A Case for the Soul?

Impressions while reading

The Spiritual Brain, A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul

by Mario Beauregard, Ph.D. and Denyse O’Leary

(HarperOne, 2007)

I obtained this book because its subtitle both offended and intrigued me. It offended my scientific materialistic point of view, my intellect’s view, that a brain is what we are, that an emergent property of that brain is our illusion of self and mind. There is no such thing as a soul.

On the other hand my intuitive side said “Yes! This is promising!” So I got the book. I was hoping it would verify either my intellectual or my intuitional ways of knowing.

Dared I hope this book would bridge the two? Unite me? Of course I dared to hope. I hoped both intellectually and intuitively that that was going to be an outcome of reading this book, given its title and subtitle and its promise of making a science-based case.

Hope springs eternal, so I read, and read, and read.

I was prepared to get angry while reading this book if it tried to sell a religious point of view or to twist science in an untoward way.  Part of me was also prepared to feel smugly satisfied if it stroked my intuitive side at the expense of my intellect. To say I approached the book in a double-minded manner would be to hit the nail on the head. Ambiguity is me.

So what happened as I read the book? I saw that the authors treated science correctly, respectfully, pointing out its very real limitations, which is not a bad thing to point out. Science is a way of methodically studying what is observable or can be inferred from what is observed. If it is not observable, science has little or nothing to say.

An exception are all the “paleo-”sciences. What they study is typically not currently observable, but there is evidence left from long ago from which a plausible past can be reconstructed.

I was a little upset when the book suggested the last word isn't in yet on some of the claims by the evolutionists, leaving room for other interpretations, including some aspects of intelligent design, which I find very unscientific since it deals with the unobservable.

I was willing to let that slide if the book left the subject alone at that point.

I would have been upset if the book pushed a particular flavor of a religious point of view, but on page 38 it assured me that it would not do so.

I was going to get real upset at the treatment of quantum physics, I expected hokus-pokus there, but was both disappointed and relieved at its first mention. The treatment of quantum strangeness was fine. Why was I disappointed? I like to rouse rabble on this topic, this book gave me little cause to do so. Until later in the book, that is.

I was prepared to be offended if the book wholly endorsed intelligent design (ID), which I see as a way to sneak the inerrancy of scripture dogma of Christian fundamentalists into science-classrooms in the guise of presenting an alternative (but still scientific) hypothesis.

Here I was just a little offended, but only a little. The authors did not give a wholesale endorsement of ID, but instead suggested that science does not have the evidence to soundly contradict every argument made in the name of ID. OK, I'll let that slide for the second time.

The book is a direct assault on the totally materialistic worldview, which the authors say is insupportable by science in its every unmeasurable, unobservable nuance. Fair enough. Extreme materialism, denying the existence of anything not directly observable, is extrapolating beyond the boundaries where science does have something to say.

Although my intellect is squirming and uncomfortable with this argument, I cannot fault it.  If it is not observable, science can make no observations nor relevant measurements. True.

But it appears to me that the authors claim to have done something approaching that very thing. Neuroscientific measurements are made to show that spiritual experiences make a definite impression on the brain, there are repeatable and measurable reactions in the brain to such experiences. But what does that mean?

The first time I saw some over-reaching by these authors, meaning reaching beyond their measurements and observations onto interpretations that are not verifiable, was on that same page 38 that comforted me regarding their not endorsing a specific religious belief system.

I’ll quote a large section of page 38 to make the point about these two authors overreaching in their interpretations:

Chapter Ten addresses an important philosophical question: Did God create the brain or does the brain create God? On the one hand, spiritual/mystical experiences are significantly influenced by culture. For example, a Christian is unlikely to have a religious experience involving Brahman (Hinduism). Muslims and Jews are unlikely to have religious experiences that involve a triune God (in the Christian sense). However, on the other hand, some aspects of the mystical experience clearly transcend culture. A key characteristic is a state of knowledge, insight, awareness, revelation, and illumination beyond the grasp of the intellect. There is awareness of unity with the Absolute. Perhaps more significantly, people can change profoundly and irreversibly after these experiences. The change is generally interpreted as being for the better because the person becomes more loving and forgiving. This suggests, though it does not prove, that people who have spiritual/mystical experience actually contact an objectively real force outside themselves (God) and that the transformative power of spiritual/mystical experiences arises from an authentic encounter with ultimate reality (or God). [Emphasis added]

To me, that last, underlined sentence is overreaching. It is correct in saying that an encounter with God is not proven. But it is incorrect in saying such an encounter is suggested in the scientific sense. It is suggested, yes, but it is not a suggestion based on scientific observation. It is suggested by our preconceived notions and predispositions, but other explanations can be thought of, such as those denounced in this book from the ultra-materialists and evolutionary psychologists.

