Publication details for Prof Matthew RatcliffeRatcliffe M. (2006). Neurotheology: A Science of What? In The Neurology of Religious Experience. McNamara P. Westport: Praeger. 81-104.
- Publication type: Books: sections
Author(s) from Durham
This paper raises a number of concerns about the new field of 'neurotheology', which seeks to investigate the neural correlates of religion and religious experience. I conclude that this area of enquiry is no more credible than the science of, say, 'neuroStevenSeagalology', which is the study of the neural basis of Steven Seagal film experience. But, if you don't like Steven Seagal films, pick whatever content you like. My colleague Ben Smith favours 'neurocheeseburgerology'.
Neurotheology: A Science of What?
There is considerable current interest in the question of what, if anything, neuroscience can tell us about religion. Discussion of the topic is not confined to academia but has captured the public imagination and found its way into the popular press. For example, an article appeared in the LA Times on 29th October 1997 and, subsequently, in other publications announcing that a ‘God spot’ had been found in the brain. The story referred to the finding reported by V. S. Ramachandran and colleagues that heightened emotional response in certain subjects with focal temporal lobe epilepsy was specific to stimuli of a ‘religious’ nature (Ramachandran and Blakeslee, 1998). Some work by Michael Persinger has also received considerable attention . Persinger used a device called a transcranial magnetic stimulator to focus a weak magnetic field on areas of the brain and reported that stimulation of a particular area often resulted in a religious experience (see Persinger, 2002b). The growing field of research on religion and the brain, which has taken its lead from such findings, often goes by the name ‘neurotheology’, a term that was in use at least as far back as the 1980s but has been employed increasingly during the last few years.
Why all the interest? The possibility of neural circuits specifically associated with religion raises all sorts of intriguing questions concerning the biological basis, function and evolutionary history of religion. Perhaps it might even cast light on the question of God’s existence. But before such questions can be coherently addressed, it is important to be clear about just what it is that is being studied. When claims are made about neural circuitry associated with ‘religion’ or with ‘religious experience’, how are those terms to be understood? My aim here is to explore this question and, in so doing, to raise a number of related philosophical concerns that arise in connection with some of the better known recent work in neurotheology.
If the claim were that certain brain areas are specifically associated with ‘religion’, it would be highly problematic. Studies such as those of Ramachandran and Persinger do not investigate the neural correlates of religion but of certain kinds of experience, and brief reflection suffices to make clear that there is a lot more to religion than just religious experience. Religions incorporate texts, rituals, roles, statuses, ceremonies, practices and shared belief systems. They interact in numerous ways with a broader culture and allow for many different levels and kinds of commitment and conviction on the part of their diverse practitioners.
Much of the structure of religion cannot be understood in terms of the cognitive dispositions of ‘religious’ individuals, given that religion is also a cultural-historical framework into which those individuals are born or introduced and shaped. Religion, it seems, is not just a matter of the properties of individual brains but of a shared way of life, through which words, deeds and experiences are interpreted (see, for example, Phillips, 1986). Furthermore, religions differ in all manner of ways and, even if an essence common to all religions could be distilled, it would most likely not be something that could be wholly captured in terms of the beliefs and experiences of individuals, viewed in isolation from culture.
The way to avoid such tricky issues is to stress that these studies are concerned not with religions as historical and cultural phenomena but with the religious experiences of individuals. Now, it might well be that all religions were originally inspired by such experiences or, alternatively it could be that religious experience is only one contributing factor in the formation of religions. Turning to individual practitioners, some people’s religious beliefs might originate in religious experience, whilst those of others might arise wholly from other sources, such as enculturation, indoctrination or rational deliberation. However, regardless of the specifics, it is clear that religious experience is an important element of most, if not all, religions. Hence discoveries about religious experience are likely to have at least some repercussions for a more general understanding of religion.
Unfortunately, focusing on ‘religious experience’ does not dispense with the problem of identifying one’s subject matter, since it is by no means clear what ‘religious experience’ is or whether various religious experiences have anything interesting in common. One might reply that a religious experience is just an experience of God. For instance, Persinger (2002a) repeatedly refers to “the God experience”, suggesting that a distinct kind of experience has indeed been identified. However, other authors have described several different kinds of religious experience, some of which do not seem incorporate the presence of the God of monotheism. For example, Caroline Franks Davis (1989, Chapter 2) offers the following taxonomy:
1. Interpretive experiences: Experiences, such as fortuitous co-incidences, which are interpreted in religious terms.
2. Quasi-sensory experiences: These include visions, voices, dreams and tactile sensations.
3. Revelatory experiences: Sudden moments of insight that seem to come from elsewhere.
4. Regenerative experiences: Profound feelings of strength, comfort or joy.
5. Numinous experiences: Feelings of insignificance before the majesty of God.
6. Mystical experiences: The experience of encountering ultimate reality, often associated with feelings of oneness, serenity and a loss of the sense of space and time.
These experiences need not be mutually exclusive and they might combine in all sorts of ways. The question is what, if anything, they all have in common. If some are very different from others, the search for neural correlates of a single type of ‘religious’, ‘mystical’ or ‘spiritual’ experience would be futile, analogous to looking for the neural correlates of ‘metal object experience’, ‘hairy thing experience’, ‘car experience’ or any other category that arbitrarily brought together many different kinds of phenomena. Thus, if neurotheology is to get off the ground, it must have, as its subject matter, a distinct experiential category or set of experiential categories.
