A recent article about a Harvard neuroscientist’s research on the correlates of religious experience in the brain raises many familiar questions about the relevance of neuroscience to religious experience.
Michael Ferguson is a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School. He grew up as a Mormon and was quite religious. But, he reports, his beliefs have changed. That’s probably fairly common at Harvard –- there is a pervasive and palpable bias against serious religious beliefs in many of our leading universities.
Nonetheless, Ferguson thought,
As a scientist, I can’t help but wonder what it is about these types of [religious] experiences that made them feel so rich and so profound.Emma Yasinski, “Religion on the Brain” at The Scientist (Jul 13, 2021) The paper covered requires a subscription.
An obvious answer would be that religious experiences are rich and profound because they are true. There’s nothing like communion with God to enrich and deepen life. Ferguson seems not to have considered this explanation, but instead seeks answers through neuroscience. The result is predictable:
In June, Ferguson and his team published a study in Biological Psychiatry showing that brain lesions that connect to the periaqueductal gray (PAG), an area deep in the brain involved in processes such as pain modulation, fear conditioning, and altruism, seem to be associated with religiosity and spirituality.Emma Yasinski, “Religion on the Brain” at The Scientist (Jul 13, 2021)
Ferguson is careful to emphasize that he is not trying to disprove the reality of religious experience:
Some researchers have looked for activation of specific brain regions using functional MRI brain imaging. But this approach is fraught with difficulties in interpretation. What does it mean when a region of the brain is more active during a particular mental state – does it mean that that the brain region is causing the mental state, or does it mean that activity in that region correlates with the mental state without inferring cause. Or does it mean that the mental state causes the increase in brain activity (rather than being caused by it)?
Or does it mean that the mental state and the brain state are both caused by something else? Or could it even mean that the brain activation is the suppression of an interfering mental state that would preclude the mental state being studied — which itself is not associated with any brain activation (e.g. does a region of brain activation while contemplating religion represent suppression of atheist belief so as to allow emergence of religious belief)?
As you can see, even a cursory examination of the conceptual complexities involved in this kind of research shows that examining changes in brain states associated with changes in mental states is an enormously hazardous research undertaking.
The fundamental reason is that our metaphysical understanding of the relationship between the brain and the mind is a conceptual mess. Until we have a coherent sense of how physical and mental causation occur and interact there is little we can say that would be meaningful about measurements of brain states and their correspondence to mental states. It would seem to me that such research at this point amounts to little more than high tech phrenology.
High-tech phrenology is much worse than the old-fashioned low-tech phrenology, The nonsensical nature of the research is more difficult to understand when it is laden with impressive sounding technological advances and neuroscientific jargon. “Activation of the left frontal gyrus causes religious experience” is less obvious nonsense than “the bump on the skull corresponding to the left frontal gyrus tells us about religious experience”. Yet both are utter nonsense.
In both cases scientists infer that material states of the brain account for mental states. Of course in a very general and crude way it is obviously true that normal brain states are necessary for normal mind states. But the issue of causation is devilishly more difficult. Meaningful insight must come not from neuroscience (which is a scientific, rather than metaphysical, discipline) but rather from disciplines such as philosophy of mind. Philosophy of mind today is, regrettably, infested with materialist nonsense and unlikely to lead to any meaningful insight in its present state of impairment.
The best way to understand religious experience is to have one. The ordinary person at prayer in his room is learning immeasurably more about religious experience than the Harvard neuroscience professor in his lab.
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Why a budding neuroscience student is skeptical of brain scans After reading her perceptive essay about the problems in fMRI imaging in neuroscience, I’m sad that a gifted student has doubts about a career in the field. Neuroscience badly needs skeptics to show how unreliable technology, biased handling of data, and materialism’s conceptual mess frustrate science.