Narratives of Self, Purpose, and Meaning [Part 2]: The Supernatural

It’s Youth Group night at church; I’m a high school senior and have been tapped to give the sermon. I start with, “Religions are the vehicles through which human beings try to make sense of life.” Honest, that’s what I said. I remember writing it, I remember standing at the pulpit saying it. At home afterward my dad and my sister’s seminarian boyfriend (his name was Luther – honest) were snacking on roast preacher. “Where did you get that?” Luther asked, ‘Religions are the vehicles through which human beings try to make sense of life’ – where did you get that?” He was impressed. I don’t know, it was just an idea, it seemed obvious — religion is one of the things humans do.

Making Sense of Things

As we saw last time, religion is a “teleological”[1] strategy – it’s one of the ways we invest things, events people, ourselves, our lives, and life in general with purpose and meaning. For many people, religion and the supernatural are the go-to standard for teleological thinking.

“Academic research shows that religious and supernatural thinking leads people to believe that almost no big life events are accidental or random. As the authors of some recent cognitive-science studies at Yale put it, ‘Individuals’ explicit religious and paranormal beliefs’ are the best predictors of their ‘perception of purpose in life events”—their tendency ‘to view the world in terms of agency, purpose, and design.’”[2]

The prefix “super” in “supernatural” means above, beyond, over, apart from. When we say supernatural, we mean there’s something or Someone out there that’s not limited to the natural world and flesh and blood, that has it all figured out, sees what we don’t see, knows that we don’t know, explains what we can’t explain, is better at life than we are. The supernatural is personified or objectified in what we call God, who has a better take than we’ll ever have: as author Madeleine L’Engle wrote: “I have a point of view. You have a point of view. God has view.”

Religion tries to teach us God’s view but generally accepts there are limits. Besides, if we could share God’s view, we wouldn’t need God anymore, we’d be God. Short of that, we can only believe God has view, and that it’s better, more complete, more perfect than our point of view. Which means that, compared to God, we and our existence are lesser, partial, flawed, while God represents the perfected version of us – what we would be if we could be God. And somehow, knowing that’s a comforting thought — I know it was for me when I first began to believe in God (a couple years after I gave that sermon), because at least God was better than the alternative, which was me having lost my bearings and making a mess of life.

“From a scientific point of view, we were not created or designed but instead are the product of evolution. The natural events that shaped our world and our own existence were not purposeful. In other words, life is objectively meaningless. From this perspective, the only way to find meaning is to create your own, because the universe has no meaning or purpose. The universe just is. Though there are certainly a small percentage of people who appear to accept this notion, much of the world’s population rejects it. For most humans, the idea that life is inherently meaningless simply will not do.”[3]

Believe First, Then Rationalize

Enter the supernatural. Now I felt better. And once I was in, I backfilled the case for believing. Over the next few years I built my case, devouring Christian apologetics and other books that were making the rounds of my collegiate fellowship. That ancillary material became part of my new religious narrative, supporting the primary doctrinal narrative.

These days, neuro-psychological research indicates that we believe first, then rationalize. Rationalizing is not the same as acting rationally. Belief in the supernatural is a story – the story we tell about ourselves and our life that gives us identity and our life purpose and meaning. To the believer, it’s nonfiction – the way things really are, who they really are. If we’re not of similar persuasion, we may think it’s fiction – a fish story, or case of “teleological error”[4]. – but neither of us can prove the other wrong. Belief is ultimately indefensible and unassailable – it’s a “first thought” from which a host of others originate. Still, we like to think our beliefs are rational, chosen in the exercise of our own free will.

Free Will (or not)

Take away free will, and you take away a key sense of personal power. Free will gives us something we can do in the face of the apparent nonsense of life: we can stem the onslaught of meaninglessness by choosing to believe – in this case, in the supernatural. We still don’t understand, we still screw up, but at least we can rely on the supernatural to understand and model what we would be like if we weren’t so… mortal.

These days, neuro-psychology also challenges our usual assumptions about the self and free will, holding that our free will isn’t as free and intentional and rational as we’d like to think. Maybe so, but at least one leading brain scientist thinks that sometimes it might be better just to fool ourselves into believing we can choose what to believe – at least we’ll feel better.