This is not just a hypothetical concern. Seemingly different kinds of experience do run together in some of the literature. For example, Persinger (2002b, p.280) hypothesizes that an experience of the “‘sensed presence’ of a Sentient Being”, as induced through weak magnetic stimulation of an area of the brain, is the prototype or experiential foundation for full-blown religious experiences. Why he asserts this is unclear. Feelings of sensed presence often involve experiencing another being as utterly ‘other’ than oneself, as detached and alien (Cheyne, 2001). In contrast, many religious experiences are characterized by a feeling of oneness with the cosmos, of a mystical union that is quite different from the sense that another sentient being, wholly distinct from oneself, is present . So, if such claims are to be made plausible, a clearer account is needed of why these experiences are similar in kind.
In order to demarcate its subject matter, neurotheology not only requires a plausible, explicit taxonomy of different religious, mystical and spiritual experiences. It also needs to draw a clear line between these and mundane, everyday experiences. If one is to study the neural correlates of religious experience, one must assume that there is such a thing as an intrinsically religious experience. An alternative possibility is that ‘religious’, ‘mystical’ or ‘spiritual’ characteristics are not part of the experience at all but, rather, religious interpretations of experiences that possess no intrinsic religious elements. For example, it could be that many ‘religious experiences’ are just emotionally charged experiences that are interpreted in religious terms by certain people.
Furthermore, many ‘non-religious’ experiences are far from mundane. Take intense feelings of grief, love, guilt, estrangement and surreality. All of these can be very intense and utterly imbued with ‘meaning’ but they do not fall into the familiar categories of ‘religious’, ‘spiritual’ or ‘mystical’. Thus there is the concern that attempts to study religious experience and the brain risk throwing a diverse range of experiences together whilst ignoring others, despite there being no non-arbitrary division between those studied and those cast aside.
All of this is not so say that religious experiences do not all have a common, underlying core. Perhaps they do. A well known unitary account is that of William James. In his famous Varieties of Religious Experience, James suggests that there is a “nucleus” uniting superficially diverse religious experiences. This nucleus involves a sense that something is not quite right about oneself, the world or one’s relation with the world. The unease is followed by a solution, whereby one discovers a higher part of oneself, a part that is not isolated from the rest of the universe but is instead bound up with a higher power.
James claims that differences between religious experiences are the result of different ‘over-beliefs’, by which he means culture-specific narratives through which the core experience is interpreted and communicated. ‘God’ is not intrinsic to the experience but is just one over-belief in terms of which it can be interpreted and communicated to others (1902, pp. 507-8).
Maybe neurotheology could adopt a description along similar lines. However, there might be a price. James’s account explicitly focuses on those rare individuals for whom religion is an “acute fever”, rather than a “dull habit” (p.6) and it is perhaps not applicable to religious experiences more liberally construed. There may also be serious problems with James’s view, which rests on his questionable prioritizing of individual experience over cultural expression. According to James, the over-beliefs are imposed upon the core experience. However, it seems that our habits, our practices, our abilities and so forth also feed into our experiences and shape them in all manner of ways. To give an obvious example, think about seeing a sign that says “no smoking”. It is near impossible to look at this sign without comprehending its meaning, a grasp of which seems inseparable from one’s experience of the sign. However, in order to experience it in that way, one must know how to read a particular language and also be a competent participant in a culture that recognizes both a practice known as ‘smoking’ and the concept of an environment-specific prohibition applicable to all. Generalizing from any number of similar examples, it is arguable that the notion of a core experience, untainted by culture, is not sustainable. As Charles Taylor puts it:
The ideas, the understanding with which we live our lives, shape directly what we could call religious experiences; and these languages, these vocabularies, are never those simply of an individual. (2002, p.28)
Any account focusing solely on individuals or indeed on brains runs the risk of neglecting the shared social contexts through which experiences are structured. By analogy, if one were to study the nature of baseball, an account that referred solely to the biological capacities of individuals that dispose them to play baseball would not only be incomplete but largely beside the point, given that the activity of playing baseball is only possible given a particular cultural context. It is this context which explains the existence of baseball, rather than ‘baseball areas’ in people’s brains.
Perhaps religious experiences are comparable. Even solitary meditation is performed in accordance with established norms and shared practices that are passed on from generation to generation via cultural, rather than biological, transmission. If historically stable cultural conditions are required before individuals can have experiences of a certain type, interpret their mundane experiences in a certain way or categorize certain experiences as religious, spiritual or mystical, then perhaps the brain is not the right place to start looking for answers.
Of course, just as there is variability in people’s expertise at baseball, there may well be differing individual propensities for religious experience, which are explicable in neurobiological terms. However, one could never arrive at an understanding of what baseball is just by studying the biological traits of individuals. One would have to start with an understanding of the game before one could make sense of what individuals were doing, how they came to do it and why they do it. The same may well be true of religious experience and the brain. Unless one already understands something of what religious experience is, studies of relevant brain processes run the risk of descending into confusion.
