The Spiritual Brain without God: Possible? A Review of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul by Mario Beauregard and Denyse O'Leary

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

In 2002, Robert Hercz published an article detailing the controversial findings of Michael Persinger, a neurophysiologist at Laurentian University in Ontario.  Persinger’s work, which spanned more than a decade, linked brain activity to mystical experiences.  His so-called “God Helmet” (also the title of Hercz’s article) was an awkward-looking motorcycle helmet with tentacle-like wires protruding from the top.  Placed atop the human subject, this scientific headdress generated electromagnetic stimuli in certain sectors of the frontal cortex, producing feelings akin to that of an out-of-body or what Persinger called a “sense presence.”  Following Persinger’s lead, more and more scientists in the field have come to similar conclusions, finding that their own human subjects experienced a sense of transcendence, unity with the universe, and even the company of a higher sentient being.  These varied cerebral excursions have reopened issues traditionally relegated to the delusional or pathological, undoubtedly upsetting the guardian priests of positivistic naturalism.  Unfortunately, they have shown an unwillingness to connect brain activity and its corresponding mystical states to a personal, transcendent creator.     

Such a deficiency, however, should not lead one to throw out these studies wholesale.  Despite the onslaught against the narrow mindedness of the scientific community, whetting the appetite of those profiting from the postmodern turn, participants in these avant-garde activities have yet to forge a united front.  Adding to the debate in their recent work, The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul, Mario Beauregard, a neuroscientist at the University of Montreal, and Denyse O’Leary, a free-lance science and religion writer based in Toronto, have applied the rigors of neuroscience to spirituality in an effort not only to challenge the despotism of materialism in the profession, which, according to the authors, “does not bear up well under close examination,” but also to question some of the recent studies that connect the brain to the metaphysical.   

The opening chapters question some of the leading scientific studies offered by Matthew Alper, Dean Hamer, Jeffrey Saver, John Rabin, and, yes, Michael Persinger, all of whom claim to have located a specific region of the brain that produces spiritual experiences or belief in God.  Beauregard and O’Leary, while sympathetic to their fellows, are skeptical of localizing a so-called “God spot” or module in the brain.  Instead, spiritual experiences, a “sensed presence,” transcendence, or unity with a higher being occur in “many brain regions, not just the temporal lobes” (272).  Conclusive evidence reinforcing this point comes in Chapter 9 where Beauregard and O’Leary outline the neurological studies conducted of the prayerful meditations of Carmelite nuns.   

While sharpening the discussion through constructive criticism, the authors are more interested in dismantling the materialistic worldview that dictates the parameters of neuroscience.  The general presupposition is that since the brain is nothing more than a biological and chemical organ there is no accounting for ideas about consciousness, the self, free-will, or the mind—the assortment of which Beauregard and O’Leary refer to as “soul.”  But there is a crucial missing link in such thinking. Why would naturalistic processes exclude the supernatural?  Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who, complementing these scientists, deals with the function of the mind vis-�-vis belief in God in his three-part series on warrant, argues that even naturalistic explanations of how the mind works fail to counter religious beliefs:

To show that there are natural processes that produce religious belief does nothing, so far, to discredit it; perhaps God designed us in such a way that it is by virtue of those processes that we come to have knowledge of him.  Suppose it could be demonstrated that a certain kind of complex neural stimulation could produce theistic belief….  Clearly, it is possible both that there is an explanation in terms of natural processes of religious belief (perhaps a brain physiological account of what happens when someone holds religious beliefs), and that these beliefs have a perfectly respectable epistemic status (Warranted Christian Belief 145).    

Indeed, for Plantinga, belief in God is a warranted basic belief, one that is produced by a brain functioning properly (i.e., not subject to malfunction) in a conducive environment and in accordance with a design plan aimed at truth.  The same cognitive structure that produces beliefs in other minds, when running correctly, can produce belief in God.  The difficulty comes in proving otherwise.  Andrew Newberg, Eugene D’Aquili, and Vince Rause say something similar in their book Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief:  “The mind remembers mystical experience with the same degree of clarity and sense of reality that it bestows upon memories of ‘real’ past events.  The same cannot be said of hallucinations, delusions, or dreams.  We believe this sense of realness strongly suggests that the accounts of mystics are not indications of minds in disarray, but are the proper, predictable neurological result of a stable, coherent mind willing itself toward a higher spiritual plane” (145-46, 113).

Challenging the conceptual framework of a community is one thing, but offering something concrete in exchange is a bit more challenging.  Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Spiritual Brain that undermines the materialists’ position is the argument that separates the brain from the mind.  Materialists find the notion of the “mind” or “consciousness” as distinct from the purely mechanical function of the brain as an unnecessary and even dangerous duality that, at best, dulls Ockham’s razor.  But the authors present the case that those with certain cognitive malfunctions like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or severe clinical depression have the capability to recognize the problems in their brain, immediately separating thereby the conscious “self” or “will” from how the brain works.  What is more, evidence shows that neural sufferers can, without the aid of medication, train the brain to rewire (perhaps reroute is a better term) itself in order to alleviate the pressures in the prefrontal cortex that produce such severe malfunctions.

