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  • Restorative Readings: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Human Dignity
    Restorative Readings: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Human Dignity
    Pickwick Publications

    Foreword by Walter Brueggemann, my chapter is entitled 'In conversation: The Old Testament, Ethics and Human Dignity'. A superb resource edited by Julie Claassens and Bruce Birch

  • What are we thinking? Reflections on Church and Society from Southern African Methodists.
    What are we thinking? Reflections on Church and Society from Southern African Methodists.
    by Dion A Forster, Wessel Bentley
  • Methodism in Southern Africa: A celebration of Wesleyan Mission
    Methodism in Southern Africa: A celebration of Wesleyan Mission
    by Dion A Forster, Wessel Bentley
  • Christ at the centre - Discovering the Cosmic Christ in the spirituality of Bede Griffiths
    Christ at the centre - Discovering the Cosmic Christ in the spirituality of Bede Griffiths
    by Dion A Forster
  • An uncommon spiritual path - the quest to find Jesus beyond conventional Christianity
    An uncommon spiritual path - the quest to find Jesus beyond conventional Christianity
    by Dion A Forster
Transform your work life: Turn your ordinary day into an extraordinary calling. by Dion Forster and Graham Power.
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Tuesday
Aug032010

The presence of God and functioning of the human brain

Some years ago when I was preparing to start my doctoral research I came across a wonderful book by Andrew Newberg and Eugene d'Aquili called "Why God won't go away: Brain science and the biology of belief".

I had come to the discipline of neuro-theology through my interest in quantum theory and the new science (which I covered in some earlier graduate work - my book 'Christ at the centre' has a chapter that seeks to rephrase the doctrine of Christ in more contemporary language, so instead of the traditional Greek philisophical concepts of ousia and hypostasis I sought to rephrase the unity of the divinity and humanity of Christ using quantum physics, theoretical microbiology and transpersonal psychology (later I discovered integrative philosophy to be more apt). It was a wonderful journey of discovery and rediscovery). 

At more or less that time there was a popular movement that focussed on the 'God spot' in the brain - the theory was that religion and belief can be disregarded because some neuroscientists had discovered the place(s) and functions of the brain that caused belief.  It was popularly dubbed as 'the God spot' in the brain. This line of argumentation is fundamentally flawed since it presuposes an dualism between spirit and matter (i.e., that the body and the spirit are somehow seperated).  It is what Ken Wilber calls a 'flatland' perspective that tries to collapse the complexity of reality into an objective system.  These scientists had fallen into the same trap as religious fundamentalists - they had closed the possibility of other points of view by suggesting that their perspective was the only valid option.  In this instance they suggested that because you could show the bioligical functioning of a part of the brain, the experiences that result from that function were not valid.

Can you see the logical inconsistency in that argument?  If we acccept that line of argumentation we would have to say that the human heart does not truly 'work' because we understand its biological functioning.  Just because we understand something does not mean that it is not true!  In fact it may be MORE true because we understand it.

It was this line of argumentation that I employed to present the exact opposite of their conclusion - simply because there is physical proof of the existence of a place in the brain that shapes religious experience does not mean that faith is not valid or true!

In fact the converse is more likely - we are created with a capacity to experience God and God's divine presence.  This is a gift, and in fact validates the truth that humans are created to be religious beings! Years later when I wrote up my Doctoral thesis I showed how these 'a-priori' (pre-existent) neurological pathways are the foundations of our identity as human persons.  We are integrated physical, psychological and spiritual beings.  Our identity depends on the development of all of these aspects of our being (see p.215 of the thesis forward).

In short, God has wired God's presence into our being!  We are hard-wired to experience and know God who is in all and above all.

My research went on to discuss the concept that the truest form of 'knowledge' (what is knowing in the Hebrew scriptures as yadah') is discovery through relationship.  Simply stated, a fact is useful (to know that my wife Megan exists is a fact which I can prove objectively - that is quite useful), however, to experience her love which is mediated through our relationship is transformative (this is known as subjective knowledge or experience, or more precisley, intersubjective knowledge that changes my life). 

