Neuroscience and Religion: Neuroepistemology

views updated


Neuroepistemology is a relatively new discipline that considers questions of the theory of knowledge in terms of the structure and function of the brain. In order to consider neuroepistemology, it is necessary to review how the human brain organizes sensory input and how it "constructs" the subjective representation of reality that is called knowledge. The process by which the brain enables a perception of reality lies at the heart of neuroepistemology and provides a unique perspective for the scientific, philosophical, and theological evaluation of reality.

Primary Epistemic States

The various perceptions of reality can be grouped into several primary epistemic states. A primary epistemic state may be defined as the state in which a person has an experience and interpretation of reality. Such primary epistemic states can be considered along three neurocognitive dimensions: (1) sensory perceptions of objects or things that can be manifested as either multiple discrete things or a holistic union of all things; (2) cognitive relationships between objects or things that are either regular or irregular; and (3) emotional responses to the objects or things that are either positive, negative, or neutral. The emotional responses do not refer to the usual feelings of happiness, sadness, and so on, but to the overall emotional approach of a person to his or her reality. It is likely that one's overall affective response to reality is to a large degree set by the brain's limbic system, which includes such structures as the amygdala, hippocampus, and hypothalamus. Furthermore, scholars such as Antonio Damasio (1999) have suggested that emotional responses, even in relation to the body's perceptions, play a critical role in the human experience of reality. It is also important to mention that each of these parameters is set along a continuum. In other words, one's reality may be based primarily on multiple discrete objects, but it may also include some holistic attributes.

Based upon the dimensions described above, nine possible primary epistemic states that are internally consistent can be considered. These nine states should actually be considered a continuum of states with those mentioned below as nodal points along the continuum.

  1. Multiple discrete realityregular relationshipsneutral affect
  2. Multiple discrete realityregular relationshipspositive affect
  3. Multiple discrete realityregular relationshipsnegative affect
  4. Multiple discrete realityirregular relationshipsneutral affect
  5. Multiple discrete realityirregular relationshipspositive affect
  6. Multiple discrete realityirregular relationshipsnegative affect
  7. Unitary beingneutral affect
  8. Unitary beingpositive affect
  9. Unitary beingnegative affect

Unitary being cannot be perceived as having either regular or irregular relationships since relationships can only be considered to exist between discrete independent things, and in unitary being there are no discrete independent things that can be related to each other. Furthermore, it might be argued that unitary being cannot be associated with affect until after an individual actually has the experience of unitary being. Thus, the final three states might ultimately be considered one; for the purposes of this entry, however, it will be helpful to maintain the symmetry of these states.

The first six primary epistemic states could all be considered to represent the experience of a reality with multiple discrete objects. In other words, a person in one of these states perceives individual and independent objects in that reality. These objects can be related to other objects in terms of time, space, causality, or many other possible relationships.

Neurophysiologically, there are specific brain structures that appear to underlie the ability to order reality along these different relationships. In particular, the parietal lobe, in conjunction with the temporal and frontal lobes, appears to play a critical role in the perception of spatial and temporal orientation, as well as the establishing of causal relationships between objects and events. The first three primary epistemic states refer to realities in which there are regular relationships between things. Thus, these relationships are logical and have a logical ordering. It may be said that these regular relationships are predictable and allow for a consistent understanding of reality.

Baseline reality

This regularity helps scientists understand what is typically called reality or baseline reality. Baseline reality generally carries a neutral affect and refers to that state in which there are discrete objects with regular relationships. This is the primary epistemic state that most people are in most of the time. Furthermore, few individuals would question the fundamental reality (or the sense of that reality) of the state that they are usually living within. It is precisely because this state appears certain while an individual is in it that it can be called a primary epistemic state. In fact, most people would consider this state to be the true reality, with nothing beyond this reality.

Cosmic consciousness

The second primary epistemic state is one in which there are discrete objects with regular relationships between objects, but an overwhelmingly positive affect. It is a state associated with an elated sense of being and joy, in which the universe is perceived to be fundamentally good. There is a sense of purposefulness to all things and to humankind's place within the universe. This purposefulness is not derived logically, it is simply intuited because of the positive emotional state. The onset of this state is usually sudden and is often described as a conversion experience, especially in religious thought. In psychiatric literature, Richard Bucke called this state "Cosmic Consciousness"; it is characterized by overwhelming happiness, comprehension, universal understanding, and love. Although this state may have a sudden onset, it can last for many years and even for the person's entire life. This state of Cosmic Consciousness is a primary epistemic state because the person perceives this understanding of the universe as fundamentally real (it is not an illusion) and sometimes will look with a sense of pity at those who have only the baseline perception of reality. People in this state are not psychotic, nor do they have any emotional or mental disorder. They perceive objects and relationships between objects in the universe in the same way as those in baseline reality. They simply have a different emotional understanding of this perception.

