Science & Spirituality|Jan 18, 2011 6:23 AM| by:

Can a Neuroscientist Opine about God?

There is a tendency in certain quarters to almost make a cult of science and take the word of a scientist as the very truth, weaving a gospel around it. This tendency, reminiscent of the centuries we have left behind, is to some extent understandable. It happened then that science challenged many world-views when wisdom had been reduced to a mass of widely held beliefs and ritualistic religion had replaced the true spiritual impulse. Science quite admirably assumed the task of demystifying many of life’s problems and, slowly but surely, began to enter and rule the minds of men. So much so that science today has become synonymous with the highest form of knowledge and scientific methods are regarded as the standard benchmark of truth.

One can almost say that science itself has become a religion and cult! The average man worships it and takes the word of the scientist as unquestionable gospel. The experiments of science and its mechanical formulas have led to another kind of dogmatism, a rationalised superstition, which no inferior human dares question… since the scientist simply says so!

It is here we need to raise the issue — can science really know everything? Can we take the opinion of a scientist, about some of the most fundamental questions of existence, as final solutions? Such an attitude is obviously unscientific and might provide fresh ground for a new kind of obscurantism. We may take an example to illustrate. A well-known neuroscientist, in a recent interview given to a widely read daily, was questioned as to whether God existed and whether the experience of Self that yogis have, was simply an apparition of the brain. The scientist naturally voiced the opinion that yogic experiences were brain-dependent phenomena. Obviously, if his leanings had been otherwise, he would not have spent years of research on the subject. For, unless compelled by outer circumstances, economic or otherwise, we naturally tend to pursue what we place our faith in. The scientist believes himself unbiased, but his perceptions and conclusions are subtly if not blatantly coloured by his basic faith or will-to-be. He is, contrary to popular belief, as subjective or objective in his bias as anyone else. For scientific training does not free us from that mud-house built on a constant stream of sensations, desires, impulses, reason and emotions. He is like a trapped jack-in-the-box, looking at the box from inside. He minutely studies the interior, draws out its patterns in great detail and even tries to give significance to each and every line, which is indeed intricate and perfect within those limits. But he fails to see the relation of that box to the totality.

A yogi, on the other hand, will try to find some hidden handle inside the box, a lever, spring or weak spot through which he can find a door to lead him out of the trap to a vantage point where he appreciates the box in a fuller and better way.

Of course, all genuine scientists recognize their limitations. Also, some scientists are yogis themselves and therefore in a better position to directly appreciate experiences related to our search for God. These are mostly men who  having reached a peak of mental development, then found it incomplete. They have consequently proceeded beyond frames and limited paradigms.

But there is a breed of scientists, now thankfully a dwindling species, which believes it knows all simply because it knows a little, a small fragment of the physical universe, human body and brain. That is not to say that the brain does not have many hidden faculties. But it is preposterous to lay all on it and its neuro-chemicals. There are at least three reasons for this.

First of all, this conjecture that the whole human being is only a machine regulated by the brain, has never been scientifically proven. Even after decades of intensive research on the brain, we have not been able to make man evolve further by any type of brain stimulation. True, people can lose existing faculties through brain injury; they may undergo a consequential change of personality, as is seen in many well-documented cases. But that does not mean that the reverse is also true. Of course, the brain itself evolves and undergoes change, both with biological and psychological development. And, as it evolves, it brings forth certain capacities inherent in it. The brain also records what has been imprinted upon it and may reproduce these imprints even when the active surface memory has long forgotten them. But that is very different from creating new experiences simply through brain stimulation. It is the same fallacy as believing life to be created by a combination of chemicals. A hundred years of effort has failed to create life by combining chemicals under different outer environments. Yet the myth continues to be taught and believed simply because it is scientifically maintained! So also with the myth that traces all mental and other experiences to the brain. It is very simply a myth, never proved, never disproved, because to disprove such a thing is simply impossible. Yet the story is being forced down our throats and we gulp it down because science is our modern religion and scientists the new priests interceding between mankind and truth, the gods we worship whose very word is sacred beyond all questioning!

Secondly, all authentic spiritual experiences require a certain degree of brain stilling. These experiences emerge when the active waking mental consciousness is quietened rather than stimulated. This is not because they are anterior and therefore inferior to reason and mental processes. If that were the case, then cats and dogs, or at least monkeys and chimps, would be more spiritual than man. So we have to consider the next possibility, that spiritual experiences belong to a domain beyond the mind. This has been testified by the experience of those yogis who cut across time and space.

