Expanding Reality: The Emergence of Postmaterialist Science by Mario Beauregard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Beauregard aims to persuade readers that the materialist view of consciousness is irredeemably irreconcilable with observed reality. In this objective, he fails. (He’s not alone. There are too many unknowns for the rational skeptic to take a firm stance on the nature of consciousness.) What Beauregard succeeds in doing is cataloguing research findings that could be interpreted as suggesting there is more to consciousness than materialists can account for.
Cleverly, Beauregard begins with the most compelling evidence and concludes with the most audacious, controversial, and unvalidated findings. That most compelling evidence is the role of mental attitude and beliefs upon health outcomes. It’s firmly established that mind state has a huge impact on health and health outcomes. From the placebo effect to a health outcome premium to those who pray (and believe there is a god that takes requests,) thought matters. Unfortunately for Beauregard, it’s a huge leap to say this means there is some sort of spirit force that acts on the material world. If one begins from the realization that the human body (and those of other animals) is really good at self-repair within certain limits and given certain conditions (and that among those conditions is the ability to dampen the stress response and trip the rest & digest mode,) then one needn’t call on anything supernormal / supernatural to explain the influence of thoughts on healing.
I don’t have the time or inclination to systematically go through the strengths and weaknesses of all the arguments, but the one I mentioned stands as an example of what is good and bad about the book. On the positive side, I think Beauregard accurately reports on some interesting findings, but then he uses them to bootstrap the position that materialism can’t work ineffectively. I found myself thinking “that does not follow” a great deal. Either there wasn’t enough known to draw a conclusion, or – as in the case of healing – there are competing hypotheses that work as well but without the need to appeal to anything so complicated or unproven as a web of consciousness.
Beyond healing, the book goes through findings that suggest the possibilities of extrasensory perception, telekinesis, and an afterlife for consciousness (e.g. near death experiences [NDE.]) In some cases, this evidence is strong but quite limited (usually limited both in the degree of effect and in understanding of what causes said effect,) but in a few cases the evidence is anecdotal and / or completely unvalidated. The same variation exists when Beauregard takes on competing hypotheses. In a few cases, I found myself thinking his refutations had compelling elements or bases, but in other cases the refutations seemed to be – at best – big stretches. [I expected an extensive refutation of the finding that OBEs (out-of-body-experiences, a common feature in NDEs) have been found to be triggerable at will using physical processes (electrical stimulation) to material (brain tissue,) but did not get it. To my mind, this finding is a challenging – though not damning – counter to postmaterialist arguments.]
If you’re interested in a cataloging of findings that suggest the possibility that there is more to consciousness than materialists propose, this is a fine book to check out. However, don’t expect a persuasive holy grail of persuasion, but rather a mixed bag that ultimately shows no more than the fact that there is a massive amount that we don’t know about how consciousness works.
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