J Harold Ellens. Miracles: God, Science, and Psychology in the Paranormal. Editor: J Harold Ellens. Volume 2. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008.
Today, nearly everyone knows the name and work of Richard Dawkins. He is busy proving that God does not exist. It is not clear from his work what kind of god it is that he is sure does not exist, but he is sure that science proves conclusively that there is no divine source, design, root, ground, or energy evident in the world as we are able to discern it. We need to take him seriously for a number of reasons. First, his professional pedigree is impressive: he is a professor of science at Oxford University in the United Kingdom. Second, his work is carefully reasoned and meticulous in attention to detail, so far as it goes. Third, he has published profusely and in a style that engages his readers, both laypersons and professionals. Fourth, his titles are winsome and intriguing and have drawn to his work a worldwide readership, indeed a surprising philosophical and scientific following.
A couple of years ago, Time magazine featured a remarkable article by David Van Biema, which addressed Dawkins’s case regarding God. It posed Dawkins in dialogue with theist Francis Collins, which proved to be a stimulating and in some ways delightful debate about evolution and creation, particularly about the intelligent design (ID) argument. Collins is a genome scientist and pioneer. He perceives that the material outcomes of the genome project, thus far evident, point to God, and the God to whom the heuristic evidence points exists outside of space, time, and materiality. Collins is a straight-speaking Christian who was converted from atheism as an adult. His recent work on the evidence for theism, that is, for the belief that God is the source and sustainer of the material world, is titled The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. The dialogue between Dawkins and Collins took place on September 30, 2006, and the magazine article is a transcript of that exchange.
Dawkins’s essential claim is that all the evidence that the empirical sciences can provide regarding the origin and nature of the material world leads inevitably and exclusively to the conclusion that the world that we can study scientifically is a product of natural causes. This conclusion is reinforced, he believes, by the fact that everything in the material world can be explained by processes of cause and effect, which we have identified as within the material world: we have analyzed them, and we can understand them virtually completely, without reference to transcendent sources or forces. Collins, however, is sure that the cause-and-effect dynamics evident throughout this material world is not in tension with, and certainly does not rule out, the presence of a creator and sustainer of the universes. Indeed, he confidently asserts that Dawkins’s claim only explains our understanding of the causes and effects by which the material world functions and leaves out any reasonable accounting for its origin.
Moreover, Collins makes the telling point that humans experience a great deal of reality that is not material and not accountable in terms of what we know about material reality. He is referring to the real world of human experiences, which reflects much of the function of the human psyche, spirit, and parapsychological ways of knowing: intuition, ESP, prescience, and the like. While Collins does not say so specifically in his dialogue with Dawkins, it seems fair to say that if we concentrated on studying these dimensions of human experience more assiduously, we would be able to develop a more complete science of the psyche and the spirit. Such a science is likely to lead us to empirical perceptions of the action of the divine spirit in these areas of the psyche and the spirit. Surely such a science will also lead us to further understanding of the empirical facts of psychology and biochemistry at play in the experiences of the world of the psyche, the spirit, and the paranormal.
Such a science of the spiritual world has not developed because no energy has been given to a scientific examination of that world. Hence we have no language formulated for handling such empirical, phenomenological, and heuristic investigations of the world of the spirit. No universe of discourse has been developed for discussing it. No categories have been defined for managing the abundant data that seem available for its study. No comprehensive and systematic collection of the data of paranormal human experiences has been undertaken. If such a science were developed, as William James called for a century ago, undoubtedly we would be surprised how much hard data we would have with which to work and what precise categories of evidence we would be able to develop. We revere faith and scientific progress, but at the same time we hunger for miracles. Van Biema’s point is to ask whether those two sides of the human quest are compatible.
The positions taken by Dawkins and Collins constitute the far ends of a continuum of potential notions about the relationship between the truth understood from a secular perspective and the truth understood from a theistic perspective. The late Stephen Jay Gould spent his entire professional life defending his position as a secular scientist, namely, a person who could explain all that is explainable about life and our world, without taking God into account. He spent his career as a famous paleontologist on the faculty of Harvard University and published a number of the most interesting books ever written in the field of science. Toward the end of his life, however, he reassessed the situation of his secular pursuit of knowledge, largely as a result of a running dialogue he had carried out with a close friend, a Jesuit scholar. Gould published his new perspective in a fine little volume titled Rocks of Ages.
