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Mind over matter and our origins in stardust: Science at the Writers Festival

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Photo courtesy NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center on Flickr.Photo courtesy NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center on Flickr.

For thousands of years, people have speculated about the nature of the human mind, as well as the origin of our species.

In two riveting presentations at the fall 2012 edition of the Ottawa International Writers Festival, these questions were discussed and, at times, hotly debated.

In a fascinating talk on Saturday, October 27, Mario Beauregard, an associate research professor in the departments of psychology and radiology at the Université de Montréal, argued that the brain and mind are not synonymous.

Discussing his groundbreaking book Brain wars, Beauregard made the remarkable claim that consciousness is transmitted and filtered through the brain, but is not generated by it. As such, the materialist understanding of the mind, which holds that consciousness arises from brain activity, is incorrect.

Photo of Mario Beauregard by Alejandro Bustos.

“The mind has no mass, no volume and it cannot be measured in space in time,” Beauregard told a packed room at the Knox Presbyterian Church. “Mind and consciousness represent a fundamental aspect of reality not reducible to matter.”

This unconventional view drew a strong reaction from the crowd. During the question and answer period, several audience members said that Beauregard had misinterpreted materialism, and that his scientific evidence did not prove that the mind was separate from the brain.

Beauregard responded to these criticisms by pointing to quantum mechanics which, in his view, debunk traditional views of materialism.

Others members of the crowd, meanwhile, replied that they were fascinating by his scientific presentation, which drew on neuroscience and physics. Some were particularly captivated by research that Beauregard cited in which depressive thoughts were linked to Alzheimer’s. Others were transfixed by the remarkable case studies of patients who were consciousness even though their brain had temporarily ‘died’ following cardiac arrest.

“Materialism is only a figment of human imagination,” Beauregard told the audience members. “It has no basis in reality.”

This mind-bending presentation was followed the next day by a wonderful talk by science writer Jacob Berkowitz.

Discussing his book The Stardust Revolution, Berkowitz explained how human beings, and all life on earth, originated in stars.

Drawing on astrophysics and chemistry, he described how hydrogen and helium were the only two elements that originated in the big bang. All the other elements – such as carbon, oxygen and nitrogen – were formed inside stars, and were then transported across the universe by stardust emitted from these gaseous giants.

“All the … things that we refer to as ‘stuff’ was formed in stars,” Berkowitz told a riveted audience.

In time, the elements that reached planet Earth led to the formation of life.

“How do you get from stars to us?” Berkowitz asked. “The main link is stardust …. Stardust is the main link between how you get from stars to planets and everything on planets.”

Photo of Jacob Berkowitz by Alejandro Bustos.

This fascinating presentation was followed by a captivating discussion with the audience. In one particularly interesting part, Berkowitz noted that stardust has spread across the entire universe, and as such the same elements that landed on Earth have also been sent to other planets, solar systems and galaxies.

While discussing exoplanets, i.e. planets outside our solar system, Berkowitz was asked if alien life did exist elsewhere in the universe, would it be similar to life on Earth.

In response, he noted that if extraterrestrial life does exist, there is a good chance that it would be related to life on Earth, because the building blocks of this alien species would have come from the same starting point that led to humanity.

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