Cognitive Round Up: Why God Won't Go Away

As I have written before, as a historian I have become disenchanted with traditional approaches which perceive history to be what happened due to particular linear causes and effects, almost entirely social in nature.  So I have begun rewiring my historical approach so that it views history as something made to explain the present.  History emerges within a cognitive and cultural network, and therefore is reflective of local cultural affairs as well as universal ways of thinking.  I call this approach, Cognitive Historicism.

I have begun to read seriously materials written about the cognitive end of things.  So every so often I will be posting a book note featuring these cognitive readings.  Hopefully they will inspire you to start reading in this direction.

Today I start with Andrew Newberg, Eugene D'Aquili, and Vince Rause, Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief (Ballantine Books: New York 2002).  The authors are brain researchers who have conducted now-famous experiments using SPECT camera photography to map brain changes in meditating Tibetan Buddhist monks and Franciscan nuns who engage in repetitive rituals and meditation to achieve self-transcendent and unitary experiences.  These authors argue that religious experience, especially the transcendent state of Absolute Unitary Being, is not a hallucination or a delusion.  It is the result of the normal operations of the brain when sensory information to the operation association area is interrupted and the area becomes deafferented, when it is forced to operate on little or no information.  This results in the softening of the boundaries of the self and opens the door of the mind to unitary states of consciousness.

These authors do not understand their observations to lead to reductionism: that religious experience is only imagined because God is a figment of the firing of our neurons.  Instead they argue that all of our experiences, whether it is the experience of eating a piece of pie or encountering God, are all in our minds.   And this doesn’t mean that they aren’t real.  Tracing spiritual experience to neurological behavior does not disprove its realness.  There simply is no other way for us to experience anything except through the brain’s neural pathways (36-37). They write, “If God does indeed exist, the only place he can manifest his existence would in the tangled neural pathways and physiological structures of the brain” (53).

Do the mystics experience something real that is outside material existence?  Science and common sense has always said no.  But the inquiry of these authors has led them to conclude that the mystics may be on to something, that the mind’s machinery of transcendence may in fact be a window through which we can glimpse the realness of something divine (140-140).  They draw this conclusion based on how they understand the brain’s ability to differentiate between things that are real and not real (143) and the reality of both our external objective world and our inner subjective sense what is real (144).  While they began their research with the assumption that all that is really real is material, they found that all perceptions exist in our minds, whether physical or otherwise (146).  If we are to dismiss spiritual experience as mere neurological activities, we must also distrust all of our own brain’s conceptions of the material world.  If we trust our perceptions of the physical world, we have no rational reason to declare that spiritual experience is a fiction that is only in the mind (146-147).