Thursday, August 7, 2008

Lower the bar…

Hints of the brain’s error-detection apparatus emerged serendipitously in the early 1990s. Psychologist Michael Falkenstein of the University of Dortmund in Germany and his colleagues were monitoring subjects’ brains using electroencephalography (EEG) during a psychology experiment and noticed that whenever a subject pressed the wrong button, the electrical potential in the frontal lobe suddenly dropped by about 10 microvolts. Psychologist William J. Gehring of the University of Illinois and his colleagues confirmed this effect, which researchers refer to as error-related negativity, or ERN. … Where in the brain does the ERN originate? Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, among other imaging methods, researchers have repeatedly found that error recognition takes place in the medial frontal cortex, a region on the surface of the brain in the middle of the frontal lobe, including the anterior cingulate. Such studies implicate this brain region as a monitor of negative feedback, action errors and decision uncertainty—–and thus as an overall supervisor of human performance.

–– as cited in "Minding Mistakes: How the Brain Monitors Errors and Learns from Goofs", By Markus Ullsperger (13.8.08), Scientific American Mind, emphasis added

This ERN phenomenon reminded me of Michael Persinger's famous (and infamous) studies using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to "conjure" God-feelings. If you are not familiar with Persinger's experiments, when magnetic waves were passed over various areas of subjects' brains, they reported feelings of a divine presence, cosmic wholeness, mystical rapture, and the like. The conclusion that most people, particularly those looking for fodder against faith, have drawn is that, well, there you have it: God is literally and demonstrably just an illusory trick of the brain. Since it is as easy to conjure, and then dispel, God as it is to turn on and off a magnetic device on your head, the argument goes, then God is just as insubstantial as a passing magnetic wave. Faith is quite literally "all in your head." Well, so goes the argument, at any rate.

As soon as I heard about Persinger's studies, I found their application as proof against religion to be singularly wobbly. I can easily twist your thumb (or your middle finger, for that matter) upwards, but that does not mean you are actually performing a thumbs-up (or an up-yours). What's important, as well, is that, just by forcing those gestures onto someone's hand (which Magneto could do very fluidly to Wolverine's hand, in a sort of transmanual magnetic stimulator redux!), you are not actually experiencing those gestures as they are properly understood. An upraised finger is not necessarily "the finger", just as an upward thumb is not necessarily a vote of support. The actual gesture, with a conscious personal intention behind it, and the conjured gesture, though physically identical, are two very different things. The important point is that the same physical response, or action, can be generated by two vastly different sources––namely, a mad scientist's manipulative imposition or a friend's genuine sign of support––and neither source of that action weighs against the other. Thus, God can, by His own intentional, personal means, generate in me a feeling of "cosmic transcendence", and, for his part, Persinger can do the same––yet without either agent or either operation negating the reality of the others. Presumably one could induce in subjects a feeling of "closeness with another human being", but that would in no way produce the other human being. A fortiori, such social stimulation would not count as proof of the non-existence (or, illusory existence) of other human beings.

I am reminded of all this as I read about this ERN research, because it paints the same picture from a different angle. Presumably, researchers could induce a 10-microvolt drop in the subject's frontal lobes, the same sort of change they find in those lobes when the subject makes an error. If they did this, if they conjured the objective neural pattern of an error, would the subject report (…subjectively, no less) feeling as if he'd erred? If he did feel "as if he had erred" whenever ERN were induced, would he thereby actually be making an error about anything? Not at all. (Even if the neural blip were too small to feel and report on, the mere occurrence of that drop would not produce any real error.) Imagine if the subject were quietly watching TV, and he suddenly got hit with an ERN. He might frown for a moment––but he would not have actually made any error that corresponded to, much less generated, the ERN he felt. Hence, the neural feeling is crucially distinct from the objective reality to which it may, or may not, correspond.

