Revelatory Spirituality and Science—an Oxymoron? Examining Revelatory Transcendental Discourses on Self and Personhood at the Intersections of Science, Buddhism and Christianity

Revelatory Spirituality and Science—an Oxymoron? Examining Revelatory Transcendental Discourses on Self and Personhood at the Intersections of Science, Buddhism and Christianity

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Part I: The “Spirit Crisis”: “No-self” in Science

We have unlearned something. We have become more modest in every way. We no longer derive man from the “spirit,” from the “god-head”; we have dropped him back among the beasts… Formerly it was thought that man’s consciousness, his “spirit,” offered evidence of his high origin, his divinity. … Here again we have thought out the thing better: to us consciousness, or “the spirit,” appears as a symptom of a relative imperfection of the organism, as an experiment, a groping, a misunderstanding, as an affliction which uses up nervous force unnecessarily… The “pure spirit” is a piece of pure stupidity: take away the nervous system and the senses, the so-called “mortal shell,” and the rest is miscalculation – thatis all!… (Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist)

Ours is the age of a significant paradigm-shift in the understanding of human existence – undoubtedly, we are currently undergoing a fundamental identity crisis as a species. In the last several years the unprecedented wave of progress in the fields of biotechnology, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, neuroscience and other research areas that are capable of dramatically reshaping the human condition sparked a renewed interest in the transdisciplinary dialogue between science and religion on the issues of the origin and the nature of human consciousness. Interestingly, what appears to be the bone of contention between science and religion is the problematic of the actual existence of such a notion as the human self – disputes revolve around the question of whether the human selfhood eventually exists as a continuum – as Christianity still wants to believe, – or whether a permanent self is a mere illusion – as ancient Buddhist philosophy and contemporary neuroscience tell us. The reason why the problematic of the existence of the coherent selfhood catalyzes the ongoing transdisciplinary controversy is that it is conceptually linked to the metaphysical notion of the “external consciousness surviving physical death,” which has been traditionally cherished within most religious traditions of the world but was ultimately rejected by science. Throughout most of the history of the human race, “the human spirit” has been interpreted in transcendental terms and revered as sacred, sustained by the belief in the afterlife and spiritual reality; personhood, selfhood, identity, and subjectivity were conceptualized as eternal souls, transcendental essences, ancestral spirits, spiritual energies and other forms of life-generating-and-sustaining external consciousness. However, as these premises have changed in the age of scientific enlightenment with the invention of a “natural man,” the meanings attached to the concept of “spirituality” have been reinterpreted in humanistic terms and devoid of revelatory, transcendentalist implications. Today we are born into the rationalist-empirical post-Enlightenment universe, experimentally-provable, universally-replicable, tangible, palpable, observable and scientifically describable, delimited by temporal-spacious parameters of this-worldly existence. Science had been defined in opposition to mythical modes of thinking, delusions, superstitions, and any other phenomena beyond natural reality that are impossible to measure using the scientific method have been reduced to the mere products of human imagination or phantoms in the brain. As heirs of scientific Enlightenment, we often fail to realize that this dualism of empirical and revelatory is a fairly recent modernist invention: a separation into the intuitive and the rational (in favour of the rational) embedded in Cartesian humanism has not yet been clearly marked in the premodern conception of cognition. Premodern intellectuals favoured allegorical means of expression and did not think of the mythic and the scientific as opposing discourses, rather the creation of new allegories was associated with the work of creation, linking the work of God with that of the composer of an allegory. But at the dawn of modernity, following an epistemological split between rhetorical speculation and empirical inquiry in the Renaissance, scientific discourse was gradually restricted to the observable, empirical and measurable evidence of the natural world, gradually excluding the notion of the supernatural reality from its parameters. This historical transition from the dualist/supernatural ontology to a materialist dominated scientific paradigm entailed an epistemological gap between science and the humanities, science and religion, science and spirituality – a gap that we are presently facing and trying to bridge.