2. The neural correlates of something rather vague
So far, I have briefly sketched some problems concerning the nature of religious experience , which will need to be addressed by any account of the relationship between religious experience and the brain. However, it is not unreasonable to suggest that, although ‘neurotheologists’ need to be mindful of such problems, they are not required to solve them before they can start work. It might well turn out that scientific studies will themselves play a role in distinguishing and clarifying the different categories of experience. To give an overly simple example, if several subjects all volunteer similar verbal reports of an experience but it turns out that two quite different patterns of neural activity are involved, with roughly half the subjects exhibiting each pattern, we might look at their descriptions of the experience again, note subtle differences between them and realize that what we previously thought was an experience of type A is actually two quite different types of experience, A and B. Neurotheology does not need to solve all the philosophical problems before it can even get off the ground. Instead, it can seek progressive clarification of its subject matter as it proceeds.
With this in mind, I will now look at some specific claims made on behalf of neurotheology. I will suggest that some of the best known work in the area has not satisfactorily resolved the kinds of problems mentioned above, with the consequence that many of the bolder claims made concerning the successes of neurotheology are premature. Although I will focus primarily on a well known book by Andrew Newberg, Eugene d’Aquili and Vince Rause (2001), many of the problems I discuss are, I think, common to work in neurotheology more generally.
Perhaps the strongest claim that Newberg, d’Aquili and Rause make on behalf of neurotheology is that neuroscience has demonstrated that religious, mystical and spiritual experiences do indeed exist. As they put it, “mystical experience is biologically, observably, and scientifically real” rather than “wishful thinking” (2001, p.7). The claim is that, regardless of whether or not these experiences turn out to be veridical, they are at least shown to be real. By analogy, the experience of seeing a chocolate cake is a real experience, regardless of whether it is a dream or a veridical perception. But is this claim on behalf of neuroscience defensible? The suggestion seems to be that, without the intervention of science, there would be doubt concerning whether mystical experiences do in fact occur. However, such skepticism certainly does not apply to most other experiences. If I claim to be recalling the holiday I had in Tobago last summer, you would presumably not doubt my testimony until you had scanned my brain to check that the neural pattern was appropriate. And you would not suspend your belief that other people experience trees, stars, music and the taste of curry until neuroscience had come to your assistance. But perhaps mystical experiences are different, in that they are outside the norm and cannot be supported by other evidence, such as several photographs of me in Tobago or a spoonful of meat vindaloo in the mouth of the person claiming to taste curry. Hence, it might be argued, they warrant a greater degree of skepticism.
Nevertheless, skepticism concerning their existence is still hard to defend. Religious, mystical and spiritual experiences have been discussed and written about by many thousands of people over the course of thousands of years. Now it seems safe to assume that all these people have had some kind of experience, regardless of philosophical problems involved in specifying what, precisely, such experiences consist of. The alternative would be to brand them all liars or proclaim them incompetent to report in any way on what their experiences are like. So it is unclear why neural correlates should be required to corroborate such a substantial body of testimony. However, maybe neurotheology tells us something more specific about the nature of the experience, something absent from subjective reports. Newberg, d’Aquili and Rause state that:
..neurology makes it clear that spiritual insights are born in startling moments of mystical transcendence. (2001, p.139) The wisdom of the mystics, it seems, has predicted for centuries what neurology now shows to be true: In Absolute Unitary Being, self blends into other; mind and matter are one and the same. (2001, p.156)
Is this so? Imagine that you had never had a religious experience and had never heard of ‘religious experience’. In fact, all you had to go on was the neurobiological data. What could you ascertain about experience from this alone? Could you look at the results of brain imaging studies and conclude that “Absolute Unitary Being” was experienced or that “mystical transcendence” was occurring? The answer is no. Newberg, d’Aquili and Rause presuppose a conception of what the relevant experiences consist of. They claim to discover specific patterns of neural activity correlated with an experiential type but this discovery clearly does not underlie their understanding of what the experiential type consists of or their belief that it exists. Furthermore, suppose that someone claimed to be having a religious experience and that her pattern of neural activity differed from what is the norm in such cases. Would this be reason enough to dismiss her claim? I suspect not. Consider a fictional scenario where one hundred people have their brains scanned in all manner of ways whilst entertaining the belief that ‘the Eiffel Tower is in Paris’. Now suppose that in ninety nine of these people, a specific area of the brain is active whilst they claim to entertain the belief. In the other person, that area is comparatively inactive and several other areas are ‘lit up’ instead. Would this be sufficient warrant for maintaining that the anomalous person had a different belief to the others? It would not, given that nobody claims that specific belief contents, such as ‘Revenge of the Sith is a Star Wars film’, ‘Santa Claus exists’ or ‘Sydney is warmer than the North Pole’, require the same patterns of brain activity in all people. Hence there are clearly cases where we would not want to say that neuroscience overrides personal testimony. But, one might reply, ‘Paris beliefs’ are not an appropriate object of study at all, given that they do not comprise an informative psychological kind. Anything one might learn about Paris beliefs would be equally informative with respect to just about any other belief content; ‘Paris’ and ‘The Eiffel Tower’ are incidental. It could be added that Paris beliefs can be associated with all sorts of very different experiences and that neurotheology is preoccupied with certain kinds of experience, rather than abstract ‘beliefs’ stripped of their connection to concrete experience.
