The Frontal Cortex

Visions of God

Over at The American Scene, Ross Douthat argues that scientists should try treating our spiritual experiences of the divine as literal events. In other words, the crazy people who see God might not be crazy:

Atheistically-inclined scientists and philosophers have all manner of complicated theories about how religious experience and beliefs sprang up in homo sapiens – maybe it’s a useful mutation, maybe it’s an accidental byproduct of a useful mutation, etc. Some of these theories feel like so much hand-waving, but some are at least plausible. On the other hand, the eye exists because of interactions with light, and the eardrum because of interactions with sound waves; romantic love may be “biochemically no different from eating large amounts of chocolate,” as Al Pacino’s devil would have us believe, but both the chocolate and the woman of your dreams are still realities, not just the product of your firing neurons. As soon as homo sapiens developed consciousness, we became conscious of (what seems to be) a numinous reality interwoven with our own; it’s just possible, surely, that we started experiencing the numinous because it happens to be real.

This argument is fatally flawed. Douthat claims that our perception of God might be no more imaginary than our perception of light, or space, or chocolate; it’s “possible” that both are just neural responses to “realities”. What Douthat fails to consider is that all of our perceptions require an awful lot of hallucination and imagination. If God is as real as our conscious sense of vision, then he isn’t very real. The brain invents “realities” all the time. As every neuroscientist knows, our perception is as much in here as out there.

Take the simple act of sight. Whenever we open our eyes, the brain automatically engages in an act of astonishing imagination, as it transforms the residues of light into a world of form and space that we can understand. How does this happen? Nobody really knows, but it seems to be largely dependent upon “top-down processing,” a term that describes the way cortical brain layers project down and influence (corrupt, some might say) our actual sensation. After the inputs of the eye enter the brain, they are immediately sent along two separate pathways, one of which is fast and one of which is slow. The fast pathway quickly transmits a coarse and blurry picture to our pre-frontal cortex, a brain region involved in conscious thought. Meanwhile, the slow pathway takes a meandering route through the visual cortex, which begins meticulously analyzing and refining the lines of light. The slow image arrives in the pre-frontal cortex about 50 milliseconds after the fast image.

Why does our mind see everything twice? Because our visual cortex needs help. After the pre-frontal cortex receives its imprecise picture, the “top” of our brain quickly decides what the “bottom” has seen, and begins doctoring the sensory data. Form is imposed onto the formless rubble of the V1; the outside world is forced to conform to our expectations. If these interpretations are removed, our reality becomes unrecognizable. Visual form breaks down. The light just isn’t enough.

When vision is seen from the perspective of our brain, it’s easy to understand why people hallucinate burning bushes, or the face of Jesus in some burnt toast. These hallucinations aren’t proof that God is real; they are proof that our vision isn’t real, that the top of our brain is constantly telling the bottom what it should see. So yes, the numinous does exist. But the numinous isn’t God, and doesn’t require the divine. The numinous is just how we see.


  1. #1 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    November 22, 2006

    Deanne Laney.

  2. #2 Joshua
    November 22, 2006

    So then it would be literally correct to describe Ross Douthat as naive?

    Anyway, this has got to be the silliest argument for religion and theism I’ve ever seen outside of Pascal’s Wager. The whole fundamental basis of it is trivially false. Has this guy never seen an optical illusion in his entire life?

  3. #3 Gyan
    November 22, 2006

    You do realise that your debunking is self-defeating? The same organ is responsible for deducing that “our perceptions require an awful lot of hallucination and imagination” as the one claiming that “we started experiencing the numinous because it happens to be real“. One can’t be sure that the observations and logic underpinning your debunking isn’t just as delusional as Douhat’s cognition.

    The axioms seem elementary:

    1)Irrespective of what is and isn’t “out there”, each one of us is exclusively locked up within a singular ‘sensorium’
    2)Any framework to deal with this phenomena is applied within i.e. each person, based on how he & she categorizes mental activity, develops a worldview.
    3)Science has a prejudice towards that which is consensually reported, but this cannot be itself scientifically supported one way or the another, since all participants in the debate exist as first-persons, and the belief that the only “real” things are those which most of us report is a personal prejudice, which can’t be falsified.

  4. #4 Koray
    November 22, 2006

    Douthat says:

    As soon as homo sapiens developed consciousness, we became conscious of (what seems to be) a numinous reality interwoven with our own; it’s just possible, surely, that we started experiencing the numinous because it happens to be real.

    Oh yes. We started experiencing that, and actually “a lot of that”. How many gods is it now? Think all over the world, not just your locale, not just your religion.

