by  —  April 20, 2009

Appended with author reply April 22.

The following book review, originally published in Skeptic Magazine volume 14, no. 2, gives my rather unflattering overview of the assertions made in The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul by Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary. The book distresses me in that I see in it an skeptic1early Creationist assault on the Cognitive Sciences, and the formation of the false scientific arguments that may be brought to the stem cell debate in years to come. After the review was published, I found myself wondering what the authors of the book must have thought of my review – if they had read it at all. I wondered if they would be able to rebut my dissection of their work. It was my feeling that the questions I had posed would have to be confronted if anybody was to take their “evidence” seriously at all. With that in mind, I contacted co-author Denyse O’Leary by email and asked that she review my review and, if she would be so kind, explain to me where I might have gone wrong. She agreed to do so once the review was posted online. Her reply follows my review below…

The Ghost In The Machine

The Spiritual Brain by Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary reviewed by Doug Mesner

Even before we reach the Table of Contents, the book has run afoul of reason, casting serious doubts upon the intellectual honesty of its authors. The first sentence on the inside flap of the dust-jacket synopsis asks “Do religious experiences come from God, or are they merely the random firing of neurons in the brain?” Of course, confined strictly between the two options, one may even feel compelled to choose the former – but clearly the cards have been stacked. That neurons must fire in patterns seems intuitive. But to present this as necessarily the product of God’s divine will demands quite a bit of justification. The question is also eerily similar to the equally misrepresentative question often posed by Intelligent Design advocates, “Was life designed, or is it the product of mere random chance?” Available biographical information about the authors reveals this similarity as no coincidence…

The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul was co-authored by neuroscientist Mario Beauregard – whose Templeton Foundation-funded research provides what very little original content the book has to offer – and journalist Denyse O’Leary, author of an Intelligent Design pseudoscience book titled By Design or By Chance? The Growing Controversy on the Origins of Life in the Universe. Indeed, The Spiritual Brain proves to be little more than a remanufacturing of Creationist arguments applied to the Cognitive Sciences.

One might reasonably expect that a book that claims to give evidence for the existence of the “soul” would at least give the reader the benefit of defining “soul” at the very outset. Why – it has been asked – if there is some angelic vapor that drives a living being, provides character, morality, and consciousness, would God have equipped us with burdensome, fragile, and expensive (in biological terms) organs such as brains? Where does the brain end and the soul begin? If the brain provides robotic function, and the soul provides “consciousness”, what are we to make of cases of extreme character change due to neurological disorder or brain injury?

The book begins with no such definition, nor with any overview of its evidence, nor a clear interpretation of the authors’ findings. It begins instead with a vitriolic attack on what the authors refer to as “materialist science”; being quite simply a euphemism for that damnable brand of elitist science that insists upon testable, empirical data.

According to the authors, an unwillingness to accept causes outside the physical world has crippled progress in the field of neuroscience. The reader is belabored with full-paragraph quotations from the leading minds in the Cognitive Sciences meant to demonstrate the magnitude of this bias. Current theories are misrepresented, ridiculously simplified and mocked. But, while the authors effectively prove that great minds have shown a near unanimous unwillingness to accept supernatural theories, they entirely fail to demonstrate how this has hindered progress. Quite the contrary. After pressing through bloated pages of rambling anti-materialist drivel, the reader will likely become solidly convinced that the practice of “nonmaterialist science” as advocated by the authors could itself only serve to end scientific progress. According to the authors, this magical science “is not compelled to reject, deny, explain away, or treat as problems all evidence that defies materialism.” It is quite plain that, instead of seeking explanations for the unexpected or unknown, the nonmaterialist scientist would be perfectly at liberty to “explain” anomalous data as the mysterious workings of God.

Those readers who are convinced by the arguments exposing the follies of evidence-based science may find the presentation of evidence for the soul now entirely needless. However, the “evidence” is sparse enough that converts may immediately practice their newfound powers of credulity.

