Sensing God and the Limits of Neuroscience

Biology cannot account for transcendence.

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Osservatore Romano/Reuters

Recently, renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks published an article on The Atlantic entitled "Seeing God in the Third Millennium." In it he referred to numerous descriptions in medical literature of life-altering religious experiences associated with neurologic abnormalities. He also quoted accounts of ecstatic seizures by Fyodor Dostoyevsky and recollections of a coma from neurosurgeon Eben Alexander (which he had described in a widely read Newsweek cover article), both of whom believe they experienced something transcendent -- perhaps even God -- during an altered brain state.

Sacks pointed to recent studies showing that such epiphanies can be precisely linked to altered electrical activity in specific parts of the brain, especially the right temporal lobe. And he reported that such experiences are becoming more common, largely because more patients who would once have simply expired are being brought back from cardiopulmonary arrest and reporting remarkable near-death experiences. These often involve an out-of-body component, meaning that patients felt that they were watching themselves from an external vantage point. Some investigators have even shown that such out-of-body experiences can be replicated using an apparatus that includes video goggles, mannequins, and prosthetic limbs.

How to explain such experiences is a difficult problem that can never be definitively solved, but Sacks urged us to avoid denying natural explanations -- those framed in terms of the structure and function of the brain -- as possibilities. In particular, he condemned neurosurgeon Alexander's refusal to entertain a naturalistic explanation for an experience that he concluded represents definitive evidence of an afterlife, marking Alexander's account as "more than unscientific -- it is antiscientific." In stark contrast, Sacks argued that naturalistic accounts offer the best available explanation of such phenomena. He believes that such experiences most likely represent neurologically mediated hallucinations, given meaning by a deep human longing for the transcendent.

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.

What are we to make of the fact that some experiences attributed to a divine presence or an encounter with a transcendent reality are associated with characteristic changes in the function of a particular part of the brain, and that stimulating a part of the brain can produce such experiences in experimental subjects? Does this indicate that these experiences, and perhaps all such experiences, are therefore false? No one is contesting that the subjects involved genuinely believe in the validity of such experiences. Yet perhaps, as Sacks suggests, they are mere hallucinations, the same sorts of altered states sometimes produced by head trauma, drugs, and even nightly dreams. Are such experiences of the transcendent mere misfirings of the brain?

To put this question in a slightly different but more helpful form, would it be accurate to say that a perfectly functioning human brain would have no sense of the transcendent? If we could eliminate all toxins, aberrant electrical activity, and neurotransmitter imbalances from our brains, and also ensure an adequate supply of oxygen, glucose, and other necessary substances, would we thereby achieve a permanently non-transcendent state of mind? Would we remain, from day to day and even second to second, in a permanent state of immanence, aware only of the objects presented to us by our senses, and utterly devoid of the sorts of misperceptions that sometimes lead people to believe that they have encountered God?

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.

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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?

Presented by

Richard Gunderman, MD, PhD, is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is a professor of radiology, pediatrics, medical education, philosophy, liberal arts, and philanthropy, and vice-chair of the Radiology Department, at Indiana University. Gunderman's most recent book is X-Ray Vision.

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