Take for example the discovery of the part of the brain that processes religious experience. Scientists have found a bundle of neurons that, when excited (perhaps by electrical stimulation, perhaps by LSD), causes a person to have profound experiences of the divine. Clearly, if this part of the brain can be falsely stimulated to create such an experience, then all experiences of the divine are delusional.
All right, hold on, there. Is any other part of the brain designed to delude us into thinking something is real that is not? The occipital lobe processes sight. The temporal lobes process language. Different parts of the brain are evolved (yes, evolved) to process real inputs from the real world. Just because stimulation of the occipital lobe may create delusions of seeing doesn’t mean there isn’t actual sight. Just because stimulation of the temporal lobe may create delusions of voices doesn’t mean there aren’t actual voices saying actual things.
So, one could argue that the very existence of a religious lobe means there must be something divine to perceive.
Ha! The religious lobe doesn’t disprove the existence of God, but proves it!
All right, hold on, there. Religion isn’t all about experiences of the divine. It is also about social connection, about getting a group of individuals to act collectively. It may be that this “religious lobe” was developed to allow humans to put aside their self-interest and work as a collective. If so, its existence is more about the cultural side of belief than about any actual God out there to believe in.
The fact is, we don’t know. We can’t know. The evidence points both ways.
The best we can do is let science find such amazing parts of the brain and entertain all kinds of possibilities about how such a structure could come into being. We can also acknowledge that we have such structures in our own brains and wonder at the phenomena that they reveal to us.
Over time, many theorists have speculated about what makes human beings unique from the other animals. Is it our wisdom, as homo sapiens? Is it our playfulness, as homo ludens? Is it our capacity for religious thought, as homo religiousus?
I tend to think it’s that we have minds that can grasp many things and that cannot grasp many other things. We know, and yet we do not know. Isn’t that the basis of the best science? Isn’t that the basis of true religion? We know but do not.
We are homo agnosticus, defined by the fact that we don’t know.
Einstein, that great old agnostic who spoke often of God but didn’t actually believe in him, said, “Imagination is more important that knowledge.”
That’s where scientists and theologians need to work, in the borderlands between what we know and what we don’t. In imagination. And so, both science and religion should always retain the fundamental humility of being partially and continuously in the dark.
Imagining.May 14th, 2009
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