Do religious experiences come from God, or are they merely the random firing of neurons in the brain? Drawing on his own research with Carmelite nuns, neuroscientist Mario Beauregard shows that genuine, life-changing spiritual events can be documented. He offers compelling evidence that religious experiences have a nonmaterial origin, making a convincing case for what many in scientific fields are loath to consider--that it is God who creates our spiritual experiences, not the brain.
Beauregard and O'Leary explore recent attempts to locate a "God gene" in some of us and claims that our brains are "hardwired" for religion--even the strange case of one neuroscientist who allegedly invented an electromagnetic "God helmet" that could produce a mystical experience in anyone who wore it. The authors argue that these attempts are misguided and narrow-minded, because they reduce spiritual experiences to material phenomena.
Many scientists ignore hard evidence that challenges their materialistic prejudice, clinging to the limited view that our experiences are explainable only by material causes, in the obstinate conviction that the physical world is the only reality. But scientific materialism is at a loss to explain irrefutable accounts of mind over matter, of intuition, willpower, and leaps of faith, of the "placebo effect" in medicine, of near-death experiences on the operating table, and of psychic premonitions of a loved one in crisis, to say nothing of the occasional sense of oneness with nature and mystical experiences in meditation or prayer. Traditional science explains away these and other occurrences as delusions or misunderstandings, but by exploring the latest neurological research on phenomena such as these, The Spiritual Brain gets to their real source.
Following C.S. Lewis's dictum that to 'see through' all things is the same as not to see, neuroscientist Beauregard and journalist O'Leary mount a sweeping critique of a trend in the pop science media to explain away religious experience as a brain artifact, pathology or evolutionary quirk. While sympathizing with the attraction such neurotheology holds, the authors warn against the temptation to force the complex varieties of human spirituality into simplistic categories that they argue are conceptually crude, culturally biased and often empirically untested. In recently published research using Carmelite nuns as subjects, Beauregard's group at the University of Montreal found specific areas of brain activation associated with contemplative prayer. But these patterns are quite distinct from those associated with hallucinations, autosuggestion or states of intense emotional arousal, resembling instead how the brain processes real experiences. Insisting that we have never entertained the idea of proving the existence of God, the authors concede that the results of our work are assumed to be a strike either for or against God and that on the whole, we [don't] mind. Never shrinking from controversy, and sometimes deliberately provoking it, this book serves as a lively introduction to a field where neuroscience, philosophy, and secular/spiritual cultural wars are unavoidably intermingled. (Sept.)
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September 03, 2007
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Excerpt from The Spiritual Brain by Mario Beauregard
In June 2005, the historic World Summit on Evolution was held on the remote island of San Cristobal in the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador. The unassuming location, Frigatebird Hill, was chosen because it was the very spot where Charles Darwin first docked in 1835 to probe the "mystery of mysteries"--the origin and nature of species, including (and perhaps especially) the human species.
These isolated Pacific islands lying on the equator later became a stopover for pirates, whalers, and sealers who drove the unique life forms that Darwin studied to the brink of extinction. But still later, under government protection in the twentieth century, the islands evolved into a sort of shrine to materialism--the belief that all life, including human life, is merely a product of the blind forces of nature.1 In the materialist's view, our "minds"--soul, spirit, free will--are simply an illusion created by the electrical charges in the neurons of our brains. Nature is, as Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins famously put it, a "blind watchmaker."2
The Galapagos meeting was quickly hailed as the Woodstock of Evolution. The scientists present, a "Who's Who of evolutionary theory,"3 were well aware of their own importance and the significance of the proceedings. "We are simply stunned to be here," wrote one science journalist, recalling that the elite audience listened to the familiar tale of evolution "rapt, like children hearing the retelling of a favorite story."4
According to the favorite tale, human beings are merely "a bizarre tiny clade," in the words of one attendee.5 And the mission of the next summit promises to tell that tale to the whole world.6 However, to judge from the growing dissension around the teaching of evolution, the world has heard it already.
A Series of Mindless Events?
A key figure at the conference was American philosopher Daniel Dennett. Dennett, who bears a striking physical resemblance to Charles Darwin, is a world-famous philosopher of mind. He is the favorite philosopher of those who think that computers can simulate human mental processes. Curiously, for a philosopher of mind, he hopes to convince the world that there isn't really any such thing as a mind in the traditional sense. He is best known, perhaps, for saying that "Darwin's dangerous idea" is the best idea anyone ever had, because it firmly grounds life in materialism. As he understands it, human beings are "big, fancy robots" and, better still:
If you have the right sort of process and you have enough time, you can create big fancy things, even things with minds, out of processes which are individually stupid, mindless, simple. Just a whole lot of little mindless events occurring over billions of years can create not just order, but design, not just design, but minds, eyes and brains.7
Dennett insists that there is no soul or spirit associated with the human brain, or any supernatural element, or life after death. Thus, his career focus has been to explain how "meaning, function and purpose can come to exist in a world that is intrinsically meaningless and functionless."8 He came to the Galapagos to testify to that view.
Of course, many -people are dismayed by ideas such as Dennett's and hope that they are false. Others welcome them as a means of freeing the human race from restraints imposed by traditional religions and philosophies. Let us progress, they say, toward a more humane system that both expects less of humans and blames them less for their failures--failures they can't help anyway, really.9
The question addressed in this book is not whether materialism is good news or bad news. Rather, the question is, does the evidence from neuroscience support it? As constitutional law professor Phillip Johnson, long a foe of materialism, which he terms "naturalism," writes: "If the blind watchmaker thesis is true, then naturalism deserves to rule, but I am addressing those who think the thesis is false, or at least are willing to consider the possibility that it may be false."10
True or false, materialism was the dominant intellectual current of the twentieth century and provided the impetus for most major philosophical and political movements of the day. Indeed, many thinkers today see the primary purpose of science as providing evidence for materialist beliefs. They reject with hostility any scientific evidence that challenges such beliefs, as we will see in our discussion of the psi effect in Chapter Six. Every year, thousands of books are published, in dozens of disciplines, advancing materialist views.
Not this one. This book will show that Professor Dennett and the many neuroscientists who agree with him are mistaken. It will take you on a journey different from the one he has made. Not to the Galapagos Islands, but inside the brain. It will show you why he is mistaken. In the first place, the materialists' account of human beings does not bear up well under close examination. In the second place, there is good reason for believing that human beings have a spiritual nature, one that even survives death.
But first things first. Why should you embark on this journey unless you see the need for a nonmaterialist account of human nature? A new account is needed because the materialists' account is inadequate. It is failing in a number of areas. So let us begin by outlining some of the failures. Let's start with this question: What would you be left with if you accepted the materialists' explanation of you? Would you recognize yourself? If not, why not? What is missing?
The foregoing is excerpted from The Spiritual Brain by Mario Beauregard, and Denyse O'Leary. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022