The primary data put forward as evidence for the soul regards mystical experiences and the profound life-changing effects such experiences have. The authors seem to feel that mystical experiences are indicative of entirely real spiritual contact with God Almighty Himself, and scoff at the idea that these perceptions are derived merely from an altered state of mind. “[T]he fact that mystical experiences and states may have identifiable neural correlates […] has typically been interpreted by journalists as suggesting that the experiences are somehow a delusion. In itself, that is a confused idea, equivalent to assuming that if hitting a home run has identifiable neural correlates, the home run is a delusion.”

Author Mario Beauregard ran a study on Carmelite nuns, who “live a life of silent prayer”. These nuns report that they enter a “mystical state” that they find difficult to describe. “[T]hey felt the presence of God, his unconditional and infinite love […]”

But this is precisely what any scientist might expect of a Christian sect of meditators attempting communion with God. Meditators of another religion would surely interpret their experience in their own spiritual frame-work. The authors mention Buddhist meditators, but fail to give an account of their interpretation of the Religious Experience: “The scope of the present book does not permit a wide-ranging assessment of all types of contemplative states, so we will consider only the study of the Franciscan nuns.”

In fact, cognitive scientists don’t shy away from the study of mystical experiences, nor would most deny that these experiences do have the ability to change lives. But the fact that these experiences occur provides no evidence for the existence of the soul or an outer “spiritual reality”. Because the Franciscan nuns interpret this as a communion with God doesn’t mean that we should accept this uncritically.

There is a rare neurological disorder (Capgras’ syndrome) in which the afflicted are capable of recognizing the faces of loved ones, but feel that these people have been replaced with an imposter. Would Beauregard have us believe that this is because exact human replica imposters delight in annoying perceptive victims of particular types of brain lesions, or would he see these unique conditions of the brain as having manufactured this perception? The former would be just as scientifically valid as his assertion that spiritual experiences are provoked by a spiritual world.

Curiously absent from this book is any mention of mystical experiences achieved by means of psychedelic drug usage. A recent study (performed at Johns Hopkins University under neuroscientist Roland Griffiths) involving the inducement of mystical experiences by means of psilocybin (the psychoactive component in “magic” mushrooms) produced a report titled Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance. The report concludes, “When administered under supportive conditions, psilocybin occasioned experiences similar to spontaneously occurring mystical experiences.” If mystical experiences induced by heathen drugs are somehow to be distinguished from mystical experiences induced “naturally” by prayer or contemplation, Beauregard has failed to demonstrate this.

The authors, to their credit, actually do admit that there is no proof of a spirit world to be gleaned from the mystical experience: “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.”

Research of the mystical experience as experienced by the Carmelite nuns was the only original data provided in this book, and it admittedly proves nothing.

For reasons unclear, the book references the well-known placebo effect as some type of evidence for the soul. The ultimate message in this bizarre placebo digression seems to be, “faith matters”, as belief itself has yielded tangible benefits. Equally perplexing is the handling of the question of Free Will, wherein the authors seem to mistake consciousness and self-control for Free Will. The most cursory perusal of available literature on the topic could have served to correct them.

In citing Near Death (NDE) and Out-of-Body Experiences (OBE) as evidence for the soul, the authors again fail to make mention of certain data that seem to contradict their conclusions. One relevant experiment involved subjects whose brains were electrically stimulated in the right temporal region, thus causing them to experience full blown Out-of-Body perception. If Out-of-Body experiences can be electrically induced, where does this leave the idea that such experiences are caused by supernatural spiritual forces?

Near Death Experiences are handled no better. Here again the authors are remiss in their research. Omitted is any mention of NDEs induced by the drug ketamine, or by rapid acceleration, in subjects who are not in fact dead, or in serious risk of dying. Instead, the unscientific supporting “evidence” is anecdotal.

Rarely, a “science” book that attempts to justify supernaturalism holds a certain entertainment value in its far-flung contortions of logic as it attempts to explain away contradictory evidence. As The Spiritual Brain merely ignored data that troubled its thesis, we’re generally denied any such entertainment here. Searching for some redeeming quality, we might be amused at the book’s tone as it oscillates from indignant confidence to near-resignation, confessing that the soul’s existence can not be proven. It’s the similar to the perverse entertainment one might find in witnessing a lunatic street-preacher who, while engaged in solo argument… finds that he is losing.

