God and the battle between mind and brain

By  Dorothy Cummings, Catholic Register Special
  • January 11, 2008

{mosimage}The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul, by Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary (HarperCollins, 368 pages, hardcover, $31.50).

Materialists are legion in the universities, and it is a favourite sport of materialists to make fun of us credulous people who believe in God. Materialists, especially the 19-year-olds, are amazed that religious people even bother to go to university. What materialists don’t realize, of course, is that materialism is itself a belief system whose claims have not been scientifically verified.

In their book The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul, neuroscientist Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary point out that materialist assumptions are interfering with scientific discovery.

As Thomas Aquinas said, faith does not contradict reason. What Thomas Aquinas does in the first book of his Summa Theologiae is indicate it is not unreasonable to believe in God. What Beauregard and O’Leary do in The Spiritual Brain is indicate it is not unreasonable to believe that the mind and the brain are distinct from each other. Despite what materialist scientists and philosophers say, human beings are neither walking computers, nor advanced monkeys, nor meat puppets. Most of the book is taken up with debunking materialist dead ends in attempts to prove that mystical experience is literally all in our heads.

The authors do this with clarity and humour. Their central point is that neuroscience is in danger of being hijacked by unsubstantiated materialism. “One-way skeptics” refuse to believe that there might be a mind even as they jump excitedly at any bizarre (and questionable) experiment that claims to locate God in the processes of our brains.

{sa 0060858834}The Spiritual Brain outlines some of the problems for a purely mechanical materialist view of the human mind/brain. They include the placebo effect; pure altruism (which has no proven evolutionary advantage); near death experiences (NDEs) that occur after brain death; mystical experiences; measurable Psi results; and the nocebo effect (e.g. death by suggestion). It also examines some of the top pop science stories of recent years, including claims of a “God gene” and, hilariously, the famous “God helmet” of Sudbury, Ont.

The chapter entitled “The Strange Case of the God Helmet” is alone well worth the work involved in reading a book that is, after all, about neuroscience. The Spiritual Brain is hardly a beach book. But it has its rewards, and among them is the account of Michael Persinger, a researcher at Laurentian University who invented a machine he claimed could induce mystical experiences. As Beauregard and O’Leary explain, “Persinger proposed that: electrical microseizures within the temporal lobes generate a wide range of altered states, resulting in religious and mystical visions, out-of-body experiences and even recollections of abduction by aliens.” From experiments inducing electrical microseizures in students with his “God helmet,” Persinger concluded two things: “that the experience of a sensed presence can be manipulated by experiment, and that such an experience ‛may be the fundamental source for phenomena attributed to visitations by gods, spirits and other ephemeral phenomena.’ ” However, as Beauregard and O’Leary point out, “The first conclusion is a research result that should be able to be replicated if it is valid. The second is, of course, an opinion.” As a matter of fact, Swedish researchers were unable to reproduce Persinger’s results. But the God helmet did manage to convince some very influential and credulous people — the pop-science media.

There are two sets of villains in The Spiritual Brain. The first group is scientists who are so blinkered by materialism that they will ignore any evidence that does not support their materialist world view. The second set is the media, whose love for religion versus science stories prompts them to serve up uncritical materialist pap to their readers. Because most scientific claims are filtered to the general public by pop science writers, I particularly enjoyed Beauregard and O’Leary’s challenge to these writers’ authority. Of journalists’ self-appointment as the guardians of humanity, they write, “Assuming that materialism is here to stay, many journalists assumed that their role was to promote materialism at the expense of traditional, spiritually oriented ideas of human nature. Journalism was thereafter to be modelled on science, with ‛objectivity’ as a new standard. It would generally provide only trenchant criticism of the religious outlook that it replaced.” This, I am sure we agree, was short sighted.

I would recommend The Spiritual Brain to anyone who is interested in popular science, spirituality or both. It would make a very good gift for a university freshman under fire from the 15 village atheists in the dorm. Although entertaining and insightful, it is not an easy book for a non-scientist to read. There are some bumps along the way. Nevertheless, it illustrates convincingly not only that the mind and the brain are separate entities, but that true science and materialism are similarly separate.

(Cummings is a freelance writer in Toronto.)

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