“Psychologist Dan McAdams proposes that when it comes to making sense of our lives, we create narratives or personal myths to explain where we have come from, what we do, and where we are going… These accounts are myths because they are not grounded in reality but rather follow a well-worn narrative path of a protagonist character (our self) and what the world throws at them.

“This core self, wandering down the path of development, enduring things that life throws at us is, however, the illusion. Like every other aspect of human development, the emergence of the self is epigenetic — an interaction of the genes in the environment. The self emerges out of that journey through the epigenetic landscape, combining the legacy of our genetic inheritance with the influence of the early environment to produce profound and lasting effect on how we develop socially. … These thoughts and behavior may seemingly originate from within us, but they emerge largely in a social context. IN a sense, who we are comes down to those around us. We may be born with different biological properties and dispositions, but even those emerge in the context of others and in some cases can be triggered or turned off by environmental factors.

“We may feel that we are the self treading down the path of life and making our own decisions at the various junctions and forks but that would also assume that we are free to make our choices. However, the freedom to make choices is another aspect of the illusion.

“Most of us believe that, unless we are under duress or suffering from some form of mental disorder, we all have the capacity to freely make decisions and choices. This is the common belief that our decisions are not preordained and that we can choose between alternatives. This is what most people mean by having free will — the belief that human behavior is an expression of personal choice and is not determined by physical forces, fate, or God. In other words, there is a self in control.

“However, neuroscience tells us that we are mistaken and that free will is also part of the self illusion… We think we have freedom but, in fact, we do not.

“For example, I believe that the sentence that I just typed was my choice. I thought about what I wanted to say and how to say it. Not only did I have the experience of my intention to begin this line of discussion at this point but I had the experience of agency, of actually wanting it. I knew I was the one doing it. I felt the authorship of my actions.

“It seems absurd to question my free will here but, as much as I hate to admit it, these experiences are not what they seem. This is because any choices that a person makes must be the culmination of the interaction of a multitude of hidden factors ranging from genetic inheritance, life experiences, current circumstances, and planned goals. Some of these influences must also come from external sources, but they all play out as patterns of neuronal activity in the brain. This is the matrix of distributed networks of nerve cells firing across my neuronal architecture.

“My biases, my memories, my perceptions, and my thoughts are the interacting patterns of excitation and inhibition in my brain, and when the checks and balances are finally done, the resulting sums of all of these complex interactions are the decisions and the choices that I make. We are not aware of these influences because they are unconscious and so we feel that the discussion has been arrived at independently — a problem that was recognized by the philosopher Spinoza when he wrote, “Men are mistaken in thinking themselves free; their opinion is made up of conscious of their own actions, and ignorance of the causes by which they are determined.”

“Even if the self and our ability to exercise free will is an illusion, not all is lost. In fact, beliefs seem to produce consequences for our behavior.

“Beliefs about self-control, from wherever they may derive, are powerful motivators of human behavior.

“When we believe that we are the masters of our own destiny, we behave differently than those who deny the existence of free will and believe everything is determined.

“Maybe that’s why belief in free will predicts not only better job performance but also expected career success. Workers who believe in free will outperform their colleagues ,and this is recognized and rewarded by their superiors. So, when we believe in free will, we enjoy life more.

“The moral of the tale is that, even if free will doesn’t exist, then maybe it is best to ignore what the neuroscientists or philosophers say. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.”[5]

It seems we often greet paradigm-shifting scientific findings with a shrug. Maybe somebody in a lab coat figured something out, but there’s no apparent impact on us. Maybe somebody says free will is nothing more than the confluence of multiple neural pathways — okay fine, but we’ll take own misguided, self-deceptive sense of agency any day. It’s how we’re used to feeling, and there’s no apparent downside to contradicting a bunch of intellectual hooey. In fact, the downside is all on the side of science, which wants us to think there’s no point in anything.

