A skeptic might suggest that a biological origin to al spiritual longings and experiences, including the universal human yearning to connect with something divine, could be explained as a delusion caused by the chemical misfiring of a bundle of nerve cells. But …After years of scientific study, and careful consideration of the a neurological process that has evolved to allow us humans to transcend material existence and acknowledge and connect with a deeper, more spiritual part of ourselves perceived of as an absolute, universal reality that connects us to all that is.2
Newberg and his colleague Eugene D’Aquili3 have been at this research for many years. They use a SPECT camera, which stands for single photon emission computed topography. They trace a radioactive dye through the blood stream. The dye collects in brain cells, and they know that these are the cells most in use at the time because that’s where the blood is going. They find unusual activity in the posterior superior parietal lobe (PSPL) of those meditating. This area keeps track of up from down, helps judge angels and distances, and enables us to negotiate landscape. In order to perform these functions the PSPL must keep strict tabs upon the distinction between what is “me” and what is “not-me.” How could it negotiate landscape if it could not distinguish us from the things around us? For this reason Newberg and D’Aquili rename the area the OAA (Orientation association area). The two researchers find that this area (OAA or PSPL), which never rests, is strangely inactive while the meditation is in progress. After examining the descriptions “mystics” and those meditating game them, they concluded that the area was working, but it wasn’t getting any data. That would explain the sense mystics make of their experiences when they describe feeling an undifferentiated unity of all things. While skeptics might read this and think “ah ha! There’s the trick of the mind that makes it seem there is some spiritual reality,” Newberg sees much more to the issue than that. 3 Praying Franciscan nuns had similar findings, but their experience was describes as “closeness to God” rather than undifferentiated unity. Newberg argues that the research proves that these experiences are not merely tricks of the mind, wishful thinking or some form of “psychology,” but are instead “observable neurological events…mystical experience is biologically, observably, and scientifically real.”4
Skeptics are quick to argue that the RE is clearly the product of brain chemistry, and results from the PSPL malfunctioning, thus it is clearly an accident or epiphenomenal, after all, all of consciousness itself is epiphenomenal. This is a misbegotten assumption that Newberg disproves. While skeptics try to ground the origin of religion in this “misfiring,” their argument is merely begging the question. Newberg points out that the use of brain chemistry is really the only way God could communicate with sentient flesh and blood creatures. Our consciousness is transmitted through brain chemistry; this is the way we work. The argument is like saying the function of rabbit ears for television (or a digital converter box) is a mechanism, which makes the instrument function; therefore, it is the rabbit ears or converter box that produces the programming. This is my analogy not Newberg’s. But he does say:
…Tracing spiritual experience to neurological behavior does not disprove its realness. If God does exist, for example, and if He appeared to you in some incarnation, you would have no way of experiencing His presence, except as part of a neurologically generated rendition of reality. You would need auditory processing to hear his voice, visual processing to see His face, and cognitive processing to make sense of his message. Even if he spoke to you mystically, without words, you would need cognitive functions to comprehend his meaning, and input form the brain’s emotional centers to fill you with rapture and awe. Neurology makes it clear: there is no other way for God to get into your head except through the brain’s neural pathways. Correspondingly, God cannot exist as a concept or as reality anyplace else but in your mind. In this sense, both spiritual experiences and experiences of a more ordinary material nature are made real to the mind in the very same way—through the processing powers of the brain and the cognitive functions of the mind. Whatever the ultimate nature of spiritual experience might be—weather it is in fact an actual perception of spiritual reality—or merely an interpretation of sheer neurological function—all that is meaningful in human spirituality happens in the mind. In other words, the mind is mystical by default.5
Newberg is not saying that there can’t be a God, nor is he saying that we understand all reality and can rule out the spiritual. He is saying that all we know of reality is mediated; what we take to be the unvarnished world is just a rendition of the unvarnished and that’s all it can be. Where I take issue with him is in his assertion that even mystical experience itself is mediated. In my view the actual experience at the mystical level is direct experience of the divine. But any attempt to understand it or put it into words is mediated by our brain’s rendition of the world. Thus the only way we ever can empirically comprehend the real, is through the mystical; to discuss it we must use analogical language and cast our experience into the realm of metaphor. Trusting to metaphor to interpret the world would probably make many atheists nervous, since they seem to be afraid of the subjective. But this is the nature of the case for all knowledge. We are separated from the things in themselves by our understanding and perceptions of the world.
