The Physiology of Religious Experience – November 2002

Question: It seems to me that when we strip theism of the fallacy of “argument from authority”, the only proof we have left for God is in religious experiences. There has been some recent scientific research on Religious Experiences done by neuroscientists like Andrew Newberg (Why God Won’t Go Away). Newberg and other researchers have been able to study them in laboratory conditions using single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT). His research concludes that religious experiences are real, observable events in the brain. I know it has often been the position of religious people to deny science’s ability to explain the mystical using reductionist, scientific methodology… but his findings, it seems to me, are very reconcilable with a panentheistic view of God. During religious experiences, it has been observed, the flow to the “object association area” in the brain’s left parietal lobe, which is responsible for drawing the line between the physical self and the word, is reduced. Is this not consistent with the belief that the divine is all around us, and can only be experienced when we stop focusing on the material and on our narrow selves and begin to see the vast interconnectedness of all things, those rare moments we call “religious experiences.” Abraham Maslow made a similar claim, years earlier, when he stated that B-Cognition (in his peak experiences) was a momentary melting away of Ego. He also stated that these peak experiences are “the core religious experience.” Do you think that Andrew Newberg’s research can be reconciled with a panentheistic view of God?

Publication Month: November 2002

Dr. Cobb’s Response

Before tackling this question, I should acknowledge that I have not kept up closely with the recent research to which the questioner calls attention. My answer will, therefore, be somewhat general. But I hope it will not be irrelevant to the particularities of recent discoveries.

Given the reality of various kinds of religious experience, the question is whether they are sources of knowledge about anything other than themselves. In common language we might say that a hallucination tells us only about the subjective state of the one who hallucinates. On the other hand, a “vision” may be understood to be an experience in which something unusual is “seen”.  One question we can ask about religious experience is whether it should all be considered hallucinatory.

With ordinary visual experience we can find both hallucination and vision. That some visual experience is hallucinatory does not tell us that all is hallucinatory. However, skeptics often suppose that with religious visual experience, if they can show that some is hallucinatory, they are well supported in arguing that all is.

This difference is not arbitrary. For every phenomenon we should give the most plausible explanation. For those who are clear that the only real world is that to which we are related in ordinary sense experience, an explanation that posits other kinds of reality is clearly implausible. Even if they could not show how any religious experience arose in a hallucinatory way, this hypothesis would seem more plausible than its alternative. When this is combined with success in showing that some such experiences are hallucinatory, the case seems to them closed.

Process theology does not begin by denying that all such experience may be hallucinatory. But it does not share the reductionistic worldview that makes this an almost necessary doctrine.  Accordingly, it encourages analysis of different types of religious experience, each in its own terms. Its worldview provides more complex accounts as probable explanations. I will briefly point to three types of religious experience and consider how they relate to events in the brain.

First, we’ll consider visions. Since for the subject of a vision, the experience is closely related to ordinary visual experience, I’ll begin with that. In such experience, we expect to find portions of the brain involved. In many cases, the normal stimulation of those regions leads to significant information about the external world. At the same time, the creative activity of the brain or mind is such that there is not a one-to-one correspondence between the source of the stimulus and the content of normal experience.

The example of sight is of great importance. In normal circumstances, light reaches the occipital lobe from an external source through the eyes. The patches of color projected in subjective experience are located for that experience at a place very close to the one from which the light came. This gives us a roughly accurate picture of our environment. Yet the environment is in fact constituted of energy-events, such as molecular ones — what Whitehead called actual occasions, not patches of color. The difference is considerable. A molecule may reflect light in a way that causes human beings to see red. But to say that molecules are in themselves “red” is quite misleading. Whitehead thought, nevertheless, that there is a positive connection between the colors as seen and the subjective feelings of the molecular occasions. Whether his speculation here is correct is not important for us here.

Although the occipital lobe is normally stimulated by light coming through the eyes, it can be activated in other ways. When this happens, as in dreams or scientific experiments, the subjective experience of patches of color will be similar, but there will be little if any connection between where they appear and events occurring in that external region. In other words, the subjective occurrence as such leaves open the question of how its content is related to the external world. The experience is hallucinatory.

