I had to force myself to pick up The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul by Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary, since my expectations were not high, largely because I was not impressed with the views O’Leary has expressed, and the way she has expressed them, on her own blogs and on Uncommon Descent. The reason I have started reading it anyway is twofold: First, its subject matter is of interest to me generally, as someone whose personal faith is rooted in having had a life-changing spiritual experience – in other words, having been born again. Second, the subject of neuroscience, religious experience and the soul is one that is part of my course on religion and science.
When I say I am disappointed with the book thus far, I wish to be clear that my disappointment stems largely from the fact that, even though Beauregard and O’Leary have some very important and valuable things to say, the acrimonious tone and ridicule leave a bad taste in the reader’s mouth. Moreover, the authors seem to leave no room for any middle ground or additional options other than their own and the opposing extreme of reductionist materialism.
Here’s what I appreciated about the book: It highlights the fact that some are claiming that experiments on the neuroscience of religious experience are claiming more than is justified by the evidence currently available. I genuinely agree with the authors when they object to those who suggest that, because we are animals, there is nothing genuinely distinctive about us (pp.41-42). Such “nothing buttery” or reductionism is unjustified. To provide a famous example, the band The Bloodhound Gang sang a song which said “You and me baby ain’t nothing but mammals, so let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel”. When people use (or rather abuse) scientific conclusions in this, it is not inappropriate to object. We clearly are able to reflect on our actions and not follow our instincts in a way that is, as far as we know, unique among the life forms on our planet.
I am thus happy that, whereas a reviewer in the most recent issue of the Reports of the National Center for Science Education felt disappointed that she was unable to find three good things to say before offering criticism when reviewing one of O’Leary’s earlier books, I was able to find one. Alas, I must immediately qualify it. Creationists and proponents of Intelligent Design regularly point to things that are still unknown about the details of evolutionary history and the mechanisms that drove it, and then draw the completely illegitimate inference that this indicates something wrong with the theory itself. The fact that we do not know certain things about religious experience and the brain does not mean that we will not know them, nor does it make hypothesizing based on what we do know inappropriate.
To claim that the only way to account for spirituality and genuine personhood is to posit an immaterial soul is a non sequitur. It is like saying that, since neither hydrogen nor oxygen is wet, when God creates water he must add an immaterial “soul of wetness” to it. It is much more scientific, and much more plausible, to suggest that the properties of water are emergent properties. We can say that water is not just hydrogen and oxygen, without having to deny that it is made up of hydrogen and oxygen, or posit something additional added to it. This is the concept of emergent properties. Why viewing water, or the soul, in this way would be felt to be reductionistic materialism is hard to fathom. The author of Genesis viewed Adam as a psychosomatic unity, an animated body rather than an incarnate soul. What Nancey Murphy calls “non-reductive physicalism” has been an interesting place of intersection between modern science and Biblical studies, as Joel Green has noted in several studies. The authors of this book, on the other hand, take the typical ID approach: matter, they say, cannot account for mind, so it must be something metaphysical. But if explosive hydrogen and combustible oxygen can, in combination, quench our thirst, and if silicon in a complex arrangement with other elements and materials can be manifested as a video game, then why is an explanation of mind in terms of the physical felt to be impossible by definition? They are certainly right that most of our questions about mind are unanswered. But rather than follow ID in stopping the search for understanding, I express my gratitude to the scientists who are doing the studies which, although they will probably not provide the answer to these questions, are making the progress necessary so that future generations of scientists will have a serious chance to do so.
Neurotheology is a topic of widespread interest, and Beauregard and O’Leary had the opportunity to communicate clearly the difference between what the scientists currently know and what the media sometimes claims about their results. Instead, other authors, including ones who struck me as genuinely seeking to not go beyond the evidence, are ridiculed, if you can believe it (take a look at p.60 if you can’t), for inserting words like “may” and “possibly” into their work! Serious scientific publications such as Scientific American have looked at this topic, and present the subject in an appropriately balanced way. Ironically, but perhaps not surprisingly, it is better to look there than in Beauregard’s own book to get a balanced understanding of his research and what it does and doesn’t prove.
The book is reviewed much less appreciatively (to say the least) on the Pharyngula blog, which also exposes where some of the numbers and other factual claims made in the book are not merely incorrect, but so far from the mark as to undermine any claims to credibility the authors might have had. I will nonetheless try to finish the book, even though it seems more and more likely that it is laced with too much pseudoscience to be useful either personally or professionally. But what disappointed me most was the irate tone. Perhaps this is one of the greatest ironies of the Intelligent Design movement. They complain about the philosophy and ideology of mainstream scientists, but claim they are “just doing science” themselves. And when push comes to shove, many proponents of ID seem willing not only to deny that they are motivated by Christian beliefs, but set aside Christian teachings about behavior, in the pursuit of their goals. How the doctrine of an immaterial soul can be considered more fundamental to the Christian faith than loving one’s enemies is not explained. Personally, I expect those who claim to represent a Christian viewpoint to not merely (and not necessarily) reach different conclusions, but to demonstrate a certain kind of character in the way they go about their research and in the way they articulate their conclusions.
Let me conclude with what might deserve the “most ironic moment” award, the authors’ mention of cognitive dissonance (p.42). It is certainly true that all of us at times deal with the tension between what we think we know (often because we’ve heard it from an authoritative source) and what we see/experience. But that anyone could mention this without using movements such as creationism and intelligent design as illustrations of this phenomenon would be a missed opportunity. But for a proponent of one of these views to use this as an argument against their opponents without realizing that it applies to them – now that’s irony. The inability of the proponents of ID to be self criticial and to accept criticism from peers shows that the movement is neither scientific nor Christian in any genuine sense.