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.
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About the Author
Mario Beauregard, Ph.D., is an associate research professor at the Departments of Psychology and Radiology and the Neuroscience Research Center at the University of Montreal. He is the coauthor of The Spiritual Brain and more than one hundred publications in neuroscience, psychology, and psychiatry.
Denyse O'Leary is a Toronto-based freelance journalist and blogger who specializes in faith and science issues. She is the author of Faith@Science and By Design or by Chance? and has written for The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and Canadian Living.
Read an Excerpt
The Spiritual Brain
A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul
Toward a Spiritual Neuroscience
In June 2005, the historic World Summit on Evolution was held on the remote island of San Cristobal in the Galápagos 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 Galápagos 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 Galápagos 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 Galápagos 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 Spiritual Brain
A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul. Copyright © by Mario Beauregard. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Table of Contents
Toward a Spiritual Neuroscience 1
Is There a God Program? 41
Does the God Module Even Exist? 57
The Strange Case of the God Helmet 79
Are Mind and Brain Identical? 101
Toward a Nonmaterialist Science of Mind 125
Who Has Mystical Experiences and What Triggers Them? 181
Do Religious, Spiritual, or Mystical Experiences Change Lives? 229
The Carmelite Studies: A New Direction? 255
Did God Create the Brain or Does the Brain Create God? 289
What People are Saying About This
“The Spiritual Brain is a wonderful and important book...a necessary read for both the scientist and the religious person.”
“A refreshing antidote to the arguments offered by some scientists who insist that their minds, and yours, are meaningless illusions.”
“A very important book, clearly explaining non-materialist neuroscience in simple terms appropriate for the lay reader.”
"The material is heady, but narrator Patrick Lawlor keeps the experience pleasant with an enthusiastic tone that is appropriately tinged with wonder." -AudioFile
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I completely agree with GWN. It only takes the reader a handful of pages to realize that this book is less science than angry conjecture. The authors claim that God cannot be proven or found in materialistic science, yet they (poorly) attempt to use scientific discovery to do just that. Their total rejection of materialism is ungrounded and naive. There is a difference between what they label as "pop science" and real scientific discovery/advancement. But instead of sticking to a single battle with pop science (which seems to be their real target), they blithely dismiss all science without consideration for their own argument. This book might have carried more weight with me if the authors had published this as a philosophical or spiritual inquiry, rather than an anti-science science book. Don't waste your time with this one.
The focus or purpose of the book is to argue against the materialist position and took that position throughout. The book was "against" something but didn't seem to be written "for" something. It provided little information for those interested in learning about spirituality and related brain research. This was a disappointment. The title was misleading. However, there are other books that do examine the topic.
Beauregard’s thesis is that mystical/spiritual experiences have effects on the brain that are too complex to be generalized down to a “God Gene,” a “God Switch,” or a section of the brain dedicated to religiosity. His evidence for this thesis is pretty strong—specifically, he summarizes his own neuroscience research with Carmelite nuns. This thesis does not take an entire book to prove, however, so he spends the rest of the book discussing other aspects of spirituality and neuroscience. Problem is, he’s not an exciting writer, so I really can’t remember any of his other points. I don’t recall any objectionable arguments he made…it’s just that the book is rather forgettable. Maybe worth a read if you have a specific interest in the area—but there are better books out there for casual popular reading.
