Thursday, September 22, 2011

the science of spirituality

The NPR series, "the science of spirituality" leads off with...

More than half of adult Americans report they have had a spiritual experience that changed their lives. Now, scientists from universities like Harvard, Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins are using new technologies to analyze the brains of people who claim they have touched the spiritual — from Christians who speak in tongues to Buddhist monks to people who claim to have had near-death experiences. Hear what they have discovered in this controversial field, as the science of spirituality continues to evolve.

And then under the "god chemical" article, it continues...

At Johns Hopkins University, research suggests that chemicals that act on the serotonin system trigger mystical experiences that are life-altering. Serotonin is a chemical messenger that helps regulate mood and sleep. Now those neurologists -- and others -- are replicating studies from the 1960s in which patients with end-stage cancer were given LSD to see if they were convinced that life exists beyond death. The research raises the question, is God a delusion created by brain chemistry, or is brain chemistry a necessary conduit for people to reach God?  [bold print added]

I'm not sure what to file this under, maybe pseudo-science, or pop science at its worse

Quite a few of the posts in the response section latched on to these "findings" as further "scientific proof" that religion is a delusion. But is this the case?  One post to the article noted...

You must keep in mind that this monitors the effect and not the cause. Many years ago they discovered that people who are expert meditators enter a brain state called Alpha. So, they taught people how to enter Alpha through use of neurofeedback machinery. The result? None of the people was actually meditating. That is, being in Alpha is a side effect of meditation, but you can be in Alpha without actually meditating. As a Christian, and a physicist, I am frustrated by "science" like this. The experimentor has no way of knowing the nature of the individual's actual experience, so the measurement is meaningless.

But the issue is even deeper than that.  Not only is there confusion of cause and effect, there is also a confusion of reality with the perception of reality.  In other words, if we can understand how we perceive something then apparently we have some kind of explanation of what it is we are perceiving (or not actually perceiving, in the case of God).  This does not follow at all.

For example, you could put two people into MRI machines, where you can watch their brain activity.  Then you make this statement to them: "You have an advanced stage of cancer."  Chances are, in both individuals, you will have an area related to fear-responses light up with activity.  You can now identify the part of the brain which is associated with fear.  But the fear response does not actually tell you anything about the true medical condition of either person.  It has no bearing on that.  Perhaps "you have an advanced stage of cancer" is true of one but not of the other.  Or neither, or both.  

What cannot be said is that, because we know the area of the brain associated with fear, we can say anything about the reality of the thing being feared.  The thing may be true, or it may only be imagined.  Either way the perception does not tell you with certainty whether the thing perceived is true or not.

I think this is why mysticism (or a mystical feeling about God) is not an infallible sign of the presence of God or genuine contact with him. Christianity has always based much more reliance upon the multiple testimonies of prophets and their fulfilled prophecies, and upon the apostles who were eyewitnesses of Jesus.  My Christian testimony includes experiences that might be described as mystical, but my faith rests on the objective and historical work of Jesus Christ.


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