'THE BRAIN CREATES GOD' DEBATE - AN ANALYSIS OF 'NEUROTHEOLOGY' AS PSEUDO-SCIENCE

A new discipline referred to as 'neurophilosophy' has been promoted by evolutionists like A.C. Grayling - also by geneticists and neuroscientists. Their serious and fully scientifically-oriented discipline attempts to interpret the results of neurology in terms of human experience and ideologies. It is specifically NOT related to the hybrid science-mysticism of 'neurotheology' as promoted by Iona Miller, which is examined critically from a philosophical aspect in the following:-

Iona Miller of the Asklepia Foundation has written an article entitled "How the Brain Creates God" The title rather suggests that God is entirely brain-created, but that interpretation is misleading as to her real standpoint. For, as Miller states at the outset, "Neurotheology is the marriage of brain science and theology, which systematically studies the relationship of God and the universe." Later she notes: "… this transdisciplinarian science simply seeks to describe the mechanisms involved in that process." This posits theology as a science or as having scientific relevance, which is the most unreasonable standpoint and shows a disregard for strict scientific method, its application and experimental requirements. This suggests zeal to make religion scientifically acceptable - or to justify the so-called 'religious impulse' as deriving from hard facts. In this interest she quotes "The brain is hard-wired for mystical experiences to modify the threat of our hostile existential reality (Alper)"

The article she has written certainly raises a lot of issues about what is considered to fall under 'religious' and 'mystical' experience, with references to much of the latest neurological findings about the role of the human brain in those experiences. While she rightly tends to emphasise empirical studies, I find some of her use of the terms - particularly God - as lacking in sufficient critical insight. Despite her noting that such experiences are subjective and evidently brain-dependent such that they cannot thereby be regarded as objective, her article tends overall to try underpin the 'reality' of God (or possibly even gods in general), not only as subjective 'experiences' but as universal experiences (or of universality). Using the term 'God' in this connection is a kind of shorthand, but a very unfortunate one as it immediately implies the existence of a being, and entity, a creator… which is quite another matter. So-called 'God-consciousness' is a religiously biassed term for what may more neutrally be called 'universal consciousness' or even perhaps 'holistic perception of all-embracing unity'.

There is an ambiguity throughout her article, as the following passage illustrates: "Religion is the expression of theological attitudes and actions. Tradition says God created the heavens and earth, and God created man in his own image. But did God create man and the brain, or does the brain create God? Revelation is the act of God manifesting, disclosing himself, or communicating truth to the mind. These subjective experiences are the basis of mysticism. Perhaps God hid mankind’s spirituality where we would least expect it and be least likely to look – within ourselves."


Miller's use of the word 'perhaps' in the above maybe saves her from outright preaching of a belief. Yet she tends - if so far only implicitly - to assume the existence of God not only as a subjectively experienced 'universal' consciousness, but also as a real existent. However, her conclusions (though explicitly and cautiously presented as tentative) further underline how this belief permeates her thinking despite the desire to appear neutral. "The religious element of our nature is just as universal as the rational or social one." This to me is not only counter-intuitive, but seems not to rest on any neurological findings which allow such a sweeping generalisation. Further "the religious element of our nature" is a very vague term as no proper or operational definition is given, so it can include a vast range of ideas, beliefs, fears, theories, speculations and indefinayte feelings and thoughts. An example helps to illustrate that we need not have a definitive "religious element" to our nature, namely, that there are many non-religious and also anti-religious people who have no noticeable 'religiousfeeling or make-up. This has become more and more evicent since the grip of religion on societies began to weaken with the rise and spread of science from around the 19th century. People today can and do change the views with which they may have been brought up and may become agnostic - even entirely atheistic (or the reverse). No doubt there were countless tribes in the past - as there remain some still today - which had nothing like a religion in our present world or what we understand by 'religious'… they no doubt had an element of awe, wonder, confusion and perplexity, which can hardly be called religion or even spirituality (though these phenomena are still central in religions and mysticism today).


