It is not often that one has the experience of reading a customer review on Amazon and coming away with a gem like the one that follows. The review is of a book called The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul. The reviewer is one Larry Mullins. I resonated greatly with what Mr. Mullins had to say.
Few books stimulate so many diverse and passionate reviews as “The Spiritual Brain.” I award five stars as a layperson not so much because of the scientific and philosophical arguments of the authors, but because they have dared to transcend the logic-tight barriers between the disciplines of science, religion and philosophy. They have opened doors for science that few materialistic scientists care to recognize. The stakes are very high in this discussion, as we shall see. For this is nothing less than a discussion of the nature of a human being … is he or she simply a more evolved type of animal, or different in kind, far more than a complicated evolutionary accident? The answer to this question is critical to the course of civilization. The primary issue is whether this question can be adequately addressed by a strictly materialistic science. Many great scientific minds had their doubts.
Late in his career, Abraham Maslow, the great psychologist and founder of the “third force” movement in psychology, dared to do much the same thing as authors Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary. When Dr. Maslow’s book “The Psychology of Science” ventured to critique materialistic science for being too narrow in its focus, the attacks by the scientific establishment were bitter and relentless. Arthur G. Wirth, a prominent member of The John Dewey Society, mused in the Introduction to “The Psychology of Science,” a predictive question: “Why would a man hurl his lance against the citadel and risk the rocks and hot oil he may expect in return?” Yet Maslow’s complaint was simply that the adherents of the mechanomorphic tradition of the physical sciences were not necessarily wrong, but rather too narrow to serve as a general philosophical platform for science. Dr. Maslow was a well-trained Freudian and behaviorist. He said when he began to study the higher reaches of human nature, his training failed him. He believed that peak experiences were authentic, natural events and worthy of study. What Maslow declared were his “most important findings,” the reality of metavalues (the classic triad of truth, beauty and goodness) and their power to influence and perhaps even configure human personalities, especially self-actualizing personalities. These findings were brushed aside by the broader establishment and are in danger of being lost. Yet these issues have never been resolved, and “The Spiritual Brain” helps remind us that more research and discourse are in order.
Many great minds hold that peak experiences and metavalues are not mystic fluff as some would have us believe. Abraham Maslow was a pragmatic scientist and a professed atheist. Much as William James, he believed that values and spiritual experiences should not be the exclusive domain of religionists. He advocated a science of values. He also grasped that the metavalues of truth, beauty and goodness transcend the disciplines of science, theology, and philosophy. Maslow understood that science does not have all the answers. Science can tell us much about material reality, or what is. Science can even suggest possibilities, what could be. But the poet or the religionist offers a vision for us of what ought to be. And science without values builds bigger bombs and more efficient gas chambers. Dr. Maslow fought hard to break down the barriers between the disciplines of science and religion. He wrote:
“I [have] pointed out that both orthodox science and orthodox religion have been institutionalized and frozen into a mutually excluding dichotomy. This separation into Aristotelian a and not-a has been almost perfect … Every question, every answer, every method, every jurisdiction, every task has been assigned to either one or the other, with practically no overlaps. One consequence is that they are both pathologized, split into sickness, ripped apart into a crippled half-science and a crippled half-religion.”
Philosopher Mortimer Adler also lamented the rigid divisions between the three great disciplines that lay claim to truth: science, religion and philosophy. (See his autobiography, “A Second Look in the Rearview Mirror,” for the story of his struggle about this issue with crystallized academicians and his pivotal speech: “God and the Professors.”) Why is this Aristotelian division between the great disciplines important? Because, though Aristotle’s divisions worked well for 20 centuries, the strict paths they followed are running out of ideas in the modern world, and material science is the best example. One of the great founders of quantum mechanics, Werner Heisenberg saw this clearly. In his book, “Beyond the Frontiers,” he flatly stated that quantum science had vindicated Plato, who held that concepts like truth, beauty and goodness are realities that transcend the material. Over the years the common wisdom developed that a Platonic notion was unreal, only nebulous froth. However, the legendary quantum scientist and framer of the uncertainty principle, Heisenberg, supports the concept that philosophy’s classic values of truth, beauty and goodness, are realities–active agents that transcend the material.
But what of the spiritual experience? The authors of “The Spiritual Brain,” Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary point out that Maslow referred to the ultimate human state of consciousness as the Peak Experience. His research revealed that most people, whether they were Actualizers or not, achieved a peak experience state for brief periods. Materialistic neuroscientists claim this is an illusion. Laypersons must decide for themselves. But we are not helpless before the a priori assumptions of scientists, religionists, and philosophers. We have personal experiences that either validate one point of view or the other. Most of us have had peak experiences, and for my part, I am certain they were real. Modern psychologist and noted author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls the peak experience Flow, the ultimate state of happiness. Maslow’s concept of self-actualization could be likened to achieving flow more often, to living at a higher level of self-forgetfulness, creativity, and service.
