20.5.09

Just Ask This Scientician...

First, let me say I am not scientifically inclined. I took one year of biology and two years of Forensics Science in high school (it was a law-based pseudo-magnet school). I'm not sure how reliable the latter was, since the teacher taught us J. Edgar Hoover became President of the United States. When I questioned this, she and the rest of the class proceeded to shout me down. Might be one of the reasons I have such issue with authority.

In any case, I've never quite understood the enmity between the Church and science. Call me crazy, but when it comes to studying the way the world works, I don't want scientists chalking everything up to an all-powerful deity.

For instance, since I'm not scientifically inclined, I look at a tree and I think, "Wow! It's miraculous God grew that!" I have no idea how it works. For all I know, God is coming down from heaven while I'm not around and adding new leaves and branches with some sort of wood-welder.

A scientist cannot operate under that assumption, because that is an assumption for idiots. He has to ponder how a tree grows without supernatural forces considered. That's what I want a scientist to do, because I'm not going to. Should a scientist believe there are things outside his understanding? Absolutely. Should he be content with that? No.

Further, I'm of the opinion there's nothing science could ever stumble across to disprove the existence of God. Maybe I just haven't thought hard enough. To me, science is the study of how God has structured the world, and that's pretty cool.

(For the record, I'm sure the mistrust between the scientific community and Church is more nuanced than that.)

All that said, NPR is currently running a series on "The Science of Spirituality". I caught two bits so far.

Yesterday (Part 2) was an entry on how researchers believe the brain's temporal lobe is where spiritual experiences take place, and that spiritual leaders throughout time may have had epilepsy. I confess to be slightly disturbed by the idea an experience with God could be induced by electrical currents. Also, is epilepsy really sacred?

Today's (Part 3) focused on how the brains of particularly spiritual people work while in prayer, and how our brains can be molded to focus more on spirituality.

There are dozens of things that stood out here, but there was one in particular I wanted to mention, a section in Part 3 which the narrator referred to as "theological dynamite," though tempered that by pointing out the research was early.
[Neuroscientist Andrew] Newberg did that with Michael Baime. Baime is a doctor at the University of Pennsylvania and a Tibetan Buddhist who has meditated at least an hour a day for the past 40 years. During a peak meditative experience, Baime says, he feels oneness with the universe, and time slips away.

"It's as if the present moment expands to fill all of eternity," he explains, "that there has never been anything but this eternal now."

When Baime meditated in Newberg's brain scanner, his brain mirrored those feelings. As expected, his frontal lobes lit up on the screen: Meditation is sheer concentration, after all. But what fascinated Newberg was that Baime's parietal lobes went dark.

"This is an area that normally takes our sensory information, tries to create for us a sense of ourselves and orient that self in the world," he explains. "When people lose their sense of self, feel a sense of oneness, a blurring of the boundary between self and other, we have found decreases in activity in that area."

Newberg found that result not only with Baime, but also with other monks he scanned. It was the same when he imaged the brains of Franciscan nuns praying and Sikhs chanting. They all felt the same oneness with the universe. When it comes to the brain, Newberg says, spiritual experience is spiritual experience.

"There is no Christian, there is no Jewish, there is no Muslim, it's just all one," Newberg says.

Newberg's conclusion, in my opinion, underlines one of the quarrels the Church has with the scientific community, which is scientists aren't really being rational all of the time, and each person is going to have their own conscious or unconscious agenda. Newberg's research does not prove all faiths are the same.

It does, however, indicate the spiritual experience of a Muslim, Buddhist and Christian are biologically the same. (Though I'm sure many Evangelicals would say Franciscan monks don't count as real Christians.)

I think there's a general belief among Christians (and other faiths, I'm sure), that our spirituality is real, and their's is not, that our experiences are ultimately different. What if they are, biologically, the same? Does this steer you toward universalism? Does it cause you to distrust spiritual experience? Does it not concern you in the least?

14 comments:

  1. I hardly see this as evidence for universalism. The study was conducted on the individual's method of supposed connection to God (praying, meditation, chant, etc.). While these religions may be experiencing similar psychological functions through a practice, it does nothing to understand theology or philosophy. Not all religions seek oneness with the universe, nor do all religions seek salvation from sin. Though methods may be similar, the end goals are not.

