Thursday, October 18, 2007

Looking for God in all the wrong places

Scientific American online has an article on the attempt to explain God as a physical phenomenon in the brain. In this study, the researchers ask the participants to get into, or remember, a religious experience. Various instruments then record brain activity. When an experience is accompanied by a change in a particular part of the brain, the researchers declare a causal connection – and the brain is the cause:

"The height of this meditative trance... was associated with... a large drop in activity in a portion of the parietal lobe.... Because the affected part of the parietal lobe normally aids with navigation and spatial orientation, the neuroscientists surmise that its abnormal silence during meditation underlies the perceived dissolution of physical boundaries and the feeling of being at one with the universe."

In psychology and philosophy debates go on as to whether the mind affects the brain or the brain affects the mind. These researchers clearly assume the latter. Far be it from me to defend Buddhism, but the nature of the debate is whether the "perceived dissolution of physical boundaries" turns off the parietal lobe or the parietal lobe shutting down creates the perception of "being at one with the universe." These guys are getting a bit ahead of themselves.

Where is this going? You know where. The researchers say "that religious experience and belief in God are merely the results of electrical anomalies in the human brain. ... Praying before a meal, for example, links prayer with the pleasures of eating. God, he claims, is nothing more mystical than that."

If you deal with skeptics much, you'll probably hear about this again. If someone starts telling you that your brain creates your religious experiences, you can bring up the mind-brain question.

Anyway, the researchers didn't stop with claiming that the mind creates religious feelings. They also said "the religious bents of even the most exalted figures—for instance, Saint Paul, Moses, Muhammad and Buddha—stem from such neural quirks."

So I have to ask, how do you explain public miracles like water being turned into wine, thousands being fed with a few biscuits, or a resurrected dead man via neural quirks?

I wanted to share this because it's good to be aware of this kind of work as it will appear in debates with skeptics and even serious seekers sooner or later. I recommend reading the whole article. Overall, it is fairly balanced and even ends on a faith-friendly note, but the ideas of these researchers will be back, so we should be ready for them.


Tim said...

Thanks for the heads up! Like you said it doesn't explain the miracles and all the other evidence.

Just two things to say I guess. Firstly, I'm sure the feeling of God must be made by the brain for many so called religious experiences. Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus etc. all claim religious experiences, but never found the real God. So the brain thing makes sense at least for them.

Secondly, God created my brain anyway so I don't see why he wouldn't use it's intricate pathways to reveal his presence to us. The way he reveals himself to us first and foremost is through his word an I'm a 100% certain that requires the use of our brains!

Whatever the case, as you say, it proves nothing, but it's good to know what going on.

Thanks a lot for the post
In Christ


Anne said...

Doesn't it just make you tired when you see headlines about things such as this? It is actually very interesting and I agree with previous poster Tim. But there's so much anti-religious zealotry out there that when I see this kind of research I figure that there is an agenda. I'm so grateful if they just try to be impartial and report on the findings.

ChrisB said...

Sorry to be quiet so long -- I was out of town.

Tim, I think you have a good point there -- God made the brain, so He may have made a special spot for Himself. But I get a little twitchy about these things because they so often lead to a purely materialistic view -- like the authors of the study discussed in the article.

As far as other religions go, they can still have a supernatural experience, it just isn't with God. (The NT attributes pagan religions to demons, after all.)

Anne, yes it does just make me tired sometimes :) I'm glad that this article made an attempt at balance. It was actually a pleasant surprise.

Thanks for commenting!

DryHeatFan said...

The problem with the miracles argument is that it isn't something we see today. Of course, there are televangelists who claim to heal others all the time on TV, but when I see them I am highly skeptical and think they are fakers. In regards to the rest of the post, I often fear that certain religious practices suggested in the Bible were specifically meant to cause delusions and visions that today we know have natural causes. For example, fasting for several days will often cause people to see visions. Is it really God or is it a chemcial reaction due to the lack of nutrients?

ChrisB said...

"The problem with the miracles argument is that it isn't something we see today."

I'm not totally sure about that, but for the sake of argument... Anyway, the researchers are trying to explain all religious experience in purely physical terms, so the point is that miracles that happened in full public view of large groups cannot be explained that way.

And I don't think most people in the Bible fasted for all that long. Jesus' fast was, iirc, unique.

DryHeatFan said...

All I know is that when I fasted for three days, rocks started to look like loaves of bread and I heard voices- mostly telling me to eat.