Atheists tend to scoff at religious experience anyway because they dichotomize between perceptions gained through scientific means, and perceptions “off the cuff.” The latter are to be scoffed at and rejected as “subjective,” the former are to be sought as somehow guaranteed to be valid; even though they are still filtered through the “construct” created by the brain. The reaction of naturalistic thinkers to all manner of phenomenological apprehension has been to write it off as the subjective (thus untrustworthy) residue of outmoded misconceptions. One such misconception, swept aside in one gesture since the ninetieth century, is the concept of the spiritual. Naturalists tend to write off consciousness as a whole; content to allow their reductionism to saw off anything they can’t study through their methods. On the internet the average atheist makes the assertion that brain creates mind, this is evident since any sort of brain injury changes the nature of mind, thus mind is just a trick of the light, and brain is all there is. Thus experience is a side effect of the autonomic and other systems brains are really about. Newberg demonstrates the foolishness of this view. He does not speak of “holism” but what he says about the brain/mind dichotomy would fit in with that viewpoint. Yes, brain creates mind, but that does not mean that mind reduces to brain. The two are inseparable but they are no more the same thing than are hardware and software. He uses the analogy of waves. We can no more separate brain from mind than we can separate wave from the energy that produces it. Without the energy the wave would lie flat, without the energy the wave would have no expression.6 In my own view spirit = mind, mind = consciousness. The soul is symbolic of the overall life of the individual in relation to God. In other words, “soul” is a symbolic term, it is something we are, and not something we have. “He is a lost soul,” “seventeen souls were lost that day,” that, and other such phrases demonstrate what I mean. I make the case that the Bible more often than not employs the phrase in the way. The soul is a way of speaking about the over all direction of a person’s life in relation to it’s final destiny in God. It is not a little ghost in the machine. I do not blame atheists for their assertion that such notions are outmoded and unscientific, they are. We need to maintain the notion of a Casper the friendly ghost inside us that lives on after we are gone. We need not think of spirit as some special sustenance that is just too special for science to discover. These are outmoded concepts; they are unnecessary even to maintain a concept of life after death.
We do not know what consciousness is per se, science has not come close to pinning it down. Nevertheless, most science rules out the ghost in the machine as a philosophical fallacy. I agree with them. Mind is spirit, and if there is spiritual force or power or substance in this life could as easily been the force of God’s mind (or whatever might be analogous to “mind” for God) as to be a special discreet substance. Spirit, or mind, is created by the brain, that it is not reducible to the brain nor does it mean it has nothing more than epiphenomenal status. Just because the two are inseparable, assuming of course physical existence, does not mean they two the same thing. Just as the wave and the energy that makes the wave are inseparable but they are not the same thing. What of life after death? If we have to think of life after death as the survival of an independent agent that can move around under its own power then one can hardly see how consciousness could survive apart from brain. But if we think of it as not a “place” where one lives, but a larger framework of consciousness which one joins, “God himself” then it might be more intelligible. It is beyond the scope of this essay to speculate about the nature of heaven. The only point I wish to make here, and not to belabor, is that accepting a neurological basis for spirituality need to eliminate or “disprove” anything generic to the Christian faith. No biblical passage says that the spirit is a Casper the friendly ghost type agent floating around out of the body. In no way does this mean that I have abandoned the idea of spirit. We are spiritual beings, but the spirit is consciousness, the mind. I accept the idea that consciousness is a basic property of nature, because it is irreducible. Thus consciousness in humans may be the result of brain chemistry, but it is not identical or reducible to brain chemistry and nothing more. It is the intangible dimension that Newberg proves is necessary for one to understand reality or think. Perhaps it is complexity that produces consciousness. If consciousness is a basic property of nature, than when a certain level of complexity is achieved consciousness is born. Maybe there are different levels of consciousness. Thus rocks have their own little rocky consciousness that doesn’t do much by our estimation. Trees have a bit more consciousness but still can write a poem or go to the moon, and then we have a high level of consciousness but still not divine. This is not the venue for this discussion. I only mention these as hypothetical possibilities. For the sake of my experience arguments I will assume that consciousness emerges at a certain level of complexity just as heat results at a certain degree of friction.
