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).

Is Heaven for real?

Is Heaven for real?  A blue-eyed Jesus riding a horse.  Serenading angels.  A bunch of dead relatives hugging.  That is the real heaven according to the four-year old boy Colton in the book and movie, Heaven is for Real. Critic Bruce Handy in Vanity Fair makes the following observation: "What baffled secular me is why the film’s vision of heaven, which seemed almost boringly conventional—the handful of scenes illustrating Colton’s experiences look like the kinds of celestial imagery you’d see in a child’s Bible or on the walls at Mormon visitor’s center—is troubling to Todd and the members of his church."

My reaction.  What else would you expect from the mind of a four-year old whose father is a Christian minister?  As for troubling, when isn't a near death experience troubling, especially when it is reported back in images familiar to a four-year old? 

Does the fact that Colton's report reflects the mind of a four-year old mean that he made this all up?  It is more complicated than a yes or no answer.  Why?  Because this is a classic example of what cognitive linguists refer to as cognitive frames. 

No, I am not talking about some new google glasses that augment our thoughts like borg hardware.  I am talking about an organic process that is already in place in our brains.  Our brains create thoughts, create our noetic reality, based on a mental operation that cognitive linguists call framing.  That is, there are certain clusters of ideas that are activated when we experience certain things. 

Think about a hamburger.  What do you see?  Smell?  Taste?  We all know what hamburger means.  It is a cluster of things, and items in the cluster can be changed out, yet still we identify it as a hamburger.  It is a meat patty, usually beef, sandwiched in a bun.  Now is it a hamburger if I add cheese?  Bacon?  Mushrooms?  What about bison instead of beef?  Turkey? Sausage? Tofu?  When does it stop becoming a hamburger and start becoming something new?  An innovation?  A cognitive blend, when the conventional hamburger frame has shifted to such an extreme that a new idea, a new culinary delight, emerges?

Now we can apply this to religious studies and biblical studies in many fruitful directions.  Scholars are already seeing the app here.  I will probably return to this idea in the future on this blog and discuss some of these new directions in scholarship, where cognitive studies is meeting the bible.  But today I just want to comment on its implications for religious experiences like Colton had.

Cognitive frames are what makes the difference for religious experience.  Why do some people report encounters with Jesus and an afterlife that matches Christian conventions that a four-year old knows like we see in the Heaven's for Real?  Why do other people report encountering other types of gods and realms in their religious experiences?  Because everything we experience we experience through our bodies and brains, and our brains are wired in very specific ways.  We all, no matter who we are or where we live, experience the world through mental frames.  Some of these frames are universal, like our experience of verticality or containers.  Others are defined more culturally, like a blue-eyed Jesus sitting in heaven. 

My point is that we experience our world as our brains and bodies allow us.  They define and limit whatever that raw experience actually may have been.  It is not a matter of after-the-fact interpretation that we lay on the raw experience.  It is a matter of experiencing the raw as what we already know (albeit with occasional innovation when our frames shift).  We can't do otherwise. 

So is heaven for real?  Yes, for Colton it was.  But his heaven may not be real for everyone.

Thinking about the noetic and numinal

Yesterday at Rice we had what I think was the best conference I ever attended.  It was called The Gnostic Spirit.

Professor Lautaro Roig Lanzillota from University of Gronignen gave a keynote speech on Gnostic anthropology, situating different systems of thought within the network of ancient philosophy.  It was a fantastic paper.

I offered a paper on ancient Gnostic psychotherapy and neurology.  This is a major part of the book I am writing now called The Ancient New Age.

Jeff Kripal took a biographical stance and looked at some odd stories that have yet to be explained by our current ways of thinking.

The rest of the conference was devoted to graduate student papers, which were of the highest quality.  They were all cutting edge and pushing the boundaries of what we currently know.  I feel so honored to have these kinds of brilliant students in our intellectual community at Rice

The discussion pushed on how we have constructed reality today.  Because we understand matter to be the real world, we have a concept of our self that is confined to our material body.  There is matter and nothing else.  All truth is reduced to atoms.

The papers and discussion really got me wondering about where we are in our understanding of reality, and if our modern reduction to matter and the rejection of the supernatural can ever allow us to develop a scheme that can make sense of other realities we experience.  I am not even sure how to talk about these other realities, because so quickly things turn to the ontological.  So I want to hold off on thinking ontologically and just make a couple of suggestions.

First, I think we all experience a noetic reality.  I don't think the noetic reality is material.  My thoughts and feelings, my perceptions and psychological self are real, but they are not material.  This doesn't mean that they are not supported by my body, produced by my body, influencing my body.  They are.  But this doesn't reduce my noetic reality to the material.  It simply says that there is an interface between my body and the noetic.  They co-exist and operate in tandem.  This operation involves my brain and whole body.  But it also involves my environment, both physical and noetic.

Second, I think humans experience a transcendent reality.  Here I am talking about something like the numinous, something that makes us overwhelmed with its vastness and its immanence.  It is a reality difficult to describe, almost refusing to be put into words.  For me, it is a presence.  This reality is also something that is produced and/or experienced by our brains and bodies, but it influences our brains and bodies too.  It is as real as our experience of the color red or being in love. 

What I am saying is that as modern people we need to sort this out for ourselves.  Since Descartes and then the advent of modern science, we really have become lost in terms of having a way to really express any of this.  As modern people we need to be able to talk about types of reality that are not material themselves although they interact with our material bodies, being produced and/or being experienced by our bodies, and influencing our bodies too.

Any suggestions here?