62. The Spiritual Brain, Denyse O’Leary

Guest: Christian science writer, and author of The Spiritual Brain,Denyse O’Leary, on the compatibility of Christian doctrine to new discoveries in human consciousness.

Download MP3 (47:18min, 22MB)


Alex Tsakiris: Welcome to Skeptiko where we explore controversial science with leading researchers, thinkers and their critics.  I’m your host Alex Tsakiris.


Before we start in with my interview with Christian Science writer Denyse O’Leary, I want to take a minute and give you a non-update of the medium experiment.  I say non-update because we kind of got about half way into trial three and then decided to revamp things substantially including adding a new voice mail system for mediums to use.  So I’ll have more information for you on that in just a couple of weeks.  Also a quick update on the Psychic Detective project I’ve been working on Ben Radford, we had been communicating quite a bit in trying to nail that down and hopefully in a month or two, we’ll have follow up on that as well.  Finally, the dogs that no experiment is still out there kicking around and my one best dog is back in trial so I hope to have some information on that it’s been very slow going in terms of getting any trials completed.  Just kind of normal life stuff for folks makes it hard for them to complete that experiment apparently.


So kind of a non-update update there but coming up, I have what I found to be just fascinatingly frustrating conversation with one of the authors of The Spiritual Brain, Denise O’Leary.



Alex Tsakiris: Welcome to Skeptiko, Denise O’Leary.  It’s a pleasure to have you.  We’ve had a nice e-mail exchange here and we’re going to talk today about the book that you’ve co-authored titled The Spiritual Brain.  But before we get into that I thought maybe you could tell us a little bit about your bio, your background, what you do up there in Toronto.



Denyse O’Leary: I was the faith and science columnist at Christian Week in the mid ‘90s.  What I noticed was that very few people were paying much attention to the way in which materialist ideas in science were just not panning out.  What I mean is for example, there’s no good explanation for the origin of life on Earth because the most awkward fact is that even though living cells are very complex, life got started almost as soon as the planet cooled.  So, an explanation that depended on random events doesn’t change a me[00:03:33] to have a long shelf life.


Alex Tsakiris: Well you know what, I’m going to stir us away from that whole thing because…


Denyse O’Leary: Okay, talk about what you want, that’s just how I got involved.


Alex Tsakiris: No, I appreciate that.  I appreciate that and I don’t want to cut off that entirely.  I just know that that’s going to – it’s going to show a lot of people down, a lot of people feel like that debate, it just gets into a lot of areas that have a lot of tire marks both good and bad.


Denyse O’Leary: You know what, I don’t have a cat in the fight it won’t matter to me except that I had to face the fact that a lot of things I was hearing *** [00:04:12] results of modern science didn’t make sense.


Alex Tsakiris: Right and let’s fast forward that into The Spiritual Brain.  Who’s your co-author on that again?


Denyse O’Leary: Mario Beauregard.  He’s an Associate Professor of neuroscience at the Université de Montréal, which is the second largest francophone university in the world.  He basically, had been studying people who had had spiritual experiences.  *** [00:04:45] it’s not how he got them to cooperate, I’m not sure but he and his graduate student *** [00:04:53] were very diplomatic and they got him to cooperate.  They discovered a couple of things that are worth knowing.  One is that spiritual experiences, where a person has an experience in which they feel they are contacting a cosmic power outside themselves or complex experiences like an experience where you’re talking to someone that you know that you like.


Alex Tsakiris: Can you define that a little bit what you mean when you say complex?


Denyse O’Leary: A number of brain areas are active.  See, it’s only a very simple experience maybe only one brain area would be active.  The second complex experience *** [00:05:33].


Now, the only reason that’s important is that many people have attempted to argue that spiritual experience as their cause by some kind of a glitch in the brain.  This is unlikely under the circumstances because if it’s a complex experience that looks like a normal experience where there are a number of brain areas active, then it’s not likely to be a glitch.  So whatever is happening, it’s not a glitch.  The doesn’t prove that the person is contacting a power outside themselves, what it means is that it’s probably not useful to look for a glitch that explains why they think they are.


Alex Tsakiris: Let’s take that one step further because I think, we’re going to find a lot of common ground in the idea that the materialistic and I think when you use materialistic, I think you’re also encompassing atheistic because it really isn’t atheistic world view that is perpetuated with that materialism that that kind of this permeates academia.