What is this intangible dimension that Newberg proves is necessary for one to understand reality? How does he prove this? By the nature of the way in which the brain understands the word, as seen in what he calls “brain Architecture.” By over viewing this structure of brain interaction with world, he shows that the naïve empiricist view of “objective” observation of the world is outmoded and inaccurate. Our raw observations of the world around are not “plain, unvarnished” “literal” views of the world.
The medieval German mystic Meister Echkart lived hundreds of years before the science of neurology was born. Yet it seems he had intuitively grasped one of the fundamental principles of the discipline: What we think of as reality is only a rendition of reality that is created by the brain. Our modern understanding of the brain’s perceptual powers hears him out. Nothing enters consciousness whole. There is no direct, objective experience of reality. All the things the mind perceives—all thoughts, feelings, hunches, memories, insights, desires, and revelations—have been assembled piece by piece by the processing powers of the brain from the swirl of neural blimps. The idea that our experiences of reality—all our experiences, for that matter—are only “secondhand” depictions of what may or may not be objectively real, raises some profound questions about the most basic truths of human existence and the neurological nature of spiritual experience. For example our experiment with Tibetan mediators and Franciscan nuns showed that the events they considered spiritual were, in fact, associated with observable neurological activity. In a reductionist sense this could support the argument that religious experience is only imagined neurologically, that God is physically ‘all in your mind.’ But a full understanding of the way in which the brain and the mind assemble and experience reality suggests a very different view.7
He then goes through a shopping list of brain function, demonstrating how the brain apprehends the world. He covers the autonomic system, with the arousal and quiescent systems; He discusses the relation of this system to spiritual experience, as the relation of the heart rate to meditation is crucial in many forms of meditation. He talks about autonomic states and spiritual experience. Hyper quiescence and hyper arousal are states of relaxation and excitation. These are results of both medication and worship experiences. He covers the limbic system that relates emotional states to higher thoughts and concepts. He calls the limbic system “the transmitter of God.”8 This is how we can put together associations of emotional involvement with theological concepts. These same functions are connected to animal survival and finding food. Newberg is not saying that this proves there’s nothing there to sense in religious experience, no more so than he is saying that there is really no food for animals to find in the forest. All of this is just describing the processes and apparatus by which God communes with us, it does not in any sense demonstrate a lack of veracity to the experiences. He talks about the hypothalamus as the “master controller” for the autonomic nervous system.9 He does discuss other parts of the brain, but major focus for our purpose is what he calls “cognitive operators.” This is how the mind understands the world, Newberg tells us. It is significant that the speaks of “mind” here and not “brain.” He’s clearly saying this higher-level understanding is put together out of the bits of information gathered through all the other sensory inputs.
Newberg uses a very apt analogy; he refers to a robot constructed in one of the first robotic experiments. The robot took a whole day to perform its task of moving across the room and opening a door. The second time it tried it could not do it at all. The reason it took so long was because every time it moved it had to re-photograph the entire room and then re analyze where it was in the room. The room kept changing, as it got closer to the door, so it had to re think itself in relation to everything every time it took a step. It couldn’t open the door at all the second time because the researchers put a big x on the door, and it had not been programmed to understand that doors could be marked with X, so it did not recognize the door. We are like that robot except in one crucial way; we apprehend the room through sensory mechanisms that allow us to distinguish ourselves from the room. The difference is, we do not have to rethink ever thing we know every we take a step, we are capable of extrapolation from our knowledge to the fact that doors could have X’s on them. He does not put it this way, but one could say, we are capable of making leaps of fall all the time. We can look beyond the X and see the dorr, we can make the assumption that doors can have X’s and be confident in it. It is these leaps of faith, metaphors for example that enable us to put information together and understand. Newberg does put in terms of metaphor and symbol. The empiricist might think our perceptions take literal photographs of what is there and thus the more literal our understanding the more accurate. Oddly enough, Newberg shows it is the opposite. Being literal, exacting, empirical, does not give us the truth of the world; being able to make metaphors, extrapolate, guess, and take leaps of faith gives us navigation skills in the world.