Reintroducing revelatory spirituality into the transdisciplinary analysis of selfhood could significantly inform not only our understanding of the spiritual spectrum of human self-awareness but it could also shed new light on the materialistic paradigms of human existence. However, how can this task be realistically accomplished, considering that no academically recognized framework, no scientifically validated methodology for the study of revelatory spirituality exists today? Without exaggeration, our modernist predecessors gradually did away with the notion of the human soul and axiomatically postulated that there is no such thing as the “otherworldly,” transcendental aspect to human essence. Theological propositions aside – even philosophical attempts to suggest an existence of some kind of vital force or bioenergy non-reducible to chemical processes (conceptually equivalent to religious concepts of soul, qi, or prana), known as the philosophy of vitalism, have been widely discredited as pseudoscience in early modernity and beyond. When scientifically analyzing religious phenomena, religious spirituality is approached as a by-product of the evolution of human consciousness, as a social psychological response to the environment, or as a natural outcome of a basic human need to romanticize reality, rooted in fear, search for recognition or hope for a better world. In the context of dialectical materialism, “the soul discourse” was interpreted as a utopian idealization of existence, escapism from reality, and other psychopathological phenomena – presumably, it was the fear of death and hope for immortality that prompted the humanity to invent the concept of “a ghost living within a body” passing into a new realm of existence. Finally, under an onslaught of epiphenomenalism, physicalism, monism, functionalism and other materialistic trends in philosophy of mind, substance dualism has increasingly become ostracized, replaced by the assumption that all mental processes are but mere manifestations of physical events in the brain. As John Searle, the author of The Rediscovery of Mind, summarized this materialistic position, “the famous mind-body problem, the source of so much controversy over the past two millennia, has a simple solution… Here it is. Mental phenomena are caused by neurophysiological processes in the brain and are themselves features of the brain.”1 Thus, in a materialistic view, the millennia-old dilemma has been settled: external consciousness simply does not exist – a fruit of religious imagination, it should remain where it belongs – within the domains of theology or religious apologetics, and no roundabouts or insinuations as to sacred revelations within the academic discourse are welcomed any longer.

Yet, however paradoxically, with the rise of scientific materialism, the romantic longings for some sort of mysticism and transcendence among secular academics did not cease but inspired instead an alternative conceptualization of the so-called “humanistic” or “non-theistic” spirituality that undercuts the assumption in the belief in the supernatural as the only condition for a spiritual orientation. “Spiritual-humanistic tradition” suggested by Marx and developed by Fromm; the “new mystique” elaborated by Julian Huxley, “spirituality without God” advocated by M�ller de la Rouvi�re – these holistic, non-binary paradigms of human condition claimed to have deconstructed substance dualism and elaborated a new model of the undivided, non-metaphysical spirituality. Under the umbrella of this humanistic spirituality one may discuss spiritual phenomena in romantic, aesthetic, poetic or ethical terms or within the discourse of palliative healing, but to suggest that the eternal soul actually does exist – in whichever form, – and to imagine that it survives physical body – in whatever fashion – would be naive and retrograde and would not be worthy of serious academic exploration. Obviously, these humanistic conceptualizations of spirituality may be regarded as valid and legitimate ways to account for human condition in their own terms; however, under an honest critical consideration, they appear to be nothing more than “spiritualistically embellished” philosophical offsprings of mechanistic materialism, failing to accomplish the ambitious task of the transcendence of mind-body conceptual dichotomies. There is no such a thing as a transcendental aspect to human existence compliable with this spiritualistically-disguised materialistic worldview; nothing like that of a soul in the absolutist, Platonic, Hegelian, or Christian sense – this is the verdict that scientific materialism has passed.

