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.