But then I had a second thought: maybe this book will provide the proof for an external force (God) in its final chapters. After all, the title says that this book is “A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul.” So maybe when that case is made, later in the book, the basis for thinking that mystics contact some force outside themselves will, logically, also be made. So I read on with hope humming a happy ditty on my intuitive side.

The authors made me feel better again, intellectually, and worse again, intuitively, when in the next sentence they take away the very promise I had just conjured up in my mind based on the previous sentence:

A Few Disclaimers

The external reality of God cannot be directly proven or disproven by studying what happens to people’s brains when they have mystical experiences. Demonstrating that specific brain states are associated with spiritual/mystical experiences neither shows that such experiences are “nothing but” brain states nor proves that God exists. It shows only that it is reasonable to believe that mystics do contact a power outside themselves. [Emphasis added]

Again a last sentence that is tentatively written, but still overreaches, in my opinion. It is simply not the only interpretation that can be reasonably believed. If one goes to the description given by a number of impressive mystics, they suggest they are contacting a power (often called God, or Love, which is God) within themselves. They claim this power is in contact with, and even One with, the Absolute, but that is their chosen interpretation of their experience, not the experience itself which is typically described as a deep inward journey.

But I am nitpicking. On the whole, although these statements put me on my intellectual guard, I am at this point still looking forward to what the book has to say. My intuitive side argues for a full vetting of the content of this –so far- very interesting book.

I paid a lot of attention in Chapter 1, but breezed through Chapters 2, 3 and 4 with little interest. In Chapter 1 the authors made the point about extreme “promissory” materialism not being adequate to explain our experience of our selves and reality.

“Promissory” in this context means “just wait, future science will prove all phenomena are grounded in materialism.” I agree that promissory materialism is a religious statement. It is a statement of faith in science one day coming to a conclusion about something currently unobservable, and thus out of reach of science as we now know it.

I also agreed that if there is evidence calling the extremely materialist view into question, then there is a defensive belief involved if one attempts to maintain the materialist position at all cost. Discounting contrary evidence is not scientific.

I wanted to hurry past all this argumentative stuff even though I mostly agreed with it. I wanted to get to that promised contrary evidence.

To me the next three chapters made that same set of points contra extreme materialism and evolutionary psychology in greater explicitness and detail, by focusing on and describing attempts to explain all human conscious experience as the result of neuronal activity. Since I had already decided the authors were right on this point in Chapter 1, as long as they had contrary evidence, I breezed through the next three chapters anxious to get on with the evidence promising to be presented later.

One place slowed me down a little. The place where Paul’s and Joan of Arc’s (and others’) visions and revelations were described by the authors as not likely being the result of an epileptic condition or other known brain disease. I found that discussion on pages 68-71 interesting because of my readings about the lives of these two people in particular. But the evidence offered was again negative: insightful and practically useful revelations do not result from these unwanted brain events. Instead they more typically result in fear and anxiety, they are short-lived and unpleasant traumas.

There seems to be a tendency on the part of these authors to take descriptive language from the Bible at face value. A scientist might want to ask if the claim of a revelation on the part of Paul is credible given that its descriptions are contradictory and seem to be purposely vague. Nevertheless, the point is made that long-term results from epileptic events do not in the main result in the productive lives of Paul or Joan.

I believe the authors when they suggest that there are people with epilepsy who lead extremely thoughtful and productive lives.  The fruitfulness of their lives is not a direct result of their epileptic-seizure experiences, however.

Where my interest was again peaked was when I met my own concept of human consciousness as an “emergent property” [click on these words to go to a very different discussion on this site].  The concept is addressed in a box on pages 106-107. The authors are not encouraging this view. It is, after all, a materialist view that says without the brain from which this property emerged, and which maintains it, this emergent property cannot exist. In other words, the consciousness that I deem to be me goes away at the death of my brain.