In this volume, Gould floated the theory that both the conclusions of empirical science and of the science of theology are truth. The value and valence of their truth is equal since all truth, as truth, is equally true. Moreover, he asserted that both can be vindicated, even if they are verifiable in markedly different ways: empirical science by the hermeneutic of suspicion and theological science by the science of rational faith, phenomenology, and heuristic method. Gould made room for these widely differing sets of truth by asserting that the hard sciences and the theological sciences operate in two different worlds, within which each has developed a model of truth. He affirmed the right and truth of each by describing them as existing in separate, non-overlapping magisteria. This was a fascinating and ingenious way of handling the impasse. The difficulty with it was that it left one with a haunting sense that a slight of hand had been performed. Whatever truth we can access, as humans, one would expect that somewhere, somehow, truth is unitary.
Quest for a Unified Theory
Van Biema tried to push the matter further back to a focal point of unity or integration of all truth, as he teased out the dialogue between Dawkins and Collins. He set the stage with the note that the debate about science versus God has really been double-faceted in the last decade or two. On one hand are the Darwinian suggestions that natural law governs the forces of material development and that natural selection explains the unfolding of life forms. On the other hand has been the question whether the Darwinian theory of evolution can withstand the empirical evidence for ID in the structure and function of the material universe and the rise of life forms. Those who argue for ID offer the scientific challenge that the gaps in the evolutionary story “are more meaningful than its very convincing” total model.
Can creationism and ID stand up against Darwin? Can religion hold its own against the increasingly forceful, sometimes strident, claims and evidence of science? Van Biema points out that this is an age-old debate, but it is now getting more intense because both sides seem increasingly confident of the apparently incontrovertible evidence they bring to the table. Admittedly, the empirical sciences are becoming more able to
map, quantify and change the nature of human experience. Brain imaging illustrates—in color—the physical seat of the will and the passions, challenging the religious concept of a soul independent of glands and gristle. Brain chemists track imbalances that could account for the ecstatic states of visionary saints or, some suggest, of Jesus. Like Freudianism before it, the field of evolutionary psychology generates theories of altruism and even of religion that do not include God. Something called the multiverse hypothesis in cosmology speculates that ours may be but one in a cascade of universes, suddenly bettering the odds that life could have cropped up here accidentally, without divine intervention.
Besides Dawkins and Collins, Van Biema cites many other worthy authorities on both sides of the issue. Cardinal Schonborn dismisses the empirical scientists by calling their work scientism and evolutionism, as though it were a sect or a heresy. He argues that they are trying to claim that science is more than a measure and to make it a worldview and touchstone of truth that will replace religion. However, “Dawkins is riding the crest of an atheistic literary wave.” Sam Harris’s The End of Faith sold a half million copies since 2004. He followed it with the also very popular Letter to a Christian Nation, attacking theism in general and ID in particular. Tufts University professor Daniel Dennett wrote Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, which has also appealed to a large audience of readers.
A summary of Van Biema’s narrative of the Dawkins-Collins dialogue describes articulately the history and nature of the current impasse regarding science and God. He cites many of the most interesting sources. Some of the more prominent figures are Victor Stenger, an astrophysicist, who wrote God, the Failed Hypothesis; Carl Sagan, whose essays on science and God’s absence were posthumously published as The Varieties of Scientific Experience; and Lewis Wolpert, who calls himself an “atheist-reductionist-materialist” and who says that “religion is one of those impossible things.” Dawkins himself claimed that “if ever there was a slamming of the door in the face of constructive investigation, it is the word miracle. Once you buy into the position of faith, you [begin] losing your scientific credibility.” Collins replies, “I would challenge the statement that my scientific instincts are any less rigorous than yours. But my presumption of God and thus the supernatural is not zero, and yours is.”
