God on the Brain: Part Three

 

I feel detached from my body. I am floating up . . . there is a kind of vibration moving through my sternum . . . there are odd lights or faces along my left side. My body is becoming very hot . . . tingling sensations in my chest and stomach . . . now both arms. There is something feeling my ovaries. I can feel my left foot jerk. I feel there is someone in the room behind me.[1]

This was the report of one test subject in the lab of neuroscientist Michael Persinger, who has made the claim that ‘genuine religious experiences’ can be artificially induced with a device called the ‘Koren Helmet,’ more popularly known as the ‘God Helmet.’[2] The epithet was bestowed by journalists after discovering that some claimed to have had visions of God under the Helmet’s influence and the name stuck.[3] Persinger’s God Helmet—the earliest models looking something like a motorcycle helmet with wires without and electrodes within—is said to induce a ‘visitor experience,’ variously interpreted as closeness with God or in the presence of angels, saints, ancestors, aliens, ghosts, and other supernatural agents. (One subject claimed the testing chamber should be exorcised because the Devil was in there, while others have claimed the presence of demons.)[4] Persinger repeatedly identifies this induced state as the ‘God experience.’[5]

Shiva Neural Stimulation System, a commercialized version of the God Helmet [credit: http://www.shaktitechnology.com, reproduced with the temporary permission of Todd Murphy, which does not suggest in any way that he endorses my views]

Shiva Neural Stimulation System, a commercialized version of the God Helmet [credit: http://www.shaktitechnology.com, reproduced with the temporary permission of Todd Murphy, which does not suggest in any way that he endorses my views]

The Original Koren Helmet, created by Persinger and Stanley Koren [credit: http://www.shaktitechnology.com, reproduced with the temporary permission of Todd Murphy, which does not suggest in any way that he endorses my views]

The Original Koren Helmet, created by Persinger and Stanley Koren [credit: http://www.shaktitechnology.com, reproduced with the temporary permission of Todd Murphy]

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God on the Brain: Part Two


From about the nineteenth century on, mapping brain areas to specific behaviors, or ‘localization,’ became the predominant frame for the study of the brain[1] and the focus of neuroscientific research as it emerged.[2] Despite the fact that the localization research effort is “based on assumptions […] that cannot be validated either in principle or in practice,”[3] it remains one of the main underlying premises to the natural scientific study of religion. It is also the basis for research to find God in the brain.

As we saw in the previous post, while religion was historically being subjectified and ‘placed’ in the mind, individual thought and behaviors were being ‘located’ in the brain. With religion identified with the mind and the mind identified with the brain, it was not a far step to develop the thought that religious experience might just be purely physical—a scientific phenomenon. And this reductive claim was increasingly put forth in the science of religion. The thought went that if the exact location of religion were found in the physical world, then it would be wholly understood.

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God on the Brain: Part One

The Thinker in Ueno [credit: Wikimedia Commons]                     In the last blog post I left off with some musings about what further methodological and theoretical aspects could be incorporated with discourse analysis and the sociology of knowledge. I am still mulling this over. My own methodology I would like to propose is in the works and could take some time to develop. Thus, I am taking a turn with my blog posts and will now focus on some of my case studies and return to these other issues at some other time.

The Thinker in Ueno [credit: Wikimedia Commons]
In the last blog post I left off with some musings about what further methodological and theoretical aspects could be incorporated with discourse analysis and the sociology of knowledge. I am still mulling this over. My own methodology I would like to propose is in the works and could take some time to develop. Thus, I am taking a turn with my blog posts and will now focus on some of my case studies and return to these other issues at some other time.

Can God be discovered by science? Can religious experience be found in the brain? Today, the cognitive science of religion seems to suggest this is so. Does this mean that religion is reducible to physical happenings? Or that the neural correlates are the conduit of which religious experiences occur? In this multi-part blog post, I will examine the discursive history of the cognitive science of religion, its intellectual forerunners, and the contemporary case of the ‘God Helmet.’

While religious experience and God are conventionally understood to occupy the domain of the supernatural, religion has been ‘brought down to earth’ since antiquity, positioning it in a natural setting. One way this has been commonly accomplished is by placing the immaterial aspects of humanity—the mind, the soul, emotions, free will—into the material realm of the brain and the psyche.

