Are you a brain or do you have a brain?

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Are you a brain or do you have a brain?

This clever question was asked of our panel on a Kindlings Muse show where we were discussing NPR religion correspondent Barbara Bradley Haggerty’s book Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality

Haggerty offers a travelogue through the world of research into the reality of the unseen. She is neither a scientist nor a theologian but a journalist who makes observations at the intersection of the two.

The “are you a brain or do you have a brain” question nicely summarizes one of the central inquiries of the book namely, can everything you are, including your spiritual capacity, be explained materialistically?

There is a breed of scientists who eliminate the importance of that which cannot be observed, measured and quantified. Francis Crick, one of the co-discoverers of the molecular structure of the genetic molecule, DNA is among them. He famously said, “You, 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.”

Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality is in ambitious project that combines interviews with leading neurologists, physicists, psychologists with conversations with individuals whose lives have been permanently transformed by experiences that appear to transcend the physical.

We meet Sophie who had a numinous encounter at the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu that she maintains changed her at a cellular level, to people with near death experiences, to contemplative monks in Tibet, to wild eyed Pentecostals in Toronto. Haggerty layers story upon story to illustrate why the materialist position seems to ignore a major component of human reality.

Materialist neurologists offer alternative explanations for these experiences theorizing that the Apostle Paul’s Damascus Road experience, Joan of Arc’s visions and Theresa of Avila’s ecstatic breakthroughs are likely nothing more or less than minor epileptic seizures. Other scientists explain that our quest for spiritual experiences actually originate in a God gene imbedded in our DNA.

Spiritual experience is actually just a function of our DNA code, anomalies in our brain or neurological misfirings? These seem too reductionist so Haggerty identifies and interviews a renegade merry band of contrarian scientists who find the fingerprints of God in these human spiritual encounters.

The rising body of work done by scientists whose findings suggest a spiritual component to human existence raises the fascinating possibility that science may soon reach tipping point where it can no longer ignore a human dimension beyond what is physically measurable.

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn shows that scientific process has always involved a series of “peaceful interludes punctuated by intellectually violent revolutions.” He observes that normal science often “suppresses fundamental novelties because they are necessarily subversive of its basic commitments.” A historic example is Ptolemy’s theory that the sun revolves around the earth, which was overthrown by Copernicus but not without resistance from both the scientific community and the church.

Some like Mario Beauregard of University of Montreal believe we are approaching a paradigm shift in which science will take our spiritual nature more seriously. “There are too many data coming from parapsychology, transpersonal psychology, now spiritual neuroscience, quantum physics and various lines of evidence, all pointing to major failures in the old materialistic paradigm. So for me, it’s only a matter of time before there will be a major paradigm shift.”

Interestingly if Haggerty’s personal journey is any indication, religion will experience a paradigm shift as well. Most people who experience mystical encounters with “the other” or the light, emerge from such experiences less interested in religion and its exclusivity and more interested in the connectivity of all things. Their view of God is changed.

I confess, when I heard the question “are you a brain or do you have a brain?” I was reminded of the theological statement of writer George MacDonald in the early 1800’s, “You do not have a soul, you are a soul.”

Haggerty is teasing out the notion that both science and religion are about to experience a paradigm shift that will require both to reexamine reality where it is subversive to our basic commitments.

Only then will we be able to understand what we mean when we proclaim, I have a brain and I am a soul.


Yours for the pursuit of God in the company of friends, Dick Staub.

PS. And remember, “these are the best of times and the worst of times, but they are the only times we have.” (For Now).

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