Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Brain Babble? Or.....Words from On High?

A controversial new book, now making the formal publishing scene and energizing Evangelicals is 'When God Talks Back' by anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann. According to a recent WSJ review ('That Voice Sounds Familiar', p. A13, April 3):

"Ms. Luhrmann is a widely read scholar and a capable writer, and she is both sympathetic and professional in her anthropological approach".

The reviewer, Barton Swain, then goes on to document how she attended assorted churches in Northern California and also a few attached to the 'Vineyard movement" described as "a loose confederation of churches that sprung from charismatic Christianity of 1960s America". This it turns out, is a good background if one is going to write a book on how God talks to people....mainly of the evangelical persuasion.

It is also good, as this reviewer notes, that the author "maintains a tone of objectivity and avoids the temptation to belittle" what her subjects tell her, especially when this content includes where to get a good haircut, and even pouring the deity his own cup of coffee at the breakfast table. But at some point, the confirmed skeptic must ask at what point does this content veer from anthropology and into the realm of abnormal psychology? Or, at the very least, neuro-biology.

An old saw I recall from my brief foray into charismatic Catholicism went like this: "It's okay and fine when you talk to God, as when speaking in tongues....but the time to worry is when God starts talking back!" Indeed. And the issue here becomes how does one distinguish an internal "voice" issuing from a brain center, from an external "God"?

Previous blogs to do with related issues touched on work done by Andrew Newberg, M.D. and his associate Eugene Daquill M.D.. Their main findings were published in their book, ‘Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief’.Most pertinent is the authors’ portrayal of how the brain’s OAA (orientation and activation area) translates images, sounds into religious reality, described in detail on pages 121-22.

The example cited was in connection with a person given an image of Christ and asked to focus on it. Within minutes, neurological measurements showed electrical discharges spiraling down from the right attention area (right OAA) to the limbic system, hypothalamus “triggering the arousal section of the structure”. The authors’ test results and measurements actually showed that as the subject focused on the image of Christ BOTH were activated. As assorted cortical thresholds were crossed, a maximal stimulation (given by spikes in the SPECT -scans) produced a neural “flood” that generated feedback to the attention association area.

To make a long story short, the attention area of the OAA was subsequently seen to deprive the right orientation area of the OAA of all neural input not originating with the contemplation of Jesus. In order to compensate, and thereby preserve the neuro-spatial matrix (in which the self could still exist) the right orientation area had to default to the attention area focusing on “Jesus”. As the authors put it (p. 121):

"It has no choice but to create a spatial matrix out of nothing but the attention area’s single-minded contemplation of Jesus

Now, what if the temporal lobes of a highly religious person engendered dynamic internal "sounds" in his or her own head, that were later translated into "God's voice" via the OAA? Is this feasible? First, we know from the work of Michael Persinger at Laurentian University, published in his book, The Neuropychological Basis of God Belief, such a thing is possible. In his experiments, Persinger used a specially designed helmet on his test subjects to stimulate their temporal lobes and induce what he called "TLTs" or temporal lobe transients.

Extreme post-stimuli manifestations included: circumstantiality, a sense of the hyper-personal (e.g. egocentric references, divine guidance), perseveration, hypergraphia, altered affect, and most importantly an overwhelming sense of religiosity. Persinger didn't draw too many firm conclusions but one could reasonably conjecture that any two of those manifestations could easily transform to direct talking to an imagined deity and then ...transferring this "language" to the OAA for its own attention. If the effect is in any way similar to that for an image one might expect to be the recipient of "back talk". Or "God" (as reconstructed in the subject's OAA) talking back to the subject via neural feedback loops. In this case, preservation of the neuro-spatial matrix (in which the self could still exist) would depend on the attention area focusing on God talking back to the person. (In Prof. Lurhmann's own parlance, she described such manifestations in her subjects as God being imagined as "hyper-real".

Well, yes....so real that one would imagine being able to drink a separate cup of coffee!

Is this so incredible? Are these talkative Evangelicals or related groups the first to experience this God talk or initiate it? Hardly! And here is where Luhrmann, had she done more homework, might have disclosed this wasn't anthropologically unusual. In his controversial 1976 book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes (a Princeton psychologist) argued that the brain activity of ancient people - those living roughly 3,500 years ago, prior to early evidence of consciousness such as logic, reason, and ethics - would have resembled that of modern schizophrenics.

Jaynes maintained that, like schizophrenics, they'd have initiated conversations with unseen deities as well as inanimate objects and even been the beneficiaries of conversations from them! There existed a constancy and wholeness of reality and moreover, the abiding perception that everything encountered in one's world was real as well as conscious.

It was only later, with the emergence of language, logic and quantitative empirical testing that this perception gave way to scientific detachment, conscious distance (leading to self-consciousness, introspection and reflection) and reductionism. (The horrific process of conscious distancing is beautifully described in Morris Berman's 'The Re-Enchantment of the World') In this new reflective - reductive world, there was no longer a place for those who spoke to the unseen or received messages back from the invisible entities. These individuals were deemed mentally unbalanced, or "out of it" ("out of this world"). Today, we are more generous to those committed to hard core fundamentalist religions, acknowledging that at least a large part of their perception arises from their over-committment to a supernatural belief system. This perception is generally substituted for the conviction that all these folks (like my preacher bro) are certifiable nuts.

