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Customer Review

204 of 215 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Clear and solid in some areas, very weak in others, May 16, 2001
This review is from: Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief (Hardcover)
Thsi book does a good job expounding the authors' theory of the neural mechanisms behind transcendent experience, and its relationship to religious belief. They start out explicitly relying on the traditional objective realist position, and show how interaction of certain brain areas can lead us to lose our sense of boundaries in time and space. Thus the authors theorize that ineffable mystical experience arises from inhibition of a brain region that is critical for maintaining our sense of boundaries in time and space. The description is not very technical, but it is clear and should make sense to general readers without any background in neurology. The authors use their own simple terms for brain areas and functions rather than using the more obscure jargon of neuroscience. The excplanations work well up to a point.
There is another, weaker aspect to this book, which is the philosophical musings of the authors. Somewhere in the middle of the book, they decide that there are only two positions to be taken, objective realism and subjectivism. They make the reasonable point (though without supporting it in the book) that current neuroscience research reveals human perception to be constructed to a great degree, rather than directly providing a literal reflection of nature. This particular point is made in more detail by others, such as by Gerald Edelman in "Bright Air, Brilliant Fire," also suitable for general readers, and by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their writings, as well as Walter Freeman in "How Brains Make Up Their Minds."
Having made the point that objective realism is not an accurate way to think about how experience arises from the brain, and assuming that the only think left is subjectivism, he is forced to concede that "neurological reality" as he calls it, hs to reflect ontological reality.
That is, he jumps to the conclusion that since mystical experience reflects something _really happening_ in the brain, that there must be a 'reality' being perceived by mystics. This may be true in some sense, but it is very confused and confusing thinking.
For one thing, the authors claim that hallucinations are distinguishable from mystical experience in that mystical experience seems much more real. Yet hypnosis research not cited by the authors reveals that under some conditions hallucinations are as real as perceptions, and rely on the same brain areas, and that our bodies respond to them as if they were perceptions. In other words, the authors seem to get even the neurology wrong when they discuss what they call the "existential operator" that assigns a sense of reality to experience. Contrary to the claims of the authors, the brain can indeed produce a perfectly solid sense of reality, right down to the brain regions used for sensory perception, from products of imagination, through suggestion. This weakens their conclusion that "mystical experience is more real than hallucination" considerably, though of course it does not completely negate it.
Secondly, the authors don't recognize that there are options besides metaphysical dualism and objective realism. The fact that we perceive mystical union as if it were as real as sensory experience doesn't mean it has ontological reality. There are also very credible alternate views such as pragmatism (Walter Freeman, in "How Brains Make up their Minds,"), embodied realism (Lakoff and Johnson in "Philosophy in the Flesh"), and "relational consciousness" (John Taylor in "The Race for Consciousness").
These alternate views all allow for meaning to be constructed in the mind, such as through meaningful action on the environment, without making it either a delusion or an objective reality in itself. Thus, mystical experience can be meaningful and we can have theories, about its signficance as an evolutionary adapatation for example, without making mystical experience ontologically equivalent to a table or a chair, or resorting to a dualism of "objective realities."
The authors simply don't make the case they claim to make that mystical experience is 'objectively real' because it is 'neurologically real.' However, they do an excellent job of describing their evidence for the neural mechansisms in very clear and simple terms for general readers.
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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jul 3, 2009 3:31:56 PM PDT
bcodding says:
It is helpful when a reviewer includes authors with confirming or opposing views.

In reply to an earlier post on May 26, 2012 11:09:51 PM PDT
H. Malik says:
Using your "clever review" you are misguiding others and are imposing your atheist believes. for example the relational consciousness NEVER says that there is no other reality then the material one. Here is its definition from a website.

Relational consciousness is an alternative to the "possessive individualism" that has become the norm in the Western world. Possessive individualism holds that

1. The only reliable way of knowing the world is through the physical senses, especially through science.

2. A human being's primary identity is as an individual who defines himself in opposition to other beings (i.e., at odds with other humans and nature).

3. Possession (of things, power, and property) is the most important way of expressing one's value.

In contrast, relational consciousness holds that

1. What can be known extends beyond the physical world and includes supernatural, spiritual, or nonmaterial realities; these can be accessed through other forms of consciousness besides the scientific and rational.

2. A human being's primary identity is in relationship with other beings (intentional connection with God, people, nature).

3. In the large picture, possessions are fleeting and unimportant measures of value.

In other words relational consciousness supports we are more then material and there is a reality beyond material world.

In reply to an earlier post on May 27, 2012 9:19:49 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 27, 2012 9:22:59 AM PDT
H. Malik I thank you for the time and thought you put into your constructive comments to my review.

Personally, I don't see how anything about the 1st person subjective perspective by itself can prove anything about what exists and what doesn't. I see subjectivity as being tuned for action, not for carving nature at its joints. Our intuitions sometimes seem to get things right and sometimes get them wrong, although often in a useful way.

I see the supernatural as sometimes a useful illusion in various different ways. I can't disprove the supernatural, that is why it is irrelevant to science, it can't be tested at all. We can have very strong intuitions about its reality because it serves action and social interaction but that doesn't mean it can be shoehorned into scientific explanations.

My feeling is that in order to understand the mind, we have to consider several perspectives and integrate them scientifically: (1) the 1st person perspective, (2) the intersubjective perspective that different people agree upon, (3) the patterns we observe in behavior, (4) the patterns we observe in the brain, and (5) the history of how each of the other perspectives arises.

See Owen Flannagan for a very good discussion of the need for an interdisciplinary approach, and Damasio for a nice recent example.

Just examples of approaches I think are well suited to scientific understanding of the human mind and offer the best avenue so far. My opinion, not intended to be "clever" just to share my thinking. Thanks for yours.

Consciousness Reconsidered (Bradford Books)

Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain (Vintage)

Posted on Dec 15, 2012 1:52:45 AM PST
Adel Anwar says:
Todd - brilliant insights above. Thank you ! Very well written!

The slippery slope (of others) is when the word "reality" is used. This is because the word reality means something different in metaphysics in contrast to epistemology, and most people have not made that distinction. So let me be clear:

1. Metaphysics: existence exists (as opposed to no existence). This can be validated by your senses (there "is" something as opposed to "nothing"). Therefore consciousness is validated and so is the law of identity.

2. Epistemology: how can you "know" anything? The method of reason and logic.

What is "reality" ? An interaction between the mind and existence. How can we know it ? To know it correctly use the method of reason and logic.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 10, 2016 9:36:33 AM PDT
[Deleted by Amazon on Jul 10, 2016 10:43:16 AM PDT]
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