The division between brain and mind becomes even more fascinating when the authors discuss the numerous cases of near-death-experiences (NDEs), a veritably unclean animal for materialists.  In 1991, Pam Reynolds underwent a controversial treatment to reduce a “basilar artery aneurysm” (a massively swollen blood vessel in her brain), which would have permanently killed her if she had not gone through with a controversial procedure that required her to die, literally.  In order to operate, doctors had to lower her body temperature (60 degrees Fahrenheit), generate a cardiac arrest, and wait for the electrical activity in the brain to stop.  Reynolds was clinically dead.  When revived, she recounted what she saw during the time of her death, including details of what doctors were doing to her skull and brain, which only an objective observer could see.  At the same time she reported “entering the presence of a brilliant, wonderfully warm and loving Light and sensed that her soul was part of God and that everything in existence was created from the Light (the breathing of God)” (154).  According to Beauregard and O’Leary, the Reynolds case suggests that “mind, consciousness, and self can continue when the brain is no longer functional” and, what is more, that phenomena generally associated with mystical states “can occur when the brain is not functioning” (155).    

For critics, Reynolds’s postmortem interview (as strange as that sounds), however, would not be enough to draw a cogent scientific conclusion.  But there are numerous studies done by other scientists on NDEs, including the interviews collected by cardiologist Pim van Lommel, who has been able to classify various types of NDEs, and psychologist Susan Blackmore.  Resuscitated individuals have described what they experienced while brain dead.  If materialism is the best route for scientists, Beauregard and O’Leary wonder, then why do NDE patients tell of their consciousness when the brain is not functioning.  Furthermore, even in the limited amount of NDE cases, materialists cannot account for them given their epistemological commitments.

Critics have pushed the argument that those who have undergone NDEs can fabricate their experiences.  If that is true, Beauregard and O’Leary respond, then why do the same people have such long term change not only in their behavior, especially in the way they interact with others in a more altruistic manner, but also in the radically different way they look at life?   They exhibit a greater appreciation for life.  If NDErs experience a more lucid metaphysical state over a long period, then perhaps that lucid metaphysical state “deserves further study” (162).  Why would science disallow such investigations?                  

Works like The Spiritual Brain can only benefit religious community—and from this writer’s point of view, particularly, the Christian community.  Since the Enlightenment and perhaps earlier, those who have held to the Christian faith have been accused of cognitive malfunction or psychological distress.  Beauregard and O’Learyargue scientifically against this.  After reading The Spiritual Brain, along with a host of similar works, my immediate reaction as a Christian in the Reformed Calvinistic tradition has been, “Well of course humans are hardwired for God; that’s exactly what Romans 1 talks about.”  Whether there is an actual sector of the brain that scientists can identify as the God module (and, frankly, I find Beauregard’s refutation of this quite convincing), the apostle Paul presents the reality that all humans—all brains, let us say—know God, and not just any God.  The brain is endowed with an intricate “cognitive mechanism” (Plantinga’s terminology) to produce a basic belief in the true and living God. 

Christians should recognize that Beauregard and O’Leary offer only half the debate.  Sure, we can agree that spirituality is not foreign to our biological makeup as humans, but what about the reality behind the beliefs that generate those experiences?  Where is God?  Does my feeling of freedom and peace through the redemptive work of Christ link me to an objective messiah named Jesus Christ?  Indeed, this is where these radical scientists (not to mention postmodernity) fall short.  It is certainly true that a mystical experience or even a sense of the divine can in no way create God, but are we within our epistemic right to take a step further and suggest that in the same way that the brain’s ability to produce language for communication can and does link the individual to an actual language, or that infants, endowed with the unique brain function of recognizing the voice of their mother, are actually connected to a real person?  Beauregard and O’Leary promise in their final chapter to consider whether God created the brain or if the brain created God.  They fail to provide an answer.  Their commitment to naturalism and evolutionary cognition, which they separate from rigid materialism, seems to keep them from doing so.  In other words, it appears that Beauregard and O’Leary are uncritical of their commitments to a naturalistic evolutionary worldview.  How else would they be able to account for a being responsible for creating nature?       

Radical neuroscience is agreed on one thing: available social and cultural language is employed to give an identity to God.  God, in other words, is culturally relative.  But this seems to conflict with the apostle Paul as read from a Reformed hermeneutic.  Our cognitive apparatus produces belief in the “invisible attributes” of the Triune God.  He is clearly seen and known in the things that are made, including our brains.  In the same way that we have the cognitive makeup to produce language or recognize from birth the unique voice of our mother, we are hard wired to know our creator.  An unwillingness to offer assent to God, as revealed in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is a matter of willful disobedience.  To say that we cannot know the specific identity of the Creator from brain activity is to offer an excuse, which the Word of God will not allow.

Join Metanexus Today

Metanexus fosters a growing international network of individuals and groups exploring the dynamic interface between cosmos, nature and culture. Membership is open to all. Join Now!