Steven & Ben did an interesting report last time in A&P on neuroscience and religion. Is there a “God Spot,” and if so does it strengthen or deconstruct the credibility of religious experience? Is it a transmission receiver? Or is it all in our heads? “Does it mean that God created our brains, or that our brains created God?”
Results so far are inconclusive. One thing we can say is that human brains are capable of transcendence, and in some cases are positively addicted to it. That’s a good thing, though many forms of natural transcendence end badly (in alcoholism and other deleterious addictions, for instance: “sobriety diminishes… drunkenness expands“). But whatever else you want to say about it, you have to admit that our God talk is firmly planted in our species nature. For some, it casts a natural spell that some others would like to break.
Next question: what good is it, all the god talk? And there’s where the conversation gets even more interesting. David says
If you accept that religion has outlived it’s usefulness, and is on balance a negative, then yes it is better to believe religion “too silly, wrong, and dangerous to be counted as anything but humanity’s enemy.” The good done in the name of religion is more of an indication that humanism has progressed despite being held back by religious thought. People often do good despite the history (or even current status) of the tenets of their particular religion.
I’m all for an ever-more-humanistic world, but am still questioning the premise that all religion has outlived its usefulness for all practitioners. I confess I do resonate to John Lennon’s invitation to “imagine no religion,” but also have a hard time fathoming how the most estimable and inspired religionists will replace their moribund pieties with humanism. That sensibility works for many of us, but can it work for everyone?
And, my Jamesian scruples are finally just too uncomfortable with the presumption of prescribing my own conception of the good for others, not trusting them to fashion their own for themselves. “Hands off,” wrote the illuminator of “A Certain Blindness“: neither the whole of truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands.”
Beyond all that, I’m also still wondering if the ultimate goal of neuroscientific explanation should be the explaining away of “folk wisdom” (including religion and other colloquial forms of discourse) or simply the addition of another descriptive vocabulary – another tool for the toolkit, but not an exclusive one. And I still wonder if the “god helmet” and other experiential catalysts (including drugs and exercise, and the morning coffee I’m tripping on right now) are “artificial” in any definite and useful sense?
So “what does research into our brain indicate about religious and spiritual experiences?” Maybe they know over at the BBC. Or the HBP. Or TED. “How can we best engage our brains to help us better understand big ideas?” Let me know.