However, the same concern about psychological kinds arises in relation to experience. Suppose one were to study ‘cat experiences’ in constrained laboratory conditions. A variety of subjects are asked, one after the other, to sit in a chair in the corner of a monochrome square room. At the other end of the room is a large white cat, asleep in a basket. Subjects are asked to focus solely on the cat for one minute and, during that time, their patterns of brain activity are recorded, using whatever technique you like. Now suppose that there are common patterns of activity associated with the experience in all subjects. What would this tell us about ‘cat experience’? Such studies might well tell us something about experience and the brain but they would not tell us anything about specifically catty experiences because ‘cat experience’ is not an informative experiential category. We do not ordinarily identify distinct kinds of experience by identifying different kinds of experiential objects, such as dogs, cats, chainsaws and oranges, given that anything we learn about the structure of experience more generally will be equally applicable to experiences of all these things. Thus a correlation between ‘experience of entity X’ and ‘brain activity A’ need not be remotely informative with respect to the experiential content ‘X’.
If correlations between neural activity and religious experience are to be informative, it must be the case that religious experiences, unlike cat experiences, comprise an experiential type about which illuminating generalizations can be made. So, what makes an experience ‘religious’? The obvious answer is its content, what it is about, as indicated by Persinger’s (2002a) references to ‘the God experience’. However, we have just seen that, in other cases, types of experiential object, such as cats and dogs, do not serve to distinguish experiential types. Now, it may be contested that other types of experiential object are different. Take an experience of emotion. Surely this is a common kind of experience in a way that a cat experience is not. However, the comparison does not work. Experiences of emotions are not generally experiences of objects called emotions. One experiences objects emotionally, rather than experiencing the emotions themselves as objects. Perhaps one might similarly maintain that religious, spiritual and mystical experiences are ‘ways of experiencing things’ or ‘forms of experience’ rather than categories of experiential objects. But this is hard to reconcile with the fact that many such experiences are described as experiences of something. So neurotheology seems to be caught on the horns of a dilemma. If the experiences it explores constitute a type in virtue of their objects, then it is hard to see why that type would be worthy of study in its own right. And, if they involve a ‘way of experiencing’, the question arises as to how they can be described so as to make clear what binds them together as a group, without appealing to their objects.
Do Newberg, d’Aquili and Rause manage to say anything in support of mystical experience being a distinctive experiential type with informative neural correlates? Consider the following passage:
….humans [..] are natural mystics blessed with an inborn genius for effortless self-transcendence. If you ever ‘lost yourself’ in a beautiful piece of music, for example, or felt ‘swept away’ by a rousing patriotic speech, you have tasted in a small but revealing way the essence of mystical union. (2001, p.113)
This seems to indicate that mystical experiences form a continuum with everyday experiences. Now, all our experiences are intricately structured and incorporate different elements to differing degrees and so the question arises as to what makes mystical elements stand out from the rest in such a way that they can be regarded as a distinctive experiential type. Newberg, d’Aquili and Rause emphasize a sense of ‘oneness’ with things as the core characteristic and state that in everyday life, by contrast, “we experience that world as something from which we are clearly set apart” (p.115). However, such pronouncements about everyday experience are simplistic to say the least. In a recent paper (Ratcliffe, 2005b), I try to make explicit some of the many different ways in which we experience our relationship with the world during the course of our everyday lives. Consider feeling detached from things, at home in the world, slightly lost, removed from it all, abandoned, disconnected, empty, powerless, in control of things, trapped and weighed down, at one with nature, part of a greater whole, out of it, at one with life, there, not quite there, part of things, cut off from reality, brought down to earth or unreal. And the list seems to go on indefinitely. There are feelings of strangeness, unreality, oneness, intangibility, belonging, familiarity, completeness, power, fragility, disjointedness, coherence, meaningfulness, emptiness, mystery, unintelligibility, separation and so forth. Some of these terms are synonyms for others, whereas others seem to point to subtly distinct experiences. But the bottom line is that any attempt to force all our experiences into the categories of either ‘mundane separation’ or ‘mystical oneness’ would fail to do justice to the varieties of experience and their complex relations to each other.
Even if we assume that mystical oneness is a distinctive way of experiencing, it is clear that we have drifted a long way from specifically ‘religious’ experience and thus from anything warranting the name neuro-‘theology’. In discussing ritual, Newberg, d’Aquili and Rause state that “when the unitary states generated by the neurobiology of ritual occur in a religious context, they are usually interpreted as a personal experience of the closeness of God” (2001, p.90). This suggests that ‘God’, ‘religion’ and all manner of other contents are not part of the mystical experience of unity but imposed upon it through acts of interpretation. So we seem to have arrived at a rather Jamesian view, according to which multifarious interpretations rest upon an underlying way of experiencing one’s relationship with things.
