Sunday Thoughts – The Spiritual Person
Early this year I read a Facebook post on human spirituality. The gist of the post was on why life tends to favor spiritual humans by rewarding them with happiness, good health, and longevity among other benefits that we yearn for. Studies on religion have shown that largely religious particularly spiritual experiences tend to have positive effect on human life.
There is also the emotional connection to spirituality. Those who exercise spiritual rituals such as prayers, praise/worship, and meditation report feeling being in the presence of something transcendent, something divine. The transcendent or divine are usually characterized as something e.g. a spiritual force/spirit, or someone like a God (or gods). To those who experience the spiritual emotions, the transcendent is as real as the real world.
Those two paragraphs tell us that spirituality is real. People experience real emotions when they allow themselves to undergo the spiritual journey, and the effects (mostly positive but there are a number of negative results) can be measured and quantified. When we have quantifiable observations, scientists are forced to accept the reality of whatever is causing those observations. Thus, when someone says she is is filled with the Holy Spirit because she feels the Holy Spirit within her, we must accept that her emotions are real and she can feel them.
At this point we have to grant that spiritual experiences are real. But does that mean the spiritual realm is real? Is there a reality outside there that people connect with when they practice the spiritual rituals? Or those experiences start and end up within the brain? If either of the alternatives be the case, is there a way to rule one out?
In researching about the question I came across this TEDx talk by Physicist Max Erik Tegmark, Professor of Physics and Cosmology at MIT titled Consciousness is a mathematical pattern, in which he argued very simply:
If consciousness is a product of an entity that’s different from the physics we already know, then we should be able to see matter behaving in a different way where that consciousness resides (namely the brain), when compared with how matter behaves on non-conscious objects. For example, how subatomic particles interact with each other in the brain ought to be different with how the same subatomic particles interact with one another in let’s say a rock. Max however pointed out that the interactions of subatomic, atomic and even molecular particles in the brain are exactly the same with how the same particles interact in non-conscious objects.
The conclusion from that observation is thus there is no extra Universe interference with brain particles that would give rise to consciousness, other than the fact that brain particles are arranged in a unique pattern – and it is that unique pattern that gives rise to what we call consciousness.
From Max’s postulate, I was able to device a thought experiment that would allow me decide on whether spiritual experiences have extra Universe dimensions, or if they are just experiences that start and end up with the brain. My thought experiment was like this:
If two people are placed next two each other, and fitted with brain imaging tools e.g. Electroencephalography (EEG), and one is asked to perform a spiritual ritual like meditating and the other is asked to just sit around and be the usual casual self, then if spiritual experience has nothing to do with brain activity, I would expect similar brain activity between the two subjects.
However, EEG, MRI and other brain imaging investigations have since concluded that spirituality is a function of the prefrontal cortex, as the prefrontal cortex becomes extremely active for those undergoing spiritual meditation, compared to when the same person is not, or when a control subject is used for comparison. That is, the active action of meditating, or praying, requires the brain to be active, specifically the prefrontal part of the brain that is known for conscious thoughts.
Research on spirituality have therefore pointed out to the fact that spiritual experience is nothing but a matter of brain chemistry. If that be the case, then you’d expect anyone with a normal brain (undamaged) to experience the same spiritual feeling if they allow themselves to undergo the same spiritual ritual, whether or not they believe in a transcendent force like God. As it happens, atheists like Sam Harris, late Christopher Hitchens, and even the controversial Richard Dawkins say that they do get to experience what spiritualists would call a divine feeling.
I must mention that there is a time I thought Quantum Entanglement could explain the seeming presence of a transcendent realm, but such would only be possible if everything was already entangled. Given that we still can entangle some particles, that means a lot of particles are not entangled thus it is not possible for instantaneous communication to happen between our brains and the transcendent reality.
And, if such a Universal Entangled state existed and enabled spiritual experiences, then there would be no need for one to invoke brain chemistry through rituals like prayer/worship or meditation in order to experience the spiritual realm. If were in a Universally Entangled Universe, then we could always be in the spiritual realm given the already established instantaneous connection enabled by an entangled universe – but that’s not the case.
The conclusion I have arrived at is: Spirituality is real because brain chemistry is real, but it all starts and ends up in the brain. This then implies that just as someone hallucinating has his brain create for him an actual existing reality for him, a reality that doesn’t objectively exist, so the person undergoing a spiritual experience is experiencing an actual existing reality, but it is all in his/her head. The transcendent reality therefore remains a myth.