Wednesday, December 22, 2010

God's In the Brain: But Not Personal!

I left off in the previous instalment by noting that what's so interesting about the whole OAA dynamic is that it actually has a much broader, more generic basis than mere narrow beliefs. Indeed, the authors (Newberg & D'Aquill) were able to replicate states in which the activation area generated a stable state of “absolute unitary being” in which “subjective observations were impossible on the one hand, and no subjective self existed to make them on the other”.

In other words, states were replicated that embodied what one encounters in transcendental meditation. What is meditation? No single, simple definition seems to apply. According to Lawrence Le Shan[1], there are two general approaches: "structured" and "unstructured". In the first, a specific method - based on a precise format - is used. For example, the breath-counting type of meditation in which every four breaths are counted. Or, the "mantra" type of meditation, in which a single word ("mantra") is repeated over and over again (e.g. "A-U-M" or "Om" is such a mantra).

In "unstructured" meditation, no explicit format applies. The person will instead "inquire" into particular emotional states and remain focused on these as they pertain to a particular topic that is of concern. The purpose, according to Le Shan (p.43) is: "...primarily to loosen and free one's personality structure in a particular area". Often, the topic can be approached in terms of a question posed, such as:

How might I relate more fully to others, and lessen my sense of personal isolation?

Le Shan takes pains to emphasize that unstructured meditating must not be confused with free association. For example, while there are no constraints in terms of adhering to a specific format, one cannot allow one's attention to be diverted from the topic or issue chosen. Note again, this very confinement of attention is exactly what amps up and reinforces the right attention area of the OAA as we saw in the case of contemplating the Jesus image. (In other words, by whatever focus image one employs, a state of absolute unitary being can be attained)

In an interview with Renee Weber, David Bohm suggests another possible importance to meditation[2]:

"Perhaps meditation will lead you deep into this ocean of physical and mental energy which is universal"

Which is what the authors of ‘Why God Won’t Go Away’ call the state of ‘Absolute Unitary Being’. In their parlance, it is exactly THIS state which is the closest one will come to “God”. As the authors note (p. 123):

If the brain were not assembled as it is, we would not be able to experience a higher spiritual reality even if it did exist

The authors then go on from this to speculate why the human brain, ostensibly evolved for the purpose of survival, would possess such “an impractical talent”? The most they can offer (p. 124) is that the transcendent unitary brain states evolved as by products of the more survival-oriented features.

The “focus-mandate” of the OAA brain (total de-afferentiation of the orientation region) as described in the earlier instalment, gives rise to the state known as “Absolute Unitary Being”: otherwise also described as the “One MIND” linking all minds. (E.g. in various Buddhist tracts, such as by Zen Master Huang Po) so that it must transcend all subjective or secondary conceptions of God.

As the authors of the OAA research put it (‘Why God Won’t Go Away’, p. 148):

It is difficult for the rational mind to accept these cryptic pronouncements as fact: The One Mind is uncreated, it is not non-existent, but at the same time cannot be said to exist; it transcends all limits and comparisons, and outside of this One Mind nothing is real

As one who had in the past (1980s) pursued and practiced transcendental meditation, I can assert that this is not an exaggeration. One loses oneself in both time and space and by that focus (not “emptying the mind” – which is a misconception) a single unitary state of mind is brought to bear. One feels a sense of unity to “the All” – whatever that may be- impersonal unified energy or Mind. Or maybe a Universal Mind.

In a way, one attains in such meditation a state that can’t be acquired by ordinary mental dynamics – which is understandable. As noted in the previous blog, all or most conscious activity is devoted to a process of reification – or making the objects and events perceived by the brain real to the brain via the OAA. This is done via a multi-step construction process, so well we aren’t even aware our brains are manufacturing our sentient reality as we live. It is a wholly seamless process, unless of course one is suddenly afflicted by some mental aberration such as schizoid personality disorder, or schizophrenia. Then the mental construction and reification becomes suddenly perverted and giant 8-foot spiders begin chasing us in our waking hours, as opposed to in our dreams.