Joan Roughgarden of Stanford is a biologist who has written Evolution and Christian Faith, providing a strong defense of the desire of most of us for a model that takes seriously both the theological sciences and the hard sciences and integrates them into a unified whole. This is the model for which Collins consistently argues. Van Biema notes that “Collins’ devotion to genetics is, if possible, greater than Dawkins’. Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute since 1993, Collins headed a multinational 2,400-scientist team that co-mapped the 3 billion biochemical letters of our genetic blueprint…. Collins continues to lead his institute in studying the genome and mining it for medical breakthroughs.” While Dawkins looks at the scientific data and says there is no evidence for God, Collins looks at the scientific data and says two things: first, God is not limited to time, space, or materiality, so scientific exploration of phenomena of time, space, and materiality is not going to be able to describe much of God; second, there are numerous loci in the scientific database that strongly suggest the presence and probability of a transcendental force behind and in the material world.
Ruling God In or Out of the Equation
Collins might have gone further with this line of thought. He might have said, as I think he implies, that because the above is true, a number of other facts cascade from it. First, it would be foolishly unscientific to rule out dogmatically the possibility of God’s presence and action behind and within the material universe. If science cannot study God because it is limited to the empirically material, it cannot rule God out. Second, therefore, it is an imperative of authentic science that we take seriously the heuristic and phenomenological data, scientifically available, for the probability of God’s presence and action in the material universe. Third, if one posits the assumption of theism, the hypothesis of divine presence and action in this world resolves many of those problems, which, in a secular perspective, prove to be large gaps in the model. Fourth, much more comprehensive data are required to rule God out of the equation than to rule in both the possibility and probability of God. This is particularly true, in view of the intimations and phenomenological evidence we have, from both the normal and paranormal arenas of identifiable human experience, which suggests the operation of a transcendent force and world that impinges on our material domain.
Collins’s line of thought and illustrations confirms this specifically. He argues that in our material world, six universal constants make possible the evolution of inorganic and organic existence. If any one of these had been off in the slightest degree, the entire experiment of creation of life as we know it would have been impossible. For example:
The gravitational constant, if it were off by one part in a hundred million million, then the expansion of the universe after the Big Bang would not have occurred in the fashion that was necessary for life to occur. When you look at the evidence, it is very difficult to adopt the view that this was just chance. But if you are willing to consider the possibility of a designer, this becomes a rather plausible explanation for what is otherwise an exceedingly improbably event—namely, our existence.
Of course, Dawkins’s response is that with the multimillions or billions of universes, the odds are tolerable that somewhere out there, the conditions for life would have happened just as a result of the random experimentation of matter. What is mysterious in this response is that it assumes an origin of all those universes, without including in the model what the source of matter and energy was in the first place. That is a sizable gap, one would think. Collins’s response was that one must posit an infinite number of universes out there that we cannot observe, all experimenting with an infinite number of possible combinations, to strike just the lucky option for life; or one must say there was a plan. He concludes, “I actually find the argument of the existence of a God who did the planning more compelling than the bubbling of all these multiverses. So Occam’s razor—Occam says you should choose the explanation that is most simple and straightforward—leads me more to believe in God than in the multiverse, which seems quite a stretch of the imagination.”
Dawkins wished to claim that a God hypothesis impedes science and that faith is the opposite of and obstructs reason. Collins correctly clarifies that both of those propositions are egregious claims and specious untruths. Faith and reason are handmaidens of each other. Moreover, modern science and the enlightenment were launched mainly by men and women who were both towering religious figures and heroic scientists. The community of scientists is still, in the majority, made up of persons of faith. Dawkins tended to think of religious perspectives mainly in terms of an exaggerated notion based on extremely literalist fundamentalist Christians. That assumption or claim is, of course, naive, uninformed, and prejudicial to the discussion. Obviously, he does not know much about the general communities of healthy and reasonable believers.
In the end, the Dawkins-Collins dialogue led the former to declare, “My mind is not closed…. My mind is open to the most wonderful range of future possibilities, which I cannot even dream about…. When we started out and we were talking about the origins of the universe and the physical constants, I provided … cogent arguments against a supernatural intelligent designer. But it does seem to me to be a worthy idea … grand and … worthy of respect…. If there is a God, it’s going to be a whole lot bigger and a whole lot more incomprehensible than anything that any theologian of any religion has ever proposed.” Who would not say amen to that central truth?
Collins observed that after a quarter century of scientific work, he agreed with everything Dawkins said about the field of science but states that “there are answers science isn’t able to provide about the natural world—the questions about why instead of the questions about how. I’m interested in the whys. I find many of those answers in the spiritual realm. That in no way compromises my ability to think rigorously as a scientist.” It is the questions of the hows and whys that we are interested in as we prepare this volume on Miracles: God, Science, and Psychology in the Paranormal—Medical and Therapeutic Events.
