The Brain Structure Argument Agaimst Religious Experience

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Skeptics argue that the experiences have a commonality because they are all produced by human brain structure. In other words the names from the various religions are the constructs but the experiences that unite the subjects and that transcend the individual cultural filters are the same because they are products of a shared structure that of the human brain. Ilkka Pyysiäinen and Marc Hauser state the argument:
Considerable debate has surrounded the question of the origins and evolution of religion. One proposal views religion as an adaptation for cooperation, whereas an alternative proposal views religion as a by-product of evolved, non-religious, cognitive functions. We critically evaluate each approach, explore the link between religion and morality in particular, and argue that recent empirical work in moral psychology provides stronger support for the by-product approach. Specifically, despite differences in religious background, individuals show no difference in the pattern of their moral judgments for unfamiliar moral scenarios. These findings suggest that religion evolved from pre-existing cognitive functions, but that it may then have been subject to selection, creating an adaptively designed system for solving the problem of cooperation.[1]

In other words, the discussion about origins of religion there are two genetic choices, a specific gene, or spandrels. The weight of the evidence, accordimg to Pyysiäinen and Marc Hauser, leans toward the latter (spandrels: pre-existing cognitive functions based upon combined genetic functions from other areas). The deeper level of complexity comes with the finding that religion evolved from spandrels and yet it is still subject to adaptation manifesting in a system for cooperation (religion). What their findings really suggest is that moral motions are more basic than religious doctrine and that moral decision making transcends social structure or organization. Religion is perpetuated because its conducive to cooperation but there is an underlying sense or moral motion that's tied to the specific religious affiliation. Moral reasoning is not the same as mystical experience. Religious experience is a passive apprehension and moral decision making is an active use of deductive reasoning. Moreover, in finding religion is not original adaptation they are really negating the brain structure argument for uniformity of reoigious experiences. Their findings show that moral decisions transcended the religious background, thus the religious symbols, ideas, and presumably experiences are not reducible to moral motions since the latter transcends the former.[2] If religious experiences are of the same nature because of the state of human brain structure we should expect to find a conformation between moral motions religious experience. Frederick Schleiermacher argued that religious religion is more than just enhanced ethical thinking.[3] This has led to the widely accepted theory of the religious a priori. Religion is understood as it's on discipline separate from ethics. The a priori is seen as a “special for of awareness which exists alongside the cognitive, moral and aesthetic forms of awareness and is not explicable by reference to them.”[4] 
Pyysiäinen and Hauser, are working under the assumptions of reductionists such as Daniel Dennett.[5] Since religious experience is linked to brain chemistry it must be the result of brain chemistry, thus there’s no reason to assume it’s indicative of any sort of supernatural causation. This view has become standard in the scientific community. Tiber and McGuire state:
Religion as a process generates remarkable action, countless events, numberless provocative artifacts. Yet what factual phenomenon except perhaps slips of ancient holy paper underlies and animates one of the most influential and durable of human endeavors? We've an answer. Shivers in the moist tissue of the brain confect cathedrals our proposal is that all religions differ but all share two destinies: they are the product of the human brain. They endure because of the strong influence of the product of the human brain. The brain is a sturdy organ ith common characteristics everywhere. A neurosurgeon can work confidently on a vatican patient and another in mecca. Same tissue, same mechinisms. One such mechinnism is a readiness to generate religions.[6]
As an argument about the origin of religion, the genetic aspects would only be the proximate cause. It doesn't rule out a distal cause in the divine. As an argument about the origin of religion, the genetic aspects would only be the proximate cause. It doesn't rule out a distal cause in the divine. Andrew Newberg, one of the pioneers in researching neural activity of religious experience and God talk tells us that none of the research disproves God, nor could it:
Tracing spiritual experience to neurological behavior does not disprove its realness. If God does exist, for example, and if He appeared to you in some incarnation, you would have no way of experiencing His presence, except as part of a neurologically generated rendition of reality. You would need auditory processing to hear his voice, visual processing to see His face, and cognitive processing to make sense of his message. Even if he spoke to you mystically, without words, you would need cognitive functions to comprehend his meaning, and input form the brain’s emotional centers to fill you with rapture and awe. Neurology makes it clear: there is no other way for God to get into your head except through the brain’s neural pathways. Correspondingly, God cannot exist as a concept or as reality anyplace else but in your mind. In this sense, both spiritual experiences and experiences of a more ordinary material nature are made real to the mind in the very same way—through the processing powers of the brain and the cognitive functions of the mind. Whatever the ultimate nature of spiritual experience might be—weather it is in fact an actual perception of spiritual reality—or merely an interpretation of sheer neurological function—all that is meaningful in human spirituality happens in the mind. In other words, the mind is mystical by default.[7]