For centuries philosophers and theologians have argued about the makeup of the human being. Are we material only, or do we possess also an immaterial soul? Plato argued from reason for the dualistic theory, that we are both body and soul. The Greek materialists took the opposite position-we are only made of atoms, material particles. In the Western world the predominant Christian religion teaches the existence of an immortal soul, a separate essence from the material body. Jesus said, "Do not fear them who can destroy the body; fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell." He also said, "What shall a person give in exchange for his soul?" Traditionally Christians also believe in a future resurrection, when the disembodied souls of the dead shall be permanently reunited to their physical bodies, which will be made perfect and immortal in the resurrection. Since the time of the Enlightenment modernistic thinking led to widespread materialism in the West. Only the observable universe is real. All events have natural causes. Humans are simply an organized collection of material parts. What used to be considered characteristics of the soul are only the products of chemical and electrical forces in the physical brain. Belief in a nonmaterial soul is a relic of the superstitious past. The soul is only a myth, a social construct-as are angels, demons, and God. Theology should be divorced from science. Mario Beauregard is an associate researcher in neuroscience at the University of Montreal. He has done groundbreaking work in the neurobiological responses to emotions and mystical experiences. Especially significant is his work with volunteer Carmelite nuns. His scientific studies of many people in controlled situations, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), has quantified and located brain activity related to these experiences. Beauregard subjects the modern idea of a "God spot" in the brain, the result of evolution, to scientific scrutiny. He finds that the evidence of his studies contradicts the popular notion. Rather, people's mystical experiences, near-death experiences, the placebo effect, and low-level but measurable extrasensory perception all give evidence that the mind or soul is separate from the brain. The responses of the brain to such non-material entities are the same as those to material entities perceived by the physical senses. They are not located in one part of the brain, but rather use the same complexes and patterns as in normal interpersonal relations. The arguments of the materialists do not adequately address these findings. Beauregard and his coauthor, Denyse O'Leary, present a well-written, convincing scientific argument supporting the non-materialist position of the human mind or soul. I hope that the scientific community will respond to the arguments and evidence this book presents, and will not simply consign it to the oblivion of ignored theories that contradicts its worldview.
Beauregard¿s thesis is that mystical/spiritual experiences have effects on the brain that are too complex to be generalized down to a ¿God Gene,¿ a ¿God Switch,¿ or a section of the brain dedicated to religiosity. His evidence for this thesis is pretty strong¿specifically, he summarizes his own neuroscience research with Carmelite nuns. This thesis does not take an entire book to prove, however, so he spends the rest of the book discussing other aspects of spirituality and neuroscience. Problem is, he¿s not an exciting writer, so I really can¿t remember any of his other points. I don¿t recall any objectionable arguments he made¿it¿s just that the book is rather forgettable. Maybe worth a read if you have a specific interest in the area¿but there are better books out there for casual popular reading.
I find this book to be not only a very good read, but a book that I wish to use as a reference. with it's 45 pages of reference notes, a glossary, a 10 page bibliography, and a thorough index. This book covers it all from mystical experiences, to materialism, from artificial intelligence to brain anatomy/physiology. What distinguishes mind from brain? Is there a difference? Did God create the brain, or did the brain create God? This is deep stuff, but presented in a very clear, logical, scientific, and remarkably easy to read book. I didn't want to put it down - that's rare for me! I recommend this to anyone wondering about the science behind the mind, spirit, and soul. The conclusions are clear and overwhelmingly convincing. Read this book!
This book claims to be objective science. It is not. To begin with, it smears anyone who disagrees with what they are saying as a "materialist" -- frequently as a "radical materialist." It makes no distinction between ontological materialism and methodological materialism, the latter being universally accepted by scientists -- science can only go where there are testable theories and hypotheses. They admit that science can't "prove" God, but then they slip it in by the back door by simply assuming, without evidence, that the mystical experiences of their subjects represent a link to some outside force [code word for God, just like "intelligent design" is a code word for "creationism."
The Spiritual Brain authors Mario Beauregard, a neuroscientist from the University of Montreal, and Denyse O'Leary, a Toronto science journalist, offer another approach to understanding the brain. Drawing on evidence such as near-death experiences, and Beauregard's scientific research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) they make a case for the nonmaterial nature of humans. Basic to this book is the question ¿What is the mind?¿ Is the mind and the brain the same thing? Or does a mind exist that is somehow independent of the brain yet somehow different from it? There is no clear ¿materialist¿ explanation of the mind so materialists must treat the mind as an illusion produced by neuron activity. Sir John Eccles spent his life studying the brain and concluded, in harmony with the book reviewed here, that ¿Since materialist solutions fail to account for our experienced uniqueness, I am constrained to attribute the uniqueness of the self or soul to a supernatural spiritual creation. This conclusion ¿ strongly reinforces our belief in the human soul and in its miraculous origin in a divine creation.¿ (Eccles 1994, 168). ¿I believe in the reality of the world of mind or spirit as well as in the reality of the material world. Furthermore I am a finalist in the sense of believing that there is some Design in the processes ¿ that has eventually led to us self-conscious beings with our unique individuality¿ (Eccles 1979, 9). This work supports this conclusion and is highly recommended.