Mario Beauregard & Denyse O’Leary

The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul

Review by Roy Smith, 2008

Beauregard, Mario; O’Leary, Denyse. The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.

The Spiritual Brain is an argument against the materialist notion that the ‘mind’ does not exist- that there is only the brain- by “nonmaterialist neuroscientists”; here represented by Beauregard (ix). The complaint of our authors is that materialism has dominated neuroscience, and that evidence (such as their case study of Carmelite nuns, 263ff) can show that “the mystical state of consciousness really exists” (x). This book has two goals. First a path for neuroscience towards the understanding of “religious, spiritual, and mystical experiences” is sought. Second, Beauregard and O’Leary will utilize neurological findings in order to argue that the mind is not a fiction explained by the function of the brain. Rather, the “mind does exist … it is not merely your brain … there is such a thing as ‘mind over matter’” (x, xiii). This will be proven by appeal to scientific evidence. In short, “unproductive ideologies” resulting from the captivity of natural sciences by “radical materialism” yielding “questionable concepts” such as “temporal-lobe personality, selfish genes, and gangs of memes” will be refuted in hopes that religious/spiritual experiences can be neurologically studied (as in the case study on nuns by our authors, 253ff). I will now summarize the argument.

‘Materialists’ want to subvert questions such as “consciousness and free will” as “problems to be explained away”, and blame the success of spiritual leaders and belief in God on evolutionary necessity (xi-xiv). The answer to these “comic diversions” is that “there is no escaping the nonmaterialism of the human mind” (xiv). Why? Because humans are more than animals (i.e. humans have not an animal nature, and cannot be crossed with chimpanzees) and more than “mud” (13ff). Humans (in contrast to animals) have a ‘spiritual nature’, which is evident because of the “purpose or design” of the cosmos (23ff). Thus materialism must be overcome, and the spiritual nature of humans must be shown. To do this an appeal is made to how “most of us” think that we have ‘minds’ as distinct from our ‘brains’. The ‘atheistic worldview’ is critiqued and the materialist notion of the ‘God gene’ is argued against, by claiming that it has no scientific basis. Instead of the brain causing spiritual or mystical experiences, these are caused by the mind, which yields brain-reactions. The mind is not an illusion of the brain, because “the mind acts on the brain as a nonmaterial cause” (36), as shown in NDE’s (near death experiences). Next, spiritual or mystical experiences lead to changes in the lives of those who have them, and the case study on Carmelite nuns shows that mystical union with God yields scientific evidence that the brain shows unique activity during these experiences (267ff). Therefore the temporal lobe does not create the experiences, there is no God spot in the brain to explain away these experiences, and there is ‘mind over matter’. Last, the brain does not ‘create God’. Instead, “the transformative power of spiritual/mystical experiences arises from an authentic encounter with ultimate reality (or God)” (38). Further the nonmaterialist view is more effective in medicine and in treating psychological disorders (such as OCD, depression, and phobia’s, 126ff). This is so because, by virtue of “belief”, one’s mind overcomes one’s brain (140ff). Finally, because “the brain mediates but does not produce” these kinds of experiences, their “transformative power … arises from an encounter with an objectively real spiritual factor that exists independently from the individuals who have the experience” (292). Thus the brain is like “a television receiver” passively translating “electromagnetic waves … allowing us the experience of only a narrow portion of perceivable reality [which] implies that the brain normally limits our experience of the spiritual world” (292-3). Therefore, mind and consciousness are the power behind the brain. Importantly, this position is supported not only on scientific data, but also on the personal experience of one of our authors:

This personal view [i.e. the nonmaterialist view] is based not only on [science], but also on a series of mystical experiences that I have had since my childhood … One of these experiences occurred twenty years ago while I was lying on my bed. I was very weak at the time because I was suffering from what is now called chronic fatigue syndrome. The experience began with a sensation of heat and tingling in the spine and the chest areas. Suddenly, I merged with the infinitely loving Cosmic Intelligence (or Ultimate Reality) and became united with everything in the cosmos, this infinite ocean of life. I also realized that everything arises from and is part of this Cosmic Intelligence. This experience transformed me psychologically and spiritually… Individual minds and selves arise from and are linked together by a divine Ground of Being … that is the spaceless, timeless, and infinite Spirit, which is the ever-present source of the cosmic order, the matrix of the whole universe….” (293)

This book yielded some interesting information, but was poorly argued. Tautological propositions seem to be the crux of the argument: ‘there is a mind apart from the brain because materialism is wrong, and materialism is wrong because there is a mind apart from the brain’. That “your thoughts and feelings cannot be dismissed or explained away by firing synapses and physical phenomena alone”, or that “in a solely material world … there is no such thing as purpose or meaning, there is no room for God”, are never convincingly proven- neither is the inverse disproven (x). Further, our authors seem to set up and attack a straw man caricature of ‘materialists’, never allowing for the possibility that materialists might not all hold that “firing synapses” of the brain either account for “thoughts and feelings”, or that neurological claims push God out of the picture. In short, though I do believe that I am more than my physiology, I find little proof for my belief in this book. Last, the above quote regarding the experience of the author seems a poor case upon which to build a scientific argument for mind over matter. Am I the only person skeptical of relying on experiences which occur during clearly dysfunctional times in one’s life? In other words, that an experience during an illness is (partly) the basis for the argument of the book seems highly problematic to me.