Here is what the “box” says about my favorite point of view which it inexplicably calls “mentalism,” which is not in my desktop dictionary:


The whole world of inner experience (the world of the humanities) long rejected by 20th century scientific materialism . . . becomes recognized and included within the domain of science.

[a reference is given to this statement from Neuroscientist Roger Sperry]

Mental processes and consciousness arise from brain activity (emergent), but they actually exist and make a difference (dynamic). Mental events (thoughts and feelings) can make things happen in the brain. Therefore, they are neither identical with nor reducible to neural events. But conscious experience cannot exist apart from the physical brain. Nobel Prize winner Roger Sperry is the main proponent of this view.

“Perfect” says my intellect. “not so fast” says my intuition, after all this book is going to make a scientific case for the existence of a “soul” --the subtitle of the book says so, so keep reading, dufus! And I did.

The next item in the box was a very unscientific declaration by Descartes saying that mind and matter are separate things. Whoopee, a declaration without basis. Not useful,

The only other thing in this box that appealed to me, a little, was the item called:

Dualistic Interactionism

Since materialist solutions fail to account for our experienced uniqueness, we are constrained to attribute the uniqueness of the psyche or the soul to a supernatural spiritual creation.

[a reference is given for this statement from Neuroscientist John Eccles]

Consciousness and other aspects of the mind, which can influence neural events, can occur independently of the brain, generally through aspects of quantum mechanics. This view is associated with neuroscientists John Eccles and Wilder Penfield as well as philosopher Karl Popper.

OK, I lost it on this one. “Aspects of quantum mechanics” is a materialistic explanation which (1) does not make scientific sense and (2) argues strongly for consciousness being an emergent property that is totally dependent on the material brain and its atoms and subatomic particles. A supernatural spiritual creation as suggested by Descartes is just as non-scientific as referring to “aspects of quantum mechanics.”

But a little later, on page 108 the authors give a wonderful example of John Eccles speaking the language of what the authors have dubbed “mentalism” and which I dub 'consciousness as an emergent property':

Nowhere in the laws of physics or in the laws of the derivative sciences, chemistry and biology, is there any reference to consciousness or mind. . . . This is not to affirm that consciousness does not emerge in the evolutionary process, but merely to state that its emergence is not reconcilable with the natural laws as at present understood.

That is a wonderful restatement of emergence as a principle: it cannot be predicted from the study of individual components, it is what emerges when all the components are present together. Studying the physics of water is vital to understanding water’s macroscopic properties, its boiling point, viscosity, compressibility, ability to hold dissolved components, etc. But that information, though necessary, is insufficient for predicting the behavior of a specific parcel of water within a specific portion of a complex aquifer. Other forces (porosity and fracture-connectedness, pressure, temperature and even solute gradients) acting with and on those intrinsic properties determine the behavior of the aquifer’s component parts.

That brings into play Eccles’ words “as presently understood.” If one tore apart this aquifer and characterized (described) every process and feature in it, perhaps you can predict accurately, but in the process of studying the system you have likely changed it! It is now a different system about which you know a lot, but you are still not able to predict the undisturbed system very well. Science is wonderful that way: inference and extrapolation is often as good as it gets. So I should cut Beauregard and O'Leary some slack? OK.

Page 109 cites “philosopher of mind” B. Alan Wallace several times, but the last quote’s italicized portion really sounds correct to me even though his intent was to be critical:

In other words, if mental phenomena are in fact nothing more than emergent properties and functions of the brain, their relationship to the brain is fundamentally unlike every other emergent property and function found in nature.

Wallace gives as an example of a scientifically understood emergent property the semi-solid consistency of the brain. It is an emergent property that can be understood as a consequence of the nature of the component cells. It is also a trivial example, and not really illustrative of emergence as a noteworthy phenomenon.

A noteworthy phenomenon is the replicative ability of a cell, for example. A cell is just a bag of chemicals, but being “alive” makes it able to "act" in certain ways. A really noteworthy phenomenon is the ability of a stem cell to not just replicate, but to spawn specialized cells that, when they in turn replicate, create an organ. When you explain these emergent phenomena, then you hold my attention.

