Visions of Daniel

"God" in the Brain
Untangling Neurology, Psychology, Spirituality, and Theology


Papers link

This paper eventuall became my book "God" in the Brain.

See also Extraordinary Religious Experiences

Daniel A. Helminiak
University of West Georgia

American Psychological Association, 113th Annual Convention
Washington, DC, August 19, 2005

I begin by summarizing my overall argument.

My goal is to bring some clarification to current discussion about supposed experiences of God through the activation of neuronal functions in the human brain.

Specifically, I suggest that we can account for transcendent experiences by appeal to a self-transcending dimension of the human mind itself—referred to variously as consciousness, Buddha Nature, Atman, true soul, higher self, or, the term I will use in accord with the Western philosophical tradition, the human spirit. On the principle of Occam's razor, if appeal to human conscious or spiritual capacity can already explain these transcendent experiences, no reference to God is needed. These are experiences of the open-ended, outward-reaching dynamism of the human spirit; they pertain to human spirituality, not divine encounter. In my understanding, although the divine is spiritual, everything spiritual is not necessarily divine.

Of course, some use the terms God and divine as just other words for the spiritual dimension of the human mind. In this case, the problem is simply equivocation: Different terms are being applied to the same reality. But if God is to be taken as a reality or being that actually exists in It-/Him-/Herself—as some religions would insist—then implicating God in transcendent experiences requires an accounting for the nature and function of God. In this case, God's role in these experiences can, indeed, be explained. However, the explanation of God's role in these experiences is theology, not psychology, and, as such, exceeds the content matter and the competence of psychology.

Hence, I summarize my argument in two points: First, psychological talk of “God in the brain” is credulous, unwarranted, and misleading. Second, the theological relevance of neuropsychological findings should be left to theologians; it is not the place of psychologists—or neuroscientists—to talk about God whether in the brain or elsewhere.

Now I elaborate my argument by treating, in turn, after a brief introduction, neurology, psychology, spirituality, and theology.

Recently renewed research has identified some of the physiological correlates of transcendent experience. Transcendent experience is taken to mean that which is also called “religious” or “mystical” and which refers to instances of ineffable experiences of the unity of all things. I use the neutral term transcendent—with a lower-case t—to avoid prejudicing the discussion from the outset.

Relating transcendent experiences to purely biological factors, the neuroscientific research has raised peculiar questions: What is the object of transcendent experience? Does it actually have an object? Is the object actually God? Is the brain structured to be sensitive to God just as the eyes, for example, are sensitive to light? What is “God,” anyway, if God can be the object of neurological function? Is God--or the divine or the sacred--actually an aspect of the human mind? Or is God the Creator, who stands in contrast to every other reality, including the human mind? Must a psychology of transcendent experience address questions of God? If so and if psychology is an empirical science whose conclusions depend on appeal to evidence, how is a psychology that includes attention to transcendent experience even possible?

These questions are more philosophical than strictly psychological. For this reason the proposed answers within psychology differ widely: Without an epistemology adequate to addressing the subtlety of non-physical realities, coherent answers to these questions cannot be forthcoming. Even worse, at this point in post-modern history, when the possibility of knowing anything is disputed, it is unlikely that psychologists would share consensus on epistemology. Hence, debate over “God in the brain” thrives.

I approach this matter by relying on the philosophical work of Bernard Lonergan, namely, his analysis of human intentional consciousness and its correlative epistemology. Thus, while not expecting agreement on these matters but, nonetheless, at least proposing a potentially coherent response, I will engage those questions. The heart of the matter is to differentiate and inter-relate the disciplines involved in the discussion.

First, neuroscience: A range of research programs investigates transcendent experience: the use of brain-imaging techniques to discern the neural mechanisms triggered by meditative practice and the use of hallucinogens or the application of magnetic fields to induce transcendent experiences. However, the details of the biological research are peripheral to the present discussion since all such research bears on the same conclusion: Transcendent experiences depend on biological factors and, indeed, can be caused by the manipulation of these factors. Hence, discussion shifts from neurology to psychology.

Psychological attention to transcendent experiences requires a further differentiation: Psychology and spirituality—my second and third considerations—need to be delineated. The standard psychological model of the human is “body and mind.” Following Lonergan, within mind one can distinguish “psyche” and “spirit.” A tripartite model results: body, psyche, and spirit. Psyche refers to mental phenomena such as emotions, memory, imagery, and personality, with which psychologists are familiar. Spirit refers to the self-transcending dimension of the mind, which functions in and through psyche but which psychologists tend to take for granted and do not elaborate.

Spirit shows itself most primordially as human wonder, marvel, awe, and expresses itself in awareness, including self-awareness, and in questioning, judging, and deciding. If you are wondering what I mean, at this very moment you are experiencing that about which I am speaking: the human spirit in operation. Said otherwise, the spiritual regards the standard classical notions: intellect and will, and the contemporary notions: meaning and value, and the distinctively human achievements: knowledge and love, and the standard religious concerns: beliefs and ethics. These pairs of terms are parallels, and in their own way all point to the same reality: the human capacity for self-transcendence.

Attention to human questioning offers a useful example. The reach of human questioning is unlimited, so it points toward the infinite. Resolution of questioning comes through insight, for which one can prepare but which one cannot guarantee, so insight seems to come from beyond oneself. One could easily think that insight is of God or the muses, but insight is "merely" a wondrous function of the human mind. God need not be implicated. Moreover, unlimited in scope, human questioning would ideally not rest until it understood everything about everything. A universality—a thrust toward unity—is built into the human mind. Thus, attention to questioning reveals in the mind an open-ended dynamism that points toward the unity of all things.

Now, granted the human spiritual capacity for self-awareness, if one were to experience the open-ended dynamism of one's own spirit, one would experience the seemingly infinite. One would have a transcendent experience. Thus, appeal to a dimension of the human mind could account for transcendent experiences, and, allowing that this spiritual capacity is a legitimate aspect of human psychology, a psychological account of transcendent experiences would be complete at this point: Transcendent experiences are "merely" the self-aware experience of the open-ended capacity of one's own mind, and neurological research is increasing identifying the physiological basis of this mental capacity. At the same time, when psychology acknowledges and attends to the spiritual dimension of the mind, psychology becomes spirituality; the disciplines coincide.

Finally, theology: Eastern religious and philosophical notions, such as "Atman is Brahman," confound the human and the divine, and following suit, transpersonal psychologists such as Ken Wilber (1980) state outright, a person's "'innermost' consciousness is identical to the absolute and ultimate reality of the universe, known variously as Brahman, Tao, Dharmakaya, Allah, the Godhead" (pp. 75-76). On this basis there can be no purely psychological treatment of human experience of any kind, for from the beginning the human is said to be divine, so any treatment of the human requires theological analysis. To account for the human, you must be able to account for God—a feat that all religions and philosophical analyses say is impossible.

In contrast, the West conceives God as the Creator, who/which is distinct from creation, but not separate from it, and who/which sustains, and continues to work in and through, all natural processes. With this understanding, one can account for God's role in human transcendent experiences—not by supposing miraculous divine interventions nor by imagining extraordinary encounters with the divine being itself, but simply by allowing that God is the Creator and Sustainer of the open-ended, self-transcending human spiritual capacity, which in itself explains transcendent experiences. But this accounting is theology, not psychology.

Neurological research shows that the human brain is structured to produce transcendent experiences, but that these experiences are ipso facto of God is a rash and unwarranted assertion. Psychologically speaking, the human mind entails a spiritual dimension that is open to transcendent experiences, but this spiritual dimension is not God in the brain.



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