Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Neurotheology - or neurobullshipping?

Mario, my lead author, dislikes the term "neurotheology", and now I know why. A recent article by Hannah Elliott in Associated Baptist Press News informs us:
Theories about correlations between the brain and beliefs are nothing new. Historians have speculated that figures like Joan of Arc, Saint Teresa of Avila, Fedor Dostoevsky and Marcel Proust had aliments like epilepsy, which in turn led to their obsessions with the spiritual world.

Yes, but that is neurobullshipping, as we show in The Spiritual Brain.

Not only that, but it is neurobullshipping in the service of a materialist agenda. The article quotes Massimo Pigliucci:
If "we realize that mystical experiences originate from the same neurological mechanisms that underlie hallucinations ... I bet dollar to donut that the reality experienced by meditating Buddhists and praying nuns is entirely contained in their mind and is not a glimpse of a 'higher' realm, as tantalizing as that idea may be," he concluded.
Simmons called that criticism "on target." Neurotheology doesn't deal with theology as it is traditionally done -- trying to get religion and experience together with reasonable consistency, he said. Progress in the field will come mostly in mental health, he said.

He wasn't asked to unpack that statement.

Alston, who studied ethics and philosophy at Yale Divinity School, says criticism of neurotheology depends on who is receiving the information. Much of it has to do with the difference between the physical brain and the metaphysical mind. Some experts believe that ideas in the mind cause action, while others say chemicals in the brain cause action -- and if chemicals are altered in the brain, behaviors will change, Alston said.
Either way of thinking is okay, since neurotheologists aren't interested in changing firmly held beliefs, he said.

Bu what does this mean? If "ideas in the mind cause action", the mind is real, and people who have a spiritual experience might contact something outside themselves. If "chemicals in the brain cause action", the mind is an illusion created by the action of these chemicals and people who have a spiritual experience are simply the victims of an odd conflation of chemicals.

Alston goes on:
"What I'm trying to do with neurotheology is to explain that each of these has a way with relating to the subject matter," he said. "It once again depends on the standing point of a person in terms of if they're a biologist and what their tools are and if they are a psychologist and what their tools are."

No, sorry, Alston. That will not work. You must establish which of these propositions is true in order to fruitfully study religious, spiritual, or mystical experiences, because they lead in entirely different directions.

Hat tip to Stephanie West of Brains on Purpose.

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