Natural Brain vs. Supernatural God

March 26, 2010

Should millions of dollars be spent on studying brains under the influence of religon?

No doubt much would be learned. Brains are complicated. Brains doing drugs, doing mathematics, having dreams, or creating art are indeed fascinating brains, too.

But I doubt whether any amount of brain science could yield evidence relevant to the existence of a supernatural entity. Friends of religion who hope that brain science will lend support for god's existence are quite mistaken.

Georg Northoff has hit the headlines claiming that an evolved brain wouldn't be perceiving a god. Northhoff is spending millions of dollars to research the connections between brain functioning and religious belief, as the research director of Mind, Brain Imaging, and Neuroethics at the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Mental Health Research. As quoted by the Ottawa Citizen , Northoff says,

“We can research the neuro-mechanism into belief, but we cannot say anything about God. That’s where we have to go to philosophy.”

Northoff's argument is simple: science understands the brain as an organ that has evolved for pragmatically dealing with the natural environment. Science would be rashly exceeding its limitations if it were to instead assume that the brain is capable of perceiving supernatural things. Here, brain science can only study correlations: correlations between brain activity and reports from the subject about experience or belief. Of course there will be detectable correlations -- if a subject was having a religious experience but there was no correlative brain change at all, that would be a deep problem for naturalism. But naturalism expects that consciousness is most intimately connected to brain functioning. Free floating experiences would contradict naturalism. After all, that's the point when religion talks about detachable independent souls. But the brain is not designed for gods.

Science does not assume the existence of gods or souls and then asks how we can know them. Friends of religion are quite correct to point out that science is not designed to track supernatural matters. That leaves science to its proper task of dealing with empirical questions, such as asking how a natural brain can learn what it learns through actively exploring its sensed environment. Part of the human brain's environment is other human brains. When brains come to entertain religious beliefs, science can easily explain why: human brains exist within human cultures that tell stories. This mode of scientific explanation neither assumes nor denies the veracity of any of those stories. Science can't help religion.

Friends of religion may want to believe that certain brain patterns of religious people are somehow signs of god. "Look at that unusual brain on god!" they want to exclaim. However, it is just a natural brain, doing earthly things in understable ways. Yes, strenuous meditation or intense prayer correlates with unusual brain patterns. Why be surprised? Brains playing violins and brains reading poetry display unusual brain patterns too. Indeed, the difference between "ordinary" and "extraordinary" brain functioning loses much force after you study plenty of brains. People doing extraordinary things have brains that let them do those things. All this expected correlation can do is confirm naturalism in the long run.  Religious people can only keep telling miracle stories.


#1 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Saturday March 27, 2010 at 7:30am

——But I doubt whether any amount of brain science could yield evidence relevant to the existence of a supernatural entity. Friends of religion who hope that brain science will lend support for god’s existence are quite mistaken.  J.S.

I fully agree with the first sentence, the second one is quite bizarre since it’s most often the enemies of religion who put their faith in brain study.  I’ve commented for years on the bizarre oversight of the Dennetts and their ilk who don’t seem to get the first idea of a creator God, that everything in the universe would be created and set in motion by that God.  And our brains, and DNA, would be the creation of such a God.  I’m a complete skeptic about that kind of “brain science,” I doubt it reliably demonstrates even the simple things it purports to show.  I doubt we’ll ever understand those questions, I’m sure we don’t today.

——Science does not assume the existence of gods or souls and then asks how we can know them.  J.S.

This sentence is extremely strange.  First, I wasn’t aware that science dealt with the quite troublesome question of whether or not something “exists”.  Having spent quite a while last year reading Eddington, he was quite eloquent about how the concept of “existence” is far from clear.  If you want to define what “existence” means and what it means for something to “exist” you might want to get that out of the way first.  Though I don’t think you’ll ever get out of that maze.

