Monday, June 30, 2008

The Immanent Frame - Medical Materialism Revisited

A very cool article from The Immanent Frame on the trend toward reducing all religious or spiritual experience to the function of neurons and neurotransmitters. William James warned us against doing this a century ago, and no one seems to have paid attention.

For what it's worth, I don't think we can reduce all religious experience to the function of the brain. We haven't even figured out what subjective experience is and how it functions, but we are getting more hints that it can't be nailed down to simple functions in the brain -- there's something else going on.

In integral terms, we are trying to solve a mystery of interiority through recourse to exterior explanations -- doomed to failure. At best, we get correlates -- when this experience happens, these brain regions are active. That is not a cause and effect explanation.

Nonetheless, these efforts in neurotheology are interesting.
A cognitive revolution?:
Medical materialism revisited
posted by Wayne Proudfoot

A century ago, in “Religion and Neurology,” the opening chapter of The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James argued against a “medical materialism” that would reduce religious experiences to their neurological causes for the purpose either of dismissing them or confirming them. Since that time, many have tried to understand religion through the study of religious experience and, like James, many have given special attention to mysticism. New techniques for the study of the brain have brought great advances, but David Brooks’s New York Times column “The Neural Buddhists” and the work of Andrew Newberg, to whom he refers, stand squarely in the tradition James was criticizing.

Religious experience can’t be described or explained in biological terms alone. An experience is constituted, in part, by the way it is interpreted by the person experiencing it, and it is the interpretation that makes an experience religious. Two people might have experiences that are indistinguishable biologically (slower heart rate, decrease in body temperature) or phenomenologically (sense of oneness, calm), but one might experience what is happening to him in religious terms while the other does not. Study of any experience requires attention to historical and cultural contexts that inform a person’s interpretation of what is happening to her and to the conditions under which she comes to identify her experience in particular terms. Though he criticized medical materialism, James didn’t sufficiently appreciate the need to elucidate the concepts and practices that enter into a person’s experience and to study them as historical products. He was too intent on trying to identify a common core in religious experience that would be universal across cultures.

As psychologists examine the extent to which people can control attention, emotion, and other mental and even autonomic processes, it is not surprising that they would be drawn to practitioners of spiritual exercises in various religious traditions that have developed techniques for achieving this kind of control. Buddhism in particular has a long history of sophisticated reflection on and experimentation with the control of mental and physical states, though here Donald Lopez’s comments about Buddhist Modernism are apt.

In The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience, Newberg and his colleague Eugene d’Aquili, psychiatrists at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, propose a “study of theology from a neuropsychological perspective” that they claim would explain all elements of religion. They describe their book as the culmination of almost 25 years of research on the relationship between the brain and religious experience. This suggests that their theory carries the prestige and credibility of science. In fact, the model they offer is based on speculation, not laboratory science. There is nothing wrong with this. They are as entitled to speculate as are other theorists of religion, but their conclusions ought not to be given special scientific status.

D’Aquili and Newberg maintain that there are core elements in religious experience that “appear to be universal and can be separated from particular cultural matrices.” They suggest that sensations of awe and a unitary experience may be caused by deafferentation, the cutting off of incoming information to a brain structure. From speculation about localization of functions in different areas of the brain, they develop a structural model that includes a holistic operator that “might allow us to apprehend the unity of God or the oneness of the universe.” This structuralism, combined with deafferentation, constitutes their theory of religion.

Read the whole article.

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