Plus, if we believe in the supernatural, we enjoy the safety of numbers– especially if we live in the USA, where a 2019 Gallup Poll found that 64% – 87% of us believe in God, depending on how the question was asked. (By contrast, also in 2019, the Pew Research Center found that only 4% of Americans said they were atheists.[6])

For me personally, when I first learned about neuroscience’s case against free will, it didn’t feel devastating or hopeless, didn’t throw me into a pit of despair, didn’t make me want to wallow. It was weird, but no more. I was skeptical, and still assume there’s more to be discovered before we get the whole picture, but in time, I came to like the changes in outlook the absence of God and belief in God offered. Life and my place in it were cleaner and simpler somehow – if for no other reason that I no longer needed to expend the energy belief in the supernatural used to require.

The Religious Brain

Also back when I first got religion, I experienced something else current neuroscience tells us: that religion shapes the brain as the brain shapes religion. Jordan Grafman, head of the cognitive neuroscience laboratory at Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and neurology professor at Northwestern University, says that religions and their community behavioral codes helped to make the brain what it is today, and vice versa:

“Neurotheology is important in part because early religious practices helped develop our brains to begin with. ‘Religion has played an incredibly important role in human evolution. It’s funny, people want to separate the two but in fact they’re intertwined,’ [Dr. Grafman] says.

“Of course, it’s a two-way relationship between the brain and religion. Our brains had to develop the capacity to establish social communities and behaviors, which are the basis of religious societies. But religious practice in turn developed the brain, says Grafman. ‘As these societies became more co-operative, our brains evolved in response to that. Our brain led to behavior and then the behavior fed back to our brain to help sculpt it,’ he adds.”[7]

The mutual reinforcement loop still operates, so that the brain steeped in religion gets better at religion, finds way to reinforce and substantiate its beliefs. As a result, the religious narrative becomes more and more true the more you practice it –experience increasingly conforms to religious dictates on both an individual and community level. Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, a pioneer of “neurotheology,” observes that the religious brain promotes social cohesiveness and conformity to social moral norms.

“‘There’s the argument that religion has benefited human beings by helping to create cohesive societies and morals and help us to determine our behavior and interact with the world more effectively,’” says Newberg. ‘The ability to think about this from a neuroscience perspective is part of that discussion.’”[8]

As a result, when you stop practicing your religious narrative, as I did, your brain circuits are no longer engaged in actively supporting it, and are now available to process alternatives. As you detach from religious immersion, your prior conviction about its truth – i.e., its ability to explain reality, which was increasingly conforming to it — fades away. At that stage, the brain’s formerly religious wiring is equally adept at promoting other individual and communal beliefs and behaviors, as well as other narratives. Andew Newberg’s website provides a sample of research findings from his book[9] indicating that the formerly religious brain is equally adept at generating rule-breaking behavior:

“The prefrontal cortex is traditionally thought to be involved in executive control, or willful behavior, as well as decision-making. So, the researchers hypothesize, it would make sense that a practice that centers on relinquishing control would result in decreased activity in this brain area.

“A recent study that Medical News Today reported on found that religion activates the same reward-processing brain circuits as sex, drugs, and other addictive activities.

“Researchers led by Dr. Jeff Anderson, Ph.D. — from the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City — examined the brains of 19 young Mormons using a functional MRI scanner.

“When asked whether, and to what degree, the participants were “feeling the spirit,” those who reported the most intense spiritual feelings displayed increased activity in the bilateral nucleus accumbens, as well as the frontal attentional and ventromedial prefrontal cortical loci.

“These pleasure and reward-processing brain areas are also active when we engage in sexual activities, listen to music, gamble, and take drugs. The participants also reported feelings of peace and physical warmth.

“’When our study participants were instructed to think about a savior, about being with their families for eternity, about their heavenly rewards, their brains and bodies physically responded,’ says first study author Michael Ferguson.

“These findings echo those of older studies, which found that engaging in spiritual practices raises levels of serotonin, which is the “happiness” neurotransmitter, and endorphins.

“The latter are euphoria-inducing molecules whose name comes from the phrase ‘endogenous morphine.’

“Such neurophysiological effects of religion seem to give the dictum ‘Religion is the opium of the people’ a new level of meaning.”[10]

These findings explain a range of religious behaviors: charitable good deeds, the use of music in worship, and beneficial “fellowship” dynamics at one end of the spectrum; and clergy sexual crimes, cult abuses, and terrorism on the other end. Plus, the entire spectrum is supported not only by religious neural network, but by the brain’s addictive feel-good hormones — right alongside sex, drugs, and rock n roll.

