How often do you consider the wonder of consciousness? It is incredibly meta to try and think aboutthinking, and then think about the underlying structures that create the experience of thinking, butthis is one of the modern philosophical battlegrounds that Mario Beauregard has decided to venture into. Beauregard came to the Ottawa Writers Festival to present his new book The Brain Wars , which is a scientific examination of research he and other scientists are finding regarding the nature of consciousness.
I consider myself reasonably well read on the topic of “popular neuroscience,” as this has been a common book topic recently. I’ve read work by Tom Stafford and Jonah Lehrer, and many other authors of a similar style – the case study, followed by an examination of current research explaining the merits of that case, then expanding out to how this applies to everyone. From my reading I have changed my opinion on the nature of my consciousness from a religious one believing in a distinct “soul,” to one accepting that perhaps my consciousness simply was just a quirk of evolution and the way the brain makes sense of the environment around it. I felt that this was an enlightened stance because it was finally letting go of the ghost-in-the-machine—letting go of superstitions that try to explain something that was up until now unexplainable. Seeing that Beauregard was arguing back towards consciousness being something distinct outside of the brain and body fascinated me, especially knowing the quality of the research that is coming out of Montreal on the topic of neuroscience. It was clear I was not the only one interested in this topic, as Beauregard spoke to a packed house.
The presentation was fast-paced consisting of many seemingly unrelated ideas, much like how the mind often works. Beauregard touched on Quantum Mechanics and Materialism, the Placebo effect, Psychoneuroimmunology, Neuroplasticity, Neurofeedback, the Psi phenomenon, and near-death experiences. He tried to tie these all together as the basis for his view of consciousness. Arguments like this are like a house of cards, in that they require the listener to grasp the nuance of each idea so that atthe end of the presentation the listener will have a tower balanced in their minds showing the structure of the thesis. If they miss something, or interpret information differently than the presenter, the tower will not be able to stand. The other challenge for a presenter with a topic like this is that each personin the audience will be coming in with a different base for the author to build their argument upon, resulting from their education, background, personal philosophy, and other intangible things like their mood.
I think the cold rainy day primed the mood of the audience, as it quickly became clear during the question period following his presentation that many disagreed with him. Obviously I wasn’t the only person in the audience who came in with a different perspective. It seemed more like question period in the House of Commons where the “questioner” would start with a diatribe detailing why Beauregard couldn’t possibly be right, followed by a pointed question. The big difference between Knox church that afternoon and the House of Commons was the Beauregard was quite respectful towards those who disagreed with him. I thought he handled the challenges from the audience very well, and he obviouslyhas faced similar questions before.
After the presentation I purchased a copy of Brain Wars for myself, as this will be the only way I canfully engage with Beauregard’s argument. A twenty-minute presentation barely scratched the surface of a very complicated and nuanced idea. I approached Beauregard to ask him to sign my copy, and mentioned to him that I appreciated his presentation, but that I wasn’t sure if I agreed with him or not. He signed my book with “May this book stimulate your reflections about the nature of the human
I think that is the beauty of ideas like this—you may not walk away agreeing with the presenter, but if you are open to a new perspective you will develop a stronger understanding about why you believe what you believe, and will earn a better understanding about yourself in the process. Whether his research and ideas prove to be correct in the end, if they lead us all to more reflections about thenature of the human mind, I think that’s a noble goal.