09 October 2007

Answers not in Genesis

One of the best college classes I took was a course in American philosophy. And one of the best thinkers was William James. And one of the best things he wrote was The Varieties of Religious Experience.

An excerpt:

WERE one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto. This belief and this adjustment are the religious attitude in the soul. I wish during this hour to call your attention to some of the psychological peculiarities of such an attitude as this, or belief in an object which we cannot see. All our attitudes, moral, practical, or emotional, as well as religious, are due to the "objects" of our consciousness, the things which we believe to exist, whether really or ideally, along with ourselves. Such objects may be present to our senses, or they may be present only to our thought. In either case they elicit from us a reaction; and the reaction due to things of thought is notoriously in many cases as strong as that due to sensible presences. It may be even stronger.

Now, over 100 years later, we understand (well, some of us) that the question is not whether God exists, but why the human mind thinks God exists.

This SciAm article is about some recent neuroscience experiments which investigated the relationship between religious experience and brain activity. An excerpt:

Michael Persinger of Laurentian University in Ontario sought to artificially re-create religious feelings by electrically stimulating that large subdivision of the brain. So Persinger created the “God helmet,” which generates weak electromagnetic fields and focuses them on particular regions of the brain’s surface.

In a series of studies conducted over the past several decades, Persinger and his team have trained their device on the temporal lobes of hundreds of people. In doing so, the researchers induced in most of them the experience of a sensed presence—a feeling that someone (or a spirit) is in the room when no one, in fact, is—or of a profound state of cosmic bliss that reveals a universal truth. During the three-minute bursts of stimulation, the affected subjects translated this perception of the divine into their own cultural and religious language—terming it God, Buddha, a benevolent presence or the wonder of the universe.

Persinger thus argues that religious experience and belief in God are merely the results of electrical anomalies in the human brain.

Sorry if it ruins your day, but if gets Rod Parsely off the air, it will be worth it. Also, the God Helmet is now available at Wal-Mart.

(h/t Al Fin)


ohdave said...

One of the funniest things I've heard in a while was Terri Gross' interview yesterday with an author who lived according to a literal interpretation of the bible for one year. You should try to go to the fresh air site and listen to it.

Mark said...

This would be convincing if mankind had only one God but considering the widespread animist belief systems (giving divine natures to physical objects), this doesn't quite work. Mt. Fuji is considered in the "kami" category, but the mountain doesn't exist merely because of an electrical field (unless you believe in the Matrix).

On the flip side, unless a fundamentalist is willing to look at other religions and take some truth from them, the God Helmet can't be disproved.

WestEnder said...

Actually ^that is addressed in the article. I think what you are describing are belief systems that are more cultural in nature, whereas neuroscience only studies the cognitive aspects of the religious experience rather than the sociological or anthropological aspects.

Mark said...

I expressed that poorly. What I meant was that Persinger focuses on Buddhism and the God of Abraham. The research on trances and intense religious states comes across as convincing but most religions (and arguably most Christians/Jews/Muslims) wouldn't associate religious feelings as peaceful and blissful. The article does mention that no two mystics feel the same way but many religions aren't even in the ballpark.

With the Greeks, Norse, and Celts, the closest equivalent "feeling" gods would be Apollo (a stretch), Balder, and the Daghda but this wouldn't be the real "feel" of any of the three. Aztec and Mayan religious feelings wouldn't even be close.

The article speculates that different spots in the brain can cause different feelings which could explain the scope of religions but many religions, especially North American, clearly evolved out of (or at least were related to) religions with different values or "God spots."

I've had to delete most of my blatherings to make it fit but it looks like the helmet can duplicate religious feelings but that's not getting to the root cause. I can run an electrical current across my arm and make it feel like the sensation of bugs crawling on it but that doesn't prove bugs don't exist.

I would argue that religious beliefs stem out of social order and that God spots would be incidental. I'm not discounting the validity of the research, just Persinger's conclusion.