Denyse O’Leary: *** [00:06:34] By the way, Mario discovered something else which is that people who say that – I just want to get this *** [00:06:42] , When people have a genuine mystical experience, they generate fatal waves while they are awake, which are normally generated through in deep sleep.  So, what he discovered is when they said, “I felt very unusual.  It wasn’t like a normal experience.”  They’re telling the truth.  They’re not imagining it or telling people that to get attention.  That’s the truth.  If you’re generating those kinds of waves when you were fully conscious you would be aware of – I didn’t mean to interrupt, I just thought that since that was probably the most surprising finding of this research, I wanted to get it in.


Alex Tsakiris: I think those are very interesting points and I think they’re a little footprints in the sand if you will that tells us we are not heading in the right direction when we try and dismiss the spiritual experience as being just some glitch in the brain, which is exactly your point and I’m in complete agreement with you.


Denyse O’Leary: Thank you for permitting me to say that.  Now, the other thing is I don’t know that it’s helpful to make it something about atheist versus for example, born again Christians because for example, the Dalai Lama; the head of Tibetan Buddhism is technically an atheist.  His religious system does not require the existence of a God and he is a big financer of neuroscience research.


Alex Tsakiris: I’ve talked to a bunch of Buddhist including interviewing Alan Wallace, who is one of the foremost Buddhist scholars and I don’t think that he would agree or a lot of Buddhist would agree in kind of labelling the Dalai Lama or Buddhism in general as being atheistic.  You know, I don’t want to get too far field but I think simple words kind of helped and when we start throwing around euphemisms to kind of get away from the idea, there’s a lot of angry atheist out there and they’ve had quite a revival with the books that have come out in the recent years, so I think we know who we’re talking about when we talk about the angry atheist and I think, those are the folks who oppose and that’s not necessarily a bad thing but oppose this idea that materialism is not a complete explanation for the spiritual experience that people are having.


Denyse O’Leary: Thank you Alex, you’ve pinpoint this matter beautifully.  It’s not that they’re atheist but that they’re materialist.  You see, what I meant to say is the Dalai Lama is an atheist but he is by no means a materialist.


Alex Tsakiris: I don’t know that he’s an atheist though.


Denyse O’Leary: Okay, he is an atheist.  Well, rather it’s not important to me that he is an atheist because he’s not a materialist.  So, he wouldn’t have a problem with the idea that people have in mind that actually exist.  The materialist doesn’t think that the mind actually exist, they think that’s an illusion created by the bunch of neurons in the brain.


Alex Tsakiris: Absolutely.  Yes and maybe I am taking in the wrong direction because you know, we are of the same mind about that and no pun intended, but I think the words can get in the way and I think that we were trying to refine that but let’s leave that for a minute.


Denyse O’Leary: Yes, I just wanted to make clear, I don’t use the word atheist as a term of the view, I consider it a technical.


Alex Tsakiris: See I do, I do and I don’t feel particularly a need to apologize about it because I think clarifies, really it gets to the heart of the issue that I think we’re talking about and I think that issue is really, really central to the conversation that I want to have.


Denyse O’Leary: Yes, as a matter of fact, technically for example, this philosopher Plato could have been called an atheist because he dismissed the Gods of his day as unworthy of worship however anyone who thinks that Plato did not have a sense of the mind obviously doesn’t *** [00:10:42].


Anyway, let’s do go on. I agree with you.


Alex Tsakiris: Okay, because I think there’s much to go on too that in these other topics that you’ve covered in the book, The Spiritual Brain and on your excellent blog that kind of is very freewheeling and reaches into a lot of different areas.


Denyse O’Leary: The Mindful Hack.


Alex Tsakiris: The Mindful Hack, thanks for bringing that to the attention of our listeners here.  So, some of the topics that come up are prayer, near-death experience, afterlife encounters, all these phenomena that science is wrestling with you see as evidence for supporting this idea of a non-reducible mind; a mind that can’t be reduced to only brain activity.  Why don’t you elaborate on that a little bit?


