Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Redefining God

ryan g's picture

Humans are storytellers.  Ever since we developed our characteristically largeneo-cortexes, stories have been the main means for communicating ourunderstandings of the world to ourselves and to others.  Stories give meaning and texture to thelives we live. 

For most of history, religious stories dominated people’sviews of the world.  Religiousstories have and continue to be a way for people to explain theunexplainable.  However, as scienceforges ahead and uncovers new understandings about people and the world aroundus, many religious stories have proven to be the less useful alternative and wehave no choice but to look at old stories under a new light. 

Today, we are at an interesting junction between science andreligion because science is questioning one of the fundamental assertions ofreligion, the existence and location of an external God.  Many people seem to be especiallyapprehensive about this line of scientific exploration.  It is as if some people feel thatscience is finally overstepping its boundaries and trying to tell a new storythat is better left unsaid. 

However, this new story does not need to be met withfear.  It is only practical that weshould attempt to understand our universe in greater detail and this is afundamental part of that universe. A story should be judged by its usefulness and if we have observationsthat can lead to a more useful story, then we should explore those observationseven if that means revising a story that we have been comfortable with for along time. 

In this paper, an attempt will be made to make sense of bothsets of stories and push understanding even further. Considering currentknowledge of both religious stories and the brain, can we come up with a moreuseful story that integrates the two and allows us insight into how we ashumans create meaning?  Perhaps astory that is “less wrong”[i] will emergefor some.  Others will be contentwith their original story and hesitate to consider making a change.

In order to better understand where we are going, it is appropriateto look at where we have been and where we are now.  In the past, science and religion have been separate andoftentimes competing fields.  Eachhas viewed the other with a wary eye, both have been protective of theirrespective turf and hostile when the other seemingly infringed upon it. 

As we gain a solid foothold in the new millennium, religionand science are now no longer individual and separate fields.  They are beginning to overlap more andmore as science continues to refine techniques and ask questions that werepreviously outside of the realm of scientific inquiry and religion begins tofind evidence for its beliefs in scientific conclusions.  Today, it is not uncommon to read aboutmonks and nuns being hooked up to brain scanners and “God spots” being locatedin neurology labs throughout the world.[ii]  Unfortunately, just because studies arebeing done does not mean any sort of definitive conclusion is beingreached.  In the world of God andthe brain, there are two camps, each with a unique perspective on the subject.  Both tend to be fervent about their beliefs,and both tend to use the same research findings to make a case for theirrespective positions.

I would like to call the first group of individuals theIntelligent Design theorists.  Themain conclusion of this position is that there is an external God and that thisGod has designed our brains to be receivers through which He is able totransmit His divine message. Individuals in the intelligent design camp tend to be lay people(journalists, politicians, religious advocates) without scientific backgroundsor fringe members of the scientific community.  That is not to say that scientific evidence to support theintelligent design position has not been produced.[iii]  Proponents cite anthropological datathat shows cultures throughout history have always been searching for orcommunicating with some sort of god. They also cite the fact that humans seem to have an internal moral compassthat gives us an intuitive sense of right and wrong.  All this, they would have you believe, is evidence that anintelligent creator has designed us to know inherently what is right and wrongand yearn for connection with Him. 

The intelligent design viewpoint can be a useful position insome cases, but if the goal is to further understanding of the brainconsidering all the observations that we have available to us, it has someclear flaws.  For instance, ifthere is an external, omnipotent God and he designed us in his image –presumably the only organism on the planet that is capable of communicatingwith him to the level that we do – then it would be a logical conclusion thatwe are the culmination of some grand evolutionary plan (at least up to thispoint anyway).  It seems to assumethat we somehow have some superiority or significance beyond other livingorganisms in the world today.  Askany evolutionary biologist and they will surely tell you that this is certainlynot the truth.  In fact, it isbecoming increasingly apparent that the mere fact that we exist is a strikinglylucky coincidence.[iv][v] 

I will call the other position on God and the brain the ProductionTheorists.  A term that has poppedup in the literature is neurotheologists, but I am choosing not to use thisterm because it usually refers to a small group of people that spend theircareers working on the problem of solving the connection between God and thebrain.  I am using the term Productiontheorists to encompass the group of people who believe that our experience ofthe world (divinity included) is produced by our neurons.  As scientists become more comfortableasking questions that would have previously been taboo, there is a growingcommunity of researchers that are voraciously reinterpreting old religiousstories in the light of new neurological understandings. 

