One can generally tell a discussion of the “conflict between science and religion” by its preponderance of fuzzy thinking, straw-man making and ignorance. A prime example of this is the set of arguments made by researchers Dr Michael Persinger from Canada and Ryan McKay from Australia, as detailed in this article in the Sydney Morning Herald some years ago.

The problem with the case presented is that it relies on fundamental misconceptions about theology, unjustified philosophical shortcuts and logical errors, and ignorance of historical facts.

Persinger’s research shows that a “sensed presence”, a feeling of the numinous identified by some mystics from a number of religions can be produced by electromagnetic stimulus of the brain. We are told other scientists have claimed that visions and “sensations of bliss, timelessness or union with a higher power” can also be matched with, and therefore are produced by, brain processes. What is genuinely astonishing to those with an understanding of the classical tradition of Christian philosophy is that otherwise educated people suppose these observations to be an unexpected or feared challenge to our beliefs.

Let’s summarise the critical “neurotheology” of these advocates step-by-step.

1.           It is possible to artificially stimulate the brain to physically cause certain types of sensations.

2.           These sensations are indistinguishable (as feelings) from those reported as mystical experiences in various religions.

3.           The “mystics” interpret their experiences as manifestations of a non-physical reality, though they do not necessarily agree on the specific nature of that reality.

4.           If thoughts or feelings correspond to physico-chemical interactions in the brain, they obviously are not miraculous (and thus of spiritual significance).

5.           Religious beliefs are either based on experiences such as this, or mere “socialisation”, where people simply conform to the pre-existing cultural milieu in which they have been brought up.

6.           Therefore, religious beliefs are begun and/or reinforced by highly unusual feelings which are caused by a brain dysfunction of some kind, and which give the impression of supernatural experiences or entities, though these are not objectively real.

7.           However, the mystical sensations will only lead to religious beliefs if the person who has the experience is open to explanations which are not rational, that is, which involve the suspending of “physical or biological principles”. Their susceptibility will usually be reinforced by “wish-fulfillment” motives for belief, e.g., the desire for solace or a hope of life after death. This is a “belief pathology”.

8.           Therefore, unusual religious experiences are physical phenomena misinterpreted as spiritual ones, and the derived religious beliefs in spiritual beings etc. are thus errors based on hallucinations. These errors take hold due to a combination of naivety and thoughtless compliance with convention.

With assertions 1 to 3 there need be no disagreement. It is after this that things begin to go awry. In other words, when the empirical observation and science stop and the amateur metaphysics and history begin.

Step 4 assumes three things.

First, it assumes that theologians have generally claimed that thoughts and feelings, especially “spiritually elevated” ones, are not at all dependent on physical processes, but are in the separate domain of an entirely independent immaterial soul. This idea certainly exists: it is known as Cartesianism and is opposed to the traditional Catholic anthropology based on the teaching of, most notably, St Thomas Aquinas. Whereas Descartes postulated that the soul was an intrinsically self-sufficient entity which somehow “steered” the body, Aquinas taught that the soul was the “form” of the body, that is, the body’s (including the brain’s) dynamic organisation. (He also said the human soul was more than this. Unlike other forms it was self-subsistent, i.e., it could exist without a body in which to be materially manifested. However, he noted that this was not its natural state, and that its earthly functioning relied on psycho-physical entities called “phantasms” even for the highest order activities.)

Second, we have the assumption that if a process is perfectly in accord with the laws of physics it can have no “transcendent”, more-than-physical aspect. But this false antithesis would also mean that the mathematician, philosopher — and even neuroscientist — are not engaging with ideas or concepts according to logical reasoning at all; and even that computers must be useless for information processing. So, the absence of miracle does not guarantee the absence of non-corporeal reality: nor the absence of the supernatural, since it has always been accepted by theologians that God is the primary cause behind all natural causes (as he invented Nature), and that he “normally works normally”. Indeed, respected theologians of the past such as Fénelon, Baron von Hügel and F.P. Harton have argued that spiritual progress, from the very lowest to the very highest levels in this life, does not essentially require miracle at any point, though, to put it bluntly, “God can do what he likes”.

The final false supposition in step 4 is that, if a brain process involving sensation can be triggered through scientific manipulation, where the thing “sensed” is an illusion, it could never be caused by another factor which accurately corresponds to the mind’s perception — “the real thing”, in other words. This would be like saying that, because a neurosurgeon can poke a person’s brain during surgery to make them feel as if events (e.g., a touch or movement) are occurring in various parts of their body, these events never really occur in other circumstances, they are always illusions.