Denyse O’Leary: I’ve always felt that the best way to help people understand what their mind is, is something very simple and that’s the placebo effect.  I usually start there.  Some people will have this experience and others would have heard about it from others.  You’re sick, you’re away from work for a couple of days, I don’t know how employment all works where you live Alex but here, a person has to go to their doctor and get a letter saying, this person really is sick otherwise, they’re going to get their pay doctor, their vacation date to the doctor whatever.  So you’re sitting in the doctor’s office and what happened?  You start to feel better.  You start to feel you’re a fraud.  Your only pretending to be sick, but when you woke up in the morning you thought you were a death *** [00:12:16].  So what happened?  What happened and this has been studied in a number of research studies and there have been books, conferences about it, basically, at least a part of any illness is what your mind thinks of happening.  So, the reason the person who’s sitting in the doctor’s office starts to feel better is that their mind accepts that they’re going to get better because they’re going to get the letter from the doctor, they’re going to stay home for a couple of days and rest and not worry about what’s happening at work.  So, suddenly, wellness starts to take over.  Now, this isn’t a physical thing, it’s a mental thing.


Alex Tsakiris: Right and I think that whole placebo effect would go a long way for it to explaining the mind body revolution that we’ve had in science and in medicine for the last 20 years.  But I don’t think it will ever get as closer to really understanding the potential revolution that we could have on spirituality and consciousness so, the audience that you’re talking to will debate that with you but they’re kind of well aware of that.  What I’m more interested in are really the more challenging consciousness phenomena of near-death experience, of prayer research and those kinds of things that really challenge our idea of both of what are the limits and boundaries of consciousness, but also, what is this spiritual dimension that keeps cropping up; is it real, how does it exist and how do we study it.


Denyse O’Leary: Well, as a Roman Catholic Christian, I hold as a doctrine that it’s real.  So, I just want to mention that upfront, so if anybody wants to make that a point and they need to know that I would start with the assumption it was real and were fact.  However, that wasn’t how I got involved with helping to write a book.  The first thing, I’d start with this was respecting near-death experience.  The findings were a surprise.  You see, traditionally, there was just deaths, right?  Sometimes, when a person died, people would hold a mirror up to their mouth to see if there was still breathing or to see if their heart had stopped and if their heart had stopped then they’d put a cloth over their head and that just meant they were death.  Well, modern medicine changed that.  So you have people who are technically dead, who come back to life because they’re on life support or bypass as it’s called.  So the person on cardiac bypass wakes up and says, “You know what, I had an experience where I was – could hear what you were saying in the operating room and you said, yada yada” and it turns out that’s true and he hadn’t decide whether he wanted to come back or not.  He decided he would come back.  So, this has all been different and new.  To be prudently honest, I would resist making hard and fast conclusions about what’s going on.  The only thing I think can be scientifically justified at this point is to say, the mind does not bound as closely to the brain as many have believed.  If we start with that, we start with something that we can research if you see what I mean.


Alex Tsakiris: That’s very interesting.  It’s interesting to me that you limit it there because I really think that the near-death experience is a much greater window into what’s really going on.  I think it’s a topic that I really want to make the heart of this interview because it’s something I’m very curious about and that is, if you look at the near-death experience that has now been studied quite extensively in the lab, under very controlled medical conditions and the results are quite astounding and it’s been studied more just by scientists or doctors who have observed it in kind of a more anecdotal thing.  But here’s a thing, I look at that, I understand why the neurologist look at that data and dismiss it and don’t change their position.  I understand why the psychologists look at it and they don’t want to change their position either.  I mean, these guys have built this whole big machine and it’s based on this materialistic view.  But what I don’t understand is why this information in this research doesn’t compel Christians.  I mean, because if we accept the near-death experience research and again, I think you have to because it’s very compelling, but if you accept it, then you got to start taking the accounts of the near-death experiencers much more seriously and there’s a lot of data there and that data does seemed to kind coalesce around some central points that are repeated over and over again and it had been repeated across cultural, cross time in a typical way that would make us want to accept those accounts.  They really challenge some of the fundamental assumptions and doctrines in Christianity.  So what do we do with that?


Denyse O’Leary: Okay, well, I’m going to ask you in a minute to explain which assumptions and doctrines they challenge, but I just wanted to say that a common practice in science as I know you will realize is to be fairly cautious when asserting a hypothesis.  It’s not that I want to minimize the importance of near experiences when I say what I do.  I’m simply saying that if you wanted to start studying in a scientific way, that the wisest way to begin would be at the base, which is that the mind does not appear to be as closely tied to the brain as has been supposed in the past.  So if we say that then we can move on to what else can we assume to be true that’s widely accepted.  First, we need to accept that it’s not necessarily true that when the brain ceases to operate, the mind does.  That’s what the near-death experience essentially shows from a science perspective.  Now, if someone wants to go on and make a claim about religion, based on the near-death experience, that’s fine.  Now, there’s no problem what they’re making it that traditionally, that the science, it would require us to look at the relationship between the mind and brain and that raises a very interesting question of what is the mind, if it can really be independent of the brain.


