Beyond the god helmet

In my previous post I began to deal with the issues raised in this short video. It's part of a longer interview in which Dr. Wheatley argues that religious belief is merely a collection of 'brain states' that don't correspond to any external reality.

Following from my previous post, I think there several other issues with Dr Wheatley's argument that need to be addressed. She says "If you stimulate the temporal lobe in some people they get this sensation that they are part of something bigger, that there may be a presence in the room". She seems to suggest that this subjective experience, this sensation, is somehow fundamental to the formation of any religious belief, and so religion in general can be explained away as nothing more than aberrant brain activity. One well known source of these results was something called the Koren Helmet (which was later dubbed "the God helmet" by some journalists), a piece of lab equipment that could be used to electromagnetically stimulate various regions in the brain in order to study their various functions.

During the experiments, the subjects reported a huge array of different sensations (both physical and non-physical), and various emotions, experiences, and visions. And of course, because they were reporting on things only they were experiencing they had to describe them as well as they could using whatever categories of description they had available. Of all of these subjects, around 1% reported seeing or experiencing 'God', although 80% reported experiencing some kind of 'presence' but did not necessarily attach a religious meaning to it. One man (who described himself as an atheist, although he had had a Roman Catholic upbringing) reported having a very powerful vision of Christ. (Of course you could question, what made him say it was Christ? Because really he had a hallucination of a man, and interpreted that man to be Christ). Another man, a journalist, reported an extremely vivid hallucination/ experience of being a buddhist monk in a temple taking part in their observances. However, this particular vision was preceded by the experimenters playing him "some vaguely New Age, Eastern temple bell sounds", and it seems that his brain, being in a highly suggestible state through the electromagnetic stimulus, very creatively filled in the blanks with this particular association.

The conclusion drawn by many in the scientific community from these experiments (and others like them) is that these strange brain activities are the source of any kind of religious belief, aleading them to the conclusion that religious beliefs can be safely disregarded as some kind of oddity brought about by certain kinds of brain activity. There are two fundamental flaws in this line of reasoning.

Firstly, although some religions and systems of belief (particularly those of the more Eastern/ 'New Age' persuasion) may be based on subjective feelings, mystical experiences and sensations, this does not necessarily hold for all religions. In orthodox Christianity in particular, although there may be people who have a variety of experiences, feelings and sensations that they attribute to God and His work in their lives, this is not in any way fundamental to the teachings of the faith. That is not to disregard people who have these experiences, but I have never personally had what I'd call a 'mystical' experience of God and I'm sure there are millions of other Christians who would say they same. In fact, it may be that someone has an experience of some kind that they say is from God, which when compared with scripture could be shown to be an error. They may well have experienced something, but it may be that their interpretation of whatever that something was can be shown to be inconsistent with the bible. So to argue that all religious belief is based on some kind of feeling or sensation is to misunderstand the foundations of the Christian faith entirely.

Secondly, and much more crucially for the sake of this discussion,

it must be remembered that all of these experiences (those reported as having some kind of 'religious' significance as well as all the others) were brought about in a lab through artificial stimulation of the brain. That is all they were. As fascinating as the experiments are, and as much as they tell us about the role of different brain regions, ultimately they deal mainly with the subjects' interpretations of a variety of experiences that were brought about through artificial stimulation. For subjects who reported feeling like someone was touching their arm, it was clearly understood by the experimenters that this was nothing more than a hallucination. But they didn't then go on to draw the conclusion that every time someone felt a touch on their arm or heard a sound or saw a colour that it was just a hallucination that had no basis in reality. In the same way, for those who had what they describe as a religious experience (whether a vision of God, or a sensation of there being something/someone all around them etc) this was the by-product of artificial stimulus. This can't then be justifiably used as a blanket application to say that any belief or experience of this nature outside the lab must t

herefore 'just' be the result of brain activity. Because if you monitor someone's brain activity constantly and applied the same sort of logic, you would then be forced to say that everything that someone experiences every d

ay is 'just' the result of brain activity and has no basis in reality.

There are a host of inconsistencies and issues that flow out of the presuppositions and circular reasoning used in the arguments put forward by Dr Wheatley and many other members of the scientific community when it comes to matters of God and faith. But I think the most important lesson we can draw is this- Science is a magnificent thing, and has helped us to explore and understand the universe in ways that just a hundred years ago must have seemed impossible. As Christians we should embrace and be thankful for science and those who make it their life's work, and we will no doubt be constantly amazed at the things that the scientific community will explain and achieve in the years to come. But we should also remember that some things are beyond the scope of ordinary scientific explanation, and we should not be daunted when a confident scientific argument against the faith is presented to us, because it can generally found to be lacking consistency or foundations when examined closely. When Jesus described Himself as "The Truth" in John 14, it means that He is the foundation and the truth that underpins all of creation, and only a limited part of that creation is open to the scrutiny of science.

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