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Monday, January 21, 2008

God versus Brain Research

In response to my declaration of faith in something "more" than the physical world, Matt provided the following insights:
That there are areas of the brain that are in function when one is having a religious experience has been well understood. From pubmed in 2001:

Department of Neurology, University Hospital Düsseldorf, Germany. nazari@du.edu

The commonsense view of religious experience is that it is a preconceptual, immediate affective event. Work in philosophy and psychology, however, suggest that religious experience is an attributional cognitive phenomenon. Here the neural correlates of a religious experience are investigated using functional neuroimaging. During religious recitation, self-identified religious subjects activated a frontal-parietal circuit, composed of the dorsolateral prefrontal, dorsomedial frontal and medial parietal cortex. Prior studies indicate that these areas play a profound role in sustaining reflexive evaluation of thought. Thus, religious experience may be a cognitive process which, nonetheless, feels immediate.
-- Eur J Neurosci. 2001 Apr;13(8):1649-52

Further, Michael Persinger, Professor of Neuroscience at Laurentian University in Ontario has a lab wherein he can induce religious experience/feelings:

“Four in five people, [Persinger] said, report a "mystical experience, the
feeling that there is a sentient being or entity standing behind or
near" them. Some weep, some feel God has touched them, others become
frightened and talk of demons and evil spirits.”
-- Washington Post, 2001

This profoundly disrupts the view that there is an external force controlling the religious experience, does it not?
It seems to me the thrust of the neurological study is that certain religious experiences are cognitive rather than emotional. Neural correlates of religious experience.

Does the study undermine my perception of feeling God moving among us? No. For three reasons. (1) If A causes B, that doesn't mean C cannot also cause B. (2) It proves too much and (3) I don't believe God is external.

I'll post a comment about each of these right now.

18 comments:

JimII said...

A --> B does not disprove C --> B

Raise you hand above your head. If someone monitored you doing that there would be a surge of electric impulses starting in your brain and ending with a muscle contraction.

Note that this could be reproduced by apply an electric current to your brain in a particular spot. But that doesn't mean your free will didn't cause you to raise your hand.

JimII said...

Proves too much

Trace the example back further. Maybe you could say, you raised your hand because you read the words on the page.

But at some point, there is free will. At some point, YOU, decided whether or not to raise your hand. The reductionist view that would deny a religous experience would also have to deny free will, wouldn't it?

JimII said...

God is not external

Matt's point was that the study shows that religous experiences are not external. I don't know that I think that is what the study shows. But even if it does, I think God exists in our minds and souls. I think a legitimate way to look at God is as a recognition of our connectedness. An existance in which organisms are a unit in the whole, just as an organ is a unit in the whole of an organism.

In other words, I'm unbothered by being the source of my religious experience, or of my religious experience being at least partially a cognitive one.

Okay, we're off.

shadowfax said...

My $0.02:

If we accept the God Hypothesis as a premise, which is a reasonable assumption in this discussion, and the phenomenon is that humans can perceive God: Given that we are physical creatures, it would make sense that there be some mechanism in our bodies/brains which is capable of perceiving God or being activated by God. A built-in "God detector" if you will! I see nothing inconsistent with our scientific ability to localize the God Detector, and to "fool" its circuitry. This does nothing that would in itself discredit the God Hypothesis, anymore than optical illusions discredit the waveform theory of light.

However, I personally find an alternative viewpoint compelling, one supplied by evolutionary psychology. An instinct, for example, to nurture and attach to one's offspring, experienced by us as Love, is clearly a useful psychological mechanism in the primordial environment, and thus would have been favored by selection. Similarly, individuals united and inspired by a common religion build more cohesive and orderly communities, are happier, can accomplish feats which might otherwise have been impossible absent the religious motivation. So this neural mechanism too might have been selected for in the development of mankind.

The reason I bring this up is that studies like the above, while not in any way disproving God, do provide important evidence in support of a simpler, reductionist, natural selection model of their origin.

To revert to your logical analysis, A does not disprove B, but A strongly supports C. Whether B and C are reconcilable is another question altogether.

Matt Dick said...

I will not completely concede your first argument: A>B!=!C>B.

The reason is parsimony or Occam's Razor. Accepting evolution does not make it impossible to believe God used evolution for speciation, but it does render God unnecessary.

So while proving that we can induce a religious experience in your brain certainly is not a strict disproof of God, you are now forced to believe the less parsimonious of two answers.