Materialistic hegemony over human consciousness further shapes a broader secular public discourse on the nature of human self, which habitually refers to the laboratory-based scientific authority as an ultimate tribune in human affairs. Par example, while contemplating on the matters of brain-mind dualism, the Washington Post columnist Joel Achenbach – a recognized popular science journalist – logically concludes that if a mind (in contrast to brain) cannot be empirically tested, then it virtually does not exist at all:

The classic idea of “dualism” solves the location problem by defining it away: the mind is perceived as separate from the body, something that cannot be reduced to machinery. It is unreachable by the tools of the laboratory. Dualism flatters us, for it suggests that our minds, our selves, are not merely the result of rambunctious chemistry, and we are thus free to talk about souls and spirits and essences that are unfettered by the physical body. Dualism is pretty much dead to serious researchers … but here’s the most radical idea of all: the reason why the mind is so hard to define is not because it has some mysterious, ethereal, spooky qualities but because it does not really exist. We just imagine it. You might say it is all in our heads.2

Referring to philosophical arguments against mind/body dualism summarized by Daniel Dennett, the author of Consciousness Explained (1991), Joel Achenbach ironically laments that, “it is bad enough that astronomers tell us that the Earth is not at the center of the cosmos; it is worse that biologists tell us we are all descended from pond scum. Now we have philosophers saying that the self is illusory. You are not really there.”3

The above excerpt appears as a classic example for the Foucauldian critique of hegemonic discourse-formation, whereby power-knowledge4serves to justify the regimes of truth by rules of exclusion, marginalization and conceptual devaluation of the contradictory viewpoints. That is to say, the proposition that consciousness is “merely the result of rambunctious chemistry” is certainly a legitimate theory in itself. However, the intrinsic reductionism of the above argument is embodied in the assertion that any idea of the non-material self – souls, spirits, unfettered essences, etcetera – “is pretty much dead to serious researchers.” This kind of intellectual death sentence pronounced over transcendental spirituality aborts any possibility for brining up this subject without risking academic suicide. Indeed, who wants to jeopardize their careers and undermine their research by falling into the “non-serious” category of intellectual ignoramuses?

And yet, intellectual curiosity did (and still does) provoke many researchers to take the risk in the exploration of the outrageously non-conventional, academically stigmatized phenomena – scientists throughout the world have been at search for external consciousness, focusing on experiential as well as experimental evidence to see whether consciousness functions independently of the physical brain, implying the existence of the independent life spirit or �lan vital. From the famous “21-gram” experiments conducted by physician Duncan McDougall in the early twentieth century, which tried to detect the exit of the soul from the body by measuring a person’s weight immediately after death, to the most recent confessions by a Harvard-educated neurosurgeon, Dr. Allan Hamilton, who in his book, The Scalpel and the Soul: Encounters with the Surgery, the Supernatural and the Healing Power of Hope, (2008) speaks out about his experiences with brain-dead patients (no heartbeat, no breathing, no brain waves, et al. for significantly long periods of time) recording in full detail what was going on and what was said in the operating room. Such testimonials are nothing new – numerous records of supernatural experiences have been collected throughout the world by the International Association for Near-Death Studies, the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and numerous other organizations. But despite the fact that supernatural phenomena of all kinds have been universally experienced throughout the world since the dawn of human history, contemporary science has been persistent in denying any kind of evidence of the spiritual realm and discrediting any attempts at researching it as preposterous and anecdotal.

