Review | Explaining spiritual experiences through a scientific lens


In his new book, “The Transcendent Brain: Spirituality in the Age of Science,” Alan Lightman describes watching the lives of a family of ospreys one summer near his house on a small island in Maine. From his second-floor deck, he observed the chicks in the nest beginning to flap their wings, growing bigger and stronger. “All summer long, they had watched me on that deck as I watched them,” Lightman writes. Then, one afternoon, they took their maiden flight. “They did a wide half-mile loop out over the ocean and then headed straight at me with tremendous speed.” Lightman was concerned; a juvenile osprey, though smaller than an adult, still has powerful, sharp talons. “My immediate impulse was to run for cover, since the birds could have ripped my face off,” he recalls. “But something held me to my ground.” At the last moment, when the birds were within 15 or 20 feet of him, they veered away and soared upward. “But before that dazzling and frightening vertical climb, for about half a second we made eye contact.” After the young ospreys disappeared, Lightman was shaking and in tears. “To this day,” he observes, “I don’t understand what happened in that half second. But it was a profound connection to nature. And a feeling of being part of something much larger than myself.”

And so the author sets the scene to illustrate his profound sense of spirituality as he experiences nature up close. But Lightman also wishes us to know that he is a materialist and that he is committed to a scientific view of the world. So in this thoroughly researched, well-written but ultimately unsatisfying book, he maps out a materialist’s view of personhood that is consistent with our experiences of the transcendent.

The first part of the book is committed to a ground-clearing exercise, describing the various concepts of the nonmaterial soul that feature in many different religious belief systems. The author excludes them all, asserting that belief in any kind of nonmaterial, ethereal world lacks empirical support.

It is therefore not surprising that the concept of a nonmaterial mind is also dismissed. Substance dualism — the idea that brain and mind are composed of two distinct “substances” — receives short shrift. All is made of atoms, a claim that leads to a brief overview of the history of materialism. The philosopher Lucretius is the hero of the story, and Lightman recounts how the Roman’s works played a key role in the development of his own thinking.

In recounting the history of materialism, Lightman cites many natural philosophers (as scientists used to be called), including Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell and Heinrich Hertz. There is a certain irony in that nearly all those cited were people of Christian faith — in order of appearance: practicing Catholic; passionate theist; committed Church of Scotland; and lifelong Lutheran. This makes Lightman’s history a little more complicated than it might at first appear.

But if atoms are all that exist, then what about consciousness? Here the author adopts the widely accepted position that mind and consciousness are emergent phenomena of the brain. “Emergence” refers to the “behaviors of complex systems that are not evident in their individual parts.”

Lightman seems very concerned to exclude the possible “intervention of some additional ethereal or psychic force” in his account of the relation between brain and consciousness. The reasons for this become clearer as he takes the reader “from consciousness to spirituality,” illustrated with further moving descriptions of his own transcendent experiences — “majestic and profound” feelings that nevertheless arise “naturally from a material brain” and therefore amount to a “nonreligious spirituality.”

However, the author’s overall thesis seems to involve some mistaken assumptions. The first is that the belief in a neo-platonic soul is essential for faith. True, as early Christianity spread into a world dominated by Greek philosophy, this view of the soul became popular. But in the 13th century Thomas Aquinas baptized into Christian theology Aristotle’s idea that the soul is the “substantial form” of every living body, meaning the soul accounts for the properties of that particular “substance.” The soul was no longer like a bird in a cage, released from the body by death — instead it was more wedded to the nature of the body itself. Furthermore, the founder of neurology, Thomas Willis (1621-1675), a devout Anglican, did much to lay the groundwork for what is now theologically commonplace: human nature as a psychosomatic unity with the soul as the “essential I,” the person who has capacities for knowing God.

Lightman’s second mistaken assumption is that substance dualism is essential to religious ways of understanding personhood. Far from it, property dualism (the idea that the world contains two distinct types of properties, mental and physical) and more monistic ideas (which highlight the tight linkage between brain and mind) are common within Abrahamic faith communities. The concept of mind as an emergent property of the brain has been pioneered by Christian thinkers. And this is nothing new. When I was doing my PhD in neurochemistry at the Institute of Psychiatry, London, in the late 1960s, my understanding of the brain was as mechanistic as Lightman’s, as it still is, perfectly consistent with my own theistic convictions.

Hovering behind both mistaken assumptions seems to be the infamous “god of the gaps,” the god in whom Lightman does not believe, and neither do I. This is the “god” brought in to fill the gaps in our scientific knowledge. But belief in such a god was subverted by Augustine’s famous comment in 415 AD that “nature is what God does.” The scientists the author cites in his mini-history of materialism were wedded to this basic theology: There is a mind behind the whole created order, and the task of scientists is to explore God’s creation. God is the source of all existence.

The “mechanical philosophy” of the 17th century was nurtured by theists: All creation’s materials are God’s materials. Greek atomism, as popularized by Lucretius, was put through a “theistic filter” by the Catholic priest Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655), who saw atoms as the building blocks with which God chose to fashion the universe. As Archbishop William Temple commented in 1939, “Christianity is the most materialistic of all great religions.”

So, the author’s attempt to justify a merely spiritual rather than religious worldview does not fare well, for the simple reason that modern science has emerged out of a theological womb in which belief in a personal cosmic mind behind all that exists provides the common thread.

The book therefore leaves us with a question: Are transcendental experiences fated to remain locked within our heads, as Lightman’s thesis suggests, or can they perhaps act as signposts pointing to that cosmic mind? Albert Einstein commented that he “stood on the shoulders” of the devout Christian and physicist James Clerk Maxwell, who claimed (in 1856) that the laws of nature themselves are signposts: “essential parts of one universal system in which infinite Power serves only to reveal unsearchable Wisdom and eternal Truth.”

Denis Alexander is emeritus director of the Faraday Institute and emeritus fellow of St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge University.

Spirituality in the Age of Science

A note to our readers

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program,
an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking
to and affiliated sites.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *