1.8.2 Artificial Religious Experiences

The Argument from Religious Experience: Artificial Religious Experiences

The argument from religious experience is the argument from apparent experiences of God to God’s existence.

These arguments assume that religious experiences are a type of perceptual experience, i.e. a type of experience in which the person having the experience perceives something external to them.

Some, though, question this assumption, arguing that religious experiences involve imagination rather than perception, that the object of the experience is not something that exists objectively in the world but rather is something that exists subjectively in the mind of the person having the experience.

This suggestion might be supported with an appeal to the possibility of fabricating religious experiences, of creating artificial experiences of God.

Artificial Religious Experiences

The more we become able to understand the brain, the more we become able to control it. Scientists have developed a device, called a transcranial magnetic stimulator, that can be used to stimulate small areas of the brain. Depending on which area of the brain is stimulated, different effects are produced; for example, stimulating parts of the motor cortex causes muscular contractions.

The device can, for some people, be used to create religious experiences. Using the transcranial magnetic stimulator to apply a magnetic field to the temporal lobes can cause people to experience God. This phenomenon is not limited only to believers; even atheists can be caused to have religious experiences using the transcranial magnetic stimulator.

The fact that this works for some people suggests that the temporal lobes play a role in religious experience. This is supported by the fact that some sufferers of temporal lobe epilepsy, a condition that consists in having seizures centred around intense electrical activity in the temporal lobes, report that during seizures they have profound religious experiences. V S Ramachandran describes this:

... most remarkable of all are those patients who have deeply moving spiritual experiences, including a feeling of divine presence and the sense that they are in direct communication with God. Everything around them is imbued with cosmic significance. They may say, 'I finally understand what it's all about. This is the moment I've been waiting for all my life. Suddenly it all makes sense.' Or, 'Finally I have insight into the true nature of the cosmos.' … God has vouchsafed for us 'normal' people only occasional glimpses of a deeper truth… but these patients enjoy the unique privilege of gazing directly into God's eyes every time they have a seizure.

[V S Ramachandran & Sandra Blakeslee, Phantoms in the Brain, Fourth Estate Limited (1998), p179]

Religious experiences, then, appear to be simply events in the brain; they need not be experiences of anything real at all.

Other Artifical Experiences

There is a limit, though, to how far this argument can take us.

First, there is no proof that these artificially induced religious experiences are not veridical; it is at least possible that stimulating the temporal lobes helps people to perceive God. If this is what is happening, then the transcranial stimulator is not inducing false experiences, but rather is facilitating experiences of reality. Just as giving a person a pair of glasses may enhance their ability to see distant objects, perhaps, stimulating their temporal lobes helps them to perceive God. The former does not cause us to doubt the existence of distant objects, so why should the latter cause us to doubt the existence of God?

Second, even if these artificially induced religious experiences aren’t veridical, that would not entail that no religious experiences are veridical. Other experiences that can be induced using the transcranial magnetic stimulator include the sense that there is a second person present in the room when there is not. We do not conclude from this that all sensations that there is a second person present in the room are false. Though it is possible create such false experiences, we remain confident that some such experiences are veridical. Why, then, should the fact that it is possible to create artifical religious experiences be taken as evidence that no religious experiences are genuine experiences of God?

V S Ramachandran & Sandra Blakeslee, Phantoms in the Brain, Fourth Estate Limited (1998).

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