Sunday, April 29, 2007

Neurobiologists "Find" Religion (and then lose it)

When I saw the stupid headline - "This Is Your Brain on God" - at, I thought here we go again. Another ridiculous article purporting to "explain" religion as the by-product of Darwinian evolution or neurobiology. We've been here before (both Slate and the NYTimes seem to have soft-spots for such articles - just recall "Darwin's God"**). But George Johnson's article on the emerging field of "neurotheology" is a refreshing rarity: an article in the popular press that actually expresses skepticism about the ability of science (in this case, neurobiology) to explain every facet of human existence. Thank heavens!!

Johnson makes it clear that the findings of neurotheology will never satisfy either believers or atheists - in the end, the results will always conform to one's metaphysical presuppositions:
In the neurological search for the spiritual, there is no shortage of data. But pile it as high as you like, and you're left staring across the same divide. Depending on your predisposition, you can interpret all these experiments in two different ways. The believers take them as scientific evidence for the reality of their visions, while the atheists claim more proof that God is all in your head.
Johnson isn't afraid to say that many of the neurotheological findings - which are often hyped by the popular scientific media - are actually rather banal and "reductive". This isn't surprising, since much of modern neurobiology simply involves hooking patients up to brain-scanning devices and then observing which parts of their brains "light up" when they do something unusual or interesting (like play ping-pong, pray, look at naked women, etc.). As Johnson remarks, such "high-tech imagery has a way of stating the obvious." For instance, a study at UPenn "found that praying Franciscan nuns and meditating Buddhist monks generate similar brain scans: The frontal lobe, associated with focus and concentration, lights up. At the same time, the parietal lobe, which integrates sensory information, goes dim... As you fix your thoughts on the otherworldly, you lose contact with your immediate surroundings." Surprise, surprise!!

A major limitation of neurotheology, which Johnson doesn't really address, is that it's forced to study religious behaviors (like deep praying, mediation, or ecstatic visions) since it can't really probe religious thought or belief as such. But such behaviors are merely one aspect of the religious life, and are in no way determinative of religious practice as a whole. I, for one, have never experienced an ecstatic vision, and while I do pray, I doubt that it moves my brain into a dramatically altered mental state. For me, praying is not that different than ordinary thinking. So why do I still believe? The emphasis on religious ecstasy also ignores the fact that such experiences have historically been regarded with suspicion by religious authorities themselves. Even in biblical times, it was widely understood that not every vision or prophecy was legitimate; such experiences had to be verified with other criteria. Thus, the basis for religious faith does not lie in such altered mental states, although these can complement previously held beliefs.

So it matters not one bit that "Michael Persinger of Laurentian University can induce [mystical experiences] by scrambling the brain with magnetic fields." Humans have known since prehistoric times that various substances and foods can cause visions. So who cares that they can also be caused by magnetic fields? Regardless, Persinger's device serves as the occasion for my favorite paragraph in the article:
After donning [Persinger's] helmet wired with electromagnets, some subjects reported experiences they described as mystical, or at least misty. When Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, put on the hood, it only made him a little dizzy. Persinger was quick to note that Dawkins had scored way below average on a psychological questionnaire measuring temporal lobe sensitivity—hints of a neurobiological correlate for atheism.
Johnson's last line here is brilliant. After all, if theism is simply a product of neurochemistry, then so is atheism - something that the "explainers of religion" all too often forget. Perhaps, in the end, the neurotheologians will show that it is atheism, not theism, which is caused by a mental defect (this would be the logical conclusion, of course, since the vast majority of the world's current and past inhabitants have been theists). If so, will then treat us to articles that attempt to explain the "atheism meme" and the "agnostic delusion"?

** Remember that silly "Darwin's God" article? Hopefully not. But if you're still interested, and still annoyed, the blog Adventus has a brilliant response.


Lee said...

Nice post. It's also worth noting that if brain stimulations that generate what seem to be "mystical experiences" are supposed to prove that such experiences aren't veridical, the same logic would apply to any experience whatsoever. Presumably it would be possible in principle to stimulte my brain in such a way that would cause me to have, say, the experience of seeing an apple. Does that mean when I seem to see an apple under normal conditions that I'm not? Obviously not!

Jason Rust said...

Thanks for the link to the article and the analysis -- well worth the read.

Paul said...

To me all this stuff reverts to what one of my professors in divinity school called "nothing buttery." Here, religious experience is "nothing but" patterns of brain waves.

Yet we wouldn't have those two phrases - "religious experience" and "brain waves" - if one was nothing but the other. Butter itself, as another example, isn't nothing but atoms. You don't say "pass the atoms..."

It seems to me it would be odd if, given sufficient knowledge of the brain's workings, every kind of experience we can have, religious and otherwise, didn't have correlates in brain activity. As the kids say: DUH!

Phenomenology, experience, consciousness as we know it, obviously occurs in association with our bodies and brains. This doesn't speak to its significance or lack thereof or even tell us much of anything about what IT is...

James F. McGrath said...

Thanks for this post! I was very apprehensive about the book The God Gene by Dean Hamer, and ended up being pleasantly surprised when I actually read it - it does a good job of avoiding reductionism!