Negative reality

The third primary epistemic state is comprised of discrete objects with regular relationships, but it is associated with a profoundly negative affect. It is a state of exquisite sadness and futility, as well as the sense of the incredible smallness of humankind within the universe and the suffering inherent in the human condition. In this state, the universe may be understood as one vast pointless machine without purpose or meaning. In the full-blown state, people often seek psychiatric help because of the extreme depression associated with this state, even though they perceive this state to be fundamentally real. Essentially, they are asking to be taught to think in an "illusory" way so that they can survive. They are not asking to be restored to reality. As with Cosmic Consciousness, this overly negative state can last many years. However, people do revert back to baseline reality and anecdotal evidence suggests that reversion occurs more frequently from the negative state than from the positive state, perhaps because the negative state is in many ways incompatible with survival from a psychological perspective.

Irregular relationships

The next three states are associated with discrete objects and beings, but contain irregular relationships between the objects in that reality. Thus, the time, space, and causal relationships between various objects are distorted, bizarre, and unpredictable. Examples of this type of state include dreams, drug-induced states, and schizophrenia. Further, the state of irregular relationships can be associated with negative, positive, or neutral affect. For example, the experience of using LSD or other hallucinogenic drugs can either be incredibly elating or profoundly disturbing. Quite literally, these states can be described as either heaven or hell. Schizophrenia is similar in that the bizarre patterns of relationships between objects can be associated with negative, positive, or neutral emotion, and patients can suffer from both a mood disorder and psychotic symptoms. In these cases, the patient may be extraordinarily depressed while also experiencing delusions or hallucinations.

All of these states involving discrete being are perceived as real while the person is in them. Of course, once an individual lapses into another primary epistemic state, he or she recognizes the original state as an illusion, delusion, or hallucination. This judgment is consistent with the nature of primary epistemic states, for once a person has entered into a different primary state, they perceive the new state as real. It is the nature of a primary epistemic state to perceive that state as reality. A person would therefore necessarily understand what they remember from a drug experience or from a dream as an illusion or a distortion.

Unitary states

The final three states involve the experience of a totally unitary reality. There is no point in referring to regular or irregular relationships regarding the primary epistemic states of unitary being, since there are no discrete objects that can be related to each other. In unitary being there is no sense of individual objects, there is no selfother dichotomy, and everything is perceived as undifferentiated, unified oneness. Thus, the state of unitary being can be divided into three possible states that include positive, negative, or neutral affect. However, even these emotional perspectives can be considered only after the fact, since while an individual is actually in a unitary state, there theoretically can be no distinction between objects, including even emotions.

This unitary state has been studied to some degree using neuroimaging of individuals in meditation or prayer. The results of early studies appear to support the original neurophysiological model suggested by Eugene d'Aquili and Andrew Newberg (1993), in which the experience of unitary states may be associated with the deafferentation, or blocking of sensory input, into the areas of the brain typically responsible for the perception and ordering of reality. However, more studies will need to be performed to better differentiate the neurophysiological correlates of the primary epistemic states, including that of unitary being.

God and the Whole

The experience of reality associated with unitary being yields the subjective perception of absolute and total unity of being without a temporal dimension. Reality is perceived as "ultimate wholeness" without any admixture of fragmentation. When absolute unitary and atemporal being is perceived as suffused with positive affect after the fact, it is generally perceived as personal (d'Aquili, 1982). This perceived experience of unitary atemporal being is interpreted in most world religions as either a direct perception of God or as the unio mystica of the Christian tradition, which, though a manifestation of God, is not considered a revelation of God's innermost nature. The experience transcends any perception of multiple, discrete being, and the awareness of the subject-object difference is obliterated. The unitary experience is ineffable, but it is frequently interpreted (when experienced with strong positive affect) in terms that express a union with, or a direct experience of, God.