Alex Tsakiris: But Denyse, I do feel like you’re kind of trying to find shelter in that same science.


Denyse O’Leary: No, I’m trying to base it.


Alex Tsakiris: I’m trying to base it too and I’m just saying after 20 years of very solid, compelling near-death experience research that’s been assailed by every possible means, ridiculous really a counter claims by materialist and atheist and it’s withstood that.  I do think that good science dictates.


Denyse O’Leary: Okay, I don’t know this.


Alex Tsakiris: I’m just saying that I think the accounts that had been recorded by a reliable researchers and people who’ve collected those accounts, I think are very valid in terms of there’s many social scientist who would take those accounts and look at them across culture.  I mean, we do these kinds of things.


Denyse O’Leary: No, fair enough.  I agree with all that.  My only caution is that I sort of like to keep it in the hands of straightforward science because otherwise, you could get things happening that you wouldn’t want to sponsor.


Alex Tsakiris: But straightforward scientists if that’s what you want to call mainstream science, they haven’t accepted.


Denyse O’Leary: I don’t mean the new scientist.  I don’t mean the National Enquirer of the *** [00:20:20].


Alex Tsakiris: *** [00:20:21] when I’m referred to.  I’m just saying the traditional mainstream scientist do not accept that the near-death experience shows that there is this duality between mind and brain.


Denyse O’Leary: They’re not just looking at the evidence.


Alex Tsakiris: Well anyone can say that at any point.  I mean that’s why I think it’s very – you know, when anyone starts pulling this, “Well, let’s be very cautious on the science and all these,” hey, they’re value-free science, forget it, in the society we live in.  It’s very freewheeling and we all have to draw our own conclusions based on the evidence and that’s what we’re doing.  But here’s the point, if you take those accounts, yes they do undermine the basic doctrine of Christianity in that fundamental way that Christians don’t seem to have any special place in this all loving, merciful light that absorbs so many of these near-death experiencers and there doesn’t seem to be any noticeable difference between a

Christian or a Jew or a Muslim or a Buddhist, there isn’t and that’s what we would expect to see.  Moreover, the spiritual figures that often find these folks or help accompany them on their path, are different depending on their cultural background.


Denyse O’Leary: But why would anybody be surprise by that?


Alex Tsakiris: I think Christians would be very surprised by that if they fully accepted that because maybe I’m wrong, I was brought up in Greek Orthodox tradition although I’m not of that persuasion now, but everything I heard never accounted for the fact that there is no special place for Christians in heaven, if we want to throw that word out there.


Denyse O’Leary: In my understanding is that “He who does the Will of the Father is my mother and my brothers.”  That’s what Jesus said about the people who…


Alex Tsakiris: Great, I love your interpretation of the bible.  It’s awesome.


Denyse O’Leary: Well, okay, no, but I’m just saying, that’s the one I was raised on.  There’s no reason to expect from the Christian tradition; at least from the early Christian tradition and certainly from the one I was taught that anything matters as much as actually doomed what you’re supposed to do as a Christian and if whether people do what knowing they’re supposed to do it or not knowing they supposed to do and sometimes worrying they’re not supposed to do it, is what really matters.


Alex Tsakiris: Let’s take that.  We will have a real *** [00:22:43] discussion here that we’ve never had in the show but it’s very interesting because take what you just said there and I’m going to re-interpret that and say that belief in Jesus Christ as your personal saviour is not necessary to enter into heaven.  That’s how I would interpret what you just said and I think that is fundamentally opposed to at least 90% of the Christians that I know down here in the United States.


Denyse O’Leary: I don’t know where you live.  Here’s what I’m going to say from the perspective of the Catholic Christian tradition; Catholics believe that Jesus Christ by the sacrifice on the cross *** [00:23:24] salvation for people whether they know it or not.  Obviously, from my perspective as a Catholic, it’s better if people understand than if they don’t understand.  But the idea is that not understanding would mean they couldn’t be saved would seem wrong to me.