Of course, then you can go on to the problem of what it means to “know” something.  Which, as I’m sure you’re aware of, is hardly a fixed issue in philosophy, never mind science.  And if science dealt with such an issue, it would have to be confined entire to that part of the physical universe which can be observed, measured, analyzed ..... Science can’t deal in any way with anything else. If there is a God that interacts with the physical universe, science couldn’t deal with it because it’s not made to.  If it tried to, it would immediately stop being scientific.

——When brains come to entertain religious beliefs, science can easily explain why: human brains exist within human cultures that tell stories. This mode of scientific explanation neither assumes nor denies the veracity of any of those stories. Science can’t help religion.  J.S.

“Science can easily explain why”?  No, there’s nothing easy about it and there’s nothing especially scientific about it.  People can come up with some sciency sounding stuff about it, it doesn’t “easily explain” why people have religious beliefs anymore than it can tell us why we seem to carry images of things in the natural world around inside our heads and that some of those seem to be accurate to some extent while many of them seem to be wildly inaccurate and that we seem to be able to act on either.  You seem to presume that all “religious beliefs” are the same kind of “thing” when there’s no reason to believe that, certainly not as demonstrated by actions and even professions of belief. 

You say “Science can’t help religion.”  What someone who is religious finds helpful or not within science is up to them to say.  A religious person who holds that God made the universe exactly as it is might find the entirety of science to be useful to them.  If they find some reason to believe in some aspect of God within science, that’s for them to say.  Any who realize that all science is held contingently would be as able to deal with the evolving understanding of the universe as held by science to be quite tolerable, just as peoples’ understanding of religion changes over time. 

If what you meant was that “science can’t deal with questions of religion except in so far as they are confined within the proper subject matter of science,” that’s obviously true.  But I don’t think that’s sufficiently imprecise for your purposes.

I would suggest you read Eddington’s The Philosophy of Physical Science, or reread it if you have.

#2 craggles on Sunday March 28, 2010 at 2:25pm

Until we have a full understanding of the brain (if ever) then it is intellectually dishonest to attribute its various ‘wonders’ to higher powers or souls. Just like when humans did not understand what germs were, diseases were thought to be of divine influence.
Once all avenues have been exhausted and STILL no answers are foreseeable, then i would give credit to soul theories. To me its a bit like showing a caveman a light-bulb, obviously until electricity is understood it would be perceived as ‘magic’, granted the major difference here is complexity. It could simply be that is the brain was simple enough to understand we would be too simple to understand it…

#3 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Sunday March 28, 2010 at 2:59pm

craggles, if people have souls then it’s possible interaction with the physical brain wouldn’t be like any aspect of observable, physical universe, it would be an entirely different kind of entity.  It could never be a subject for science, since science was invented to only study parts of the physical universe. But that’s not to say talking about the possibility would be intellectually dishonest.  People talk about all kinds of things that aren’t really understood all the time, why make an exception for religious speculation? 

It would be a lot more honest for dogmatic atheists to just admit the problem isn’t that people are necessarily dishonest when they speculate about religion or the supernatural, it’s that the dogmatic atheists simply don’t like them doing it in every instance. 

I’ve got no problem with people legitimately criticizing attempts by fundamentalists to impose their religious beliefs on science or to thwart civil rights, I’ve got no problem with people criticizing religion when there’s a real reason to do so,  in fact most religious people criticize others and their own religion all the time.  I’ve got a huge problem with making automatic and dishonest comments about entirely innocuous manifestations of peoples’ religious experiences, it’s their right to express their experience.

#4 Cliff Gliddon (Guest) on Monday March 29, 2010 at 7:54am

This is a horrible article. It demeans science for starters, in the sense that it requires of science that it somehow predict specific emotional content (reliance on god(s)), and it mischaracterizes religion as something that could be studied by any science, let alone neurology. The closest “science” can come is to study religious behavior. Otherwise, “science” is not very good at studying belief in nothing.