Just naming the sub-cellular components that do this work and the chemicals that stimulate the process is still not explaining how it is that this emergent property emerges. It is just explaining how it is a response to a specific internally induced chemical stimulus.

That is very important for pragmatic diagnostic purposes and for designing a treatment or intervention, but it is not sufficient to explain why it all works and why it all came to be as it is. That is beyond observation and requires interpretation, interpolation and extrapolation. (“You are right!” say the 'intelligent design' fans, “it requires an intelligent designer!”  Sorry, I won't go that far.)

So, in my reading I lingered a while in this chapter and liked some of the discussion on self and on computers but got quickly impatient because the case was being made again and again that materialism simply does not have explanatory power where mind and consciousness are concerned.

There is reportedly even a movement among materialists to stop discussion using the terms typically used to describe mind and consciousness, which is –of course—nonsense from a scientifically-open-minded point of view. To pretend that something ought not be talked about just because it cannot be objectively observed or measured is to stick ones scientific head in the proverbial sand. I agree with the authors on this one too.

Where the chapter got my attention once more was on page 123 where B. Alan Wallace is again quoted, and this time I really liked what he said. To me, he really defined “emergence” as a phenomenon, although he would disagree since his understanding of the meaning of “emergent” differs from mine:

As soon as one begins to understand subjective and objective, mental and physical phenomena as relational rather than substantive, the causal interactions between mind and matter become no more problematic than such interactions among mental phenomena and among physical phenomena. But the notion of a reified causal mechanism may no longer be useful in any of these domains.

The authors present this statement in the context of “Materialism is out of step with modern physics.” That got my attention because I do not like the way subatomic quantum processes, which are spooky and counter-intuitive, are used to imply that what is learned of these subatomic scale processes has relevance to things currently unexplained in the macro-world that is us. It is at the scale of the universe that we can see some cumulating effects of quantum processes, not at the scale of our tiny selves! The notion that subatomic physics is involved in the creation of a real self and of consciousness is absurd in my opinion, and also totally materialistic, but the authors of this book are not sharing that opinion. So we disagree.

I expected that in the next four chapters, starting with 6, the evidence for a non-materialist science of mind will be systematically addressed. In these chapters I am hoping that Beauregard and O'Leary will give a basis for their subtitle: “A neurologist's case for the existence of the soul.”

Having finished the book, and having seen no such case made to satisfy either my intellectual and intuitive sides, I am (we are?) disappointed.

The ninth chapter is the one based on the scientific experimental work conducted by Beauregard. It is the scientific basis for the book’s main assertions regarding the existence of the self and the soul apart from the body. I found the whole chapter to be underwhelming even though it reported new information, scientifically obtained, that suggested strongly that the brain is stimulated during mystical experiences in predictable and unique ways.

The mystical revelatory state was induced by the participants, and once achieved, these stimulation patterns occurred. Interviews afterward confirmed that a state of bliss, joy and unity had been achieved.

The caveat on page 38 of chapter 1 is essentially repeated at the end of Chapter 9, the Chapter where the experimental results that are the real reason for the book are reported. There, on page 276 is the final sentence describing the experimental results, followed directly by a cautionary note:

. . . we had succeeded in measuring the brain activity of the nuns while they went on to an actual mystical state.

Do our findings prove that mystics contact a power outside themselves? No, because there is no way to prove or disprove that from one side only.

There you have it. The research showed that specific areas of the brain are involved when a subject enters and stays in a mystical state. This would feed the materialist as well as the spiritualist interpretation, I would think, but the authors disagree on the next page:

There is no need to choose between science and spirituality. But there is a need to choose between materialism and spirituality.

Science cannot prove or disprove the existence of God, nor can it adjudicate controversies between religions on doctrines. But it can rule out inadequate theories of RSMEs [~mystical and other spiritual experiences] concocted by materialists.

This is followed by a direct statement of what this book has done in terms of supporting a spiritualistic interpretation of consciousness:

The evidence presented in this book has shown that RSMEs are not the outcome of particular genes or neural disorders, nor can they be created merely by the use of a technology . . . . It also shows that the “hard problem” of consciousness is simply not resolvable in a materialist frame of reference.

