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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Part One: Neuroscience as if your mind is real

In this book, we intend to show you that your mind does exist, that it is not merely your brain. Your thoughts and feelings cannot be dismissed or explained away by firing synapses and physical phenomena alone. Are our questions about our meaning or purpose merely survival mechanisms? If such an airy dismissal of the intellectual life of thousands of years sounds vaguely unconvincing, well, perhaps it should.


When my doctoral student Vincent Paquette and I first undertook to study the spiritual experiences of Carmelite nuns at the Université de Montréal, we knew that our motives were quite likely to be misunderstood.

First, we had to convince the nuns that we were not trying to prove that religious experiences do not occur or that a brain glitch explains them. Then we had to quiet both the hopes of professional atheists and the fears of clergy about the possibility that we were trying to reduce spiritual experiences to some kind of "God switch" in the brain.

Many neuroscientists want to do just that. But Vincent and I belong to a minority—nonmaterialist neuroscientists. Most scientists today are materialists who believe that the physical world is the only reality. Absolutely everything else, including thought, feeling, mind, and will, can be explained in terms of matter and physical phenomena--leaving no room for the possibility that religious experiences are anything but an illusion. Materialists are like Charles Dicken's character Ebeneezer Scrooge who dismisses his experience of Marley's ghost as merely "an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato."

Vincent and I, on the other hand, did not approach our research with any such materialist presumption. As we are not materialists, we did not doubt in principle that a contemplative might contact a reality outside herself during a mystical experience. In fact, I went into neuroscience in part because I knew experientially that such things can indeed happen. Vincent and I simply wanted to know what the neural correlates—the activity of the neurons—during such an experience might be. Given the overwhelming dominance of materialism in neuroscience today, we count ourselves lucky that the nuns believed in our sincerity and agreed to help us, and that the Templeton Foundation saw fit to fund our studies.

Of course, you may well ask, can neuroscience studies of contemplative nuns demonstrate that God exists? No, but they can—and did—demonstrate that the mystical state of consciousness really exists. In this state, the contemplative likely experiences aspects of reality that are not available in other states. These findings rule out various materialist theses that the contemplative is faking or confabulating the experience. Vincent and I also showed that mystical experiences are complex experiences, which rules out a vast variety of simplistic materialist explanations such as a "God gene," "God spot" or "God switch" in our brains.

Toronto-based journalist Denyse O'Leary and I have written this book to discuss the significance of these studies, and more generally, to provide a neuroscientific approach to understanding religious, spiritual, and mystical experiences. As I wrote above, neuroscience today is materialist. That is, it assumes that the mind is quite simply the physical workings of the brain. To see what this means, consider a simple sentence: "I made up my mind to buy a bike." One would not say, "I made up my brain to buy a bike." By contrast, one might say, "Bike helmets prevent brain damage," but not "bike helmets prevent mind damage."

But materialists think that the distinction you make between your mind as an immaterial entity and your brain as a bodily organ has no real basis. The mind is assumed to be a mere illusion generated by the workings of the brain. Some materialists even think you should not in fact use terminology that implies that your mind exists.

In this book, we intend to show you that your mind does exist, that it is not merely your brain. Your thoughts and feelings cannot be dismissed or explained away by firing synapses and physical phenomena alone. In a solely material world, "will power" or "mind over matter" are illusions, there is no such thing as purpose or meaning, there is no room for God. Yet many people have experience of these things. We intend to argue that these experiences are real. In contrast, many materialists now argue that notions like meaning or purpose do not correspond to reality; they are merely adaptations for human survival. In other words, they have no existence beyond the evolution of circuits in our brains. As co-discoverer of the genetic code Francis Crick
writes in The Astonishing Hypothesis, "Our highly developed brains, after all, were not evolved under the pressure of discovering scientific truths but only to enable us to be clever enough to survive and leave descendants." But are our questions about our meaning or purpose merely survival mechanisms? If such an airy dismissal of the intellectual life of thousands of years sounds vaguely unconvincing, well, perhaps it should.

Next: Part Two: Who has enough faith to be a materialist?

(From The Spiritual Brain)

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