    Why are so many of the pro-religion arguments in a pro-monotheism form nowadays? Pretty much everything we hear seems to apply equally well to christianity as well as to islam. But, I know that they are not muslim. There’s got to be something else that explains the rest of their decision process.

  5. #5 Jonah
    November 22, 2006

    Thanks for your comments. Gyan: I agree that everybody is trapped in their own subjective bubble. But the beauty of neuroscience is that it allows us to see the anatomy underyling our subjectivity. (I disagree that science can’t escape our “personal prejudices”. If it couldn’t, then planes wouldn’t fly, and cell-phones wouldn’t shrink.) When Hubel and Weisel recorded from neurons in the V1, or neuroscientist map the responsive fields of cells in the V4, they are able to see how we see. While this won’t solve the question of qualia or demystify the nature of experience, it does provide us with a specific understanding of just how “creative” our senses actually are.

  6. #6 Greg
    November 23, 2006

    What I see here, and in too many scientists’ public statements, is *unnecessarily* antagonistic disputation.

    True. There are many people, paid or paranoid, who would stomp you for daring to disagree with what they have ordered to believe. There are also many who would prefer to avoid the topic, so they can get back to harvesting the crops or planting the kids or whatever. The latter may indeed be stupid or defective; however, they don’t usually feel need to respond to the implication, unless you shout or whisper it at their backs as they turn away.

    We have enough enemies among the paid and the paranoid. There is no need to recruit the insulted as well.

  7. #7 Jonah
    November 23, 2006

    Greg, I certainly didn’t intend to insult anybody. Elsewhere on this blog I’ve defended a view that science has very real and practical limits, and that when we venture beyond those limits all we have is art and religion. (I personally find more meaning in good art, but others prefer church.) But Douthat was gingerly putting forth a hypothesis about the reality of divine visions that is contradicted by a lot of solid neuroscience. I was just trying to point that out. There are many reasons to believe in God, but this isn’t one of them.

  8. #8 Greg
    November 24, 2006

    Hi, Jonah, I think your view about the limits of science is pretty close to what Douthat says. Although I guess from those short descriptions that Douthat says we experience something other, while you are more likely to say we perceive effects for which we cannot identify causes. However, the specifics of those positions are not relevant here.

    You quote Douthat saying, “we became conscious of (what seems to be) a numinous reality interwoven with our own”. He does not say that we see it. In fact, he mentions seeing, earlier, as a more common sensation : “the eye exists because of interactions with light”. I understood him, by listed both separately, to imply the numinous is perceived by consciousness, not by seeing. Again, I don’t think specific details are pertinent.

    Then you argue, “If God is as real as our conscious sense of vision, then he isn’t very real.” You seem ready to dismiss the reality of God without dismissing the reality of vision. And by incorrectly claiming that belief is based on vision.

    Then, you describe the two stage process of vision. First, thank you for that. I have never encountered this before. It appears to be a direct physical example of the teachings of the Buddha, that our perceptions and knowledge and our naming-habit interfere with understanding. I copied it to my notes immediately and I expect to discuss and meditate on it deeply. Some Buddhists dismiss the reality of vision along with God.

    Second, more pertinent, you have described a plausible basis for illusion. But you called it hallucination. Out there, illusion is an error or trick, while hallucination is illness or bad chemicals.

    Finally, you also conflate a perception of God with illusions of burning bushes (which might more likely be hallucination) and of faces in toast. Your examples are stated disparagingly. Douthat does not equate the numinous with visual effects. Many theists, probably most, even the crudest fundamentalists, claim to see more of God than trivial illusions.

    You dragged Douthat in here. You claimed to address him. But you have not. At least not the bit of Douthat which you show.

    You have presented a neat little piece of science.

    You have used it to clobber a strawman, a misrepresention of unimportant details in some theists’ beliefs. You imply that all theists are stupid enough to be taken in. You have said theists hallucinate.

    I believe that you do not _intend_ to insult. I am glad you saw that distinction, too. I think, though, that you do insult.

    The choice of words. The trivialization of belief.

    I guess that the folks who write in ScienceBlogs have encountered more than their fair share of paid political hostility, and trivial beliefs too.

    It is an old, old trick. You can read in the Iliad, warriors insulting each other in hopes of provoking an eruption of unthinking rage. The early Romans used to provoke angry uprisings whenever they need more slaves or an excuse to invade. Cops push protestors around until somebody pushes back or can be said to do so.

    It is unlikely that your local neighbourhood Paster is so sophisticated. The people who publish his sermonizing points are. The people who comb these blogs looking for phrases ripped out of context are. The professional political operators are.