Lost in the Story

Religious narratives draw upon ancient storytelling for their source material, making liberal use of metaphors and allegories in scripture and wisdom literature to create parables, koans, riddles, myths, fables, cautionary tales, and poetry. Religious storytelling illuminates the human condition, illustrates what happens when Earthy existence is aligned or at odds with Heavenly purpose.[11]

Normally, metaphors and allegories are representational: they describe one thing in terms of another – i.e., in the case of religion, worldly, fleshly experience in light of divine, spiritual truth. Sometimes, though, religious practice recasts human experience into literal, explicit religious storytelling, in which the devotee is “in but not of the world”[12] to an extreme. As a result, the zealot dwells in religious metaphor, views themselves and others as religious characters, and interprets circumstances in terms of religious drama. At this extreme, reality becomes a pious fantasyland, in which religious imagery supplants worldly experience. Religious storytelling no longer illustrates and represents, it becomes perceived reality, as the believer remains in a closed, self-reinforcing system. The condition is euphoric, supported by feel-good brain hormones – as close to what it feels like to have God’s view as we’ll ever get.

I know this experience well — I did this a lot in my religious days, and not just with religion, but also with film, theater, books, and other stories – just as I had as a child. I have a lively imagination and have “the ability to become easily engrossed, such as in movies, novels or daydreams” [13] – traits that make it easy for me to generate religious experience and make me a good subject for hypnosis..

The best example of this kind of religious storytelling excess that I can think of are the lyrics of a hymn I remember singing in the church where I grew up:

I love to tell the story
Of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory,
Of Jesus and His love.
I love to tell the story,
Because I know ’tis true;
It satisfies my longings
As nothing else can do.

 I love to tell the story,
’Twill be my theme in glory
To tell the old, old story
of Jesus and His love.

I love to tell the story;
More wonderful it seems
Than all the golden fancies
Of all my golden dreams,
I love to tell the story,
It did so much for me;
And that is just the reason
I tell it now to thee.

I love to tell the story;
Tis pleasant to repeat
What seems each time I tell it,
More wonderfully sweet.
I love to tell the story;
For some have never heard
The message of salvation
From God’s own holy Word.

I love to tell the story;
For those who know it best
Seem hungering and thirsting
To hear it like the rest.
And when, in scenes of glory,
I sing the new, new song,
’Twill be the old, old story,
That I have loved so long.

I used to wonder why religious experiences were so easy for me, compared to other people, until I became aware of the neurological underpinnings of this cognitive disposition. Discovering it, and learning to keep it from running away with me, turned about to be a key development in my drift away from religion, and from narrative in general.

More on narratives next time.

[1] Wikipedia.

[2] Andersen, Kurt, How America Lost Its Mind – The nation’s current post-truth moment is the ultimate expression of mind-sets that have made America exceptional throughout its history, The Atlantic (Dec. 28, 2017). See also Routledge, Supernatural, op. cit.

[3] Routledge, Clay, Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of the Invisible World  (July 2, 2018)

[4] See this blog’s Narratives-Of-Self-Purpose-And-Meaning-Part-1-Fish-Stories.

[5] The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity, Bruce Hood (2012)

[6] /The Pew Research Center report is intriguingly nuanced, and worth a look if you like this sort of thing.

[7]The Neuroscience Argument That Religion Shaped The Very Structure Of Our Brains,” Quartz (December 3, 2016)

[8] Ibid.

[9] Newberg, Andrew, How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist (2009)

[10] “What Religion Does To Your Brain,”,: Medical News Today (July 20, 2018)

[11] For more on metaphor, see the classic and definitive text Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.

[12] See, for example, this online Bible study on the phrase.

[13] See The Five Traits Of A Good Hypnotic Subject, Your Visual Mind. See also Wikipedia re: “Hypnotic Susceptibility.”

