Tuesday, May 19, 2009

All in Your Head?

To be in a Passion you Good may do,
But no Good if a Passion is in you.

William Blake

In a fascinating article on NPR, Barbara Bradley Hagerty considers evidence that neuroscientists are closing in on a physiological basis for spiritual experience. As always it is immensely complicated, but it seems to involve serotonin (which is influenced by LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs) and the temporal lobe (affected by some types of epilepsy). But in a sense the neurological details are irrelevant as compared to the ultimate question of whether spiritual experience is subjective or objective, whether it says more about us or about the world outside.

This relates to the primeval roots of philosophy. As I perceive my coffee cup, how can I be sure that it actually exists outside of me in the universe, rather than just as a physiological pattern in my brain? Sure, I can see it, touch it, drink coffee out of it, or break it, but all of these experiences are mediated by my brain--there is no way to know the coffee cup directly. This is related to the problem of philosophical (not political) idealism, or the dorm-room question, "How do I know I am not actually dreaming when I am not awake?"

Arguably and practically we settle this as a matter of consensus. We are irreducibly social beings, and so long as those around me, for instance, agree that there is a coffee cup on the table, I have no legitimate reason to question it. To be sure, these other people could also be mere phantoms of my brain (back to "life as a dream"), but so long as these people exist and behave according to consensually decided physical and psychological laws, this isn't really a problem.

As Hagerty's article mentions, it is agreed by most who actually reflect on the matter that all kinds of experiences near and dear to us exist as brain events. So, what about an experience such as love? Does the fact that love is biochemical in the beholding subject detract in any way from its attachment to the beheld object? Not at all. Love is as precious in the brain as it would be if it were off floating in the ether somewhere (much more so in fact). What matters is that the "love reaction" in the brain be reliably and meaningfully correlated with another person out in the world. If this reaction is set off by the sight of virtually any potentially available partner (the Don Giovanni phenomenon), then this is surely a problem, but it is psychological and relational, not biochemical or philosophical.

Love is an evaluative experience, and one that, significantly, we need not seek consensus for, so its subjectivity is not a difficulty. I do not need my fellows to confirm my experience by falling in love themselves with my beloved (indeed, this is the last thing I want). As such it is totally different from the matter-of-factly epistemological task of recognizing objective states of affairs in the world. Ethical and aesthetic phenomena partake of both aspects--consensually subjective attitudes are sought on the basis of consensually objective artifacts or moral outcomes.

The philosophical problem of most religious phenomena is that they combine both of these aspects, epistemological and evaluative, in a more questionable fashion. They postulate often quite specific states of affairs in the universe (e. g. it was created in such and such way, God has such and such attributes, did such and such) and also enjoin particular attitudes and evaluations that ought to follow from this (e. g. you must embrace this deity, you must avoid such and such actions). The problem, of course, is that while I can in practice get essentially 100% of my fellows to agree that there is a coffee cup on the table, I cannot arrive at anywhere near that degree of unanimity when it comes to cosmic states of affairs, at least beyond artificially organized subgroups.

This embarrassing situation prompts many liberal apologists to minimize theological speculations and focus on the emotional heart of spiritual experience. It is interesting that after one strips away theology and church doctrine, what is left is what Aldous Huxley called "The Perennial Philosophy," which is also what often accompanies hallucinogenic drugs and temporal lobe phenomena. That is, one arrives at a generally transcendent sense of plenitude, of the unity of beings and the universe, of a white light, and of ecstatic peace and acceptance. In other words, one arrives at the primal sense of love, but confusingly, without a clear love object.

Perhaps the history of conventional religion is the communal attempt to soothe this cognitive dissonance, to find--to create if necessary--a cosmic object worthy of this cosmic feeling. Needless to say, the project has had mixed results, but as for many that feeling (or perhaps more accurately, the need to have what Freud called the "oceanic" feeling, which I too have had) won't go away, the effort proceeds.

So the heart of religion, at its most barebones and austere, may be love of the universe. But if the universe is in fact the love object, then the project of knowing and specifying the beloved is science, and the act of praising the universe is poetry (by which I mean all the arts). Is there anything else?


Anonymous said...

Everything we experience as 'real' is mediated by the brain, and is thus only an interpretation of the objective world (if such a thing exists). Take vision, for instance: the labrynthine neural pathways a piece of external reality must traverse in order for it to be interpreted and experienced as imagery is just tortuously insane - if only it didn't feel so damn real. The external world-brain interface is all we'll ever know; the prison that ensures our existence, but also prevents us from ultimately knowing things-in-themselves.

Does it matter? Not really. Do we question the reality of dreams when we're dreaming? They're as 'real' as 'life' as long as they're happening; until the spell is broken by the next illusion-as-reality.

Paradoxically, a filtered/edited/manipulated/bogus interpretation is the only tangibility humans are able to grasp. Consensuality does not authenticate a perceived reality, it only validates it as an acceptable practicality for human navigational purposes.

Does consensual critical acclaim prove the integrity of a work of art? Does mass submission to a political ideology confirm its inherent goodness/rightness?

Most of my thoughts coincidentally conspire to agree with me too...they all seem to converge on what I believe - does that make my unified self real? I am real because I cognitively cohere? Well yes, in practical terms it does. But, I could just be a figment of cosmic firing/misfiring in real reality.

So if a stimulated temporal lobe causes fits of religiosity, who are we to say the fit, and hence its interpretation as religious, is not 'real'? Arguing that someone's faith is not 'real' is like trying to convince someone that what their eyes see is fake.

'Reality' is a sensation/feeling. So is spirituality. LSD trips. ANd schizophrenia, depression....etc etc etc....Things are as real as they feel they are real. THat's it. Definition of real may vary: some people have a higher threshold of 'realness' than others, before they can integrate a perception into their experience of reality. Others can make-believe at the drop/probe of a suggestion....the individual calls the reality shots, which are determined.... so what you believe is ultimately not up to you...sorry.

Can we go back to SpongeBob's world? Thank God I know SpongeBob is real...

Anonymous said...

Where's Retriever? I think we need a religious person's perspective on this one.

Novalis said...

Good question--I think I made her mad or something...

Anonymous said...

Maybe it was either/both of the Bobs...

You know, Bob Dylan & SpongeBob are quite controversial figures - they're bound to polarise opinion and favour. You should be more careful about your choice of topics in future posts...

Novalis said...

Yes, it might be safer to stick to relatively neutral issues like religion and politics.

The mystical link between the Bobs had previously escaped me; your pointing it out has changed everything. Much to ponder now.

leigh said...

Spongebob=Holy Fool. Not sure about the other Bob, in keeping with my previous comment, how about Holy Ghost?

and the act of praising the universe is poetry (by which I mean all the arts). Is there anything else?

No, nothing else, just praise. This is lovely.

PS., There was a period in my twenties (before MAOIs) when I would ingest a thin sliver of mushroom on the way to work each morning, and have a much happier day. Maintenance muchroom therapy.

Retriever said...

Hi, Anonymous and Novalis,
Just closed and deleted one of my usual lengthy epistles by mistake....Gaaah. Utterly exhausted by kid we are trying to push out of the nest for the summer. Can't recreate, but here is the brief email I sent in today:

Just remember that oceanic, ecstatic religious experience is to the life of faith as falling in love is to marriage. A cool but not always necessary precondition, a heartening experience during. But in the life of faith, as in marriage, it's qualities of character, commitment, kindness and generosity that make it worthwhile. Falling in love and religious ecstasy are both states of insanity. Delicious but dangerous and gifts from God, nothing one has much control over.

ALso, I had written a lot in my accidentally deleted comment about Julian Jaynes' wonderful book on "The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind" Just read it. Like you, Novalis, he relates the physiology and the science to literature and the arts, also explores the mysteries of the soul. It is fascinating to try and trace the evolution of conceptions and experiences of God as people's consciousness increased.

I did my residency as the chaplain of a neuro intensive care unit and the stepdown unit, and saw so much of all the strange, beautiful and terrible ways the body and soul interact. A place where so many were either unconscious some of the time or partially with us. Where cognitions, emotions, spirituality became unrecognizable at times, at others provided a lifeline to people. Try praying aloud near a formely devout person in a coma. THeir breathing will ease, their hands will unclench, some color may even come into their face. One can almost feel a connection with the supposedly lost person, then it is gone....But I have talked with people who recognized my voice upon waking from a coma, because I prayed over them when they were still comatose.

But of course, I think we see what we go out looking for. This pruning, selecting, emphasizing, focussing is at the heart of religious experience as of any other art. Soulmaking can be a painful, hard, fruitless task. Or create something of great beauty that can warm and enlighten others. But like art, it lives in the exchange between the work and those taking it in, the religious person is dead without the community of the faithful.

Sorry to blather (disheartening to lose a comment and try to recreate it). I had a metaphor comparing God to a mother cat and some very motley kittens (us) and to human parents...ho hum

Anonymous said...

Intonation, elocution, inflection, timbre, resonance - betray so much emotion/intent/interest. The most ecstatic poetry can be reduced to a sludgy pulp of pathetic empty drivel if barked by the wrong voice.

I think shitake mushrooms are great. Therefore they are. The most poetic of the 'shroom family, although not very psychogenic. But that's ok...

Ode To The 'Shroom
SOme 'shrooms are tasty
others are toxic
and some are magic
every shroom in its right place

Anonymous said...

Is the primal sense of love - the sense of plenitude and ecstatic peace - a love and acceptance of the self? Can love exist without an object? The need for an omnipotent God who created man in his image would therefore result in our need to create an object to love - or from which to receive love - when we feel that we cannot attach to others and, more importantly, fail to love ourselves.