    They can no longer simply order the flock to believe. Especially, since they have had to retreat to literalism and arbitrary interpretations. Simultaneously! Science works. Too many of the flock would realize it, if they ever got a good look. Hence, the fence.

    However, the skulls and radiation trefoils are not enough to stop adventurers from climbing up to peer over. They need condescending insults and howls of aggrieved innocence from this side.

  9. #9 Gyan
    November 24, 2006

    But the beauty of neuroscience is that it allows us to see the anatomy underyling our subjectivity.
    . . .
    When Hubel and Weisel recorded from neurons in the V1, or neuroscientist map the responsive fields of cells in the V4, they are able to see how we see.

    Nope. All they did was correlate two threads of activity: the purported or reported subjective experience with their own visual subjective experience of neuronal activity. They got no closer to how we see.

    (I disagree that science can’t escape our “personal prejudices”. If it couldn’t, then planes wouldn’t fly, and cell-phones wouldn’t shrink.)

    You’re begging the question. You can never escape your personal prejudices since you always and only inhabit your personality.

  10. #10 Greg
    November 24, 2006

    Sure, Gyan. But you, and Jonah too, have merely defined “prejudice” to be something which cannot be evaded, and “how” as a question which cannot be answered.

    Despite both, science is astonishingly successful at repeatedly providing the things that most people think they want… “most people” including those who preach that those things are bad.

  11. #11 DavidD
    November 25, 2006

    Is seeing Jesus in burnt toast a numinous experience? The argument you make, Jonah, is the same style that many use who take a narrow definition of God or narrow definition of spiritual experience and say, “See it’s meaningless. It adds nothing to my understanding.”

    Only such an argument ignores what people actually do get out of a belief in God or in more mysterious spiritual experiences. Seeing Jesus in toast certainly sounds like everyday human imagination to me. And it’s true that our brains see what they see not so much because of the light reaching any given spot on the retina, but because of how our cognition and memory aids our perception. So toast can look like Jesus to someone so inclined, even if the Jesus I know will never be in toast. For me, he’s barely in those portraits that someone drew as portraits of Jesus, since I doubt Jesus was so white or tall. Such is culture. But none of that is what I mean by spiritual.

    To me “spiritual” has to be something completely non-physical, beyond a thought if a thought is in fact no more than some pattern of neuronal firing, but rather something not of our four-dimensional universe, however the spiritual might connect with the physical. Physics has not shown some spiritual fudge factor necessary to understand physical processes. I believe that. Biological evolution and cultural evolution may have created a God-shaped void in our brain, but if it’s only physical processes that did that and physical processes that fill that void with an illusion of God, then we’ll understand that soon enough. It may take 500 years to do all the neuroscience, but it will be understood.

    The more interesting thing is if there truly are spiritual things as well as biological and cultural. Both Eastern and Western traditions pretend that everything physical is really spiritual in some way, but maybe they were wrong. Maybe biology and culture did set up this God-shaped void in our brain as evolutionary psychologists say, with our desire for inside information, for active help with our lives, for love in this life and beyond and for goodness. Are there only natural processes to fill that void? One reason to wonder about that comes from considering spiritual experiences, not Jesus in toast, but Paul on the road to Damascus. Atheists or others who wish to discount the latter can do so. They can call Paul’s experience epilepsy, imagination, or psychosis. The science for each of those is patchy enough that someone who wants to force Paul’s experience into one such category can pretend to do so. There is no proof for God. There is no proof for a spiritual side to reality, whether one is looking for nonphysical dimensions or some other nonphysical form.

    For some of us, though, there are experiences that defy natural explanation. There was a paper by UCLA neurologists in the nineties that concluded it was unlikely Paul’s spiritual experiences were epileptic while those of other historical figures like Dostoyevsky very likely were. It’s subjective. I can say I like their science better than anyone dumb enough to say Paul had epilepsy, but that’s subjective, too.

    It’s subjective to look at the other possibilities, too, both because neuroscience is so incomplete and because the experience itself is not perfectly known. One might guess that there probably weren’t scales over Paul’s eyes, that that was metaphor. There are plenty of things to guess at, but there’s also what’s clear from the big picture. This was a life-changing experience. It continued as further experiences described as living in the Spirit or the Spirit living within. Yet here was a man who could lead others in a way that psychotics can’t.