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The Social Construction of Knowledge

“As we come to recognize the conventional and artifactual status of our forms of knowing, we put ourselves in a position to realize that it is ourselves and not reality that is responsible for what we know.”[1]

Ernst Haeckel's Tree of Life as a model of evolutionary descent. The Tree of Life is a common motif in religion, philosophy, and mythology, here appropriated to science, demonstrating how the presentation and interpretation of 'fact' is influenced by social factors [credit: Wikimedia Commons]

Ernst Haeckel’s Tree of Life as a model of evolutionary descent. The Tree of Life is a common motif in religion, philosophy, and mythology, here appropriated to science, demonstrating how the presentation and interpretation of ‘fact’ is influenced by social factors [credit: Wikimedia Commons]

In the last blog post I discussed discourse analysis and mentioned that the idea of discourse includes the notion that knowledge is a social construct. But what does this mean and how does this occur?

From a sociological perspective, ‘knowledge’ does not represent reality so much as organize reality according to the wants and needs of society and its members. The common reality shared by the members of a society is ‘knowledge.’[2] Knowledge is socially constructed, from this perspective, since the world of ideation (systems of knowledge, ideas, concepts, ideologies, mentalities, belief, etc.) originates in social groups (e.g., community, class, culture, nation, generation, etc.) and institutions.[3]

Science does not escape this assessment,[4] nor logic, mathematics,[5] or technology.[6] Prior to the emergence of the sociology of knowledge, of science, and of scientific knowledge, science was often perceived as immune to social influence[7]—in some sense ‘outside of society.’[8] But this is not so, as the discussion will show.

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The Discursive Construction of Knowledge

Whether religion and science conflict, whether they are paired, even whether or not religion and science is a topic to speak of at all are all historically and socially situated ‘facts.’ But facts can’t be contradictory, right? Wrong. As I’ve shown over these past blog posts, there is substantial historical evidence for all of these ‘facts.’ And they can easily be contradictory and still count as ‘facts’ because, according to discourse theory and the sociology of knowledge,[1] knowledge is a communicative and social product.

This all sounds a bit ‘out there’ perhaps. But think about it.

[credit: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia excerpt from YouTube]

What is taken for ‘fact’ in one time and place is often turned on its head, quantum mechanics being one of the more recent major transformations in scientific thought, involving significant changes to ‘classical physics.’[2] Setting aside the validity or invalidity of these ‘facts,’ lets focus on how ‘facts’ become ‘knowledge’ and the process by which ‘knowledge’ is taken for ‘reality.’[3] In the words of Kocku von Stuckrad, “there is ‘no thing’ in the world that determines what is being said but that the meaning of things are generated by the chain of signifiers that the speaker is introducing.”[4] Today, we will break this down and discuss discourse-historical analysis and relevant concepts. [5]

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‘Religion-and-Science’: Complicating the Pairing


Based on my previous post, it may appear that I am supporting the pairing of religion and science. However, this is not so, as my intent is to be neutral. As such, I provide this post as a balance. Here, it is my aim to historicize and contextualize the pairing, integrating, unifying, etc. of religion-and-science[1] and demonstrate that the grouping is also problematic for theorizing the religion-science relationship.

The pairing cannot be said to have appeared until after the emergence of the academic field[2] of religion-and-science—which assumes that there is some connection between religion and science, otherwise there would be no specialized field to speak of—and thus I will turn to historicizing this professional enterprise.

It was once debated whether religion-and-science could be regarded as a specialized field of its own;[3] today, however, this is undeniable. There are thousands of references, including monographs and articles, dozens of conferences, an increasing number of peer-reviewed journals,[4] both domestic and international societies for the study of religion-and-science,[5] and, more recently, there has been a growing presence of religion-science dialogue on the Internet.[6]

When did this field arise? Putting periodization problems to the side,[7] we can instead trace a red thread, gaining momentum, and nuclei of development. Many of the issues discussed in what we today consider the field of religion-and-science have been analyzed since antiquity and on into the Middle Ages,[8] but during this time period these ideas were not considered in a specifically religion-and-science context.

What might be called the ‘beginnings’ of the field did not arise until the end of the nineteenth century, with the work of John William Draper, History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (1874).[9] According to Draper:

Livre_Draper

Draper in Translation [credit: Wikimedia Commons]

“The history of Science […] is a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on one side, and the compression arising from traditionary [sic] faith and human interests on the other.”[10]

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Conflict with the Conflict Thesis: Complicating the Religion-Science Dichotomy

“I think there is quite a conflict [between religion and science] … If you think that religion is a path to any kind of factual truth … then you’re just wrong.” —Daniel Dennett [1]

“Despite a developing consensus among scholars that science and Christianity have not been at war, the notion of conflict has refused to die.” —Ronald L. Numbers [2]

God_the_Geometer

God the Geometer [credit: Wikimedia Commons]

In the last two blog posts, I discussed the history of the idea of inherent conflict between religion and science — i.e. the “conflict thesis” — with specific emphasis on how religion-science conflict historically resided primarily in the realm of thought and not action. In other words, there was much more discussion of inherent tension between religion and science than the physical presence of conflict. A critical reader might respond that it doesn’t matter that ‘conflict’ has a conceptual history, how we use the term today applies to the real world. While conflict is certainly part of the story, it is by no means the big picture. To demonstrate, lets talk about some of those alternative models to conflict of which I mentioned in the previous posts, all of which constitute distinct approaches to method and theory in the field of religion and science.