Denyse O’Leary replies:

Doug Mesner writes asking me to respond to a review of The Spiritual Brain which he published in Skeptic Magazine, and he has now helpfully made the review available on line.

Read Ms. O’Leary’s full reply here:

Not to waste anybody’s valuable time with a reply to a rebuttal that was meant to end a long unhelpful dialogue, but I feel I must justify my reference to the stem cell debate that so puzzled poor Ms. O’Leary (a reference that I must point out was not made in the review at all, but rather in the introduction to the review on this site).

As stem cells clearly lack a nervous system, the idea of their personhood or “dignity” (as some theologians are fond of calling it) seems reliant upon the idea of a “soul” having been assigned to the life-to-be in advance of their development from the embryonic.  That this would elude Ms. O’Leary of all people seems hardly credible to me.  This possible anti-stem cell research consequence of a belief in the immortal soul is worth mentioning to show why this issue is worth arguing at all.  There is more at stake here than Ms. O’Leary’s faith.  If there weren’t, I should hardly feel good about attacking that which gives some well-meaning people solace.

Also incredible to me is the idea that she doesn’t find my skeptical materialism worth arguing, as it is “dead in the water”.  A perusal of her blog will show you that she has written attack after attack against skeptical materialism – in fact, such arguments are the very themes of her numerous blogs.  To imagine that theological supernaturalism has long since replaced materialism in the realm of scientific inquiry (whatever that would really mean) is delusional at best.  I feel that I have done my best to expose the flaws of The Spiritual Brain, and the author’s refusal to address my charges lead me to believe that she simply can’t. I suspect her decision to bow out of the debate is nothing more than a concession of defeat…

Marked as: Belief SystemsBuncoScience  —  4 comments   (RSS)

4 Comments so far
  1. Emma April 22, 2009 9:41 am

    Further to the post published by Denyse O’Leary in her own blog, Mindful Hack, in which she says she will not deign to comment on Dougs review or address any of his points, Id like to draw the readers attention to an email interaction I had with Denyse a while back when I asked politely for her reaction. It seems we have a case of the lady is for turning. Contrary to her most recent stance, previously she was more than happy to promise a complete demolition of Dougs review, considering his comments most refutable:
    From: []
    Sent: Wednesday, November 19, 2008 6:41 AM
    To: Denyse O’leary
    Subject: The Spiritual Brain
    Dear Ms O’leary,
    Having read your book The Spiritual Brain and discussed it with friends, it was with interest that I recently read a review by Douglas Mesner of The Spiritual Brain, in the current issue of Skeptic magazine.
    In it he makes some interesting points, which are worth repeating here as he brings a clarity of thought to the subject which need no embellishments from me.
    For example, in the book reference is made to research conducted on Carmelite nuns during which the nuns interpret their experience as mystical and of being in the presence of God. Mr Mesner writes: This hardly flies in the face of conventional science, and is precisely what any scientist might expect of a Christian sect of meditators attempting communion with God.. Meditators of another religion would surely interpret their experience in their own spiritual frame-work. Mr Mesner goes on to make an important point as follows: There is a certain disorder that sometimes arises in stroke victims, in which they are capable of recognizing faces, but feel that the person has been replaced with an imposter. Would Beauregard have us believe that this is because exact human replica imposters delight in annoying perceptive stroke victims, or would he see the unique conditions of the brain as having manufactured this perception? The former would be just as scientifically valid as his assertion that spiritual experiences are provoked by a spiritual world. Im sure you will agree Mr Mesner makes a valid and irrefutable point here. I would be most interested to know your thoughts on this.
    I am very pushed for time right now but would like to follow this email up with further questions. I note that your email address is freely available via your blog, therefore I hope you do not consider my contacting you presumptious. Please bear with me as regards time, and in the meantime I look forward to your reply.
    Yours sincerely,