Can worthwhile neurobiological generalizations be made with regard to this way of experiencing? In an earlier publication, Newberg and d’Aquili acknowledge that the experiences in question are not simple states:
Religious and spiritual experiences are highly complex states that likely involve many brain structures including those involved in higher order processing of sensory and cognitive input as well as those involved in the elaboration of emotions and autonomic responses. (2000, p. 251)
This suggests a recurrence of the ‘cat experience’ problem, which is not avoided by a shift in emphasis from the objects of experience to oneness as a ‘way of experiencing’. Suppose that all the constituents of mystical, religious or spiritual experiences are common to other kinds of experiences and that there are no neural correlates specific to these experiences and only these experiences. Consider a type of experience A, which is already known to incorporate elements B, C, D and E, these elements also being present to varying degrees in many other kinds of experience. Now assume that there are neural correlates of B, C, D and E. Will this tell us anything specific about A? The answer is no. A common pattern of argument in neurotheology is as follows:
1. A incorporates B.
2. There are interesting neural correlates of B.
3. Therefore there are interesting neural correlates of A.
However, what is true of B here need not be true of A. For example, there are all sorts of neural processes specific to visual experiences but that does not make them informative with respect to ‘visual experiences of cats’.
Consider Newberg, d’Aquili and Rause’s work on meditating subjects. They report that unusual neural activity is consistently found in the “posterior superior parietal lobe” at the peak of meditation (p.4). This area is associated with a sense of spatial orientation and so Newberg, d’Aquili and Rause hypothesize that the area is starved of input during prolonged periods of physically inactive meditation, resulting in a breakdown of spatial boundaries and a sense of oneness (2001, p.28). Now it is clear from subjective reports that certain ‘mystical’ experiences involve a loss of spatial and temporal locatedness. Thus it should come as no surprise that brain areas associated with spatial and temporal locatedness are implicated in the experience. However, there is no evidence to suggest the experience is wholly constituted by a loss of spatial and temporal boundaries. Newberg, d’Aquili and Rause do not enquire as to whether similar brain activities can be found in other unremarkable or very different experiences. So it is not clear that the correlations discovered through such studies pick up on something specific to mystical experience, as opposed to an element common to many, although not all, kinds of experience.
The problem is illustrated more clearly in other claims made by Newberg, d’Aquili and Rause. For example, they state that “the visual association area may […] play a prominent role in religious and spiritual experiences that involve visual imagery” (2001, p.27). It will, presumably, play a role in any experience associated with visual imagery. That neural circuits are specific to B and that B is involved in A need not say anything remotely informative about A. The same kind of logic could be applied equally to experiences of cups of tea. There are plenty of similar examples. For example:
We believe that part of the reason the attention association area is activated during spiritual practices such as meditation is because it is heavily involved in emotional responses – and religious experiences are usually highly emotional. (2001, p.31)
If the claim were simply that many religious experiences are emotional, it would hardly come as a surprise. The fact that certain religious experiences are highly emotional is readily apparent from a huge body of testimony and from observation of people lying prostrate on the floor wailing, with tears streaming down their faces, to cite but one of many obviously emotional behaviors that are frequently associated with religious experience. The claim is instead about the neural basis of religious experience. However, it actually relates to emotion and only trivially to the many experiences that involve emotion. All it amounts to, so far as I can see, is that religious experiences have similar constituents to other experiences and will involve brain areas that are associated with those constituents. It says nothing informative about the category ‘religious experience’ and does nothing to address the still unresolved question of whether such experiences even comprise a distinctive experiential category.
This explanatory pattern is not just evident in the work of Newberg and colleagues. Consider one of the best known studies of the neural basis of religious dispositions, carried out by Ramachandran and colleagues (Ramachandran and Blakeslee, 1998). Ramachandran’s findings show that heightened affective response in certain subjects is not stimulus-general but specific to religious words and icons. Given this finding, Ramachandran goes on to speculate about there being neural structures dedicated to the mediation of religious experiences. Now, what the study certainly does achieve is a clear distinction between two possibilities, ‘globally heightened affect’ and ‘specific affective responsiveness’, plus a good empirical case for the latter. What it does not do is tell us anything at all about the relationship between specifically religious tendencies and the brain. How can that be? Well, it seems safe to assume that affective responsiveness to particular religious icons is not hard-wired from birth but learned. With this in mind, consider an alternative scenario. Throughout his life, Arnold, who perhaps suffers from focal temporal lobe seizures, has been obsessed by the films of Steven Seagal. Indeed, such is the extent of Arnold’s obsession that his interest in all other stimuli is rather diminished. One day, Arnold is taken into a laboratory and his galvanic skin response is monitored whilst he is presented with various stimuli . Amongst these stimuli are the DVD covers of several as yet unreleased Steven Seagal films, none of which Arnold has yet acquired or even heard of. Sure enough, we find that Arnold’s skin response to these stimuli is far higher than his response to any of the others, including stimuli of a horrific, religious, or sexual nature. What can we conclude from this? Well we can certainly say something about response specificity but the content of the stimulus is utterly contingent; it could have been anything. One would certainly not be justified in speculating about a ‘Steven Seagal spot’ in the brain or embarking on the new science of neuroStevenSeagalology.
What is the difference between the two cases? Granted, the structure of our culture and the significance attached by many people to religious iconography and language make it more likely that Arnold will be aroused by religious stimuli than by Steven Seagal. However, in both cases, I do not think the results tell us anything informative about the relationship between the stimulus content and brain biology. Areas of the brain associated with emotion are only contingently related to religion and studies that tell us something about emotion and the brain need not tell us anything interesting about religion and the brain.