#5 Jerome Haltom (Guest) on Monday March 29, 2010 at 10:24am

I think the comments are interesting. Few folks saying the article mischaracterizes science. To those folks, I don’t think you really know what science is. Science is a methodological approach to studying what we observe. That is it.

If you can observe it, science raises it’s hand and claims to be the proper tool to evaluate it. I can observe human beings acting in religious manners, therefor, science is a tool I can use to study why. This is not stepping outside the bounds of science.

Now, science has some rules about how you approach this evaluation. It is itself these set of rules. Rule #1: all beliefs are provisional, and awaiting more evidence. When evidence comes in, we change our beliefs. Rule #2: beliefs do not need to step beyond the bounds of evidence. There are a few more which don’t matter for my point.

The available evidence we have is that our brains control our experiences and thoughts. That’s it. No scientific evidence exists outside of that. There is no scientific observation or experiment which suggests anything else. Everything we’ve done to our brains (chemical wise), has resulted in an alteration in our personality. And many aspects of our personality have been identified in regions of the brain through fMRI. So, that’s where we continue to look.

#4 Cliff: Religious belief is a behavior. Science, as you said, can study behaviors.

#6 Jerome Haltom (Guest) on Monday March 29, 2010 at 10:26am

#1 Anthony:

I think by “science can easily explain”, the author means “science has proposed decent hypothesizes on the matter.” Which it has. One of these hypothesizes could be the actual way it happened. Either way, they are all valid scientific hypothesizes. Each is a possibility. So, he’s correct. Science CAN easily explain it. Science just can’t say we have the right answer, yet.

#7 Jerome Haltom (Guest) on Monday March 29, 2010 at 10:30am

#3 Anthony

I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but based on what you say, I believe you don’t understand it completely. Consider the claim that there is an invisible pink unicorn that watches your every move. You cannot observe it, nor test that it exists, because it does not exist within the realm of things that allow that.

Now consider the claim that there exists a soul. You cannot observe it, nor test that it exists, because it does not exist within the realm of things that allow that.

Discriminate between the two. Form a chain of reasoning that would let you accept the existence of the soul as possible, yet exclude the existence of the unicorn. There isn’t one. Neither one has evidence in it’s favor. They are both equivalently likely and unlikely. And most importantly, useless.

#8 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Monday March 29, 2010 at 3:09pm

Jerome Haltom, because one unobservable thing that is talked about doesn’t exist is no guarantee that other unobservable things that are talked about don’t exist.
Considering the number of contemporary atheists who believe in Richard Dawkins memes and unobserved behaviors of pre-humans (as mentioned on another discussion thread here), it’s rather odd to have to point that out.  I don’t believe in memes at all, for a number of reasons, and doubt that we have any knowledge about behaviors that haven’t been observed, though I’m able to believe that our pre-human and early-human ancestors behaved. 

As for your invisible pink unicorns, other than the point that something which is invisible couldn’t be pink and that unicorns of legend were not incorporeal but were supposed to be actual, physical animals, I’m not aware of anyone outside of these atheist debates who has proposed that they exist.  They seem to be invented merely for that purpose.  I have read and heard many people who not only believe in souls but who believe they have experienced that reality.  That’s not an inconsiderable difference.  In this argument I’m not going to do more than point out that any statement about an supernatural entity might be true or false, accurate or inaccurate but one thing is absolutely certain, nothing about it is detectable by the methods and tools of science which is only able to deal with the physical universe, it is why it was invented and why its methods were constructed to exclude everything else.

#9 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Monday March 29, 2010 at 3:24pm

the author means “science has proposed decent hypothesizes on the matter.” Which it has.

Where are those written up in reviewed science journals?  I’d guess, if anywhere, in the various evo-psy organs, though I’d also guess those would be based on created myths of an explanatory nature.

Evo-psy is a rather interesting phenomeon.  It begins with a theory which is then used to create stories in the lost past, which accord with that theory (without any actual data) and then those stories are used to support the theory responsible for the creation of the fables.  Oh, and on the way the words become flesh in the form of “genes”.

