April 28, 2003


Religion versus science might be all in the mind (Chris McGillion April 29 2003, Sydney Morning Herald)
For years now, one small branch of science has been chipping away at the foundations of religious belief by proposing that "otherworldly" experiences are nothing more than the inner workings of the human brain. Many neuroscientists claim they can locate and explain brain functions that produce everything from religious visions to sensations of bliss, timelessness or union with a higher power.

These claims have been strengthened by the work of the Canadian neuropsychologist Dr Michael Persinger. By stimulating the cerebral region presumed to control notions of self, Persinger has been able to induce in hundreds of subjects a "sensed presence" only the subjects themselves are aware of. This presence, Persinger suggests, may be described as Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Muhammad or the Sky Spirit - depending on the name the subject's culture has trained him or her to use.

"Neurotheology", as this line of inquiry has been dubbed, has its critics. Some say it fails to distinguish between experiences that contain a moral or spiritual dimension (such as visions of God) from those that don't (such as ghostly perceptions). Others point out that none of this research can ever establish whether our brains have been designed to apprehend religious experiences or whether these are simply the by-product of bad wiring. [...]

The jury is still out on whether such religious experiences are mere delusions and whether God might be nothing more than a hallucination. But the argument for both has just become a lot more interesting.

The problem with kind of reductionism is even more fundamental than the ones mentioned in the article: logically there must of course also be brain centers that produce belief in science, which is ultimately just as much a product of socialization as any religion, and even belief in reality and the self. Therefore, we are returned to the primordial problem that we have no way of ever proving our own existence. What's interesting, for our purposes, is the failure of the author even to contemplate such matters, because each of us assumes our own beliefs "true" and those of others mere "beliefs". Posted by Orrin Judd at April 28, 2003 1:09 PM
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