Category Archives: Pseudoscience

Neurotheology – Pseudoscience or Real Science?

I was sent an article about a “new kind of science” which is supposedly going to unite science and theology, Neurotheology.

I don’t buy it.

The whole thing seems like pseudoscience to me.  Any endeavor which sets out to unite the scientific method (which works by testing claims, examining evidence, and controlling against human bias) with religious faith (which requires no evidence and actually does best with a complete lack of evidence) is destined to fail.

Here is my breakdown of the article. Enjoy.

For thousands of years, religion has posed some unanswerable questions: Who are we?  What’s the meaning of life? What does it mean to be religious?

I read the whole article, the author never explains how neurotheology will answer any of these questions – except possibly the last one – if you accept physical explanations of brain-states as an answer to the question of “What does it mean to be religious?”  (Most theologians won’t.)

Newberg describes one study in which he worked with older individuals who were experiencing memory problems. Newberg took scans of their brains, then taught them a mantra-based type of meditation and asked them to practice that meditation 12 minutes a day for eight weeks. At the end of the eight weeks, they came back for another scan, and Newberg found some dramatic differences.  “We found some very significant and profound changes in their brain just at rest, particularly in the areas of the brain that help us to focus our mind and to focus our attention,” he says.

Hmmm, people performed a function that required attention and focus then showed an increase in activity in the part of the brain that helps focus.  How strange and completely unexpected.

To me, this is like saying someone bench-pressed a stack of Bibles and that produced a positive effect on muscle growth. The change had nothing to do with the fact it was bibles being bench-pressed. There isn’t enough information to conclude that the spiritual content is what is creating the effect. Was it the act of memorizing and repeating something that caused the changes or was it a result specifically of the religious aspects?

Is it possible that having people perform a repetitive action requiring focused attention stimulated the parts of the brain that help focus attention?

Was there a control group that practiced a non-religious mantra for 8 weeks?  (Since most Christan denominations don’t practice mantras or meditation, they will probably agree with me on this point.)

I’m not dismissing the results of the test, but I am calling their methodology into question.  I’m sure there are benefits to performing certain brain exercises, but I don’t see any reason to immediately latch on to a religious explanation.

This is only after eight weeks at 12 minutes a day, so you can imagine what happens in people who are deeply religious and spiritual and are doing these practices for hours a day for years and years.

Do they gain super-human powers?  No?  Shucks.

“For those individuals who want to go down the path of arguing that all of our religious and spiritual experiences are nothing more than biological phenomena, some of this data does support that kind of a conclusion,” Newberg says. “But the data also does not specifically eliminate the notion that there is a religious or spiritual or divine presence in the world.”

Since there are no experiments you can use to test for a spiritual or divine presence, this seems obvious.  They may have just as well said that the data does not specifically eliminate the notion that fairies and a psychic Yeti are affecting the results – although some of the data support a natural biological conclusion.

One could try to conclude one way or the other that maybe it’s the biology or maybe God’s really in the room, but the scan itself doesn’t really show that

If the scan doesn’t show that God is in the room then you have a definite reason to favor one conclusion and no reason to warrant the other.

If neurotheology is to be considered a viable field going forward, it requires a set of clear principles that can be generally agreed upon and supported by both the theological or religious perspective and the scientific one as well.

That’s going to be a tough sale.  Science depends on empirical evidence and testable claims, religion depends on untestable claims and faith without (or in spite of) evidence.

It is important to infuse throughout the principles of neurotheology the notion that neurotheology requires an openness to both the scientific as well as the spiritual perspectives.

What exactly does it mean to be open to a “spiritual perspective,” and how would it coincide with a scientific perspective?  Again, science is based on reality and observable evidence. If anything “spiritual” can manifest in reality then it can be viewed just fine from a scientific perspective – if it doesn’t manifest in reality then what possible perspective can you use to observe it?  And if it doesn’t manifest in reality, in what way can it be said that you have observed it?