    From: Denyse O’Leary
    Subject: RE: The Spiritual Brain
    Date: Wednesday, 19 November, 2008, 12:43 PM
    Dear Ms. …..,
    I too am pushed for time and will comment on Mr. Mesner’s views when his review is online at the mag where they were published.
    I not only do not consider his comments irrefutable, I do not even grasp their relevance and know of no good reason to take them seriously.
    Glad you enjoy the blog.
    Cheers, Denyse
    Needless to say, I did not follow up with further questions, thoroughly expecting a scathing rebuttal to follow online. Seems I was to be disappointed. And I didnt enjoy her blog.

  2. Timcol April 24, 2009 11:02 am

    I read Ms O’Leary’s reply and have to say I wasn’t all that surprised. After all it she did recently stop commenting on her “blog farm”. I used to regularly comment there, but it was quite apparent that any rational discussion with her was just about impossible. The cognitive dissonance on her part was so tangible you could reach out and just about taste it. You can see the same thing on Uncommon Descent – she’ll get hold of an issue, usually quite incorrectly, several people correct her, but she’ll basically ignore it – often with the excuse that she has “other stories” she needs to move on. Here’s a class example on the topic of research on herring gull chicks by Niko Tinbergen

    As you will see in the last comment by JTaylor asking Denyse to comment on the fact that she had been basically caught in a lie, Denyse does what she always does when cornered – ignore it.

    I think of all of the ID people she is by far the most intellectually dishonest than all of them put together. Her constant harping on the evils of materialism and “darwinism” is tiresome and silly. If there’s a crank out there on the Internet that supports her view (e.g., Hiram Canton) you can be sure that she would have no qualms to cherry pick away through the most dubious of material.

    On the other hand could ID really have a better person to speak on their behalf?

  3. uoflcard April 24, 2009 11:18 am

    Why do you need to believe in a soul to be against embryonic stem cell research? This is what I don’t understand. An embryo, if left alone in its natural environment, will develop into a baby, child then adult human. You are trading this life to save another’s. If you are against killing a healthy baby to save an unrelated person, you should be against embryonic stem cell research (as well as abortion). None of it has to have anything to do with souls or God or Bibles or anything else like that. The liberal definition of human life (whatever is being trumpeted these days) is fuzzy and completely arbitrary.

    I think liberals and/or atheists saw Christians (and other “religiots”) get on one side of the abortion/stem cell issues, and they fundamentally got on the other side. Yes, many Christians use scripture such as Jeremiah 1:5 (“Before I made you in the womb, I knew you”) to protest abortion and embryonic stem cell research, but you don’t have to believe that to believe it is still wrong.

    Option #1: Leave embryo in mother –> Person
    Option #2: Use embryo as stem cell research/implant/etc –> Another person’s tissue

    You have traded one healthy person to save anther person’s life. That is the case whether you believe that person had a soul or not.

    btw, I have urged Denyse (not that I know her personally0 to find time to respond to your review

  4. doug April 27, 2009 7:04 pm

    One doesn’t “need” to believe in the soul to oppose embryonic stem cell research, but it certainly helps.
    As Anthony Stevens-Arroyo writes:
    “Catholic theological teaching is unequivocal: the human soul is infused by God at the moment of conception. The biological issue of when exactly conception can be considered to have occurred is less clear. Cardinal Rigali, head of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on such matters has quoted some doctors who make fertilization of the embryo the moment of conception. Those embryos have souls, it would be said. Other doctors, perhaps a majority of fertility experts, state conception takes place only after that fertilized embryo is implanted in the womb and grows as a fetus.”
    O’Leary herself confesses a devotion to the Paedophile Cult of Catholicism and, as I’ve said, I find it impossible to believe that she never considered the question of the soul as related to stem cell research.
    Nonetheless, my comment about stem cell research was nowhere in my published criticism of her book. I merely mentioned it as a motive for my own dissection of her work. At the very least her book raises questions in the skeptical mind that she has proven unwilling or unable to answer.

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