The experience of ultimate wholeness does not have to be theistically labeled. It can be understood philosophically (usually with neutral affective valence) as an experience of the absolute, the ultimate, or the transcendent. In the Buddhist tradition the experience (also with neutral affective valence) is interpreted as the "void," or nirvāa, and is generally expressed as impersonal. It is also theoretically possible to enter into a state of unitary being associated with negative affect. However, there are no references to this type of experience in any religious, philosophical, or psychological literature. It may be that such a state is not neurophysiologically possible. Perhaps it cannot come about because the experience of all things as an undifferentiated oneness is so powerfully positive and integrative that it cannot be perceived in negative terms. At worst (so to speak) unitary being can be perceived neutrally. It may be argued that such a state of unitary being with negative affect is incompatible with life, the brain, or the mind. Thus, until actual evidence can be brought forward to demonstrate the existence of this theoretical state, it must be assumed that it is just that, theoretical.

It is also interesting that the perception of the logical opposite of ultimate wholenessthat is, ultimate fragmentationdoes not seem to be possible. For anything to be known at all, however chaotic it may be, some sense of wholeness or form must be perceived or imposed. The post hoc description of ultimate wholeness may be of an experience of a personal God or of a completely nonpersonal experience of total being, but in any case the experience is always interpreted as absolutely transcendent, or ultimate, or in some sense beyond ordinary experience.

Whether or not the phenomenon is interpreted as the experience of God or as the experience of a philosophical absolute tends to depend on the a priori conceptual frame of the individual having the experience. But there can be no doubt as to the reality of the unitary experience for those few who have had it; furthermore, these people are absolutely certain of the experience's objective reality. This experience, for those individuals, contains at least the same subjective conviction of reality as does the subjective conviction of the reality of the external world. Although it is true philosophically that we cannot prove the existence of the external world as perceived (or even of the external world at all) based upon a completely neuropsychological perspective, nonetheless each of us carries a subjective and pragmatic certainty of its existence. The experience of absolute unity carries to the subject the same, or perhaps even a greater, degree of certainty of its objective reality. Research indicates that this is true even in people whose orientation is materialist, reductionist, or atheistic prior to the experience of absolute unitary being.

As noted above, it seems likely from recent research that the experience of unitary being arises from the integrated functioning of several brain structures resulting in the deafferentation of orienting areas such as the parietal lobe. These parts of the brain may have evolved to yield such transcendent experiences, or perhaps such experiences are merely a byproduct of cortical machinery that evolved for other purposes. In any case, the experience of absolute unity can be described in terms of the evolution of the present structure and function of the central nervous system. An important point is that such an explanation, while legitimate from a scientific perspective, in no way alters the subjective sensation of the objective reality of the experience. So strong is this feeling of objective reality that, for most people, even a detailed neuroepistemological analysis does not alter the conviction that something objectively real has been experienced. For those few who have experienced both realitiesthe reality of the day-to-day world (and objective science) on one hand and the reality of transcendent unitary states on the otherthe problem is not one of trying to decide which reality is real. These people feel that they know both are real. Rather, the problem is one of reconciling the two drastically different and seemingly contradictory perceptions of reality.

Several important neuroepistemological issues can now be considered: the meaning of what it is to know at all; the nature and consequence of the certainty of reality, however reality is perceived; and the neurophysiological limitations and constraints on knowing anything whatsoever. To consider the meaning of knowing is to be forced into the heart of subjective experience, of which objective reality is but a subset (and science but a subset of this subset). It is probably impossible to resolve the conflict between the two realities as experienced. Given the phenomenology of the experience, it is clearly impossible to undercut the certainty of the "absolute" in those people who have experienced it. Research indicates that they cannot be dissuaded from their conviction of the objective reality of absolute unity no matter how often the adaptive value of the transcendence-generating parts of the brain is pointed out to them. Science is a product of the everyday world, but the experience of an absolute unitary state is an experience of another world, and this world is essentially cut off from the world of discrete reality (unlike hallucinations and delusions, which are epistemically part of the world of discrete, transient being). It would seem, therefore, that the absolute unitary state, whatever its significance may be in post hoc religious description, has in itself an epistemological status equivalent to baseline everyday reality and, at least from a neuroepistemological perspective, must be dealt with accordingly.

