The Mystical Mind

In The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religous Experience, Eugene d’Aquili and Andrew Newberg (picture) sketch out their framework for neurotheology. Famous for their neuroimaging studies of meditating monks and praying nuns, the pair’s work is considered ground-breaking. None other than Fraser Watts lauds their ideas as “the best available neuropsychological theory of religion,” and Publisher’s Weekly called the book “exhilarating” and “fascinating”. Not content to just illuminate the biological aspects of religion, the researchers conclude their book with a discussion of how neurotheology could serve as the basis for a “metatheology” or even a “megatheology”. At the same time, they assiduously maintain a facade of evenhandedness, claiming not to know or even care whether God really exists, and stridently denying anything reductionist about their approach. It’s like saying you’re going to study the Man in the Moon, then professing complete ignorance about whether he actually exists or not, claiming that you are just studying the lunar features that may or may not constitute his face.

If this book represents the state-of-the-art in neurotheology, we are in deep trouble. It’s intellectually sloppy, disorganized, selective, and unscientific.

The problems start with the book’s title, and the word “mind” used therein, which the authors admit they have no idea how to define. They say, “The mind is the name for the intangible realities that the brain produces.” They don’t do much better with the word “mystical” in the title, giving new meaning to the word circularity with their definition that “the idea that the brain and mind are mystical suggests that the function of the brain and mind can lead to mystical experiences.” They then bounce to the idea that the mind/brain is just, well, intrinsically mystical.

But perhaps those are just semantic quibbles. The problems deepen when they start actually laying out theories, starting with the so-called “cognitive operators.” These are

primary functional components of the mind, specific functions that specific [unspecified] parts of the brain perform as part of the mind..analogous to the operators used in mathematics. The functioning of the cognitive operators is what produces a sense of “mind.” The brain structures and neurons that work to generate the functions of the operators are part of the overall structure and function of the brain. Thus brain function results in the function of the cognitive operators and therefore results in the function of the mind.

I quote at length to demonstrate the utter incoherence of their writing.

The seven primary cognitive operators that “comprise the most basic functions of the mind” are:

  1. holistic
  2. reductionist
  3. causal
  4. abstractive
  5. binary
  6. quantitative
  7. emotional

Newberg and d’Aquili present no justification for these operators—they are made up out of thin air. They provide no neural correlates of them. They present no evidence that any of these actually exist, or that their list is comprehensive. One can only conclude that they worked backward to come up with these particular operators. Let’s see, we have transcendant states, so there must a holistic operator; we have images of God as the ultimate mover, so that would need a causal operator; primitive myths involve good and evil so let’s put in a binary operator.

I think phrenology would probably do at least as good a job of helping us understand religion as these made-up operators.

In a future post, I will review Newberg and d’Aquili’s specific theories as to the neurophysiology of (one kind of) religious experience.

3 Responses to “The Mystical Mind”

  1. Numenware, a blog about neurotheology » Blog Archive » 25 top neurotheology research topics Says:

    […] Genetics. In addition to historiocultural, “meme”-like factors underlying religion, could there be specific genetic factors as well, such as ones that might predispose certain people to religious behavior or belief? (Gautama’s Darwinian boost, The Mystical Mind) […]

  2. Brian.Christiansen Says:

    The first purports to describe the functioning of the brain and central nervous system, or the “brain/mind”, as the authors like to refer to it.I suspect that readers with no prior knowledge of the subject would find the account difficult to follow.

  3. Katherine Says:

    “If this book represents the state-of-the-art in neurotheology, we are in deep trouble. It’s intellectually sloppy, disorganized, selective, and unscientific.”

    They just want to use words to manipulate and then taking advantage. ^_^

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