The brain is structured such that collective structures contain various functions that Newberg and D’Aquili call “cognitive operators,” which enable us to makes these “leaps of faith.” They speak of the holistic operator, which enables us to group component parts and comprehend a whole structure. The reductionist operator does the opposite; it allows us to see the whole broken down into component parts. “The abstractive operator, results for mt he operations of the parietal lobe in the brains left hemisphere,” allowing the formation of general concepts from individual facts. There’s a quantitative operator, a causal operator, Binary operator (enables dichotomized perception such as “me”/“not-me”), an existential operator, that actually allows us to judge the reality of events, this is why we can understand that jokes are pretend and hypothetical without having to be told so, and an emotional value operator, “exists to assign an emotional valence to all elements of perception and cognition.” In other words, this one allows us to put it all together and sort out. This is why we can hear a job, “a man in New York is ran over by a car every fifteen minutes, and boy is he getting tired of it,” without going “O that poor man! Why can’t they stop it?” All of these operations and functions come together to form man’s basic myth making ability. Through these functions we can interpret a feeling in such a way as to understand something of the divine. We are outfitted to know God. Where translate early myth making, which goes back as far as we can find traces of distant relatives, the Neanderthal (65,000 years) we find the evidence of concepts such as magic, afterlife, and spiritual forces. Certainly these qualities have always been present in modern human beings, as we know them. It would be easy for an atheist or skeptic to write off this argument as indicative of some ancient mistake whereby mankind conjured up a lot of nonsense to explain that which he could no explain by scientific means. This is the usual approach of atheists to understanding religion. Yet at this point Newberg plugs in a much more sophisticated understanding of mythology, via Joseph Campbell. As with afterlife as a means of coping with the harsh realties of death, mythology enables us to find meaning in the world, to extrapolate and thus transcend the literal harsh realities to a point where we feel at home in the universe, a universe of value and meaning. Myth shows us “what is most important, and what in terms of the inner life is more deeply and profoundly true. The power of myth lies beneath its literal interpretation in the ability of its universal symbols and themes to connect us with the most essential parts of ourselves in ways that logic and reason alone cannot.” The point is that this whole myth constructing function is not just some vestige that should be discarded in favor of machine like efferent mathematical abilities, or emotionless Vulcan logic, but that even ordinary sense perceptions require this extrapolation ability to allow us to function in the world. That means that the most atheistic and naturalistic view point of reductionism could not interpret the world for us without the myth making function or the little leaps of faith that allow us to see the door rather than the X. The situation with the “God pod” is a lot more complex than the original term “God part of the brain” implied (or more so than the term “God Pod” for that matter). It is not just one part of the brain; it’s not just that several centers somehow “register” God talk. It’s more that the overall nature of brain architecture is “designed” or at least function over all to use religious type thinking (metaphor, analogy, faith) even in ordinary navigation in the world.