Of course, certain kinds of experiences do arise through brain stimulation or chemicals, such as hallucinogenic drugs. But these are experiences that release states of consciousness not normally accessible (and therefore abnormal or altered), anterior to reason, which are closer to the animal level. Some of these, for example synaesthesia, are more a confusion of the senses than a true synthesis. So also, fear and depression, undue appetite for sex and food, a rush of chaotic thoughts or excessive thrills are not deep spiritual joys but an exuberance of energy released from rational control. So too, sometimes an excessive religiosity, found in some cases of epilepsy, is taken as proof that spirituality is nothing but a type of sub-clinical epilepsy. But those who have known both, i.e. epileptics and authentic yogis, know very well that the two are poles apart. These experiences, altered states and hallucinations are very different from authentic spiritual experiences, to say the least. The religiosity of the epileptic or maniac is reminiscent of a primitive man, often ritualistic, using means closer to animality rather than humanity, let alone the divinity inside us. It is like saying that all that looks black is the same because it appears the same! Here again, we see a primitive form, one anterior to reason and therefore deeply embedded in the already evolved grooves of the brain.

In fact, inner experiences cover a whole range that evolves as man as a being evolves and, though there may be certain superficial similarities, the core of authentic spiritual experience is very different from the mimicked one. In fact, the test of a true spiritual experience is not so much in its phenomenal content but in the effect it produces on the human consciousness and the change it induces. All authentic spiritual experience leads to a greater degree of peace and calm, a sense of love for the Divine, a feeling of self-giving and surrender. It brings a growing equanimity, mastery over the ego and desires, a deep inner joy that nourishes and revitalizes. The other type, induced and chemically corrected, leads to an increasing restlessness and imbalance, an arrogance, an increase in sexual and other appetites, an inflated sense of one’s importance, etc. Yet even these may not necessarily be due to brain disorders, even though chemicals can control them. So we need to understand that the tendency of the neuroscientist to brand all unusual experiences, from the abnormal to supernormal, as simply mental phenomena produced by the brain is an unscientific observation and a hypothesis untenable by the facts of the case.

Thirdly and very importantly, the phenomenon always exceeds the explanation. We witness this in every scientific exposition. Life is explained on the basis of genes and chemicals, but individual chemicals or even their combinations have none of the properties of life. Again, mind is explained on the basis of biological operations, but the cells and neurons are not in themselves capable of higher faculties of thought and reason, poetry and complex emotions, let alone psychic and spiritual experiences. No doubt there is a material basis to events that use the body to manifest themselves, but that basis is not the origin.

In other words, there is a truth of things that can be understood in terms of consciousness and there is a truth of things that can be understood in terms of material processes that the consciousness uses. Quite naturally too, there is a common interphase where the two meet. One can chemically manipulate expression at a material level by cutting off the wiring. But true control can only come through changing the consciousness. Chemicals can alter but cannot fundamentally change the consciousness. They can down-regulate neurons or even block phenomena from arising, but they cannot evolve something new or develop a better and higher way of knowing and experiencing the self and world around us.

Then, what about those snatches of music or fragments of thoughts or images that arise through stimulation of certain areas of the brain? And what about the chemical control of obsessive thoughts and emotions? To understand this, we have to understand that the brain is more a receiver and transmitter, rather than the originator of thoughts and emotions. Thus brain damage, as well as chemical blockage of neural pathways, can prevent the transcription of certain states of consciousness into our mental experience, but cannot stop the thought or emotion from existing, the moment the drug is stopped. This can be compared to a TV that transcribes electro-magnetic vibrations into visual images. Now, if someone could have access to the waves themselves, he would know about their presence even before they were flashed on the screen. This knowledge may further lead to a better and truer control over the images. But to one who has no such access, the only way is to switch off the TV set. The result may appear the same; in fact the switch-off process may be even faster and, due to its rapidity, might appear even more effective. The other process may take more time but is more definitive and has a greater range of manipulative power. So, though chemicals may control some thoughts and feelings escaping into our waking consciousness, yet the fundamental nature of those images to which our consciousness is attuned will not change. They cannot transform, for instance, an egoistic man into a selfless creature or artist or poet. But true spiritual consciousness can achieve that. It can change the very nature of images, thoughts and emotions that arise in our minds.

In other words, the neuroscientist has one domain, the spiritual scientist another. The two can sometimes complement each other but they are not interchangeable. Carrying the analogy further, it is like the difference between the physicist, the directors of various programmes and the TV mechanic. Each has his domain. We can compare the spiritual man to the physicist who studies and knows all about the waves. The various non-material forces of consciousness, including us, are like the director and programmer. The occultist, who knows something about the secret technology of consciousness and can therefore exercise some control over it, is like the engineer, whilst the neuroscientist is more akin to the TV mechanic who knows how to switch the TV on and off, change the channels and adjust the picture more precisely. And though the average man is more concerned with the mechanic who is immediately useful, he still cannot replace the physicist and engineer whose knowledge and power of manipulation is more true, accurate and perfect. The mechanic knows no more physics than is necessary for his repairs, but the physicist knows the mechanics of repair as well as the origin of waves and projection of images. Thus even an accurate and perfect knowledge of the brain cannot tell us anything about the secret commerce of consciousness that goes on behind the physical scenes. For that, the neuroscientist himself must take to yoga and directly experience the mystery of God. Or else, instead of opining about things he has neither knowledge nor direct experience, it is better for him to keep a respectful silence on those domains that pass beyond his ken!