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Science Does Not Understand Our Consciousness of God, but Not for the Reasons We Might Think

by Denyse O’Leary

We really do not know much about people who lived before the age of writing, but sometimes they surprise us. Consider Gobekli Tepe in Southeastern Anatolia, Turkey, discovered in 1994. Dated at 11,500 years ago, it seems to have been a massive worship site. No one apparently lived at the site (no evidence of cooking or refuse), so it seems to have been set apart in some way. Archaeology Magazine tells us,

“It consists of about 20 stone wall circles (only a few of which have been excavated). Two megaliths face each other in the middle of each ring… The rings are also surrounded by huge, T-shaped stone pillars, some adorned with carvings of dangerous animals. The tallest pillars are about 16 feet and probably weigh seven to ten tons.” (November/December, 2008)

As science writer Charles C. Mann explained in National Geographic, “Gobekli Tepe was like finding that someone had built a 747 in a basement with an X-Acto knife.” The find suggests to many that religion, rather than agriculture, built civilization. We do not know what the builders believed or why, or why they were willing to to do so much to uphold the faith.

Gobekli Tepe declined and was abandoned before the dawn of symbolic communications so we will probably never know. But it seems as good a place as any to begin a discussion of God consciousness in the human brain.

Well first, what is consciousness? Unfortunately, we must be prepared for grave disappointment when we look at the current fully naturalist science literature. Two schools of thought, twin poles really, dominate the generally accepted naturalist (nature is all there is) account. One holds that consciousness is part of the material structure of the universe (otherwise, it could not exist). The other school holds that consciousness is merely an illusion generated by the activities of neurons, an illusion conserved by evolution because it enables humans to survive more frequently and pass on their genes. The contention between the two schools is famously called the “hard problem of consciousness.”

We may count zoologist Alex Pomeroy among the first group, the materialists: Consciousness is real and it is physical. He tells us at RealClearScience (where he is editor-in-chief) that physicists now “go hunting for consciousness,” hoping to find regions of the brain that constitute its seat.

Christof Koch, president and chief scientific officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, recently put forward the view, sponsored by neuroscientist and psychiatrist Giulio Tononi, that consciousness resides in an as-yet-unknown space in the universe:

“The new theory implies a radical disconnect between intelligence and consciousness, Koch said.” That makes a lot of sense because consciousness isn’t principally about intelligence anyway, even though some intelligence would seem to be necessary for it to function.

Cosmologist Max Tegmark proposed a few years ago a state of matter, perceptronium, as a physical entity for consciousness. This year, Stephen Battersby announced in New Scientist that information is “a physical thing.”

Information, which consciousness apprehends and sorts, is not a physical thing. As evolutionary biologist G. C. Williams (1926–2010) wrote,

“Information doesn’t have mass or charge or length in millimeters. Likewise, matter doesn’t have bytes. You can’t measure so much gold in so many bytes. It doesn’t have redundancy, or fidelity, or any of the other descriptors we apply to information. This dearth of shared descriptors makes matter and information two separate domains of existence, which have to be discussed separately, in their own terms.”

If two entities share so few descriptors, they are probably not similar, let alone the same thing.

And what about those people most of whose brains are missing, who are nonetheless conscious? An unexpected result of fMRI imaging is that we now know unambiguously of a number of such cases, for example:

One French patient’s skull “was filled largely by fluid, leaving just a thin perimeter of actual brain tissue.” He was married and father of two children. His IQ was considered low but he was gainfully employed. Cognitive scientist Axel Cleeremans remarked,

“A theory of consciousness that depends on ‘specific neuroanatomical features’ (the physical make-up of the brain) would have trouble explaining such cases.”

Another man became significantly brain-absent in an accident but made a remarkable recovery. Then there was the normal 88-year-old man whose brain had never had a connection (corpus callosum) between the two halves.

If a naturalist theory of the brain were valid, fMRI should have supported it strongly and pointed us in useful research directions. Despite this awkwardness, philosopher David Chalmers announced at a recent symposium at The New York Academy of Sciences. “The scientific and philosophical consensus is that there is no nonphysical soul or ego, or at least no evidence for that.” It’s odd then that so many great physicists have believed that consciousness is immaterial.

Our physical brains certainly act on our minds but the reverse is also true. One of the most powerful effects in medicine is the placebo effect: People start to get better when they believe that they are getting better. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy has been found to be as effective as antidepressants in treating serious depression.

But what about the other popular approach, that consciousness is merely a user illusion, a trick of the mind? Just how or why the trick would develop (let alone who the user is) is not clear. No wonder, because the existentially futile debate takes place among entities whose own consciousness is an illusion.