Several writers have tired to show that religion can be accounted for naturalistically. Scott Atran (In Gods We Trust), Pascal Boyer (And Man Creates God) and David Sloan Wilson (Darwin's Cathedral), but the most famous among them is probably Daniel Dennett, in his work Breaking the Spell. Dennett doesn’t actually say point blank that the naturalistic nature of religion disproves it. He is sounding a call to study religion scientifically without giving it a special pass to protect people’s sacred cows. I have no problem with that, per se. The problem is that atheists have a tendency to tease out an innuendo that since religion can be accounted for through evolutionary processes, that does disprove any “supernatural origin” for it. The Things Newberg says about myth making, about the neurological basis of religion would be taken by many as a start indication that religion is just another evolutionary accident that wound up benefiting us. What he says about myth making giving us hope the face of the stark realities of death, especially when we consider the nature of the brain as it began to reflect upon itself and to create the mind; this furnishes a powerful argument. The problem with this kind of thinking is that it assumes that the basic reason for religion is to explain things. The atheist approach to understanding belief is empiricist. We want to prove an idea we believe in, so we look for indications in the universe that it’s true. We wish understand why water periodically falls form the sky, and every time it does the clouds come and get black. So we invent the only reason we can think of, big guy up in sky sends water down because he likes us. We can keep him happy by sacrificing sheep to him; he will keep raining on our crops. Of course this is too simplistic to even refute. Religion exists because people have a sense of the numinous. The atheist has to approach belief as primitive failed science. Newberg is telling us that this sense of the numinous is bound up with the very structure of our brains; we have to sense this and we have to make up myths to make sense of it. It is not an attempt to understand the physical workings of the world, although of course the early version of such attempts would draw upon religion, but it is actually an attempt to understand our place in the world, to make peace with death. Atheists tend to approach belief as empirically demonstrated by the contents of it. In other words, they look at the arguments from religious experience as justifying belief because the experience itself is a miracle. Its’ so amazing that anyone would sense God’s presence this must be the basis the argument, and the reason why it would be an argument at all is because it is something wildly amazing that can’t happen without miraculous intervention of the divine. That’s why a naturalistic explanation is so fatal to religious belief, or so they think. Matthew Alper writes The God Part of the Brain, and atheists react as though he’s saved them from eternal fate. E. O, Wilson shows us what they think his findings prove: “Alper uses a Socratic technique to brilliantly and flawlessly argue that our concepts of spirit and God are derived from the mechanics of our brain…enormously important…full of scientific and philosophical truths.” It’s so wonderful he bravely says what Newberg says. Except the atheists treat his work as though he is somehow answering Newberg. So again Wilson, as with Dennett, doesn’t actually say “this is disproves religion,” but the innuendo is there. Least anyone think it this is the natural inference; it simply stands to reason they are thinking in terms of beating a miracle argument.
But, the argument doesn't turn on being able to say, "This is a miracle that people have this experience because it couldn't happen unless God did this directly." That is not the argument. I will argue that there are unique aspects that couldn't happen without divine presence being involved. We must discuss what the supernatural is in order to answer this question. Supernatural is ontology, but it is also the power of God to vivify human nature and raise it to the higher level. These experiences do exactly what the supernatural is supposed to do. Since they are actually mystical experience itself, and that was the original conceit of the supernatural, they are literally the supernatural; no question about it. They are it.
That these experiences can be induced naturally is really not surprising nor does it undermine the argument. It would if the argument was a proof of God in an absolute sense, but since I claim only rational warrant this is a rational warrant for belief:
(1) the content is usually religious
(2) the effects draw people into belief
(3) it fits what we should expect of god
(4) no other aspect of life produces this effect, no other aspect has the data to back it up. When compared with other forms of support, even when smoking is controlled or religious smokers do better than non-religious. We only get these results from religious experience. This means there is validity to religion that justifies in considering these phenomena to be indicative of the co-determinate of God consciousness and thus, rationally warrant belief. If one is determined to construe such phenomena as signs of the veracity of religion it is not illogical to do so.
Natural and supernatural are juxtapositions; they are not antithesis of each other. They are two sides or facets of the same harmony. We should be willing to find supernatural in the natural, and that's just what Maslow says we find:
Now that may be taken as a frank admission of a naturalistic psychological origin, except that it involves a universal symbology which is not explicable through merely naturalistic means. How is it that all humans come to hold these same archetypical symbols? The "primitives" viewed and understood a sense of transformation, which gave them integration into the universe. This is crucial for human development. They sensed a power in the numinous, that is the origin of religion."
