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Eugene d'Aquili and Andrew B. Newberg


Probing the biology of religious experience

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2004).

This book is part of a series intended to demonstrate the existence of common ground between science and religion. Its stated aim is to 'explore a nontraditional approach to religion and theology that is based not so much on highly abstract concepts or ancient texts as on that part of human beings that allows us to study all of these concepts and to contemplate and, perhaps, experience, the higher being or state of being—the mystical mind'.

The book has three parts. The first purports to describe the functioning of the brain and central nervous system, or the 'brain/mind', as the authors like to refer to it. I suspect that readers with no prior knowledge of the subject would find the account difficult to follow. What they may not realize is that even readers who are familiar with conventional neurophysiological terminology and concepts will be pretty much at sea, for the real purpose of this section does not seem to be to give an objective description of modern ideas about the brain but rather to introduce the unconventional ideas and vocabulary that the authors will use in the rest of the book.

These require taking on board a considerable number of neologisms that do not form part of ordinary neurology. We encounter, for example, something called a cognitive operator which is 'essentially similar to the operators used in mathematics'. There are seven different types of cognitive operator: holistic operator, reductionist operator, quantitative operator, and so forth. Then there is the 'empiric modification cycle', or EMC, which the authors regard as very important. It is described in rather vague and abstract terms, with only a token attempt to base it anatomically in brain areas such as the limbic system and autonomic nervous system.

Part Two is titled 'The Mystical Mind' and seeks to provide a neurological basis, complete with 'models' and complex diagrams, for the production of myths, the existence of ritual, and mystical experience, including the near-death experience. Here the authors implicitly accept the existence of a value scale in mystical states, with 'higher' and 'lower' types of experience. At the apex, predictably, we find the experience of 'Absolute Unitary Being', or AUB. At the psychological level this corresponds to 'pure consciousness', the condition of being conscious but not conscious of anything outside oneself. This is equated with God, though the authors prefer to speak of 'higher being'.

Here we are going well beyond the accepted boundaries of neurology and entering the realm of metaphysics. Part Three is in fact explicitly metaphysical, being concerned with 'neurotheology'. Once again we encounter the various kinds of 'cognitive operator' that we were introduced to in Part One, but now united with phenomenology. Applying this mixture to theological concepts yields 'metatheology' and finally 'megatheology', which the authors hope will provide a near-universal theology that 'could be adopted by most, if not all, of the world's great religions as a basic element without any serious violation of their essential doctrines'.

This is certainly an ambitious book, and I cannot avoid feeling that it contains elements of what I have called the Casaubon delusion—the overpowering conviction that one has found a universal key to explain all mythologies. Admittedly the authors do include suitable caveats for their more speculative ideas, but perhaps not as many as they should. They conclude modestly: "Whether this megatheology deriving from neurotheology will be helpful to anyone, only time will tell."

I am not confident that it will be helpful; at least, it wasn't for me. Neurology is always difficult but this is difficult in the wrong way: too much jargon, too little firm basis in facts, too much unfounded speculation. Moreover, although it is supposed to be science, it offers explanations and models but makes few or no predictions, but science demands predictions. I was left with the impression that the authors started from a settled view—that mystical experience affords knowledge of ultimate reality—and then tried to construct a neurological basis for that position. But the validity of mystical knowledge has to be argued on its own terms; it depends on metaphysics, not neurology. And the authors seem to agree, for in their concluding pages they take a "rigorous phenomenological approach" and boldly pose the question: "What is the nature of reality?"

This, of course, is the ultimate metaphysical question about the meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything. For Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe the answer, famously, was 42. These authors are rather more verbose.

Since it is in principle impossible to determine which starting point is more "fundamental", external reality or the awareness of the knower, one is forced to conclude that both conclusions about God (AUB) are in a profound and fundamental sense true - namely, that God is created by the world (the brain and the rest of the central nervous system) and that the world is created by God.
Thirty years ago I might have agreed with this conclusion, but today I prefer 42. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

5 July 2004

%T The Mystical Mind
%S Probing the biology of religious experience
%A d'Aquili, Eugene G.
%A Newberg, Andrew B.
%I Fortress Press
%C Minneapolis
%D 1999
%G ISBN 0-8006-3163-3
%P ix + 228 pp
%K religion, brain and mind
%O paperback
Book Reviews | Titles | Authors | Subjects