The authors then suggest that this “hard problem” is solved when we come to:

. . . understand that the universe itself as a product of consciousness. We might expect living beings to evolve toward consciousness if consciousness underlies the universe. Consciousness is an irreducible quality.

My intuitive side totally agrees with the first part of this premise, it is what I have come to believe, but based on faith, not based on science. I have no clue what consciousness being “an irreducible quality” could possibly mean. Sounds like another statement of faith: a mystery! Neither of these statements are scientifically supportable. This book does not provide any scientific support for either statement. They are simply hope-full statements of faith by a scientist.

What about the just-as-likely-interpretation that the mystical state the nuns achieved was simply a mind-over-matter outcome of their minds bringing them into this meditative state and thus activating the brain portions that support such a state. The book does, and in my opinion it does so scientifically, provide sound observational evidence that the mind influences the brain. The mind is an emergent property and can turn around and influence the source from which it emerged. This is made very clear in many places in the book.

But does this necessarily mean that all of the claims associated with that fact are also true? There is good evidence for the mind making changes in the brain, driving it as it were, whether for good or ill (placebo and nocebo and other effects discussed in Chapter 6). But does it follow from that single fact that there is a soul and spirit and that consciousness underlies and guides the life of, and therefore the life in, the universe? I don't think so.

Chapter 10, the final chapter, is where the primary author relates his own mystical experience, and suggests it provided the desire and insight leading to his life's work and, of course, to this book.

Here at the end the authors also address the question that has been bothering me since Chapter 9, as just stated: why is it that his measuring of the nuns' brain activity does not suggest, as I think it does, that matter (the brain) is causing these mystical experiences?

On page 292 the authors directly respond to this question under the title: “The Brain Mediates but Does Not Produce RSMEs”. There you have it!

I read the explanation very carefully. It recapitulates some of the book's earlier declarations on the shortcomings of a strictly materialistic explanation for the obseved phenomena. But the only proof it alludes to is a Near Death Experience that  . . .

suggests that mind and consciousness can continue when clinical criteria of death have been reached and the brain no longer functions.

This is said to be . . .

compatible with William James's hypothesis that the brain does not generate but transmits and expresses mental processes/events.

The explanation then cites others' suggesting that the brain is a reducing valve . . .

allowing us the experience of only a narrow portion of perceivable reality.

Hence the “neurometabolic” changes observed in the nuns: their minds were opening wider to receive a greater input from “reality.”

I really, really wanted to believe, but even my intuitive side is unimpressed. There are other explanations for the near-death experience seemingly carrying on fine without a brain, related to that caveat about “clinical criteria of death.”

Since more and more people seem to be brought back from a clinically dead state lately (or so it seems according to news accounts I have run across), maybe it is those “clinical criteria of death” that need to be revisited.

Chapter 10 is the epitome of the book. The chapter title asks if God created the brain or if the brain created God? That chapter does a very nice job summarizing the whole book. Then it gets to the heart of the matter and the question is answered to the satisfaction of the authors, apparently. Not to me. I fail to see the answer to the above grand question in this chapter, and feel as if the book’s subtitle promising scientific evidence for the existence of the soul led me on.

Promising prrof of a soul was a sales slogan, a recruitment promise. It worked. I got and read the book. But it was a hollow promise.

I already mentioned that my intuitive side is also disappointed, but it did learn a new word from this book: now it tells me that I need to believe in “promissory spirituality.” I guess that means if I just live long enough my accumulated spiritual experience will show me that what I have always suspected intuitively is correct. OK, I can wait another decade or so, but so far the evidence is lacking.

I also have a bothersome hunch that when the time of transition for the next life comes the last I will ever hear as my intelligence dissipates into nothingness is a chuckle from my intuitive side saying “I had you wondering and hoping, didn’t I? Well, that was my purpose. By the way, what was yours?” then another chuckle, and it all fades to black.

I suspect that even the Tibetan Book of the Dead was wrong. The onion of layered forces which was my self and my intelligence does not unwrap and let just a core of what was me move onto another life. It just unwraps, and then there is nothing.

Yet again.



I.        Collective Unconscious

I found it strange that with the huge bibliography, one of my favorites on this topic of consciousness, Carl Jung, is not mentioned.

