Wednesday, January 13, 2010

God in the brain?

I got a fascinating response to the previous post and here are pieces of that email conversation. David Steeves wrote that he read Varieties of Religious Experience years ago and it helped him to keep an open mind.
Science is bound by rules regarding quantifiable events. In other words, if it can’t be measured, it’s not open to scientific inquiry. Religions and questions of god are by nature not quantifiable, so I doubt that science will ever have an answer to the question of god’s existence. I have kept an open mind because I have experienced and seen things which are not quantifiable.

One simple example happened years ago and is not religious. I witnessed a glass ashtray which weighed about 14 oz., jump about 8 inch into the air all by itself and break in half. It then fell back down in two pieces and lay where it landed with no further motion. I picked it up and looked it all over. It was room temperature, the break was very clean, no splinters, and nothing was attached to the ashtray in any way. I cite this as an example of an unexplainable event that cannot be reproduced or studied.

I have talked to people about possible causes and no one has ever been able to explain it. I have never been able to make it happen again and don’t know what caused the ashtray to move all by itself. If anyone has an explanation, I would love to hear it for it still confounds me. But this is a simple thing, and in no way compares to the existence or non-existence of god. If there is no way to explain a simple event how can one hope to explain god?
The Yogis of India could move material objects. To me your example gives evidence of spiritual reality, but to the question, “existence or non-existence of god,” I say it’s not about a god. The question I pose along with Barbara Bradley Hagerty is, Does spiritual reality—thoughts independent of the material brain, for instance—exist? Dave says,
The ashtray incidence has always puzzled me and I would welcome other people’s opinions on what they think may have happened. I know some people will doubt it even happened and that’s OK. I know it did happen, and it’s just one of the unexplainable happenings in this world. As Carl Sagan used to say, “The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.”
I've heard too many credible stories like this to discount all of them, and I go with the sentiment expressed by Sagan and Shakespeare (see my Hamlet quote on the right). Dave again:
No one made it happen. I was seventeen years old at the time, 1966, sitting in the living room of the farm house where I grew up, talking to my mother about something, the subject now lost, when the ashtray simply jumped up in the air and broke. My mother and I saw the event, and neither of us ever knew what to think. My mother is now dead, so that leaves me as the only living witness. Not the best circumstances to insure believability, but I saw what I saw and have never come close to any kind of reasonable explanation.
There was no history of haunted or ghostly happening in the house. No one was trying to move the ashtray, we didn’t even have the ashtray as a focus of our conversation, until it jumped in the air and broke. My father didn’t believe that it happened the way we said, but my mother and I saw it happen and no one has ever been able to explain it.
Over the years I have read and studied physics in the hope that I would find some plausible explanation for an inanimate object moving on its own. I found that it is not against the laws of physics if all the sub-atomic particles would suddenly move in the same direction at the same time. The problem is that the odds against this happening are so great it should not happen in all the time in existence, from the big bang to now. So what happened? I have no idea and probably never will.
I must say I've never heard of this kind of thing happening without someone exercising mental effort to make it happen. I believe quantum physics can explain odd cases, but this ???
I'm really puzzled.
Yes, it would be interesting to see what reaction others have. Most people I’ve mentioned it to look at me as though I’m a nut or full of BS. Yet, I know what I saw and I know that I’m telling the truth, but I can’t prove it or make it happen again. It’s been very frustrating. Does it have any meaning? I know it has made me question many things, because I saw an event that doesn’t fit with how things are supposed to be and supposed to work.

The ashtray had no significance, it was not the focus of our attention, the house had no history of unusual events, and nothing like it has happened since.
I have not been able to forget or let go of the questions, and it remains a puzzle. We try to find patterns and make the life we live make sense. For some people religion gives them a sense of meaning; you say that you have found spirituality to have meaning; others find meaning in science and the empirical method. All relate to finding patterns in life that make sense and seem right.
But what do you do with something that makes no sense, that doesn’t fit? I sometimes wonder if this is why I saw the ashtray break, so that I would spend my life wondering and searching and never be able to accept what others so easily have faith in.
Hmm. I just thought of something. Carl Jung tells of incidents like this. I’ll have to find the examples and report in future posts. They don’t have physical explanations but seem to be reactions to conversations, so that the material events reflect immaterial events—consciousness. Come to think of it, I was wrong when I wrote I’d never heard of this kind of thing—some examples in my Paranormal posts relate to this. Readers, click on topics under “Paranormal” in my index, and let us know what you think.
I like David’s searching reflections.
Someone emailed a typically insulting and scoffing response to my question, "Is God in the brain?"
If God occasionally appeared to regular people, then I would agree that maybe it is the brain playing tricks on you. But, since he only seems to appear to people who have questionable mental stability, I think it is more a case of "man creating god" to control the hearts and minds of others.

No one can disagree that religion has been used to take people and wealth from the masses for the entirety of life on earth, or at least as long as it took the first who could make fire and converse. . . .
Disproving the existence of God is simple, really, we're dealing with a supreme being who only appears to a select few who then tell others about it. What he should do if he really wanted to prove his existence is to appear on the 50 yard line of the next Super Bowl football game, so that billions around the world could be convinced. . . .
Prayer makes people who really can't do anything about a situation feel good by making it seem they are actually doing something. . . . Prayers to cure illness and disease sometimes are claimed successful when a cancer patient suddenly goes into remission, ignoring the scientific evidence that cancer does, sometimes, do just that. . . .
A few years ago, my dad went on a pilgrimage to see the cathedrals of Europe, with stop at Lourdes—one of the best examples of "mass hysteria" I can think of, with the power of suggestion in a crowd of people taking over reason. Dad said there were perhaps 20,000 people there that night. . . . Religion has been in the tourist business for a long time.

Proving God doesn't exist is easy, proving he does exist is more difficult, so those running the business are still working on it.
I deleted about half of this response which doesn’t address the questions David posed or that Hagerty posed in Fingerprints.
But here’s a thoughtful response from a “Skeptical Friend.”
Jeanette, let's be clear that your statement, "There is a lobe in the brain that apparently registers awareness of Spirit," is a conclusion and not a statement of fact.
He’s correct in saying it’s not fact; I said “apparently” but my interpretation of the experimental results may be wrong. He correctly clarifies that the lobe in the brain registers similar effects whether “stimulated by electrical probes, by certain drugs, or by intentional efforts to have a spiritual experience.”
I would not conclude from this that there has always been an electrical probe turned on and waiting to stimulate our brains, that there has always been a hallucinogen waiting for us to be receptive to it, or that there is and has always been an objectively existing realm of Spirit out there waiting for us to connect.

As I recall, all three sources of stimulation (and perhaps the abnormal neural firing of temporal lobe epilepsy) can result in a feeling of loss of self. Some may interpret this as a desirable state, whether connecting to some universal field of Spirit or just relief from being too wrapped up in self.
In either case, it may be nothing more than a temporary loss of function in a portion of the brain that produces a sense of self. I've reached a brief self-dissociated state (without drugs!) as part of a rock band's audience and while listening to music alone. It's a pleasant state to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there, and I have no belief that I was in touch with something "more real to me than any thought or thing or person."
The William James quotations regarding impervious-to-logic, most-real-of-all-things certainty regarding that which is least provable brought to mind Nietzsche's Twilight of the Idols:
My skeptical friend then quotes Nietzsche. (I simplified the language, which is nearly impenetrable):
The other idiosyncrasy of the philosophers is no less dangerous; it consists in confusing the last and the first. They place that which comes at the end—the "highest concepts," the most general, the emptiest, the last smoke of evaporating reality—in the beginning, as the beginning. ... Thus they arrive at their stupendous concept, "God." That which is last, thinnest, and emptiest is put first, as the cause.
Well! Nietzsche lets us know what he thinks about God! And my skeptical friend believes “that if all brains got turned off, there would be nothing transmitting.”
I appreciate his wrestling with the issue.
In his autobiographical Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Carl Jung tells of an incident that David Steeves’ experience brought to my mind. He and Sigmund Freud were discussing precognition and parapsychology.
I asked him what he thought of these matters. Because of his materialistic prejudice, he rejected this entire complex of questions as nonsensical, and did so in terms of so shallow a positivism that I had difficulty in checking the sharp retort on the tip of my tongue. It was some years before he recognized [such phenomena].
Jung felt as if his diaphragm were becoming a glowing red-hot vault.
At that moment there was such a loud report in the bookcase, which stood right next to us, that we both started up in alarm, fearing the thing was going to topple over on us. I said to Freud: “There, that is an example of a so-called catalytic exteriorization phenomenon.”
“Oh come,” he exclaimed. “That is sheer bosh.”
“It is not, I replied. “You are mistaken, Herr Professor. And to prove my point I now predict that in a moment there will be another such loud report.” Sure enough, no sooner had I said the words than the same detonation went off in the bookcase.
To this day I do not know what gave me this certainty. But I knew beyond all doubt that the report would come again. Freud only stared aghast at me.
In a letter to Jung later, Freud wrote, “I do not deny that your comments and your experiment made a powerful impression upon me.” He cited other crashes and creaking noises, adding, “Since then it has happened over and over again, yet never in connection with my thoughts and never when I was considering you or your special problem. . . . The furniture stands before me spiritless and dead.”

I, as a believer in the inner world manifesting in the outer world (“exteriorization phenomenon”), see Freud’s attempt to gloss over the incident as inadequate and defensive. And I believe this incident could shed light on David Steeve’s experience. I learned from David that he and his mother did NOT have extraordinarily strong feelings during their conversation (“the subject now lost”) when the ashtray broke.

I find I cannot keep my promise to discuss Jung’s analysis of Nietzsche’s insanity because its complexities would keep me from my primary purpose in this blog. I’ll just say that I agree with Jung that Nietzsche’s problem was spiritual, but, from the little contact I’ve had with him, I’m convinced that Nietzsche appreciated the spiritual realm. He, my skeptical friend, and the atheist philosopher Comte-Sponville (whom I frequently cite), sound so much alike to me! They profess atheism precisely because they have an uncompromising commitment to spiritual principles—truth, honesty, integrity. Their revulsion over the venal acts of religious institutions drives their atheism.

Nietzsche was not the materialist that atheists who cite him assume. See Jung's Critique of Nietzsche.
Years ago, after trying unsuccessfully to be an atheist, I concluded what Barbara Bradley Hagerty has—she’s the journalist who studied whether brain activity reflects encounters with a spiritual dimension (scroll down to my Epiphany posts). She concluded: It is just as rational to believe as to disbelieve. She believes and I believe that the temporal brain lobe mediates experience with a dimension independent of the material world.

One of the questions she asked to determine the existence of such a dimension was this: Does consciousness function when the brain is stilled? The evidence, she indicated, points in that direction, as a multitude of cases testify. She cites a convincing one and I cite one in Synchronistic and paranormal 2 of patients floating near the ceiling of the operating room and watching their own surgery. In Hagerty’s case, the patient described in detail the blade used to cut her. The doctor, asked to explain it, said he had absolutely no scientific explanation and this changed the way he viewed reality.

To explain changes in the brain, my skeptical friend lumps together physical agents like drugs with spiritual inducements like meditation and compassion, but this doesn’t explain differences in human behavior following the two types of inducements. Hallucinogens do not change people for the better; spiritual experiences do. They bring peace, they inspire, they uplift, they induce compassion and hope when despair seems appropriate.

Because of my spiritual experiences, I have no doubt that brain activity chronicles interaction with the Divine. Yes, I’m disgusted by religious wrongdoing, but I’m also impressed and upheld by noble acts of religious people, Muslims included, which don’t get as much press.

I know that my spiritual practice leads to a richer, more peaceful and serene life. I’m just plain happier when I align myself with Spirit.