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Science as ‘Not Religion’: The History of the Conflict Construct (Part Two)

science-and-technology

[credit: public domain, publicdomainpictures.net]

What is ‘science’? A major historical perspective says ‘science is what religion is not.’ The very formulation of the idea of ‘science’ is closely historically connected to religion, in negative correlation. In Part One, I introduced the conflict thesis and began to historically unpack the view that religion and science are in opposition. I left off with a discussion of the emerging idea of science as ‘not religion,’ that is ‘science’ as a term was explained in specific contrast to religion.

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Science as ‘Not Religion’: The History of the Conflict Construct (Part One)

 collage

Top left: Portrait of Galileo; Top right: Photo of NASA’s Galileo probe; Bottom left: Artistic depiction of NASA’s Galileo orbiter as it arrived at Jupiter in 1995; Bottom right: Galileo’s tomb in Santa Croce, Florence, Italy. [credit: public domain, Wikimedia commons] 

In regard to religion in the public sphere, the infamous atheist and scientist Richard Dawkins states, “The enlightenment is under threat. So is reason. So is truth. So is science …”[1] Implicit in this statement is the idea that religion and science are in conflict and this is a presupposition that runs deep in contemporary society. When I tell people I study religion and science, the majority of the time I get similar responses of surprise and confusion about the pairing, followed up by a quick question regarding the inherent conflict between the two. Although this ‘conflict thesis’ is largely doubted by specialists, it continues to hold sway over popular perceptions, prevalent in the media and among academics in many fields. For example, a quick scan of news headlines relating to religion and science in the past few months is revelatory: “Widening the Bridge Between Religion and Science”;[2] “Science and Religion — An Impossible Match?”;[3] “Religion and Science Mix …”[4] Whether religion and science mix, match, meet, or not at all depend on an initial idea of separation, of two distinct things interacting. When we discuss ‘conflict’ in the field, it is not about warfare exactly — at least not exclusively —, but inherent conflict or this fundamental separation. Ideas of ‘conflict’ between religion and science date long before the time of Ian Barbour’s work, yet Barbour is the buzzword when it comes to the conflict thesis.[5] This is because, even though he supported dialogue and (some) integration of religion and science, his widely influential taxonomy of the religion-science relationship “forces an ontological separation.”[6] Put differently, religion and science are framed as fundamentally distinct. As I’ve illustrated, he is not alone in this assumption.

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Complicating ‘Creationism vs. Evolution’

Aside

Creationism versus evolution — it’s all the rage in the media at the moment, following the Bill Nye and Ken Ham debate. The creation-evolution discussion is a primary example employed to evidence religion-science conflict. That is how it is depicted in the media and in popular perception: one or the other; a zero-sum game. Could it be that simple? Of course not — or maybe it’s just that academics such as myself have to question everything and begrudge simplicity.

So let me just say this: there are religious non-creationists and non-evolutionary scientists; there are those who believe in both creationism and evolution and there are those who believe in neither. With the former examples, I am disentangling the  connection between religion and creationism and between science and evolution; in the latter examples I am disentangling the connection between religion and science and opposition/conflict. With this in mind, it becomes clear what this ‘conflict’ really is all about.

The conflict arises from a mere perception of conflict. Obviously it is not necessary that religion and science conflict, because for many it does not. But everyone wants a final word — do they or do they not conflict? The answer is yes. And yes. We create conflict by identifying religion with creationism, science with evolution, and by identifying creationism and evolution as oppositional. Conflict and opposition between ideas is a normal and necessary thing in the ‘carving out’ of interpretive space in our cognitive worlds. It is also perfectly natural that we look for relationships and connections between these interpretive spaces.

Still want the Truth? Well, so do I. But the closest thing we got is to remember that historically these things that we ‘know’ are always changing — including scriptural interpretation, empirical science, and analytical philosophy. Personally, I’m looking forward to find out what we will ‘know’ next!

All the while, I’m hoping I’m not that guy …

atheists(credit: xkcd.com)