Neuroscience, Philosophy, God and Jackson Pollock

A Pollock painting or random paint splatters? You decide.

A friend of mine who is a librarian recently sent me a link to an interesting video by a neuroscientist and neurosurgeon named Robert Sapolsky (who also happens to have an awesome beard!). In this video Sapolsky brings together key findings on brain structure and function to "explain the Biological Basis of Religiosity, and What It Shares in Common with OCD, Schizophrenia & Epilepsy".

Although Sapolsky was raised as an Orthodox Jew, he has since left his childhood faith and describes himself as an atheist. However, he says, "I’m not saying ‘you gotta be crazy to be religious. That would be nonsense. Nor am I saying, even, that most people who are, are psychiatrically suspect." Sapolsky is fascinated by the underlying biology of these traits common to to both certain kinds of abnormal psychology and extreme religious experience. And he confesses that his atheism seems to be something he "appears to be unable to change".

What he is saying is that "the same exact traits which in a secular context are life-destroying" and "separate you from the community" are "at the core of what is protected, what is sanctioned, what is rewarded, what is valued in religious settings." Any anyone who reads Biblical books like Ezekiel or Jeremiah can easily see what he is talking about in extreme claims of Divine Revelation. All the ancients knew that madness and religious ecstasy are two sides of the same coin.

Now, I am completely unable (and unwilling) to debate the neuro-biological basis of religious experience, nor similarities or dissimilarities with abnormal psychological states. In fact, I have no reason to doubt Sapolsky's basic claims and research. And as it will be clear below, I would imagine that there must be a "biological basis for belief" if religious believers are to adequately account for their religious experience.

However, I would like to discuss some of the religious philosophy underlying the whole debate as to what counts, and does not count, as evidence for the validity of religious experience, and the reality of "God". One of the interesting philosophical conundrums brought up by studies like Sapolsky's is the non-falsifiable nature of certain claims for AND against religion.


On one hand, the Materialist can use data like this to present a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" argument against metaphysical claims about the reality of God.

It goes a bit like this:

Materialist assumption: Matter alone is real. There is nothing beyond the Material (empirical) world.


If we find a biophysical basis for religious experience (such as a brain pattern or neural structure that accounts for religious experience or belief), then religion is MERELY an epiphenomenon of matter. Thus God does not exist.

BUT If there is a religious claim that has no biophysical evidence-- such as a miracle, a healing, a divine revelation, a pattern, or an idea that cannot be physically replicated-- then it is ruled out apriori as non-sense (since only sensible, empirical events can count as evidence). Thus God does not exist.

So on this account, there can be no evidence for God, since all evidence that can be mustered-- whether empirical or non-empirical-- must lead to the conclusion God is not real due to the materialist presupposition at the basis of the worldview. There is no way to falsify (or prove) the materialist presupposition either way, since all evidence will be taken in as evidence for a materialist worldview. It's effectively a self-referential argument that is non-falsifiable.

And, ever since Popper and Pauli, it has been recognized that if a truth claim cannot be falsified by empirical experimentation, it is not a "scientific" statement. While I do not agree with Pauli that a non-falsifiable claim is meaningless (or in his words "it is not only not right, it is not even wrong!"). I do agree that a different kind of reasoning, and different rational criteria, must be used to discern between claims that rightly philosophical or wrongly pseudo-scientific.

Now, at this point, the secular reader may feel that I am beating up on the anti-metaphysical claims of the non-religious. To them I would reply that the argument FOR religion ALSO has a problem with falsifiability.

Most Theistic worldviews would posit a God who reveals Godself to humans. And if God is going to reveal Godself to humans, this revelation would have to be done in a way that humans are "fitted for" or "equipped" to receive.

Thus, if we find a biophysical basis for religious belief in brain patterns or neural structures, then it is there because God created humans (or willed that they would evolve) to be receptive to spiritual "signals" using such biophysical apparatus. The "wiring" of human consciousness is designed to receive spiritual signals in a way analogous to how a radio is wired to receive radio signals. Thus, God's reality is strongly upheld by findings such as Sapolsky's.

BUT if something happens that seems to reveal intelligent communication, but cannot be explained in biophysical/empirical terms, then this is ALSO evidence for God doing a miracle to reveal Godself to humanity. Thus, if a "miracle" occurs which cannot be explained by our current level of science, or if a dimension of human experience is glimpsed which cannot be empirically observed, then it is counted as evidence for a God who reveals Godself.

So, again, on the theistic account THE SAME empirical and non-empirical evidence used by the Materialist can be mustered to come to the exact opposite conclusion: Namely God is real. And this too is a self-referential argument based on one's presuppositions, which is also non-falsifiable.

And therefore we get to the rather odd philosophical position that all of the empirical evidence we can muster is well-neigh irrelevant to whether or not we assert that God is real. What is relevant is not so much the evidence, but the ideological container (set of presuppositions) we use to hold the evidence in.

I know this gets real "meta" really quickly.

But for me it's kind of like looking at a Jackson Pollack painting. If we stare at one small piece of the painting for days or weeks or years on end, we wind up knowing little about the overall painting. To really understand what the artist was up to (IF there was an artist!), you have to  get a wider view of the totality of the work: Is the totality better explained by a random chaos or a purposive creativity? How would one look at a Pollock painting and discern purpose and creativity as opposed to a randomly splattered drop cloth?