Just being connected to brain chemistry is not enough to disprove the universal experience argument.

The problem with the brain structure argument is that even though we all have human brain structure we don’t all have the same kinds of experiences. We can’t assume that universal experiences come from brain structure alone. First, not everyone has mystical experience. Even though the incidence rates are high they are not 100%. We all have human brain structure but not all have these experiences. Secondly, even among those who do there are varying degrees of the experience. William James saw it as a continuum and Robert Wuthnow, one of the early researchers who did a modern scientific study on the phenomenon also theorized that there is a continuum upon which degree of experience varies.[8] If the brain structure argument was true then we should expect to always have the same experience; we should have the same culture. We have differing experiences and even our perceptions of the same phenomena vary. Yet the experience of mystical phenomena is not identical since it is filtered through cultural constructs and translated into the doctrinal understanding of traditions that the experiencers identify as their own.

The brain Structure argument is based upon the same premises reductionists take to the topic of consciousness and brain/mind. They assume that any subjective experience is ultimately the result of brain chemistry. There really is no reason to assume this other than the fact that brain chemistry plays a role in our perceptions. There’s no basis for the assumption that any mental phenomena must originate in brain chemistry alone. In those arguments a sense usually emerges that any involvement with the natural cancels the supernatural. I suggest that this is the ersatz version of supernature. The alien realm, juxtaposed to the natural realm and brought in as a counter to naturalism, this is the false concept of Supernatural that Eugene R, Fairweather spoke about.[9] The original concept of supernature is that of the ground and end of the natural. Thus it would be involved with nature. The ground/end of nature is the ontology of supernature and pragmatic working out of the phenomenon would be the power of God to lift human nature to a higher level, as discussed by Fairweather and aslo Mathias Joseph Scheeben.[10] How can human nature be elevated without supernature being involved with the realm of nature? Thus, if it is true that bonafide experiences of God are mediated by brain chemistry, then the fact that supernature works through evolutionary processes and physiological realities such as brain chemistry is hardly surprising.

Some studies have explored questions about brain function and the texture or mechanics of mystical experience. Van Elk et al find that the sensation of supernatural presence is an adaptation from the need to over-detect presences of predictors in the jungle.[11] In other words if one sets out on a jungle trail, and there is darkness, sensing a predictor and turning back from the trek would be helpful. If the sensation was wrong and there was no predictor the mistake of being wrong would be less graven that of being right but ignoring the sense. Thus, the sensation of presence is selected for. This might be used by a skeptic to answer the argument from mystical experience. Elk has five experiments that that seek to explore weather processing concepts about supernatural agents enhances detection in the environment.

