Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul

By Mario Beauregard and Denyse O'Leary, $32.95, 368 pages hardcover.

Mario Beauregard, neuroscientist at the University of Montreal, and Denyse O'Leary, religious-issues writer, reject any inherent opposition between science and spirituality. Instead, they identify the main contest as between materialism and spirituality. Materialism has spread into every corner of science to the point that scientists have been spending a lot of their time trying to prove a materialist ideology rather than pursuing research.

In contrast, Beauregard and O'Leary offer a simple reason for believing in the natural connection between science and spirituality: “We might expect living beings to evolve toward consciousness if consciousness underlies the universe.”

The well-supported thesis of The Spiritual Brain culminates in Beauregard's neuroscientific analysis of Carmelite religious. The researchers admit to being a bit naïve in asking the nuns to turn on a mystic experience in the lab. To the surprise of even the nuns, though, many did undergo such a happening when the researchers asked them to relive the most mystical or unitive moments of their Carmelite lives. The scientists rightly theorized that the neuronal pathways would remember these experiences and become activated.

The lab results showed two interesting things: First: subjects produced a huge amount of brainwaves from a wide variety of areas rather than from the isolated “God module” hypothesized by materialist scientists looking to explain God away; second: the nuns' brains made theta waves, which scientists have associated with meditative states, rather than beta waves, the latter of which reflect “strenuous conscious activity,” including lying.

The Spiritual Brain uses scientific data to counter common scientific claims for the irrationality or meaninglessness of religion and spirituality. Beauregard and O'Leary assert, among other things, the rational and mentally healthy nature of mystics. The mystic's search for a higher, unifying truth differs greatly from epilepsy or hallucinations. In contrast to mystical experiences, which bring clarity and understanding, these episodes confuse people.

The Spiritual Brain discusses how scientists in their atheistic materialism have themselves adopted an extreme faith position by rejecting or misusing research data. The authors criticize “promissory materialism”: Unable to explain consciousness, spiritual experiences such as Near Death Experiences, or parapsychology through their materialism, and unwilling to entertain spiritual explanations, scientists simply throw up their hands and say “Further Research Required.” After decades of this game, Beauregard and O'Leary call for another attitude. Perhaps science will never understand these things.

The authors also challenge the many scientists who sound positively scary in objectifying humans as “very complicated machines” and our brains as blobs of neurons.

Most interesting of all, Beauregard and O'Leary turn the tables on science itself, accusing materialism of countering modern physics: “The reason that consciousness is a problem for materialist neuroscience is that it does not appear to have a mechanism. Modern quantum physics conceives of the universe as superposed states. These states do not exist apart from each other, so their interaction is not governed by a mechanism.”

The Spiritual Brain's optimistic freedom beats materialist science's reductio ad absurdum, where rather than enjoying choice, our actions simply reflect billions of neurons firing off. Nonmaterialist neuroscientists such as Beauregard can use the mind to change the brain. This demonstrates that the spiritual – in this case the mind – precedes and uses the material – the brain.

One researcher used people's minds to change their compulsive-obsessive brains. Jeffrey M. Schwartz “was not simply getting patients to change their opinions, but rather to actually change their brains. He wanted them to substitute a useful neural circuit for a useless one, for example, to substitute 'go work in the garden' for 'wash hands seven more times,' until the neuronal traffic from the many different activities associated with gardening began to exceed the traffic from washing the hands.” Schwartz succeeded in getting patients to physically change the neuronal networks in their brains by first getting them to change their minds.

This leads Beauregard and O'Leary to the encouraging and anti-secularist belief that “normal humans are not feeling robots, but are quite capable of adjusting their emotional reactions. This is true even of children,” as studies they mention demonstrate.

The authors explain theological terms well, with the chapter on mysticism containing particularly effective definitions of mystical experience, such as the following: “Some mystics have attempted to describe their experiences by negation. This apophatic tradition – explanation through denial – can be rhetorically effective, as in 'No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.'”

The Spiritual Brain also wades into philosophy since it challenges the materialist legs on which contemporary science stands. The authors demonstrate that science has become guilty of its own blind faith. Scientists have been trying to explain religious and spiritual matters “in relation to human evolution. Unfortunately, under materialist influence, the project became not so much exploring a way, but explaining away.” In other words, scientists have acted unscientifically.

Researchers must approach spiritual and religious issues without the materialist ideological baggage, and with more empty, truly inquisitive minds. Beauregard and O'Leary show that scientists need humility to go with their natural wonder.

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