When we move out beyond this particular research study, or that study, or my experience, or your experience: Do we grasp any kind of gestalt pattern-ness to the Universe? Is the Universe randomly splattered? Or is there some kind of Purposive Creativity at work beyond the seeming chaos? It all depends on how the totality of experience elicits an interpretive strategy for each of us that either sees, or does not see, some kind of Meta-Pattern at work within and throughout the patterns that occur all around us.

It's pretty obvious on which side I hang my hat, since I wear the priest collar and all. But I don't blame folks for taking the opposite interpretation of phenomena. Both sides are logically consistent within their self-referentiality. And if I had a different set of experiences I might interpret things differently too.

This whole situation reminds me of my favorite analogy regarding evidence and religious belief. It starts with this string of letters:


How does one interpret the pattern held within these letters? There are at least five ways I know of to parse these letters, but the two most common are either "GOD IS NOW HERE" (a strong affirmation of God's reality) and "GOD IS NOWHERE" (a strong rejection of God's reality). And both the strong affirmation and rejection come to us on the basis of the exact same visible evidence.

What determines how we interpret the evidence? Perhaps our knowledge of the person who wrote the letters. Perhaps our own experiences with religion and "God". Perhaps the neurobiological wiring of our bodies. Perhaps how ironic or radical or conservative we see ourselves as being. Perhaps. Perhaps. Perhaps.

But in the end, it boils down to choice for me. A free choice, which ultimately can go with the grain or against the grain of our experiences and character formation. We could look at the evidence and choose "GOD IS NOW HERE" or "GOD IS NOWHERE" or "GOD I SNOW HERE" or "GO DIS NOWHERE!" or "GOD ISN OWH ERE" or whatever else you can make out of the pattern of letters.

As a believer in God, the "subjective" ambiguity and parallax of interpreting all the "objective" evidence is indicative of the kind of God who created the universe, and the kind of persons God willed should evolve within that universe. For me, God is Love, and invites the universe into communion with that Love. But Love which is forced or pre-programmed is not Love at all. For Love to be Love in the fullest sense, it must be a relationship that is freely and consciously chosen.

And so God willed that radically free and fully conscious persons should evolve in the universe who can choose to share in God's Love or reject God's Love. Now it does not concern the argument whether those persons are the "humans" we accustomed to on Earth, or whether they are some alien species on another planet, or whether they are Artificial Intelligence we create, or whether they are the next species on Earth after us to evolve to be fully conscious, communicative, free persons. The argument is that a universe with free and conscious beings in it is the kind of universe a God of Love would will to exist.

However, if God values personal freedom and choice this much, then God would not make the "objective" structures of the universe so coercive that a person could not disbelieve or deny God without being "insane" or "irrational" or "mentally handicapped". Such a universe would destroy freedom, and thus destroy Love. Rather, God would have to carefully will a universe in which belief and disbelief are equally sane and rational choices, based upon a logical interpretation of the evidence at hand.

And this is precisely the kind of universe I find myself in. It is the kind of universe where I can work and play with colleagues whom I find to be people of integrity, who are great parents, great teachers, and great citizens, and yet we all have differing views on God which are all logically consistent and congruent with the evidence of our life experience. I find myself in a universe where we all look at the evidence and see GODISNOWHERE. And some of us see a Divine Jackson Pollock behind it all, and others see random paint splatters.


I also want to make clear that my understanding of "accepting God's Love" or "rejecting God's Love" is not only or even primarily a case of accepting or rejecting cognitive truth claims such as "God exists" or "God does not exist". I realize that this entire essay can be read that way, because this essay is dealing primarily with the cognitive aspect of our personhood (and how our cognitive beliefs can be falsified and interpreted).

In fact, there are many dimensions of personhood. Yes, there is the cognitive dimension of our thoughts, beliefs and worldview, made up of propositions or truth claims about what is real and how reality works. But there is also the affective dimension of moral duty, character formation, and aesthetic experience. And there is a volitional dimension of activity and passivity, freedom and constraint, choices and consequences. To these dimensions one might also consider our experience as embodied material beings, with all the biology and physics that entails. And one might also consider the immaterial aspects of our experience, and how our subjectivity affects the objective dimensions of our life. And one might also want to include those dimensions that are frequently called "conscious", "subconscious" and "unconscious".

What does all of this mean in regards to "God"? If there is a God of Love as I have posited, then perhaps "accepting" or "denying" God's Love is much more than a cognitive choice. Perhaps it has to do more with the Gestalt, or the integrated whole, of our being in relation to the whole of the universe. Perhaps it is possible to deny God with one's mind, while "accepting" and very much living in harmony with God's Love morally and socially. Perhaps one person could accept God's reality cognitively, but be selfish and hateful and out of harmony with God's Love volitionally. Perhaps another person could have a character that radiated God's Love while being consciously and cognitively unaware of God's reality.

The cognitive acceptance or denial of God's reality is of course an important thing. It is a cognitive choice that can affect how we live our lives, how we orient ourselves to the future, and what kinds of public policies we support. But perhaps, even as important as this choice is, it is not the most important choice, nor the most important dimension, of living into the "full human flourishing" we are made for.

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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.