"In Appendix I and elsewhere in this essay, I have spoken of unitive perception, i.e., fusion of the B-realm with the D-realm, fusion of the eternal with the temporal, the sacred with the profane, etc. Someone has called this "the measureless gap between the poetic perception of reality and prosaic, unreal commonsense." Anyone who cannot perceive the sacred, the eternal, the symbolic, is simply blind to an aspect of reality, as I think I have amply demonstrated elsewhere (54), and in Appendix I,
The argument turns on the rational warrant for belief found in the believer’s sense of transformation, and in the prima facie nature of the warrant. That is why no amount of neurological data can reduce the divine to the mundane or dissect the transcendent. No amount of naturalistic ideology can empty heaven of its sacred nature. It is not that these experiences have to miracles and can’t be understood in other way but to resort to God as an explanation, but that if we take them to be indicative of God, we are rationally warranted to do because they do exactly what we expect the touch of God to do in our lives, and they do this in a way that can’t be reduced to naturalistic phenomena without losing the phenomena.
As we say in Chapter (X) the various studies indicate that RE results in long term positive effects. Nothing else produces these kinds of effects; at least, there is no data to indicate that anything does. We should expect God to renovate lives, we should expect integration points into meaning in life, and revitalized inner lives, as a result of contact with the divine. This is what we find in religious experience, we do not find it other areas, even in areas that logically it should exist. Take the example of social support groups. One would theorize that if religion is just a naturalistic development as a result of evolutionary forces (which it is, but it is more than that too) one would find that any sort of positive support group should give one the same health benefits as religious belief. Such is not the case. As shown, even when smoking is controlled for, the religious experiencing believer is better off than people of other groups. This is true even in comparing religious believers to humanistic care groups and ideologically harmonious political groups or any other kind of group. No other support group offers the kind of long-term positive effects, as does religious participation. This is true of either participation or experience. The difference in participating and experience is in that between church attendances vs. actually experiencing God’s presence. Even just going to church seems to have a positive effect upon health even when one never “feels” a thing. It’s not that this is a miracle that is not the argument. The argument is that this is what we should expect from contact with the divine, transformation. Thus the argument turns upon sign. It turns upon the satisfaction of a prima facie burden to produce some valid reason why we should believe. We should believe because experience of the divine pans out as it fits the criteria we should expect form the co-determinate.
Matthew Alper God Part of the Brain
body, only by mere coincidence, it always ends up on our face. Apparently, humans are genetically "hard-wired" to develop in a very specific and particular way.
For every physical characteristic that is universal to a species, there must exist some gene or set of genes responsible for the emergence of that particular trait. For example, the fact that all cats possess whiskers means that somewhere within a cat's chromosomes there must exist "whisker" genes. Of our own species, that all humans possess a nose in the middle of our face means that somewhere within our chromosomes there must exist "nose" genes that instruct our emerging bodies to develop one in that very place. It's not, for instance, as if a nose can develop anywhere on one's body, only by mere coincidence, it always ends up on our face. Apparently, humans are genetically "hard-wired" to develop in a very specific and particular way.
Essentially, what I'm suggesting is that humans are innately "hard-wired" to perceive a spiritual reality. We are "hard-wired" to believe in forces that transcend the limitations of this, our physical reality. Most controversial of all, if what I'm suggesting is true, it would imply that God is not necessarily something that exists "out there," beyond and independent of us, but rather as the product of an inherited perception, the manifestation of an evolutionary adaptation that exists within the human brain. And why would our species have evolved such a seemingly abstract trait? -In order to enable us to deal with our species' unique and otherwise debilitating awareness of death.
atheists might think this disproves religion but i think it proves it. It's what I've been saying about the religious instinct for years.
1 Andrew Newberg, Why God Won’t God Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. (New York, Ballentine Books), 2001, pp. 157-172.
3 Newberg gives a fine tribute to his late partner who was already gone by the time the book was published. P10
3 Ibid., pp 1-6.
4 Ibid., p7
5 Ibid., p37
6 Ibid. p33
7 Ibid. pp. 35-36
8 Ibid. pp. 36-43
he does not say where or who did the experiment. Pp. 11-14
Ibid, p 52
Publishers website The God Part of the Brain URL: http://godpart.com/ visited 5/23/08