I like David’s ruminations about his own experience (see comment to this post), particularly William James’ point that a scientific explanation doesn’t disprove the significance of an experience. We often say something’s “a miracle!” when we can find ordinary explanations for it. We’re struck by the thing happening just so, at just this time and place in just this way. It affects us deeply and that’s the mystery we really cannot explain.

I also got a response from my skeptical friend about my statement, “Hallucinogens do not change people for the better; spiritual experiences do."
I think some who have taken hallucinogens would disagree. As one famous example, I recall the Beatles crediting LSD--which they got into before Sgt. Pepper, the album that changed rock and roll and created the occupation of rock critic--with enhancing their creativity and broadening their world views. Southwestern Native Americans using peyote and mescaline to get in contact with the "other world" surely felt/feel that the experience is somehow beneficial. I think that if one attaches positive significance to the experience, it can be beneficial without thereby proving the existence of some extra-physical realm of influence.
I don't know about the Beatles but I know peyote users do not believe the effect they experience in a peyote ceremony comes from the substance. They regard it the medium through which they reach what we call God. In Fingerprints of God Barbara Bradley Hagerty relates her experience at a peyote ceremony that produced a miracle. She considers possible ways to attribute the healing to a physical cause but none of them seems reasonable. I invite skeptics to give their arguments to the contrary.

This leads to another belief of mine—that our consciousness shapes material reality. And consciousness IS spiritual reality. Our thoughts—what we think and how we think—produce our circumstances. Of course, it’s not as easy as some popular books would like us to think—that we can get what we want by believing it’ll happen. It gets much more complicated than that. But I believe that non-material thoughts come first, and the material world we see follows. Materialists—sometimes called physicalists—say our thoughts are just the result of chemical processes in the brain, that our thoughts are essentially physical. I think that’s nonsense.

Neither side can convince the other side, so I’ll just state what I believe, and it’s based on psychology. My individual consciousness includes more than my ego thoughts, more than the stream of thoughts I know. Each of us is driven by a vast unconscious of which we are unaware. These beliefs, habits of mind, attitudes, patterns of thought, and so on, cannot be reduced to physical stuff.

I believe with people of religion that there is something beyond collective human consciousness—a Mystery given the name “God” in English. Jesus of Nazareth and other wonder workers tapped into this mystery. In my section on miracles in God Is Not Three Gods in the Sky I use the findings of quantum physics to explain the power of mind in wonder-working cases. Physicists in experiments “tell” matter how to behave. Exciting! For an explanation written for non-scientists, go to my chapter, “The Man Jesus.”

“Consciousness” is a better term than “God” to explain the universe, because “God” brings to mind a humanlike individual. I think better terms are Mind, Source, Force, Mystery, Eternity. Because of the spiritual experiences I’ve had, I cannot fathom materialists who argue that it’s all just physical.

2 comments:

Dave60 said...

You asked if the conversation taking place at the time the ashtray broke was emotionally charged, it was not, nor can I think of any possible link of an emotional nature.

Dave60 said...

In reference to the above answer about the ashtray event which I saw in 1966; I have read of incidents associated with adolescences who are going through puberty in which dishes would fly off shelves and break and other strange things would happen for a period of time while the adolescence was in this stage of life. The conversation I was having with my mother was not emotional in any way, it was about the day’s events on the farm and of such insignificance that I can’t remember any details. The ashtray event only happened once and nothing like it has ever happened again.

In William James book, “Varieties of Religious Experience”, the main insight for me was that James stated that even if a given experience could be proven to have a scientific explanation upon investigation, it in no way negated the significance of the experience for the individual; nor did it disprove that the experience was of a spiritual nature. If the universe has order and follows natural laws then there should be provable explanations for all events. This is why the ashtray puzzles me so, it is an event that can’t be tested, or studied in any way that I can think of and it just doesn’t make any sense.

Most people take a position on a topic and dig in, defending their position at all cost. I see many people, religious and atheists, taking positions and stances in this way and the result is that they talk at each other and never really talk with each other. Take the word “ god” or “spirit” and substitute the word “truth” then go to a discussion of philosophy ( Truth, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) and the meaning of the word “truth” and the discussion is endless and for most common people, pointless.