[22 October 2007]
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)
Neuroscience is a combat zone. It is here, in the human brain, that the final conflict between materialism and, to invent a word, soulism is being fought. For materialists, the outcome is not in doubt. Our minds, our selves, our awareness are merely the outcome of the electrical activity of the few pounds of hyperconnected matter between our ears. All claims to the contrary are wishful thinking or superstitious remnants.
But the materialists have two problems. Their certainty of victory is, for the moment, a leap of faith. There is no clear scientific consensus on how the brain produces the higher functions we call being human. And, second, the great mystery, the ultimate hard question, remains: How does matter produce mind, how can it? Irrespective of religious belief, immaterialism cannot easily be dismissed. What is the nature of what I am thinking and feeling now? To tell me that it is all a by-product of my brain is to tell me nothing. What I am is at least as real as the chair I am sitting on, and what I am seems to be immaterial.
Hard scientists and militant atheists tend to dismiss this as spilt religion or philosophical hair-splitting, a futile pursuit of an artifact of language. But all serious thinkers understand the problem. Most, however, will fall back on what the philosopher of science Karl Popper called “promissory materialism.” We will, one day, find the material answers because, in essence, we must. There simply cannot be anything other than matter.
This book is an attempt to show that, even in terms of the most rigorous science, this cannot be true. Based, in part, on his study of brain activity in Carmelite nuns in the course of their deepest religious experiences, Mario Beauregard claims it is simply not possible for the matter of the brain to be all that is involved. Something, he insists, is causing this to happen from outside.
The great strength of his position is the folly of the materialists. Beauregard continually draws attention to the scientifically dubious basis of their leap of faith. They argue that it must be so and then set about proving it. Their triumphalism—driven by big publishing deals—is their greatest weakness.
There are plenty of examples. People were terribly excited when a computer beat Garry Kasparov at chess. The machines, it was claimed, were thinking like—or, rather, better than—humans. But, of course, they weren’t. They were simply aggregating the skills of their programmers. Kasparov was playing a team. Claims about “God genes” have proved absurd, attempts to induce religious experiences with magnetic helmets are dubious in the extreme, and temporal-lobe epilepsy explains almost nothing about either religious or high artistic talent. The inflation of scientific claims based on such patently feeble evidence is an embarrassment to the materialists.
That said, the claims of the soulists, once we step back from the simple experience of being an aware self, are equally problematic. Beauregard uses evidence like near-death experiences (NDEs) and psi—or paranormal—effects and his own work on religious experience to show that the self or soul is not simply locked inside the skull. In the case of NDEs, for example, people often report seeing themselves from the outside, typically, reporting a bird’s-eye view of an operating theater. One cannot doubt these experiences, but the interpretation that they involve a separation of the self from the body is speculation. In the case of psi effects—telepathy, psychokinesis—the evidence is patchy. Finally, it is unquestionable that religious experiences are not the simple pathologies claimed by some materialists, but that is not to say they are demonstrably different in kind from anything encountered in material science.
None of which devalues the overall message of this book. The materialists, reductionists and militant atheists have not done what they claim to have done, and Beauregard performs an admirable service in explaining why. Above all, he shows that our current science is provisional and as far from answering final questions as science has always been.
The book would have been massively improved if it had avoided the irritating trick, beloved of publishers, of peppering the pages with dozens of information boxes and the equally irritating trick, beloved of authors, of scattering long quotations like confetti. But as a guide to the war zone from the antimaterialist perspective, it’s a valuable read.