Alex Tsakiris: I’m just saying, if that’s your interpretation of the Roman Catholic doctrine as you understand it, I just never heard such a liberal interpretation that doesn’t require or at least recommend Jesus as a means of kind of practicing the faith.  I think that is fundamentally, one of the things that we get out of the near-death experience and for, if I can add, the prayer research that’s been done where we have Buddhist, monks and people of different faith trying to grow yeast in the petri dish through intention and in prayer and what we’re finding is that your spiritual orientation, your religion, doesn’t seem to have any effect on these experiments or these experiences and you’re telling me that’s completely in line with Christian taught.  But I don’t think that’s Christianity.


Denyse O’Leary: *** [00:24:37] just meant.  If Buddhist monks can cause yeast to grow more by praying about it, all that that demonstrate is precisely what I think we both suspect, that the mind is not as closely attached to the brain as we think, and that mental events have an influence on our environment.  It doesn’t demonstrate that the Buddhist interpretation of the nature of reality is more correct or less correct than the Christian’s interpretation.


Alex Tsakiris: Then let’s switch back to the near-death experience.


Denyse O’Leary: You know, I’m just saying that we need to be clear about this.  That only demonstrates that the mind has power and I think we both…


Alex Tsakiris: Yes, right.  I don’t know that that level of precision on that one point is as fundamental to what we’re talking about.


Denyse O’Leary: Well maybe it isn’t but if it was after all we demonstrate.


Alex Tsakiris: I still feel like I haven’t answer on that last point.  If we’re saying that there is no difference in reaching heaven no matter what your spiritual orientation or beliefs are, I just don’t see how as a Christian you can say that’s in line with Christian doctrine.


Denyse O’Leary: Okay, from a Christian perspective, understanding who Jesus is and what he does indeed, will help a person very much but that doesn’t mean they could not be saved without it, which is a different matter.  It’s like the difference between knowing where the lifeboats are stored and somehow survive in the fact that your ship went down.


Alex Tsakiris: You’re just not coming through to me there.  I mean, so when you walk in to church, have you ever heard a priest, a bishop, a cardinal say, “Yes, this bible that we have it, it’s not really that important, it doesn’t really matter and certainly a belief in Jesus is not important, all that is matters are your good deeds and your good heart.”


Denyse O’Leary: Of course not.  You obviously have never been to my church when scriptures are read.  It’s a vast ritual.  The thing is a thing can be very, very important but yet God may can try [00:26:48] someone salvation without any of the messages that we normally use.  So if someone says to me, “It’s my Muslim friend who died trying to rescue someone in the swimming pool saved.”  I would say I will pray for them.


Alex Tsakiris: Yes, but then Denyse, switch in to the science mode and switch your science hat on and say, “Okay, from all these near-death experience accounts” even if you put it like you do that hey, which I don’t agree with, but maybe God has gotten this guy a slack [00:27:19] even though he’s a Muslim.  There didn’t seem to be any evidence that there’s any difference.  There would be a difference.  There would be, Christians are kind of led in at a faster rate or something like that.  There isn’t any of that.  If anything, it suggests exactly the opposite.


Denyse O’Leary: What do you mean?  Have you been to heaven?  How do you know?  All I’m trying to say is, I don’t know about that.  I reasonably believe and I think the history of the *** [00:27:43] of Christians in social betterment worldwide would tend to support it that in fact, it is better to be a Christian but that doesn’t mean that no one else can be saved.  It just means it’s easier if you accept certain things upfront.  For example, some religion speaks that God is very forbidding and you can’t tell what he’s going to do.  But we Christians believe God is our Father and loves us as much as we say.  I would say that psychologically that was better.


Alex Tsakiris: That’s a claim.  That’s a different claim that we won’t even get into.


Denyse O’Leary: I mean, I’m just saying these since you’re asking me, I’m telling you.  No, I don’t have the advantage, you have of having studied near-death experiences for many years.  I only looked at them fairly briefly in connection with my work on The Spiritual Brain but enough to convince me there was something left.


Alex Tsakiris: I encourage you to read the accounts and I encourage all Christians.


Denyse O’Leary: I have read them.


Alex Tsakiris: I encourage all Christians to read the accounts because they’re very moving, they’re very spiritual but I can’t really accept what you’re saying.  I don’t see how anyone can really read those accounts and then walk straight into Christian doctrine and not feel that they’ve kind of lost something.  As long as we’re kind of on this mode, there are similar accounts; incredibly compelling accounts of past life work and this has come up over and over again and by different means.  So there’s another area of potential research that again, doesn’t that contradict Christian doctrine and are Christian open to exploring the limits of understanding consciousness by whatever means.  You brought up the Dalai Lama a while ago and I’ve often wondered why Christians haven’t taken the same position that the Dalai Lama has regarding science because I think it’s the perfect position and it switches this whole science versus religion thing around.  You may know this but the Dalai Lama has very famously come out and said, “I fully support any scientific findings on the beliefs or the teachings of Buddhism and if science proves any of our beliefs or our teachings are wrong then Buddhism must change because we are about discovering the truth.”  I just have never heard that kind of openness from the Christian community.  It’s always a more defensive, “You haven’t proved anything that I believe wrong” kind of thing.


