Thursday, October 11, 2007

Mysticism and the brain

Thanks, Itzok, for bringing that Oct. 3 article in Scientific American to our attention. I certainly see nothing in it that precludes religious belief, but then, I don't believe that faith can ever be undermined by science. It makes sense to me that if we are spiritual beings, our bodies would have a biological means of having spiritual experiences.

Think about it. We perceive visually with our eyes, which send information to specific parts of our brain, but that doesn't mean that what we see is nonexistent. The biological function serves reality, rather than creating illusion.

As the article concluded:

"Moreover, no matter what neural correlates scientists may find, the results cannot prove or disprove the existence of God. Although atheists might argue that finding spirituality in the brain implies that religion is nothing more than divine delusion, the nuns were thrilled by their brain scans for precisely the opposite reason: they seemed to provide confirmation of God’s interactions with them. After all, finding a cerebral source for spiritual experiences could serve equally well to identify the medium through which God reaches out to humanity. Thus, the nuns’ forays into the tubular brain scanner did not undermine their faith. On the contrary, the science gave them an even greater reason to believe."

I said yesterday that I would be more specific about my own experiences, so I'll briefly relate my first conscious encounter with the sacred.

I was young, 3 or possibly 4 years old, and enjoying my swingset on a perfect summer day. As the swing rose and fell, I felt as if I were flying. Happily looking up into the treetops, I saw golden light pouring through bright green leaves.

What happened next is impossible even now to adequately describe. It was as if a curtain had been pulled away. As if I were suddenly in the presence of something -- no, Someone -- far greater than anything or anyone I had ever known. I felt a strange unity with all that is and all that was and all that will be. There was a sense that all was perfect, all was well. That I was just a tiny speck in a vast universe ... but infinitely loved.

Then my mother called me to come inside for my nap. And I clearly remember standing there, frustrated -- wanting to tell her what I saw but not having the words or the concepts to describe it. It was years later, after similar experiences, that I named it an encounter with God. Perhaps you choose to see it as a random firing of neurons.

At the time, I only knew it was awesome.

Whatever it is called, the experience shaped my life, giving me confidence to explore the mysteries of faith and a bedrock trust in the ultimate goodness of God.


Charlotte Mortgage said...

wow...that sounds like an awesome experience! And you experienced that at a young age...any new experiences lately?

Anonymous said...


have you asked yourself if the presence you felt and now call God would be called differently if you were born in Iraq vs. being born in US? (goes for everyone else as well)


P.S.: It is Iztok not Itzok :)

D.J. said...

God is a God of means as well as ends. He created what we call "natural process," so why should we be suprised to see them at work in spirituality? I liked the point about the eye, very true - vision can be boiled down to a series of chemical reactions in the brain, that doesn't mean the expereince of vision is not real. God has created us in such an astonishing way!

"I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well." - Psalm 139:14

Soli Deo Gloria

Clayj said...

"Perhaps you choose to see it as a random firing of neurons."

Exactly. The kicker is that personal experience is just that... personal. There is no real way to determine if what you experienced was a true "spiritual" experience (if in fact there is such a thing) or merely a physical experience which you interpreted in a spiritual way. Sure, we could hook you up to a CAT or MRI or PET scan and try to reproduce the event, and if you had a similar moment while under the scanner, we might find a particular pattern of brain activity. But even so, the question remains: Is it just something that happens on a physical level, or is there really such a thing as a spiritual event, where your thoughts and perception are shaped by Something Other? You can never really know one way or the other.

What it all boils down to is this: You can't prove, in a scientific way, that God exists. And you can't prove that he doesn't exist. If you believe in Him, then he exists; otherwise, he doesn't.

Anonymous said...

Sooooooooo ClayJ,

What it all boils down to is this:
You can't prove, in a scientific way, that Pink Unicorns exist.

And you can't prove that they don't exist.

(because they may be hiding somewhere we haven't looked or maybe they are at the bottom of the deepest part of the ocean)

If you believe in the pink unicorns, then they exist; otherwise, they don't.