Participants were presented with point light stimuli representing kinds of biological motion, or with pictures of faces embedded in a noise mask. Participants were asked to indicate if the stimuli represented a human agent or not. In each case they used three “primes,” one for supernatural, one ofr human, one for animal. They found that supernatural primes facilitated better agent detection.[12] So the argument is that the perceived presence of agents in threatening situations and tendencies to anthropomorphizing leads stronger belief in ghosts, demons, angels, gods and other “supernatural” agency.[13] They point to a body of work consisting of several studies showing that particular paranormal beliefs are a reliable predictor of illusory perceptions of faces and agency detection. These studies include Willard and Norenzayan (2013), Reikki et. al. (2013), and Petrican and Burris (2012).[14] “[A]...lthough these studies provide tentative support for the relation between agency detection and supernatural beliefs, the notion that reigious beliefs are a byproduct of perceptual biases to detect patterns and agency has been challenge by several authors...” (Bulbulia, 2004, Lisdorf 2007, and McKay and Efferson, 2010).[15]
While it may be true that some aspects of mystical experience are genetically related, and may be related to agent detection, that is no proof that mystical experience originates wholly within a naturalistic and genetic framework. First, because these studies only demonstrate a correlation between supernatural beliefs and agency detection. There is no attempt to establish the direction of a causal relationship. If there is a connection between supernatural and agent detection it could as easily be that awareness of supernatural concepts makes one more sensitive to agent detection. Secondly, of course just being genetically related doesn't reduce the phenomenon wholly to genetic endowments. Thirdly, there is a lot more to mystical experience than agent detection. Both involve sensing a presence beyond that point the differences are immense. I am not even sure that facial recognition and sensing a predator are similar enough to count for anything. In sensing being observed one is not usually aware of visual ques as one would be in facial recognition. There's no guarantee that the quality of the sensing is the same. Feeling the divine presence is much more august and involves levels and textures. Such an experience is, overall, positive, life changing, transformational (even noetic) but merely feeling one is being observed could be creepy, negative, or even trivial. The vast differences can be spelled out in the tiebreakers I discuss in The Trace of God.

[1] Ilkka Pyysiäinen and Marc Hauser, "The Origins of Religion: Evolved Adaption or by Product." Science Direct: Trends in Cognitive Science, Volume 14, Issue 3, (March 2010), 104-109.

[2] Ibid,. 105=106.

[3] Adrian Hastings, Alistair Mason, Hugh S. Pyper. The Oxford Companion to Christian Though:Intellectual, Spiritual and Moral Horizons of Christianity, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000, 483
In the Trace of God I do two chapters defending Schleiermacher's notion and the religious a priori against reductionist based attacks by philosopher yne Proudfoot. (Hinman, Trace...op. Cit., 179-241).

[4 ]David Pailin, “The Religious a priori,” Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology, Louisville Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, Alan Richardson and John Bowden, ed.,1983, 498.

[5]  Daniel Dennett, Consciousness explained, Boston, MA. Back Bay Books 1992, 31-43.

[6] Lionel Tiger and Michael McGuire, God's Brain, Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2010. 11.

[7] Andrew Newberg, Why God Won’t God Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. (New York, Ballentine Books), 2001, 37.
[8] Robert Wuthnow, “Peak Experieces, Some Empirical Tests,” Journal of Humanistic Psychology 183 (1978) 61-62.

[9]Eugene R. Fairweather, “Christianity and the Supernatural,” in New Theology no.1. New York: Macmillian, Martin E. Marty and Dean G. Peerman ed. 1964. 235-256

[10]Mathias Joseph Scheeben in Fairweather, Ibid.

[11]  Michiel Elk, Bastiaan T. Rutjens, Joop van der Pligt,& Frenk van Harrveled (2016) Priming of Supernatural agent concepts and agency detection, Religion, Brain and Behavior, 6:1, 4-33, DOL: 10.1080/2153599X.2014.93344

[12]  Ibid., 4

[13]  Ibid., 5.

[14]  Ibid., 5. A.K. Willard and A. Norenzayan, “Cognative Biases Explain Religious Belief and belief in life's purpose,” Cognition 129 (2013), 379-391. T. Reikki, M.Litterman, et. al. “Paranormal and religious believers are more prone to illusary face perception than skeptics and none believers.” applied cognitive psychology 27 (2013) 150-155, and R. Petrican and C.T. Burris, “Am I a Stone? Over attribution of agency and Religious Orientation,” Religion and Spirituality 4 (2012), 312-323.

[15]  Ibid., 6. J. Bulbulia, “The Cognitive and Evolutionary Psychology of Religion,” Biology and Philosophy 19, (2004) 655-686, A. Lisdorf, “What's HIDD'n in the HADD,” Journal of Cognition and Culture 7, (2007), 341-353, and R. McKay and C. Efferson, “Subtitles of Error Management,” Evolution and Human Behavior, 31 (5)(2010) 309-319.