Unitary State Versus Baseline Reality

To simplify the issue somewhat, it is helpful to contrast the unitary state with baseline reality. In such an exercise there is no question that the unitary state wins out as being experienced as "more real." People who have experienced unitary being, and this includes some very learned and previously materialistically oriented scientists, regard such a state as being more fundamentally real than baseline reality. Even the memory of it is, for them, more fundamentally real. When individuals who have had this experience are interviewed, there is no doubt that it, and even the memory of it, carries a greater sense of fundamental reality than that generated by their experiences of day-to-day living.

To further clarify this point, compare four characteristics of baseline reality (coherent lucid consciousness) with the hyperlucid consciousness of unitary being (called hyperlucid here since it is perceived as more clear and more real than other primary epistemic states of reality). Baseline reality demonstrates the following four fundamental properties:

  1. A strong sense of the reality of what is experienced.
  2. Endurance of that reality through very long periods of time, usually only interrupted by sleeping.
  3. The sense that when elements in baseline reality disappear from all forms of sensory detection, they have ceased to be.
  4. High cross-subjective validation both for details of perception and core meaning (in other words, other people corroborate one's perceptions of the worldreality is a collective hunch).

The essential characteristics of hyperlucid unitary being are the following:

  1. An extremely strong sense of reality, to the point of its being absolutely compelling under almost all circumstances.
  2. Endurance for short periods of time relative to the sense of time of baseline reality.
  3. A sense of its underlying persistence and continued existence even when the perception of the overall state has ended.
  4. High cross-subjective validation for core perceptions; moderate to low cross-subjective validation for perceptual detail in those hyperlucid states where discrete being is perceived (as in near-death experiences).

It is probably impossible to determine whether the hyperlucid unitary state or baseline reality is more "real" (i.e., which state represents the ultimate objective reality without making gratuitous and unsubstantiated assumptions). Clearly, baseline reality has some significant claim to being ultimate reality. However, unitary being is so compelling that it is difficult to write off assertions of its reality. Actually, for individuals having experienced unitary being, it seems virtually impossible to negate that experience, no matter what level of education or sophistication such individuals may have. This being the case, it is a misguided reductionism to state that because hyperlucid unitary consciousness can be understood in terms of neuropsychological processes, it is therefore derivative from baseline reality. Indeed the reverse argument might just as well be made. Neuropsychology can give no answer as to which state is more real, baseline reality or hyperlucid unitary consciousness (often experienced as God). It may be most accurate to state that each is real in its own way and for its own adaptive ends.

The essential characteristic of different states of reality are eventually reducible only to the strength of the sense of reality, the phantasia catalyptica of the Stoics or the Anwesenheit (compelling presence) of certain modern German philosophers. A vivid sense of reality may be the only thing that can be used to help determine what is really real until someone discovers a method for going beyond the brain's perception of reality. This conclusion may not be epistemologically satisfying, but at this time all alternatives seem untenable.

Therefore, the brain can be conceived of as a machine that operates upon whatever it is that fundamental reality may be, and the brain produces, at the very least, two basic versions. One version is a world of discrete beings, usually baseline reality, and the other version is the perception of unitary being, usually experienced as God. Both perceptions are accompanied by a profound subjective certainty of their objective reality. Whatever is prior to the experience of either unitary being or the baseline reality of everyday life is in principal unknowable, since that which is in any way known must be translated, and in this sense transformed by the brain.


Damasio, Antonio R. The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. New York, 1999.

d'Aquili, Eugene G. "Senses of Reality in Science and Religion: A Neuroepistemological Perspective." Zygon 17 (1982): 361364.

d'Aquili, Eugene G., and Andrew B. Newberg. "Religious and Mystical States: A Neuropsychological Model." Zygon 28 (1993): 177200.

Gazzaniga, Michael S. The Bisected Brain. New York, 1970.

Gazzaniga, Michael S., ed. The New Cognitive Neurosciences. Cambridge, Mass., 2000.

Luria, Aleksandr R. Higher Cortical Functions in Man. Translated by Basil Haigh. New York, 1966; 2d rev. ed., 1980.

Luria, Aleksandr R. The Working Brain: An Introduction to Neuropsychology. Translated by Basil Haigh. New York, 1973.

Newberg, Andrew B., Eugene G. d'Aquili, and Vince P. Rause. Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. New York, 2001.

Eugene G. d'Aquili (1987)

Andrew B. Newberg (2005)