In recent years, there has been a lot of scientific studies showing a positive correlation between prayer and meditation a person’s mental and psychological well-being. While this correlation has been known for thousands of years, advanced scientific techniques such as functional MRI have allowed people to see how the brain can change during prayer and meditation.
Some scientists attribute these changes in brain states to merely physical causes, including the experiences of mysticism that sometimes occur during meditation or in other contexts. For example, in last Sunday’s New York Times, Barbara Ehrenreich describes her own mystical experience and explores the possibility that someday science alone will be able to explain it. Ross Douthaut recently had an outstanding reply to Ms. Ehrenreich that identifies the limits of what science can tell us about metaphysics:
“[E]ven in contexts where it’s very easy to identify the physical correlative to a given mental state, and to get the kind of basic repeatability that the scientific method requires — show someone an apple, ask them to describe it; tell them to bite into it, ask them to describe the taste; etc. — there is no kind of scientific or philosophical agreement on what is actually happening to produce the conscious experience of the color “red,” the conscious experience of the crisp McIntosh taste, etc. So if we can’t say how this ”normal” conscious experience works, even when we can easily identify the physical stimulii that produce it, it seems exponentially harder to scientifically investigate the invisible, maybe-they-exist and maybe-they-don’t stimulii — be they divine, alien, or panpsychic — that Ehrenreich hypothesizes might produce more exotic forms of conscious experience.”
Mr. Douthat goes on to describe the current interest in neuroscience as an opportunity to reawaken the symbiotic relationship between physical sciences and the wisdom that philosophy and theology can provide:
“So by all means, neuroscientists should seek to understand mystical experiences, as they should seek to understand every other sort of experience … but absent a revolutionary breakthrough in the science of consciousness, for the foreseeable future the best way to actually penetrate any distance into mystical phenomena will probably continue to be the twofold path of direct investigation and secondhand encounter. By direct investigation, of course, I mean personal prayer and meditation, which is the major path to knowledge if the major religious traditions are right about what’s going on here, and probably a useful path to some sort of knowledge even if they’re not.
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In the case of the numinous, this means reading actual mystics and religious texts, reading novelists and poets and essayists who take up these experiences and themes, exploring theology and philosophy, delving into the sociology and anthropology and psychology of religious experience, and so on. And it feels like an unfortunate symptom of our era’s scientism that when a writer like Ehrenreich, who has just made her own contribution to this literature and who’s clearly comfortable on both sides of the “two cultures” divide, wants to urge people to pay more intellectually-serious attention to the numinous, she (almost automatically, it seems) takes off her her humanist/essayist hat and puts her hopes in a “bold” new neuroscience — instead of calling for a renewed highbrow interest, in, say, comparative religion, or a 21st century answer to “The Varieties of Religious Experience” or “The Golden Bough.”
If our understanding of the mystical is impoverished today, perhaps it’s because we’ve put too much faith in brain scans, and allowed other forms of knowledge and investigation to ebb. Perhaps what we need is a revival of philosophically-informed psychology and anthropology, rather than a more ambitious spiritual phrenology. Perhaps, instead of a better fMRI machine, we’re waiting for a new (and doubtless very different) William James or James Frazer or Carl Jung.” (emphasis added)