Denyse O’Leary: I’m not sure they could in the case of Christian tradition.  But in any event, yes, now you mentioned reincarnation.


Alex Tsakiris: Correct.


Denyse O’Leary: I assumed that’s what you mean by past life.  My sense is that the big problem that people are going to have is to establish that reincarnation shows that people actually inhabited past bodies and not simply that they had access to the mental state.


Alex Tsakiris: Right, but are you familiar with the work that’s been originally done by Ian Stevenson has now been followed up by a number of folks at the University of Virginia?


Denyse O’Leary: No, I keep up with that one I can, I’m just saying that’s my only comment about it that I’m not saying…


Alex Tsakiris: But Denyse, are you familiar with work where they’ve actually looked at unusual birthmarks at entry points where the person had a knife wound or a bullet wound and many of those corresponds.


Denyse O’Leary: No, then obviously, there’s something going on there but all I’m saying is that there’s probably more than one model that might explain what was happening but the one thing I always come back to because I think it’s a base if you like, responsible research is that the mind is not as closely link to the brain as has been formerly thought.  So that way, one can move out into an area that’s well-sourced without attracting a whole bunch of pranks because we do need to admit that this sort of research; any sort of research like this and I include that in the Christian community as well as others could attract pranks.  So that’s why some of us tend to try to be fairly based on.


Alex Tsakiris: I really have to take issue with that because I think it’s a strategy that folks in the parapsychology and in the other alternative conscious community have tried to do.  Have tried to kind of bow to the altar of materialism and say, “No, we just want our little peace over here” and I think it’s a failed strategy.   I think the accounts…


Denyse O’Leary: You’re the first person who has ever suggested that I was bowing to anyone like that but you go on.


Alex Tsakiris: Well, I kind of do.  I mean, I think the evidence for near-death experience I think is overwhelmingly compelling, but then to say that we can only take that evidence so far because we can only say that we can chip away at the materialistic paradigm, I just think isn’t the way to proceed.  I think the way we would proceed if we were on a level footing without the baggage of the paradigm that we had, as soon as we establish that first fact, we’d start digging through the accounts.  Our social scientist would then go look at those accounts and they look at them across culture, across time and they do all the kind of analysis that they do and then they’d come back and tell us what some of those accounts mean.  I don’t see that as fringe, I don’t see that as fringe in the least.


Denyse O’Leary: No, I don’t think it is either.  But I’m just saying that – for example, one author for who’s work I had considerable respect, now I just wish I could think the name of his book but he studied near-death experiences in the Southern United States and he made a practice of not interviewing anyone who had told their story to a large media audience.  He only talked to people who had communicated privately with physicians and others.  I’m just saying, I think I can see a role for caution in these matters.  I thought his caution well-justified and I found his book quite good.


Alex Tsakiris: See, but again, I think you can easily move into a mode where you have two different forms of science.  There’s really only one form of science.  There is good science and there is bad science and there really isn’t anything in between.  It’s like these whole idea of extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.  That’s really bull.  It should be thrown out the window.  It should be buried with all the other old axioms that get thrown around.  What is the extraordinary evidence, what is the extraordinary proof, in the terms of near-death experience which I don’t want to get the hang up on.  I’m going to do a whole series of shows on it.  But the evidence is really overwhelming.  The claim that that isn’t is really an extraordinary claim.  Let me move it into the past life thing because a lot of people think that that’s so fringe.  We have many, many practitioners that are highly credential, you have Brian Wise who’s IV League MD at the university and is using hypnotherapy with his patients and steadily starts regressing people and they’re going back to these past lives and he just feels like he can’t ignore it.  At this point, he’s done tens of thousands of these.  We have other very well-credential competent folks in this field who if not for the taboo nature of what they’re claiming, we’d be all over studying that.  That’s why I’m a little bit resistant to this idea that “Oh we have to move so cautiously.”  No, we have to move at the appropriate level of caution as to make sure that the science is good.


