A dialog on the meeting of Science and religion.

By: Todd Murphy & an anonymous (and slightly hostile) correspondent.



All "paranormal" events are just the result of people giving too much weight to their subjective experience instead of discounting it in favor of more objective measures.

This may be so, but the tendency to give weight to subjective experiences appears to occur in every culture, and may be a feature of our species.

You view Buddhism, Taoism, fengshua and all these bodies of literature as if they are verified and properly formulated theories.

No. I understand that they constitute a large body of anecdotal reports. However, the teachings they preserve have had ideas that don't work culled out. If an approach to eliciting spiritual experiences is a failure, or only valid for a very few people, it will not be taught by those for whom it failed (except in cases of wholly deceptive teachers). In this way, traditional teachings are often valid. Old may not be gold, but old can be valid in a limited way.

They are most certainly not (verified and properly formulated theories).

I agree, but a lack of proper testing and rigorous formulation does not constitute falsification. "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence".

They are alas the works of people just like you and me. Imperfect human beings with a very bad mental apparatus for logical thinking. In asia, there is a large reverence for elders and established cultural wisdom. It is very easy for errors in thinking to propagate and persist.

In matters of common religious belief, this is true. However, when mystic experiences are at issue, teachings must either succeed for some people, or they will be abandoned over time. The pursuit of such experiences offers a kind of test for them, and ideas that fail will be propogated less than those that succeed. Over time, religions change, favoring ideas that work above those that don't. Of course, ideas that 'work' are not always true, either.

And the more established a theory, the more weight it gains. But this is just the fallacy of "old is gold". How do you know that this wisdom was subjected to proper evaluation, refutation and all those painful processes that are necessary for humans to discover truth.

I do not agree that modern evaluation is the only way to find valid ideas. It IS the only way to introduce such ideas into consensual science.

Besides, these people were not lucky in having amazing ideas like the theory of evolution, theory of
computation at their disposal. Dalai lama and other folks have a vested interest in a westerner agreeing with their ideas. They are interested in the west's wealth and its gullible new agers. Their
allegiance is not to the truth.

I think they are interested in more than just wealth. I believe they are also interested in continuing their intellectual and spiritual traditions, and are pleased when their teachings are helpful to someone.

While I admire your efforts at understanding the "scientific" basis of spirituality, I am concerned about your romantic bias. If only, you would shed this and apply yourself to laying down an objective
unromantic version of your observations, your work might have a lasting value.

In order to accomplish this (as I understand it), a wealth of studies will have to exist - studies which have not been carried out as yet, though many researchers are working on them now.


And I think this is your aim also. To see your experience benefits humankind some day. But the way you project it now, i am afraid your useful experience will be dismissed as the rantings of a romantic crank (and it will be a loss).

So far, this has not happened - nor have I finished my work.

Your points are well-taken, but they presuppose the existance of rigorous data.

In order for such studies to be carried out, theories have to be formulated that the studies and experiments will be designed to falsify.

Ideas guide researchers and experimentalists, and not the other way around. If you doubt this, look into the work of T.S. Kuhn, author of "The structure of scientific revolutions".

Theories exist, in part, to guide experiments and observations. My work includes developing theories based on the idea that religions offer 'naive' data about brain function. Such data can be flawed and subject to multiple interpretations, but together with existing lab and clinical data, a coherant picture of the role of spirituality in our brains and in our evolutionary history can emerge.

I will watch the tendency to over-romanticise the world's religious tradtions as I write my book, but the evident alternative, to dismiss traditional religious views, would also dismiss the very reason for scientific studies of mysticism. One can try to work only with the aspects of mysticism that have been validated (as for example, the many EEG studies done with meditation), but without postulates, such validation cannot be done.

The old religious beliefs can be seen as offering questions, suppositions, postulates, and hypotheses, which science can try to answer.

They may not be gold, but they are worth too much to be thrown out.

They contain many nonsensical ideas, but they also offer the first statements about consciousness in human history, many of which are valid.

All of this does not even begin to address the social roles of religions and their beliefs, which I believe to be benefical in many cases (morality and ethics), as well as harmful in others (sutee, caste discrimination, raising children with the anxiety that fear of damnation can create, and not least, religious wars).

My work will not last in any case. If my ideas are valid, they will eventually be backed with laboratory data, and the eventual statement of the paradigm I work with will include that data, making my present efforts obsolete. This is what I expect, given the patterns of change in the history of science.

Thank you for writing. Your perspective is both interesting and engaging.


Todd Murphy


REPLY:


Dear Todd,
Thanks for writing back. This letter definitely helps me see where you are coming from and that helped me read your articles better.

Your articles have quite clearly thrown light on my last decade of life. My self experimentation with psychedelics actually went chaotic (looks like i have an over active right amygdala in your parlance). The episodes of bliss have been there but they have been sporadic. I never got any visuals except for sporadic increased visual acuity ( and what a joy that one is ..) and all my trips followed essentially a temporal lobe like pattern .. I am also re-reading patanjali and it is a whole new level of comprehension.

Regards
R.H.