Tuesday, July 10, 2012

What Can Neuroscience Tell Us About Religious Consciousness? A Complex Adaptive Systems Framework for Understanding the Religious Brain

In this paper from last year (free download), Aaron Burgess employs emergence and complex systems theory to explain consciousness and the religious impulse of believers. Complex adaptive systems theory (CAS) tries to explain the ways new causal properties (such as consciousness) can emerge in complex systems that are "characterized by a high level of nonlinear interactions between their elements."

Burgess rejects the tendency to move from emergence to non-reductive physicalism. He agress that it is a plausible explanation, but argues that it is not necessary. Rather, he proposes (as an alternative to dualism and reductive materialism), a perspective popularized by the philosopher Nancy Cartwright (1999, The Dappled World: A Study of the Boundaries of Sciences), causal pluralism. For Burgess, "Causal pluralism could also be called emergent pluralism."

What Can Neuroscience Tell Us About Religious Consciousness? A Complex Adaptive Systems Framework for Understanding the Religious Brain

Aaron Burgess

Cincinnati Christian University

American Political Science Association Conference
Current Research in Bio-politics: September 01, 2011


Neuro-theology (a science of religious experience) has deepened our understanding of the religious brain but the research inevitably runs into many of the classical philosophical problems associated with any study of human consciousness. One of these problems is what philosopher John Hick (2006) has called the hard problem of consciousness. If we are going to understand something about the causes and content of religious consciousness we must devise a framework that will adequately address the hard problem. This paper gives a brief overview of Sam Harris' and Andrew Newberg's research on the religious brain, as well as an introduction to the hard problem and concludes that the problem materializes because the question of consciousness is ill-posed by materialism and dualism. The paper concludes that a plural aspect conceptual framework known as Complex Adaptive Systems Theory (CAS) with its emphasis on dynamical emergence allows researchers to escape reductive materialism without resorting to dualism. Instead of turning to dualism or reductive materialism researchers can turn to complexity and emergence to frame studies in neuro-theology. Emergence provides a basis for a position promoted by Nancy Cartwright (2004) known as causal pluralism which is promising in helping to explain the complex relationships between the brain and the mind.
Here are the first few paragraphs of the article:

What Can Neuroscience Tell Us About Religious Consciousness?

The human animal is religious but why? Why do people among all human populations devote so much time and energy in religious activities? This ubiquitous nature of religious practice and belief has caused some to call the human animal the “religious species” or Homo religio (Jeeves & Brown, 2009). Lissner (1961) has written, “All the civilizations of mankind that have existed were rooted in religion and a quest for God” (p. 12). Dennett (2007) suggests that questions about religion and spirituality can now finally be embarked upon by science. If our capacity to have “spiritual” experiences represents an innate feature of our species, this means that such experiences must be produced from some part of our brain (Alper, 2006). Our brain is ultimately responsible for creating a conscious state that could be described as spiritual, mystical, or religious. Religion is not a supernatural, psychological or sociological phenomenon, but rather it is, foremost, biological.

For the past half century, few can deny that the field of neuroscience has experienced exponential growth and is thought to be one of the fastest growing scientific fields. Bennett (1998) reflected on the growth of neuroscience by asking, “Are neuroscientists the new Masters of the Universe?” New technologies in functional neuroimaging have fueled this growth. The most significant technologies allow scientists to image the human brain in a non-invasive manner, similar to taking a simple x-ray. One of these technologies, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), allows researchers to look at the structure of brain tissue inside the actual skull of a human being. Then using functional MRI (fMRI) researchers can lay one brain image over another to provide an additional representation of brain regions that are metabolically dynamic (Lagopoulos, 2008). The significance of the fMRI is that researchers can observe a particular brain state while a subject is performing a cognitive task. “Brain activity can be observed in the language areas of the left cerebral cortex when a subject is asked, for instance, to provide verbs that accompany nouns” (Jeeves & Brown, 2006, p. 6).

With the tools of neuroimaging researchers have also undertaken projects to understand the neural correlates associated with the highest forms of cognitive functioning (Burgess, Gonen-Yaacovi, & Volle, 2011). Researchers now can image brain states while a subject is experiencing sympathy for another human being or while a subject is engaged in ethical thought. This means that it is also now possible to study the neural correlates of religious belief and practice since these activities are the products of cognition. Boyer (2001) has suggested that the explanation for religiosity in homo religio resides internally rather than externally. The religious impulse is rooted in the biology of the brain and therefore we are innately hard-wired by our genes to perceive a spiritual reality and to believe in supernatural forces that transcend the limitations of our physical reality.
Download the article and read it for yourself.

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