Recent interest in Neurotheology raises interesting questions, and hints at some possible answers about thought processes, God, and the natural universe. What is neurotheology? It is not a science, but rather a focus of interest in our growing knowledge about the human brain. Neurotheology deals with the representation in the brain of religious experience.
In a recent edition of Newsweek (May 7), Sharon Begley advances a challenging summary of major foci in the neurotheology discussion.
Critical aspects of consciousness are mediated by specific structures in the brain. Ordinarily these brain areas work together to produce a complex perception of the self in an environmental matrix. A sense of the reality of experience is important. In transcendent religious experience, aspects of complex functioning are maintained, while others are suppressed, with the result that magnified psychological states may be produced. A sense of hyperreality may result.
How is it that psychological contact with the deity is a constant in all societies? How is it that man, so intimately connected to the material world and to sensory experience, seems to be able to rise above that experience and make contact with unseen truths about the universe? Are metaphysical convictions “just” brain phenomena … or are some of them more real than our perception of immediate sensory reality? When humans have experiences which seem to transcend ordinary experience, are they penetrating to levels of reality that are somehow “more real,” or are they slipping into the realm of delusion and mental illness?
According to Begley’s article human brain is programmed for God. It is hard wired to experience moments of ecstatic awareness. Begley writes as a reporter, not a scientist or a theologian. And she has done her homework. However, apparently in an effort to provide a punch ending to an interesting report, she makes a wrong conclusion. “But it is likely that they will never resolve the greatest question of all – namely, whether our brain wiring creates God, or whether God created our brain wiring. Which you believe is, in the end, a matter of faith.”
This is a little too cutesy. And, it belies much of what underlies the current dialogue between religion and science. Even though the ground is slippery and the yardsticks for truth are hard to define absolutely, we are impelled by the conviction that truth, though difficult to attain, is a possible goal, and not simply a matter of preference and belief.
Organization of Brain
The human brain is a masterpiece of organization and function. It takes years of study to master its complexities, and, even then, new research continues to add to our scientific knowledge. Any brief summary therefore necessarily is inadequate. However, for current purposes, we can say that the major organizational levels of the CNS are 1) spinal cord, 2) lower brain, and 3) higher brain (cortex). Respectively, their functions are 1) local reflexes and communication with higher centers, 2) vegetative and basic life functions, and 3) cognition and consciousness. Personality and integration of experience are not the exclusive function of any discrete segment of cortex. Consciousness is supported by an activation of the integrated forebrain, but destruction or inactivation of specific areas may be accompanied by definable alterations of function. Religious concentration or spiritual awareness may be accompanied by a quieting or blocking of specific brain segments in the context of a heightened general awareness.
Science is not given to mysticism. Some mathematicians and astronomers certainly can be swept into wonder and awe when vividly confronted with the universe. As such that is individual experience. But what is remarkable about science is not its power to fulfill the individual so much as its objectivity and reproducibility. Science is based on observation; the subjectivity of the observer tends to get factored out through the shared activities of the many. Science is a highly social activity, even though breakthroughs may rely on the brilliant insight of individuals. Science cannot answer the problem of God. It can, however, offer a great deal about the frame in which that problem is considered.
Does the brain create God, or does God create the brain? This is too narrow a dichotomy. We have come to consider biology in the context of its history. Biology needs to be understood in the longitudinal dimension of time. The story of life is the story of a particular range of phenomena on this planet. God didn’t create the brain. Whether or not God created the universe which has evolved is a separate issue. But, in the context of the question, evolution created the human brain.
Current Dialogue on God and Science
A hopeful sign at the start of our current millennium is a new and vigorous dialogue between scientists and theologians. In the current intellectual atmosphere, searchers for truth have shared a new openness to what other approaches to the universe have to offer. There has been increased willingness on the two sides to recognize validities in the other. Religionists have come to recognize that their cosmic views have been negatively affected by false empirical assumptions. Scientists have been driven more and more towards the recognition that there is some sort of mind or plan in the universe … and though that does not immediately equate to a divinity, it does raise the question whether intelligence is a restrictedly human phenomenon, or is either immanently or transcendentally present in the external universe. The dialogue is a healthy phenomenon.
Proximate Cause: Evolution
Bioinformation systems have the hand on the throttle and rudder of life process. The exploding discoveries of molecular biology are creating new vistas on the importance of information management in the subsystems of earth’s biosphere. The genetic system has clearly been the ladder by which life has clambered from the inorganic world to biology, and from brute animals to the higher consciousness of human beings. The capacity for out of body or ecstatic experience is an evolutionary product. We need to study the implications of that conclusion.
Brain Development over 3 million years
Lucy, a member of the species Australopithecus Afarensis, lived ca. 3 million years ago in the Rift Valley. Her remains represent the oldest relatively complete skeleton we have in our ancestral line. Lucy’s brain was possibly 400 cc in size; an average human brain today approaches 1500 cc. The human brain is composed of about 15,000,000,000 individual cells; Lucy’s may have had 4,000,000,000. Those are gross estimates, but their order of magnitude is correct, or close to it. No matter. Lucy was not necessarily our direct ancestor. However, she was certainly in the line of hominid evolution. But our point is simply this: over three million years, the human brain underwent an amazing, and an amazingly rapid development.
It was this astounding advance in cephalization that made possible the far reaches of religious experience and suprasensory consciousness. Proximately God did not make this. But, neither is it a serious conclusion that the brain makes God.