The scientific side must progress utilizing adequate definitions, measures, methodology and interpretations of data.  The religious side must maintain a subjective sense of spirituality

So, science is in charge of doing all the hard work while the religious side is in charge of… a subjective sense of… something which has never been defined.  Science is designed to control against subjectivity because it introduces a bias, how does inserting a religious bias help the process?

In short, for neurotheology to be successful, science must be kept rigorous and religion must be kept religious.

Three cheers for the meaningless tautology!

It is at the neurotheological juncture that the science and religion interaction may be most valuable and help establish a more fundamental link between the spiritual and biological dimensions of the human being.

Sounds great, as soon as you are able to define what the “spiritual dimensions of a human being” are.  Historically the “spiritual dimensions” have included everything from memories to thoughts and feelings – while modern neuroscience still has a long way to go, none of those things need a supernatural explanation anymore.

There, no doubt, will be differing view points that will be raised throughout this process, some of which may be more exclusive of one perspective or the other.  However, it should be stressed that for neurotheology to grow as a field, it is imperative that one remains open, at least somewhat, to all of the different perspectives including those that are religious or spiritual, cultural, or scientific.

That’s going to be difficult.  Science is open to new information, it changes to incorporate new information as it becomes available.  While religions do change (Christianity no longer endorses slavery, despite the Bible never saying anything against it, and Jesus talking in favor of it), they are very slow to do so.  Science will adopt religious views as soon as they make testable claims and accurate predictions with repeatable and verifiable results.

Science has advanced significantly in the past several decades with regard to the study of the human brain. Neurotheology should be prepared to take full advantage of the advances in fields of science such as functional brain imaging, cognitive neuroscience, psychology, and genetics.  On the other hand, neurotheological scholarship should also be prepared to engage the full range of theological issues.

Which theological issues are those and how do you suppose science should engage them?  Does anyone expect science to use brain imaging to identify an invisible immaterial soul?

That theology continues to evolve and change from the more dogmatic perspectives of the past, through natural theology and systematic theology, neurotheology must acknowledge that there are many fascinating theological issues that face each religious tradition.

Exactly.  Science starts with a hypothesis and then, through a series of tests and experiments, confirms or dismisses the hypothesis and eventually comes to a consensus.

Religion has no experiments or tests that can be run so there is no way to settle disputes.  The result is the repeated fractioning of various religious traditions.  No Christian will denounce the divinity of Jesus due to any brain imaging. Likewise, no Muslim will decide that Muhammad was not a prophet of Allah due to the results of a genetic test.

How does neurotheology expect to overcome the inherent problem with nearly every religious tradition (namely the inability to test most claims, and the dismissal of all evidence that goes against the few testable claims)?

When considering the primary reasons for developing neurotheology as a field, we can consider four foundational goals for scholarship in this area. These are:

1.  To improve our understanding of the human mind and brain.

2.  To improve our understanding of religion and theology.

3.  To improve the human condition, particularly in the context of health and well being.

4.  To improve the human condition, particularly in the context of religion and spirituality.

1. We already have something that does this, it’s called psychology.

2. As a function of the brain, sure.  That could be a very interesting topic to study, but something tells me that’s not what he’s talking about.  And it’s still psychology.

3. That’s the goal of every medical field and nearly every scientific endeavor.

4. Good luck with that one.  As I said earlier, no scientific study is going to convince adherents of one religion to convert to another – that’s why there aren’t teams of religious scientists running experiments to determine at what point the cracker turns into god-meat, or which animal sacrifices gain the most favor.

Given the enormity of these tasks to help understand ourselves, our relationship to God or the absolute, and the nature of reality itself, neurotheology appears poised to at least make a substantial attempt at addressing such issues. While other theological, philosophical, and scientific approaches have also tried to tackle these “big” questions, it would seem that neurotheology holds a unique perspective. It is one of the only disciplines that necessarily seeks to integrate science and theology, and if defined broadly, many other relevant fields.

Yeah, like astrology and tarot.