In addition, the reification and construction is essential in the development of the Self and ego. Take them away and arguably no Self emerges. But by the same token, when one enters deeply into the state of Absolute Unitary Being, the personal Self and ego recede. This is exactly what is needed to have that unitary sense to “the All”.

More insight from the authors (p. 160):

In Absolute Unitary Being, nothing is experienced but the pure and complete unity of all things or of No-things. One thing cannot stand apart from another, so individual beings and objects cannot be perceived. The egotistical self cannot exist, because it has no non-self against which to define itself. In the same fashion, God cannot be set apart from this ultimate oneness as an identifiable, personal Being – since to do so would be to conceive of a God who is less than absolutely real

The last statement is extremely important, because the experiments performed which locate the “God site” in the brain’s OAA and also show a real connection, do not allow human rationality to limit it to the personal. Once we do that, it ceases to be real. This means that all the “personal God” concepts used by most religions are only caricatures, since they actually modify the brain’s attainment of the Absolute Being behind the Unitary state of being. In other words, one cannot simultaneously have an “Absolute Unitary Being” and a personal Being, putatively described as “the One God”.

As the authors go on to note (ibid.):

The perception of an absolute reality, therefore, would demand that God be more than a knowable Being and make it clear that all personifications of God are symbolic attempts to grasp the ungraspable.”

They do go on, however, to ameliorate their comments somewhat that this does not necessarily mean personalized God concepts are ‘meaningless’ or ‘untrue’ – only that if one employs them one must settle for only a ‘glimmer’ of the higher spiritual reality (somewhat like comparing a small shaft of light entering a room through a shade, to the full brilliance of the Sun itself). Can people really be content with such a ‘small shaft’? Maybe, but I doubt most would settle – though their minds might lead them to that direction.

In addition, harboring a personal God or personalized conception of one can be dangerous. Once an Absolute undifferentiated Being is personalized, it can be anthropomorphized. Once that is done, human motivations are more easily projected upon it, and next all manner of human viciousness, vengeance, intolerance and hatreds. The next step, obviously, is to have it fashion a place of torture (“Hell”) for all those impious enough to deny its existence.

In her wonderful book, ‘A History of God’, Karen Armstrong writes:

A personalized God can become a mere idol carved in our image. A projection of our limited needs, fears and desires. We just assume then that he loves what we love and hates what we hate, endorsing our prejudices instead of compelling us to transcend them.”


The very fact that, as a person, God has a gender, is also self-limiting. It means that the sexuality of half the human race is sacralized at the expense of the female and can lead to a neurotic imbalance in sexual mores

Of course, this is exactly what we’ve beheld in the case of the Roman Catholic Church which ranks the gravity of simple sexual acts (like fornication, masturbation, or even having sex in marriage via artificial contraception) along side the gravity of homicide, genocide and worse. In this way, the Church’s sexual moral edicts suffer because they become inchoate and irrational. People will then ignore them, since their more reliable reason infers a total absence of any proportionality between the acts. The Church can bang on its "natural law" drum all it wishes, but when one act of masturbation earns the offender the same "Hell" as killing 6 million innocents by genocide, it loses all moral credibility.

Armstrong again:

A personal God can be dangerous, therefore. Instead of pulling us beyond our limitations, ‘he’ encourages us to remain complacently within them. “He” can then make us cruel, callous, self-satisfied and partial …as “he” seems to be.”

This is interesting too because this is exactly what we find in practitioners of Christian fundamentalism. So smug and self-satisfied are they, that they’ve located the ‘one and only truth’ that they feel righteous in denying to others their own spiritual inquiry. When those latter audaciously seek beyond the narrow limits of the fundie’s personal God, the smug fundies turn callous and cruel and call down their personal deity’s wrath in Hell phantasms. "You WILL Believe as I do or you're gonna go straight to HELL!" They also justify their attempts to “save” what they believe are “staying sheep” by witnessing to them. But they have no conception, none at all, that they are in fact manifesting their own supreme arrogance that they know what’s spiritually best for everyone else!