A prominent recent contender for the illusory view is psychologist and novelist Michael Graziano who proposes to solve the conundrum via evolutionary theory. His Attention Schema Theory (AST) posits that

“… consciousness arises as a solution to one of the most fundamental problems facing any nervous system: Too much information constantly flows in to be fully processed. The brain evolved increasingly sophisticated mechanisms for deeply processing a few select signals at the expense of others, and in the AST, consciousness is the ultimate result of that evolutionary sequence. If the theory is right—and that has yet to be determined—then consciousness evolved gradually over the past half billion years and is present in a range of vertebrate species.” More.

Graziano does not think that consciousness is actually a hard problem: “It’s just the brain describing itself—to itself.” Also, “Consciousness doesn’t happen. It’s a mistaken construct.” And, “The human brain insists it has consciousness, with all the phenomenological mystery, because it constructs information to that effect.” He believes that hard science will explain all this but he seems to be undercutting science while appealing to it. According to his more recent Integrated Information Theory, if a system is both rich and highly integrated, consciousness will emerge anywhere, even in a computer. But no one has yet seen it happen.

Medical researcher John Kabat-Zinn at BigThink insists that there is no “I,” and offers to explain how the brain creates the narratives of our lives. According to physicist Enzo Tagliazucchi, consciousness is a product of carefully balanced chaos.

“… the flow of electricity through our brains is not driven by some sentient force with will or intent. And, in fact, what causes the brain to move between states of consciousness and unconsciousness—to and from the critical point—remains unknown.”

All the positions from both perspectives outlined above have two things in common: They are fully naturalist and they shed no light at all. We all experience consciousness most of our lives but there is no theory of it.

Doubts about these twin poles are not recent. Pioneer Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield (1891–1976), author of Second Thoughts and Oxford zoologist (later, religion researcher) Alister Hardy (1896–1985), author of The Spiritual Nature of Man weighed in, more or less, on the side of some sort of immateriality. They tend to be dismissed today as old and out of touch.

Much more recently, eminent atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel cast doubt on the Darwinian naturalist view in Mind & Cosmos (2012). But his position was hardly popular. In Yale computer scientist David Gelernter’s words, “The intelligentsia was so furious [at him] that it formed a lynch mob.” [1]

Science writer Margaret Wertheim, reflecting on why consciousness is such a hot topic now, notes that Giulio Tononi has described the idea that mere matter could generate mind as a mystery “stranger than immaculate conception… an impossibility that defie[s] belief.” (Phi, 2012) Nonetheless, he and many others appear resolved to believe and act on that admitted impossibility. Given their commitments, they have no choice. And given current research directions, there may never be a good theory of consciousness.

We are conscious when we are the subjects of an experience. By definition, the experience of consciousness cannot be objective; objects do not have consciousness. If that’s the “hard problem of consciousness”, the problem is probably a permanent feature of a naturalist research landscape. It becomes impossible to talk about God or consciousness of God if we cannot accept that consciousness is an actual but immaterial entity.

Assuming God exists, if consciousness is not an illusion, we may be able to apprehend him more deeply than reason and emotion usually allow. That has been the goal of Christian mystics from the beginning, one for which they proved willing to sacrifice much.

Some neuroscience has been done on mystical states but it is dogged by general hostility to researching the area. [2] For example, in 2005 the Dalai Lama was scheduled to speak at a neuroscience and society conference. The invitation should not have been a surprise. He promotes (and funds) the scientific study of consciousness, and has encouraged his monks to serve as research subjects. He has enjoyed friendships with Karl Popper, Carl von Weizsäcker, and David Bohm.

However, a number of neuroscientists objected to his role because, as one put it, “Neuroscience more than other disciplines is the science at the interface between modern philosophy and science. No opportunity should be given to anybody to use neuroscience for supporting transcendent views of the world.” A petition against the proposed address as “little more than mumbo-jumbo” was organized by neuroscientists who were not ashamed to be vigorously ignorant of the subject.

The Lama did speak at the conference, but that hardly ended controversy. As we have seen, many neuroscientists assume that a naturalist view of consciousness, however uninformative, is “science” and that a non-naturalist view, however well grounded, is “not science.” One recent development, however, is that neural states associated with mystical consciousness can now be researched using instruments such as fMRI imaging.

Contemplative Christian nuns have been willing to assist neuroscience. One researcher, Andrew Newberg, found from his studies of Franciscan nuns, using SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography),

“… the mind remembers mystical experience with the same degree of clarity and sense of reality that it bestows upon memories of “real” past events. The same cannot be said of hallucinations, delusions, or dreams. We believe this sense of realness strongly suggests that the accounts of the mystics are not indications of minds in disarray, but are the proper, predictable neurological result of a stable, coherent mind willing itself toward a higher spiritual plane.” [3]

In Chapter 8 of The Spiritual Brain (2007), neuroscientist Mario Beauregard and I recounted his and doctoral student Vincent Paquette’s Templeton-funded study [4] of contemplative Carmelite nuns in Montreal, using fMRI and QEEG (quantitative EEG), with Hood’s Mysticism Scale as an evaluation tool. [5]  They wanted to study whether specific brain states are associated with mystical contemplation, in particular with mystical union (unio mystica), a state in which the contemplative Christian feels completely united to God. Such states typically result in greater compassion and healthier attitudes and behavior (also a common result of near-death experiences). [6]

The 15 Quebec nuns, aged 23 to 64 (mean age 50), had collectively spent about 210,000 hours in prayer. If prayer and contemplation register in the brain, they should demonstrate it. It was suggested by media sources at the time that the nuns were merely having an intense emotional experience—as The Economist put it, “faking it.”

