I Think, Therefore...

The Spiritual Brainby By Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’LearyHarper One. 384p $25.95 (hardcover)
In Lost in the Cosmos, Walker Percy recounts an incident when the great neuroscientist Sir John Eccles was greeted by boos and hisses at a Harvard lecture. Eccles had committed the unpardonable sin of claiming that human self-consciousness was not reducible to the biochemistry of the brain. The hostile reception was child of a dogmatic tradition called materialism: “How can that be? If the self is not reducible to material causes, it cannot exist.” Eccles’s response, whenever he was greeted with such rants, usually took the form, “If self-consciousness exists, it exists. And if you can’t explain it by materialist categories, then your materialism is inadequate.”

In subsequent years, materialists employed one of two tactics. They either denied that the self exists, thereby causing considerable problems for anyone who might hold that humans are capable of freedom and even rational inquiry; or they offered what Karl Popper derided as a “promissory materialism,” a sheer act of faith that someday, somehow, self-consciousness will be explained away as the firing of neurons.

Mario Beauregard, a neuroscientist at the University of Montreal, collaborating with the Toronto-based journalist Denyse O’Leary, has written The Spiritual Brain to show how the promissory note of materialism will never pay off. Using his own functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) research on the brain, he first mounts an evidence-based critique of materialist brainism and then offers reasons why materialist accounts will never work.


The fact that most humans report religious, spiritual and mystical experiences has sent some materialists on a scavenger hunt for a “God-spot” in the brain, a “God-gene” hiding in some chromosome and even a “God helmet” that stirs up an electromagnetic field to give the brain a spiritual buzz. Beauregard’s fMRI work shows that, while all human cognitive experience is accompanied by firings in the neural network, the experiences themselves are utterly unlocalizable.

The workings of the brain accompany spiritual experience but do not fully account for it. What is more, although human experience requires the brain as a necessary condition for our embodied personal acts of self-consciousness, mindfulness, freedom and love, the brain cannot adequately explain them. Beauregard examines cases of the paranormal, the placebo effect and therapeutic auto-suggestion, all under fMRI conditions, to show that the brain-driven content of our experience is different from our self-directed consciousness of the content. Most remarkable here is the report of a near-death-experience of someone clinically dead, with a flat EEG but nonetheless aware.

In a chapter recounting a fascinating neural study of Carmelite nuns reliving and recalling deep mystical states in prayer, The Spiritual Brain concludes that, while neural science cannot disprove or prove the existence of God, it can rule out the inadequate explanations that materialism applies to religious, spiritual and mystical experiences. The authors suggest, moreover, that an open and honest engagement of the data could lead to the conclusion that “mind and consciousness represent a fundamental and irreducible property of the Ground of Being.” I use the words “suggest” and “could” in the last sentence because materialists might be willing to present data in rebuttal.

This book is to be praised for the questions it raises. One might hope that some materialists would greet it not with hissing, but with a thoughtful, evidence-based counterargument. It will be appreciated by scientists, health-care professionals, theologians and philosophers, although for the schooled scientist it may not be technical enough, while for the layperson it may be too technical at times. A similar mixed reaction might be made to the authors’ frequent use of side information boxes and the sprinkling of unanchored quotations. Some will find the practice irritating, others a benefit.

The Spiritual Brain deserves to be carefully evaluated for the claims it makes and the philosophy on which it seems to rest. While I think it is a must-read for anyone interested in neuroscience, I also think it could use some distinctions. Even the title and subtitle raise a host of problems to the secular (and religious) mind. To my thinking, the brain is not spiritual. The brain is matter. But to understand this, we have to discuss what we mean by mind, brain and spirit.

The subtitle is also problematic: “A neuroscientist’s case for the existence of the soul.” The term “soul” itself has many problems beyond the fact that it is often a source of political and scientific contention. For some it is a religious concept, pertaining only to what is called the human soul. But in its history the notion of soul is a philosophical one. It is not dependent on any religious belief. The most historically grounded notion of the soul is found in Aristotle (and other traditions). Soul refers not to some spiritual or religious reality; it refers only to the fact that something is alive. Thus, for Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, animals and even plants have a soul, understood as any organism’s dynamic organizing principle of self-development and elaboration.

It may thus be appropriate to speak of the soul, even the “mind” of a non-human animal. The crucial issue is what kind of soul, what kind of mind, humans have. Then, does such a soul require us to affirm that there is something special about the human soul and its destiny?

Beauregard is not a “substance dualist” like Descartes, yet he offers evidence to argue that the human person has endowments not reducible to matter. The human “mind,” then, is not some independent being attached to our bodies. That would mean we are two substances, but we are not. As Beauregard himself insists in an upcoming article for the journal Progress in Neurobiology (reported on the co-authors’ Weblog), “We must keep in mind that the whole human person, not merely a part of a brain, thinks, feels, or believes.” Amen to that.

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lLetha Chamberlain
11 years 1 month ago
Bless you! This is going immediately to my paleontologist/anatomist brother on the faculty at Duke, with whom I have many conversations re: spirituality. He, always questioning (while adding depth to my own spiritual journey)needs to see this. It will add to our future discussions. Thank you again.


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