One of the leaders in this scientific movement is a man bythe name of Dr. Michael Persinger. In his Canadian laboratory, Dr. Persinger has concluded that he not onlyknows which areas of the brain are firing during an experience of the divine,but he also claims that he can reproduce the experience using a helmet thatsends electro-magnetic waves to the areas of the brain that are responsible.[vi]  He claims that his theory can describemass religious experiences as well. He notes that many mass religious experiences have occured in areas ofthe world with notable geological activity (volcanoes, earthquakes) whereelectromagnetic activity could have caused a large number of people to have anexperience of divinity.  Dr.Persinger’s results are still under speculation and at times, seem to beinconsistent, or at least underwhelming. However, the implications of his research are fascinating.  Experiences with the divine can be lifechanging and provide interesting suggestions for therapeutic applications.

Another path that scientists have chosen to take whenattempting to make sense of religious stories is to turn directly to the sourceof religious stories, the bible.  Manyscientists have scoured the bible looking for evidence of behavior and symptomsthat we might recognize today.  Theresults have turned up some interesting interpretations of neuropathologyreferences in the bible. 

Throughout the bible there are various descriptions ofindividuals having experiences with the divine.  In the gospels of Luke and Mark, there are certaindescriptions of these divine experiences that present with very familiarsounding symptoms to what we now call epileptic seizures, a brain condition inwhich random electrical firing in the brain causes an individual to fall to theground and have convulsions. [vii]  For example, “…he teareth him: and hefoameth, and gnasheth with his teeth, and pineth away… and he fell on theground, and wallowed foaming.”[viii]

Another modern brain condition that has been noted as beingdescribed in the bible is left-hemisphere stroke.  In a left-side stroke, an individual may experienceparalysis of the right arm and difficulty speaking.  Neuro-scientists believe that evidence of this type ofneurological condition can be found in Psalms (137:5-6).  “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let myright hand forget her cunning.  IfI do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.”[ix]

Of course, the production theorists are not without theirown set of critics.  Some scientistshave compared this line of science to phrenology, the now obsolete practice oftrying to determine personality traits by locating bumps on an individual’shead.[x]  Others have noted that discovering thelocation of God and/or religion in the brain is only a small step towardsactually understanding it.  It isnot only their peers whom scientists are receiving criticism from either.  Many religious advocates have lashedout with stinging criticism, accusing production theorists of trying to “kill God”or “show that religious ecstasy is an illusion.”

In the end, it seems as if the debate between intelligentdesign theorists and neurotheologists will have no winner.  Although evidence continues to pile up,it has done little to further the position of either group.  The issue is akin to the body/minddualism.  Although a convincingargument may be made for one side or another, in the end, it just comes down toindividual beliefs.  All we have isobservations that we may use to lead to a less wrong story. 

It is in this spirit that I would like to suggest anotherstory.  This story is a new way ofviewing the relationship between religious stories and current understandingsof the brain.  This story does notdeal with specific anatomical structures and locations, but rather with atheoretical model describing our brain and the way in which experience theworld.  It’s possible that thebiblical stories that we have previously viewed as stories explaining theexternal workings of the world are actually attempts to explain phenomena thatwe know are workings of the brain now. In order to tell this story, a review of the bipartite brain model ofthe brain follows. 

The bipartite brain model is a model presented by Dr. PaulGrobstein in our Brain and Mental Health class and it is a model that has beendeveloping each week during our discussions.  In the bipartite brain model, our brain is separated intotwo compartments – the I-Function and the Tacit Knowledge.  The two compartments might be likenedto the conscious and the unconscious mind. 

The I-Function is essentially a meaning machine.  It takes the unimaginably massiveamount of sensory information that our nervous systems are reading each andevery moment and sorts it into a coherent and meaningful picture that we callour lives and our selves.  TheTacit Knowledge makes up the rest of the nervous system that is not involved indecision-making.  The TacitKnowledge is responsible for all of our nervous system’s unconscious input andoutput as well as specialized skills and abilities.[xi]

The story of Adam and Eve is one of the most familiarbiblical stories.  In this story,Adam and Eve exist in a blissful garden paradise.  When they disobediently eat the fruit that has beenforbidden by God, original sin is introduced upon them and the rest of humanity.  Immediately, Adam and Eve coverthemselves up and become aware of the fact that they are naked.  They become ashamed and embarrassed. 

