The Field of "Neurotheology," and a Few Personal Thoughts on Scientism - Intro "Neurotheology" by Andrew Newberg

"How Science Can Enlighten Us About Spirituality"

Some Personal Thoughts on Scientific Materialism

I picked up this book the other day at the used book store, as its title intrigued me. I lately have been interested in psychedelics because of the success that veterans have been having when they safely and medically are guided through an experience of Ibogaine and/or 5-MeO-DMT. They often report having quasi-religious experiences in which they grapple with some of the most traumatic parts of their life. I will admit that some of the same psychedelic chemicals are naturally produced in the brain and could be connected to religious experience. 

BUT, I don't believe that a partial explanation is justified in acting as a type of reductionism, turning religion into a chemical or feeling. There are those atheists, like Sam Harris, who will say that we can use our minds to convince ourselves of imaginary things being real. If I think about being Batman, I will eventually feel as though I'm living at Batman. But this does not logically mean that Batman does not exist. All it shows is that we can use our conscious mind to affect our unconscious mind. This is nothing new! For example, just because people can have sexual fantasies that have never happened in reality and actually simulate how that might feel, does not mean that actual sexual intercourse doesn't exist. So here too, it's possible that in having a true spiritual or metaphysical experience there are corresponding chemicals that are released or felt, and maybe those chemicals can be reproduced with a pill to give a similar feeling, but that doesn't mean that the traditional religious experience was not real, or that the experience on the drug is actually real. 

Anyway, almost needless to say, I am already disappointed regarding the perspective of the book after reading introduction. It is written from a Naturalist Materialist science perspective. This means that it is a given premise of the work that all that exists are matter and energy. For the human person all that exists in the brain. They will only appeal to physical explanations for the human experience. Thus, the impetus to write in a field that seeks to explain spirituality away through brain functions. This is somewhat similar to Jung's work, though I am just beginning in my journey into Jung's ideas, so I could be wrong on that. But when someone says that religious concepts are expressions of structures of the biological subconscious, this is to reduce everything to a Materialist view. 

If you accept their premises, then one can think that they are explaining the whole of reality with, in actuality, very incomplete explanations and think they are educated. All of us have been conditioned in the 21st century to accept this as an unconscious agreement about reality. It takes someone putting work to do some philosophical exploration to realize that this unproven assumption is present all around us. This Materialist assumption is ridiculous when you put it in other terms. For example, imagine being a historian and discovering the Rosetta stone. You have the assumption that it has been formed from material processes, and so you must understand it by only using physical instruments. You measure it with a ruler and protractor, you test its age, you analyze the rock it's made from. Having done this, you claim to have understood everything about the rock. But that would be absolutely false because you missed the most important aspect of "what it is." It's a set of text translated into three languages. It's something made by an intelligent agent who is qualitatively different from something like wind and erosion. 

If I had to put Materialism into a syllogism, it would be something like this: 

Everything that exists is reducible to matter and energy. 
The human being is part of everything that exists. 
Therefore, human beings (and all they do) is reducible to matter and energy. 


Human beings are equivalent to their brains.
Human beings have religious experiences.
Therefore, religious experiences are equivalent to the brain. 

Or to put it in another form:

Science is a tool that limits itself to studying only the material world. Therefore, any scientific answer presupposes the existence of the material world, by definition, or it wouldn’t be a scientific answer. Therefore, it cannot by its own parameters explain why anything/everything exists at all, because it would have nothing physical to refer to. You'd be presupposing it exists to explain how/why it exists. 

Again ...

If Naturalist science limits itself to material explanations of the physical world, then every answer must presuppose that the physical world exists. Therefore, science can never even coherently engage with the questions of why there is something rather than nothing. 

The Status of Religion Today

In many ways something like "neurotheology" is akin to other's attempts to redefine the nature of religion by incorporating it into a Materialist evolutionary perspective. This is similar to what Jordan Peterson does. (And I have lots of respect for JP, fyi) He doesn't rule out the possibility of metaphysical realities, but proceeds in the book working from the assumption that all is evolution, brain, and science. It is a way to incorporate religion as something useful and valuable in society, but without any need for belief or faith. I think it is important to understand the error in this  because Christians need to understand that faith is not emotions, it is something greater than that, something that transcends it. Religion is to consciously interact with the metaphysical realm. This may be accompanied by emotions, but is not defined by them. It is an intellectual exchange. It is a spiritual presence and connatural knowledge. To say "Our Father" is a metaphysical act. This is why you will see many saints who did not feel all the butterfly emotions, yet remained faithful to God. If you're interested in this some more, check out this paper about Karol Wojtyla and St. John of the cross.  

Introduction Chapter 

Newberg begins the book with a claim that he wants to explore. He believes that the burgeoning field of "neurotheology" is the key to understanding many things about the world and human beings. Therefore, he wants to see what questions can be answered by applying such explanations. The core of his exploration centers around the role of the brain in explaining the religious experiences that people have had in every age and culture. 1 Newberg recognizes that science is faced with a large impasse regarding this topic because how could one scientifically test the subjective and conscious states and reflections that people have? 2

Newberg claims that science and religion have been the two ways in which people have perennially explored and understood the world. They are two different methods for interacting with the world, that's for sure. Newberg seems to take this further, though, claiming that the two are at odds with one another in their conclusions [something I strongly disagree with]. He does recognize, though, that there have been times in history where the two have functioned together. Since the Enlightenment, though, there has been a growing rejection of this in favor of an oppositional theory. 

Newberg offers neurotheology as a solution which might bring the two together because both religious experience and scientific understanding require the brain to process them as received information. It is us that generates experiments and finds ways to conceive of the world around us. 3 It is also the brain which must play a role in receiving religious experience from God. Newberg is careful to say that he is not ruling out the existence of God or the soul, but that there would be intersection in the brain that would connect them. "Understanding complex brain processes that link beliefs, experiences, emotions, and behaviors can teach us a lot about how the brain works. And understanding the brain might provide new insights into the even knottier problem of how our brain interacts with our consciousness. ... Neurotheology can delineate specific brain processes that restrict or enable specific ideas and beliefs about God, morality, death, meaning, and purpose." 4

Overview of the Chapters in the Book

Newberg does emphasize that neurotheology needs to be an inter-disciplinary study, involving all types of fields of research. "... neurotheology represents a kind of puzzle with many different pieces such as psychology, the use of entheogenic substances, near death experiences, prayer, mystical experiences, health, and theology..." .[But it seems to me that there is a difference between saying your not closing the door to traditional religion and yet still basically proceeding with the study only with scientific means.]

In chapter one Newberg makes a basic assumption that he will be working from. Namely, that all reality, religious and scientific, is experienced through the lens of the brain. [As a Thomist I am not quite sure if I agree with this statement or not. I may have to wait to get farther into the book to see. But Thomas does talk about all information first being generated by the senses and the brain before the intellect spiritualizes it. What I am not sure about is religious or mystical experience in which God infuses things into our intellect, an experience which would skip the normal modes. Although, it could be said that even if God infused us with knowledge, then there would be a corresponding physical emotion felt with it.] Anyway, Newberg points out the traditional Rationalist problem with truth, that since we cannot get outside of our minds to experience reality through a different apparatus, do we really know reality as such? 5 This problem may not be solvable in Newberg's eyes, but he wants to use our understanding of the brain to help illumine what we can about this problem. 

In chapter two, Newberg will lay out the disciplinary boundaries in which neurotheology will work. "...neurotheology includes anthropology, cognitive neuroscience, neurology, psychology, and sociology on one hand and beliefs, myths, religion, rituals, spiritual practices, spirituality, and theology on the other. ... We will also emphasize that neurotheology is not just about science explaining religion, but how the two can potentially come together to allow for a fuller understanding of the human person and human belief systems." Chapter three will bring in some of the most relevant neuroscience data to the discussion. 

Chapter four will look at similarities of religious experience between different religious systems, drawing out the commonalities. 6 Then it will try to connect those types of experiences with the brain, hopefully illuminating some type of connection between biology and the formation of religious concepts. Chapter five will be in a similar vein. 

Chapter six considers religion from a full Materialist evolutionary perspective, viewing religion as part of the material development of the human brain and human society. How religious attitudes or experiences play a role in helping society to survive. "Chapter 6 begins by considering the physical evolution of the human brain and how it coincided with the development of religious and spiritual beliefs. We will consider the evolutionary arguments put forth to explain how religious and spiritual beliefs may have arisen. By reviewing specific brain structures, such as the frontal or parietal lobes, we will explore how certain elements of religions, such as a sense of surrender or a sense of connectedness, may have come about and resulted in adaptive beliefs and behaviors. We will explore the possible ways in which religion and spirituality may be adaptive from an evolutionary perspective. Arguments related to a religion's ability to help humans control their environment, provide a stable social structure, and elaborate a system of morals will be considered." 

Chapter seven gets into the psychological aspects of religion on a personal level and tries to relate them to brain processes. It then claims to explore whether or not religion is good for mental health. 7 The rest of the chapter seeks to understand religion as a "delusion," and how it can be used to justify violent acts. Chapter eight looks at understanding religion as a "brain pathology," a type of disorder in one of the circuits or systems of the brain which supposedly causes spiritual experiences or belief in God. Added to this is an exploration into how psychedelics affect these systems and recreate religious experience. Chapter nine looks at myths/mythology and the important social components they provide, from laying out a purpose in life, to being a shared set of common beliefs for people. Chapter nine seeks to get at the brain processes that lay beneath these important mythological components for humans. 

Chapter ten deals with ritual, the way in which we inculcate the myths into our lived experience. 8 "Rituals have certain specific characteristics, including rhythm, repetition, sensory stimuli, and body movements. Rituals are deeply embedded within the workings of the brain. In fact, mating and other rituals abound in the animal kingdom. Humans have elaborated rituals into almost all aspects of life. Thus, religious rituals might have their basis in the same physiological process as mating rituals. Ultimately, these rituals help humans feel more deeply connected to their religious or spiritual beliefs." Chapter eleven is about scientists studying people praying and trying to associate different subjective states with activity in the brain. Chapter twelve seeks a difference between those who claim to be spiritual but not formally religious. 

Chapter thirteen deals with the difficult topic of human free will. Newberg is going to try to approach it, again, from his neuroscience perspective. This also includes the most important topic, that of human morality. 9 The implications that result from one's conception of human free will affect every other aspect of human moral life. Chapter fourteen deals with mystical experiences and the use of psychedelics and what these experiences mean for understanding reality outside the brain, if that's even possible. "... the most common element of mystical experiences is a feeling of oneness or connectedness with the universe or God, and there are areas of the brain that appear to be involved in such a feeling." Chapter fifteen is an attempt to console people who lose their faith by basically saying that, "religious experience feels like it's so much more than our brain ... but it's really not ... but we can still find meaning in it."10

Another Personal Thought or Two on Scientific Materialism

At the end of the introduction, Newberg gets at the heart of what this book is about. He says, "However, neurotheology would remind us that religious phenomena are often far more complicated than science can currently address. And maybe science itself will have to adjust to aspects of religion and spirituality that, at least for now, appear to transcend scientific endeavors, which also happen to be created by the human brain. These are among the many interwoven problems and questions that remain to be answered - perhaps by this new field of neurotheology." 11

The key line here is bolded above. Newberg, like many of the other Materialist scientists, does science with the assumption that all that exists are matter and energy. Therefore, any type of experience or evidence that science cannot explain is simply put in the category of, "We don't know yet, but there will eventually be a full and complete material explanation for it all." The problem with this is that, as I pointed out in the introduction, science can expand knowledge of all experiences within its own realm of matter and energy, but can't say anything about the metaphysical identity that exists in things. So even the most scientific answer is still going to be an incomplete answer ... always. To speak about the most fundamental roots of existence, i.e. the identity of what things are, requires the use of philosophy. 

Just a simple example to conclude this post ... If matter is defined by having spatial existence (takes up space greater than 0) and non 0 energy, then what the heck is it, or is anything? Every thing with a multiplicity of parts, no matter how small can be divided into something smaller on to infinity. If something can be divided into infinity, then it becomes nothing at all. A thing without an identity. This is the failure of solely scientific explanations, and why Aristotle felt the need to write The Metaphysics in the first place. 
1 - Newberg, Andrew. Neurotheology: How Science Can Enlighten Us About Spirituality. (New York. Columbia University Press, 2018) Pg. 1.
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