    However, psychology really fails to expose religion as chemical reactions of the brain. Though there is indeed a link, how does this disprove in any way the existence of a God at all, especially a God who created the mind in all of it's magnificence and wonder?

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  2. @ND: I don't think it disproves the existence of God at all...I don't think science ever could.

    What that study could indicate, however, is that there is no biological difference between praying to Jesus and praying to Allah...the positive feelings we get, our brain's reaction...is the same.

    It seems like you are taking the second stance I mentioned, which is that spiritual experiences are not trustworthy, and our faith is about our intellect (theology and philosophy).

    That's not to say that's wrong, because that is my question. Would you say that's your stance?

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  3. it's like how biologically, people have the same reaction to watching characters on tv to hanging out with real live friends. most people wouldn't say that tv is a valid substitution for friendship, but biologically it is the same.

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  4. Jordan, I think this points to a universal, biological need for worship in every human. It points to the possibility that this a what humanity was ultimately created to do-- share the universe with something spiritual and greater than itself. It gives a reason as to why our race creates religion.

    But neuro-theology can't describe anything other than our make up.

    It can't be used to make a truth claim that there is no God, and that our worship is nothing more than a evolutionary hiccup.

    It can't be used to describe what a God or gods might look like. Or which God is true or false.

    This is because the scientist can only observe DNA and not the Other.

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  5. Jordan, I see two parts to your post today: one is about scientists and the fact that they ignore the possibility of supernatural occurrences, and the other is about the brain thing.

    In regards to the former, I took a great interest in this topic many years ago, when I was a science teacher. When still in college myself, taking the upper-level science courses, I interacted with many professors. It bothered me greatly that a scientist has to state that he is seeking the cause for an event, but must, by some unwritten law, disregard any possibility that God caused something to happen in a way which broke known scientific laws.

    I see some problems with this. As much as they want to say they are not taking a stance on supernatural events, they are in fact taking a stance. They're saying it didn't happen. That's a stance. Truth be told, it's a statement that God didn't (choose one) make the first woman out of the first man's rib; turn water into wine; split the Red Sea for a short time; walk on water and allow a mere man to do so; allow the Red Sox to come back from a 3-game deficit and win the World Series.

    These events had to have been caused by supernatural forces, yet the scientist must discount that possibility, despite his original stated intention of seeking the truth. Science says God didn't do this, and the reason given is that we cannot find evidence that He did. So He didn't.

    Ultimately, such a mindset is humanistic, in the worst sense. It's elevating man's wisdom over God's, and that's always a recipe for trouble.
    I am not saying I have a solution for this problem. I fully understand why scientists go this route. But it saddens me. I love God, and I want His accomplishments to be fully revealed to all, and appreciated to all.

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  6. @James: Well said.

    In my post, I mentioned even a scientist aspiring to complete objectivity will not be always be completely objective. He will always have his experience and beliefs affecting outcomes on some level, however minute.

    I guess I should reword what I said in the post. In a way, when researching, I don't want a scientist to believe in God or NOT believe in God. I don't have a problem with them trusting their own understanding, as long as they understand how finite that understanding is.

    Take, for example, water into wine. We now know that water has is H20. We know that wine is just a combination of other elements and chemical reactions (I have no idea which ones, and feel free to completely tear me apart on this theory if it's completely idiotic).

    If a scientist undertook the task of determining how this miracle took place, I would hope they would approach it with skepticism. If they approached it with the belief God can simply do whatever He likes, they may ignore that God typically works within the boundaries of the world he established. They may just chalk it up to "God is God".

    In other words, it won't bother me of somehow scientists figure out a way to add the proper ingredients to turn water into wine, because it doesn't make Jesus' actions at the wedding celebration any less of a miracle.

    Now, it's something else if a scientist approaches the above question thinking, "I want to see how, using the earthly rules He set up, water was turned into wine", which seems to be a noble approach, but even that would be entered into with preconceived notions and beliefs.

