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Transcendence, science, and the Life of Pi

by Emily Esfahani Smith

Posted: Jan 03, 2013 12:28 PM

After reading and writing about two books that include lengthy discussions of the origins of religion—E. O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of the Earth for The New Criterion and Oliver Sacks’ Hallucinations for the Washington Times—I have been wondering whether the more spiritual aspects of life, things like religion, God, and transcendence, exist independently of the human mind or are products of neurochemical firings of the brain. When Saul had his revelatory experience on the road to Damascus, for instance, had he fallen under the spell of a seizure, as some have claimed, or was it a flash of the divine that caused his conversion to Christianity? When Fyodor Dostoevsky experienced the self-transcendent moment he describes below, was he momentarily elevated into a mysterious mystical realm or was he having a fit of temporal lobe epilepsy?

The air was filled with a big noise and I tried to move. I felt the heaven was going down upon the earth and that it engulfed me. I have really touched God. He came into me myself, yes God exists, I cried, and I don’t remember anything else. You all, healthy people . . . can’t imagine the happiness which we epileptics feel during the second before our fit . . . I don’t know if this felicity lasts for seconds, hours or months, but believe me, for all the joys that life may bring, I would not exchange this one.

Over at the Atlantic, two scientists and doctors–the neurologist Oliver Sacks and radiologist Richard Gunderman–are debating these fascinating questions. In his new book Hallucinations, Oliver Sacks writes, “One must wonder to what extent hallucinatory experiences have given rise to our art, folklore, and even religion.” In his recent piece for the Atlantic titled “Seeing God in the Third Millenium,” he went on to argue:

Hallucinations, whether revelatory or banal, are not of supernatural origin; they are part of the normal range of human consciousness and experience. This is not to say that they cannot play a part in the spiritual life, or have great meaning for an individual. Yet while it is understandable that one might attribute value, ground beliefs, or construct narratives from them, hallucinations cannot provide evidence for the existence of any metaphysical beings or places. They provide evidence only of the brain’s power to create them.

When I interviewed Sacks for the profile in the Washington Times, his words were slightly softer: “There is always a brain basis for these various religious states, although this says nothing of the meaning or value of hallucinations. I don’t think it’s at all reductive.”

In his piece for the Atlantic, a response to Sacks, Gunderman suggests a more humble approach, citing the limits of neuroscience in unpacking mystical and religious experiences:

Before proceeding, we need to pause to consider what we mean by “transcendent.” Literally, “transcend” means to climb beyond. The idea of transcendence has deep roots in our culture. For example, the fourth president of the United States and principal author of the U.S. Constitution, James Madison, refers to the establishment of a new government as an act of “transcendent authority,” which the people alone have the right to perform. Likewise, one of the greatest American writers, Nathaniel Hawthorne, describes the voice of an improbable singer, “as if some transcendent musician should draw a soul-thrilling sweetness out a cracked instrument, which makes its physical imperfection heard in the mist of ethereal harmony.”  

In the religious context, transcendence implies a reality that is not purely material. Are there things in this world that are real but not physical, in the sense that they have no mass, size, shape, location, or color, emit no sound, and cannot be touched, tasted, or smelled? A thorough-going materialist might deny that such things even exist, arguing that talk of God or gods is mere poppycock. From a materialistic point of view, references to the divine, as well as those to ethereal qualities such as love, beauty, and goodness, merely refer to patterns of human behavior, or what amounts to the same thing, patterns of electrochemical activity in the brain. In contrast, Jews, Christians, and Muslims assert that God’s transcendence is self-evident, since God created everything material.

The problem is that science only acknowledges the material world–the world that can be empirically perceived. But the transcendental reality that Dostoevsky, St. Paul, and many other spiritual mystics have experienced, is, by definition, outside the realms of time, space, and the other aspects of our physical world that science lays claim to. So apart from explaining transcendental experiences in terms of neurochemistry, what can science say about them? How do we bridge the divide between what science knows and what mystics claim without outright dismissing the validity of the latter’s religious experiences?

