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Yesterday, I wrote about another interpretation of data showing that some regions of the brain seem to be responsible for religious experiences. The problem with my interpretation, an atheist would say, is that there is no evidence that such regions are a hardwired means for a spiritual God to interact with physical people.

I argue that there is also no evidence that it isn’t a plausible explanation. Hold on, let me explain.

If there is a supernatural dimension to existence, what would we expect evidence of that to look like?

That is a critical question. If we don’t know what to look for in terms of falsifiable data, then not finding it is not proof against it.

Therefore, if we want to answer the question of whether or not there is a spiritual realm, and therefore determine the plausibility of my interpretation of the “God region” of the brain, we have to determine a testable hypothesis that would rule out any naturalistic explanation for a spiritual realm if such tests came back positive.

A big challenge here is defining what a spiritual realm is, its properties, and whether it is possible to consistently probe it with physical means.

Until then, there is no way to prove for or against. This is quite unsatisfying to me as a scientist. However, it seems to come down to an act of the will—are we willing to admit the possibility of a spiritual realm, and if so, what then are the possible interpretations of the data we do have? It is then possible to be willing, and still misinterpret the data either way.

I would argue that it is more intellectually honest to admit the possibility and see where the data leads than to deny its possibility and force any data into a purely naturalistic framework. Admitting the possibility of a spiritual realm may help in defining terms and seeing ways to falsify such a hypothesis, whereas denying the possibility closes down lines of investigation.

An example of this would using the “God lobe” phenomenon would be, “If there is a spiritual realm, then does it consist of some kind of electrical force that we have not yet recognized?” Or, “Is there something else unique about the God lobe compared to other regions of the brain—i.e. what is it about that part of the brain that causes those effects, and what else could trigger that response besides electrical stimulation?” Those questions arise naturally if you consider that God might exist. They are not as likely if you assume it is strictly naturalistic.

Naturalistic questions that are also worth pursuing would include, “If this area developed evolutionarily, how might it been sufficiently beneficial to warrant so much effort in development?” “Even if we determine a possible evolutionary mechanism or ‘reason’ for its development, how can we test the veracity of such a pathway, so that it is more than a ‘just-so story’?”

Research that might appeal to both interpretations might include, “is there a difference in this area of the brain between religious, non-religious, and fanatical people?” “If such differences are present, which came first, the differences or the belief system?” “Regardless to the answer of that question, is the relationship between brain differences and belief system causal or correlated?” “If correlated, what is the causal force?” “What about the God lobe of people that are as passionate about their atheism as others are about their religious faith?” “Are there other things this area does besides give religious experiences?” “Do other animals have such an area and if so, what Pandora’s box does that open?”



1 comment:

  1. From what I have seen, most of the brain science related to this idea has to do with the way our brain makes sense of the world. It seems to have a natural desire to seek coherence between new and prior knowledge and it likes to factor out randomness whenever possible.

    For example, many individuals with schizophrenia interpret their auditory hallucinations in religious terms, feeling that God is talking to them. In reality, research suggests that those voices are literally coming from their own brain (Schizo means "divided"), even though they are perceived as if they were coming from another source. However, the only knowledge of such a phenomenon the individual has likely heard of is when God's voice spoke directly to people in the Bible. Therefore, the brain is seeking coherence between conflicting perceptual experiences by using prior knowledge.

    An interesting related idea is the "God Helmet" used by Michael Persinger. Although it is not backed up by published research, this device seems to alter the magnetic field in the brain, so that the person has a profound sense of a presence around them, which many people experience as God. In my opinion, it is a brain trick. You stimulate the brain to feel that someone is around, yet the senses are not going along because they do not see, touch, or hear the presence. Therefore, the brain goes back to it's knowledge of God, because they know he may be present but unable to be seen. It seems not that different than how our brain takes two pictures from both of our eyes and interprets them to one in our consciousness.

    Personally, I see most of this research as non-believers trying to scientifically explain why they are more enlightened than those of us who are believers. They feel that if you can cancel it down to natural processes, than you can prove that God does not exist. It is like discounting the existence of love because parts of it are related to our body’s physiology. I think that learning how our bodies work is worship to their creator, not an endeavor to disprove that a creator exists. If we learn how to induce a religious experience, is it not kind of cool that God may have set that process up so that we could communicate?