Transcendence and the Limits of Science

Religion, God, transcendence, spirituality: do these things exist independently of the human mind or are they products of neurochemical firings of the brain? When Saul had his revelatory experience on the road to Damascus, 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 renowned 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 a profile, 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 can never know. 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.”

  1. Anne R. Pierce

    One of my sons – who, interestingly, feels music, life, compassion, down to his very soul – is very much in the Sacks camp. As he is also verbally very quick, my attempts to engage him on the subject leave me spluttering and frustrated! I’ll refer him to your interesting article which, hopefully, will give him perspective and insight different from that cynicism with which he has been consistently “educated.”

  2. Rachel Lu
    C

    “Like Gunderman, Newberg and D’Aquili acknowledge the limits of science. What exists beyond those limits we can never know.”

    That conclusion doesn’t seem warranted. Natural science is not the only path to knowledge; in fact Gunderson et al suggest that we do have some epistemic contact with more than just the physical.

  3. Captain Red Beard

    This entire debate is superfluous, imho.  Religion cannot be based on the experience of the mystic (as Pope Benedict discusses on his book Truth and Tolerance), it can only be informed by the mystics experience.  Something else must ground our belief in God besides mystical experiences (something that theologians and philosophers from every school of thought, i.e. thomists, Aristotelians, etc., have been doing since the beginning of religion).  Furthermore, Christianity has a very long tradition of parsing out this distinction between matter and meta-matter (or form, or essence), and their interplay.  Since we are embodied creatures it would only make sense that mystical experiences could be empirically linked to a certain part of the brain (and could thus be triggered).  The rush of love we feel can be linked to a fast heart beat, and hunger can be traced to the stomach, but that has nothing to do with the metaphysical explanation of why we experience love or why we ritually feast.  Sex and “the marital embrace” involve the same organs but one leads to debasement and the other leads to sanctity.  As Alexander Schmemman said, “Christianity was the first to say “you are what you eat.””

  4. Captain Red Beard

    I guess what I’m suggesting is that there need not be a debate between neuroscience and faith as though one is based in the physical and the other in a purely transcendental or ecstatic state.  It’s bad theology and it leads to a completely irrational religion.  The incarnation, the resurrection, the Eucharist, the cross, birth, death, sex, fasting, feasting, etc.  Christianity is 99% physical and 1% metaphysical one might say.  

  5. Rachel Lu
    C

    True enough, Captain. Religion-friendly scientists today are definitely reinventing the wheel, but given that their colleagues are largely engaged in spouting ignorant and simplistic materialistic propaganda, you have to at least give these ones credit for being humbler, and closer to the truth.

  6. Group Captain Mandrake
    Emily Esfahani Smith: 

    The problem is that science only acknowledges the material world–the world that can be empirically perceived.

    The great philosopher of science, Karl Popper, understood this well.  The British philosopher, Bryan Magee, wrote that he would often try to persuade Popper to think about the interface between the phenomenal world and the noumenal world but without success.  Popper acknowledged that others had something to say about it but also acknowledged that he didn’t.  Magee’s interest in the noumenal world stems from his knowledge of the work of Schopenhauer who had a lot to say about it, basically picking up where Kant left off.  In particular, he wrote about the unique role of music in our “connection” to the noumenon.  Schopenhauer has written some of the most interesting thoughts on the noumenal world (which I take to be roughly equivalent to “the transcendent” in this context).  

    I’ve posted it before, but here is an excellent summary of Schopenhauer’s ideas.   The discussion is a model of how  abstruse concepts can be communicated in a clear manner.   Magee is an acknowledged expert, although Father Copleston was not “into” Schopenhauer, despite his considerable knowledge of western philosophy.

  7. katievs

    I agree with Rachel.  The conclusion that we can’t know anything beyond the limits of science is unwarranted.  It’s also rather unscientific, isn’t it?

  8. Group Captain Mandrake
    Rachel L.: “Like Gunderman, Newberg and D’Aquili acknowledge the limits of science. What exists beyond those limits we can never know.”

    That conclusion doesn’t seem warranted. Natural science is not the only path to knowledge; in fact Gunderson et al suggest that we do have some epistemic contact with more than just the physical. · 12 minutes ago

    I would go on to say that to the extent that the supernatural interacts with the natural, it is in principle amenable to scientific investigation.  I’m not familiar with Gunderson’s writings but how does he describe the epistemic contact that we have with the transcendent/noumenal world?

  9. Owl of Minerva

    We need to stop asking scientists to answer these questions. They’re usually brilliant people without the first training in the subject. The reason we do, however, is the result of two things. First, philosophers and theologians are supposed to answer these questions, but they refuse for professional and academic reasons we don’t need to cover here. Suffice it to say that it’s not “good for the career.” Second, conventional thinking accords tremendous authority to scientific research because the technological gains reaped from some of it. Science has performed “miracles” that grant it authority that had once belonged to philosophers and theologians.

    The result is what others suggest here: a conversation between radical subjectivists and radical materialists–the Battle of Cartesian Clocks. But what else did you expect? These are just the limits of science.

    KatieVS indicates as much: it’s just scientism. The recent rise of the New Atheism is really just a rehearsal of the old positivism from a hundred or so years ago. It always seems to follow a period of poorly grounded religious enthusiasm, as if the children of Christian Fundamentalists went to college, lost faith, and sought moral authority to condemn their parents.

  10. Group Captain Mandrake
    Owl of Minerva: We need to stop asking scientists to answer these questions. 

    I wouldn’t even worry about that.  Based on my experience as a graduate student in science and my ongoing connection to the world of science, I think that most scientists have little or no interest in this matter and aren’t even aware of being asked to answer such questions.

