So Consciousness Has a Hard Problem… Now What?

god helmet

We’ve been looking at the “hard problem” of consciousness:

  • Neuroscience can identify the brain circuits that create the elements of consciousness and otherwise parse out how “the meat thinks,” but it can’t quite get its discoveries all the way around the mysteries of subjective experience.
  • That’s a problem because we’re used to thinking along Descartes’ dualistic distinction between scientific knowledge, which is objective, empirical, and invites disproving, and belief-based conviction, which is subjective, can’t be tested and doesn’t want to be.
  • What’s worse, science’s recent work in quantum mechanics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning has blurred those dualistic lines by exposing the primacy of subjectivity even in scientific inquiry.
  • All of which frustrates our evolutionary survival need to know how the world really works.[1]

Some people are ready to declare that subjective belief wins, and science will just have to get over it. That’s what happened with the “God Helmet” (shown in the photo above, taken from this article), Dr. Michael Persinger[2] created the helmet for use in neuro-religious research:

“This is a device that is able to simulate religious experiences by stimulating an individual’s tempoparietal lobes using magnetic fields. ‘If the equipment and the experiment produced the presence that was God, then the extrapersonal, unreachable, and independent characteristics of the god definition might be challenged,’ [says Dr. Persinger].” [3]

The God Helmet creates subjective experiences shared among various religions, such as sensing a numinous presence, a feeling of being filled with the spirit or overwhelmed or possessed, of being outside of self, out of body, or having died and come back to life, feelings of being one with all things or of peace, awe, fear and dread, etc. Since all of these states have been either measured or induced in the laboratory, you’d think that might dampen allegiance to the belief that they are God-given, but not so. Instead, when the God Helmet was tested on a group of meditating nuns, their conclusion was, how wonderful that God equipped the brain in that way, so he could communicate with us. Similarly,

 “Some years ago, I discussed this issue with Father George Coyne, a Jesuit priest and astronomer who was then Director of the Vatican Observatory. I asked him what he thought of the notion that when the 12th‑century Hildegard of Bingen was having her visions of God, perhaps she was having epileptic fits. He had no problem with the fits. Indeed, he thought that when something so powerful was going on in a mind, there would necessarily be neurological correlates. Hildegard might well have been an epileptic, Father Coyne opined; that didn’t mean God wasn’t also talking to her.”

The Mental Block – Consciousness Is The Greatest Mystery In Science. Aeon Magazine (Oct. 9, 2013)

If we’re not willing to concede the primacy of subjectivity, then what? Well, we could give up on the idea that the human race is equipped to figure out everything it would really like to know.

 “It would be poetic – albeit deeply frustrating – were it ultimately to prove that the one thing the human mind is incapable of comprehending is itself. An answer must be out there somewhere. And finding it matters: indeed, one could argue that nothing else could ever matter more – since anything at all that matters, in life, only does so as a consequence of its impact on conscious brains. Yet there’s no reason to assume that our brains will be adequate vessels for the voyage towards that answer. Nor that, were we to stumble on a solution to the Hard Problem, on some distant shore where neuroscience meets philosophy, we would even recognise that we’d found it.”

Why Can’t The World’s Greatest Minds Solve The Mystery Of Consciousness? The Guardian (Jan. 21, 2015)

“Maybe philosophical problems are hard not because they are divine or irreducible or workaday science, but because the mind of Homo sapiens lacks the cognitive equipment to solve them. We are organisms, not angels, and our minds are organs, not pipelines to the truth. Our minds evolved by natural selection to solve problems that were life-and-death matters to our ancestors, not to commune with correctness or to answer any question we are capable of asking. We cannot hold ten thousand words in short-term memory. We cannot see in ultraviolet light. We cannot mentally rotate an object in the fourth dimension. And perhaps we cannot solve conundrums like free will and sentience.”

How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker (1997)

Evolutionary biologist David Barash attributes our inability to the vastly different pace of biological evolution (what the operative biology of our brains can process) vs. cultural evolution (what we keep learning and inventing and hypothesizing about). Trouble is, the latter moves way too fast for the former to keep up.

“On the one hand, there is our biological evolution, a relatively slow-moving organic process that can never proceed more rapidly than one generation at a time, and that nearly always requires an enormous number of generations for any appreciable effect to arise.

“On the other hand is cultural evolution, a process that is, by contrast, extraordinary in its speed.

“Whereas biological evolution is Darwinian, moving by the gradual substitution and accumulation of genes, cultural evolution is … powered by a nongenetic ‘inheritance” of acquired characteristics. During a single generation, people have selectively picked up, discarded, manipulated, and transmitted cultural, social, and technological innovations that have become almost entirely independent of any biological moorings.

“We are, via our cultural evolution, in over our biological heads.”