In summary, it seems that certain work in the general area of ‘neurotheology’ suffers from confusion about its subject matter. It is difficult to see how this ‘science’ can make significant progress unless these problems can be sorted out or at least lessened. Unless one has a reasonably good sense of the experiential category that one is studying, one’s conclusions will either turn out to be vague or about something else altogether.
Further problems may well arise due to this lack of clarity. For example, without a good sense of what religious experience is, it is difficult to draw a clear line between genuine cases of religious experience and other, perhaps pathological, cases that resemble religious experiences in some superficial respect. For example, the serial killer, Peter Sutcliffe, who terrorized the North of England in the 1970s, notoriously claimed that he heard voices of Divine origin, ordering him to kill women (Mackie, 1982, p.180). Presumably one would want to distinguish Sutcliffe’s experiences (if he indeed had these experiences) from those of a meditating Buddhist monk. Perhaps one could restrict talk of religious experiences to non-pathological cases. For instance, Franks Davis (Chapter 8) suggests that it is possible to distinguish between healthy religious experiences from various pathologies that are superficially similar. However, William James (1902, Lecture 1), in contrast, argues that religious experiences are both inextricably entangled with psychopathology and of profound spiritual significance. So the issue is not an easy one to resolve. Of more direct relevance to neurotheology is the worry that laboratory studies of religious experience might be exploring artifacts brought about by experimental conditions, experiences that differ from genuine religious experiences had by people in their natural environments. Without a clear sense of what the relevant experiences are, the boundary cannot be drawn.
3. Functions, fables and faith
I do not wish to suggest that the problems discussed above are irresolvable. Indeed, it is at least conceivable that religious experience will turn out to be a quite distinctive way of experiencing things, supported by dedicated neural circuitry. My conclusion is, rather, that there is insufficient evidence for such a view and, more importantly, that the issue is obscured by substantial conceptual problems. In this section, I want to look at further issues that would arise should the claim turn out to be true. Once we have identified a type of experience and an associated neural structure, where do we go next?
One important question is whether the structure in question has the function of generating religious experiences. In addressing this question, it must be kept in mind that, even if there are certain ‘circuits’ associated with religious experience, they may not comprise a discrete system that does most of the work of generating religious experience. Instead, they could be part of a much larger system. By analogy, my hands are very active when I type but do not constitute an autonomous ‘typing system’, the operation of which can be understood in isolation from a plethora of other capacities. Thus, if A plays a role in generating B, it should not be assumed that A is primarily or wholly responsible for B. But let us suppose for now that some such system does exist. What might the function of a biological capacity for religious experience be?
I will start by looking at a currently popular hypothesis concerning the function of religious experience and will suggest that it is problematic in a number of respects, some of which are also likely to plague rival hypotheses. I will then address the question of whether a functional account of the capacity for religious experience could, in principle, tell us anything about whether such experiences are veridical or illusory, that is whether they reveal something real or whether they are merely psychological in nature.
Accounts of function are intimately connected with evolutionary accounts of how a biological structure evolved. Indeed, ‘the function of X’ is taken by many to be synonymous with ‘what X was selected or adapted for’. Thus functional accounts of religious experience often take the form of evolutionary narratives, which explain how a biological structure evolved and why it was ‘favored’ by natural selection.
When speculating as to the evolutionary origins of any psychological or behavioral trait, it is important to exercise considerable caution, given that much work in sociobiology and evolutionary psychology has been charged with concocting superficially plausible stories on the basis of inadequate evidence. This failing was famously satirized by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin (1979), who branded ‘adaptationist’ accounts concerning the evolved functions of various traits ‘just so’ stories, no more respectable than Rudyard Kipling’s account of how the elephant got his trunk, which involved a crocodile attached to the elephant’s nose and a python pulling in the opposite direction, resulting in considerable elongation of the appendage. Similar accusations continue to be made against various hypotheses proposed by evolutionary psychologists . Are they fair? For present purposes, I remain agnostic with respect to the charge leveled against evolutionary psychology in general. However, I will suggest that the label ‘just so story’ is quite appropriate for certain evolutionary explanations of a capacity for religious experience. I will focus on the claim that belief in God has the function of lessening the fear of death, which would otherwise detrimentally affect the psychological well-being of thoughtful creatures like us, impairing our ability to survive and reproduce. An account along these lines has been proposed by Persinger, amongst others:
A biological capacity for the God experience was critical for the survival of the species. Without some experiences that could balance the terror of personal extinction, the existence of the human phenomenon called the ‘self’ could not be maintained. (2002a, p.274)
Persinger claims that, by associating oneself with the infinite or with a greater whole, one manages to escape the unpleasant burden of one’s finitude and impending death. What can be said for this hypothesis? Well, even leaving aside the concern that there may be no such thing as a species-universal ‘God experience’, it is still beset with problems. First of all, correlation is not cause. The experience may have arisen for some other role and only by happy coincidence have the effect of making unavoidable death more bearable. Association of a capacity with a beneficial effect does not entail that the capacity arose because it produced that effect. Second, there is a difference between religious belief and religious experience. Religious belief could, presumably, have arisen without religious experience. Thus it is not clear why the ‘death avoidance’ adaptation should involve a capacity for experience, rather than belief by some other means. And, if there are many different routes to religious belief, then a single adaptationist account is unlikely to encompass all of them. Third, there is a failure to consider the possibility that all sorts of other mechanisms could have evolved to block out thoughts of one’s inevitable demise or cope with such thoughts. A ‘death thought prevention system’ would do the job nicely. Another solution would be to wire death thoughts into the sex drive, so that as soon as you start having them, you procreate instead. The question of whether or not we do have such mechanisms, which, for the most part, satisfactorily perform the function ascribed to religion, is not even addressed. By analogy, one would not hypothesize that the nose is a propulsion system without first having given due consideration to the role played by limbs. Fourth, and perhaps most problematic, is the assumption that an understanding of death really did pose a threat to our ancestors’ survival. Last week, I had a pub conversation with a lecturer from the English Department at Durham University, who informed me at length that inevitable death, without hope of an afterlife, did not bother him in the slightest. Despite my own protestations that death was horrific and somehow metaphysically unacceptable, he would not concede. Now I don’t know how many people are indeed troubled by the prospect of death, in what ways and to what extent. And I don’t know whether religious people are less preoccupied with it than others or, alternatively, equally preoccupied by it but not as horrified by it. Even if death did pose less of a problem for them, the direction of causation would be unclear. Do people become religious because they are already unable to grasp the possibility that death really is the end or do they have fewer problems with death because of their religious dispositions?