Once we accept a non-Cartesian, Thomist view of the unity of body and soul, along with a Christian understanding of God’s gracious purpose for human beings, it should come as no surprise that mystical experiences have a physical aspect, and that the potential for this is quite possibly “hard-wired” into the brain. (It is worth remembering that the Church historically has usually begun with a critical, questioning attitude toward any claimed mystical experience. It has always believed that the subjective feelings involved can be the result of sickness, self-deception, or evil spirits rather than God. And so the Saints have taught believers both not to put much stock in these experiences and that their true test is whether or not they result in a more loving, selfless Christian.)

The main problem with step 5 is that it is simply wrong. Many believers of the past and present have been converts who have had to fight their previous “socialisation” to become so, and the majority of those did not convert because of the somewhat vague experiences addressed in the above research. Instead, some were convinced by reasoned arguments, some had a more concrete or external ‘uncanny’ experience such as a healing or other miracle, some observed Christian living and inferred the beliefs were true because of how they worked when put into practice, others had a combination of factors that led them to the conclusion that Christianity made the most sense of everything, while yet others knew in their hearts that the Gospel answered their greatest needs. Often, even those Christians who were “socialised” into the faith from childhood have had decisive and defining moments like this and for similar reasons.

Significantly, the founders of the Christian mission, the Apostles, made it quite clear that the event that changed their life completely, and convinced them totally of Christ’s supernatural identity and character, was the Resurrection. And note, part of what impressed them about this experience was its earthy, inescapably physical nature: Jesus emphasising he was not a ghost, showing his wounds and having meals with them. These men were willing to die horrible deaths to defend the integrity of their witness to this event. The people back then who made much of insular, mystical knowledge and experience, and also minimised the importance of the physicality of Christ and his Redemptive acts, were the Gnostic enemies of the Church! The earliest disciples were unashamed proclaimers of the empty tomb and the living, flesh and blood (though transformed and glorified) Jesus. And the central ritual they celebrated, the Eucharist, where bread and wine became body and blood, served to further emphasise the physicality of the risen Christ, since, although it was a memorial of his death, it was believed to be a feeding upon “living bread”, the body which had been sacrificed but now had the power to give life to all.

St Paul is an excellent case in point. His “vision” on the Damascus Road physically affected companions around him, was the opposite of wish-fulfillment (since he was on his way to gleefully kill Christians) and was associated with other inexplicable events soon after. He relied on a lot more than a mere hallucination or “feeling”, if his and Luke’s account are to be believed. (If the sceptical “neurotheologians” dismiss all such testimonies that do not fit their story, they will merely be exercising “special pleading”.) And, of course, we need to look for a more convincing and resistance-overwhelming experience than the kind studied by our neuroscientists if we are to adequately explain the amazing change in Paul and his fervent commitment to a new path, in the face of continual suffering and opposition, till his martyr’s death. So, the purported “neurotheological” explanation of the origins of religious belief fails in the case of Christianity, at least.

Once we realise 4 and 5 are flawed, step 6, which depends on them, is undermined as well. Step 7 is a complacent and rather arrogant piece of question-begging. It argues in a circle by effectively saying: “Any inference from effect to cause which involves anything other than materialist assumptions is irrational. Religious people make this error of judgement and so their conclusions cannot be trusted. Therefore religious beliefs have no valid evidence for them.” Notice that the conclusion against religion rests squarely upon a premise that implicitly rules out religious beliefs a priori! Hardly fair reasoning!

The summary statement of step 8 clearly goes the way of 4 to 7. So what remains of Chris McGillion’s assertion that the debate over the existence of God and the veracity of religious experience “has just become a lot more interesting”? Very little, I’m afraid. What is interesting is just how little genuine engagement with all the relevant data and how little philosophical awareness is being shown. Could it be that a patronising contempt has prevented the neurotheologians from looking closer at the evidence and seeking the critical response of believers? If so, I would appeal to those involved to read more widely and think more deeply.

Until the classical thinking of the Church is understood on the relationships between matter and form, body and soul, primary and secondary causes, the natural and the supernatural, and the creature and Creator, much will continue to be said on religion and science that is simply beside the point and utterly confused.