Through a Glass Brightly:  Using Science to See Our Species as We Really Are, David P. Barash (2018)

Give in to subjectivity, or just give up…. We’ll look at another option next time.

[1] The study of how we know things is Epistemology.

[2] Dr. Persinger was director of the Neuroscience Department at Laurentian University in Ontario, Canada prior to his death in 2018.

[3] “What God Does To Your Brain:  The controversial science of neurotheology aims to find the answer to an age-old question: why do we believe?” The Telegraph (June 20, 2014).

Religion on Demand

god helmet

“Given that the neurological roots of religious experiences can be traced so accurately with the help of the latest neuroscientific technologies, does this mean that we could — in principle — ‘create’ these experiences on demand?”[1]

It’s a good question. And so is the obvious follow up: if technology can create religious experience on demand, how does that affect religion’s claims to authenticity and its status as a cultural institution?

Dr. Michael Persinger[2] created the “”God Helmet” (shown in the photo above, taken from this article) for use in neuro-religious research.

This is a device that is able to simulate religious experiences by stimulating an individual’s tempoparietal lobes using magnetic fields. “If the equipment and the experiment produced the presence that was God, then the extrapersonal, unreachable, and independent characteristics of the god definition might be challenged,” [says Dr. Persinger]. [3]

The experiences created are not doctrinally specific, but are of a kind widely shared among different religions — for example, sensing a numinous presence, a feeling of being filled with the spirit or overwhelmed or possessed, of being outside of self, out of body, or having died and come back to life, feelings of being one with all things or of peace, awe, fear and dread, etc. All of these states have been measured or induced in the laboratory[4]:

Some recent advances in neuroimaging techniques allow us to understand how our brains ‘create’ a spiritual or mystical experience. What causes the feeling that someone else is present in the room, or that we’ve stepped outside of our bodies and into another dimension?

“In the last few years,” says [Dr. Jeff Anderson of the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City], “brain imaging technologies have matured in ways that are letting us approach questions that have been around for millennia.”

Prof. James Giordano, from the Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., [says that] “We are able to even understand when a person gets into ‘ecstasy mode’ … and to identify specific brain areas that participate in this process.”

“If ‘beings’ join the mystical experience,” Prof. Giordano goes on, “we can say that the activity of the left and right temporal lobe network (found at the bottom middle part of the cortex) has changed.”

 “When activity in the networks of the superior parietal cortex [which is a region in the upper part of the parietal lobe] or our prefrontal cortex increases or decreases, our bodily boundaries change,” Prof. Giordano explains in an interview for Medium. “These parts of the brain control our sense of self in relation to other objects in the world, as well as our bodily integrity; hence the ‘out of body’ and ‘extended self’ sensations and perceptions many people who have had mystical experiences confess to.”

The parietal lobes are also the areas that [Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, a pioneer of neurotheology, has] found to have lower brain activity during prayer.

And much more. In addition, research has also helped to explain such things as why people with chronic neurodegenerative diseases often lose their religion:

“We discovered a subgroup who were quite religious but, as the disease progressed, lost some aspects of their religiosity,” [says Patrick McNamara, professor of neurology at Boston University and author of The Neuroscience of Religious Experience (2009)]. Sufferers’ brains lack the neurotransmitter dopamine, making McNamara suspect that religiosity is linked to dopamine activity in the prefrontal lobes. “These areas of the brain handle complexity best, so it may be that people with Parkinson’s find it harder to access complex religious experiences.”

Does this research signal the end of religion any time soon? Probably not, says Dr. Newberg:

Until we gain such answers, however, religion is unlikely to go anywhere. The architecture of our brains won’t allow it, says Dr. Newberg, and religion fulfills needs that our brains are designed to have.[5]

Tim Crane, author of The Meaning of Belief: Religion From An Atheist’s Point Of View (2017), agrees:  religion, he says, is simply “too ingrained as a human instinct.” See also this article[6]’s analysis of the current state of the science vs. religion contention, which concludes that the scale seems to be tipping more to the latter:

Religion is not going away any time soon, and science will not destroy it. If anything, it is science that is subject to increasing threats to its authority and social legitimacy.

There are plenty of contrary opinions, of course, and all the technology and research in the world is unlikely to change anybody’s mind. pro or con. We’ll look at why not next time.

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

[2] Dr. Persinger was director of the Neuroscience Department at Laurentian University in Ontario, Canada prior to his death in 2018.

[3] “What God Does To Your Brain:  The controversial science of neurotheology aims to find the answer to an age-old question: why do we believe?” The Telegraph (June 20, 2014).

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

[5] Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, Andrew Newberg, Eugene D’Aquili, Vince Rause (2001).

[6] “Why Religion Is Not Going Away And Science Will Not Destroy It,” Aeon Magazine (Sept. 7, 2017).