Such questions need to be carefully addressed before one starts positing death-avoidance functions. Furthermore, even if current humans, atheists in particular, are often troubled by death, it by no mean follows that our ancestors were. I tend to think about death rather more when I’m not concentrating on other, more immediate things. An urgent piece of work or a particular threat to my well-being tends to shift my attention somewhat. Furthermore, as an academic philosopher, I have far more time to think about death than many people, including, I suspect, our Pleistocene ancestors. They may well have had so much else to contend with that the prospect of eventual death was the last thing on their minds. So it is unclear that ‘death thoughts’ amounted to a problem in the first place and it is also unclear why religious experience should have emerged as a solution. It might also be argued that unwavering religious belief could have a similarly detrimental effect to behavioral paralysis in the face of death. If you know you have eternal life in a better place, why worry about this world? The resultant apathy would surely not have conferred a survival advantage. So this all looks suspiciously like a ‘just so’ story. To make things worse, Persinger just assumes that religious experience has some function:
From a Darwinian perspective, we might appreciate the maintenance of the temporal lobe experiences that promote the God belief. If there had not been survival value associated with both the experience and the belief in gods, these behaviors should have been selected against long ago. They should have been deleted from our genetic expressions. (2002b, p.290)
The argument is that for any current human trait X, X would not now exist unless X conferred some past survival advantage. Presumably this must apply to traits such as a disposition toward heart attacks, brain hemorrhages, unpleasant skin growths, constipation and lung cancer. In response, it could be argued that such things are not ‘normal’, healthy everyday features of organisms, whereas a capacity for religious experience, like eyes, ears and lungs, is. However, even if one were to accept the highly questionable view that the capacity for religious experience is a healthy trait that many of us exercise frequently, the argument still fails. Tooth decay, bad breath and occasional instances of very poor reasoning are pretty much universal throughout the species but don’t merit functional explanations. The same applies to countless other bodily characteristics, capacities and behavioral traits. So the argument doesn’t even get off the ground .
Now perhaps other such stories have more going for them. However, this case study does bring to light a more general question; that of how any such account could be supported by adequate evidence. What evidence could possibly arbitrate between a host of rival stories, given that most of the historical facts may not just be currently unavailable but irrevocably unavailable? As Robert Richardson has argued, in the case of many evolutionary stories concerning human cognition, the relevant evidence may be impossible, in practice, to obtain and “without history, evolutionary explanation is empty” (2001, p.334).
But let us suppose that the conceptual and evidential problems are eventually overcome and that a plausible functional account of religious experience is formulated. The question I want to look at now is that of whether such an account could constitute evidence for or against the view that religious experiences incorporate genuine communication with the Divine, apprehension of the true nature of Being or something along similar lines. Ramachandran and Blakeslee (1998) explicitly adopt a stance of principled agnosticism concerning this question. Newberg, d’Aquili and Rause, however, suggest that mystical experiences do indeed comprise grounds for belief in a higher reality:
[We] saw evidence of a neurological process that has evolved to allow 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 others. (2001, p.9)
However, what is clear from their discussion is that this view has no empirical basis. None of the studies cited provide any evidence whatsoever for or against a “universal reality that connects us to all others”. It is just unsubstantiated speculation, unconnected with the science (Pigliucci, 2002).
Nevertheless, I want to suggest that a comprehensive account of the neurobiology of religious experience would inevitably have considerable repercussions for the view that such experiences involve contact with something real, be it ‘God’ or a ‘higher reality’. Thus it would also have repercussions for the question of whether religious beliefs are well grounded, in so far as such beliefs are based on religious experiences. This is something that I argued in a 2003 article. I will summarize the argument here and elaborate it in certain respects.
