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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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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