Part Four: Materialism is running on empty
Non-materialist neuroscience is not compelled to reject, deny, explain away, or treat as problems all evidence that defies materialism. That is convenient because current research is turning up a growing body of such evidence.
At one time, materialist explanations of spirituality were at least worth considering. For example, Sigmund Freud argued that childhood memories of a father figure led religious people to believe in God. Freud's explanation failed because Christianity is the only major religion that emphasizes the fatherhood of God. But his idea, while wrong, was not ridiculous. Relationships with fathers, happy or otherwise, are complex human experiences, with some analogies to spirituality. Similarly, anthropologist J.G. Frazer thought that modern religions grew out of primal fertility cults and were only later spiritualized. Actually, the evidence points more clearly to spiritual experiences as the source of later religious beliefs and rituals. Still, Frazer's idea was far from trivial. It derived from a long and deep acquaintance with ancient belief systems.
But recently materialistic explanations of spirituality have gotten out of hand. Influenced by this materialistic prejudice, popular media jump at stories about the violence gene, the fat gene, the monogamy gene, the infidelity gene, and now, even a God gene! Evolutionary psychologists attempt to explain human spirituality by insisting that cave dwellers in the remote past who believed in a supernatural reality were more likely to pass on their genes than cave dwellers who didn't. Progress in genetics and neuroscience has encouraged some to look, quite seriously, for such a God gene, or else a God spot, module, factor, or switch in the human brain. By the time the amazing "God helmet" (a snowmobile helmet modified with solenoids which purportedly could stimulate subjects to experience God) in Sudbury, Canada, became a magnet for science journalists in the ‘90s (the Decade of the Brain), materialism was just about passing beyond parody. Nonetheless, materialists continue to search for a God switch. Such comic diversions aside, there is no escaping the non-materialism of the human mind.
Essentially, there is no God switch. As the studies with the Carmelite nuns have demonstrated and this book will detail, spiritual experiences are complex experiences, like our experiences of human relationships. They leave signatures in many parts of the brain. That fact is consistent with (though it does not by itself demonstrate) that the experiencer contacts a reality outside herself.
The fact is, materialism is stalled. Not only does it have no useful hypotheses for the human mind or spiritual experiences, it is not close to developing any. Just beyond lies a great realm that cannot even be entered via materialism, let alone explored. But the good news is that, in the absence of materialism, there are hopeful signs that it can indeed be entered and explored with modern neuroscience.
Non-materialist neuroscience is not compelled to reject, deny, explain away, or treat as problems all evidence that defies materialism. That is convenient because current research is turning up a growing body of such evidence. Three examples addressed in this book are the psi effect, near death experiences (NDEs), and the placebo effect.
The psi effect, as seen in such phenomena as extrasensory perception and psychokinesis, is a low level effect, to be sure, but efforts to disconfirm it have failed. Near death experiences have also become a more frequent subject of research in recent years, probably because the spread of advanced resuscitation techniques has created a much larger population that survives to recount them. As a result of the work of researchers such as Pim van Lommel, Sam Parnia, Peter Fenwick, and Bruce Greyson, we now have a growing base of information. The results do not support a materialist view of mind and consciousness, as advanced by Pinker, who writes in Time "when the physiological activity of the brain ceases, as far as anyone can tell the person's consciousness goes out of existence."
Most of us have not experienced unusual effects like psi or NDE, but we have all probably experienced the placebo effect: Have you ever gone to your doctor to get a letter saying you can't go to work because you have a bad cold—and suddenly begun to feel better while sitting in the clinic, leafing through magazines? It's embarrassing, but easy to explain: Your mind generates messages to begin the analgesic or healing processes when you accept that you have in fact started on a path to recovery. Materialist neuroscience has long regarded the placebo effect as a problem, but it is one of the best attested phenomena in medicine. But for non-materialist neuroscience, it is a normal effect that can be of great therapeutic value when properly used.
Materialism is apparently unable to answer key questions about the nature of being human and has little prospect of ever answering them intelligibly. It has also convinced millions of people that they should not seek to develop their spiritual nature because they have none. Some think that the solution is to continue to uphold materialism a bit more raucously than before. Currently, key materialist spokespersons have launched a heavily publicized and somewhat puzzling "anti-God" crusade. Anti-theistic works such as Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Daniel Dennett), The God Delusion (Richard Dawkins), God: The Failed Hypothesis — How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist (Victor J. Stenger), God Is Not Great (Christopher Hitchens) and Letters to a Christian Nation (Sam Harris) are accompanied by conferences such as the Science Network's "Beyond Belief" and campaigns such as the YouTube Blasphemy Challenge.
The remarkable thing is that there isn't a single new idea in all that they have to say. Eighteenth century philosophes said it all long ago, to as much or little purpose. Granted, recent works have been spiced with the questionable assumptions of evolutionary psychology—the attempt to derive spirituality from the practices that may have enabled a few of our Pleistocene ancestors to pass on their genes. But the Pleistocene ancestors are long gone, and not much can really be learned from a discipline that lacks a subject. There are also plenty of assurances about the illusory nature of consciousness and free will, and the uselessness or danger of spirituality. A variety of experts of the mid-twentieth century had predicted that spirituality would slowly but surely disappear. Once supplied with abundant material goods, people would just stop thinking about God. But the experts were wrong. Spirituality today is more varied, but it is growing all over the world. Thus, its continuing vitality prompts speculations, fears, and some pretty wild guesses—but most of all, a compelling curiosity, a desire to investigate.
But how can we investigate spirituality scientifically? To start with, we can rediscover our nonmaterialist inheritance. It has always been there, just widely ignored. Famous neuroscientists such as Charles Sherrington, Wilder Penfield, and John Eccles, were not in fact reductive materialists, and they had good reasons for their position. Today, non-materialist neuroscience is thriving, despite the limitations imposed by widespread misunderstanding and, in a few cases, hostility. Readers are urged to approach all the questions and evidence presented in this book with an open mind. This is a time for exploration, not dogma.
Our book will establish three key ideas: The non-materialist approach to the human mind is a rich and vital tradition that accounts for the evidence much better than the currently stalled materialist one.
Second, non-materialist approaches to the mind result in practical benefits and treatments, as well as promising approaches to phenomena that materialist accounts cannot even address.
And lastly – this may be the most important value for many readers – our book shows that when spiritual experiences transform lives, the most reasonable explanation – the one that best accounts for all the evidence – is that the people who have such experiences have actually contacted a reality outside themselves, a reality that has brought them closer to the real nature of the universe.
March 4, 2007
Return to top: The Spiritual Brain: Introduction
(From The Spiritual Brain)