One form of religious vision emphasizes light. The light in question is experienced as arising simply from itself or from a brilliant being that is not part of the natural world. No doubt some portion of the brain is stimulated. The question is whether it is stimulated by some objectively real entity, the nature of which is truly related to light, or in another way. There is no question but that the recipient of such a vision feels that the source is objectively real. Those who doubt the reality of such a nonnatural light or being can postulate that the initiating factor is to be found entirely internal to the brain.  Process thought must be open to both interpretations. The fact that some religious visions may be clearly shown to result from abnormalities in the brain must open us to the possibility that all can be explained in this way. But it remains possible that others are  caused by religious features of external reality that are in some way like what they appear to be in the vision. We know that in the case of normal visual experience, both types of causation occur.

A second form of religious experience deals with the sense of the objectivity of rightness. One feels called or condemned.  In Religion in the Making Whitehead spoke of a rightness in things, partly realized and partly missed. We may ask whether the brain is involved in this in the same way as when there are visions of light.

No doubt there are correlative brain-events, and some of them may be necessary for this sense of rightness to arise. However, the most natural Whiteheadian hypothesis will be that in addition to the influence of the brain on unified human experience there is also the influence of God. This is primarily in the form of a lure or call that opens up alternative possibilities. Many people experience reality in terms of deciding among such alternatives without thinking of this as a divine functioning in their lives.  But others find that the experience encourages a theistic interpretation. Whitehead was among these. As a process theologian I would be surprised to learn that this pervasive human experience occurs only as one particular region of the brain is stimulated.

A third type of religious experience is of universal connectedness or unity. If Whitehead’s conceptuality is generally correct, the precondition of this experience is not so much a particular stimulus as the relaxation of the normal processes of organizing conscious experience. These normal processes focus on sense experience, that is, the appearances given through the eyes and the other senses, along with higher level thoughts. These are the creative achievements of the  individual. They heighten the sense of independence of each individual, and thereby, the separateness from others.

But Whitehead teaches that at a deeper level all this arises out of an experience of the body and the external world that normally remains unconscious or at the fringes of consciousness.  What is needed for these to come to consciousness is a quieting of the more artificial functioning of the brain and mind. The trigger of this quieting may be discoverable at a particular locus in the brain. The cause of the triggering may be either meditational techniques through which the mind affects itself and the brain, or it may be events initiated in the brain itself, perhaps by drugs or by breathing in particular ways. That is, either mental of physical causation is possible.

This kind of experience, process thinkers believe, tells us much about the true nature of reality. What we perceive in this way supplements and under girds the creations of visual and auditory experience.  It does not invalidate them.

In this way we can become open to the world of events without the involvement of our sense organs. This experience may bring particular past events into consciousness. One may remember one’s own birth, for example, or even prenatal experiences.  Some people seem to “remember” events in which they were not personally involved.

How much of this provides reliable information about the past is an open question. But given Whitehead’s view that the whole actual world of an occasion, that is, all that has taken place in its past, plays a role in making it to be what it is, his followers cannot reject such claims out of hand.  Even in ordinary experience, past events about which we have not thought for a long time, sometimes rise to our attention. That, in unusual states of consciousness, other features of the past present themselves is also possible.

There are many, many forms of religious experience. I have mentioned just three. I have chosen them to illustrate the variety of ways in which the brain seems to function in religious experience. In the first, its functioning is much like that in vision.  It is probably of crucial importance. In the second, the experience seems to be relatively independent of the stimulus of particular parts of the brain. In the third, the change in brain functioning is to still normal brain and psychic functioning in order to allow something more basic to come to the fore.

A process theologian must hold all such theories as open to further experimental verification of falsification. Perhaps there have already been empirical findings that do not conform to what I have proposed. If so, or if such findings emerge, I must certainly revise. The task of speculative philosophy of the Whiteheadian type is to offer unifying interpretations of the available data, propose hypotheses for testing, and then be reshaped by the results of that testing if such change is called for.