Feb 26, 2010 0
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.
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