Thursday, June 11, 2009


While I'm on an "as heard on All Things Considered" kick (look back a few posts), several weeks ago they ran a series on the science of spirituality, and one of the segments was about an area in the brain that seems to be active when people experience visions or other spiritual revelations. It turns out that this area is stimulated by some mental illneases and produces symptoms such as seeing visions and hearing voices. One scientist has even invented a "God Helmet" that stimulates this area magnetically to create artificial visions. The speculation is that when ordinary people (meaning those without mental illness) have spiritual revelations, it's due to activity in this part of the brain, which has been nicknamed the Godspot.

One question that the ATC segment asked is whether this discovery calls into question the credibility of spiritual revelations -- whether or not revelations are merely expressions of mental disturbance in the Godspot. One scientist stated flatly that the Godspot "proves there is no God" (or words to that effect).


If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know I'm an atheist, so I don't have an axe to grind here, but at the same time I have trouble abiding stupidity and illogic. If I were a theist (which I'm not), the discovery of the Godspot wouldn't shake my faith in God. Rather the opposite: If no Godspot had been discovered, I would have considered that a challenge to belief in God's existence. The Godspot strengthens the argument for God's existence.


Well, let's look at an example vision. It doesn't matter which one -- let's take the angel's appearance to Mary to announce she would become pregnant with Jesus. Any vision will do, but we'll use this one:

Looking at this revelation from a theistic point of view, the angel is a supernatural manifestation. The angel exists in the supernatural world. However, when it's all over, Mary's experience of the angel resides in her memory -- a biological and chemical state in her brain which is natural, not supernatural. So what's happened is that the experience of the angel has bridged over from the supernatural world -- a world that Mary can't access under normal, every-day circumstances -- to the natural world -- the chemistry in Mary's mind. Since Mary herself is not a supernatural being and does not have supernatural senses, there has to be some mechanism that allows the supernatural manifestation to translate into a natural manifestation. Call this the "Natural/Supernatural Interface," or, since I'm a geek, the NSI.

Now, if you aren't thinking this completely through, you might say that there's no need for an NSI -- that God just "communicates." But that's simplistic. The end result of the communication is a chemical state in Mary's brain, and somehow that had to be brought about. That "somehow" is the NSI.

So, what is the nature of the NSI? Well, the simplest NSI that I can imagine is that the supernatural angel emits natural light and sound which is perceived by Mary's eyes and ears. So Mary sees and hears the angel the way she would a natural person. But there's a couple of reasons why God would consider this NSI to be subpar. First, we are very limited in the depth of experience that we can perceive through only sight and sound, and I assume that the supernatural world is even richer and more intense than our natural one, so relying only on sight and sound would require a big dumbing down of the supernatural experience. Also, we know from studies where groups of people are exposed to the same event and then asked what they saw that the experience of sight and sound is pretty unreliable; different people perceive the same scene differently, which hardly makes it a great choice for receiving God's communications.

Another possible NSI is that the supernatural being simply made the chemical changes necessary in Mary's brain so that she "remembered" experiencing the angel. But this seems awkward to me, especially for real-time communication, as Mary would have to first recall each step of the experience in order to form a response.

No, it seems to me that the most effective way for God to ensure that He and His supernatural agents could communicate with natural beings would be to provide a Godspot -- an area of the brain where the supernatural could "draw" the experience directly into the brain of the natural being, as on a slate or blackboard, but affecting many senses and on many levels. That God would create in us a Godspot makes perfect sense.

Well, you might say, if the Godspot is a Divine creation, then how does it become diseased (in people with delusional mental disorders)? Wouldn't God make it immune from disease and reserve it solely for his use?

Um... no. The Godspot is, after all, on the "natural side" of the Natural/Supernatural Interface, and so, like all natural things, it must be subject to disease. If it weren't, it would be, well... unnatural. It also makes perfect sense that the Godspot, being part of the natural brain, would be subject to artificial stimulation that would create false revelations.

So I would find vindication of my faith in the discovery of the Godspot. If I were a theist.

But I'm not.

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Huh.... how I long for the days when public radio dealt with news. It seems that in the last 10 years or so they saw the big bucks that can be made by intermixing news with entertainment programming. I certainly don't begrude them their desire to hold on to market share, but I miss the days when they separated news and entertainment.

In and case, so the part of the brain that is activated by spiritual revelations is linked to mental illness, eh? Well, any reader of Stephen King could have told you that. As a Quaker, I can't help but wonder what these scientific geniuses would make of us. Quakers believe in a subtle connection between the spiritual realm and the physical, one which is open to all and accessible to those who make the time, and are willing to, listen (my apologies to George Fox for this oversimplification). I wonder if they considered whether any hallucination might trigger activity in this part of the brain, whether the experiencer believed the event had a spiritual basis or not. Does the experimenter differentiate between spiritual revelations that come in the quiet of a Quaker meeting and those that involve seeing Jesus in a water stain? My guess is that the scientists interviewed for this piece are unable to tell the difference.
>>news and entertainment<<

Although I won't say that ATC never broadcasts entertainment, I wouldn't put this story in that category. I would call it "informative," and I'm glad they broadcast it and that I heard it.

>>these scientific geniuses<<

For the record, I would like to point out that I said it was "one scientist" who stated that this discovery disproved the existence of God. Other scientists interviewed in the story had a range of other opinions, though none expressed mine (that a lack of a Godspot would be more damning to the faithful), which is why I posted.

Not meaning to belittle the obvious merit of a scientist of Stephen King's stature, I still think it's fascinating that someone can build a helmet that induces visions. A little scary, too.
What? Stephen King never won a Nobel??? Say it ain't so.

Point well taken.

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