I also challenge "Proves Too Much" by simply agreeing that a reductionist argument leads to a denial of Free Will. So what? What about the natural world leads yo to think you have free will? Your feelings/perceptions? How many times do we have to prove our perceptions are fallible? I happen to believe that we do not have free will. I don't see any reason think I have free will other than that it feels like I have free will. There are too many examples in the neurology literature of a brain deficit producing an analogous mind deficit for me to believe there is magic that happens at a certain level of complexity.

I think the third point is a restatement of the first. Again, I'll never argue that we can disprove God. I'll only argue that nothing we've ever learned about the natural world, our brains included, leads to any rational conclusion that a God is necessary.

Mystical Seeker said...

The fact that the sense of sight correlates with physical activity in the brain doesn't mean that there aren't actually light waves in existence beyond the brain. Similarly, the fact that religious belief correlates with physical activity in the brain doesn't prove that God doesn't exist.

Matt Dick said...

Mystical Seeker,

One can see and measure light waves. They are independently verifiable.

To quote myself, "I'll never argue that we can disprove God."

It's just that God is increasingly unnecessary as our understanding of the brain grows.

Mystical Seeker said...

One can see and measure light waves. They are independently verifiable.

Well, that's because God is objectively something quite different from light waves, but that is neither here nor there; my point is not to prove the existence of God, which is not really possibly anyway, but simply to point out that absurdity of the argument that if the brain is wired for religion, that somehow "disproves" the existence of God. It does nothing of the kind. The argument seems to be that if the brain is hard wired for perceiving something, that somehow means that whatever phenomenon it claims to perceive to resides totally in the brain--and this is clearly a fallacy.

Mystical Seeker said...

I don't know that I think that is what the study shows. But even if it does, I think God exists in our minds and souls. I think a legitimate way to look at God is as a recognition of our connectedness. An existance in which organisms are a unit in the whole, just as an organ is a unit in the whole of an organism.

I think that is well stated. To me, the concept of God is a kind of meta-narrative, or perhaps a narrative framework, that informs my perception of the world. To say that it is or is not "necessary" to believe in God kind of misses the point. I don't think everyone necessarily needs to believe in God (or have some alternate nontheistic religion) in their lives. It isn't a question of necessity. But I do think that viewing the world in theistic terms is an organizing principle that provides meaning and depth.

To view God as an "objective" entity that can be proved or disproves really views God as simply another object in the universe like you or I or the chair I'm sitting on. But that is not what "God" is. As a panentheist, for one thing, I think that we are connected to and exist within God, so it makes no sense to describe God as being of the same order as other objects. I think that it makes more sense to think of God as an organizing principle that pulls universal reality together into a greater meta-reality. Am I open to the possibility that God doesn't exist? Sure. But I also think that, for me, as an interpretive framework, it is a useful working concept.

Matt Dick said...

but simply to point out that absurdity of the argument that if the brain is wired for religion, that somehow "disproves" the existence of God. It does nothing of the kind.

Again... I said that I was not pretending to disprove God. But while you can not prove a negative, you can, by the accumulation of evidence, render certain explanations unnecessary.

For instance: modern medicine's persistent advance through the understanding of germ theory does not disprove the ancient Eastern concept of Chi energies being out of balance as the cause for disease. But as germ theory advances and greater and greater number of predictions derived from it are borne out, it is no longer necessary to propose a mystical life energy in order to explain weakness and disease.

Mystical Seeker said...

by the accumulation of evidence, render certain explanations unnecessary.

If you think that religion is "unnecessary", that is your choice. I wasn't really addressing that argument; I was mainly concerned with the specific assertion that I have run across, which is that if the brain is wired for something (like religion), then that something is necessarily purely a construct of the brain and has no objective reality. This is what I consider to be a untenable position.

Matt Dick said...

It isn't a question of necessity.

Mystical Seeker, we are talking past each other. When I use the word "unnecessary", I am not using the word the way you are responding to it. I am not saying it is not necessary for an individual in framing their world view. Jim (and you) may indeed need God in his life and world view for all sort of reasons.

What I am expressing is that in order to explain one's feelings of a religious experience, one does not need anything more than a reductionist view of brain/mind. Generally speaking, in exploring the natural world, one does not theorize explanations beyond what is strictly necessary.

So my "necessary" is related to scientific inquiry. Yours is related to a complete and coherent world view.

I must confess I don't have any idea what "a kind of meta-narrative" is. And I personally have no idea why one needs a narrative framework for life. I understand that people do need such a thing, it seems to be so common; I just have no idea what it provides.

For instance, you wrote:

God as an organizing principle that pulls universal reality together into a greater meta-reality.

I really don't understand the above sentence. I mean I understand it on an intellectual level, I suppose. But I just don't see how my understanding of the world or my place in it could be enhanced by postulating an entity for which there is no evidence.