Where God and Science Meet
In 2006 a remarkable set of three volumes, titled Where God and Science Meet: How Brain and Evolutionary Studies Alter Our Understanding of Religion, was published in the Praeger series Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality. It was ably edited by Patrick McNamara, one of the contributors to the first volume of the present work. The titles of his three volumes indicate their relevance to this chapter. They are, in sequence, Evolution, Genes, and the Religious Brain; The Neurology of Religious Experience; and The Psychology of Religious Experience. It is self-evident that the underlying assumption in the scientific work of McNamara’s three volumes is the pervasive relevance of the interface and integration of research in religion, neurology, and biochemistry.
McNamara’s first volume reports at length the way in which genetics and environment affect our sense of values, authority, rigidity, and religiosity. It demonstrates the empirical evidence for the relationship between affective neuroscience and sacred emotions as well as the data for and against theories and models of religiosity as an evolutionary adaptive mechanism. One chapter articulates the relationship between religion, the evolution of the human mind, and the unique functions of the human brain. His second volume addresses a wide range of issues in neurochemistry and neuroelectronics, as they relate to religious experience and spiritual practices. These data are illustrated by some surprising empirical insights from parkinsonism studies and epilepsy. A remarkable chapter describes in surprising detail the interaction of the neurocognitions of meaning making, religious conversion, and spiritual transformation. The consistent conclusions of the various aspects of this volume indicate the scientific evidence for the intricate interface in humans of the brain, mind, biochemistry, electrical system, and religious experience.
Volume three, as one would guess from the title, deals with mind, brain, meaning making, psychodynamics, neuropharmacology. spirituality, mysticism, and religious practices. The chapter themes vary from the study of entheogens, daydreaming, and religion and intolerance to what we can learn from serious psychopathology about science and religion and the cross-cultural consistency of their useful connection. Forty noted scholarly scientists joined McNamara in producing these erudite volumes, analytically assessing the interface of the hard sciences and the psychosocial sciences in our understanding of the relationship of science and religion. The phenomenal amount of vital new science generated in and by McNamara’s three volumes gives the lie to the notion that religion and science cannot meet. The truth is that they cannot get on with their own business, except in their necessarily cooperative mutual quest for the whole truth in all its facets. They need each other if they care to be authentically comprehensive in the pursuit of their respective disciplines.
Exploring the Limits
Similar exploration of the frontiers of the brain sciences and religion was undertaken in 2003 by five scientific researchers, including Richard Dawkins. The God Experiments were reported, by John Horgan, in Discover: Science, Technology, and the Future. The God Experiments, briefly described, were laboratory analyses by means of electronic machines for measuring brain activity, which endeavored to stimulate and measure specific areas of the brain that the experimental scientists who designed the process believed were the areas which incited religious experience. The experiments were launched on the assumption that religious experiences were generated by natural processes of brain stimulation resulting from environmental influences such as ingesting specific chemicals in food or drink or being exposed to environmental conditions that incited such experiences. The scientists assumed that inducing apparent religious experiences by specific brain stimulation would rule out any notion of God or the divine spirit causing the religious experiences reported by numerous humans throughout history. Dawkins offered to be the experimental subject for Michael Persinger’s empirical attempt to induce “religious experiences in subjects by stimulating specific regions of their brains with electromagnetic pulses.” Dawkins said he was very disappointed that he did not experience any transcendental experiences like “communing with the universe or some other spiritual sensation.” He said he had always been curious to explore mystical experiences from the inside, so to speak. Horgan reports,
Many researchers, like Persinger, view the brain as the key to understanding religion. Others focus on psychological, genetic, and biochemical origins. The science of religion has historical precedents, with Sigmund Freud and William James addressing the topic early in the last century. Now modern researchers are applying brain scans, genetic probes, and other potent instruments as they attempt to locate the physiological causes of religious experience, characterize its effects, perhaps replicate it, and perhaps even begin to explain its abiding influence.