Gunderman hints at an answer:

Perhaps we should not be too quick to abandon the transcendent. What if the transcendent is no different from any other aspect of human experience, in at least one crucial respect? Namely, that there are both false and true experiences of the transcendent, just as there are false and true experiences associated with the senses, with reason, and with feeling. Sometimes what we think to be the crying of a baby turns out to be the whine of a machine, what seems to be a proven conclusion turns out to be based on an erroneous assumption, and what we suppose to be love turns out to be merely a fleeting infatuation. If we are smart, we recognize that we are fallible. Yet our fallibility does not lead us to conclude that we can never truly experience, know, or feel anything.

Let us grant, at least provisionally, something that cannot be proved. Let us suppose for the moment that all human experiences, whether illusory or real, whether immanent or transcendent, are accompanied by neurochemical changes in the brain. Let us further suppose that no experience is possible without such neurochemical changes, and that individuals whose brains have ceased to function can experience nothing. Let us also grant that tinkering with neurochemistry alters experience, sometimes merely by changing its timbres and hues, but in other cases by causing us to experience things that clearly never happened. Would granting all of these points prove that all experiences of the transcendent are unreal?

Gunderman goes on to talk about an experience that many of us have had: being moved by music: “A neurologist might come along and explain that I am merely experiencing the transduction of kinetic energy into electrical energy as processed by neurons in the auditory and higher associative cortices of the brain. And yet, there is something about the music that is hard to reckon in such terms. It would be like saying that a passionate embrace is merely the pressing of flesh on flesh.”

In the book Why God Won’t Go Away, neurologists Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili discuss these issues at length. They bring Gunderman’s example full circle, arguing that there may be reason to believe that some sort of transcendental reality actually exists. They write:

In the narrowest scientific view, it would be possible to believe that we had reduced all spiritual transcendence–from the mildest case of religious uplift, to the profound states of union described by mystics–to a neurochemical commotion in the brain.

But our understanding of the brain would not allow us to rest with that conclusion. We knew, after all, that everything the mind experiences is tracked in the brain. A SPECT scan of an opera lover listening to Puccini, for example, would reduce “Nessun Dorma” to multicolored blotches, but that would not diminish the beauty of the aria. The music, and the enjoyment it provided, would still be very real. The memory of the music, too, and the emotional pull of the tragedy of Turandot, are real. Even if you were to “play” the music and drama again only in your mind, many of the same parts of the brain would be reactivated. Perhaps even your body would get the same goose bumps evoked by Puccini’s heartbreaking lyrical melody, its crescendos and pianissimos. You would clearly be hearing the music, but only inside your head. Yet the existence of the music and its nonverbal power are still, neurologically, quite real.

All perceptions exist in the mind. The earth beneath your feet, the chair you’re sitting in, the book you hold in your hands may all seem unquestionably solid and real, but they are known to you only as secondhand neurological perceptions, as blips and flashes racing along the neural pathways inside your skull. If you were to dismiss spiritual experience as “mere” neurological activities, you would also have to distrust all of your own brain’s perceptions of the material world. On the other hand, if we do trust our perceptions of the physical world, we have no rational reason to declare that spiritual experience is a fiction that is “only” in the mind.

They go on to write: “At this point in our research, science had brought us as far as it could, and we were left with two mutually exclusive possibilities: either spiritual experience is nothing more than a neurological construct created by and contained within the brain, or the state of absolute union that the mystics describe does in fact exist and the mind has developed the capacity to perceive it.”

Like Gunderman, Newberg and D’Aquili acknowledge the limits of science. What exists beyond those limits we may never know for certain. This brings to mind Pi Patel, the hero of the beautiful novel Life of Pi. Like the neurologists here, Pi straddles the worlds of science and religion. He is a mystic and a lover of all religions–and he is also a student of the natural world, zoology specifically. Speaking of an atheist science teacher he had as a boy who inspired him to study zoology at university, Pi says, “I felt a kinship with him. It was my first clue that atheists are my brothers and sisters of a different faith, and every word they speak speaks of faith. Like me, they go as far as the legs of reason will carry them–and then they leap.”

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