on 26 September 2007
I truly was bowled over by the book, which had my eyes watering at points. For more than a century materialists have been trying to talk us out of our minds. No such thing, they say. It's just a brain, just electrified jelly, no more free than billiard balls bouncing around a pool table. Our overwhelming internal senses of self and freedom are pathetic illusions, meaningless byproducts of mechanical processes in a pointless universe. In The Spiritual Brain/ neuroscientist Mario Beauregard and science writer Denyse O'Leary push back hard. First they debunk the most widely touted urban legends of impoverished materialism -- the "God gene", "God spot", "God helmet". Then they soberly examine the latest data from neuroscience, ranging from brain scans of prayerful nuns to the powerful placebo effect of sugar pills. If approached without materialist prejudice, they write, the results point insistently to the reality of a spiritual mind that survives physical death. For my money, the most compelling demonstration of the reality of the psyche is the simple, elegant, entertaining, dryly humorous writing of /The Spiritual Brain/ itself. In it we are privileged to meet a pair of unfettered minds actively at work to shape our world. I strongly recommend this book to anyone with a mind of his own.
- biochemist Mike Behe, author of Edge of Evolution
I've just finished reading The Spiritual Brain (I was sent an advance copy). It's superb, and is a milestone in what I think is going to be a 'long twilight struggle' against materialist neuroscience.
- neurosurgeon Mike Egnor
In principle, the natural sciences are agnostic. Dealing only in physical data, they can prove neither that God (a being deemed entirely spiritual) exists nor that he does not. But if science is in essence agnostic, scientists themselves often are not. Many books purport that science supports atheism (e.g., Daniel C. Dennett's Breaking the Spell). Others, such as this one, believe that science supports theism. With the assistance of journalist O'Leary (Faith@Science: Why Science Needs Faith in the Twenty-First Century), Canadian neuroscientist Beauregard here argues that his own work with Carmelite nuns and various other scientific studies show that merely physical explanations for religious experience are insufficient. He should end the discussion there: answer unknown. But he argues further that mystical experience shows spiritual beings must exist, and that the existence of God is probable. This conclusion is beyond science. Beauregard argues well in clear, readable prose, avoiding highly technical language. Whether his argument is convincing is up to the reader. Recommended for academic libraries and for public libraries with strong religion collections.
Library Journal review
The Spiritual Brain is a wonderful and important book that provides new insights into our experience of religion and God. It offers a unique perspective to the ongoing dialogue between science and religion. This book is a necessary read for both the scientist and the religious person.
-Andrew Newberg, M.D. Associate Professor of Radiology and Director of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania. Co-author of Why We Believe What We Believe.
Is spiritual experience an illusion caused by a misfiring brain, as many scientists believe, or is it something more? In The Spiritual Brain neuroscientist Mario Beauregard and journalist Denyse O'Leary persuasively argue that it is indeed something more. This means the mainstream neurosciences may have overlooked something of profound importance about who and what we are. If you have a mind, you will find The Spiritual Brain a refreshing antidote to the strange arguments offered by some scientists who insist that their minds, and yours, are meaningless illusions.
- Dean Radin, PhD, Senior Scientist, Institute of Noetic Sciences and author of The Conscious Universe and Entangled Minds
The Spiritual Brain is a very important book. It clearly explains non-materialist neuroscience in simple terms appropriate for the lay reader, while building on and extending work that Sharon Begley and I began in The Mind and The Brain, and work that Mario and I collaborated on in academic publications. Of utmost importance is the fact that The Spiritual Brain clearly shows that non-materialist neuroscience is not simply a controversial view held by some neuroscientists. It is a coherent and theoretically very well-grounded perspective that can play a critical role in developing more effective treatments for many medical and psychological disorders. Further, it creates natural links between physical and spiritual health by stressing the need for the active participation of people in their own treatment planning and implementation. The Spiritual Brain greatly contributes to the on-going paradigm shift that is revolutionizing our understanding of the relationship of the spirit, the mind, and the brain in the 21st Century.
Jeffrey M. Schwartz, MD
Research Psychiatrist, UCLA
Author of Brain Lock and The Mind and The Brain
on 9 May 2009
At a time when unreflecting materialist/anti-theistic assumptions dominate psychology and neuroscience, Mario Beauregard's book is like a breath of fresh air.