  11. Gödel

    There’s an entire tradition—systematic theology—that’s neglected in these conversations. Some systematic theologians, e.g. Wolfhart Pannenberg, go so far as to insist that there’s no such thing as the supernatural, but nevertheless, God, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, personal salvation in eternity, etc. are all quite real. Pannenberg apparently serves as a sounding board and, to some extent, inspiration for physicists such as Frank Tipler, who take the ultimate questions of the future of life and spacetime quite seriously, as in The Physics of Immortality and The Physics of Christianity.

    As the grandson of a Lutheran pastor and a student of physics and computer science, I agree with Tipler on at least one point: to insist on a supernatural explanation of the divine, as well as to insist on a non-personal, materialist reductionist interpretation of physics, are both dead-end paths.

  12. katievs

    It’s not only theology, but philosophy that’s neglected in these conversations.

    All reasoning is collapsed into empirical observation.

    And meanwhile, none of them seem to notice that science itself depends absolutely on rational assumptions and principles that are beyond the scope of empirical science.

  13. katievs

    BTW, Pascal is another great original thinker—mathematician, scientist, and philosopher—who underwent a life-changing mystical experience.  

    He wrote down a description of it that he kept sewn in the lining of his coat ever after. 

    Then on November 23, 1654, Pascal experienced a “definitive conversion” during a vision of the crucifixion:

    “From about half-past ten in the evening until about half-past twelve … FIRE … God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, and not of the philosophers and savants. Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.”

  14. Mantis9

    To paraphrase Jesus: Science was made for man, not man for science.  

    Truly, science is a very useful tool created by mankind for its benefit. But now, this need to legitimize truth by science forms it into a hammer that sees every issue as a nail. 

    To me, this seems like a definitional problem. “Supernatural” is constantly defined as an event that breaks the rules of nature.  This assumes the supernatural is only some sort of exception to the rule, which does, indeed, appear ridiculous.  Science and rationality close the gap and explain the event. The scientist dusts himself off and carries on to disprove the next hoax.  

    If God exists, being a maximally great being, creator of all things, wouldn’t that indicate a different definition to supernatural? I’d say so. Supernatural would be a quality of standing above or being greater than nature. 

    Of course, then, science wouldn’t be able to prove or disprove the supernatural, religious, or mystical because it lacks the ability, being created only to answer questions of naturalism. So, those dedicated to this scientism, as Katie points out, must very unscientifically must reduce their understanding of these mystical experiences to naturalism. 

  15. Rachel Lu
    C

    Not all philosophers and theologians refuse to address these questions. Pope Benedict, for example (who is a first-rate philosopher/theologian, whatever you may think of his politics!) is happy to address them. As are many others. But as for the scientists, I’m not sure many of us are turning to them for answers. A certain group of them (likely a minority, but a vocal one) seem to feel they have a mission to de-convert the world with their simple-minded materialism. And they succeed in finding a podium because, well, scientists know everything, right? We just need to stop listening to such people. Even atheistic materialists, if they have any philosophical training, will happily tell you that these scientifically trained apologists are way out of their depth.

  16. Owl of Minerva

    Just to clarify: I’m not criticizing scientists for trying to answer the questions but the public for insisting that they answer them definitively, as if scientific expertise in specialized fields is somehow what has been missing. What’s really missing is what others have stated since my first response: the first understanding of fields in theology and philosophy that have confronted these questions for hundreds or thousands of years.

    And if you’re a graduate student in a STEM program, I have one thing to say to you: get off the internet and back in the lab. You’re wasting funding!

    Group Captain Mandrake

    Owl of Minerva: We need to stop asking scientists to answer these questions. 

    I wouldn’t even worry about that.  Based on my experience as a graduate student in science and my ongoing connection to the world of science, I think that most scientists have little or no interest in this matter and aren’t even aware of being asked to answer such questions. · 14 minutes ago

  17. katievs

    This quote from Sacks begs the question, doesn’t it?

    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.

    He assumes the point in dispute: that mystical experiences are nothing more than hallucinations.  The “softer” formulation isn’t really any better.  Hallucinations are brain-based.  Granted.  But the question is whether all mystical experiences are hallucinations.   And the answer to that question doesn’t hinge on whether we find them meaningful, it hinges on whether or not they grounded in objective reality.

    The fact (if it is a fact) that both hallucinations and real experiences involve similar “brain activity” proves nothing about whether or not a given experience is real or only illusory.

  18. Mantis9
    And meanwhile, none of them seem to notice that science itself depends absolutely on rational assumptions and principles that are beyond the scope of empirical science. · 3 minutes ago

    Exactly!

    You might know this already, but Alvin Plantinga, the philosopher and professor emeritus at Notre Dame, has proffered the argument that evolution only makes rational sense base of a theistic worldview.

  19. Valiuth
    katievs: I agree with Rachel.  The conclusion that we can’t know anything beyond the limits of science is unwarranted.  It’s also rather unscientific, isn’t it? · 31 minutes ago

    I would say that one of the important aspects of science is that you can not know something that you can not either observe or infer from observation. The key to science is having confidence in ones senses, and using these senses to gather data which can then be interpreted into theories that explain the functioning of the world. This though isn’t much of an insight since it is the only way people have ever been sure of anything…

    The intellectual breakthrough of modern science has been to focus simply on the observable material world and creating theories for it. I don’t think the intent originally was ever to deny the existence of the non-physical world. It was simply an attempt to limit the world in order to simplify the task of querying it. 

  20. Group Captain Mandrake
    Paul Snively: to insist on ….a non-personal, materialist reductionist interpretation of physics, are both dead-end paths. · 15 minutes ago

    I’m only vaguely familiar with Tipler, but what is he advocating for physics instead of a “materialist reductionist interpretation” which is, I suspect, the way that I learned it?

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