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The Spiritual Brain: An Argument Against Materialism

"The fact is materialism is stalled. It neither has any useful hypotheses for the human mind or spiritual experiences nor comes close to developing any. Just beyond lies a great realm that cannot even be entered via materialism, let alone explored." (xiv)

Canadian neuroscientist Mario Beauregard notes at the beginning of his book The Spiritual Brain, co-authored with journalist Denyse O'Leary, that he belongs to a small minority of nonmaterialist neuroscientists. He is upfront about the fact that he "went into neuroscience in part because [he] knew experientially that such things [religious, spiritual, and mystical experiences (RSME)] can indeed happen." Driven by his curiosity about what is happening to the brain during RSME, Beauregard and his colleague studied the spiritual experiences of Carmelite nuns, coming to the conclusion that it is more likely that these mystics are directly experiencing a reality outside of themselves.

This response of taking the nuns and their spiritual experiences seriously is not the norm in neuroscience, to put it mildly. Here Dr. Beauregard, aided by O'Leary, offers a unique perspective. Unlike his materialist counterparts, his philosophy does not force him to reject, deny, explain away, or treat these religious experiences as problems simply because they deny materialism. The book contains an entertaining if disturbing look at the ridiculous explanation materialists must resort to when confronted with the Numinous, a serious problem for their monistic philosophy. Taking the reader through uninspired arguments such as the "God gene," the "God spot" in the brain," and the eminently mockable "God helmet," The Spiritual Brain reviews current evolutionary explanations for RSMEs and finds them severely lacking.

In contrast, Beauregard and O'Leary urge us to consider the mind as something distinct from the brain, giving evidence that the mind acts on the brain as a nonmaterial cause. Reviewing studies of near death experiences (NDE), they come to the intriguing conclusion that "mind and consciousness appear to continue at a time when the brain is nonfunctional and clinical criteria of death have been reached." The Spiritual Brain does not question the validity of these reports, but accepts the challenge they present to the idea that consciousness is nothing more than an illusion of the brain. "There's no escaping the nonmaterialism of the human mind."

According to The Spiritual Brain, this is very good news, especially as it pertains to medicine. As its authors argue, "A nonmaterialist approach to the mind...is critical to alleviating some psychiatric disorders...ultimately the mind is the most effective agent of change for the brain." Drawing on the work of UCLA neuropsychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz, they conclude that responsible choices are possible for the many living with phobias, OCD, and other serious, often crippling psychological issues. Included in this examination is the power of the placebo effect, which provides serious food for thought: does believing something like I have taken this pill, so I will get better have the power to make it so?

The power of nonmaterialist neuroscience is not that it has answered these questions already, but that it frees the scientist to study the question at hand, opening doors for new investigations into how the mind works. The Spiritual Brain has the opposite effect of the many materialist screeds which attempt to explain religion. Rather than dulling curiosity with useless theories about God spots and God genes, Beauregard and O'Leary incite a hunger for more knowledge and excitement for the future of neuroscience research.