What is important to note is that they are assigning meaningto their condition where they had not assigned meaning before.  The story of Adam and Eve and originalsin can be seen as ancient people trying to make sense of their internallydeveloping I-Functions.  TheI-Function allows humans to create meaning.  It is believed that the I-Function is in the part of thebrain that is newest from an evolutionary standpoint and is unique tohumans.  Before the I-function wasevolved, Adam and Eve may have been delightfully unaware.  Once the I-function comes into existence,they come to the conclusion that being naked is undesirable and assign it this meaning.  They, and all their descendents, are condemnedto original sin.  It is acharacteristic that is unique to humanity.  It might be interpreted that the original sin that weinherited is indeed the I-Function or that which makes us uniquely human. 

Another familiar bible story is that of Moses hearing thevoice of God from the burning bush on the mountain. Moses ascends a mountainand hears a voice that he interprets as God.  It is at this point that Moses is given direction as to whatis ethically and morally right and wrong. He records these directions as the Ten Commandments. 

In this story, Moses believes he is getting information fromwhat seems to be an external source. It might be argued however that Moses is simply receiving informationfrom his I-Function.  In his 1976book The Origin of Consciousness in theBreakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes argues that ancient humanshad a disconnect in their minds that modern humans have since connected.  The disconnect was between theconscious and the unconscious minds, or for the current purposes between theI-Function and the Tacit Knowledge. According to Jaynes, these people had their behavior directed byauditory hallucinations that they perceived as messages from gods. 

It seems very plausible to view the stories, such as thestory of Moses, in which an external God communicates with his followers inthis light.  Perhaps Moses wasreceiving messages from his I-Function and he perceived these messages asmessages from God.  The messagespertained to assigning meaning to things, which is the role of the I-Functionin the bipartite brain model. 

Finally, the bible tells the story of Jesus.  Jesus came to Earth, forgave us forpossession of original sin and preached a message of unity with God.  Not only does Jesus preach that he isone with God, but he also encourages humanity to seek God within themselves.  “The kingdom of God is within you,”Jesus says.[xii] 

If we assume that an omnipotent and omniscient God is whatassigns meaning to things, then it appears that Jesus is telling the world thatwhat gives meaning to life is not outside of us, but it is within us.[xiii]  This fits nicely with observations thatwe have made concerning the function and location of the I-Function.  Our nervous systems take in andassimilate an unimaginably large amount of information every moment of everyday.  The I-Function is what givesmeaning to this reality.  Is ithard to believe then that the kingdom of God, the ability to assign meaning tothings, is really inside of us in the part of our brain that we call theI-Function?  No, but it can lead tosome uncomfortable conclusions.

We are unlikely to ever answer the question of whether thereis an external God that exists outside of our neurons.  One of the main difficulties tosurmount is the fear that comes from these positions.  There seems to be a great apprehension that if neurosciencecontinues down this path, it may prove religion and God obsolete.  Many fear the assertion that ourexperiences of the divine may be a product of neural firings, and an experiencethat we could artificially manufacture. Is neuroscience, in fact, killing god? 

The answer is no. Neuroscience is not killing God. Neuroscience is redefining what we know as God.  It is furthering our understanding ofthe universe and our place in it. Observations have been made in not only religious and neurology fieldsbut also in other sciences and areas of life.  As we attempt to assimilate and develop a story thatadequately encompasses our place in the universe, we are only doing ourselves adisservice if we ignore or disregard observations out of fear or ignorance.  We can only become less wrong if we arewilling to look at the whole story and embrace all of its wrongness. 

As we continue forward, it is helpful to remember thatchoosing to view the brain as a cold lifeless machine is a matter of personal choicenot necessity.  Nothing aboutcurrent scientific understandings makes the brain any less awe-inspiring.  If anything, they only help support thenotion that our brains and our experience of divinity are inconceivablymagnificent and complex.  A metaphormay help.  Many people haveexperienced the ecstasy of listening to a symphony orchestra.  Throughout the past hundred or soyears, we have been able to scientifically and systematically pick apart everypart of the symphony.  We havelearned about the rhythms and the harmonies.  We have discovered the mechanics of the instruments used tocreate the sounds.  We have modeledthe properties of sound waves and our brain’s ability to perceive sound.  However, at no point in thisexploration, has our expanded understanding of a symphony orchestra made it anyless majestic to experience. 