Denyse O’Leary: No, I would agree with that.  But I’m just saying that often, that means of moving fairly cautiously in a sense that one does not want to multiply hypothesis beyond what you can very strongly base.  We know that there is a near-death experience.  Now, apparently some people from what your telling me, have access to information about other people’s lives who are dead, that you cannot account for how they had that information.  As I say, I must insist the furthest I’d be prepared to go is simply to say that the mind is obviously not closely bound to the brain and every subsequent hypothesis needs to be based on that, if you see what I mean.  That doesn’t mean you have high fathers, I don’t care whether your high fathers has agrees with my religious convictions or not, I’m just saying it must be that the hypothesis must be based on each other.


Alex Tsakiris: Yes, maybe.  It’s just kind of sounds like you’re again maybe letting your religious doctrine kind of drive some of that.  This should be issues scientifically that should be on the forefront of Christian taught.  They really should.


Denyse O’Leary: Well, maybe, I mean, I’m not at the forefront of Christian taught, I’m just a science journalist who happens to be Catholic and I agree that it would be very interesting to study it.  The biggest problem for Christians worldwide by the way is religious persecution, did you know that?


Alex Tsakiris: Like take a statement like that, “The biggest problem for Christians is religious persecution,” is that a scientific claim?


Denyse O’Leary: Yes.


Alex Tsakiris: Then we’d have to define problem, we’d have to define persecution and then we have define Christendom and what is Christianity because I think despite what you said, I don’t think that what we’ve just agreed on would be accepted by the wide, wide vast majority of Christians in terms of the place that Jesus Christ plays in the kind of spiritual hierarchy and I know you’re not willing to go there based on the data that you have so far.  But if that is a working hypothesis, I think that changes Christianity in the fundamental way and then it calls in the question whose being persecuted and who’s being prejudice against and all those other things are up for grabs.


Denyse O’Leary: In my own country there were big problems for Christians in the sense that the – well, the human rights commissions have taken a number of cases against Christians who were simply enunciating the doctrines of their churches and so forth.  No, there is a big problem.  But it doesn’t matter, all I’m trying to say is that most Christians wouldn’t really care much about reincarnation because in so many places, the big problem is just to leave at peace with one’s neighbours.


Alex Tsakiris: Not to me, because I don’t understand why there is a burning desire among spiritual people to find the truth and to push for the truth and there doesn’t seem to be.  I would say, in this conversation, I’d say you’re a very, very open person and I appreciate the dialog greatly and it’s very helpful to…


Denyse O’Leary: What do you take *** [00:39:21]


Alex Tsakiris: I think science and the scientific method is a wonderful gift.  It’s a gift that we’ve been given to penetrate as far as we’re able towards the truth and I think, my read of it is that Christianity as a whole has been complicit in how this great gift has really been hijacked.  It’s been hijacked by the materialist and the Christians haven’t done a good job of getting it back and the only way to get it back is the position I think that’s best enunciated by the Dalai Lama that says, “Hey, whatever we want to prove.  We don’t want to just sit back and say which we often hear Christian saying is, you can’t prove anything I think is wrong, no it has to be.  I want to know the truth.  I want to push sides to its limit to understand if what I believe is true and I think the consciousness studies that were on the verge of trying to understand can provide a window into – I think they already have but they can’t provide a window into knowing what’s true.  I don’t know, I don’t understand why thoughtful Christian people aren’t on the forefront of that.


Denyse O’Leary: Well, some are.


Alex Tsakiris: Who?


Denyse O’Leary: Well, Jeffrey Schwartz.


Alex Tsakiris: Who’s Jeffrey Schwarz?


Denyse O’Leary: He’s a neuropsychiatrist and the author of The Mind and the Brain.  I mean, yes, of course, there are a lot people like that, why shouldn’t there be.  The thing is I guess, all I meant was that I can understand why you wish more Christians would involve with that it’s just that worldwide, Christians in all walks of life were involved in different things.


Alex Tsakiris: Of course, but we’re talking about the leadership.  When we talk about the Dalai Lama, we’re talking about the spiritual leader of the Buddhist tradition and we don’t see anything on that scale in any denomination of Christendom coming forward and really saying that the discoveries that we’re making in consciousness can help us better understand the validity of these doctrines and I think that’s a failing of Christianity.  I think it will wind up to furthering these divide between science and religion when really what we need is the joining of science and religion.