    In saying that it is these profound spiritual experiences that can teach us something, if we want them to, I suppose I’m disagreeing with Douthat, who seems to be saying something like God is everywhere in the physical world, which I don’t find to be the case. In fact, in my experience of stories of spiritual experiences in others and firsthand experience in myself, I suspect there’s a bias toward seeing experiences as perceptual when they are in fact cognitive. I’ve experienced the presence of God in a variety of ways. One time there was some sunlight streaming into a room which suddenly became the presence of God who had a sentence to tell me. Maybe the light brightened. Maybe there was no perceptual change at all to explain why my mind suddenly believed God to be there in the light. The dramatic part was all cognitive, but how does one describe that? How does one describe a cascade of images and ideas that hit in a second to illustrate God’s point? I can say that it was more like what people describe as their life flashing before their eyes than the much slower flight of ideas that manics have. It doesn’t matter. Anyone who wants to say I’m just nuts can do so.

    But such experiences have made me wonder just the opposite of what Douthat is saying. I doubt there was ever a burning bush that wasn’t consumed by the fire. It’s just a lot easier to describe God’s presence that way than in some way that’s purely cognitive. Something happened. It was sort of like a burning bush, but different. That sounds like something indescribable to me, I suspect because it wasn’t mostly perceptual. Yet who’s willing to look at the reality of spiritual experineces long enough to consider such things? People who want to say there’s nothing there do so quickly. People who want to say traditional beliefs describe these phenomena just right also do so quickly. The only one who listens well is God. Learning that is one of the most profound spiritual experiences of them all. But God seems just to do that with individuals. That must mean something.

  12. #12 Gyan
    November 26, 2006

    Sure, Gyan. But you, and Jonah too, have merely defined “prejudice” to be something which cannot be evaded, and “how” as a question which cannot be answered.

    The point is that it is possible to posit such a definition because the other definitions are narrower and treat as objective that which is subjective. Anything that requires consensus to be treated as objective, is, in fact, subjective.

  13. #13 Greg
    November 29, 2006

    True enough, but I wasn’t challenging your preference of truth theories. I accused you of claiming to prove a point by defining it to be so.

    Now you are saying that you want it to be so and that I should obey your whim. That works only if I am stupid, or if you have bigger guns and more thugs than I.

  14. #14 Gyan
    December 4, 2006

    Now you are saying that you want it to be so and that I should obey your whim.

    No, but you do seem to be saying that you don’t want it to be so. Define ‘proof’ in a non-subjective manner.

  15. #15 MAX
    October 22, 2007

    Wow I was wondering if god really did exist until I read this. Now I really believe, THANKS! Im sorry I did not present this in a more intelectual way but What I have seen here with my eyes has me convinced that Scientist are full of themselves and full of crap!