What the eager advocates of Persinger's TMS "God ray" do, is confuse the limits of language with the limits of reality. (This error earns them big ERN!) Simply because humans lack adequate neurological means to feel an induced TMS in some way different from how they experience a genuine mystical experience, does not mean the two things are the same. The limits of our perception are then construed as limits on the existence of God. It is as if God showing up in the brain in normal brain tissue is not impressive enough; what He needs, in order to satisfy the crème de la crème of today's atheisthèque, is install a brain module that specifically and exclusively "channels" divine interactions. (Perhaps it could blink and whistle when it did so, just for the sake of timid hearts.) By the same logic, it may be argued that it is not enough that God deigns to use authentic human speech and culture to convey His loving will; since those tricks can be easily written off as mere anthropology, He needs to generate a unique, extraterrestrial tongue, and uniquely exotic rites, that exclusively and unambiguously convey divine thoughts and actions. If God desired to manifest Himself at even the most intimate levels of our being, why should he faulted for installing, or exploiting, a structure of our brains that can be "tripped" by other means? Some art critics enjoy a vast lexicon of colors and shades and aesthetic sensibilities, while I, to say the least, do not. If we viewed the same painting, I would be stuck with making typically apposite remarks, like, "it's blue and red, and kind of funny, interesting bird there, etc.", while the art critic could use an array of nuanced terms to capture what my crude description misses about the pigments, influences, symbols, etc. Would the gap between my puny aesthetic and his expertise count against the reality and beauty of the painting? No. Moreover, even if I were forced to apply the same crude terms to all sorts of things–-stoplights, meals, emotions, clothes, van Goghs, etc. (and thus, analogously trigger the same neural actions with God as with Dr. Persinger)––the limitations of my descriptions would not collapse the objects into each other. Simply because the structure of human neurology is such that "closeness to God" and "closeness to TSM" manifest in similarly stimulated neural tissue, does not mean those objects are the same. There simply may be distinctions too subtle for us to sense, given our neural makeup, and thus we speak offhandedly of TSM as Godlike.

When I mentioned earlier that TMS might induce a feeling of human companionship, I left unstated two implications of that analogy. First, contrary to the retort that feeling close to humans and feeling close to God are very different––since everyone experiences human companionship all the time, whereas Godwardness is much rarer––it is highly contestable that experiencing the divine presence is any less vivid or frequent or unambiguous for the majority of humans than feeling human solidarity. (Ironically enough, that disputable phenomenological difference is the point of the neuro-skeptics in the first place: God feels so persistent because "it" is just a neural epiphenomenon. But which is it: that feeling God is rare and uncommon, and thus illusory, or that feeling God is constant and universal, and thus, somehow also, illusory?) Indeed, a major part of the religious tradition is accounting for why people feel alienated or obscured from one another, and then finding in God the true source of communal joy that grounds our feebler attempts at such communion in the merely human sphere. "Our hearts are restless…!"

Second, just because human communion is mediated through, or manifested in, various brain processes, does not mean those human interactions are unreal. To the contrary: the very fact that the joy of human companionship is an inescapably neural process (cf. Stephen Goleman, Social Intelligence, Derek Melser, The Act of Thinking) indicates how intrinsic it is to our nature as humans, as icons of the triune God. We literally can't fail to find a whole-body pleasure in the company of others, and the Other. If we lacked the means to "feel" social companionship in our very brains, we would be, it is true, "free" from the trickery of possible TMS delusions (e.g., "Was that Persinger or really my brother by my side just now?"); but we would also be enslaved to a numb social void. This numbness would be not unlike the condition of Capgras sydrome, in which people can recognize (or name) their family members, but feel no emotional response to them, and thus assume the people must be impostors. Analogously, if God opted to manifest Himself, and the attendant goodness of creation, in a miraculously non-neural way, we would be "free" from the threat of induced delusions (and, what's more, bad old Dr. Science would be blocked from prying at and soiling the privileged religious truth with his big, cold, gloved, public hands). Yet, for all this freedom and foundationalist autonomy, we would be robbed of what makes us who we are: mortals whose brains tingle with pleasure at the Creator's passing touch.

A related post: "A no-brainer…"

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