The production theory is not a buzzkill theory.  Nor is it something to be afraidof.  While certain understandingsof God and religion may be coming to a close, we are on the tip of a hugeiceberg.  People have has lifealtering experiences with the divine. What if we could create those experiences at will? For example, howmight a clinically depressed patient respond to communication with God?  Would it help them recontextualizeevents and conditions in their lives? Are individuals who have certain mental conditions that society deemsabnormal capable of having divine experiences?  Are they capable of having more effective and intense divineexperiences?  Perhaps this divinitytheory might be used effectively in conjunction with Cognitive BehavioralTherapy and other methods that we currently employ.  There is a fantastic potential right now to redefine what weknow about our relationships with and connection to the divine.   We are on the verge of new understandings of what we arecapable of in creating meaning and interacting with reality. 

[i] Dr. PaulGrobstein. GettingIt Less Wrong, The Brain's Way:
 Science, Pragmatism, and Multiplism. /sci_cult/pragmatism.html

[ii] DavidBello. Searching for God in the Brain.

[iii] Solomon H.Snyder, MD DSc.  Seeking God in the Brain – Efforts toLocalize Higher Brain Functions.

[iv] BillBryson.  A Short History of Nearly Everything.

[v] Commentsmade at /exchange/courses/bio245/f08/brain3

[vi] JackHitt.  This is your brain on god.

[vii] Tubbs etal. Roots of Neuroanatomy, Neurology, andNeurosurgery as Found in the Bible and Talmud.

[viii] Quoted inTubbs et al. Mark 9:18-20

[ix] Tubbs etal.  Roots of Neuroanatomy,Neurology, and Neurosurgery as Found in the Bible and Talmud. .

[x] VincentPaquette.  Quoted in Searching for God in the Brain.

[xi] /bb/bipartitebrain/

[xii] Quoted inTubbs et al. Luke 17: 20-21

[xiii] MaryStokes.  In class discussion andonline forum. /exchange/courses/bio245/f08/brain1  


Paul Grobstein's picture

the brain and scriptures

"what gives meaning to life is not outside of us, but it is within us" is indeed an intriguing reading of western scripture, as are some of your other readings. I wonder how far one could push your "production theorist" approach in regard to other spiritual traditions?
Martin's picture

As you probobly expected, I am compelled to comment...

First, I want to say that I will disregard the misunderstandings of the mentioned biblical stories. I think that the more important issue is the misunderstanding of what is meant when we religious people speak of God.  

God is not some thing, some object other than us, or some existing thing within our world/universe/brain. God, is not an 800lb gorrilla in the sky that communicates to us via magical pathways that enter into us via the brain. 

Our world, and everything in it that we can study and know through empirical/scientific inquiry is related to God in that it all relys on God to maintain it's being. The fact that something is depends entirely on it's recieving existence from outside itself. Existence, to be, is not part of what anything in our world is. "Ens" the latin for being/existence is not the same as "esse" meaning essence/whatness. So, everything that exists has it's essence by virtue of what it is but it has its existence/being by virtue of God.

To say that one can "find God" in the brain or anywhere else for that matter denies the fact that we are not responsible for our own existence, it is not up to us whether we exist or not.  


I do agree with you that both a scientific and a religious perspective are needed in order to move forward and continue to make less wrong stories. But, I caution anyone who would delve into scientific pursuits that they not forget the bigger picture, one that a religious perspective is commonly more concerned with.  Just because we can acurately describe and predict material phenomena that occur in conjunction with what are traditionally thought to be "spiritual" phenomena says nothing about the reality of that spiritual plane. It merely hints at a possible mechanism of interaction. 


 In closing I want to mention a common teaching of Catholic Popes. Nothing we learn by science can possibly contradict the truths of faith. It simply cannot be that something we know to be true by science contradicts something we know to be  true by faith. Anything we learn about the real world that  is true must be consistent with the rest of the true things we know about the real world. Any apparent conflict is only due to our misunderstanding.