"If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin."
- Charles Darwin

Aug 24, 2007

The Feeling of What Happens

Science, Faith and Nature's Error

The "Revelation" as described by St. John, though likely inspired through the
use of hallucinogens (see The Mystery of Manna).

The title for this post comes from a terrific book by the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, but I think it's appropriate for a discussion on faith, feeling and reason. Sam Harris' recent editorial in the journal Nature has effectively gotten people talking about religion, science and what, if anything, each should have to do with the other. In a recent discussion with a fellow blogger it was argued that Harris' inclusion of Christian geneticist Francis Collins in his critique of Nature's editorial staff was improper, effectively undermining his argument.

[R]ather than challenge Collins directly, he lumps Collins with Islamic fundamentalists and the Catholic Church as part of a giant "force of unreason" based on views and positions that Collins adamantly opposes. Sounds rather weak to me.

Firstly, while I'm sure there is much that my friend and I could agree upon, I'm afraid that the issue of religion is one area where we significantly differ. Also, it should be noted, Harris said nothing about "Islamic fundamentalists" but was instead criticizing an earlier argument that claimed moderate Islam constitutes an "intrinsically rational world view." In this way he's only comparing moderate Christianity (via Collins) to moderate Islam. I hope we can both agree on that much.

However, whether the issue is Collins' defense of Christianity, a scientific defense of Islam, or an argument from the Pope or President Bush in defense of their religious views, it is all the same issue. They have already come to their conclusions and are simply fitting the facts to their beliefs. They feel the truth of their convictions and that, as they say, is that. Christianity and Islam may indeed represent an "intrinsically rational world view," but only if you accept the premises they are based upon. It therefore comes down to the evidence for or against this initial premise that forms the foundation for everything that follows. Islam is no different than Christianity or Hinduism or Scientology in the sense that it relies upon a revered text (or texts) and the word of authority instead of evidence. Perhaps more importantly, it relies upon a feeling in its believers. But one can feel something powerfully and it can have no basis in reality. It doesn't matter whether one person feels it or a million people feel it. It doesn't make a false reality any more true.

An example would be phantom limbs. A common experience of amputees is to still feel their missing arm or leg years after their accident. They can feel the sensation of opening and closing their hand but, when they open their eyes nothing exists. Their phantom leg will try to get out of bed and pull the frightened person along with them only to bring them crashing to the floor (this is a true case reported to Dr. V.S. Ramachandran in his book Phantoms in the Brain). One could make the argument that a spiritual limb still exists even after the physical limb has been lost. If you accept the premise that we are spiritual beings animating the physical world this is actually a fairly logical conclusion. However, the reality is that this phenomenon is the result of neurons in the somatosensory cortex for that limb which continue to fire and thus create the sensation of a false reality.

It's not too much of a stretch to link such phantom limbs with a feeling for God. What's more likely? That an invisible world exists that controls our destiny (but that people around the globe interpret in vastly different ways) or that all humans have similar neural networks that, under certain circumstances, engender a feeling of the divine? A great deal of work has been done in just this area. A terrific book in this field is Why God Won't Go Away. Among other fascinating discoveries, it demonstrates how Buddhist monks and Franciscan nuns both invoke the same brain regions when they tap into the "oneness of the Universe" or "make contact with God" depending on their various interpretations of the same experience. Through their training and dedication in meditation or prayer they in effect "trick" their mind into creating a false reality.

Other individuals, such as those with temporal lobe epilepsy, have these false realities thrust upon them. Just like epilepsy of the motor cortex that results in spasmodic activation of the muscles, temporal lobe epilepsy causes the same repetitive firing of neuronal circuits but in a region of the brain central for our concept of space and time. Such individuals report ecstatic experiences of being in touch with the divine, or of receiving God's revelation if they were previously religious.

Artist depiction of Ellen G. White experiencing a vision.

To give just one well documented case, Ellen G. White, the founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, experienced powerful visions of "revelation" for most of her adult life following a serious head injury. As she described in her voluminous writings:

"I would say that when the Lord sees fit to give a vision, I am taken into the presence of Jesus and the angels, and am entirely lost to earthly things. I can see no farther than the angel directs me. My attention is often directed to scenes transpiring upon earth.

At times I am carried far ahead into the future and shown what is to take place. Then again I am shown things as they have occurred in the past."

Dr. Molleurus Couperus argued, in a study later published in Adventist Times, that the most likely explanation is that these visions were the result of partial-complex seizures such as would occur in temporal lobe epilepsy.

1. Ellen was a healthy normal girl, both physically and emotionally, until at the age of nine, she was hit by a stone on the nasal area of her face. She was unconscious for 3 weeks, indicating a severe brain injury; and was not able to remember anything about the accident or its aftermath. The type and location of her head injury, and the resulting period of unconsciousness and amnesia, made it likely that she would ultimately develop epileptic seizures.

2. Her dreams and visions began at age fifteen, some six years after her accident; and they continued throughout her life. When Ellen's vision experiences are compared with the seizures of temporal lobe epilepsy, they are found to be typical of partial complex seizures.