Jesus is the essence of truth (the logos, the primordial person who is known through love). In my relationship with God in Christ I come to discover transformative truth, not just doctrinal certainty.  My friend Kevin Light wrote a wonderful chapter that discusses this relationship between experienced truth and rational truth in his chapter entitled 'What about an affirmative action for theological application' (see Forster, D and Bentley, W 'What are we thinking? Reflections on Church and Society from Southern African Methodists' (Methodist Publishing House: Cape Town, 2009:107-116).

Thus, I have concluded that the most transformative knowledge of God is that knowledge that comes through a relationship with God in Christ.  We are transformed, renewed, recreated and reshaped as we grow in love (and knowledge) of Christ.

This little Latin saying has been living within me for the last while:  "Vocatus Atque Non Vocatus Deus Aderit" [bidden or not bidden, God is present / invoked or not invoked, God is present].

It is variously attributed to Erasmus (a Enlightenment scholar and humanist) and Carl Jung (the Swiss psychiatrist).

There is a great truth contained within these simple words.  Indeed, God pre-exists our thoughts, our actions, our intentions, and even our will.

This is not only a theological statement (the Bible is filled with reminders that before we are, God is!)  God is the source from which all life comes.  God is creator (and so we are creation).  However, it is also a neuro-scientific reality.

If you ever have the inclination to understand the neurobiology of belief there is a wonderful book, written by Andrew Newberg and Eugene d'Aquili entitled "Why God won't go away: Brain science and the biology of belief"

Here is an endorsement for the book:

 

"Why God Won’t Go Away is a thrilling exploration of the intersection of modern brain science and religious experience by one of the leading researchers in this field. Theologians and religionists, don’t worry; this is no exercise in God bashing. For, unlike most books exploring the connection between science and religion, Dr. Andrew Newberg is exceedingly mindful of the limits of science- what it can and cannot say, where it can and cannot go. He realizes that for every question science answers about religious experience, a dozen more arise to take its place. The respect this book displays toward the great mysteries, such as the nature of God and the origin and destiny of consciousness, is one of its most appealing qualities. Newberg’s reverential attitude toward the great unknowns is reminiscent of Einstein." Larry Dossey, MD Author: Reinventing Medicine, Healing Words

I have, however, progressed beyond the dualism that separates belief into physical and spiritual categories.  For me the dividing wall between spirit and mind, between my body and my faith, has been broken down.  In Christ the Spirit of God is present fully in a human person.  And, through His saving grace my life is being transformed into that state of 'being present' to God.

So, no matter what you face today I would like to encourage you with the knowledge that whether God is invited, or not invited, God is always lovingly present.  Amazingly God has even given us the biological capacity for this truth to be discovered within the depths and complexity of the brain!

Reader Comments (6)

Hi Dion

Hope you're doing well. I'd like to raise some points on some of the arguments you mount in this post. You say that the discovery of the "god spot" led some to conclude that religion and faith could be "disregarded". That may have been the case at the time but I can tell you that more than one speaker at the Atheist Conference in Melbourne earlier this year used this scientific fact to assert that indeed we can't disregard religion or faith BECAUSE there is evidence that religion and faith are biological impulses. In fact, Richard Dawkins himself devoted most of his address to make the point that atheists shouldn't beat themselves up when they instinctively say things like "thank God...". His argument being that our social evolutionary history has imbued us with a natural "accounting system" in which we record when good things happen so that we can repay the good deed. If we can't ascribe that good deed to any person in particular, we still have the instinct to thank "someone", such as "god" or "fortune". The key thing of course is that this is not evidence for the existence of God, a point I'd like to come to later.

You say "This line of argumentation is fundamentally flawed since it presuposes an dualism between spirit and matter (i.e., that the body and the spirit are somehow seperated)." I would say that any scientist would have a different idea of what "spirit" is. There is no scientific evidence for a "spirit" in the religious sense of the word. What humans experience as "spirituality" is indeed a genuine emotion (as demonstrated by Newberg et al) but their work does not prove the existence of "spirit". The authors themselves apparently speculate that our perception of spirituality and religion is a higher "real" reality, but they don't really offer any evidence (I read this in a summary of the book at this link: http://www.2think.org/why_god.shtml). This leads into your other assertion that "In fact the converse is more likely - we are created with a capacity to experience God and God's divine presence." Is there any evidence for this statement? Or is it a statement of faith? In which case the argument would appear to be circular. Your assertion also raises other problems. For instance, if God had a inserted this "God spot" into our brains at some point in evolutionary history to allow us to perceive him, when do you think this occurred? Do you agree that this very much sounds like an "intelligent design" argument with all its attendant scientific inconsistencies? one of those inconsistencies would be the phenomenon of the "god of the gaps". That is, as science finds more answers to questions which were previously ascribed to "god", religious people then "shift the goal posts" and say that the next unknown question can be answered by a "god hypothesis".

