Thursday, 11 October 2007

Brain Food for Thought

Oftentimes, when borrowing popular demand books from the library, I feel a kind of misguided loyalty to read each and every word. Such is the case with The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul. Sometimes common sense prevails, however, such that abandonment remains the only avenue. If something bugs you, set it free. Or something like that.

There I was, about two dozen pages away from the finish line but I couldn't hang on any longer. There remained no hope that this book might offer any kind of chemical marriage between the outer limits of science and the inner limits of religion. And post humus to my reading, I still don't get his so-called case, except to intuit that his apologetics, in defense of of a more holistic study of religious experience and against what he calls "dogmatic materialist scientism," are extremely weak. His religious studies scholarship? Weaker still. But shucks, if you don't believe me, ask the science blogger types. Dogmatic materialist scientismy types, the whole lot of them, it's true ~but they're also a heck of a lot more rational than Beauregard's argument in this book.
Or if you'd rather read a more favorable book review for good measure, then you'd be heeding Sir Francis Bacon's advice: "Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider."

To be fair, two things stand out within the 3oo pages. Firstly, he insists there is no centralized 'God Spot,' as previously hypothesized by Newberg and D'Aquili (authors of Why God Won't Go Away). On the contrary, God on the brain is, instead a "complex and multidimensional" phenomena.

Upon studying the mystical experiences of Carmelite nuns, Beauregard insists that religious experience (he calls them RSMEs) is "neurally instatiated by different brain regions involved in a variety of fucntion, such as self-consciousness, emotion, body represetation, visual and motor imagery, and spiritual perception." So there's a bit of a laser, light show going on in the brain. Well, quelle suprise, Monsieur scienteeste.

The second notable standout occurs on the penultimate pages of the book, where Beauregard finally gets to his real point epiphany by confessing to having had a "cosmic consciousness" type of religious experience twenty years ago. It was his awe-ha moment. Materialists will have a heyday picking apart the biological roots of his illness narrative, as this experience purportedly happened while he was suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome. Cynicism aside, he still does little to further this all-important field of study, owing in large part to his shoddy scholarship.

To be honest, the last time I saw such piecemealed scholarship was on a draft version of one of my first year religion courses as an undergraduate, in which I was attempting to imbed five million expert quotations into my research paper as a way to give makeshift props to my non-existent thesis. Beauregard and O'Leary have apparently lifted a page from this freshman approach in hopes that neophyte readers will be summarily dazzled by strings of four or five quotes from the likes of long dead mysticism heavyweights like William James, Evelyn Underhill and W.T. Stace, and thus, might forget Beauregard had yet to make his point. Although he insists to the dismal finish that he has one.

As summation for his case, Beauregard calls for a more integrated framework of study between science and religion in order to apprehend an "intuitive, unitive, and experiential form of knowing." I sympathize with his viewpoint and had high hopes his book might be a more comprehensive study as such, which is why I have been eagerly awaiting this reading.

But in the spirit of true religious confessions, I have to admit that I have been highly disappointed with arguments on both sides of the table as of late. I started to read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins last year but finally gave up, not because our views were diabolically opposed (they were and are) and not for lack of highly amusing discourse (Dawkins dolls this out in droves) but because once again, lax scholarship (shame on Oxford for permitting this) and prooftexting leaves much to be desired.

So then I thought I would jump sides to see what Francis Collins had to say with The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. This one I managed to finish but again, I admit to a vague feeling of disappointment. Then, as now, I cannot help but feel as though all these scientists hold the veritable key to the universe, and yet they are too busy jossling each other at the gate about whose key is a brighter shade of gold to bother unlocking the dang thing.

I'm just not seeing compelling scientific evidence either for or against God from either camp. I firmly believe in intelligent design, just as I strongly believe in evolution, albeit from a teleological perspective; affording me, I suppose, a rather tenuous foothold upon process theology ground.

I have a sneaky suspicion that the answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind from Santa Barbara, and I don't mean from Oprah. Consciousness studies, that last horizon, that final frontier in this race for god, guts and glory, is likely where it's at.

Beauregard and his co-author, Denyse O'Leary say as much, of course. Too bad they preface it with 295 painful pages before doing so. If you must read his book, do yourself a favour and begin at the end and work back. It's not exactly an evolutionary approach, but I suspect Beauregard himself might commend you for this.


Anonymous said...

I doubt I would had the fortitude to wade through this tome, but I'm grteful for the warning, nonetheless. Since you're interested in this area, you might give Gabriel Marcel's two volume set, "The Mystery of Being" a look. He doesn't utilize a true scientific approach in attempting to understand the human impulse to God, but has some interesting observations regardless. Be well,

Anonymous said...

Fascinating. Thanks. An excellent subject which often suffers from the drawbacks you mention and also the fact that, in extreme cases, the two 'sides' often have one axe to grind, or an already entrenched position, or, as the Archbishop of Canterbury said, are talking from either side of a veil that only one has (claimed to have) crossed.

Anonymous said...

Well said, Holy, and I commend you for your persistence in your quest for insight and knowledge regarding the origins and validity of the spiritual experience.

I'm afraid my quest for much the same thing led me to the conclusion that all human beings have a sense of how spirituality will or will not play a role in their lives. Those with a deeply spiritual bent will either write about it or expend considerable energy contemplatine it, or both.

I've given up seeking any meaning in text or in the spoken word and wish I could change my attitude about the situation. All I know at the end of the day is that there is more to the human experience than is dreamt of in our philosophies (apologies to Wm. Shakespeare).

I suspect that we as a species possess an infinite degree of power over reality than we realise and, if we could stop bitching at one another, perhaps we could figure out what our true potential actually is.

I highly recomment two movies: "Mindwalk" and "What The Bleep Do We Know?". The former is a bit slow-moving but this is good, for there is a lot of information it must present. The latter, somewhat mired down in special effects, offers insights arrived at through theories of quantum physics. In my opinion, "What The Bleep?" may have some of the best insights I've come across in a long time.



Anonymous said...

If you found this book intriguing, you will definitely enjoy reading My Stroke of Insight - a Brain Scientist's Personal Journey" by Jill Bolte Taylor, and her talk on TED dot com about her stroke which is an 18 minute talk you Must Not Miss! (there's a reason it's been forwarded friend to friend millions of times!). When you read the book and see the TEDTalk, you'll understand why this Harvard brain scientist was named Time Magazine 100 Most Influential People. Her unique experience, combined with her perspective as a neuroanatomist, and her sensitivity and awareness (not to mention beautiful writing style!) has produced something so powerful and so revolutionary that I think it's going to become a transformational movement in itself. Oprah also did four interviews with her (that I was able to download on the Oprah website) that are also worth checking out. I am trying to share Dr Taylor's story with as many people as I can because I truly believe if everyone saw it the world would be so much better and people would love one another and no longer fight.

Holy Thought of the Week

"To live fully is to let go and die with each passing moment, and to be reborn in each new one."

~ Jack Kornfield ~