Knowledge, Conviction, and Belief [4]: The Brain vs. the Eternal Soul

brain - illuniated

The period of roughly 2010-2016 apparently was a breakthrough time for neuroscience and the study of consciousness. About then, a scientific consensus began to emerge that the conscious human mind was generated by the brain — or, as some put it, “the mind is what the brain does.”

In a 2016 article[1], University of Sussex professor of cognitive and computational neuroscience Anil K. Seth wrote that,

“In my own research, a new picture is taking shape in which conscious experience is seen as deeply grounded in how brains and bodies work together to maintain physiological integrity – to stay alive.”

Since then, other brain researchers have added a third essential component:  our environment, particularly our cultural setting and its institutionalized belief systems.

Brain, body, environment — that’s it, that’s what brain science has come up with. It went looking for the soul and didn’t find it. As physician and researcher Paul Singh also wrote in 2016[2]:

“The idea of a transcendent self is a myth; the truth is that the self is a constructed self.”

Not only that, but when a consciousness based purely in physicality replaces traditional belief in an eternal, transcendent soul temporarily at home in a physical human body, other companion notions about the self, consciousness, and free will also come tumbling down. Singh admitted this wasn’t going to be easy news to swallow:

“I will be the first one to admit that the debates about the nature of free will, consciousness, and the self are far from over. It is not, however, because we don’t know the answers, but because we are not at a stage of human evolution and progress yet for people to accept such radical ideas. Such truths are scary in the sense that they undermine our ordinary and commonsensical beliefs about human nature and seem to threaten values that we hold dearly — one of the most important of which is moral responsibility.”

Difficult, yes, but not impossible if you can suspend allegiance to the things you’re convinced of and convicted about, and instead give scientific knowledge a try. Singh makes his case with impassioned advocacy of science and the scientific method:

“I believe, however, that the truthfulness of a fact should be judged on its own merit rather than based on its social and emotional implications for the well-being of an individual or society. Truth should be acknowledged first and then solutions sought that will be implemented in light of the good and bad that truth has revealed, not the other way around. Truth is about truth and not about convenience or about making us feel good about ourselves.

“We should never believe a claim to be true simply because on one can prove it to be false. Theologians are experts at this kind of nonsense. Are delusional people making things up? Evidence shows that the human brain is universally delusional in many ways and therefore people who promote superstitions are not particularly more delusional that the rest of us. It is just that examples of religious delusions are rather classic examples of how the brain creates illusions and delusions. The use of logic and scientific skepticism is a skill that can be used to overcome the limitations of our own brains. This skill is like any other skill such as learning to play the piano. It involves training in metacognition as well as basic education in basic sciences.”

Frankly, that kind of rhetoric invariably come across as bombastic and opinionated and therefore easy for those convinced otherwise to dismiss. The well-worn neural pathways of our own brains are deeply rutted with their own notions of what is true, and not about to change to a new paradigm just because someone else is convinced it is the “Truth is about truth.”

On the other hand, in my personal experience, I’ve found that the precursor to scientific knowledge — “scientific skepticism” — is in fact a “a skill that can be used to overcome the limitations of our own brains.” I’ve been developing the skill gradually for years, without intentionally doing so. I was no scientist; I’d spent a lifetime in the humanities; my allegiance was with Romanticism, not the Enlightenment. I was not out to find or prove truth, or convince anybody of it. But I was looking for new thoughts, and years of reading and reflecting — like water carving sandstone — slowly brought my thinking to a new place.

The first time I read about the “materialist” version of consciousness I thought it was just plain odd, which made me highly skeptical. Ironically that skepticism eventually sharpened into a practice that brought me where I don’t find the materialist idea odd at all; in fact, it seems odd to think the way I used to. It now seems simple and obvious that everything we experience is processed within the confines of our largest organ — our skin — and that it has to be that way because, as a biological organism, there’s no other place where it can happen. Even if we think about an eternal, transcendent soul, we do so from our ephemeral, fleshly point of view. That’s all the equipment we’ve got.

Continued next time.

[1] The Real Problem:  It looks like scientists and philosophers might have made consciousness far more mysterious than it needs to be, Aeon Magazien (Nov. 2, 2016)

[2] The Great Illusion:  The Myth of Free Will, Consciousness, and the Self.