Let Me (Spiritually) Entertain You

From Brint Montgomery, who teaches philosophy at Southern Nazarene University:

The media has been reporting on a procedure that removes tumors from the parietal region of the brain and leaves the patient with a different view of their own spirituality—in this case, perceived self-transcendence (Field Notes, February 11, 2010). Typically a person’s viewpoint of their own spirituality remains constant over time, but Cosimo Urgesi, one of the study’s lead researchers, explains that “changes of neural activity in specific areas may modify even inherently stable dispositional traits.” So the quick takeaway is that the brain can be modified to produce spiritual experiences by means of surgical intervention on a particular area.
Fine. Of course, producing the phenomena of spiritual experiences by modifying localized brain states has seemingly been done before by Michael Persinger, who used a modified helmet that contained solenoids strategically placed over the brain’s temporal lobes. Although controversial, his apparatus apparently induces a kind of epilepsy (via magnetic fields). People who are psychologically disposed to process experiences in a particular way come away form the procedure having felt the presence of another entity. (It’s no big surprise that Richard Dawkins wasn’t one of them and Susan Blackmore was.)
People have rightly noticed that the physical modification of the brain, whether through an intervention like surgery or the passive electromagnetic force of waveforms, is not a sufficient condition for encountering the spiritual world. Even without techno-intervention, about 50 percent of people claim to have had at least one experience that they would describe as spiritual; but there are many reasons why a genuine spiritual experience causally originating from a transcendental plane or source of reality should be carefully differentiated from mere phenomena of such. (By analogy, the genuine experience of being chased by a polar bear should be carefully differentiated from when you merely dream it.)
Temporal lobe epilepsy, chemical imbalances in the brain, and other quite this-worldly chains of causation can certainly give someone the phenomena of a spiritual experience without it being the real thing. Suppose, for instance, someone were to surgically modify the V1 through V4 areas of the brain, or perhaps even passively influence them with a magnetic wave, vision-inducing helmet. If that person were to then have an experience like seeing a dancing pink elephant, this would say nothing about the existence (or not) of such an entity. It would merely show (in yet one more way) that manipulation of localized brain states have causal influences on changes in particular mind states. That some very specific brain states correlate with, and even cause, some specific and often peculiar mind states is hardly a radical claim. This kind of analysis has been well noted before now, so I want to push the issue in another direction.
Recently, 60 million people (including me) sacrificed some portion of our collective 2 billion dollars in spare change to watch James Cameron’s 3-D movie, Avatar. By donning a pair of polarized, plastic, cheap sunglasses (which could not have otherwise given a greater thrill to even the most ardent of ZZ Top groupies), fans were given the phenomenal experience (both literally and metaphorically) of immersion into a 3-D world. Movie industry observers have claimed that Cameron’s effort heralds the next great move in cinema experience, and such claims don’t seem overstated. People seek the same full-fledged, robust phenomena of experience in entertainment—and perhaps, more generally, in their interaction with all available technologies—as they would otherwise note in real life.
Within the last few years, futurists have spoken breathlessly about advancing virtual-reality environments, even posting the eventual appearance of touch-sensitive, force-feedback full body suits. But I find even these visions to be but stale leftovers filched from the drab reductionist tables of Enlightenment empiricism. Our minds are not just filled with reflections on the various modes of sense data. The most tasty manna in the 21sth century might very well fall from magnetic heaven.
Cameron had to wait 10 years after his 1997 vision of what he wanted to do, so that what technology can just now barely do would catch up. (The computing power necessary required a 10,000-square foot server farm making use of 4,000 servers, with 35,000 processor cores, which placed it well above the halfway mark of the world’s 500 most powerful supercomputers.)
Perhaps in the next 15 years, magnetic field technology will give us, as it were, just a little walk with Jesus, Vishnu vision 2.0, or an infinity of sequels reflecting the ever-reborn Buddha. (Of course, faith traditions that prohibit any image of their prophets, gods, or God will be limited to downloading an e-text novel adaption, sadly.) But beyond the sense-data visions of virtual piety will come the very phenomena of experience, all the aesthetic thrill of enlightenment, revelation, and the uncanny—now conveniently custom-canned by Universalist Studios, or some such Leviathanic, publicly traded stock issuer.
Of course, the dawning of entertainment’s heaven in a helmet has the corollary of offering a horror movie in hell. Even today’s standard-fare movies can be dangerous to the health of some people, posing an increased risk of photosensitive epileptic fits, a condition present in a small portion of the population. Elie Wiesel’s autobiographical novel Night and Steven Spielberg’s movie Schindler’s List were existentially overwhelming. What happens when we amplify these kinds of works? Would there likewise be an analogous risk to moral psychology with the super-addition of an artifactually induced, psycho-spiritual layer of experience?
It’s hard say, given that moral psychology has not been conveniently localized to some area or module of the brain. But hang on, sooner rather than later, we’ll all find out.

Category: Expert Opinion

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