Friday, May 25, 2012

God delusion or God bias?

Visualization of a DTI measurement of a human ...
Visualization of a DTI measurement of a human brain. Depicted are reconstructed fiber tracts that run through the mid-sagittal plane. Especially prominent are the U-shaped fibers that connect the two hemispheres through the corpus callosum (the fibers come out of the image plane and consequently bend towards the top) and the fiber tracts that descend toward the spine (blue, within the image plane) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The premise we will be exploring here today is that peak experiences, a sense of the numinous, the health benefits of spirituality and religious faith in a higher power,  and so forth can potentially be explained solely in terms of human biology.

A few caveats first, though.  I am not claiming to represent the cutting edge of neuroscientific research or to speak for that scholarly community. The hypotheses and conjectures are based on general models and speculations about brain function and evolutionary theory.

Second, I am not attempting to prove or disprove the existence of God.

Third, I am not suggesting that the rough sketch of a model presented here is superior to other explanations. Sometimes people think that if an alternative to a view they don't like or find implausible that it is better or more correct. This is just a thought experiment. Others can judge what value it may hold and to who.

It's always good to have as many provocative yet reasonable and supportable models as possible to stimulate creativity and to challenge other models in a robust way, and I really like formulating new models within a set of interesting parameters.

The Numinous

The numinous is considered here to be a powerful sense of the sublime which can include a feeling of non-dual unity with the universe, possession by absolute acceptance and bliss, or an overwhelming sense of wonder and awe generating a sense of connection to a larger mystery. It is used in describing mystical experiences which are attributed to a vast conscious awareness which includes and subsumes reality in its entirety. This conscious awareness is sometimes referred to either as ultimate reality or a sentient being's perception of same, and in theistic religions this in turn is associated with God.

Such experiences can also be combined with claims about the association of spirituality and a sense of an overarching purpose for existence with improved mental, emotional, and physical health as evidence for the existence of higher states of reality beyond conventional material models of the universe and in some cases for the existence of God. These claims provide the empirical grounding for many arguments in favor of such higher states, which in some models are seen as different levels of awareness and integration with the divine.


It would take too much space to go over various notions about and models of God I have explored previously, but they include an overall organizing principle of existence (as source, substance, and sustainer) as well as the totality of the immanence of existence which simultaneously transcends any limit or conceptualization, beyond categorization and dichotomies of noun or verb, person or non-person.

I've also described God as a fundamental orientation to existence and conceptualized the proposed cosmic consciousness said to precede and permeate our everyday notion of existence by analogizing it to the brain and the individual mind (or localized sentient awareness) as light relates to the eyes and to the experience of sight. I've considered but have yet to begin drawing the outlines of a model of consciousness and the mind as being a flow of interaction within and between individuals with the brain as capacitor and regulator.

These and other ideas can be found in the selected posts archive under the God section. Such views see God as experiential rather than an object, even an immaterial locus of causation and potential. They were constructed in part as a way to explore the images of higher consciousness and the divine that permeate the literature of the contemplative and mystical threads of various sacred traditions.They acknowledge that seemingly irrational or suprarational elements may be necessary to move beyond conditioned thought.

However, many popular notions of God still advocate or retain the trapping of a view in which God is both external and an object, which taken to an extreme is portrayed in a personified or even anthropomorphized form as a kind of supreme deity.

Critique of the numinous as unassailable evidence for God

The contention here is that God is only one potential explanation for the sense of the numinous and attended psychological and health benefits. God is generally understood here to be a non-anthropomorphic but still somewhat personified agent who guides or influences the unfolding of the universe (or multiverse, depending upon your physics and cosmology). It is based on readings on the topic in general as well as conversations with individuals interested in such ideas.

An initial statement of the assumption to the challenged is that descriptions of peak experiences as evidence of God seem to presume that a sense of the numinous or a connection to the transcendent must be extra-physical and even extra-mental. That is, that it extends to something beyond the body and even beyond the mind as these terms are conventionally understood by modern science.

Even granting that we are not merely talking about ordinary sense impressions from external sources via the regular sense organs, that does not tell us anything about what is actually happening other than the subjective descriptions offered by those who have so-called peak experiences. The logic of connecting such experiences to God assumes that if we have an impression of something, a sense that something exists, then we can assume that A) it exists and that B) it is what we think it is based on our individual interpretation.

This may not seem controversial. I see a round, blue object that feels rubbery to the touch and which weight very little, and I assume it is a ball. To go around questioning such obvious observations would be unnecessary and unproductive. The difference here is that what is being discussed are not obvious or apparent conclusions that are largely independent of ones beliefs on subjects which are complex and controversial. An extra level of caution and inspection is warranted.