Why are these issues so important? Viktor Frankl, another Freudian scientist (and survivor of Nazi death camps) explained the importance of perceiving a human being as more than a malleable “meat puppet” (in the words of the authors of “The Spiritual Brain”). In Frankl’s classic, “The Doctor and the Soul” he wrote: “When we present man as an automaton of reflexes, as a mind-machine, as a bundle of instincts, as a pawn of drives and reactions, … we feed the nihilism to which modern man is, in any case, prone. I became acquainted with the last stage of that corruption in my second concentration camp, Auschwitz. The gas chambers of Auschwitz the ultimate consequence of the theory that man is nothing but the produ
ct of heredity and environment–or, as the Nazis liked to say, “Blood and Soil.” I am absolu
tely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek were ultimately prepared not in some ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers.”
The authors of “The Spiritual Brain,” Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary, are doing a great service with their book. For the layperson, it is a challenging read. Even so, I found it persuasive and fascinating. Ultimately this discussion is about more than scientific data. It is also the interpretation
and meaning of this data that must be resolved. The religionist and the philosopher ask different questions than the scientist. We need the insights of all three in rational debate if we are to determine issues of the magnitude presented in “The Spiritual Brain.” And, as I stated earlier, the stakes are high.
The highlights in the above quote are mine. but it is on the highlighted points that I want to comment further.
Let’s all be a little more tolerant
I am personally thrilled to see that thinking people are starting to reconsider the idea that science, religion and philosophy cannot coexist or cooperate. Perhaps we have erected barriers which, because they seem logic-tight, we close our minds. Regardless of the camp in which one sits, the rule is one of intolerance for the other’s viewpoints. So any and every attempt to recognize those barriers, to look past them and to actually consider the viewpoints of those in the other camps is constructive. We should also recognize that we who participate in the discourse, do not own exclusive rights to the doctrine of that camp. Life is so complex, so seemingly like an onion (that the removal of one layer reveals yet another), that we should erect no artificial barriers to discovery.
Truth, beauty and goodness
I went to the Yosemite National Park one time, and had a spiritual experience. My family and I drove to the top of the Sierra Nevada range where few park visitors go, because the road is snowed over for most of the year. But oh, what magnificent beauty awaited us! Time after time we would round a bend and behold a vista that was indescribably beautiful. Something about it was so thrilling to me that several times as I stood and looked, I did so with tears rolling down my cheeks. I have been to the Grand Canyon, to the top of Hitler’s Eagles Nest, and many other beautiful spots. But none has ever affected me at such a deep emotional level.
That was long before I became a Christian, yet something deep inside me said “There must be a God.” I find it unlikely that science will ever be able to explain the spiritual nature of that experience. The effect on me was so profound that it stands as one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Is beauty real? Is it just in the eye of the beholder? What is the nature of the thrill we experience in music, nature, or loving realtionships? Is it just an evolutionary artifact? Few would argue that either the beauty itself or the emotion we experience from it are not real. Yet some people insist that there is nothing in life that is real, unless it is testable, and to be testable, it must be material.
Blood and soil?
If life is to have any value, any meaning at all; if there is to be any reason to exist at all, we must have truth, beauty and goodness. And if we are to have them, we must think of ourselves as something more than the accidental result of materialistic forces. Most people will pass from life to death without ever seeing convincing proof of the existence of God. But as well, few people will die without ever having been filled with emotion by love or beauty or even tragedy. And we must hold some shred of belief that if we can experience the emotion of these experiences, we must be something more than an animal with a big brain.
I have come to believe that our minds are spiritual entities on “temporary assignment” to our brains. All ideas, all thought originates in the mind, which somehow then communicates with or actualizes the brain to carry out bodily functions. But part of the excitement of the Christian perspective is that while we will all experience death, there will be something more. We believe that the moment our souls are absent from the body, we go to a spiritual “place” called Heaven, where we will live with our Lord.
But more than that, we also believe in a future resurrection, when our disembodied souls will be permanently reunited to our physical bodies, which will be like the ones we have now, but much better: stronger, disease-free, and not subject to many of the physical restrictions we have now. There is no way to know whether it will turn out that way or not. Believing that it will is part of our faith. But it is not blind faith, not unreasoned or unreasonable at all. In fact, whether one chooses to believe in Christ or His teachings or His promises does not require either reason or the lack of it. What it requires is a sense of wonder. How did this cosmos, so vast and intricate and beautiful and well ordered, come to be out of nothing?
It defies human understanding, even while something in it compels us to keep on peeling the layers off the onion. Yet there is one thing more that is required. And it is something that is required not only if one has the desire for salvation of the soul. It is also required if one wants to get all one can out of living the life we do have now. What is required is a desire to give of oneself for the betterment of others. Jesus asked “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” It’s the classic trading of a silk purse for a sow’s ear.
Not about you
What can a man give in exchange for his soul? If the soul is real, it is the only thing we take with us into timeless eternity. If it’s real, it is the essence of who we are. If it’s real, we should want nothing more in this life than to make it the best it can be. And perhaps the most profound paradox in life is that whoever wants to gain the world, must be a servant of all.
It’s not about you. If all the you care about is your own happiness, you will find it exasperatingly elusive. So give all you have to give. By living to serve others, to bless others, to take care of others even to the point of sacrificing your own house, you will find that not only will all of your needs be met in the here and now, but that you will have stored up for yourself treasures in Heaven.