The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul
Mario Beauregard (a neuroscientist) and Denyse O’Leary (a freelance journalist and writer on faith and science) have produced a provocatively titled book covering an equally provocative topic. First off, it must be stated that the subtitle of the book, “a neuroscientist’s case for the existence of the soul,” is not fulfilled by the actual content of the volume, if only because the use of the word “soul” is being used as the equivalent of the word “mind.” Indeed, the possible philosophical and theological distinctions between these two terms are not elaborated upon at any length in the text.1 That being said, the book’s main thesis, that religious experience cannot be reduced wholly to and explained by neurological functioning, is a legitimate topic of discussion with wide-ranging cross-disciplinary implications.
The text contains several lines of argumentation that can be viewed as supporting elements of the authors’ critique of epiphenomenalism and eliminative materialism in considerations of the mind in general and religious experience in particular. Epiphenomenalism claims that psychological states arise from brain states but that “the mind” as such has no causal power; the mind or mental states do exist, but only in the manner that steam exists when you boil water. Neither the steam nor the perceived mental states do anything. Eliminative materialism takes things a step further and seeks to reduce wholly the level of explanation that we commonly call “psychological” to the neurological and do away altogether with talk of “the mind.” In this approach, concepts such as “mind” or “thought” are simply prescientific ideas about how the brain works and their elimination is called for actively. Contrary to these positions, Beauregard and O’Leary argue that “…the human brain can enable a human mind, whereas the mole brain cannot (with my apologies to the mole species). The brain, however, is not the mind; it is an organ suitable for connecting a mind to the rest of the universe” (xi). All of the information presented in the book can be considered broadly to support this argument, for if the brain creates reality and the mind rather than perceiving reality and enabling the mind, then the eliminative materialists and epiphenomenalists are correct—this renders religious experience as well as general psychological experience effectively meaningless.
The title of the book is best represented in part by chapters 2, 3, & 4, which are devoted to evaluating attempts by neuroscientists to argue and produce evidence for theories of religious experience that equate it with various types of neuropathology (such as epilepsy) or the presence of a “God spot” or “God module” within the brain. The authors do a fairly good job of exposing the logical and methodological flaws of these endeavors. Chapter 4, “The Strange Case of the God Helmet,” stands out in its scathing review of the uncritical acceptance by the media of attempts to induce religious experience (defined as the a perception of a nonexistent presence) via the application of pulsed magnetic fields over the temporal lobe. The chapter documents how the media magnified the importance of the study and minimized its flaws as well as the failure of another lab to replicate the original findings. After reading this grouping of chapters, one is left with the impression that the bulk of the “conclusions” drawn from such research resulted more from theoretical bias than actual evidence.
The second section of the text, chapters 5 & 6, will be of particular interest to those whose interests rest primarily in psychology or philosophy. Through chapter 5 the reader becomes acquainted with a myriad of quotations and theories from neuroscientists espousing reduction of consciousness and mind to the material workings of the brain. The authors do a fair job of pointing out many of the weaknesses of such theorizing, but it is clear that their arguments lack the full force of a critique that could have come from a philosopher sympathetic with their views. Chapter 6 examines the empirical difficulties with the stance that the mind is merely epiphenomenal. This is accomplished most forcibly through discussions of the effectiveness of cognitive-behavioral therapy (often demonstrated via the use of neuroimaging that shows a normalization of brain activity following treatment) and the role of placebo and nocebo effects in medicine and psychology. An interesting but weaker portion of the argument for the causal role of the mind is a consideration of parapsychological phenomena and near-death experiences. I consider this a weaker piece of the argument given the contentious nature of the evidence itself in comparison to more widely accepted evidence from general psychological research. While the inclusion of more controversial material may hinder the acceptance of the authors’ other arguments, it is hoped that the reader will consider this information with an open mind and critical eye.
The remaining four chapters of The Spiritual Brain return to the topic of the experimental investigation of the neural underpinnings of religious experience. These chapters read as the logical extension of the first portion of the book mentioned above, ending with chapter 4. Here we return to the issue of religious experience and learn of the various arguments that attempt to explain religion itself and religious experience from a naturalistic perspective, as well as of recent research that attempts to determine the neurobiological correlates of religious experience. The final chapters are done quite well, reflecting the fact that this is Beauregard’s research focus and he is addressing his own peer-reviewed studies, yet in a manner that will allow those without a background in neuroscience to grasp the findings of his work.
Overall, one is left with the feeling that, given more time, each section of the text could have been developed into a stand-alone volume. While this may be one of the book’s weaknesses, it may also be one of its strengths, for in one unintimidating volume, the reader is exposed to current and past neuroscientific attempts to explain religious phenomena, empirical and philosophical problems with an eliminativist approach to the psychology and philosophy of mind, and cutting-edge research examining the neurological correlates of religious experience. It is recommended to general readers as well as those with an interest in neuroscience and the philosophy of mind.