Miller: "It seems our nervous systems are “pre-programmed” to experience a variety of religious or spiritual experiences. " That "It seems we are pre-programmed" is shaky as science, especially when the general evidence from history and literature suggests that 'religious and spiritual experiences' are far from being universal or even very common. It is not empirically shown that even the desire for such experience is widespread in the world population today. Miller continues: "We can journey within and explore our inner world, just as we can the outer world. However, this human study of the phenomenology of the God-experience doesn't reductively negate the possibly of a divine creative force. Rather, this transdisciplinarian science simply seeks to describe the mechanisms involved in that process. It explores how the divine is translated into the human realm, from the archetypal to the material world. It combines aspects of religion, psychology, and neurology. This new paradigm synthesizes the truths of both science and religion – giving birth to “neuroshamanism.” There is a presupposed dichotomy here between 'inner' and 'outer' worlds which is at variance with the underlying assumption as later expressed clearly by Miller that everything is a unity, that no difference between inner or outer exists 'in reality' when fully experienced in universal consciousness. The often misapplied appeal against (scientific) 'reductionism' reinforces the rejection of their being disparate realities, for one cannot supposedly be 'reduced' from another. ('Deduced' would probably even be a more precise term here, for in fact we can be said constantly to "reduce" one set of data and concepts into others whenever we reason and speculate about complex matters). The rather inappropriate idea of 'exploring the inner world' would, from a neurological viewpoint, presumably amount to retracing out personal memories - even to a sub-conscious level and maybe even as far as a collective racial memory. Miller's wording implies that this is not the same as exploring the supposedly different 'outer world', but is equally possible. Here lies the root of a common confusion… that the outer world - though not accessible except through our external senses - can be known without the use of perceptual interpretation, memory, ideation, questioning, imagining and all the other so-called 'subjective' activities of the mind. In both cases the same palette of mental activities are available and employed. That is, we are not dealing with two disparate kinds of experience or conception. For the record I am personally aware that experiences of ecstatic bliss, selfless feelings, expanded perception which steps well beyond everyday mental functioning and almost infallible intuitive faculty can be experienced. It is the spiritual-mystical-religious interpretation of such experiences that I now question - after having long made spiritual and 'divine' interpretations of my own such experiences, which - after about 50 years of subsequent life and discovery - I now have come to see all reason to reject.

The schism between 'outer' and 'inner', mind and its objects, the brain and the mind: The mutual relations of the brain and the mind are difficult to define precisely, of course. An analogy is often helpful to indicate a basic difference (though one cannot of course deduce from analogies). Comparing the brain to a radio set, the mind becomes the programmes sent and received. Though a rather hackneyed analogy, we can still compare the brain as somewhat 'like a machine', to the mind as more like the machinist or the user of the machine. The user has the primary agency and can combine and create ideas, theories (with its automatic aid in the process). Functions of the brain do, however, apparently largely direct processes like dreaming, hallucination and other non-conscious phenomena. Miller's thesis is that certain parts and/or functions of the brain 'preprogram' ('predispose' is surely more fitting) the mind to different sets of ideation. Among many, one of these is alleged to be experiencing 'religious' or 'spiritual' feelings, and ideas relating to these... which Miller emphasises even to the extent of using the analogy 'hard-wired' of this relation. Now, the human mind is able to manipulate its ideas in countless ways, and even to change almost one's entire outlook more than one in a lifetime. New experiences can be generated through directing one's interest towards previously unknown areas of experience and thought. The brain is known to be constantly build new synaptic links (and make them central to memory etc. through repetition). Likewise, it is known to downgrade and suppress other neural pathways (causing forgetting and even total erasure from consciousness). Through all of this, in a person who is judged sane and 'normal' - however original or different to the norm otherwise -, the brain functions largely according to those persons' willed and chosen activities. In short, the brain does not of itself dictate any particular kind of ideation.

The structure of the present type of human brain has of course been developed through an extremely long genetic evolution which has given it a multiplicity of functions from the instinctive to the highly intellectual conceptions and/or aware perceptions, it is thereby also remarkably able to rethink all that has influenced it historically or even evolutionarily. The scope of phenomena of which it know is vastly extended through instruments and technology and this information is variously also internalized in thought and memory. That early humankind no doubt had many ideas about spirit worlds, with awe, wonder and great confusion about existence, many likely origins of which are well-known (dreams, fever hallucinations, drug-induced conditions and much more). These former experiences may have influenced brain functioning to provide some mental impetus - even inertia - towards the vaguely defined sphere of 'spirituality' and related uncommon or mystical experiences. But mental inertia can be overcome... the history of humanity's progress towards understanding and control of events is testimony to this tremendous fact.
In the article there are many indications how Miller interprets the basic and very interesting neurological data in favour of an overarching Weltanschauung which is rooted in mysticism and extra-normal experience. Her agenda is not simple or easy to summarise accurately. It can be seen to resonate with the basic outlook of the Asklepia Foundation, which claims to be based on diverse mystical religious traditions including shamanism and New Age thought. Take for example this statement: "The most immediate experience is that of always having been and being forever. The three illusions – space, time and personality – are obliterated in cosmic consciousness, as the soul completes its journey to its spiritual home. Human consciousness is eliminated, having been reabsorbed into the primordial essence. All becomes All without differentiation." This is theological and poetical rather than empirical or prosaic. Since space, time and personality are allegedly 'obliterated', there cannot even be any observer to report on this alleged state of affairs. The assertion is therefore drawn entirely from speculative imagination. In short, it is a belief.. whether one labels it 'spiritual' or 'religious'.

