Denyse O’Leary was the co-author (with Dr. Mario Beauregard) of a book on mind and brain I reviewed in the April issue of Touchstone magazine: The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul. Beauregard has published research (see links from here) challenging some neuroscientists’ view that spiritual experiences can be explained through physical brain science alone, and this book covers his work while also challenging those other scientists’ conclusions, and even their often-questionable research methods.
A few days ago on her Mindful Hack blog, Denyse raised a good question in response to my review, which, by agreement with Touchstone, I will not be posting on the web for at least three months. I’ll quote this much from near the end of it for context, though:
For my money, philosophical approaches are sufficient to put materialism* away for keeps. But that doesn’t make it any less satisfying to learn the heavily hyped “empirical evidence” for materialist neuroscience is distorted, weak, and contradicted by other research.
On the whole, he seems to have liked the book, though he wonders why we cannot demolish materialism through philosophy alone…. Philosophy alone cannot decide the issue. We must look at evidence from science as well.
Well, of course she is right about this. I will not quote her reasons (they are in the ellipsis) since you ought to read them from the source.
She is right in that philosophy has not, in fact, dec ided the issue. “For my money” (as I said), I think it should have done so by now, because materialist views of mind seem to be utterly self-defeating. They place all causation in the literally mindless machinery of electrochemical activity. There’s no room left for any other causation.
Therefore things like reasons and thoughts, which cannot be identified with that machinery, don’t cause anything. If you disagree with that, your disagreement was not caused by any reasons you might have, but by that mindless machinery firing away inside you. That pretty much eliminates your ability to say you have reasoned your way to your conclusion. Your reasons don’t have any power to cause anything, including the conclusions you erroneously think you came to because of your reasons.
Those who try to disagree usually do so by saying that reasons and thoughts actually can be identified with the machinery; that the brain’s physical activity doesn’t have to be distinct from what feels to us like logical reasoning and free decision making. Others say that reasons and thoughts more or less “ride along” on top of the machinery. The first answer, however, makes an illusion out of our freedom to think and to decide, while the other retains the problem of thoughts and reasoning not causing anything at all.
I’m reminded of a comic strip from years ago in which a tiger (I think) jumped up on an elephant and growled out, “I’ve got you, I’ve got you!” The elephant, quite unperturbed, just continued on its way. Whereupon the tiger on top said, “Okay, now that I’ve got you, where am I taking you?” If thoughts “ride along” on top of the brain’s machinery, they’re as powerless to direct its ways as the tiger is to tell the elephant where to go. Less so, in fact: they don’t even have claws.
Though all this to me seems certainly to be correct, I know others disagree. I suspect that for many of them, it’s because they don’t like where this reasoning heads. If they jump on this elephant, it’s going to carry them (like it or not) toward belief in some kind of spiritual reality.
Therefore, with genuine appreciation I grant Denyse’s point: any support this position receives from science is more than welcome.
*”Materialism” here means a view of reality in which nothing exists except for matter, energy, and their interactions according to deterministic natural law or pure chance. On this view there is no spiritual reality.