A few years ago, a British researcher invented a “god helmet”, which would give a spiritual experience to anyone who wore it. This is part of a growing trend amongst neuroscientists to attribute all consciousness, including morality and spirituality, to the workings of the brain. In their stimulating new book, The Spiritual Brain, a Canadian researcher, Mario Beauregard, and a journalist, Denyse O’Leary, debunk these claims and show that materialism cannot account for all of human experience.
MercatorNet: Quite a few widely-publicised articles in leading scientific journals have made astonishing claims about the scope of neuroscience: that God, altruism, morality, and emotions are all figments of the brain. It all sounds very convincing. But how close are these researchers to proving their case?
O’Leary: Let me say something first about how such claims arise. The materialism that underlies them is assumed. It is not demonstrated. A materialist explanation is assumed to be better than a non-materialist explanation even if it is silly. All the claims I examined had fallen apart by the time I got to them. But why believe me? The fact that consciousness is referred to in the trade to this day as “the hard problem of consciousness” demonstrates better than I can how far they are from proving any case at all.
Note: If you are not a materialist, consciousness isn’t a problem in the same sense. It is a state that you cannot explore using the tool set and assumptions mandated by materialism. But so? To a non-materialist, that just means developing and working with other tool sets, other assumptions.
MercatorNet: Are there many major neuroscientists who do not accept that all of our mental processes can be reduced to biological processes?
Beauregard: Presently neuropsychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz at UCLA, lead author of The Mind and the Brain (2004), is one important neuroscientist refusing to reduce our mental processes to brain processes. Historically, very famous neuroscientists such as Wilder Penfield, Charles Sherrington, John Eccles (a Nobel prize winner) and Roger Sperry (another Nobel prize winner) were not materialists.
MercatorNet: One popular analogy for explaining the relationship between the mind and the body is to compare them to hardware and software. Does this hold water, in your opinion?
O’Leary: Interesting question. When I loaded WordPerfect 12 onto the laptop, I transferred it from an installation disk onto a hard disk. But what was I transferring? A long, very complex algorithm – a software team’s idea, actually, rendered in code. Does the program cause anything to happen by itself? No, never. Minds created it and a mind must operate it, though the minds are all obviously working through brains.
The hardware/software analogy discourages people from thinking that ideas are cells in their brain, and that’s good. But it doesn’t establish that the mind can cause things to happen, not merely enable them. What if my copy of WordPerfect 12 started answering these questions, like I am doing now?
MercatorNet: In the journal Nature Neuroscience, some researchers recently argued that American liberals and conservatives think differently because of the way their brains are structured. What are the implications of reducing ideas to circuitry? What comes next?
O’Leary: Well, first, if you think ideas are circuitry, which ideas would you be prepared to die for? Materialism cannot ground a doctrine of human freedom that supports human dignity. At best it can say that people should be free to follow their inner drives, rather than restrained by social forces. Very well, but what follows? People who are willing to risk their lives to help Jews escape the Nazis are unlikely to risk their lives to defend the local Triple X Adult Video store. In a materialist setting, freedom starts to slip away because it is not worth serious risks. People are, by definition, not free to do or be anything significant. That was the message of Aldous Huxley’s prescient Brave New World.
Regarding the liberal/conservative brains, I gather from Sharon Begley’s blog that the test was done in Greenwich Village, a very liberal place. A conservative who lived there and wished to remain conservative would need to ignore many, many signals from the environment. I would be interested to know what would happen if they did the same test among people who had started and run successful small businesses in very conservative Utah. Success in small business requires one to pick up signals and adapt rapidly. The biggest challenge of social psychology research in general is the need to be quite clear about what you are measuring. And, as Begley notes, the brain is very plastic anyway.
MercatorNet: Do you think that neuroscientists think much about the ethical implications of their work?
Beauregard: No. Most neuroscientists prefer to leave the critical reflection about the ethical implications of their work to theologians and philosophers.
MercatorNet: Your own research shows that people actually contact a reality outside themselves during intense spiritual experiences. What evidence do you have of this?
O’Leary: We don’t say that they actually do, only that it is reasonable to infer that they do — from the whole body of information available. No one can prove for sure that anyone else has had a given experience. That’s part of the “hard problem” of consciousness. But when you consider that spiritual experiences are complex and typically life-changing, and that spirituality is associated with better health, it is more reasonable to believe that spirituality corresponds to a reality than that it is an illusion.
MercatorNet: How have your colleagues responded? Intrigued? Sceptical?
O’Leary: My journalist colleagues think I am very brave for writing about this. The religious ones have taken to praying for Mario and me. But heck, you know, I’m 57 and it was the biggest story of my life. So I said, if not this, what? If not now, when? If not me, who? So I don’t let the gathering storm bother me.
Even the colleagues who disagree half hope we are right. I have yet to come across one who wasn’t intrigued. Oh no, wait; there was one. But she had discovered all the answers to everything a long time ago and has been telling people the answers ever since… I am glad that I will never know all the answers.
MercatorNet: But your research can’t prove the existence of a spiritual world, can it? Wouldn’t that be the very reductionism which you object to?
O’Leary: Outside mathematics, you can’t “prove” anything – and even inside mathematics, you must begin by accepting the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics. Otherwise, you still can’t.
Our method is actually cumulative rather than reductive. We provide a summary of the evidence for the reality of the mind and its ability to cause events. We show that the mind is less bound to the brain than many think. We show that spiritual experiences are complex, like experiences of real events, and that they cannot merely be traced to a brain dysfunction. We conclude that it is reasonable to believe that spirituality corresponds to spiritual realities of the universe. We don’t try to explain away anything as the outcome of blind forces, as a reductionist would do. Reductionists are the people least likely to be happy with what we are doing.
Mario Beauregard teaches at the University of Montreal. Denyse O’Leary is a Toronto-based freelance journalist and blogger who specialises in faith and science issues.