Luhrmann herself perhaps arrives at a much more generous and objective conclusion for the "voices" that Evangelicals (mainly) hear: that is, that they are creating a kind of psychological defense against the prevailing culture's disbelief...not only in God (as has been championed by the 'New Atheists' of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, et al) but also the wholesale rejection of the entire supernatural realm, to replace it with naturalism-Materialism.

Indeed, atheist philosopher Alex Rosenberg carries this to an extreme in his book The Atheist's Guide To Reality and especially in his first chapter: 'Do You Want Stories Or Reality?' Rosenberg insists that we can either maintain ourselves as existential babies steeped in what he refers to as "conspiracy theories" of how the world works and was supposedly "created" , or we can accept that physics (the most perfected and refined of all the sciences) fixes the facts of the world and hence we must follow a rigorous Scientism.

Scientism shows that the cosmos is purposeless, and also we are the products of a long, purposeless Darwinian evolution which produced the material brains we have and renders them adaptable to survive in a less than perfect world. Religion, by contrast, offers essentially fairy stories that try to tell us we emerged by special creation from an "omnipotent deity", or are somehow unique beings in the universe blessed with "souls", "minds" and "morals" that put us over all other animals. The capper is that if we choose to believe the right stories (e.g. that a God man can save us) we can earn an everlasting respite up in the clouds somewhere, while those nasty unbelievers will suffer eternal perdition.

Rosenberg's most extreme claim (which I believe causes him to overstep the bounds of reality himself) is that just as there can be no purpose there can be no "aboutness". In other words, our brains, despite their appearance of ability to generate meaning, can do no such thing. In the end words mean nothing, the brain can't interpret reality or assign any dimension of interpretation anywhere...whether to history, psychology, physics, astronomy or whatever. (Hmmmm......so if physics' equations, like in celestial mechanics, have no interpretative dimensions, how did we manage to use them to send spacecraft to Mars, Mercury, Venus? Or...were those landings all in our collective imaginations?)

Rosenberg bases all these on documented experiments, such as those by L├╝der Deecke and Hans Helmut Kornhuber in 1964, showing that all human actions precede conscious decisions to perform them. For example, Rosenberg observes (p. 152) that: "On average it takes 200 milliseconds from conscious willing to wrist flexing and finger pressing"

Thus, to the ordinary (sensory deluded) human it appears as if he's willed and initiated the action, but he really hasn't. It's all an illusion. As Rosenberg goes on:

"But the cortical processes responsible for wrist flexing started 500 ms earlier. "

In other words, 500 ms before a test subject depressed a button to indicate when he felt the actual conscious act of willing was initiated. As Rosenberg concludes (ibid.):

"In other words, wrist flexing is already set in motion, and everything needed to complete it has already taken place 300 ms before the subjects are conscious of deciding to flex the wrist and press the button"

The obvious implication? "Consciously deciding to do something is not the cause of doing it"

Or, to use this tack: "If there is no real will, there can be no willpower". Rosenberg then adopts this as a grounding for his notion that we are beings entirely governed by "blind sight". (I.e. p. 155, `Driving Through Life with Both Eyes Fixed on the Rearview Mirror').In other words, all our sensory outputs are based on ex post facto- conducted neural process corrections to much earlier sensory inputs that, for lack of a better term, need to be transduced.

The point is we aren't equipped to gain real time access to anything in our world. Even vision! What actually happens in vision is that the brain must perform tricks to erect an image that appears initially inverted on the retina. Thus, to quote Rosenberg, "vision turns out to be hindsight not foresight". The inescapable conclusion to Rosenberg is because of this we are victims of a monumental illusion condemned to live our lives through back sight, not foresight or will. This then transfers to his Chapter Eight, in which we are shown `The Brain Does Everything Without Thinking About It At All'.

From here, through the rest of the book, we have merely reinforcement of the basic premise: there is no purpose in the universe (which I do agree with) and there is also no "aboutness" since introspection is an illusion as well, given the brain doesn't really think.

I cite Rosenberg's brief for Scientism to show just how radical current atheism has become. So radical that Rosenberg himself seems not to realize he has actually reduced his own book to indecipherable jabber! Clearly, if there is no story, no capacity in humans for any introspection then books can't possess any interpretative dimensions either. Hence, whatever we believe ourselves to be cogitating on is ...well.... a trick of our brains....to make us think some interior -based seat of mind is pulling the strings of consciousness when there' nothing really there. It's all flesh-ware operating on inputs and outputs. We are merely elaborate automatons operating under the illusion of genuine personhood, or that history really has significance when it's all mostly accident, or that philosophy is anything more than words input to our neurons then processed as output. No ulterior meaning beyond.

The point? If such a radical meme exists and is now circulating in the culture at large, why wouldn't those who devoutly accept a "Creator" and supernatural realm do everything in their power to make those things more real to them? Thus, in a world tilting ever more toward Rosenberg's premise, it makes sense that for many people creating a divine basis for language would be a mental life preserver.

If we have compassion, should we not let these God talkers (and listeners) keep their delusions? At least so long as they don't attempt to foist or force them on the rest of us?

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