Beauregard responded,

“Actually, we would not find that particular accusation hard to rebut at all. A person who is “faking it” should generate a lot of beta waves (typical of strenuous conscious activity) and not many theta waves (typical of deep meditative states).”

Mystical experiences cannot be summoned at will. The demand for them is mental noise that must cease. However, an experience we recall or relive tends to run through the same brain regions and pathways as when we first experienced it. Beauregard had already studied this effect in professional actors, for whom it is a performance technique. The actor sobbing over his dead stage father achieves authenticity by recalling a loved one’s death.

Beauregard and Paquette asked the nuns to recall and relive, with their eyes closed, the most intense mystical experience ever felt in their lives as members of the Carmelite Order. Among their findings were the fact that many brain regions, not just the temporal lobes, are involved in mystical experiences. That finding contradicts the numerous popular science claims for a God spot, module, or circuit in the brain or a dominant role for the temporal lobes. [7]

A more significant finding was that slow theta waves were prominent during the fully conscious recollection of deep mystical states, despite the fact that theta waves are usually associated with sleep. Thus, when the nuns said that they were experiencing an altered state of consciousness, they really were.

Do these and other such findings prove that mystics contact a power outside themselves? No, because there is no way to prove or disprove that from one side only. The findings can, however, rule out many naturalist attempts to account for God consciousness. For example, a complex pattern of experience is not consistent with a simple explanation like a “God circuit.”

The neuroscience of the mental states encountered by those who seek God are consistent with contact with a reality. They are not consistent with the pathology or nonsense models commonly used to explain religious experience. [8]

One example of the latter might be Graziano’s view of awareness of God:

“God is a social perception. Deities, angels, ghosts, devils, and presences are all consequences of the same machinery in the brain constructing models of conscious minds and attributing them to the spaces around us. People “know” these things not because they logically deduce them, but because machinery in the brain constructs the information at a level deeper than cognition, and in a way that doesn’t easily allow for doubt.” More.

The psychology and neuroscience literature is full of such specious claims. Their sheer numbers and the contradictions between them make them hard to even address. For example, debate centers on chimaeras such as whether religion is a useful, useless, or harmful evolutionary adaptation for the human animal, never over whether it results from a correct intuition about our universe. And there appears to be little compunction about getting many basic, widely accepted, facts wrong. For example, a 2007-2008 Baylor University survey found that theological liberals and non-religious people were far more likely to believe in superstitions than other Americans. In other surveys, non-religious people are more likely to see UFOs and religious liberals are more likely to credit astrology than Christians. Christian orthodoxy suppresses superstition, but do not expect to hear that discussed in journals that discuss consciousness, God, or consciousness of God. universe. That would not be “science.” [9]

In the end, there is no need to choose between science and spirituality. But there is certainly a need, as there always has been, to choose between naturalism and spirituality.

About The Author

Denyse O’Leary is an Ottawa-based author, journalist, and blogger.


[1] Gelernter’s own Tides of Mind, focuses on the shifting foci of attention of our consciousness across an inner and outer spectrum of experience.

[2] See Note 32, p. 339 of Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary, The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist’s case for the existence of the soul (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2007). It recounts a time when Beauregard had received funding but faced opposition on the principle that objective research on religious experiences could not in principle be scientific.

[3] Andrew Newberg, Eugene D’Aquili, and Vince Rause, Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief (New York: Ballantine Books, 2001), p. 113.

[4] Mario Beauregard, Vincent Paquette, Neural correlates of a mystical experience in Carmelite nuns, Neuroscience Letters 405 (2006) 186–190, http://bit.ly/2crFj0m

[5] Hood, Ralph W. Jr., Nima Ghorbani, Paul J. Watson, Ahad Framarz, Graham Alecki, Mark N. Bing, H. Kristl Davison, Ronald J. Morris and W. Paul Williamson. 2001. “Dimensions of the Mysticism Scale: Confirming the Three-Factor Structure in the United States and Iran.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 40(4):691-705.

[6] See The Spiritual Brain, 153-66.]

[7] See Chapters 2 through 5 of The Spiritual Brain for a survey of popular naturalist theories of this type.

[8] Ibid.

[9]See also: Chapter 7 of The Spiritual Brain.]

[Editor’s Note:  Science and Faith image from 2014 Hubble WFC3/UVIS Image of M16, by NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), found at Wikipedia Commons.]