However, very recently something has dramatically changed in scientific approaches towards supernatural experiences – due to rapid developments in neuroscience and the emergence of neurotheology, mystical phenomena suddenly became “real” and have gained the attention of neuroscientists striving to uncover neurological underpinnings of human spirituality. As soon as neuroscientists and neurotheologians gained confidence in the possibility to decode the supernatural and to provide the evolutionary basis for religious behavior and human perception of the spiritual realm, all kinds of spiritualistic experiences (which had been previously considered to be purely cultural phenomena) are now becoming unprecedentedly relevant and officially existent. Many new theories and speculations have been put forward recently to discover “the God gene” and to explain away spiritual experiences of humans in terms of mere chemistry in the brain, however, neurotheology of today goes further yet – thus, Andrew Newberg, Eugene D’Aquili, and Vince Rause – the authors of Why God Won’t Go Away – have recently studied the brainwaves of meditating Buddhists and Franciscan nuns with the help of high-tech brain-scanning devices and they discovered solid evidence that the mystical experiences of their experimental subjects were manifested in the brains as a series of observable neurological events. This brought them to the conclusion that human beings have a seemingly irrational attraction to God and religious e periences simply because their brains are biologically wired to pursue mystical sensations. “Mystical experience is biologically, observably, and scientifically real,” – admits Andrew Newberg, a researcher in nuclear medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, – “gradually, we shaped a hypothesis that suggests that spiritual experience, at its very root, is intimately interwoven with human biology.”5 Par example, near-death experiences are now officially “real phenomena,” which emerge as the result of the suppression of activity in the superior parietal lobe. Apparently, the orientation association area (OAA) in the superior parietal lobe is responsible for our physical spatial orientation, the control of bodily motions, and the consistent awareness of the physical limits of the self – basically, neuroscientists believe that OAA is precisely what creates a coherent sense of self in humans. So, when the sense of orientation is suppressed in the near-death experience – neurotheologians explain – “self” no longer feels anchored to the body… and one often seems to be rising to “heaven…”6 When asked how to account for “the light at the end of the tunnel” that many patients see as a part of their near-death experiences, neurotheologians explain that this comes as “a result of the brain’s visual cortex ‘looking’ for sensory input it cannot see…[while] the visions of a beautiful … garden or … landscape… are the result of the memory centers acting…”7 As for the sense of full awareness of the surroundings in brain-dead patients, the materialistic explanation of this mystery would be that “these phenomena can occur with very minute amounts of electrical activity in the brain.”8 Et cetera. Basically, a simple technical explanation is now found for practically all mystical phenomena that neuroscience believes to be capable to analyze, including the sense of the infinite presence of God, which is explained as a result of miscommunications between the temporal lobes of the brain. Here: our human sense of self is produced by the left-hand lobe with only partial contributions from the right-hand lobe, but sometimes due to stress or disease the right-hand-lobe-generated-sense-of-self becomes experienced as an independent presence by the left-hand temporal lobe, so the right-hand-generated and left-hand-generated senses of self overlap.9 Hence, here is a delusional God-experience – a schizophrenic misperception of one’s own self as a separate presence. Neuroscientists Newberg and d’Aquili argue that all neurological phenomena of deafferentiation – that is, feelings of unity with the universe, a sense of being absorbed into divinity, and other modes of self-transcendence, such as sensations of “infinite sublimity,” “the sense of timelessness and spacelessness in prayer and meditation,” “communion with the universe,” “hyperlucid unitary consciousness,” “the dissolving of boundaries between the self and God, gods, universe,” “being consumed by the presence of God, Jesus, Mary, or any other religious agency,” etcetera – emerge as a result of the suppression of the OAA during meditation:

Would the orientation area interpret its failure to find the borderline between the self and the outside world to mean that such a distinction doesn’t exist? In that case the brain would have no choice but to perceive that the self is endless and intimately interwoven with everyone and everything the mind senses. And this perception would feel utterly and unquestionably real.”10

Other roots of religious experiences were discovered in the limbic system and some other parts of the brain, including hypothalamus, amygdale, and hippocampus. The trends are rapidly growing to decode the mystical experiences based on the argument from brain damage or in biological-evolutionary terms: John Horgan in Rational Mysticism: Dispatches from the Border Between Science and Spirituality,11 writing from personal experience with drugs in search for self-transcendence, pronounces the direct relationship between chemical influence of psychedelic drugs on the brain and having a mystical experience; Daniel A. Helminiak in Neurology, Psychology, and Extraordinary Religious Experiences12. explains religious experiences as a product of some personality disorders like temporal lobe epilepsy and other pathologies; Matthew Alper in The “God” Part of the Brain: A Scientific Interpretation of Human Spirituality and God,13 argues that spirituality is a “nature’s white lie, a coping mechanism selected into our species to help alleviate debilitating anxiety caused by our unique awareness of death.”14