I need to go back to an earlier disclaimer MS, I do not mean for this to be offensive in any way, it's an honest inquiry Jim and I have been discussing for what is coming up on 20 years. If I sound uncaring or careless in my language, it is probably because my primary audience is made up of people I've known for so long.

And for Jim, I guess my question comes down to: if we can reasonably assert that a feeling of God can be explained by poking our brain in a certain way, why does it help to then rely on an explanation for those feelings that so obviously has its roots in an ancient, primitive, magical view of the world?

Matt Dick said...

Shadowfax,

See my earlier discussion re: light. I agree that there's no reason there can't be a Visumdeus Cortex, but you can't argue the existence of God based on the analogy with light -- we know light to exist through other means. In the God case, it's 180 degrees from the light case: we feel a presence and make up a story to explain it. It's a fairy tale we've all agreed not to talk ourselves out of.

Mystical Seeker said...

What I am expressing is that in order to explain one's feelings of a religious experience, one does not need anything more than a reductionist view of brain/mind.

Yes, I understand that you are making an argument for a reductionist view of the brain and the mind. Again, as I said before, I wasn't really responding to your argument for reductionism at all.

Generally speaking, in exploring the natural world, one does not theorize explanations beyond what is strictly necessary.

Fine, I accept that this is your argument. I would suggest, however, that a theory of mind-brain reductionism is not a scientific theory about the natural world, but a philosophical one about the nature of reality, one that has been the subject of serious debate by philosophers for many years, including people like Rene DesCartes, Gilbert Ryle and Thomas Nagel (and, if he counts as a philosopher, B.F. Skinner). I think it is a more complicated question than you apparently do. Again, I wasn't really interested in going down the rat hole of debating the mind-brain question. I was simply focusing on one specific argument that I believe was predicated on a fallacy.

So my "necessary" is related to scientific inquiry. Yours is related to a complete and coherent world view.

True, and I don't think that religious questions have anything to do with scientific inquiry. To me, science and religion involve wholly different subjects of inquiry. One deals with physical phenomena, the other deals with questions of meaning and gives an overall framework for the reality in which the scientific questions do their inquiry. Those who think that religion impinges on science tend to be religious fundamentalists; they are wrong.

On the contrary, I take the position that the relationship is somewhat reversed, in that religion depends to some degree on science, in the sense that science tells us how the universe functions, which in turn tells a person of faith something about the overall way that the Ultimate Reality (that one might call God) functions. Religion always springs out of a cultural context--which is one reason why there are so many religions in the world. But despite that dependence, the fact remains that they deal with different questions than what science addresses.

One of the fallacies of the so-called "New Atheists" like Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, and others like them, is that, like religious fundamentalists, don't get the point that religion and science deal with different realms. (Another one of their fallacies is that they think frequently choose fundamentalist straw men as their targets, but that's another story.) Since fundamentalism just plain gets it wrong in making claims about the nature of the physical world (such as by asserting that Genesis is literally true, or in making incredible claims of the miraculous), then voila! Religion as a whole is accused of being "irrational." But religion as a whole isn't the same thing as fundamentalism.

And the whole question of "necessity" also confuses the issue. Religion is unnecessary--for what? For resolving scientific questions? Of course it is. Anyone who thinks otherwise is either a fundamentalist fool or is just stuck in a pre-Enlightenment paradigm, and is forced to resort to the God of the Gaps to justify any involved by religion in describing the behavior of the physical world.

And I personally have no idea why one needs a narrative framework for life. I understand that people do need such a thing, it seems to be so common; I just have no idea what it provides.

I would go a little further than just saying that religion is a narrative framework for one's own life. It is also, I believe, a narrative framework for interpreting the ultimate way that the universe is put together, which, of course, in turn also describes how it affects one's own life. As for you not understanding the necessity of such a framework--well, obviously not everyone does. Different strokes for different folks. I've never been one to tell others that their own religious outlook has to match my own, or that they even have to have a religious outlook.

Matt Dick said...

MS,

Thank you for engaging in this discussion with civility and a genuine sense of inquiry.

In response, I will go a little out of order, mostly so we can retire some of the simple issues first.

True, and I don't think that religious questions have anything to do with scientific inquiry. To me, science and religion involve wholly different subjects of inquiry.

I can't buy this argument. I agree with you that there is a subsection of this argument that is easy to knock down. A Christian biblical literalist who claims that Noah's flood killed the dinosaurs and carved out the Grand Canyon, and all since the Earth was created 7,000 years ago can safely be dismissed from the conversation.

