Saturday, July 18, 2009

To The Goddess Sophia

In a response to my initial contentions with respect to Hood's Mysticism Scale and Joe Hinman's reliance on it, Jeff at Sophie's Ladder has taken the time to provide something of a substantial response. Here is the first part of my reply, beginning with two correction.

First, I don't think that the m-scale is useless because it has nothing to do with neurology or cannot identify what's happening in the brain. I think that its conclusions are irrelevant to neurological research. And any criticism of such research based on a reliance on the m-scale is misguided. The m-scale has provided us with a means of giving words to what Hood, Stace and other religious psychologists call an ineffable experience. And it provides empirical data for quantitative studies on self-representation and identification (for example).

While Stace maintained that the proximate cause of the experience is irrelevant (and I agree to some extent as does Hood), we should recognize the particularly constrained aspects of the experience that researchers are trying to reveal. For example, items 3, 6, 8, 12 etc. on the scale (the items Hood identifies as "Introvertive Mysticism") deal with the a-spaciotemporality and ineffability of the "mystical experience". Item 12 on the scale says: I have had an experience in which I realized the oneness of myself with all things.

This particular sensation isn't unique to people having mystical experiences as defined by the m-scale. Astronauts have described the same sensation while leaving the Earth's atmosphere and entering space "proper". Jill Bolte Taylor described the same sensation while suffering from a stroke. Now, this is not a criticism in and of itself. But the fact that this introverted mysticism occurs outside of the "mystical experience" as described by the m-scale suggests that further study is required that goes beyond the m-scale. In fact, it also suggests that one doesn't need the m-scale to validate any particular component of its whole. And it is more than plausible that human neurology: demarcating and processing stimuli or being systematically reoriented triggers this sensation.

Second, and this will be short, I did not assert that predictability inferred or infers cause. In fact, I made sure to highlight that certain neurological activity predictably correlate with an introvertive mysticism. And this specific sensation can be replicated by instigating this neural activity.

Now to my first contention: Hood has defined “mysticism” as “the enigmatic” in his unity thesis, citing the etymological development of the word “mysticism”, stemming from the Greek verb: to close to the modern incarnation of “mysterious” or “the enigmatic”. It's important to recognize that he's not referring to something “out there” or “in us” that in and of itself has some divine or special quality—outside of an introverted and extroverted universality (common core).

So, I don't think a mystical experience is mystical in the sense that people like Joe use the word. And that's why I assert that there really is no way to tell if the experience is mystical to begin with. I believe that there is a kind of “pseudoconflation” occurring in which the first two factors: the introvertive and extrovertive aspects) of the experience, which are a part of Stace's common core thesis, and the interpretative factor are being mashed together.

The items on the scale that deal with the interpretative elements of the experience are themselves inducted into subjective language. Hood acknowledges that the interpretative factor is not intersubjective and doesn't carry over across cultures. And common sense would tell us this is true as well. To the Jew he uses “G-d”, to the Wiccan “nature”, and explicitly refers to the religious, affective and noetic subfactors (or contextualized results of the experience) as comprising the third factor in the three-factor m-scale analysis. But the third factor isn't a part of the common core, which is what the scale does validate. So the purpose of the scale is not to show that a religious experience has occurred, as Jeff writes and Joe assumes.

It is to validate Stace's common core thesis and provide empirical data for and verification of Hood's unity thesis: the Jamesian view that there is little diversity among mysticisms if one focuses on experience rather than its interpretation (1). So, simply put, the mysticism scaleverifies the common core. That is, “the enigmatic” experience is experienced everywhere with little variation. But it does not validate the third factor, whether the experience is religious, noetic or affective.

So, the m-scale provides us with a set of worded characteristics for the ineffable experience that Hood and Stace call mystic. Neurologists can study these characteristics freely without having to study the totality of the experience and being bogged down by whether they're truly replicating the whole experience or not. So it doesn't matter if they can't be sure if they're replicating the experience in its whole. They're trying to mimic various components of the experience and find their cause (being what the second part will deal with).

Works Cited

1) Hood, Ralph. Conceptual and Empirical Consequences of the Unity Thesis

Works Considered

Lazar, Aryeh. Cultural Influences on Religious Experience and Motivation

Hood, Ralph. Conceptual and Empirical Consequences of the Unity Thesis

Friday, June 19, 2009

A Crock of Meta

I was scouring the internet for purely unrandom rubbish when I came across this gem of Christian paranoia. Despite my unabashed dislike of apologetics, I often find myself indulging an argument here or there, or all the time for the sake of entertainment. Some have called me a verbal masochist, because I thoroughly enjoy the stress-inducing frustration of arguing the qualities of the non-existent. You can probably get a hint as to why I latched onto this guy's blog post, already.