Okaaaaaaaaay.... I get it.


Same crazy ass mentality, different day.

You are all totally nuts.

Anonymous said...

I just need to say that last post wasn't mine! ;)


Anonymous said...

But it was dead on wasn't it ?

Anonymous said...


while I agree with your premise I still think you shouldn't use derogatory terms.


Anonymous said...

Okay - agreed.

"Same silly butt mentality, different day".

Have a good weekend.

Anonymous said...

According to Jane, she had a spiritual event in her life early on. It seems to have influenced her ever since.

Since she can't prove it was or wasn't a pink unicorn, then she is crazy?

What difference if it was a pink unicorn, or god, or she is in Iraq or Ethiopia?

The common thread seems to be personal belief being the underpinning of religious belief.

So many people believe, for whatever reason, there would seem to be some connection in the brain which enhances those beliefs.


This again fails to prove or disprove.


If people believe, then good, and good for them.
If they don't, then good, and good for them.

If religion led to kindness and good works I could be more supportive in a general way. But it does not necessarily do so.

I again cite the Inquisition as the epitomy of the misuse of religion by those who profess to believe.

All too often it is only another way and excuse to power over others.

Government is the main other.

Organizations of both set some people higher at the expense of the masses. This misuse is not what is portrayed as a religious belief, but is regularly associated with religion.

Why so?


The_Weaver said...

Here's my problem with the "You can't prove the Divine exists therefore the Divine..." Neither side has an arguement so throw that statement out of the window once and for all. It's a moot point. For religion and philosophy to have a sumo match is tantamount to two damp tissues having a brawl. Both are the same in far too many ways, and both ideaologies are just that, ideaologies. Neither one, and I've read scientists attesting this very statement, has any business incorporating science into their arguments.

Science cannot prove nor disprove whether or not there is a cosmic consciousness because science bases all of it's findings on empirical evidence (observable). This is where human experience validates Divinity e.g, Jane's experience or my experiences. Anyone else cannot invalidate another human's experience. It simply cannot truly be done. When you say that a person has not had said experience, you have then entered the territory of "belief."

Reality for me is what it is. A friend of mine pointed out that humans are terrified existentially, admittedly or not. So either they become completely submissive and die hard religious fanatics or hardcore rationalists (There are exceptions). Either way, my friend pointed out, folks don't actually deal with what's really going on. I thought that was an interesting perspective.

The thing is, this is all existential, and as far as rationalism is concerned, it's another extreme with which I have to endure. That bothers me. I've got two sides yelling at me. One side is calling me a devil worshipping pagan, and the other an insane archaic anachronist. Proseltyzing is proseltyzing.

Here's some science and anthropology. Humans haven't evolved. We've been homo sapien sapien for thousands and thousands of years. We aren't that cool. We can conceptualize all kinds of neat stuff, but we're too stupid to realize that all of the cool things we have are causing a mass extinction, not to mention that we're to stupid to stop. So, it begs the question as to how people can see things, know all sorts of things that we've never seen or about which we have ever heard (It has paid to be both to have a BA in Religious Studies and to be a writer). Reason is beautiful, it doesn't have to be disconnected from the spirit, and reality doesn't have to be void of all things... unbelievable. The great thing about rules is breaking them from time to time.

Also, I'd like to say that I understand the anger towards religious oppression, violence, and the ignorance caused by fundamentalism. However, when bigotry is directed towards me and others like me because of it, that's unfair. I personally don't have a problem with people. I've read a lot of William James. Religious or lack there of makes the world colorful. When these notions become oppressive and instruments of physical, psychological, or emotional violence, then we've got a problem.

Anonymous said...

The Weaver, contrary to your claim "Humans haven't evolved." we did evolve. Granted not in last few thousand of years (well at least not that much) but we did. We emerged from our ancestors in Africa about 200,000 years ago, about 10,000 years ago we populated Americas and about that time we started to domesticate dogs and few thousand years later we started to brew beer :) (the later about 6,000 years ago)