From the viewpoint of sociology of knowledge, there are strong signs of a cultural and often religious outlook, which is a non scientific and even 'prejudicial' approach to the relation of the brain and ideas of God. This is also observable in the writings promoted by the Asklepia Foundation, which evidently endorses Miller's article. This general ideology makes strong assumptions as to the nature of the universe and the human make-up and can therefore be said to have an agenda, one which is therefore fundamentally pseudo-scientific. Science rejects the God hypothesis and will not assume the existence of 'spirit' because the entire scientific method is to rejects as superfluous assumptions which cannot be tested by its methods. Science's entire development arises from totally ignoring all propositions that God can be a creative cause or causal factor in favour of explanations based on systematic and comprehensive observations tested by reproducible experiment (which is and must be adhered to in all neuroscientific methodology).
The article seems subtly designed to advance a justification of (at least some) theologies as something more than speculative, non confirmable assertions about the objective (as well as subjective) reality of God. In so doing, serious empirical findings are marshalled into an overarching fairly rational system which contains subtle beliefs, which nonetheless remain beliefs. God is supposedly 'hard-wired' into the brain through evolutionary processes, but any thought that the phases of human evolution involved (primitive and fearful) are ultimately as unfruitful as that which eliminated countless former species from the earth is unmentioned. The religious sense - as it expresses itself in doctrines and institutions - is infamously prone to forwarding war and unimaginable kinds of violence to the human body, mind and societies. If the religious sense was some kind of crutch or psychological necessity (as Miller implies) for survival when there was no science or any reasonable security, all the more reason to exert one's energies to directing science and research to eliminating that sense, and ceasing to justify and appease religionists.

The irreconcilable positions of dualism and monism: Miller holds that "Intense meditation blocks the brain from forming a distinction between self and world. Frontal and temporal-lobe circuits, which mark time and generate self-awareness, must disengage. When this happens, self-awareness briefly drops out and we feel like our boundaries dissolve." This statement sounds speculative and would exceed what can be observed with certainty by neurologists because self-awareness is subjective and can therefore not be quantified, which is to say not measured in any 'objective' way. If self-awareness 'briefly drops out' then the subject cannot announce this fact, nor 'feel like our boundaries dissolve' - for he or she must be self-aware to recognise this. It is possible that particular or familiar 'feelings' of self-awareness or of body boundaries 'dissolve', but his is not a complete 'drop out' of self-awareness.
As Brentano with his Thesis of Intentionality first demonstrated "Consciousness is always consciousness of an 'object'" (i.e. 'object' in the phenomenological sense and whether either sensory or ideational). Nonetheless, human consciousness always remaining inherently self-aware, without exception. Otherwise one is not conscious (wholly unconscious). Phenomenology's entire agenda was the elimination of the 'prejudgement' about 'inner' and 'outer'. The ideological approach of the Foundation's 'Chaosophical Society' recognizes "that Chaos is a fundamental force in the Universe, not in any negative sense, but as the very source and matrix of hidden order, self-organizing emergent order. That matrix and its order is considered metaphorically to be the primal “thought” of the Divine Creator, and we also are “thoughts” in that divine mind. Its purpose and mystical goal is to lead us toward direct experience of that transpersonal healing Source, the Unbound Self." It "recognises the fundamental validity of the holistic force of Spirit in all forms. It shares the most with mystical processes and practices which involve direct experiential communion or epiphany with the Source, groundstate, God/Goddess, or whatever Name one prefers for that universal higher power."

