The “How” Does Not Explain The “Why”
The Eclectic Church presents the following article in the interest of discussion, the article is followed by some observations of our own!.
SUNDAY SCIENCE & ENVIRONMENT
THE BRAIN Searching for the physical basis of spirituality
In Philadelphia, a researcher discovers areas of the brain that are activated during meditation. At universities in San Diego and North Carolina, doctors study how epilepsy and certain hallucinogenic drugs can produce religious epiphanies. And in Ontario, a neuroscientist fits people with a magnetized helmet that produced "spiritual" experiences for the secular.
The work is part of a broad effort by scientists around the world to better understand religious experiences, measure them and even reproduce them. Using powerful brain imaging technology, researchers are exploring what mystics call nirvana, and what Christians describe as a state of grace. Scientists are asking whether spirituality can be explained in terms of neural networks, neurotransmitters and brain chemistry.
What creates that transcendental feeling of being one with the universe? It could be the decreased activity in the brain's parietal lobe, which helps regulate the sense of self and physical orientation, research suggests.
How does religion prompt divine feelings of love and compassion? Possibly because of changes in the frontal lobe, caused by heightened concentration during meditation.
Why do many people have a profound sense that religion has changed their lives? Perhaps because spiritual practices activate the temporal lobe, which weights experiences with personal significance.
"The brain is set up in such a way as to have spiritual experiences and religious experiences," said Andrew Newberg, a Philadelphia scientist who wrote the book "Why God Won't Go Away." "Unless there is a fundamental change in the brain, religion and spirituality will be here for a very long time. The brain is predisposed to having those experiences, and that is why so many people believe in God."
The research may represent the bravest frontier of brain research. But depending on your religious beliefs, it may also be the last straw. For while Newberg and other scientists say they are trying to bridge the gap between science and religion, many believers are offended by the notion that God is a creation of the human brain, rather than the other way around.
"It reinforces atheistic assumptions and makes religion appear useless," said Nancey Murphy, a professor of Christian philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. "If you can explain religious experience purely as a brain phenomenon, you don't need the assumption of the existence of God."
Some scientists readily say the research proves there is no such thing as God. But many others argue that they are religious themselves, and that they are simply trying to understand how our minds produce a sense of spirituality.
Newberg did an experiment that consisted of taking brain scans of Tibetan Buddhist meditators as they sat immersed in contemplation. After giving them time to sink into a deep meditative trance, he injected them with a radioactive dye. Patterns of the dye's residues in the brain were later converted into images. He found that certain areas of the brain were altered during deep meditation. Predictably, these included areas in the front of the brain that are involved in concentration. But Newberg also found decreased activity in the parietal lobe, one of the parts of the brain that helps orient a person in three-dimensional space.
"When people have spiritual experiences, they feel they become one with the universe and lose their sense of self," he said. "We think that may be because of what is happening in that area - if you block that area, you lose that boundary between the self and the rest of the world." In doing so, you ultimately wind up in a universal state."
At the University of California in San Diego, other neuroscientists are studying why religious experiences seem to accompany epileptic seizures in some patients. At Duke University, psychiatrist Roy Mathew is studying hallucinogenic drugs that can produce mystical experiences and have long been used in certain religious traditions.
Could the flash of wisdom that came over Siddhartha Gautama - the Buddha - have been nothing more than his parietal lobe quieting down? Could the voices that Moses and Mohammed heard on remote mountaintops have been just a bunch of firing neurons - an illusion? Could Jesus' conversations with God have been a mental delusion?
Newberg won't go so far, but other proponents of the new brain science do. Michael Persinger, a professor of neuroscience at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, has been conducting experiments that fit a set of magnets to a helmet-like device. Persinger runs what amounts to a weak electromagnetic signal around the skulls of volunteers.
Four in five people, he said, report a "mystical experience, the feeling that there is a sentient being or entity standing behind or near" them. Some weep, some feel God has touched them, others become frightened and talk of demons and evil spirits.
"That's in the laboratory," Persinger said. "They know they are in the laboratory. Can you imagine what would happen if that happened late at night in a pew or mosque or synagogue?"
His research, Persinger said, showed that "religion is a property of the brain, only the brain and has little to do with what's out there."
Those who believe the new science disproves the existence of God say they are holding up a mirror to society about the destructive power of religion. They say that religious fanaticism and intolerance spring from dogmatic beliefs that particular gods and faiths are unique, rather than facets of brain chemistry.
"It's irrational and dangerous when you see how religiosity affects us," said Matthew Alper, author of "The God Part of the Brain," a book about the neuroscience of belief. "During times of prosperity, we are contented. During times of depression, we go to war. When there isn't enough food to go around, we break into our spiritual tribes and use our gods as justification to kill one another."
Theologians say meditative practices don't describe most people's religiousness in either eastern or western traditions. "When these people talk of religious experience, they are talking of a meditative experience," said John Haught, a professor of theology at Georgetown University. "But religion is more than that. It involves commitments and suffering and struggle - it's not all meditative bliss. . . . They have isolated one small aspect of religious experience, and they are identifying that with the whole of religion."
Belief and faith, believers argue, are larger than the sum of their brain parts: "The brain is the hardware through which religion is experienced," said Daniel Batson, a Kansas psychologist who studies the effect of religion on people. "To say the brain produces religion is like saying a piano produces music."
Sometimes the arrogance of science can rival that of religion. It seems to me that just because there is a physical understanding and explanation of how a process works, it doesn’t explain the “why” it works that way. It becomes obvious to realistic believers that if in fact a Creative Force created, He/She created according to the laws of physics ordained by Him/Her. There are mechanisms governing all phenomena that we experience and all information is processed through our mind. To find that a spiritual experience produces brain activity, or vice versa proves little about the authenticity of the experience --- and it really says nothing about the existence or non-existence of God.
There are many aspects of our human experiences that can be measured in various brain activity, but it proves nothing about the credibility or reality of the experience. In recent years we have discovered that certain areas of the brain are the centers for various activities from movement of our limbs, to our vision, our memories and emotions. If seeing something, for example, activates a certain brain activity; does that mean that what we see is only imagined? Because under certain conditions people can see a mirage; does that mean all our visual experiences are not to be trusted? Are the experiences of love, pain, loneliness, any less real because certain brain processes occur during these emotional realities? Is thought itself any less a miracle because it is associated with electro-chemical processes?
While it is often true that believers are quick to jump to the conclusion that an event, seemingly out of the ordinary is a supernatural miracle of some sort, our atheist friends are too often prone to make the jump that simply because we understand or explain a process it somehow disproves any higher purpose or cause. But what is often missed here is the miracle of “why” those processes produce those results.
Science is making great strides in understanding the mechanics of the brain, but such understanding does nothing to explain the miracle of life, the wonder of thought or the awesome fact that we can study and understand the mechanics of our thinking. We have come a long way in the last century in understanding the laws which govern the physical realities around us. Things such as eclipses, rainbows, storms, the Northern lights --- things which at one time would have been seen as signs from the gods are now understood and explained as natural phenomena. For this reason, religionist need to take great care in asserting any even as supernatural, or, proof of God’s existence. But on the flip side of the coin, for every event that science can explain the process, the “HOW”, there is a “WHY” does it work that way that has no definitive answer.
As to the above article, for those who would say that it explains away the concept of a “religious experience” the most obvious question would be: Why would such a center evolve in the human brain if it serves no purpose in reality? Why would there be a center where we lose the idea of self and recognize a connection to the whole? In truth, the idea of self is only an illusion, because all of us only because of the whole. We are all a product of the creation, no matter how one sees it cause and in a very real sense that makes us one with it!
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