

There was doubtless some neural tissue in the brain stem performing some of the work of a complete brain (as with Mike) but, as the Society suggests, only a mother could think there was any kind of mind there. In the undeniably fascinating case of Nickolas Coke there nevertheless is little support for mind-brain dualism, so I wouldn’t worry about it.

Something From Nothing And Your Chicks For Free

Question from Jay:
How is nothingness able to create a finely tuned universe?

A theist might make it more complicated by saying
“If something can come into being from nothing, then it becomes inexplicable why just anything or everything doesn’t come into being from nothing. Why can’t books pop into being from nothing? Why is it only the universe that can come into being from nothing?”

If mind and conscience is invisible and if matter does not contain conscience or the potential of consciences, Where does conscience come from?
If the universe began with brute matter, there will be no explanation of the origin of consciences.

How do I answer these questions cause they are really hard?
– This is for my philosophy class.

Answer by SmartLX:
This stuff isn’t just philosophy, this is “philosophy of religion”. It’s religious apologetics by way of arguments from ignorance, where if someone can’t answer the questions the questioner is free to insert God as the answer. Even if there aren’t any other answers it’s a terrible way to make a point, logically speaking, but that doesn’t stop people.

We don’t know whether there was ever nothing, so how something can come from it is a hypothetical question rather than an essential one. There might have been nothing once; if something emerged from it then we know that the process is extremely rare, or happens out of our view, or both. If whole universes emerge all at once in each event, as the Big Bang would seem to suggest when viewed as a something-from-nothing moment, we’d have to travel to the next universe to see the effects of another such event, so it’s no wonder we don’t see ex nihilo creation every day. For a more scientific perspective, take an hour to watch Lawrence Krauss’s lecture on the subject, or read his book A Universe From Nothing.

The universe is not necessarily finely tuned, for that assumes a tuning process and a tuner. The universe supports life, yes, on the crust of one known planet in countless light years of nothingness and extreme conditions (most of which would instantly kill us if we went there unprotected). That suggests two things: if the universe is tuned at all then it’s not very finely tuned, and life has emerged in the one place which happens to be hospitable. I’ve addressed the fine tuning argument several times on the site already, if you want some more material.

Mind, consciousness and the specific aspect of conscious thought we think of as “conscience” are functions of the brain. They’re not entirely invisible, because many experiments have used MRI to measure electrical activity in specific parts of the brain during specific mental activities (dreaming, problem-solving, emotional reactions). Furthermore, if the brain is damaged then consciousness may be impaired or lost forever, leaving a human “vegetable”. We see the beginnings of all these thought processes in animals such as apes, which suggests to us that consciousness has evolved slowly in our ancestors, and persisted because of the tangible benefits of being self-aware and able to think well.


Brainless atoms form brains, lifeless atoms form life, meaningless synapses form a conscious mind. The simple comes together to form the complex. It happens. We’re proof.

Question from Aravind:
the theory of abiogenisis states that we evolved from non living matter and that atoms are nonliving and that the only reason for which the atoms in our body work together is because of Chemical feedback loops acting so if we are made up of non living matter how is it that I am able to perceive my external environment how am i able to think how is it that I am conscious since i am made up of nonliving matter how is it that i am able to perceive my external environment the very fact that i am able to respond to external factors like gravity electricity ,magnetism is because the atoms in my body perceive them??

the very fact that I am sentient and can perceive my external environment conforms that there is something in me which is not nonliving ??we know that atoms are nonliving simply by the fact that they cannot regroup to form an amputated arm or form an eve of a blind person by simply sensing the combination of atoms from the eye of another living being so if we are able to sense the environment it means that there is some other transcendental property in me which is perceiving the external environment(soul???)

if I was made up of nonliving matter i would simply respond to existing code and chemical feedback loops and be unable to form my own thoughts but that is not the case i can even condition myself to starve myself for long periods of time which means that i am not simply responding to existing codes to enable my survival and reproduce The very fact that I do not function to the basic codes of survival implanted in my dna like a robot responds to existing programs shows that there is something inside me (soul???) that is not nonliving????

if the primordial bacteria which replicated itself was already composed of nonliving randomly combined atoms why did the bacteria replicate itself since it was already dead why would it want to shuffle its genes to evolve in order to adopt to the environment if it was composed of dead matter to begin with it would be meaningless for something which was already dead to evolve and preserve its code if it was already dead???

Answer by SmartLX:
An atom cannot be alive, because life as we define it requires a great deal of interaction between atoms. Living tissue, however, is made up of atoms which by themselves or in small groups would be regarded as non-living. All of the remarkable functions of living tissue, including brains, are performed via chemical (and electrical) interactions between individually non-living atoms. It’s like how a computer does its computations with a bunch of silicon and copper atoms. Nobody thinks that’s impossible.

The first self-replicating organism probably did form through random combinations of components, but if you have hundreds of men and hundreds of women at a party you’d be surprised if at least one couple doesn’t form. Once the organism had formed, it replicated not because it wanted to (it couldn’t want anything) but because that’s what its parts could do. It evolved not because it had any evolutionary goal but because later copies of it were slightly different from each other, and had to compete based on their physical qualities.

Our sentience and consciousness are referred to as “higher brain functions” because that’s exactly what they are. The human brain is a network more complex than the world’s biggest computer (though computers are slowly catching up). It does everything it does by receiving input through our eyes, ears, skin, etc. and processing it with nothing but “grey matter” and tiny electrical sparks.

That works because it does an awful lot of simple processing in a short time. A calculator actually only knows how to add, or did until recently. All its other functions are accomplished by complicated sequences of adding (adding negative numbers to subtract, adding multiple times to multiply, etc.) Likewise, the neural network has the capacity to form complex thoughts out of multitudes of simple processes.

We think about things other than survival for two reasons. Firstly, as other animals demonstrate, you can usually survive on far less brainpower than we have. Secondly, our survival is almost assured in the short term because of the stable society in which we live, so we can indulge in the luxury of applying our minds to other matters. As soon as we feel that our survival or that of our friends or family is directly threatened, however, we won’t even notice how quickly our brains abandon extraneous thoughts and focus fully on survival.

Brainless atoms form brains, lifeless atoms form life, mindless neurons give rise to a conscious mind. The simple comes together to form the complex. It happens. We’re proof.

Incidentally, I would suggest to you that what Terry Pratchett has written on the subject of multiple exclamation marks also applies to question marks.