The extra-scientific influence of Jungian thought This ideology has an antecedent in C.G. Jung's theories and - judging by the background of some of its most prominent members - has been influenced strongly by conclusions from the investigation of psychoactive and 'psychedelic' substances. This latter is not, in itself, automatically an invalidating factor from a scientific viewpoint, though the neo-psychoanalyic Jungian connection is highly doubtful as it is only very weakly related to empirical testing. (C.G. Jung was a key figure in the resurgence of the God concept in humanistic studies after his famous 1959 'Face to Face' interview with John Freeman in which Jung claimed outright to "know" that God exists, without offering further elucidation see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Jung.) Miller's view of universal consciousness is in line with the general Jungian view of spirituality, which it should be noted is essentially based throughout on non-empirical theory and very considerable 'reasoned' assumptions about the self and the supposed 'soul'. The Jungian world-view is an interpretation of reality - religious-spiritual indeed, based on a dissident psycho-analytic approach which can be called largely interpretational or hermeneutical, in contradistinction to scientific method (in which the clinching factor is empirical verification). Miller concludes her article with an emotive (non-scientific) conclusion which has the nature of a direct appeal: "When both systems go into maximal discharge, this neurochemical flux is subjectively perceived as Absolute Unity of Being, boundlessness, timelessness, and sacredness. Our relationship to humans, earth, and cosmos is one of a relationship to the Other. Our first formative influence is the experience of empathy. And empathy needs a face. If we find that face in our personal experience of God, who shall say nay? Beyond that lies only the yawning infinity of the Void." Why the adjective 'yawning' and why posit that everything otherwise is Void? This is an emotive form of persuasion… for we know that the universe persists in any case.

Denial of living reality, all is illusion (maya): Miller continues: "The most immediate experience is that of always having been and being forever. The three illusions – space, time and personality – are obliterated in cosmic consciousness, as the soul completes its journey to its spiritual home. Human consciousness is eliminated, having been reabsorbed into the primordial essence. All becomes All without differentiation." Now, this is sheer speculation and totally unverifiable 'spiritual poetry', even by experience of the most comprehensive kind… for one may feel, but no one can perceive "having always been and being forever" any more than one can state that 'all becomes all without differentiation' short of differentiating all from all.. or identifying all to all.' It makes numinous and fascinating reading for many people, no doubt. Yet it remains vague and ungraspable - however much one has experienced states of mind which seem to be infinitely unlimited and the ultimate, one essential truth. Time, space and personality are taught to be 'illusions' by Vedanta and its derivatives… but this is a result of a long process of trying to avoid its internal contradictions by abstracting further and further until the essential idea become the Void… which is actually an idea void of content or - in the cosmic context - even of any meaning.
The irrational plays a large role in life - very much more in those of some than others - and the aim of science is to question the event it involves and bring them within the sphere of the strictly rational-empirical world-view. That Weltanschauung amounts to a lot more than assumptions and interpretations because of its extremely well-tested and ever-verifiable project... to explain what seems to be soul-generated, or spiritually caused, from observable and recorded physical fact. The history of ideas and the social, economic, psychological and environmental conditions wherein they arose and developed is a part of the scientific project. In this, Miller's article only goes some of the way to elucidate... far from the extra mile!

This article clashes with the position of geneticists or evolutionists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchins, Anthony Grayling and many other atheists in that it provides a kind of apologia for religious believers... In short, the 'spiritual agenda' has apparently overshadowed Miller's judgement of the hard evidence and the charge of pseudo-science consequently is unavoidable.
Consequently she cuts loose and makes the somewhat incoherent claim: "The roles of the amygdala, hippocampus, temporal lobes, parietal lobe, and pineal gland are fundamental to our sense of well-being, meaningfulness, expansion from personal identity and perception of inner Light. We can now directly see how the brain correlates both external and internal stimuli and our reactions to them." It is unclear whether she means one can 'see' this in a mystical state or from the alleged discoveries of her 'neurotheological' speculations. In either case, it is unlikely that any neurologists will go so far as to risk their professional reputation in endorsing her above statement. A final inconsistency in this neurotheological viewpoint is seen in her identifying joy, ecstasy and enlightenment with spirituality and mysticism, while disregarding the role of fear and anxiety, which is undeniably central in all traditional religion (i.e. for mystic experience activity must be dampened in "the fear-registering amygdala, which monitors the environment for threats"). Miller would be on safer ground were she to identify as "hard-wired" the need for happiness, increased awareness and knowing rather than identifying this as 'spirituality' and - by implication - religiosity. Having started from the statement "The god-experience is a process, a subjective perception, rather than an objectively provable reality." Miller arrives at a quite different position… that subjective perception and self-awareness are blocked in meditation because they are "illusory". By implication, Miller promotes the idea that in this way alone can Reality be known (i.e. the objective truth). This is indeed the dereliction of science and no doubt Miller would after all applaud that too.

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