If we go to sense data just for an easier analogy, that would be like saying that just because we think we see a ghost that a ghost exists. However, it may be that our senses are being fooled or that our perception (the interpretation of our senses) is inaccurate. Perhaps it is just a white sheet caught in a tree at night. That is, what we think we see may not actually be there and if there is something there it may not be what we think it is.

Nor should we limit this to sense data. It is also true that we can have flaws in our reasoning, so that we come to erroneous conclusions. This is especially true when applying basic everyday reasoning that is largely subconscious to more vague or complicated phenomena, resulting in common logical fallacies.

The assumption then that if we have an impression of something, a sense that something exists, that we can assume that A) it exists and that B) it is what we think it is, is more suspect when it comes to peak experiences. There are many additional layers of belief to connect that experience to God. Just because a sense of the numinous feels extremely important, profoundly meaningful, and strongly connected to something greater than oneself, it does not automatically follow that this is so or that it is a sign of the presence of God.

That is, it doesn't necessarily follow that one has found and plugged into some pre-existing transcendent order to the universe. That is certainly a possibility, but it isn't necessarily true.

That alone leaves the door open for other potential explanations of why some people have such experiences, which supports the assertion you were contesting. But that isn't all. Because there isn't just an opening for other explanations, other explanations exist.

Meaning, perception and the human brain

Nor do these alternatives require dismissive claims such as saying that people who have a sense of embracing and nurturing transcendence are just victims of brainwashing or wishful thinking or perhaps mentally ill. Take the following evolutionary argument.

A currently popular hypothesis is that the human brain didn't just get better and better at particular tasks by increasing neural processing power to particular area; rather, the increased interconnections between these various functional loci in the brain was just as if not more important.

All brains try impose artificial meaning on the world based on certain goals such as finding food, detecting danger, and the like. This can include making general assumptions about the nature of the world and its properties based on experience and sense data. The artificiality here refers to the distortions and omissions made to edit the input of information from the senses in to a consistent and smooth experience and sense of reality.

This process also extends to making predictions about what will happen next. In more sophisticated brains, this includes an assumption of agency on other living creatures, which itself extends to attributing purpose and motive to what is happening around the organism.

An even more advanced feature is empathy, the capacity to guess what another creature is experiencing and to mimic that experience; examples would include sharing another organisms fear or pain. This is thought to be more common among more social animals with more sophisticated brains.

Now if we take these and similar features and qualities of the brain, and we boost their capacity and then increase the interconnections of their circuits, we might expect that this would lead to new properties of the brain and qualities of the mind. Complexity theorists would call them emergent properties.

This emergent theory of mind has been around for decades, and it is different than the most mechanical and deterministic forms of functional reductionism as the emergent properties and qualities of the mind are seen as being a distinct level of organization and experience which must be described with a different set of rules and predictions than its components. It  still implies, however, that mind is the result of a set of physical processes.

From the perspective of inclusive fitness, some of these properties of an evolving brain might be beneficial, some might be detrimental, and some may be neither. Some may also be both depending on circumstance. If we assume this kind of model, a slightly off balance mental system may lead to artistic and intellectual genius, intense creativity, and a heightened capacity for social perceptiveness. A less balanced system could lead to obsession, neurosis, schizophrenia, etc.

A God bias not a God delusion

The upshot is that the sense of the numinous and the perception of a higher purpose and even of consciousness as the root of reality could be an evolved state for humans.

I am not talking here about delusion, per se. At least not in any gross sense of the term. Imagine that everything you think you know about the world is a smoothed over unitive experience of a set of integrated perceptions, which themselves are limited and biased and massaged to a particular degree of unreality. This blending of limited and distorted information is what we think of as the “real world”, yet studies on perception show us how flimsy it can be. Students of consciousness such as the masters of contemplative and mystical practices tell us as much from their own insights.

Yes, the process of formulating such a model is itself the result of using flawed perceptions to understand our perceptions, but that takes us into a separate issue about general epistemology. Suffice to say the even with these problems we can detect at least some degree of bias and distortion in how we construct the subject reality that we take for granted as a faithful representation of (or just assume to in fact be) an objective world and take that into account in formulating ideas about perception and consciousness.

In my hypothetical scenario, this deep sense of order and concordance with a comforting and transcendent presence is proposed as something which precedes our conscious awareness of reality (equating our conscious awareness of reality with our subjective experience of reality). Such a deep inner sense of order and meaning would be foundational to consciousness, part of the formation of the reality we experience in conscious awareness. In that mental ontological sense it could be compared to a ground of our being. As such, it is not a flaw in the perception system on the level of bad data or bad data processing (the typical implication of “delusion”, but rather it is part of the build of the system itself.