Why should a biological account of religious experience have any implications for the epistemological question of whether one should believe in the reality of what one experiences? Well, consider, first of all, the possibility that religious experience is the result of a malfunction. Massimo Pigliucci succinctly states the implications of such a hypothesis:
…if we realize that mystical experiences originate from the same neurological mechanisms that underlie hallucinations from sensorial deprivation and drug-induced ‘visions’, I bet dollar to donut that the reality experienced by meditating Buddhists and praying nuns is entirely contained in their mind and is not a glimpse of a ‘higher realm’, as tantalizing as that idea may be. (2002, p.270)
The bottom line is that incredulity is the best bet when an experience arises from malfunction and, if that is so with religious experience, it is best explained without reference to the supernatural. Cheyne (2001) advocates a similar position with regard to certain ‘sensed presence’ experiences, which he explains in terms of malfunctional activation of vigilance systems in the brain. Given that these experiences can be traced to specific brain processes going wrong, rather than the intervention of an external source, Cheyne maintains that they call for a “straightforward naturalistic explanation” (2001, p.136).
The tension between a ‘malfunction’ explanation and the claim that the resultant experiences are veridical becomes unavoidable if one accepts a non-contingent connection between ‘function’ and ‘well-formed belief’. Certain theists and atheists alike have argued that well-formed beliefs just are those that are generated by properly functioning cognitive apparatus operating in normal environmental conditions . If this is the case then any belief arising as a result of malfunction is, by implication, not to be trusted.
Of course, malfunction is only one possibility. Another is that religious experience is an unavoidable by-product or side-effect of some other functional cognitive process. An analogous example would be the human chin, which, it has been argued, emerged as an inevitable side-effect of building a functional human-type jaw (Gould and Lewontin, 1979). Again, this would seriously threaten the case for veridicality. If the historical emergence of something can be fully accounted for in terms of some other wholly non-mysterious phenomenon, then there is no need to resort to an additional supernatural element in order to explain its presence.
However, what about an account that assigns a function to religious experience? Again, no such account will be neutral with respect to the question of veridicality. If a comprehensive functional account made no reference to the causal role of the supernatural in producing the experience, this would imply that the supernatural had no role to play in the genesis of the experience. Otherwise the account would be incomplete. If the function of religious experience were, say, to communicate with God, then any functional account that did not make reference to God would be either false or highly impoverished.
Thus it would seem that any complete functional account will constitute evidence either for or against veridical religious experience and, consequently, for or against the credibility of any religious beliefs that are founded in the experience. However, things are not so simple. Investigation of the function of religious experience cannot be a wholly empirical affair, meaning that one cannot simply read functions off the natural world without first making significant assumptions. For example, if one were to examine a fish and attempt to explain the function of its fins, one could only do so if one entertained, at some point in one’s examination, the possibility that water were a feature of the fish’s environment. To venture a more vivid example, in The Country of the Blind, a short story by H. G. Wells, the protagonist, Nunez, finds himself in the valley of the blind, where all the inhabitants lost their sight hundreds of years ago and passed on the trait to future generations. This valley has cut off from the rest of the world for hundreds of years and so the whole population has been deprived of any experience of sighted people until the arrival of Nunez. Indeed they have even lost the concept of sight. Nunez tries repeatedly to convince them that he can see. However, they refuse to admit the possibility of sight and instead interpret his various assertions as reports of delusional experiences. They hypothesize that these delusions have their source in the enlarged, rapidly moving globes on either side of Nunez’s nose and thus propose to cure his delusions by removing them.
The point of the example is that biological structures are interpreted and assigned functions only on the basis of prior assumptions about possible constituents of the environment, such as the ambient optic array, in the case of sight. If such things are denied, the biology will be interpreted differently, albeit wrongly in the case of Nunez’s eyes. The same applies to the function of brain areas, which will be interpreted through a backdrop of presuppositions concerning what the world is like. Now this is not a problem in the majority of cases, where everyone agrees as to what the relevant features of the environment are. However, it is extremely problematic when it comes to religious experience, a case where some people take God to be a very real part of the world that it is possible to commune with, whilst others begin with the assumption of a Godless world. To pursue the analogy with Wells’ story, we don’t know who is blind and who is not.
Neuroscience cannot provide decisive evidence for or against the existence of cats, coriander, kestrels or curtains solely by monitoring the brain processes that occur when such entities are perceived, given that the processes in question would only be interpreted as relating to those entities if their existence and presence were already presupposed or at least regarded as likely. And I suggest that a similar lesson applies to so-called ‘religious’ experiences. Regardless of whether or not one believes in a higher being or greater reality beyond the mundane world, one can interpret the data so as to accord with one’s prior beliefs. The science itself will not, in this case, be able to arbitrate between conflicting presuppositions.
What I am not suggesting here is that naturalism and various religious belief systems amount to utterly rigid standpoints that cannot be arbitrated between. So the result is not endorsement of a species of relativism, according to which two radically divergent worldviews can assimilate all the information they like, in such a way as to cohere with their own basic assumptions. I am making the more modest suggestion that neuroscience just does not have enough of an empirical kick to do the job. Something far less subtle and easy to absorb into one’s prior worldview would be required to break the deadlock and challenge entrenched patterns of interpretation. Why should we expect neuroscience to come up with the goods when much more dramatic evidence pertaining to the grounds for religious conviction is available to us in the form of famines, plagues, tsunamis, genocidal maniacs, acts of self sacrifice, visions of futility, feelings of meaningfulness, the beauty of nature and the brutality of nature, the combined impact of which has failed to settle the issue?
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