“The brain,” pioneering artificial intelligence expert Marvin Minsky memorably remarked, “is just a computer made of meat.”
The late Sir Francis Crick, Nobel Prize-winning co-discoverer of the molecular structure of DNA, expressed the same materialistic viewpoint: “ ‘You,’ ” he said, “your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will are, in fact, no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”
Notice the quotation marks that Crick placed around the word “you.” He didn't believe that “you” actually exists; in his view, “you” are nothing more than a transient cell colony, your thoughts no more than electro-chemical reactions in a material brain. (Perhaps rather inconsistently, though, “he” was militantly confident about “his” beliefs.)
Dr. Mario Beauregard is an associate research professor in the Departments of Psychology and Radiology and the Neuroscience Research Center at the University of Montreal. He’s also the author of the fascinating book “Brain Wars.” As its subtitle suggests, “Brain Wars” targets the views of people such as Minsky and Crick: “The Scientific Battle Over the Existence of the Mind and the Proof That Will Change the Way We Live Our Lives.”
Seeking to demonstrate that the mind is a fundamental reality distinct from the brain, Beauregard first takes his readers through many significant discoveries in modern medicine. A patient’s expectations about her medical treatment can enhance her capacity to heal herself, for example, even from such severe challenges as Parkinson’s disease and cancer. In fact, recent research suggests that thoughts and emotions can sometimes turn certain genes on and off. Neurofeedback and meditation can change brain processes, alter brain structure and improve mental function.
Perhaps you think, as I long did, that science has debunked claims of “extrasensory perception.” However, Beauregard cites numerous studies seeming to show that human minds can learn, communicate and influence at a distance without the usual physical senses.
Well-documented and verifiable cases of “out-of-body experiences,” or OBEs, appear to demonstrate that the mind can function and perceive even when the heart has stopped, detectable brain activity has ceased and the senses have been disabled.
Studies of mystical experience point clearly to the possibility that reality is much larger than our physical brains typically permit us to perceive. Mainstream interpretations of quantum physics argue that the mind is so fundamental to the cosmos that many physical processes and facts simply could not, cannot, exist in its absence. As the great British physicist and astronomer Sir James Jeans said decades ago, “The Universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine.”
“Mental activity is not the same as brain activity,” writes Beauregard, “we are not ‘meat puppets,’ totally controlled by our brains, our genes and our environments. Indeed, our minds and our consciousness can significantly affect events occurring in the brain and body, and outside the body. We do have these immensely important capacities, and it is time for science to begin taking them seriously. But for this to happen, science — and all of us — must change the lens through which we view reality.
“Fortunately, the scientific enterprise (as a method, not as materialist ideology) allows for all of these possibilities, and infinitely more. Materialist science, based on the classical Newtonian physics, took science out of the Dark Ages, showing us a world no one had ever seen before. Now there is another heretofore invisible world for us to see, one that the dogmas of materialist science obscure but that is brought into focus by the discoveries of modern physics.”
This new view is far more congenial to concepts of spirit, free will and life after death than was the science with which I was raised. The completely deterministic world of subatomic “billiard balls” that I was taught to imagine has been replaced by “probability waves,” no longer conceived as concrete particles and, in fact, determined or defined in certain fundamental ways only by the active presence of an intelligent observer.
“In the beginning was the Word,” says John 1:1 in the King James Version of the Bible. But the term translated there is “logos,” which, among many other things, can be rendered as “reason” or “rationality.” It suggests — and cutting-edge contemporary science seems to confirm — the primacy of mind.
Note: This column is dedicated to the memory of Ireta Midgley, who died on Feb. 3, 2014.
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs www.mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.