Denyse O’Leary: Well, you know, you might be interested then in some of Benedict XVI statements and pronouncements.  You know there is various things going on at Vatican as a matter of fact, including right now an assessment of origins of life, which I realize isn’t directly your issue, but anything they were going to say about human consciousness would likely be found in step-by-step on stuff like that.


Alex Tsakiris: I think, you know, circling back maybe the point that we started on and maybe we can kind of wrap it up there but I don’t understand that either.  I don’t understand – consciousness is fundamental to the issue of the origins of life as you well know.  But as soon as you separate out the idea that consciousness has this dualistic nature, we don’t know when it begins, we don’t know when it ends, we don’t know what’s necessary, we don’t know what’s sufficient to cause it.  As soon as we fully address those issues, well then, origin of life is completely up for grabs because what is life – but it also challenges the social issues that seemed to be at the centre of the Christian taught in terms of abortion and stem cell and all that, those are all up for grabs too because we don’t know where those fall.  But again, I don’t see Christians leading the church in saying, “Well, you know, we’re not really sure what the position should be on abortion, we need to understand what consciousness is all about.  We don’t understand what the position should be on stem cell, we need to understand more about consciousness.”  That’s not what I hear.


Denyse O’Leary: Well, no, that wouldn’t be a Christian position anyway.


Alex Tsakiris: But the Christian position should just be whatever science, whatever real science tells us that’s the direction we go because that’s as closest we can get to truth.


Denyse O’Leary: I’m not sure because fundamentally, you’ll have to decide whether the unborn child matters or not and that is basically…


Alex Tsakiris: Well fundamentally, you have to decide what a child is and I think, where that really comes down to is consciousness.


Denyse O’Leary: Not necessarily.


Alex Tsakiris: But for most of us, we make a distinction in our lives between that which is conscious and that which isn’t.  We give more significance and this I don’t want to get into, it’s a whole thing, but I mean, a rock we assume doesn’t have consciousness, a dog does, we tend to give special privileges to dogs over rocks.  So I think consciousness is fundamental to that debate and anyone who doesn’t think so, I just don’t know where they’re coming from.


Denyse O’Leary: Well, I have at least several children, I would have to say that I don’t believe that two months old children are conscious in any normal way.


Alex Tsakiris: I do.  Having raised four I think…


Denyse O’Leary: That’s fine you can prove it.  I didn’t observe it and I look after many children, but I’m just saying that it would never have occurred to me to judge human right on the basis merely of consciousness although I agree that consciousness is an important aspect of the human experience.


Alex Tsakiris: Central.  I mean, to me it so tramps everything else that you know, if you don’t start with consciousness, it doesn’t even make any sense to talk about the rest of it.  It’s an 80/20 rule but yes, there’s other things that I guess you would have to factor in there, but until you understand consciousness, you don’t have a hope of understanding in my opinion.


Denyse O’Leary: However, in deciding how it shall help fellow human beings, I would not have thought trying to determine how conscious thing work was the best approach, that’s all I’m trying to say and I don’t think the Christian tradition is likely to move in that direction because the fact that they are fellow human beings *** [00:45:28] creates a claim on us whether their degree of consciousness has of course gone to…


Alex Tsakiris: Well that’s maybe a whole different issue.  I mean, I think, everyone is all human beings and I think animals are bestowed with consciousness and this ability that is different from the brain.  But hey, I don’t know that but my main point is those are areas of research that don’t receive enough attention.  I think, you know we’re probably in agreement – we’re on agreement on so many things but it’s fun and interesting to really kind of highlight the points where maybe we don’t totally come together in terms of our view of the world.  But I greatly, greatly appreciate you taking the time today Denyse and we’ll certainly have links to your book.


Denyse O’Leary: Yes, please do let me know because our link to our interview at The Mindful Hack.


Alex Tsakiris: The Mindful Hack, yes, you have very interesting blog that’s out there.  Yes, I’ll be in touch with all that.  We’ll have a transcript up as well as the audio version of it.  Delightful talking to you.


Denyse O’Leary: Well, thank you and have a wonderful day.


Alex Tsakiris: Thanks again to Denyse O’Leary for joining me today on Skeptiko.  If you’d like information on her book, her links to her website, please visit the Skeptiko website, you’ll also find links on our previous shows, our forum and e-mail link where you can drop me a note.  That’s going to do it for today, stay with us in the future, much much more to come, until then, bye for now.