Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Brain Chemistry is no Aswer to Religious Experience
The media is replete with articles such as the one by NPR which tries to say that RE is the result of Brian chemistry.
the point of the article is to destroy faith in religion by reducing religious experinces to brain chemistry. They link up the sensations and the activities of the brain when one is thinking about God. That is exactly the evdience I sue when I talk about the structure in the brain that gives us the idea of God. That general argument holds no terror for one who believes in religious experince. It doesn't disprove RE and it doesn't provide an alternative that reduces to naturalistic origins either. Here's why:
(1) they can't prove they are studying real mystical experience.
Most of the researchers who do the God part of the brain studies, who try to match up parts of the brain with religious experience, this goes for the guy with the helmet, Ramerchandrin, Newberg and all of them, none or them are able to show that their subjective are having real mystical experiences.
The one way to do that scientifically, those guys don't even know about. The way is the "M scale." You have me speak fo this before. It was invented Ralph Hood, it measures the extent to which one has had 'peak' experience or mystical experience. The researcher in that article do not use the M scale at all. That means they are just assuming that any thought about God is as good as any other thought, that' is not the case.
Since they aren't measuring religious experiences they can't claim that religious experience reduces to brain chemistry. These reductionists are pulling a bait and switch. They switching real religious experince for any thoughts about God, or strange experinces in which something about God is mentioned. This came out in John Hick's book about New Frontier of Religion and Science.
(2) Lining up chemical with God imagery proves nothing.
All these researchers are doing is trying to line up the presence of some tranquilizing chemical such as serotonin and some form of thought which includes religious imagery. That doesn't prove anything becasue they can never show that the serotonin is the actual cause of the transformation effets that occur long term over the life span of the subject many years subsequent.
(a) is the chemical present becasue the tranquil effect of God's presence causes the release?
(b) did God release the chemical to calm them down?
(c) Does the presence of the chemical even have anything to do with the transformation effects?
None of those have been answered.
(3) Opening receptors to the divine.
We are sentient flesh and blood beings. If God created us, he created us that way. If we are the product of evolution only, evolution has made that way. That's the way we are. We think by having our thoughts transmitted by neural receptors in teh brain, those are chemicals. Just like having ears. We hear by picking up vibrations on the ear drum.
God could not speak audibly to us without using your ears. By the same token, if God wants to give us thoughts and sensations, he has to paly with the chemicals. The fact that a trigger mechanism can open the receptors so that we are more included to these experiences than otherwise is no more a disprove of God being involved in the process than Moses having ears to hear God speak disproves God's voice.
Reductionists will make much of the fact that several studies in which psilocybin mushrooms were used produced a valid mystical experience. That is ture in several studies, the major two being Good Friday by Pahnke, (early 60s) the follow up in the 80s (forget who did that) and a recent one by Grifiths (Johns Hopkins).
I actually discussed the latter study with Hood, the inventor of the M scale. he's impressed with the study but doesn't find it challenging his work or his conclusions at all. Far from seeing it as any kind of disproof of God he takes the study as a whole as proof of all of his ideas about God about religious experince. Most researchers in that field do. None of them actually try to use that kind of study as disproof most of them use it as proof of the validity of religious experince, mushrooms and all. But this is a very different set of researchers and a different kind of research from the Ramerchandrin God finder helmet and God part of the brain.
The Good Friday study and its follow up is even less of an argument for reductionism and more proof for the open receptor theory that the pro mystical core faction argue (the idea that God is doing it). The reason is becasue the follow up shows that the mystical experinces induced by the mushrooms produced profound changes in teh subjects that radically transformed their lives and stuck with them through out life. Many of them said that was the most crucial moment in their lives.
Now it is true that the meditation group, the control group that did not take mushrooms only did mediation did not have those profound changes. But the thing is almost all the mushroom takers were mystical anyway before they tried the mushrooms. They were chosen from among a group of seminarians. Most of them had had religious experinces in their childhoods and were headed for the ministry. They were mystics long before they were mushroom takers. Most of them had already had these experiences. So the what this is proves is not tha the very same experiences with the very same outcome can be induced by naturalistic means, but that the triggers (including drugs) open the receptors which are partly opened anyway and experiences already being had become greater.
This is obvious because otherwise they would have to have the same experince as the control group since the argument is that those experinces can be induced naturally. But the fact they were already having them disrupts that argument because this was not something induced upon people who had no relationship with the divine.
(4) Doesn't explain outcomes
The outcome for most is that they find their lives transformed by mystical experiences. This has been demonstrated over and over with 350 studies over a four decade period. Those transformation effects have not duplicated by any other means. The immediate sensation of the religious experince may be had by inducing some drug, but the long term positive effects have not been so duplicated. The point is not the immediate sensation but the effects long term.
There is no other example of such effects being induced by anything. The only example that comes close is the Good Friday follow up, but since that experimental group were mystics anyway, there is no control that would separate the two effects; making the open receptor idea much more plausible.
Most atheist seem to think the point is that God is doing this by magic. Andrew Newberg in Why God Wont Go Away rights about the realization of a neural dimension to the spiritual, without fear of reduction to the naturalistic. Its' not magic and it doesn't have to be. God can work through naturalistic means. The one difference that we can look at and say "this is God" rather just "this is serotonin" is the long term effects and their relation to promotion of a way of life that works.
Atheists also seem to think that reductionism is beating up on the Spirit if it doesn't find some mysterious element or source of energy or some kind of energy that can't be explained. None of that, not a strange energy, or magic, or an element we don't know is necessary. We do not have to find something in the process of the experience that can't be accounted for in the natural, because it is a natural process. The thing that stands out and makes it different and tags it as the trace of God is the divine in the content of the experince, and the long term effects which can't be produced by anything else.