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  7. Yeah, I get that. But I'm not sure that many scientists approach it that way, and I know for sure that many who read the results will interpret in ways which are the polar opposite of glorifying God.

    I don't say that as a complaint, as many of us evangelicals are prone to do. I just say it with sadness. God is revealing Himself in countless ways, and most of the time, we miss it.

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  8. By the way, regarding the 2nd half of your post: no, it doesn't point to universalism. Universalism is a myth. I don't say this as a my-way-or-the-highway Christian. I say this as someone who has common sense. There are too many elements of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam which are mutually exclusive for it to be possible that all religions are true.

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  9. When i refer to universalism, I mean the belief that people of other faiths may reach heaven, despite not following the typical evangelical path (meaning directly by accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior).

    Here, it pertains to the idea that Buddhist monks may be experiencing the same God we worship somehow, minus the theological stance we support. This doesn't mean that Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism are all true, it just means there may be aspects of true faith (in my belief, Christianity) in all religions. (Which seems to be what Larry may have been hinting at)

    I don't think that's the correct definition of universalism, but that's what I'm trying get at.

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  10. This makes sense to me. Our brains should behave the same when involved in “spiritual exercises” regardless of the religion. Also, some people probably have a heightened tendency to be ‘spiritual’ based on their brain chemistry. Some people, less.

    Of course this has nothing to do with Christianity.

    We are saved by Jesus. Not by our neurological preconditioned makeup or experience. It is his work in our soul, not our brain that saves us.

    To me this is further confirmation of the futility of our efforts to have meaningful(otherworldly/eternal) experiences by ourselves apart from a deity figure (Jesus) who stands outside the physical universe.

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  11. By the way, I wanted to commend Larry for saying:

    "I think this points to a universal, biological need for worship in every human. It points to the possibility that this a what humanity was ultimately created to do"

    I believe it was that great theologian Chris Tomlin who said:

    "You and I were made to worship".

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  12. Others have essentially already said this, but allow me to phrase it again, with a bit more drama...

    This all presupposes a significant dichotomy between "spiritual" experience and other experience, which i'm not especially inclined to agree with. When i feed the hungry in the name of Jesus and an atheistic humanist does it in the name of human decency, it may be biologically the same, but that does not make the act equivalent. When a man has an orgasm from making love to his wife and another has one while raping a stranger, it may be biologically the same, but it does not make the act equivalent.

    Context, both internal and external, are crucial to meaning. Indeed, they are the essence of it. This is fundamental to having a worldview which denies philosophical materialism. If we are willing to say that everything is only physical material, then yes, this implies an equivalence between these religious experiences. But if we do not accept that experience is purely physical, then such a conclusion is entirely unsupported speculation.

    I, personally, see the physical realm to be merely a subset of the greater spiritual reality. This is necessary if we are to believe that two men can do a physically identical action, yet one be loving God and the other not, as the Bible clearly teaches.

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  13. Nathan:

    If there is no separation between physical and spiritual, wouldn't that conflict with Ephesians 6;12, among other passages?

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  14. Facinating discussion, but I have a problem with saying that just because our minds act the same way in worship across a wide variety of faiths, that is evidence of universalism. Call me a mystic, but I truly beleive there is so much more going on than simply the physical interaction of our brains. To look at only the physical is to forget that God interacts with our souls in a way that is beyond our understanding, and it is to deny the action of the Holy Spirit, who interacts with those of us who are followers of Jesus Christ.

    Perhaps all people do experience certain mental chemistry when they meditate or pray, but we know that we have been promiced that the Holy Spirit intercieads for us with groans that cannot be uttered. Do we then, say that the same is true for all faiths even though they do not recognize the existance of the Holy Spirit (or in the Buddist case, of God at all?)

    I think we must be very carful of accepting physiological activity as evidence of truth.

    Beyond this, we must remember that God is not the only supernatural being and that it is possible to worship our adversary the Devil just as easily as to worship our God. Could it not be that the physiological experiences we have are not proof of true worship (in a biblical sense) but just of worship of anything, and is the simple act of worshiping something proof that we are following the one true God?

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