Wednesday, November 14, 2007

In search of the soul

A new book is trying to do for neurology what Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box did for biology -- bring supernaturalism to the science of the brain.

Well, wait, we'll hold judgment on the science. I've been digging around in the book and I've yet to find any science that justifies the book's thesis.

The book is The Spiritual Brain by the Canadian neurologist Mario Beauregard and the anti-Darwin blogger Denyse O'Leary. The subtitle: A Neurologist's Case for the Existence of the Soul. And yes, the authors mean to show exactly that -- your mind is more than your brain, and can and will exist independently of your material self.

That minds are more than brains, no one disputes. That minds can exist independently of brains -- well, that's another matter.

I will hesitantly admit that I am initially skeptical of any book whose author feels it necessary to put Ph.D. after his name on the jacket -- not something you'd see from the likes of Francis Collins or Richard Dawkins, two fine scientists on opposite sides of the science/faith debates. Nor does it help that the co-author of this purportedly scientific treatise is a feisty, avowedly Christian, anti-Darwin blogger.

Still, I put my prejudices aside and hoped to see some interesting science. But where? The first chapters are fairly traditional broadsides in the sci/faith wars. Fine, no problem with that. But scientific proof for the existence of an immaterial soul? I don't think so.

When we finally get to the "science," it's pretty much the same old stuff that has been hauled out a hundred times -- the psi effect (telepathy, etc.), near death experiences, the placebo effect -- and, as far as I can see, nothing new is added. These are subjects worthy of study, but I've yet to see any data here or elsewhere to suggest that a supernatural explanation is required, or that psi effects even exist.

What is new is Beauregard's work with nuns from a cloistered Carmelite convent, research funded by the John Templeton Foundation. Beauregard and his colleague Vincent Paquette did brain scans on nuns in prayer and contemplation. These experiences manifested themselves in brain regions involved in a variety of functions, "such as self-consciousness, emotion, body representation, visual and motor imagery, and spiritual perception." Which seems to me about what you'd expect if the organic brain is the seat of the soul.

The bottom line, on page 276: "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." Which is exactly correct. But then the authors go on to say: "What we can do, however, is determine the patterns that are consistent with certain types of experiences. Thus we can rule out some explanations, because, for example, a complex pattern is not consistent with a simple explanation." By "simple explanation" the authors presumably mean "naturalistic." Beauregard is the first neurologist I've come across who thinks the human brain is "simple."

Or try this: "When the nuns were recalling autobiographical memories, the brain activity was different from that of the mystical state." What a surprise! And this is taken as evidence for the existence of God and immaterial souls.

And so it goes. It would have been better for both Beauregard and the good nuns to have let the data speak for itself, rather that presenting it to the world wrapped in a "post-Darwin" polemic that proves nothing one way or the other and cheapens the mystical experience and faith of these dedicated women.