There are serious problems with attributing the process of CNS development over 3,000,000 years to the process of natural selection. On the average, there was steady increase in brain tissue and mental function from generation to generation. As the hominid brain grew and advanced in complexity, it added more and more capacity, generally along the line of ability to conceptualize and generalize.
There are two major problems with natural selection as the process that powered evolutionary process. The first is that chance variation in the genes would produce the sort of increased complexity that would be accompanied by increased abstractive capacity. The second is that the individuals with increased cognition were reproductively more successful.
Neither one of these hypotheses has any empirical data to speak for it. These are pure speculations driven by a desire to have the evolutionary process powered and directed by a readily comprehensible process.
The likelihood of chance improving anything genetic from one generation to another is in fact quite small. Chance mutations tend to be lethal. The likelihood of continuous chance improvement generation to generation would be rather like winning the lottery 300,000 times running. Impossible!
Further, either in the human race or in other species, there is no evidence to support the idea that the more cognitively successful individuals are also more reproductively successful. Generation is not dependent on smarts. Will Lamarck please step forward?
Lamarck’s theory of handing on acquired traits lost favor because, first, there were no clear instances of this, and, second, there was no least idea how this might come about biologically. Lamarck had absolutely no idea about how genetics worked. His thoughts lacked substance.
The development of the human brain is an ideal candidate for a modernized Larmarckism. There is no evidence that advance in human brain power conferred increased reproductivity. To assert that it did would be simply an act of faith in natural selection. What does seem likely is that increased conceptualization was simply “better” for the organism.
To simplify the discussion, let us name the ability to suppress time and space and focus on the hyper real: the Ecstatic Factor.
The suprasensory factor is the ability to focus on an intelligible aspect of a causal universe: however stated, the essence of this realization or intelligibility is that there is an all-powerful, creative and formed element or dimension in the external universe: whatever it is that makes things real, and makes them to be as they are.
It is valuable to the species (and to all reality as a whole) to be able to focus on this and to have this experience. It is a significant aspect of the spiritualization of the universe. Therefore this is selected for. This would be perilous thinking without a process exposition, but such an explanation may be possible.
There is increasing evidence from many different sources that enrichment of early experience results in an improved development of the brain. These data come from more and more research centers. Utilization of brain tissue may result in an increased proliferation of brain tissue. But how could it come about that this could be transferred back to gonadal tissue for transmission to offspring?
First, it is clear that control of such proliferation is managed by many feedback mechanisms … certainly not merely by the intergenerational feedback postulated by natural selection. Many analogous feedback mechanisms involve protein messengers, and it is likely that molecular biology is operative here as well. If this process can be substantiated experimentally, it seems likely that information-laden reactive proteins, analogous to autoimmune proteins leave the local cell environment and carry their message back to gonadal DNA.
Such a process would be quite complicated. However, the more we study cells and their functioning, the more it is apparent that the mechanics of molecular biology are involved in most processes. It is likely that they are functionally involved here as well.
This would imply that once the process of humanoid cephalization got started, it became its own “catalyst.”
Why did this occur only in the hominid line? If those are possible principles, why were they operative only in this highly selective genus? There are no clear answers to this question. We do not know why it is that higher intelligence has not bloomed all around us … or why it took so many millennia for nature to get around to the discovery.
Neanderthal man and CroMagnon man were apparently the only humanoids who survived. They became the human race. We may never know whether CroMagnon drove Neanderthal to extinction, or whether they fused into one population via mingled breeding. Whatever the answer to that conundrum may be, the significant legacy was an intelligence capable of comprehension and culture.
Concomitant with intelligence came the ability to appreciate things artistically and metaphysically. Out of that matrix, it is likely that certain humans felt it was eminently worthwhile to cultivate the quality of realization, with a suppression of those brain activities which situate the individual in time and space, with the result that ecstatic experience became a possibility.
Religion is a natural experience in all cultures and peoples. It springs as a byproduct of intelligence. It rests on two pilings driven deep into the matrix of human experience: 1) a sense of causality, that there must be something which makes the universe to be such as it is, and that that something must be very powerful and intelligent, and 2) that that entity, or force, whatever it is, has some special relationship with man and the human race.
As a matter of history, religion universally has recognized ecstatic experience, and held it in reverence, since it seems to have signaled a special profundity in the relationship of the individual to the deity. Historically, there has been only the most shallow understanding of the brain functions supporting metaphysical or religious states. “Ordinary” experience was a mystery; ecstatic experience even more so.
We are in a privileged position, historically, to comprehend both spiritual reality and the realities of the empirical side of reality. This is why at the present time we are involved in an active dialogue about science and religion. Religion developed at a period when the empirical understanding of the universe was as yet underdeveloped. It generally made assumptions about the physical cosmos which time has proven to be false. Science comes to the end of the empirical universe and realizes that there is something yet beyond. During the third millennium, we will see these two disciplines more and more converge.
Spiritualization of the Universe
The question whether the brain makes God, or God makes the brain is way behind our actual understanding of the elements involved. There are things which cry out for further understanding and research. But it seems inescapable but what the process of understanding or experiencing God is an evolutionary derivative. We are well on our way to understanding not only the fact but the process. The dialogue will continue. The payoff is the spiritualization of the universe, and that is a drama in which we all have the opportunity to play a part.