More broadly, I am also perplexed in your use of science to explain religion. This seems to contrast with the Gouldian idea of non-overlapping magisteria which I would would have thought people of faith would have been quite happy to stick with. I mean, you mention scientific fields such as quantum mechanics which is probably the greatest example of the scientific method in action, and yet you infer conclusions from it which cannot be tested using the very method which gave you that "insight". In other words, it seems illogical to me to use the scientific method to learn about something and then abandon that method and take a "leap of faith" when you're done with the science. You also seem to infer that ancient texts draw similar conclusions to those which *can* be drawn from scientific inquiry. This seems like a particularly long bow to draw - how could bronze age thinkers have understood something like Heisenberg's uncertainty principle? Admittedly, I haven't read all these science-backs-religion arguments but I would love to see real evidence that ancient writers somehow "knew" about quantum mechanics.

Finally, I don't dispute that many people are absolutely confident that they have religious experiences and "know" that God exists - the research that you quote backs that up. However, I can quite confidently say that I have never had an experience of spirituality to the the degree that it has convinced me of the existence of God. So clearly different people are affected by the "godspot" in different ways or there is of course the (slim, in my opinion) that God chooses not to "talk" to some people. That's not to say that I have never experienced "spiritual" feelings. For example, I'm sure I feel what other people may call "God" when I listen to a Beethoven Symphony or String Quartet. I just feel no need to ascribe supernatural causes to that feeling of wonderment. I know that the point of your entry here was not to convince an atheist that God exists, but I would be interested to read a further explanation as to how you connect the existence of innate faith and a tendency to religious behaviour with the existence of a supernatural being.

All the best,
Greg

August 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGreg

Hi Greg,

Thanks for a very thought provoking and challenging comment. You raise a number of pertinent points.

I think your closing paragraph is quite accurate - indeed, I am not attempting to be an apologist for faith, or a faith, in this post. Rather, my intention was to reflect on the wonder and intricacy of the human brain when it comes to religious experience and the capacity to relate to God.

You may not like what I am about to write, but here goes... I think that you and I are quite similar in our approach to 'making meaning' of reality. I start from the perspective of experience, then I move on to test that experience in terms of repeatability (the epistemic test for the veracity of 'truth'), having found some reason to understand that my experience is valid I make some reasonable conclusions based both on the experience and the outcome of having tested it. This is faith.

I think that you too are a person of faith, you have a certain set of experiences which you have tested and found to be largely consistent. The consistency of these experiences has allowed you to adopt them as a system of 'belief'.

I use the word belief in a very broad sense here, namely that you, like me, have adopted a certain understanding of reality (based on your rational inclusion and exclusion of ideas and experiences) and your place within reality. This framework of belief (whether it is scientific, humanist, rationalist, religious, spiritual) shapes your understanding of time, the world, and the interactions between different aspects of the world.

This adopted and developed framework of meaning arises out of an interaction between the subjective and objective aspects of your being (objective aspects are things such as the biological functions of the brain, subjective aspects are the less tangible results of those functions, such as memory, consciousness, identity etc.). Some would distinguish these aspects from one another with descriptive phrases such as spirituality (subjective) and science (objective), or psychology (which considers the 'mind' of the subject) and sociology (which considers the actions of the objective community)... Language (both as a function of understanding in a subjective sense, and as a function of connecting and communicating in an objective sense) has caused us to believe that these things are separate and in some sense irreconcilable. I think this is a mistake.

Science is no more reliable than religion (and of course I would concede that the converse is also true, religion is no more reliable than science). Both approaches to meaning rely the acceptance of hypotheses that are tested, when they are found to be objectively verifiable (by whatever means is generally accepted) we adopt them as 'foundational truths' (or beliefs). However, such truth is relative in the face of eternity and ever increasing discoveries of complexity.

