Saturday, August 25, 2007

Simulated out-of-body experiences - what difference do they make to our view of the soul?

According to Nature News,
Scientists have deliberately fooled people into feeling they are watching themselves from outside their own bodies, using virtual-reality technology. The achievement reveals how the brain can be confused as it struggles to integrate confusing information from the different senses.

[ ... ]

Such experiences have been claimed by spiritualists to represent evidence of a soul. But the new research shows that it is possible to create a similar sensation simply by tricking the mind.

Of course, later on, we read,
The method does not recreate the 'classical' OBE — most strikingly because in the real-world setting, there's no obvious way for a person to 'see' themselves. But people could perhaps draw on their own mental body image to create the effect, says Ehrsson. "In the operating theatre there is no mirror on the ceiling, but there could be a 'mirror' in the head," he says. Ehrsson and Blanke suspect that this illusion might involve some sort of malfunction in brain regions such as the tempoparietal cortex that integrate sensory information.

The New York Times riffed,
The research provides a physical explanation for phenomena usually ascribed to other-worldly influences, said Peter Brugger, a neurologist at University Hospital in Zurich, Switzerland. After severe and sudden injuries, people often report the sensation of floating over their body, looking down, hearing what is said, and then, just as suddenly, find themselves back inside their body. Out-of-body experiences have also been reported to occur during sleep paralysis, the exertion of extreme sports and intense meditation practices.

People who participated in the experiments said that they felt a sense of drifting out of their bodies but not a strong sense of floating or rotating, as is common in full-blown out of body experiences, the researchers said.

I guess they’ll just have to keep working on it. When they get the spinning stuff right, the gaming world will eat it alive.

I asked my lead author of the forthcoming The Spiritual Brain neuroscientist Mario Beauregard what all this amounted to, and he replied,
The two studies (by Ehrsson and by Lenggenhager, Tadi, Metzinger, & Blanke) really have little to do with OBEs. They demonstrate some interesting techniques for confusing the perception of one's bodily location in space, but -- as the Blanke paper acknowledges -- they did not induce a sense of leaving the body or being outside the body.

Two things worth noting:

- The obsession of popular science media for “proving” that there is no spiritual reality. Articles of this type almost NEVER ask a non-materialist neuroscientist for comment. Any limitations you hear about will depend on admissions that materialists are prepared to make.

- The out of body experiences that are associated with near death experiences - which Mario and I discuss extensively in The Spiritual Brain, are usually accompanied by significant life change. So whatever is happening goes significantly beyond any fairground sense of floating or rotating, so addressing them in any meaningful way requires addressing that factor.


Booklist and Library Journal reviews of The Spiritual Brain

From the Booklist review

Neuroscientist Beauregard is no flighty New-Ager or Creationist but, he says, one of a minority of neuroscientists who don’t adhere to strictly materialist interpretation of the human mind. ... That is, it is too limiting to strictly confine the origin of all human thought to material or chemical interactions. In this complex tome, he ...

I am glad that the Booklist reviewer explained the key point a non-materialist neuroscientist would want to make. For the record, Mario - no New-Ager or Creationist - is a perennialist. And The Spiritual Brain is not a complex tome. As psychiatrist Jeff Schwartz says,
It clearly explains non-materialist neuroscience in simple terms appropriate for the lay reader, while building on and extending work that Sharon Begley and I began in The Mind and The Brain, and work that Mario and I collaborated on in academic publications.

Others have noted the book’s simplicity and clarity here, here, here, and here.

I’d gladly quote the whole review, but I cannot find it online yet. On the whole, I am pretty pleased with it though. It is always nice when the reviewer more or less understands WHAT you are trying to do.

I wish I could say the same thing for the Library Journal review, also not yet on line. The reviewer writes that the book
... argues further that mystical experience shows spiritual beings must exist, and that the existence of God is probable. This conclusion is beyond science.

Actually, the book argues that the mind is not the same thing as the brain ora n illusion (the materialist view), and that reports of life-changing spiritual experiences are credible, based on the evidence. It is a lay introduction to non-materialist neuroscience. Theistic religious believers will, of course, assume that these findings are also evidence for God according to their tradition - but that isn't the point the book makes.

The review, which I will link to when available, illustrates the widespread belief that science evidence - by definition - cannot support non-material realities. The reviewer may not realize that that is one of the fundamental doctrines of materialism, which regards science as its handmaiden - and increasingly, the university as its police academy.

However, this reviewer does at least say that the book
... argues well in clear, readable prose, avoiding highly technical language.
, which is pretty much the consensus of reviewers. As the writer on the team, I'm prtty happy about that.

Actually, these days, I’m happy when a reviewer appears to have actually read the work, at least in part, even if he misunderstood it. Mike Behe may not have been so lucky, as Cameron Wybrow implies in his Philadelphia Inquirer review of Edge of Evolution.

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Religion and politics, left, right, and centre

For some odd reason, many commentators assume that religious involvement in politics means, by definition, support for conservative causes. It’s obvious that the commentators need to get out more. Here’s an overview of the increasingly active religious left. Author Horowitz is hardly a sympathetic source, but he links to some players worth knowing about. Here’s a link to Christian greens, and here and here to articles about them - and one to something I wrote recently on Christian greens.

Incidentally, I’ve never understood the view expressed by some that religion should play no role in politics. The only possible outcome would be to fill elected offices with clinical sociopaths. They are the only sort of people I can think of whose behaviour is never governed by ethical considerations - and ethical considerations necessarily arise from worldviews, usually religious in origin. Happily, most commonly held worldviews are compatible in principle with providing government in the public interest.

Thus, I would not vote for a politician who told me that his religion would play no role at all in how he governs. If he belongs to a religion that provides him with no insights at all, he is not likely to bring much social wealth to his office. The critical question is, what does he think his religion has taught him?

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