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