As the authors (Newberg and D’Aquill) go on to say (p. 163):

The God Armstrong describes is the God of witch hunts, Inquisitions, Holy Wars, fundamentalist intolerances, and countless other forms of religious persecution- all carried out with the confident presumption of divine endorsement. The authority to commit such atrocities is rooted in the assumption, made by believers – that their God is the only God and their religion is the single, exclusive path to truth. As God’s chosen people they believe they have the right to oppose the ‘enemies’ of God….”

Except, of course, they don’t because there are no ‘enemies’. Everyone’s God is real – or not- as the case may be. This is what the authors’ OAA findings and neuro-theology show. For example, when one enters the Absolute Unitary State then there is only ONE God experience. Hence, one undifferentiated ultimate Being: not a Jewish brand, nor Catholic or Fundie.

The authors then rightly conclude that the notion of “exclusive truth” (on which religious intolerance is based) is only apparent when incomplete brain transcendent states are attained. If a person goes about half-conscious, or enters meditation with no focus – then he'll not benefit, and the limited, separating mental states will persist. But when one commits fully to the state, then absolute, uncompromising unity of being is the result and the brain’s OAA is soothed in its entirety. There are no singlets of thought running around yelping “No! That’s Satan’s Doing!”

Thus, all “enemies” vanish, and all true meditators finally see all Gods are one, and exist in one mental state. As the authors put it (p. 165):

All religions are kin. None can exclusively own the realist reality. .”

The final question for the Atheist is simple: Do the OAA neurobiological experiments of Newberg and D’Aquill prove a real God exists as an Absolute Unitary Being?

The answer is ‘no’. Even Newberg and D’Aquill are non-committal on this, pointing out only they have found a brain site that elicits a STATE of unity, or what can be perceived as Absolute Unitary Being. This does not mean an actual Absolute Unitary Being exists – though it could. However, the possibility or plausibility doesn’t amount to an ironclad proof.

As Newberg writes in the book epilog:

At the heart of our theory is a neurological model that provides a link between mystical experience and observable brain function. In simplest terms: the brain seems to have the built in ability to transcend the perception of an individual self

In other words, the authors appear to have demonstrated a powerful BRAIN state, but the underlying entity remains open to question – though – if a transcendent Being is behind it then it makes most sense it would be analogous to the Bohm “Holomovement”.

The Bohm Holomovement and its consequences in providing a basis for miracles and so forth, has been popularized in books such as Michael Talbot’s The Holographic Universe. A neat thing that works out from cosmic holography is that each and every one of us is literally a spark of the “divine” (which is exactly why we can become centered in its unity to us via our brains) so it kind of reintroduces a form of Gnosis through the back door! The relation of individuality to Universal Mind (Dirac Ether or Holomovement) might be depicted as I show below:


The vast energy sea or Dirac Ether is equivalent to Bohm's Implicate Order, or what he calls "Holomovement", and is a pure frequency domain[3] (timeless). The ripples on this sea are the distinct material forms perceived as separate entities in the universe because we are generally unaware of the implicate order. Nonetheless, the remarkable insight is that within this order separate forms (individualities) emerge as purely illusory (exactly what the brain OAA findings show). By analogy, the separate waves one sees on the ocean surface are illusions - at least in the sense they cannot be removed and placed on the beach for inspection! Hence, individuality is illusory.

At the very least, the Atheist should encourage further research in this area. Even if Atheists can’t make God-believers go away anytime soon – further OAA brain research may at least finally undermine the most irritating aspects of the “personal God” malarkey that persists. And that ought to be considered an enormous step, especially in removing the scourge of religious intolerance from our planet!

[1] Le Shan, L.: 1974, Structured and Unstructured Meditations, in How to Meditate, Bantam Books, New York, p. 41.

[2] See The Physicist and the Mystic (interview) in The Holographic Paradigm And Other Paradoxes (Ed. K. Wilber) Shambhala Publications, Boston, p. 213.

[3] Frequency (F) is related to time (T) by: F = 1/T. Thus, T -> 0, for a “frequency domain”.

No comments: