Overweening Generalist

Friday, September 14, 2012

Promiscuous Neurotheology: Pt.2

The venerable Wikipedia (as of today's date) gives Aldous Huxley's last novel, Island - a science fiction-y psychedelic utopian thing from 1961 - as showing the first use of the word "neurotheology," but the idea seems to have been around ever since hardcore materialism got going. William James seems to be hinting at neurotheology in his fantastic and still relevant and readable 1890 textbook Principles of Psychology, which Borges was influenced by, and which reads to me now as proto-cognitive science, 65 years before it was invented.

                               The quintessential American philosopher: William James

The very term "neurotheology" has proven offensive for some scholars, and the main charge has been reductionism. Huston Smith makes perhaps the best case against the discipline. Indeed, the physical sciences seem resistant to the idea, and apparently very few scholarly papers use the term. An alternate term, "neuroscience of religion," for some reason, appears more upright. But only by a little. I've also seen "spiritual neuroscience."

Of all the arguments against various neurotheological experiments I do find the "reductionist" charge compelling, but not because I really do think Gee Oh Dee really exists "out there" (although I don't discount some odd energy form or synergetic system in Nature that one might qualify as something godlike); rather, the philosophical term qualia - the ineffable is-ness of some experience that cannot possibly be nailed down by any measurement, equation, lit-up brain area in an fMRI, or sequence of poetic words - has me admitting that indeed and ironically: "Whatever we say about God is not true." (Experiment: try to do complete justice to the act of drinking a cold beer on a hot day, or having a totally satisfying orgasm...and these are simple "physical" acts/mindstates!)

Still: finding the neurobiological basis for religious experience in the nervous system appeals to my heretical weirdo overweening lust for dreaming about pushing a button and having a religious experience at will. Or ingesting certain plants or fungi, ya know? Albeit this vision seems horribly reductive, yet an experience is an experience, and that phenomenological experience "is" really "real" to the experiencer, despite the known quantities. One may counter those charging the investigators of neurotheology with "reductionism" by asserting it's - au contraire - "productive."

It seems to me a thoroughgoing all-out blitz to find out more about Non-Ordinary Experience (which admit it: we all want, but on our own terms) will boldly show us much more about who we are as a species.

As I see it, we're still in the Dark Ages here. Every now and then I think I can see a Renaissance up ahead, but then I may be prone to wishful thinking.

Finding "God" or gods or ineffable "spiritual" experience as purely mental processes, possibly located in one section of one lobe or another, or an influx of some neurochemical upon general brain systems...all suggest the normal science of materialism and yet it seems heretical. Upstanding scientists of impeccable credential ought to stay away from godstuff, perhaps. Taints the rep. Admits the woo-woo. Stay away! If only for your career prospects! My god, man! Hic sunt leones, etc.

And nonetheless, more and more intrepid researchers have been looking into the solely neurobiological basis of goddesses, gods, God, et.al, increasingly over the past 30 years, and I'll be discussing a few in passing as I go on.

Back to Dr.William James (his 1890 textbook is, along with Ulysses and Schrodinger's Cat Trilogy and a few others, one of my perpetual bedside books, so marvelous is it): "But whether we take it abstractly or concretely, our considering the spiritual self at all is a reflective process, is a result of our abandoning the outward-looking point of view, and of our having become able to think of subjectivity as such, to think ourselves as thinkers." (ch. 10, "The Consciousness of Self," italics in original)

                                    Dr. John Lilly, one of my favorite "mad" scientists

This seems a prefiguration of Dr. Robert Anton Wilson's take on Dr.Timothy Leary's metaphorical circuit in the brain that has to do with "metaprogramming." In the 1950s and 60s, Leary and many other investigators attempted to merge psychology with rare, "emergent" mental states in human evolution. RAW saw a very long historical lineage of worldwide mystics and scientifically-minded explorers who noted that thinking about thinking seemed to represent a qualitative change in a general orientation towards thought.  By thinking about thinking about thinking, or reflecting on the nature of thought and our symbolic systems, we seem to have bootstrapped our species into some Other Level of mind. The word "metaprogramming" was taken up from scientist-polymath Dr. John Lilly, who in turn used a metaphor borrowed from early computer science.

Speaking of "Meta- " and Thinking About Thinking
In a glossary preface to his 1980 book The Illuminati Papers, RAW gives us this:

Neuro - 
A prefix denoting "known by or through the human nervous system." Thus we have no physics but neurophysics, no psychology but neuropsychology, no linguistics but neurolinguistics, and, ultimately, no neurology but neuroneurology, and no neuroneurology but neuroneuroneurology, etc. (p.2)

Is this a joke? Yes. But it's sufi humor: in his own study of linguistics and neuroscience, coupled with Niels Bohr's interpretation of quantum mechanics, AKA the Copenhagen Interpretation, which seems to imply we are always at one remove from "objective reality" (whatever that is!), RAW thought that Bohr thought our descriptions of the quantum world were merely our best stab at a formal, mathematical description of "reality" at that level, and not a description of the one true, rock-bottom "reality." It was the best our nervous systems could do. (And, with the quantum theory, that's been good enough: it's easily the most successful scientific theory we have yet, and all of our fancy electronic gadgets have quantum-based equations built into them. Isn't all this...weird? Almost...ineffable?)

By applying the prefix "neuro- " to all our disciplines, we are reminding ourselves that we are particular embodied, biological beings on a planet with an atmosphere, that we have a certain bilateral symmetry and walk upright with opposable thumbs, seem programmed to live 75-100 years, breath a mixture of nitrogen and oxygen and a few other atoms, make tools, orbit a Type G star in a nondescript galaxy, seem governed mostly by emotions, make love and war with stunning aplomb, etc...who have limitations and are prone to premature certainties and, at times, howlingly bad interpretations. Look at the short history of Modern Science: much in the way of earnest but quite inadequate interpretation. There seems very little reason to assume we have crawled out of this cave of contingency.

I surmise that RAW would've called the current attempts to investigate neurotheology as "neuroneurotheology." Which I'm fine with, but will resort to the simpler "neurotheology" in order to save on bandwidth.

Then I guess the corollary to this would be that anything normally considered "theology" - like studying theodicy - would be the "neurotheology," so maybe when I'm talking about neuroneurotheology - religious experiences as solely brain-phenomena - maybe that really "is" more accurate? Oh, we'll know just by context, right?

The Dogmatic scientific materialist Eye-Roll set to go at three...two...one...aaaaand: ACTION!


Anonymous said...

I'll cop to being a reductionist but
it hardly equates to the usual ideas
about neural matters. Things are far
more complex inside the skull when
you start investigating them. The tykes of McKenna being just one easy
example of how far the mechanisms can
take the observer "me". It was nice to see Ramachandran locate the soul,
with the caveat that it can be excised with a scalpel Even less of a
popular heresy is Rod Brooks robotic
work based on lifeforms, it shows
a very different picture of how we
function inside. Fortuneately I
read Phillip Wylie while young so
was prepared to understand BS (in
the sense RAW used it. I assume that's W. James (varieties of religious experience) writer, and that is worth reading.
Oh, thanks for the heads up on Tony
Y., the first thing I found was his
13 year old school performance on YouTube...GRIN

michael said...

Both Robert Anton and Edward O Wilson were influenced by Philip Wylie at a young age.

Rodney Brooks's work has exploded in influence, and anyone can Google and see robots built from "bottom up" and I find it surreal. What does this suggest about human evolution? Marvelous stuff.

The semantic problems I have and will continue to have regarding this topic: "religious experience": does it mean some OOBE when you talk to the Blessed Virgin Mary? That you were picked up by aliens in a UFO? That you had a very very pleasant time at church? That your orgasm was a religious experience?

Wm James's Varieties of Religious Experience seems still one of the 3-5 best books to approach the subject; when I mentioned his 1890 textbook that seems a whole other matter: there he addresses just about everything, and with STYLE. And it's a textbook! Check it out from the library and just open at random and read: you're getting still-relevant presentations of basic ideas in what is now cognitive science, with James's bend obviously philosophy plus experimental psych (how foreign it all seems from Freud!), with notes, examples and ideas drawn from a vast generalist's reading.

But then maybe I'm one of those odd eggs who still thinks an 1890 textbook is fun to read.

Reductionism seems the default mode for the tough-minded investigator of other-than-ordinary psychological phenomena.

I can't recall giving a head's up on anyone named "Tony Y." I don't know who that is. Or: cannabis in my system prevents me from recalling?

Inigo Montoya said...

Hi Michael,

I'm enjoying your blog. We have many of the same favorites -- RAW, Watts, Sapolsky, Korzybski, et al -- and I was wondering what book you'd recommend to start with John Lilly. Or if you could share your thoughts on his books generally. Might make a good post. (hint, hint -- haha).

Thanks for your thoughts,