Take the example of Newtonian physics in relation to quantum theory. Before the discovery of relativity theory and the EPR effect poplurised by Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen (or the tunnelling effect which accounts in some sense for the duality between waves and particles), we believed that Newtonian physics was an absolute scientific certainty. Heisenberg's uncertainty principle shifted that a little. However, that did not stop us from believing that in certain contexts Newtonian physics is true (for example we need that certainty when we're building bridges), yet in other circumstances we know that it is not true.

My point is simply this, I have great respect for persons who have framed their beliefs differently to mine, whether they be from a different religious tradition (like Ghandi), secular beliefs (such as Hitchens), scientific beliefs (such as Dawkins). I am cautious of fundamentalism of any sort though! I have seen the destructive effects of absolute certainty and claims to exclusive all encompassing truth in my own religion, Christianity. I do worry that there is a very strong move towards fundamentalism among some popular atheist and anti-theist movements. Such a lack of tolerance and insight into the failings and shortcomings of one's own beliefs inevitably infringes on the freedom, beauty and life of others.

Perhaps my previous paragraph goes some way towards answering your question about the relationship between moving from science to faith. Science is no more certain than religion, and religion is no less of a method than science. Both seek to make meaning of our internal and external world based on certain things that we sense to be true and try to prove. In the end both end up being a mix of relative certainty and relative faith. It is naive to assume that we can fathom the entire mystery of the beauty of creation and humanity with any one singural expression or approach.

I will admit that I am often prone to that naiveté. I have encountered far too much suffering and struggle (both personally and as a servant of various communities) to not tend towards sentimental hope, and simple faith.

Anyway, no conclusive answers here! I admit that I don't have them. Rather, I prefer the discovery and growth that comes through interaction. Thanks once again for taking the time to write a thought provoking and detailed response to my post. I appreciate the time and the effort.

Regards from Cape Town!

Dion

August 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDion Forster

Interesting discussion.

Non-overlapping-magisteria doesn't really do it for me as a description of reality; but rather as a sort of ground rule for argument / 'sticking to what you know'.

As a faith person with great respect for science (and little understanding of either faith or science) I guess I often retreat into the field of intuition - 'the vibe of the whole thing', or 'it just feels right'; an argument from aesthetics perhaps.

Is it a God shaped hole in my brain? To me a 'spiritual impulse' proves very little; as do quarks and quasars, rather the truth is found in the whole dance; faith, science, history, philosophy and all summed up in art. The art of science, theology, story, poetry, music, vision and dance.

Which I guess, expresses the meaning of the whole thing, rather than the measurement.

Art is the sum of all experience; the communication that resonates truth to one's being.

(But to scientists that's just fairy tales.)

Thanks for the thoughts; I like them all.

August 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAngus

Wow gentlemen who needs scientists or apologists (hope that is even the correct term) when we have you guys! I love the idea that God planted a spot to know him in all our brains. Undeniable that the majority of the human race throughout history have sought a "being" higher than themselves. I'm just stoked to have that spot and know that that is a constant that I can never lose my yearning or longing to know God whomever or whatever that may be for me. Dion > I live in Cape Town now and would love to know where you preach on occasion. Thanks and love, Steph

August 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie

Steph! What a great suprise! I'd love to touch base - Megie and Courts would love to see you, and you won't believe how Courtney and Liam have grown. Give me a shout and let's connect.

Guss, thanks for the comment - I like what you're saying. I have also tended towards appreciating the sum rather than the parts when it comes to 'living life'. But, knowing a little about Greg, who is trained as a geologist (Greg can introduce himself if he would like to), I'm sure that there is a real appreciation for detail and also for some more 'concrete' expressions of truth. If my assumptions are correct scientists don't have the luxury of approaching reality largely from the perspective of aesthetics.

Thanks for the comments friends. I'm enjoying the interaction!

Conspiring for hope!

Dion

August 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDion Forster

I can fully identify with dr Forster's Paradigm. Whole Being Functioning within Kingdom Reality can only manifest through Spiritual Regeneration.

June 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTrudé Nell

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