My problem with the way you have framed this discussion is that you have abstracted the notion of religion so completely that there is no claim you can hold on to. You talk about meta-frames of reference and interpretive frameworks. This is so removed from anything that can be called "religion" conventionally that I'm not sure the conversation is useful. In perhaps simpler terms, my issue is that you aren't arguing that religion and science are non-overlapping magisteria, you are defining religion to specifically remove it from the debate.

That's fine, but it is not particularly interesting to me. If there is an objective reality to something, if there is something about the universe that is ungovernable by natural laws, then science can discover something about the nature of that thing. Science can show some sign that cause and effect is violable.

Those who think that religion impinges on science tend to be religious fundamentalists;

I don't think this statement is true. Religion sets a standard of behavior and understanding about one's place in the universe. There's nothing about a literalist view of any scripture that takes that definition and moves it into the realm of science, the practice of thinking about one's place in the world does that by itself.

I believe you can construct English language phrases that are untouchable by scientific inquiry, but I think that's a trick of linguistics as much as anything else.

I would suggest, however, that a theory of mind-brain reductionism is not a scientific theory about the natural world, but a philosophical one about the nature of reality

I really need you to explain that. Postulating on the nature of reality is scientific theory. In fact it's almost the definition of science. That I think there is mounting evidence suggesting that "the mind is what the brain does" (Steven Pinker's formulation, not mine) bears directly on a scientific theory, not a philosophy of anything, unless it's the philosophy of science.

[Harris, Hitchens, et al] frequently choose fundamentalist straw men as their targets

They choose fundamentalists to attack, but I must stress that they are not straw men -- a sizable contingent in this country (and the world) believe in those literalist arguments -- several of them are actually running for president, one of them won a statewide primary. These may not be your arguments, but they are not straw men, even if they are easy to rebut.

Religion as a whole is accused of being "irrational." But religion as a whole isn't the same thing as fundamentalism.

You and I completely concur on this point. I still don't see any reason to believe the mind is doing something magical when it feels the presence of God.

Religion is unnecessary--for what?

You have confused the debate. I said that God is an unnecessary explanation when discussing Jim's belief that there is something external to his brain that is generating spiritual feelings.

God is unnecessary in order to explain one's feelings of "presences" or "religious experiences". I never said or implied (and I have now several times explicitly denied) that God was unnecessary as an organizing principle for people lives. I argue that an "organizing principle" is kind of a nebulous concept that I'd like further explained, but what you need in order to explore the universe is whatever it is.

[religion] is also, I believe, a narrative framework for interpreting the ultimate way that the universe is put together

Now I think you are placing religion firmly into the realm of scientific inquiry. If you talk about the "way the universe is put together", you are necessarily creating something that can be discovered through science. If your "way the universe is put together" is something other than that, then I would go back to my earlier statement that I believe you can use linguistic trickery to continue this discussion forever, but it become uninteresting to me very quickly. Here's why:

I can tell you something is an apple, but when you talk about baking it into pies, I can tell you that it isn't that kind of apple. Then you say, well we'll grow it and eat it or slice it or drop it on Newton's head. I can come back and say, well it doesn't grow on trees, it's not sliceble, and it doesn't *really* fall, per se.

We're not really talking about apples anymore. Or at least not in any way that makes any sense.

If you are going to say that religion goes to how the universe is put together, you are going to have to define what "put together" means if you don't want to talk about science.

Again, thanks for the discussion.

Mystical Seeker said...

In perhaps simpler terms, my issue is that you aren't arguing that religion and science are non-overlapping magisteria, you are defining religion to specifically remove it from the debate.

Okay, sure. And your point is?

I've been saying all along that religion should be removed from the debate.

That's fine, but it is not particularly interesting to me.

Yes, but it's what is interesting to me. So there you have it.

If there is an objective reality to something, if there is something about the universe that is ungovernable by natural laws, then science can discover something about the nature of that thing. Science can show some sign that cause and effect is violable.

I don't think that cause and effect are inviolable, except when science discovers otherwise (such as found in quantum physics). And yet I believe in God. So there you have it. The idea that cause and effect are violable according to God's whim (i.e., belief in miracles) is a tenet of what I would term irrational religious faith. But it is not inherent to religion per se.

There's nothing about a literalist view of any scripture that takes that definition and moves it into the realm of science, the practice of thinking about one's place in the world does that by itself.

No, that's not true. The literalist view of scripture almost always moves it into the realm of science because it takes myths and stories from a prior age and elevates them to scientific dogma. Religion per se, however, does not have to do any such thing. One can be religious and still believe in things like evolution or cause and effect.

