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.