I thought of Carl Jung when Beauregard and O'Leary suggest that the mystical state is a communion with an external force which they call the Absolute, or God. Carl Jung, who flung himself into the unknown several times, straying from his foundations in science as he knew it, never went this far. Jung coined a term for a concept that seems designed to fit this type of observation, and also used Paul as an example.

Jung suggested Paul's revelation, and all revelation, is a communion with the “collective unconscious” which can be reached within oneself. This is meant to explain the same revelatory phenomenon that is being described by Beaureagrd and O'leary when they say the mystical experience involves communion with a spiritual force outside the person involved.

WIKIPEDIA describes the collective unconscious:

It is a part of the unconscious mind, shared by a society, humanity and all life forms, that is the product of ancestral experience and contains such concepts as science, religion, and morality. While Freud did not distinguish between an "individual psychology" and a "collective psychology", Jung distinguished the collective unconscious from the personal subconscious particular to each human being. The collective unconscious is also known as "a reservoir of the experiences of our species."

This is quite supportive of Beaureagrd and O'leary's idea of an overarching consciousness.  However it is also quite supportive of the Akashic records defined by the Theosophists, and explained in WIKIPEDIA as being:

. . . a compendium of mystical knowledge encoded in a non-physical plane of existence. These records are described to contain all knowledge of human experience and the history of the cosmos. They are metaphorically described as a library and other analogues commonly found in discourse on the subject include a "universal computer" and the "Mind of God". Descriptions of the records assert that they are constantly updated and that they can be accessed through astral projection. The concept originated in the theosophical movements of the 19th century, and remains prevalent in New Age discourse.

II        Fear of Death

All of this causes the materialist, intellectual side of me to exult in this observation: “No wonder there had to be a put-down by Beauregard and O'Leary (pages 44-45) of the 'fear of death' motive for all of these ethereal mental constructs!

Believing allows us to live at peace with pending death knowing we are personally and collectively not done when this life is over for us. Believing allows us to continue to deny death! Therefore 'fear of death' does have a function in terms of sustaining the survival of the species, it creates the need for belief that can they stave off crippling, suicide-promoting existential angst!

I cannot disagree in principle with the speculative quote from Alper that Beauregard and O'Leary quote and then disparage on page 44 (and 45):

“As generations of . . . [sic] protohumans passed, those whose cerebral constitutions most effectively dealt with the anxiety resulting from their awareness of death were most apt to survive.”

It seems to me that Beaureagrd and O'Leary could have as readily agreed with this statement as disagreed with it.  The statement actually implies that brain-capability has something to do with obtaining spiritual insight, which is something this book strongly concludes in its last chapter!

In reading pages 44 and 45 I was surprised that Beaureagrd and O'Leary did not take on the book The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker. This is what WIKIPEDIA says about this book (1973, Simon & Schuster; edited down here):

The basic premise of The Denial of Death is that human civilization is ultimately an elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of our mortality, which in turn acts as the emotional and intellectual response to our basic survival mechanism. Becker argues that a basic duality in human life exists between the physical world of objects and a symbolic world of human meaning. Thus, since man has a dualistic nature consisting of a physical self and a symbolic self, man is able to transcend the dilemma of mortality through heroism, a concept involving his symbolic half. By embarking on what Becker refers to as an "immortality project" (or causa sui), in which he creates or becomes part of something which he feels will last forever, man feels he has "become" heroic and, henceforth, part of something eternal; something that will never die, compared to his physical body that will die one day. This, in turn, gives man the feeling that his life has meaning; a purpose; significance in the grand scheme of things.

. . .

Another theme running throughout the book is that humanity's traditional "hero-systems" i.e. religion, are no longer convincing in the age of reason; science is attempting to solve the problem of man, something that Becker feels it can never do. The book states that we need new convincing "illusions" that enable us to feel heroic in the grand scheme of things, i.e. immortal. Becker, however, does not provide any definitive answer, mainly because he believes that there is no perfect solution. Instead, he hopes that gradual realization of man's innate motivations, namely death, can help to bring about a better world.

It seems to me that Becker's (non-scientific and speculative) theses ring true. Beauregard and O'Leary do not promote a religion or a belief, but they are promoting both religion and belief. I believe, in turn, that the receptivity and enthusiasm of their readers and audiences is directly relatable to Becker's theses: their need to be able to deny death as the end, in order to alleviate their fear of death.

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