Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Neuroscience Reduces the Soul to the Brain

Below I referenced the new book by neuroscientist Mario Beauregard that argues for the existence of the human soul. Here's the recent Scientific American article that reduces the soul to the brain.

Beauregard's neuro-experiments are briefly explained. Experiments to neuro-create the "God experience" are explained. And reductionistic experiments are explained.

Here's a quote: "The key, Ramachandran speculates [neuroscientist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran of the University of California, San Diego], may be the limbic system, which comprises interior regions of the brain that govern emotion and emotional memory, such as the amygdala and hypothalamus. By strengthening the connection between the temporal lobe and these emotional centers, epileptic electrical activity may spark religious feeling.
To seal the case for the temporal lobe’s involvement, Michael Persinger of Laurentian University in Ontario sought to artificially re-create religious feelings by electrically stimulating that large subdivision of the brain. So Persinger created the “God helmet,” which generates weak electromagnetic fields and focuses them on particular regions of the brain’s surface.
In a series of studies conducted over the past several decades, Persinger and his team have trained their device on the temporal lobes of hundreds of people. In doing so, the researchers induced in most of them the experience of a sensed presence—a feeling that someone (or a spirit) is in the room when no one, in fact, is—or of a profound state of cosmic bliss that reveals a universal truth. During the three-minute bursts of stimulation, the affected subjects translated this perception of the divine into their own cultural and religious language—terming it God, Buddha, a benevolent presence or the wonder of the universe."

Persinger is a reductionist. Quoting SA: "Persinger thus argues that religious experience and belief in God are merely the results of electrical anomalies in the human brain. He opines that the religious bents of even the most exalted figures—for instance, Saint Paul, Moses, Muhammad and Buddha—stem from such neural quirks. The popular notion that such experiences are good, argues Persinger in his book Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs (Praeger Publishers, 1987), is an outgrowth of psychological conditioning in which religious rituals are paired with enjoyable experiences. Praying before a meal, for example, links prayer with the pleasures of eating. God, he claims, is nothing more mystical than that."

One problem I continue to have with this kind of reasoning is that it creates a self-defeating loop. Neuro-reductionism must claim that all experience, not only religious experience, is "merely the result of electrical anomalies in the human brain." Neuro-theorizing is a form of experiencing. Therefore neuro-theorizing is merely the result of electrical anomalies in the neuro-theorizer's brain. If so, why believe some other person's anomalous brain activity?

Of course when I have a God-experience I expect there will be neural activity. I also expect there will be neural activity when I theorize about neural activity. So, am I to conclude that, when the day comes that we can fabricate and stimulate neuro-theoretical ideas, we are thereby to say such ideas are not "true" because artificially produced? What, really, can we conclude from the fact that we can stimulate the brain so as to, e.g., "experience God" or "experience neuro-theorizing?" (I assume scientific theorizing is a form of experiencing. If not, what then is it?) And how could we say they really are the same kind of things?
Note: online subscribers to SA can access a debate on "How Does Consciousness Happen?", between neuroscientists Kristof Koch and Susan Greenfield.