Friday, June 10, 2016

On Reductionistic Neurotheology

Persinger vs Dawkins: The God Helmet from Tommy Decentralized on Vimeo.

A few years ago I bought a copy of University of Pennsylvania neuroscientist Andrew Newberg's "God and the Brain: The Physiology of Spiritual Experience." It's a 3-CD set on Newberg's FMRI studies on what's going on neurophysically when a person has religious experiences, or a lack thereof.

When I experience God in some way is there something happening in my physical brain that corresponds to this? Surely there is. Does this mean my God-experiences are fully reducible to the physical brain? I don't believe so. Some atheists as well as theists reject this conclusion.

On neurophysical reductionism even an atheist's lack of religious sensibility is due to far less sensitivity than others in their temporal lobes. "Perhaps [atheist Richard] Dawkins is simply lacking the “God gene” or VMAT2, to be precise, that controls the flow of mood-regulating chemicals, called monoamines, in the brain." (Julia Llewellyn Smith, "What God Does to Your Brain") In the video neuroscientist Michael Persinger thinks Dawkins does not have religious experiences because he lacks temporal lobe sensitivity. 

If the brain is only a "computer made of meat" and "freethinking" is an illusion then, just as a theist's God-experiences are fully reducible to the brain, so is an atheist's "rational" God-rejection. And so is the "reasoning" of atheist Julia Llewellyn Smith (op. cit.). As are also Andrew Newberg's neurotheological explanations, correct? [BTW - the brain is a computer metaphor is much-questioned today. See Robert Epstein, "The Empty Brain." Epstein says the idea that the human brain works like a computer is "vacuous." Your brain does not "store memories," "process information," or "retrieve knowledge."]

Julia Smith writes:

"Such “mystical”, self-blurring experiences are central to almost all religions – from the unio mystica experienced by Carmelite nuns during prayer, when they claim their soul has mingled with the godhead, to Buddhists striving for unity with the universe through focusing on sacred objects. But if Newberg and his colleagues are correct, such experiences are not proof of being touched by a supreme being, but mere blips in brain chemistry." [Having listened to and read Newberg I'm not certain he is this extreme.]

OK. But if Newberg and his colleagues are correct than all experiences are but "mere blips in brain chemistry." That is, if religious experiences are fully reducible to brain chemistry than all experiences are fully reducible to brain chemistry. The atheism of Smith and Dawkins is fully reducible to brain chemistry. The theory that all experiences are reducible to brain chemistry is itself a mere blip in brain chemistry. And we are trapped in a windowless cognitive black box.

Or, perhaps God has so made our physical brains as to be capable of experiencing him?

For the question-begging, looping-circular reasoning of neuro-reductionism see neuroscientist Eliezer Sternberg, My Brain Made Me Do It: The Rise of Neuroscience and the Threat to Moral Responsibility.