Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The God Chemical

Interesting series going on NPR right now on the Morning Show, around 7:30 AM Central Time. Barbara Bradley Hagerty is looking in to the current research on the brain activity associated with the spiritual experience. This started back in the 60’s with the distillation of LSD, but was squashed after the Beatles split up or something. All five parts are already on their site in text and audio is being added as it is broadcast.

Here’s the first one. Links to the others should appear to the right on that page.

There is also an overview page with additional material.

Here you can read excerpts from Barbara’s book.

All very interesting, and since this is my blog, here’s my opinion. In the 2nd part, a neuroscientist, Michael Persing says, “from the point of neuroscience, all experience is generated by brain function”, then later, “the last illusion that we must overcome as a species is that God is an absolute.” Well maybe, but what is the evidence that God is an illusion? Generated by brain function, okay, but what is brain function? You can measure activity in a mass of gray matter, but what is really going on there? Another neuroscientist follows up with a statement that we don’t really know much, and I hope more people hear that.

I’m all for knowledge, it’s jumping to conclusions that gets us in trouble. Claiming you have heard from God when you actually had an epileptic seizure in your temporal lobe is equal to claiming that God does not exist because you can evoke a feeling of oneness with some electrodes. The key here in Persing’s statement is, “from the point of view of neuroscience”. Fights get started when one point of view ignores all the angles that need to be considered and claims to have the right answer. For example when neuroscientists start claiming that Moses was an epileptic. They should have read my blog, or watched Nova, and found out that Moses was probably not a real person. They look pretty silly now don’t they?

It gets dangerous when you extrapolate from experiments like this to discounting 4,000 years of prayer, writing, philosophy and community building. The earliest forms of religion may have come from myths about why there are rainbows or why we have many languages, but they have evolved in to something much more. The idea of a rule of law, where people are equal, instead of rule by a King over slaves, didn’t come from the Kings, it came from the priests.

If someone can figure out how to stick an electrode in my brain and have me write a speech that will bring peace in the Middle East, stick away. My fear is the opposite is more likely. If we have figured out how to induce a feeling of compassion, then we can also inhibit it. We need to decide real soon which of those we want.

Interestingly, I came across this related story today too. I like what the good doctor says about brain activity and being a people person are correlated, but we don't yet know if the brain determines that, or do our experiences affect brain growth.

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