That being said, I should correct what I said about those who reject science at some level being almost exclusively fundamentalists. Many moderate=to-liberal Christians also believe in things like a literal, physical resurrection of Jesus after he died, and I disagree with them on that. I was thinking more along the lines of progressives like Borg, Spong, or Crossan. My point is that being religious doesn't necessarily mean believing in the unbelievable. While not all of those accept evolution, for example, are also who reject the notion of the miraculous, there are many people of faith who do reject the idea of the miraculous.

Postulating on the nature of reality is scientific theory.

Disagree. Science postulates on the the behavior of physical reality. The nature of reality (physical or otherwise) is the realm of philosophy and theology. Even defining what reality is is a huge question. I thus think that you are confusing science with philosophy of science. Those philosophers of the mind who I cited earlier--DesCartes, Ryle, and Nabel--where they scientists or philosophers? It is clear that they were philosophers. Philosophy is not science. And neither is theology.

If you talk about the "way the universe is put together", you are necessarily creating something that can be discovered through science.

I know that is what you are claiming--taking what I would call an extreme position of logical positivism. But I don't agree with this position or consider it tenable. Can science or the scientific method determine meaning, values, purpose, transcendence? Science can observe the "what", but makes no statements about the "why". That's where religion comes in.

Science deals with observable physical phenomena in the physical world. Religion deals with how we interpret and make sense of the physical world that science has investigated. Two different realms.

They choose fundamentalists to attack, but I must stress that they are not straw men -- a sizable contingent in this country (and the world) believe in those literalist arguments -- several of them are actually running for president, one of them won a statewide primary. These may not be your arguments, but they are not straw men, even if they are easy to rebut.

Yes, they are straw men. I don't care if the opinions they refute are believed by 1 person or 1 billion. One can't on the one hand claim to make sweeping statements about the inherent nature of religion per se and then, when it is pointed out that the beliefs one refutes are not inherent to religion, turn around and say that one doesn't have to address the variety and scope of religious belief when making sweeping statements about it. Hitchens and Dawkins are trying to have their cake and eat it too.

JimII said...

Wow, great stuff!

I would like to focus really sharply on one point. It is a fact that the human brain can been stimulated in a certain way to create the sensation of a religious experience.

Does the fact that the brain can be stimulated in a way to create the sensation of a religious experience make it less likely that religious experiences are sometime, or usually a response to external stimuli?

We've already noted that, the brain can be stimulated in a certain way to create the sensation of light and that does not argue against the existence of light.

I don't think it is relevant that we already know light exists. That just means it is less interesting to talk about the existence of light.

A cheeky advocate might ask, "Why do you suppose our brains have evolved to create a sensation of religious experience if religious experience?" And, thus, use this research to support the proposition that God exists & that's why our brains have evolved to sense God.

Mystical Seeker said...

Does the fact that the brain can be stimulated in a way to create the sensation of a religious experience make it less likely that religious experiences are sometime, or usually a response to external stimuli?

We've already noted that, the brain can be stimulated in a certain way to create the sensation of light and that does not argue against the existence of light.

I don't think it is relevant that we already know light exists. That just means it is less interesting to talk about the existence of light.


Exactly. I think we can safely say that the fact that the brain can be stimulated to create a type of experience does not disprove anything about the legitimacy of that same type of experience when it occurs sans brain stimulation.

The problem is that this discussion has confused two different issues. One argument says that if the brain can be stimulated to produce a subjective mental experience, then the mental experience itself is nothing but a brain function; this is reductionism. But another, different, argument says that if the brain can be stimulated to produce a subjective mental experience of something outside itself, then the something outside itself must just be a brain construct and have no objective legitimacy.

This latter argument is clearly nonsense, as the counter-example of light shows. (Further examples, that come from Kant, could be space and time, both of which Kant identified as a priori constructs of the mind--but would anyone argue that time and space don't actually exist?) The former argument, on the other hand, really has nothing to do with God's existence or non-existence, though, because it is just a general argument on behalf of mind-brain reductionism. Its focus is not on God but on the nature of consciousness.

My main concern when I entered this discussion was to point out that the latter argument was really not credible; I wasn't really focusing on the former. The question of reductionism is a huge philosophical matter. I cited examples of DesCartes, Ryle, and Nagel, because all of them are important figures in Western philosophy who have wrestled with this question. The phrase "Ghost in the Machine", for example, comes from this very question.

Anyway, I do think you raise an interesting question about how evolution brought about the religious experience. Is it merely a by-product of something else that took place in brain evolution? Or is there a specific reason why it evolved?

I've been reading Oliver Sach's book "Musicophilia", and this relates to a question that has puzzled me--how humans evolved an appreciation of music. What purpose does it serve? In a way, I think that both art and religion represent interesting expressions of the human mind.