Beauregard attack's the materialist scientist's view that mind and consciousness reflect the activity of the brain, and are not independent of it. He shows that such conclusions,often drawn from work in AI and in evolutionary psychology, are not in fact consistent with the evidence, but largely reflect the initial assumptions and worldview of materialism. In particular, whilst accepting that evolution has occurred, he ridicules the attempts to explain behaviour in terms of evolutionary psychology. Not only is the latter full of untested - indeed often untestable - theories about human nature. It seems to take some form of behaviour exising in a particular contemporary culture, and illegitimately tries to explain it in terms of universal and eternal features. Thus, we have evo. psy. 'explanations' for monogamy AND polygamy, competitiveness AND co=operation, selfishness AND altruism.
Beauregard goes on to deal with psi, near death experiences, and the placebo effect, showing in each case evidence that defies materialism.Moreover, in fields such as healing, it is shown how exclusively materialist approaches hold up progress.
The book, in essence, emphasises that if we wish to gain a comprehensive understanding of brain/mind interaction, we must go beyond the materialist paradigm which is so dominant in science today. Science properly involves scepticism towards claims made about reality, but scepticism needs to be two-way. We must make every effort to rid ourselves of limiting preconceptions, and be prepared to go where the evidence leads.
on 6 May 2015
There’s a phrase commenting on a book attributed to Samuel Johnson, or Voltaire, or to any of a long list of others;
“Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.”
This book reminded me of that saying; some lesser parts of its argument are interesting and worthwhile; unfortunately, they are not the parts that do anything to support the author’s anti-naturalistic views. The parts that might have supported their “spiritual” interpretation are weak and even credulous.
I came to this book hoping for an effective challenge to the predominant view of modern science, not because I think that view is wrong, but because I think it’s healthy to challenge one’s own viewpoint. I was disappointed. I found it poorly argued and unsatisfying.
True, the authors are honest about some of the limitations of their own case; for example, they frankly admit that their studies of meditating Carmelite nuns do nothing to prove that the nuns were contacting and objective external consciousness. However, they still make claims that don’t stand up. For example, in discussing these results (sorry, I can’t give exact page references, because I only have the audiobook version to hand) they argue that their finding disprove certain explanations because they show complex effects in the brain and “thus we can rule out some explanations because, for example, a complex pattern is not consistent with a simple explanation”. That’s simply wrong, both logically and empirically. Simple causes often give complex results, that’s part of what emergence means. Here’s a clear example. Conway’s Game of Life is a game-like simulation of a world with the simplest imaginable set of just four rules;
The universe of the Game of Life is an infinite two-dimensional orthogonal grid of square cells, each of which is in one of two possible states, live or dead. Every cell interacts with its eight neighbours, which are the cells that are directly horizontally, vertically, or diagonally adjacent. At each step in time, the following transitions occur:
1. Any live cell with fewer than two live neighbours dies, as if by needs caused by underpopulation..
2. Any live cell with more than three live neighbours dies, as if by overcrowding.
3. Any live cell with two or three live neighbours lives, unchanged, to the next generation.
4. Any dead cell with exactly three live neighbours cells will come to life.
These very simple rules give rise to many complex shapes, which can support such complex interactions that it has been shown that a fully functioning universal computer can be constructed from them!
More broadly, the authors constantly attack what they call “materialism” as the predominant basis of scientific and philosophical thought today. Here’s the problem; materialism is a word with a range of meanings. The authors select the one that suits their rhetorical purposes, because it’s the easiest to attack; the kind that is really uncomfortable admitting that consciousness exists, or if it does, that it has any real effects. Some of their attacks on materialist ideas are right; but they only tackle one limited form of materialism, and materialism in a strict sense is just one form of naturalistic belief; there are many thinkers who believe that there is no good evidence to believe that anything non-natural exists, but aren’t materialists in the sense that Beauregard and O'Leary use the word. So even the valid parts of their argument do nothing to establish any of their anti-naturalistic agenda.
I actually agree with some of the author’s criticisms of the views of some materialists. The trouble is, every one of these criticisms has also been made either by other materialists of a different persuasion, or by other naturalistic thinkers who are not materialist in the sense Beauregard and O’Leary use, but still reject his dualistic or supernaturalist views.
In other words, there’s no need to accept what the authors call their spiritual view, just because you agree, for instance, that consciousness can make a difference, and that explaining consciousness away is ultimately sterile and unscientific. One example is the philosopher John Searle. Many others are available.
I have to say that few materialists even of the eliminative sort, like the Churchlands or Dennett, would deny that “talking cures” can be effective or that what we think and believe can affect our health or our bodies’ functioning. And if a small minority do, they have already been shown to be mistaken, not by religious or spiritual arguments, but by other naturalistic thinkers.