  16. #16 Himangsu Sekhar Pal
    January 6, 2011


    Today’s scientists are like religious gurus of earlier times. Whatever they say are accepted as divine truths by lay public as well as the philosophers. When mystics have said that time is unreal, nobody has paid any heed to them. Rather there were some violent reactions against it from eminent philosophers. Richard M. Gale has said that if time is unreal, then 1) there are no temporal facts, 2) nothing is past, present or future and 3) nothing is earlier or later than anything else (Book: The philosophy of time, 1962). Bertrand Russell has also said something similar to that. But he went so far as to say that science, prudence, hope effort, morality-everything becomes meaningless if we accept the view that time is unreal (Mysticism, Book: religion and science, 1961).
    But when scientists have shown that at the speed of light time becomes unreal, these same philosophers have simply kept mum. Here also they could have raised their voice of protest. They could have said something like this: “What is your purpose here? Are you trying to popularize mystical world-view amongst us? If not, then why are you wasting your valuable time, money, and energy by explaining to us as to how time can become unreal? Are you mad?” Had they reacted like this, then that would have been consistent with their earlier outbursts. But they had not. This clearly indicates that a blind faith in science is working here. If mystics were mistaken in saying that time is unreal, then why is the same mistake being repeated by the scientists? Why are they now saying that there is no real division of time as past, present and future in the actual world? If there is no such division of time, then is time real, or, unreal? When his lifelong friend Michele Besso died, Einstein wrote in a letter to his widow that “the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Another scientist Paul Davies has also written in one of his books that time does not pass and that there is no such thing as past, present and future (Other Worlds, 1980). Is this very recent statement made by a scientist that “time does not pass” anything different from the much earlier statement made by the mystics that “time is unreal”?
    Now some scientists are trying to establish that mystics did not get their sense of spacelessness, timelessness through their meeting with a real divine being. Rather they got this sense from their own brain. But these scientists have forgotten one thing. They have forgotten that scientists are only concerned with the actual world, not with what some fools and idiots might have uttered while they were in deep trance. So if they at all explain as to how something can be timeless, then they will do so not because the parietal lobe of these mystics’ brain was almost completely shut down when they received their sense of timelessness, but because, and only because, there was, or, there was and still is, a timeless state in this universe.
    God is said to be spaceless, timeless. If someone now says that God does not exist, then the sentence “God is said to be spaceless, timeless” (S) can have three different meanings. S can mean:
    a) Nothing was/is spaceless, timeless in this universe (A),
    b) Not God, but someone else has been said to be spaceless, timeless here (B),
    c) Not God, but something else has been said to be spaceless, timeless here (C).
    It can be shown that if it is true that God does not exist, and if S is also true, then S can only mean C, but neither A nor B. If S means A, then the two words “spaceless” and “timeless” become two meaningless words, because by these two words we cannot indicate anyone or anything, simply because in this universe never there was, is, and will be, anyone or anything that could be properly called spaceless, timeless. Now the very big question is: how can some scientists find meaning and significance in a word like “timeless” that has got no meaning and significance in the real world? If nothing was timeless in the past, then time was not unreal in the past. If nothing is timeless at present, then time is not unreal at present. If nothing will be timeless in future, then time will not be unreal in future. If in this universe time was never unreal, if it is not now, and if it will never be, then why was it necessary for them to show as to how time could be unreal? If nothing was/is/will be timeless, then it can in no way be the business, concern, or headache of the scientists to show how anything can be timeless. If no one in this universe is immortal, then it can in no way be the business, concern, or headache of the scientists to show how anyone can be immortal. Simply, these are none of their business. So, what compelling reason was there behind their action here? If we cannot find any such compelling reason here, then we will be forced to conclude that scientists are involved in some useless activities here that have got no correspondence whatsoever with the actual world, and thus we lose complete faith in science. Therefore we cannot accept A as the proper meaning of S, as this will reduce some activities of the scientists to simply useless activities.
    Now can we accept B as the proper meaning of S? No, we cannot. Because there is no real difference in meaning between this sentence and S. Here one supernatural being has been merely replaced by another supernatural being. So, if S is true, then it can only mean that not God, but something else has been said to be spaceless, timeless. Now, what is this “something else” (SE)? Is it still in the universe? Or, was it in the past? Here there are two possibilities:
    a) In the past there was something in this universe that was spaceless, timeless,
    b) That spaceless, timeless thing (STT) is still there.
    We know that the second possibility will not be acceptable to atheists and scientists. So we will proceed with the first one. If STT was in the past, then was it in the very recent past? Or, was it in the universe billions and billions of years ago? Was only a tiny portion of the universe in spaceless, timeless condition? Or, was the whole universe in that condition? Modern science tells us that before the big bang that took place 13.7 billion years ago there was neither space, nor time. Space and time came into being along with the big bang only. So we can say that before the big bang this universe was in a spaceless, timeless state. So it may be that this is the STT. Is this STT then that SE of which mystics spoke when they said that God is spaceless, timeless? But this STT cannot be SE for several reasons. Because it was there 13.7 billion years ago. And man has appeared on earth only 2 to 3 million years ago. And mystical literatures are at the most 2500 years old, if not even less than that. So, if we now say that STT is SE, then we will have to admit that mystics have somehow come to know that almost 13.7 billion years ago this universe was in a spaceless, timeless condition, which is unbelievable. Therefore we cannot accept that STT is SE. The only other alternative is that this SE was not in the external world at all. As scientist Victor J. Stenger has said, so we can also say that this SE was in mystics’ head only. But if SE was in mystics’ head only, then why was it not kept buried there? Why was it necessary for the scientists to drag it in the outside world, and then to show as to how a state of timelessness could be reached? If mystics’ sense of timelessness was in no way connected with the external world, then how will one justify scientists’ action here? Did these scientists think that the inside portion of the mystics’ head is the real world? And so, when these mystics got their sense of timelessness from their head only and not from any other external source, then that should only be construed as a state of timelessness in the real world? And therefore, as scientists they were obliged to show as to how that state could be reached?
    We can conclude this essay with the following observations: If mystical experience is a hallucination, then SE cannot be in the external world. Because in that case mystics’ sense of spacelessness, timelessness will have a correspondence with some external fact, and therefore it will no longer remain a hallucination. But if SE is in mystics’ head only, then that will also create a severe problem. Because in that case we are admitting that the inside portion of mystics’ head is the real world for the scientists. That is why when mystics get their sense of timelessness from their brain, that sense is treated by these scientists as a state of timelessness in the real world, and accordingly they proceed to explain as to how that state can be reached. And we end up this essay with this absurd statement: If mystical experience is a hallucination, then the inside portion of mystics’ head is the real world for the scientists.

  17. #17 Shayne S
    September 12, 2011

    Awesome article over again! I am looking forward for your next post!