Friday, November 10, 2006

Mythbusters: God spots, modules, circuits, genes, memes ...

A persistent materialist folk myth of recent vintage has been that some sort of God spot, module, circuit, gene, virus of the mind, pattern of electromagnetism, seizure, glitch, or meme can explain religious belief.

Clinical neuroscience may have accidentally given these ideas a boost. But he relationship between clinical neuroscience and theorizing about the neural basis of religion has been somewhat like the relationship between NASA and Roswell.

Now, the sad part about all this silliness is that decades ago, there were some respectable naturalistic explanations for religious belief. Wrong in my view, but at least intellectually reputable. For example, in The Golden Bough(1922), J.G. Frazier helpfully elucidated the relationship between primitive cults and the desire to control nature.

Even today, in Religion explained Pascal Boyer attempts to come up with a naturalistic explanation that at least makes sense: Religious ideas are formed in the same ways as other ideas are formed but they are formed about religious subjects.

The fact that this can be treated as an original idea tells you how much nonsense has been given a free pass in recent years.

Anyway, my co-author, Mario Beauregard with the forthcoming The Spiritual Brain (Harper 2007) and his doctoral student Vince Paquette went to the trouble to study, using neuroscience tools, contemplative nuns who were recalling a mystical experience (recalling an experience activates many of the same neural pathways as were previously active):
Beauregard says that some researchers have theorized that religious experiences involve epilepsy-like seizures in temporal lobes. But the mystical condition activated dozens of brain areas involved in perception, emotion, and cognition, he and Paquette reported last week in Neuroscience Letters. The pair also conclude that although there is much overlap with the feelings of peace and love from the control condition, the mystical condition has its own signature, with "relatively different regional patterns of brain activation."

So, according to their research, people who have mystical experiences do enter an altered state of consciousness, but their experience is a complex one, as most human experiences are. There is no spot, module, or gene that simply activates it.

My other blog is the Post-Darwinist, which keeps tabs on the intelligent design controversy.

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