3. Following this, her behavioral traits were compared with those of temporal lobe epileptics and found to be similar.

Ellen White's visions were no more outlandish than those of past mystics (in fact, epilepsy is a likely candidate for the visions of Muhammad). The only difference is that her experiences and behavior were well documented and can be carefully compared to current neurological case studies. A further argument in favor of the view that the divine is an internal state is that people in cultures all over the world shock their systems through fasting, rhythmic prayer, chanting or even with hallucinogens in order to trick their brains into a mystical experience.

Most people aren't dedicated enough to train their neural pathways such as monks or nuns nor are they afflicted with what could be viewed as either the blessing or curse of temporal lobe epilepsy. But most people are raised in a tradition initiated by others who swear that their internal fantasy must be everyone's reality. Moses, Muhammad, Jesus, Siddhartha, Martin Luther, Joseph Smith, Ellen White, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and many other religious figureheads, both real and mythical, reported fantastic visions not available to most of us (though there is good evidence that Joseph Smith was merely a con man). We believe their visions because, well, we prefer to. It gives us hope. Provides meaning. We don't have to pay attention during biology class. Plus there are hundreds, sometimes thousands, sometimes millions of others that also believe in their visions. Charismatic authority figures spend their lives devoted to spreading these visions to others -- even those who never experienced such visions themselves but always longed to find that same connection. However, all of this just reinforces what is ultimately nothing more than someone's feeling.

So regardless of Francis Collins' credentials as a good scientist (and I wouldn't doubt his ability for a moment) his logic that God exists is based purely on rationalizing a feeling he once had in front of a winter waterfall. Cloaking this feeling in the language of science doesn't give it any more legitimacy, in fact it often led to tangled logic. Collins can believe whatever he likes about his experience, as can anyone. We all live with our private fantasies to a certain extent. However Harris' point is that in the admirable attempt to be inclusive, Nature's editors were foregoing their primary role as skeptical inquirers of sound science. Should they favorably review the next book on astrology if it also includes a reasonably good description of cosmic evolution? I think the point Harris makes is a good one and something we should seriously consider as scientists and citizens. We've seen how effectively faith has led the way in foreign policy decisions. Perhaps a return to reasonable arguments based on solid evidence would be a wiser course for the future.

For a background of my personal experience with religious belief see my post Calculating Faith.

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al fin said...

Thanks for a most readable and informative post. I agree that many "divine revelations" originated in aberrant brain activity. It is difficult to understand how a scientist dedicated to the empirical search for scientific truths would also believe in an unfalsifiable deity.

Having experienced a deeply religious upbringing, and having been forced to reason my way out from under all of that baggage, I understand all the attention that Sam Harris' and Richard Dawkins' treatment of the subject is receiving. I went through a similar phase of anti-religious evangelism on emergence from religion, but I admit that the phase was mercifully short.

I consider a lot of ideologies particularly stupid, but I tend not to dwell on them.

As for your use of Francis Collins in particular, did you include quotes from Collins with which you particularly disagree? If so, I missed them.

Eric Michael Johnson said...

Al fin - This was the continuation of a discussion I had been having in the comments on an earlier post. Please see Scientists Should Unite Against Threat From Religion for that.

In addition to what Harris pointed out in his letter, I would also highlight the following quotes by Collins in "The Language of God":

"As believers, you are right to hold fast to the concept of God as Creator; you are right to hold fast to the truths of the Bible; you are right to hold fast to the conclusion that science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence; and you are right to hold fast to the certainty that the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted . . ."

"God, who is not limited to space and time, created the universe and established natural laws that govern it. Seeking to populate this otherwise sterile universe with living creatures, God chose the elegant mechanism of evolution to create microbes, plants, and animals of all sorts. Most remarkably, God intentionally chose the same mechanism to give rise to special creatures who would have intelligence, a knowledge of right and wrong, free will, and a desire to seek fellowship with Him. He also knew these creatures would ultimately choose to disobey the Moral Law."

David Elmore said...

Any discussion about so-called phantoms and gods must begin, I think, with how we humans acquire knowledge. This fundamental fact refutes all rationalizing attempts to "prove" gods or phantoms of any kind. Humans' only apparatus for connecting to the real world is sensory (e.g. the five senses). There are no sensory organs in the brain, which is only an organic mechanism for processing what it receives from the five senses. The brain has NO direct contact with the outside world (also refuting "telepathy, et al). Anyone who claims to have contact with other "beings" via their brain only is engaging in a form of insanity; more precisely, they are someone putting a wish over what is, as Ayn Rand would've put it. They are engaging in a primacy of consiousness over a primacy of existence (facts gathered through sensory material). The problem here is not a particular part of the brain creating phantoms. The problem is the brain of billions of individuals succumbing to the mystical bludgeon of "faith" and abandoning their minds, thus leaving themselves open to creating their own phantoms without reason as their guide to living.


Ben said...

Fascinating and well-written article. It will soon be published as part of my blog carnival on Dreaming Life.

I am highly intrigued by the subject of "neurotheology". Looking forward to more of your posts.