There are many things our perceptual-cognitive system tells us are real and that they have this list of qualities, yet on some level we know these are mental constructions based on the interaction of our nervous system with external stimuli. In this case, the origin of such a sense of the numinous as connected to peak experiences would not depend on a particular experience, it would depend on a core aspect of the generation and sustenance of human consciousness itself.

This has some very cool ramifications. For one, it brings to the surface the question of just how much our knowledge of the world and the models we construct about "objective" reality is a result of the structure and function of our brains. This would include our cosmologies, whether mystical, theistic, or naturalistic.

In turn this would shed light on the perception that mind is all that is real, that there is some ground of Being, and that this ground is consciousness. In fact, it would suggest that this would be the result of a highly developed brain and state of mind, with other views being the result of a less developed form of conscious awareness, being stuck in conditioned patterns of thought, or a bias arising from social or cultural factors or perhaps aberrations in development. This would be consistent with a naturalistic evolutionary perspective and the insights of advanced meditators and mystics.

The upshot is that what we are talking about here isn’t a delusion in the typical sense. If we called it that, it would be misleading. It is a fundamental bias in the way human create and organize their cognitive experience of reality. It may introduce errors into that experience, but so do any number of other components of the apparatus of perception, reason, etc. These biases may be useful, neutral or harmful. We cannot presume a priori which they will be.

There is no more reason to assume that this kind of “God bias” would be any more harmful than pariedolia (our penchant for seeing faces in everything). It may even have beneficial effects to creativity, sociality, and other aspects of human life. In fact, many disconnects with what we think of as external reality are quite useful, as otherwise we would have trouble distinguishing between all our sensory input and making sense of it, especially connecting it to memories of previous experiences and the like. These kinds of distorted short-cuts are not a automatically a disadvantage.

Positive psychological and health benefits

As for health benefits or coping mechanisms, they are consistent with this model without claiming that God is merely a comforting delusion.

I am not suggesting that the emergence of this God bias has anything to do with coping at all. In the scenario proposed, it is simply a part of the cognitive system that is foundational to our mental construction and the subjective experience of reality as we know it. Just as the structure and physiology of the eye, the optic nerve, and the areas of the brain receiving and processing their signals affects what we see, what we are discussing here is how neural architecture involved in rudimentary awareness and sentience might shape everything that is built on top of it.

This eventually relates back to the concern some may have that this God bias is a false perception of reality and therefore could not have any positive effect. A distinction has established a distinction between a notion of objective reality and the subjective reality which we actually experience. There is quite a bit in our reaction to our subjective experience of reality which can directly affect our health given the brain’s influence on both the nervous and endocrine systems. Otherwise, why would health advocates talk about reducing mental and emotional stress, which are generated as responses to our subjective take on reality? Then of course there are the placebo and nocebo affects, which further demonstrate such mind-body connections.

If the God bias is fundamental to our experience of consciousness, and is the ground of our subjective being, then actually why wouldn’t relating to it in an intimate and positive way have beneficial effects on health and well-being? Might we not expect that having such a sense of alignment with the core and even source of our minds, that which gives rise to and shapes our experience of reality, contribute to less stress and a greater sense of well-being?

Concluding Thoughts

I don’t see any contradiction between what is associated with God experiences such as peak experiences (which are intense peeks into the numinous) and my proposed thesis of an evolved God bias. My intent was not to suggest such a thesis was superior or preferable, only that there are valid alternatives to a divine origin for such events. If there is such a God bias it is buried so deep in the depth of our consciousness and proto-consciousness that it is essentially inaccessible.

Still, it would explain quite a bit and would do so without the demeaning and derogatory rhetoric that so frequently masquerades as debate between skeptics and believers. Please share your own thoughts. Does this sound like an intriguing possibility? I think it would allow for an interesting exploration of many common spiritual themes such as (spiritual) faith, grace, sin, salvation, redemption, the Holy Spirit, the communion of saints, mindfulness, meditation, different levels of higher consciousness, nirvana, and so on.
Enhanced by Zemanta

No comments:

Post a Comment

Hello! Thanks for leaving a comment.

Everything but spam and abusive comments are welcome. Logging in isn't necessary but if you don't then please "sign" at the end of your comment. You can choose to receive email notifications of new replies to this post for your convenience, and if you find it interesting don't forget to share it. Thanks!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...