Reductionist neurotheology

A friend to whom I was explaining neurotheology asked me what the major competing hypotheses or schools of thoughts were in the field. I think there are two: reductionism vs. holism; and direct vs. indirect instrumentalism.

Reductionism (in the scientific sense) says that religious experiences are an entirely physical process we can (eventually) explain scientifically; holism posits there is “something else” there.

The second contrast is between direct instrumentalism, which says that the brain contains evolved structures which directly relate to, or “cause”, religious behavior and experience. Indirect instrumentalism, on the other hand, says that the “hard-wired circuits” in the brain support certain generic human behavioral patterns from which the religious behavior or experience in turn derives.

But today let’s take a look at the reductionist vs. holist dichotomy. Persinger is often cited as an advocate of the former, which, informally, holds that religious behavior/experience is derived from, and explained by, physical characteristics and behaviors of the brain (or entire organism). Newberg, in contrast, represents the holistic viewpoint, which asserts, or at a minimum leaves open the possibility, that “brain scan images are merely detecting the effect of a divine presence or fundamental level of reality on the human brain.”

Of course, philosophers have spent entire careers investigating the meaning of, and types of, reductionism. That’s because it’s complicated. Some of the problems in reductionist explanations include:

  • How does an identifying an underlying construct constitute an “explanation”? If we say the construct is the “cause”, then we still need to explicate the meaning of causality.
  • The explanation may itself need to be explained. We run the danger of recursing endlessly, or at least down to the subatomic level.
  • If the explanation dissects the phenomenon into components, we also run the risk of missing non-compositional (“emergent”) aspects of the overall phenomenon.
  • The explanation must demonstrate that it is superior to other, competing explanations.
  • The explanation could be successful but not useful. For instance, most people have some degree of existential wonder or doubt, that they feel the need to comprehend or assuage, but a reductionist account of religion might not help them.
  • Finally, a reductionist explanation may be perceived as insulting, or belittling value systems that some hold dear. Although this objection is political in nature, to the extent that science itself is political, it may be best not to alienate such people with an overly reductionist standpoint.

In the case of neurotheology, regardless of the abstract merits of a reductionist approach, to which I am sympathetic, Persinger and his fellow reductionists do themselves no favors to the extent they trumpet neuroimaging results of meditators without asking what intermediate explanatory structures might exist or how meditation relates to religious experience and behavior as a whole; they identify “God genes” based on skimpy statistical evidence; and they fail to place religious behavior and experience in a social, historical, and anthropological context that might lead to alternative renditions.

The so-called holists, however, hardly come out looking better. Wrapping themselves in the cloak of religious acceptance, some attempt to make a virtue out of fence-straddling. Typical of this fuzzy-headedness is Newberg’s statement that “whether the brain may be derived from some fundamental or divine level of reality is a question that remains to be clearly answered”, a bizarre assertion given the absence of any clue about what that “fundamental or divine level of reality” could possibly be. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that he is simply pandering to believers in supernatural beings or unspecified universal forces.

Personally, I believe that as the study of the biology of religion progresses, with more innovative hypotheses and carefully designed experiments, eventually leading to a coherent theoretical framework, generating verifiable predictions such as demonstrably more effective types of meditative practices, we will reach the point where we do understand the physical processes that “explain” religious behavior and experience, probably as mediated or influenced by generic human behavioral structures. At the same time, however deep that scientific understanding is, it will not satisfy the human yearning to understand existence, which, after all, the current depth of scientific knowledge about cosmology or evolution has not managed to satisfy either. Humans will doubtlessly continue to pursue a variety of fruitful, meaningful ways to quench their thirst for existential knowledge.

The picture above is since Matisse’s Joie de Vivre, considered an examplar of reductionism in art, from the way it breaks the underlying scene into its component physical or visual aspects.

4 Responses to “Reductionist neurotheology”

  1. Mikefrog Says:

    I sometimes make an analogy with “neuroastronomy”.

    Suppose we took “astronomers”, brain scanned them while they were “looking at stars” through their “telescopes”, and then announced that the experience of astronomy is caused by activity in certain regions of the brain?

    Of course, this is not to deny that there are experiences (hallucinations) that are internally caused.

    What I’m suggesting is that you can’t necessarily tell the difference by looking inside brains. You need to look at the stars to get the whole picture.

    In the case of religion, that means (depending on your pov) considering God, or considering the social and psychological functions of religion. Neither of which is accomplished with an MRI scanner.

    You talk about the characteristics of an explanation, and in my view, to say “the brain is such that we tend to be religious” is so weak an explanation as to be none at all. And being more precise about which parts of the brain, does not address the nature of that weakness.

  2. Lupe Says:

    The point is that “the stars”, but not God, do exist outside of our minds. So “neuroastronomy” could be the science of what astronomers feel when looking at the stars or how they come out with new hypothesis on the origin of the universe from their observations of the stars (like “neurophysics” or “neurohistory” could be). But “neurotheology” is a part of the neurosciences focused in how the religious experience arises from the activity of our brains and why that experience has such a deep impact on our behavior (I mean the believer’s behavior).

    My congratulations to Bob for this very interesting weblog. I will post about it in my weblog on “pseudoneurosciences” “The pyramids of the brain” ( (sorry, in spanish).

  3. DavidD Says:

    The thing is, Lupe, that religious experiences may correspond to activity in the brain that is just like that of all other experience. Michael Persinger claims to generate specific responses, but these claims have not been reproduced, and in fact have been strongly questioned in a study of 89 people, Neurosci Letters, Apr. 29, 2005. Some people want so badly to believe that religion is just some “God module” that even Scientific American and Newsweek embrace junk science regarding it.

    Why shouldn’t invisible beings be processed in the brain just as visible ones are? If I hear a rustling in the bushes, are the signals in my brain that much different if my first guess is that this is an animal, the wind or something supernatural?

    Neurotheology may have some substance, but I wouldn’t count on it.

  4. Lupe Says:

    Well, the paper you cited is actually the only one devoted to the replication of Persinger’s work. I recommend the reading of Persinger’s comments regarding the lack of results in that study.

    The answer to DavidD’s questions is that our brain has not the machinery to perceive metaphysical entities. Actually, my last statement is a tautology since a metaphysical entity is the one we are not able to perceive. But metaphysical entities exist in our minds, as memes. A different issue is that during the anomalous experience known as mystical experience, some people percive a presence that, depending on individual cultural and religious expectancies, could be experienced as God’s presence. How this kind of experiences arises from abnormal (non pathological) brain functioning is a fully legitimated scientific question. And Persinger’s work offers an scientific hypothesis for explaining that issue.

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