Monday, 28 May 2007


One thing from Andrew Newton's seminar I will go into more detail about. He mentioned the Persinger experiments with stimulating the brain with magnetic fields and producing what seemed like mystical experiences, which he claimed to have replicated. He then made the usual logical leap which atheists make at this point and implied that this constituted evidence that spiritual experiences were "not real".

I've said this on the Knife Fight, but that isn't Googleable, and I want to add some speculations. Firstly, even accepting the Persinger experiments at face value (and, like many controversial pieces of science, their validity is questioned by other researchers), the fact that an experience can be produced by stimulating the brain proves nothing whatsoever about the reality of that experience when the brain is not being directly stimulated. An electrode used to stimulate the brain during brain surgery can produce an experience of smelling a rose or hearing music. Does this mean that smelling roses and hearing music isn't real? Of course it doesn't. What it means is that the way in which we perceive smelling roses and hearing music, and, presumably, the way in which we perceive anything else, involves electrical activity in the brain - which is well-known and uncontroversial.

In fact, I like to turn the question around, and say: If these electromagnetic fields are producing a perception of something which is like a spiritual experience, then, in the absence of electromagnetic stimulation (or temporal lobe epilepsy, which can apparently have similar effects), what stimulus is producing these experiences? The atheist assumption that nothing is producing them seems to me to be more mystical than my belief that something is.

Now, it needs to be pointed out (and has been known for over a century - it's in William James's Varieties of Religious Experience, published in 1902) that the interpretation of these experiences will tend to follow a person's already existing belief structure. A devout Catholic may experience the presence of Mary or a saint, a devout Protestant may experience the presence of Jesus, a devout Buddhist will use Buddhist terminology, and a believer in UFOs will experience it in terms of alien lifeforms. This isn't really a surprise if we are dealing with something "ineffable", that is, beyond names and forms, inexpressible in our everyday language. And that, in turn, is no surprise if we are dealing with stimulation which doesn't come through the normal sensory channels, so that any language we put to it has to translate it into metaphor, because we don't have non-sensory language available.

The interesting thing to me - and here's where speculation comes in - is that it's often mentioned in this context that the prominent atheist Richard Dawkins did not have a religious experience while wearing the Persinger "God helmet". The Wikipedia article linked to above quotes the Telegraph:

Dr Persinger has explained away the failure of this Transcranial Magnetic Stimulator. Before donning the helmet, Prof Dawkins had scored low on a psychological scale measuring proneness to temporal lobe sensitivity.

I just checked the article and found this additional quote:

Recent studies on identical and fraternal twin pairs raised apart suggest that 50 per cent of our religious interests are influenced by genes. It seems Prof Dawkins is genetically predisposed not to believe.

Which was my speculative conclusion, kind of. Could it be that some unbelievers are such, not because of logic but simply because their brains lack sensitivity to the signals coming from - wherever such signals come from?

I myself am a member of a family which is far from noted for devout belief, and I haven't ever had anything approaching a mystical experience. It would be interesting to discover how sensitive my temporal lobes are.

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