Finally, for those willing to rewire their brains for the “God experience” on demand, there is a “God machine” presently available: neurobiologist Michael Persinger devised a wired electromagnetic helmet constructed to induce mystical sensations by stimulating presumably spirit-generating areas in the brain. Persinger’s helmet works by inducing electrical signals with magnetically induced mechanical vibrations in the brain cells of the temporal lobes of the brain that produce the so-called “forty hertz component” detected in encephalograms. Scientists do not have a clear picture yet as to what the “forty hertz component” is and how it functions but they tracked it to be always present during the experience of “self.” By turning off the forty hertz component and diminishing the sense of selfhood which differentiates a person from the outside world, Persinger’s helmet creates the illusion of a sense of infinity, borderlessness and unity with the universe.15 So far more than nine hundred people have already had an “instant God experience” with the help of Persinger’s helmet and reportedly all Tibetan monks and the Franciscan nun, who took part in this experiment, had experiences identical to those resulting from their authentic meditative practices.16 (Persinger’s “God machine,” however, is no magic hat – when “the God-gene” proposer evolutionist Richard Dawkins volunteered to test the helmet, he reported to have been “very disappointed”17 by not being able to experience anything at all).

While some neurotheologists, such as Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili claim to maintain an unbiased scientific approach, trying to neither prove nor disprove the existence of God through their experiments, other researchers, on the contrary, speak in a clear-cut hostile, anti-religious tone. “How much longer will we be slaves to destructive religious creeds…?” asks Matthew Alper in The “God” Part of the Brain: A Scientific Interpretation of Human Spirituality and God.18 “What are widely regarded as evidence for the existence of a spiritual realm can easily be explained by the material, the mundane … your most powerful, persuasive evidence, namely your own powerful, personal experience, can now be easily and rationally explained, in all its features…. So now, religionist, how do you prove your case?” inquires Scott Bidstrup in Experiencing God, The Neurology of the Spiritual Experience.19 “How could evolution have favoured wasteful investment in preposterous beliefs? How can it be that human minds, evolved to cope with the real world, can hold beliefs that are patently improbable?” challenges spirituality Scott Atran in In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion.20 The answer to these questions is self-evident for neurotheologians – it is but mere biology, humans are simply neuro-physiologically hardwired this way.

However, all recent efforts to mechanically replicate authentic spiritual experiences in the brain, that seem to have visibly contributed to the scientific “demystification of soul,” pale in significance when compared with some of the most up-to-date developments in neuroscience, which suggest the possibility of artificially replicating the emergence of consciousness itself in a laboratory setting. Thus, scientists at Georgia Institute of Technology (GIT) recently developed the so-called “neurally controlled animats,” which consists of a few thousands rat neurons grown atop a grid of electrodes and connected to a robot or computer-stimulated virtual environment.”21 The researchers at GIT claim that these laboratory-generated brain clumps in some ways act like actual living brains and have “a certain amount of awareness.” According to Steve Potter, a neuroscientist at GIT, “since our cultured networks are so interconnected, they have some sense of what is going in themselves… we can also feed their activity back to them, to mediate their “sense of self…”22 And scientists at GIT express hope that the next phase of animats will likely have an even keener sense of self. While such inventory approaches to selfhood may be somewhat presumptuous and prematurely enthusiastic, there is still the possibility of being able to replicate an artificial “sense of self” or “self-awareness” in a laboratory setting and, if realized, could be a fatal blow on our age-old notion of transcendental external consciousness.