Horgan declares that religion is the most complex indication of the most complex subject of human exploration: the human mind. He notes that scientists study religious experience for a wide variety of motives and assumptions, stating, “Some of them hope their studies will inform and enrich faith.” Some are embarrassed by religion as a relic of our past and want to be rid of it. I would like to summarize Horgan’s article in terms of how it relates to one theme: is religion a matter of ritual behaviors or of beliefs? “Is it best studied as a set of experiences, such as the inchoate feelings of connection to the rest of nature that can occur during prayer or meditation?”
Horgan reports a number of analytic experiments in the relationship between religion and science. In Faces in the Clouds, the Fordham anthropologist Stewart Guthrie, with the back of his hand, dispenses religion to the ash heap of human fantasy. Humans are inclined, he thinks, to project human qualities on the universe, and so we create the illusion of gods out there. The absurdity of this enterprise, he claims, is evident in the multiplicity and multiformity of the gods humans have projected over time, all of which represent a systematic religious anthropomorphism. This inclination to anthropomorphic projection is an adaptive evolutionary trait, Guthrie is certain, and while it is an illusion, it nonetheless assisted primitive humans to survive the trauma of life and loss and the fear of the unknown of time and eternity. He concludes,
Over millennia, as natural selection bolstered our unconscious anthropomorphic tendencies, they reached beyond specific objects and events to encompass all of nature … until we persuaded ourselves that “the entire world of our experience is merely a show staged by some master dramatist.”
Guthrie humorfully cites Darwin to the effect that this adaptive trait is not limited to humans but is also true of other higher mammals. Apparently, a dog can imagine that a natural object is animated by spirits since Darwin’s dog growled at a parasol lifted off the ground by a slight breeze. I find claims like those of Guthrie, in this case, and Darwin, in his Psychoanalysis of his dog, to be immensely humorful and quite absurd. This is not because I think their challenge of theism is misplaced, but because their argumentation is so naive and trivial. Obviously, Guthrie is projecting on religion and on human spiritual experience a model that most theists would not recognize as their view of God or spirituality. He seems to have some trivial memory of a bad Sunday school lesson, to which he paid little attention in the first place. He thinks that is spirituality or true religion.
Apparently Guthrie is enormously ignorant of the mainstream of healthy spirituality on the part of massive communities of us who are more prepared to explore honestly the human quest of and encounter with the paranormal and the divine in our experience than we are prepared to superficially write off that facet of demonstrable human realty. Moreover, apparently, Guthrie has never developed a model for conceptualizing this facet of his own personal nature and experience so as to be able to note, recognize, name, and remember his own spiritual experiences. One does need to have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, or no reality can impose on us firmly enough to register as reality. That is true in any field and of any facet of our growth, development, and scientific exploration. Major scientific breakthroughs, for example, usually impress the scientists who make the surprising discoveries as having been amply evident right there before their noses all along. It just required a certain new perspective to grasp what was right there in front of their faces.
As regards Darwin’s assessment of his dog’s growl, it would be interesting if he would explain to us more clearly what he thinks that dog was thinking and why he thinks that. I notice that dogs are smart. I watch my golden retriever observe a squirrel and then think over whether, at her age, chasing the squirrel is worth the trouble. Lately, she usually decides to live and let live, and lies down instead by our warm hearth. She is 13.5 years old, the human equivalent, they tell me, of about 100 years. Considering how I feel at three fourths that age, I can readily understand her decision to leave that squirrel alone. So it seems clear that higher mammals have some reflective and decision-making ability that goes far beyond mere instinctual reaction. However, how Darwin can determine that his dog has a spiritual response or religious ritual reaction to the mysteriously moving umbrella is beyond my comprehension. Fear of the unknown, or of the unimaginable or unusual, is not inherently and inevitably a religious dynamic or a spiritual function of the human or canine creature.
A somewhat different approach to human experiences of spirituality, religion, mysticism, and the paranormal is evident in the excellent work of Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist from the University of Pennsylvania. Horgan treats Newberg’s perspective extensively in the God Experiments. Newberg notes that people from almost all religious traditions report very similar mystical and paranormal experiences, suggesting to him that a common neural pathway is active in the human brain and psyche in all these cases of spiritual perception. Such brain activity has been scanned by positron emission tomography for decades. Newberg goes a step further, employing single-photon emission-computed tomography technology.
