I’m an ardent supporter of Neuroscience, and understanding human behaviour through brain architecture. The increasing wealth of data coming from fMRI, PET and CAT scans has changed much of our understanding of psychology and behaviour.
However, Neuroscience does, potentially, present us with a range of problems, not least of which are problems of reductionism, and the ‘moral neutrality’ apparently inherent within biological explanations of behaviour.
A wise friend often presents me with the issue of spirituality as a phenomenon in neuroscientific understanding, and brain based explanations of behaviour.
I take spirituality to mean a sense of connectedness to each other, and with a wider physical and meta-physical world. This inclusive connectedness goes beyond that which can be explained by purely empirical methods and measures.
Not only do I understand that people have spiritual experiences, but I also think that these experiences are the key human experiences. They lift us above our everyday humdrum, and give us a sense of being which far exceeds materialism and self awareness. Spirituality is meta-awareness.
As such, I believe that spirituality is the key issue for neuroscience to investigate and understand. It is not only the key issue because of the primacy of spiritual experiences but because of our desire to find a universal morality. It seems to me that in order to realise a universal morality we need to find the inclusive connected metaphysical self which we experience when having spiritual experiences.
A starting point in this investigation might be our understanding of morality.
Morality is essentially causal. In order to attribute behaviours as moral or immoral we must construct processes of causation ending in the final behaviour. In asking whether we have acted morally we look at what caused our actions, and of course what are the consequences. (Consequentialism & Deontology). However, such ‘causal’ analysis is problematic for two main reasons.
Firstly, it influences our understanding of our free will, we generally like to think that we have free will, however when we attribute our behaviours as immoral we like to think our behaviours are determined. Eg “I helped the person across the road because I am a good person” or “I ignored the person who needed help because I had to get to class, I’m still a good person, I just couldn’t help”. This Self Serving Bias is fairly unhelpful in our pursuit of universal morality.
The second reason that causal (and consequential) morality is unhelpful is that it is binary in nature. We seem to revert to a binary understanding of many human behaviours and phenomena: Good & Bad, Us & Them, Rich & Poor, Male & Female, In-group & Out-group etc. Obviously life is much more complicated than simple binary representations, people can do both good and bad things, can be in both my In & Out groups etc etc. The crude binary lens simplifies for expediency but does little for the complex refinement of morality needed in our pursuit of universal morality.
(a little aside – I very much suspect that our default reversion to a binary understanding of the world is an inherited adaptive response which was positively functional as hunter-gatherers but isn’t particularly useful in the complexity of the modern-world).
In defence of spiritualism-mysticism.
When we look at spiritual experiences they seem to unify the binary labelling of everyday life, they bring a holistic oneness to conceptualisation of self-awareness in relation to each other, and our experiences. Further, many ‘mystical’ experiences are, by definition, the inherent unification of the binary good-bad. For example Redemption Stories, Escape Mythology, Temptation-Resistance Narratives. It is these spiritual-mythical narratives which often give us as individuals, and as societies, our very connected senses of identity. These are seen in everyday life as religions, or cultural followings (e.g. Football Team support), National Mythology or popular narratives (such as literature, film, TV shows etc). We even see that it is the most successful celebrities who (unconsciously) tap into the unification of our binary framework e.g. Pope Francis, Jennifer Lopez, Bob Marley, Diana Princess of Wales etc – you can fill in your own names here as you find fit.
So, in these spiritual experiences we find a sense of connectedness, and therefore a sense of identity beyond self awareness. They make us who we are beyond everyday survival, they make us aspirant striving humans clambering up Maslow’s Hierarchy.
Emotions, spiritualism and morality.
These spiritual experiences have a higher level emotional effect, and in turn those emotions can be negative or positive emotions. Brain scan research has shown higher levels of activity in emotion centres in the brain when people are participating in spiritual activities (e.g. meditation). However, this is important in our search for universal morality because morality is also connected with emotions. Negative emotions can cause us to carry out immoral behaviour, and v.v – immoral behaviour can cause negative emotions. Obviously the same relationship exists for moral behaviour and positive emotions. Again, we see that brain based duality which is so unhelpful in our search for universal morality.
We achieve spiritual experiences through rituals, ie the repetitive, collective actions which help us to start to lose self awareness and gain social awareness. E.G. Football fans chanting, buddhist monks chanting, appointment TV (& it’s subsequent discussion), dancing, wearing particular clothes (our tribal markings) etc. The important thing about rituals is that they affect our emotions, and emotions are integrally linked with our moral judgements and behaviour.
So, the important issue here is that the rituals that we choose to engage in affect our emotions, positive rituals lead to positive emotions, negative rituals lead to negative emotions. Placed into the context of inclusive morality : rituals which lead to greater acceptance of others lead to positive emotions such as compassion and empathy. These rituals reduce the binary perspective and therefore reduce self awareness. Rituals which lead to exclusion of others lead to negative emotions such as exclusion and violence. These rituals are those which increase the binary perspective, and therefore increase self awareness.
We need to promote positive ritualisation. Now, I’m not able to give an off the cuff list of what these are, but brain scan research does start to help us here.
Andrew Newberg’s work on Neurotheology shows a higher level of activity in the Frontal Lobes of the Neocortex whilst people are meditating and praying. Most of the Frontal Lobe is made up of the Prefrontal Cortex which is concerned with higher level abstract thought, imagination, intelligence and language. This would suggest that when having spiritual experiences we move beyond our sensory selves becoming more able to cognitively conceptualise a meta-self.
Newberg also found a lower level of activity in The Parietal Lobes during meditation. The Parietal Lobes, situated at the rear of the brain, are primarily concerned with the processing of sensory information. Therefore his findings would seem to indicate lower awareness of our physical environment, and our interaction with it, during spiritual experiences.
Towards a universal morality.
If we are to develop a universal morality we need to find that interconnectedness of the spiritual experience, and reduce our negative emotional responses. Neuro-Psychology indicates that meditation can help us to reduce negative emotions, and increase our imaginative meta-selves. The neuroscientific findings are still only a small addition to our understanding of the importance of meditation in realising universal morality, however they show that empirical science and spirituality are not mutually exclusive fields.
Read more, see:
Andrew B Newberg.