The authors also miss the important distinction between methodological naturalism and a philosophical commitment to materialism. Methodological naturalism is a basic premise for scientific reasoning; it simply denies that miraculous or supernatural explanations are useful in science. Please note that this methodological principle was developed at a time when almost all scientific thinkers were religious of spiritual believers. It isn’t an invalid bias by materialists, and it wsn’t introduced by materialists at all. It is just an acknowledgement that, as soon as you allow non-natural explanations, you lose all capacity to explain anything at all. That view was developed by early scientific thinkers who strongly believed that the power of reason was a central gift of God, and to deny or misuse it was contrary to God’s will.
Another reviewer, Matts Trofimoff says; “Beauregard's main claim is that most of science is biased in its commitment to materialism. Any non-materialist interpretations are rejected despite of evidence to the contrary”
I won’t deny that I’ve sometimes heard individuals say things that presuppose the truth of materialism in an illegitimate way. But I’ve also heard them pulled up on it by other naturalists and even other materialists. Within science, being critical, sceptical and testing the ideas other put forward is central to the whole nature of the discipline. And in philosophy, nobody goes unchallenged.
On the other hand, I think the authors are one-sided and credulous in their portrayal of psi and near death experiences. As a former believer in such things, I understand the arguments for; but I also know how the claimed evidence seems to weaken drastically when it’s examined closely, Rather than trying to describe each example, I’d encouraged the open-minded to check out the sceptic, questioning view and decide for yourself.
Incidentally, Beauregard and O’Leary spend some time attacking the Susan Blackmore’s views on near death experiences and psi. Now I have criticisms of some of her work – in her interesting and useful book “Consciousness: An introduction, she misrepresents Searle badly, because of her own biases.
But Beaureard and O’Leary don’t mention that Blackmore started out as a research in parapsychology, investigating psi effects in laboratories and strongly believing in their genuineness. Her experience caused her to change her mind. Far form absorbing a materialist viewpoint as a received belief form other scientists, she arrived at it by testing her positive belief in the kind of perspective that these authors are promoting, and, to her surprise, finding them wanting. So she did the reasonable thing and rejected her prior beliefs on the basis of evidence. See her book “In Search of the Light” for more on this.
One example of a naturalistic philosopher who rejects the narrow form of materialism is John Searle. I suggest anyone who is willing to see a trenchant criticism of materialism in a strict sense from a completely naturalistic perspective should read his book “The Rediscovery of the Mind”, especially Chapter 1: “What’s Wrong with the Philosophy of Mind?” and Chapter 2: “The Recent History of Materialism: the Same Mistake Over and Over”. Seale’s argument show how it is possible to reject the anti-consciousness confusions of much materialism without any need to assume the external reality of spiritual beings or realities in the sense that Beauregard and O'Leary claim.
Briefly – I can’t really do justice to his argument, and I’m oversimplifying – Searle says that materialism is confused about the ideas of objectivity/subjectivity and reductionism. Since the rise of behaviourism, if not as far back as TH Huxley, the argument has been that science is objective; it deals with objective phenomena using objective methods. But consciousness is subjective, so it’s not possible even to consider consciousness objectively, later, when materialists saw the need to engage with consciousness, they are still uncomfortable with it, and engage in a kind of fan-dance; they dare not claim right out that consciousness doesn't exist, because it’s too evident that it does; yet they really want to get as close to that position as they can. Hence the work of Daniel Dennett and Patricia and Paul Churchland, for instance.
But, Searle says, they are confused about what “subjective” means. If I say that “Paris is a more beautiful city than London” that is an epistemically subjective statement; it’s a judgement of values that doesn't draw on any objective basis, unlike “Paris is the capital of France”. But consciousness isn’t subjective in that sense. It is ontologically subjective; its actual existent is subjective, it is a first-person phenomenon.
Some materialists hope to reduce consciousness to “nothing but” other things, to explain it away. Searle thinks they miss the point again; there is more than one kind of reduction. When I explain rainbows or sunsets by describing the underlying physical processes that give rise to them, I really do show that they don’t actually exist out there in the world; rainbows are an effect of refraction, for example. But when I explain why water is liquid by talking about the way its constituent atoms interact interact, I don’t and can’t eliminate the phenomenon of liquidity; it just is that underlying interaction viewed under a different aspect. And that’s how consciousness can be both a completely natural, physically based phenomenon and at the same time real and irreducible.
OK, it isn't possible to argue this point in the space available here, but I hope it shows how we can accept the best bits of this book without accepting any of the authors’ interpretations.
For the less good bits, it is uncritical, to say the least, about claims for paranormal effects and experiences. I’d really suggest that anyone open minded who feels swayed by the descriptions of near death experiences show read a bit more widely about alternative explanations. Certainly, people do have those experiences, but I don’t think there good reason to take them at face value. And Beauregard and O'Leary don’t take on the alternative explanations in any serious way.