You’ll have to forgive me if I’m skeptical about data free science.

#10 craggles on Monday March 29, 2010 at 3:36pm

I think you missed the point on the pink unicorn thing. Sure we all agree science can only touch ‘the physical’. Isn’t it all too convenient to invent a ‘non-physical’ place to populate with wild ideas. You say science cannot touch it, but neither can science touch an infinite amount of ideas thought up in this physical universe. If that is your way of explaining things away then so be it, but it certainly is enlightening, intellectual or anything else for that matter.
All that aside, IF another realm exists, then surely it would exist under some other level of laws. Laws that would still not be immune to investigation so it would be of more importance to science than anything else.
Furthermore, claiming there are other realms is one thing, saying our brain is part of it is quite another. Why do these ‘leaps’ in logic always seem to have a common pattern - glorification of man. Whatever crazy things are going on out there by no means have to cushion our egos.

I dont know what you think memes are. But they certainly exist on one level. Successful ideas get passed on via communication, bad ideas do not. What is so hard to understand about that?

#11 craggles on Monday March 29, 2010 at 3:37pm

edit: “If that is your way of explaining things away then so be it, but it certainly is NOT enlightening, intellectual or anything else for that matter.”


#12 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Monday March 29, 2010 at 5:46pm

I thought the only thing I explained away was the illogical idea that something that was invisible could be pink.

——IF another realm exists, then surely it would exist under some other level of laws. Laws that would still not be immune to investigation so it would be of more importance to science than anything else.  craggles

There isn’t any way to know if a suprenatural realm would exist under “laws”.  “Laws” in that sense are the product of our experience and analysis of the material universe, they are, as far as we can know, the products of our minds.  Eddington pointed out that there could be laws of the material universe which we aren’t capable of understanding and so will always remain unknown to us.  Whether or not a non-material realm would be subject to any kind of laws is even less knowable in the sense we know laws of the material universe. 

That you, I or anyone else doesn’t find that enlightening, intellectual or anything else doesn’t matter in the slightest, no more than any other aspect of reality.  I’m not so anthropocentric as dogmatic atheists tend to be, in that way.

#13 craggles on Monday March 29, 2010 at 5:51pm

Less knowable? If it had not even the slightest bit of order it would be chaos right? I’m not suggesting the ‘order’ is knowable to humans. Merely saying that if its chaos then why even mention it, it would have no relevance. Of-course if another realm exists that interacts with this one, it would have some sort of order to it.

#14 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Monday March 29, 2010 at 7:06pm

Since we know that there are laws that we can use to understand some aspects of the material universe, we know that those are possible, at least.  We don’t even know that much about any supernatural.  We don’t even know if any interaction of that supernatural would be according to what we know as order, which is something we sense in relationship to the material universe.  Though, by what means we sense that isn’t known so, perhaps, that ability has some relationship to this problem.  However, that doesn’t negate the possibility that a supernatural would be in some way superior to the merely natural universe, though that’s only mentioned as a provocative, theoretical,  possibility and not as something we know is even possible.

I could go into detail but it’s past my bed time.

#15 Cliff Gliddon (Guest) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 at 8:39am

Sorry about coming off as so extreme; I realize I was a bit rude @#4. (In my defense, I had just been reading an article about Bill Donohue, and was about ready to start throwing appliances.)

Anthony McCarthy, we are on the same page. I am not comfortable with data-less “science,” case histories and documentary material notwithstanding, but I at least see the value of those. 1000000 anecdotes do not data make.

Science can certainly study religious behavior, but when the underpinnings of that behavior include insistence on the imaginary as actual, I do not see the point of examining religious behavior in terms of those underpinnings. A much more interesting question is the more general one: Why do some people insist imaginary things are actual, and what does that do to their behavior, psychologically or otherwise?

#16 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 at 9:05am

You should see what my blog post said about Bill Donohue, Karol Wojtyla and Ratzinger last weekend.  It wasn’t complementary.

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