The author is a fellow by the name of Joe Hinman, or at least that's what he calls himself. I have no reason to doubt, but I'm naturally skeptical of all things. So I'll call him Joanne for now until he can prove beyond reasonable doubt that he is in fact Joe Hinman, and not Joanne. Just kidding.

It seems to be the case that Joe is one of those Christians who thinks that any information that isn't overtly supporting his theological position is in defiance of his theological position. If you're not with him, then you're against him and he will hunt you down for your disloyalty. He argues from the start that "the point of the article is to destroy faith in religion by reducing religious experiences to brain chemistry." The only problem with this presupposition is that nowhere in the NPR article can one find any such intention. Joe is, in effect, tilting at windmills. But let's pretend for a moment that he is correct and that the intention of the author is to discourage religious faith by providing naturalistic explanations for its accompanying phenomena. And hopefully we can ignore the fact that the intention of an author is immaterial to the actual argument, or lack thereof.

His first contention is that the study authors can't show that they are actually testing "real mystical experiences". Well, Joe, neither can anyone show that there is such a thing as a mystical experience to begin with, or that these experiences are not biochemical. Relying on current neurological ignorance won't get anyone anywhere in the long run, because neurologists will eventually find out what's going on in our heads while we are experiencing these "mystical experiences". And I don't know how many people can distinguish between "real mystical experiences" and "unreal mystical experiences", as if there is some coherently meaningful division between the two that everyone magically knows.

Joe rests on the idea that these guys who are studying how the brain manufactures religious experiences don't know about the M-scale. Anyone who's familiar with Joe "Metacrock" Hinman will have heard of this scale ad nauseum. But on the face of it, that accusation seems rather obtuse. It is unlikely that people who are researching mystical experiences don't know about a nearly half-century old, popular psychology scale. It is also an ultimately irrelevant consideration. One of the reasons why I'm not particularly keen on using the m-scale to criticize neurological research is because it's essentially a psychological aptitude test. The scale isn't meant to answer neurological questions. So when researchers are trying to figure out what parts of the brain are functioning to manufacture the sensations that we normally associate with mystical experiences, the m-scale is completely useless because it can't tell us anything about how the brain is working in its neurological makeup.

Second, Joe argues that:
All these researchers are doing is trying to line up the presence of some tranquilizing chemical such as serotonin and some form of thought which includes religious imagery. That doesn't prove anything becasue they can never show that the serotonin is the actual cause of the transformation effets that occur long term over the life span of the subject many years subsequent.
The first problem I have with this statement is that there's absolutely nothing insubstantial about lining up neurochemistry with the overall manifestation of the mystical experience or any experience for that matter. Newberg found from his research that religious or mystical experiences predictably correlate with increased frontal lobe activity and a negatively correlated parietal lobe activity. The frontal lobe is the part of the brain where we essentially concentrate and the parietal lobe is where we get our spatial awareness from. This basically means that people having the experience will become aware of their individuallity slipping away and they will "become one with the universe"... man. And this is a repeatable phenomenon. The question neurologists are trying to answer is what is neurochemically going on in our brains that causes these kinds of sensations to occur.

The second problem I have with this statement is that Joe wants us to honestly believe that neurologists can "
never show that the serotonin is the actual cause of the transformation effets that occur long term over the life span of the subject many years subsequent." Now this might very well be true (anticlimactic, no?), but it's a rather deceptive point and completely irrelevant. No one is trying to show that any specific chemical causes a transformative affect on people's lives over long lenghts of time. Researchers are simply trying to discover what causes the experience itself. No one denies that self-reported religious experiences are affective. That's patently obvious. If you have an experience that makes you think you're Brahman, you're going to have a fundamentally new outlook on life. Moreover, there is an underlying question of whether the experience is or is not a religious one to begin with or just an experience that's very weird.

Joe introduces a number of ad hoc contrivances afterwards to buttress the overall point, all essentially dealing with god's involvement in the process. So I won't really get into those, since, quite frankly, it's a waste of time. So instead I will stop here. Abrupt, aren't I? You'll have to forgive me as I get accustomed to writing blogs.

Here is an interesting and quasi-relevant snippet from a TEDtalk by Jill Bolte Taylor:

Works Considered:
Reinert, and Stifler. Hood's M-Scale Revisited: a factor-analytic replication.
Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion, 1993, 32, (4), pp. 383-388.

Stifler et al. An Empirical Investigation into the Discriminability of Reported Mystical Experiences Among Religious Contemplatives, Psychotic Inpatients, and Normal Adults.
Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion, 1993, 32, (4), pp. 366-372.

Lyver, M. "The Neurochemistry of Psychadelic Experiences".

Works Referenced:
Tracing the Synapses of Our Spirituality
Researchers Examine Relationship Between Brain and Religion
By Shankar Vedantam, Washington Post