So, why does the question of the coherent human continuum still stand and why are we reluctant to let go of the idea of our “selves” objectively being there – and not only in our imagination, despite contemporary neuroscience tries to convince us otherwise? Or should we take an advice of the Soviet ideologists of scientific atheism who half a century ago urged us to throw away the obsolete notions of souls, spirits, and transcendental essences into the “garbage can of history”?

Obviously, intellectual naivet�, nostalgic sentimentalism, death-related insecurities, and escapism from reality are not the only reasons for human transcendentalist cravings – there are still many significant intellectual reasons to preserve a healthy attitude of non-reductionist open-mindedness towards the transcendental. Evidently, there are still too many blind spots, controversies and inconsistencies in the evolutionary analysis of human consciousness. When discussing the evolutionary emergence of consciousness, which apparently has not been experimentally demonstrated with the use of the proper scientific method, neuroscientists and neurotheologians will eventually invite us to make a leap of faith, by utilizing mytho-graphic lingo such as, “as soon as the human brain became sufficiently complex in structure, mind took shape, consciousness sparked into being”23or by suggesting some over-stretching explanations for mystical experiences as by-products of sexual development in humans, as in the following excerpt:

We believe the neurological machinery of transcendence may have arisen from the neural circuitry that evolved for mating and sexual experience… Scientists think the quiescent and limbic systems evolved partly to link sexual activity to the pleasurable experience of orgasm, with obvious evolutionary benefits. Components of the limbic system are involved in the deafferentation process. … Sex and prayer are obviously not the same experience… Neurologically they are quite different, but “mystical prayer and sexual bliss use similar neural pathways.24

Human capacity to sublimate sexual desires into other passions or otherwise to substitute longings for emotional (spiritual) intimacy for physical satisfaction is nothing new – these psychological phenomena had been extensively described both in religious as well as in scientific literatures. But the problem is that such theories of the genesis of consciousness rely on the quasi-religious notion of evolution as a supra-natural metaphysical agency, capable of consciously planning the course of its development. That is to say, how and why would evolution – presumably impersonal and non-purposive – logically trace beneficial effects of pleasure on reproduction while simultaneously ascribing teleological significance to reproduction itself? And if evolution is indeed reproduction-driven, then why would it refract physical pleasures into something as ephemeral and elusive as mystical experiences? Finally, does the fact that mystical experiences utilize “similar neural pathways” [my emphasis] as those of sexual pleasure really prove that the “neurological machinery of transcendence” evolved from the experience of orgasm? Obviously, the above theory properly fits the conveniently-predominant scientifically-approved evolutionary meta-framework. Not to mention that actually spiritual experiences are not always pleasure-grounded and, on the contrary, often produce negative emotions of inner conflict, agony, and emotional frustration rather than bliss, exaltation and peace. In fact, some occultists, and sometimes even New Age followers and practicing Buddhists report “seeing demons” or experiencing uncontrollable irrational fears during transcendental meditation; other spiritual experiences eventually entail ascetic self-destruction and even communal self-destruction as evident in some extremist religious cults… In summary, as demonstrated above, the evolutionary analysis of consciousness operates within an exclusionist materialistic meta-discourse, and is geared toward data documentation that defends its hypotheses.

Also, it appears problematic that neurotheology in its analysis of mystical experiences, particularly that of the “phenomenon of deafferentation,” falls prey to a quasi-universalistic approach to the transcendental reality, which brings a variety of spiritual experiences to one common denominator of mystical self-transcendence, higher humanness, cosmic awareness and “being at one with the universe.” This approach, however, does not withstand detailed scholastic scrutiny since it deliberately overlooks some fundamental differences between unique culturally-specific discourses on spirituality and sustaining them religious paradigms. Spiritual experiences are obviously not delimited by trances, visions, epileptic seizures, ecstasy, or exaltation; there are many other widespread religious phenomena, which today’s neuroscie ce can not technicall