He has discerned that in deep meditation or contemplation, the posterior superior parietal lobe of the brain, which orients us in time and space, markedly decreases its neural activity. Persons with damage in that part of the brain have difficulty sensing where they are and at what point their bodies end and the rest of the material world begins. The decrease in neural activity in the posterior superior parietal lobe during meditation increases a person’s sense of unity with the rest of the material universe, diminishing one’s sense of the boundaries between the self and the external world. One of Newberg’s subjects described her meditation experience as “dissolving into Christ-consciousness.” Horgan’s report on Newberg continues:
Intriguingly, Newberg has found some overlap between the neural activity of self-transcendence and of sexual pleasure…. Just as orgasms are triggered by a rhythmic activity, so religious experiences can be induced by dancing, chanting, or repeating a mantra. And both orgasms and religious experiences produce sensations of bliss, self-transcendence, and unity; that may be why mystics such as Saint Teresa so often employed romantic and even sexual language to describe their raptures.
The overlap between rapture and orgasm isn’t total. The hypothalamus, which regulates both arousal and quiescence, seems to play a larger role in orgasms, while the brain’s frontal lobes, the seat of higher cognitive functions, are apparently more active during spiritual practices. Nevertheless, Newberg concludes, an “evolutionary perspective suggests that the neurobiology of mystical experience arose, at least in part, from the mechanism of the sexual response.”
Newberg may be making a larger leap of illogic than necessary in suggesting that mystical neurobiology arose from sexual response, but surely he is correct in demonstrating that they are related and, in many crucial ways, similar. Humans have been aware of this at some intuitive level, of course, for a long time. It has long been the case that only in sexuality and spirituality does the use of the language sequence we apply to both make sense: contact, communication, connection, communion, union, arousal, ecstasy, and eternity or transcendence. The crescendo is not accidental, but rather primal and comprehensively descriptive of both sexual play and spiritual practice.
It is probably the case that the life force at the center of the human self is the driver of both sexuality and spirituality, the two being different languages or universes of discourse for that central force when it reaches out for union with another human and when it reaches out for the transcendent or for God. Horgan notes that electroencephalography and magnetic resonance imaging indicate that the neurobiology of both sexuality and spirituality are just as Newberg suggests, though considerably more complex than his technology was able to indicate.
As implied earlier, Persinger explains religious experience as pathology. He contends that the independent functions of the right and left hemisphere of our brains are responsible for many mystical experiences. Our sense of self is maintained in our left hemisphere, and it may sense the notions of self resident in our right brain hemisphere as another self. This would explain experiences of a sensed self within our purview. “Depending upon our circumstances and background, we may perceive a sensed presence as a ghost, angel, demon, extraterrestrial, or God. Religion (or at least the experience of God), Persinger’s research suggests, might be a cerebral mistake.” Persinger holds that his testing results confirm the work of Wilder Penfield in the 1950s.
The God Gene
Horgan next presents the work of Dean Hamer, director of genetic research at the National Cancer Institute. Hamer’s research is directed toward identifying a gene that makes religious behavior and spiritual experience meaningful for humans. Hamer defines intrinsic religiousness as the desire to pray often and to feel the presence of God. He focuses on monoamines and chemical neurotransmitters, and identifies an allele (variant) of the gene, vesicular monoamine transporter (VMAT), that corresponds to higher scores for what he has defined as spirituality. Francis Collins says that Hamer’s claims for the VMAT variant are exaggerated.
Horgan then observes that “Rick Strassman has proposed a theory even more reductionist and far-fetched than Hamer’s, yet one that has empirical support.” Strassman is a psychiatrist, and in his book The Spirit Molecule, he claims that spirituality is prompted by dimethyltryptamine. This single chemical, according to Strassman, is naturally generated by our brains and “plays a profound role in human consciousness,” triggering “mystical visions, psychotic hallucinations, alien-abduction experiences, near-death experiences, and other exotic cognitive phenomena.”
In authorized human-subject research with volunteers at the University of New Mexico, Strassman administered this psychedelic chemical. His report on subject experience included the following: “Many … subjects reported quasi-religious sensations of bliss, ineffability, timelessness, and reconciliation of opposites; a certainty that consciousness continues after death of the body; and contact with ‘a supremely powerful, wise, and loving presence.’” However, his results were not uniformly positive for the subjects, and so he discontinued that research. This type of research is very interesting but has two limitations: first, it is not possible to certify that the positive experiences of the test subjects is the same phenomenon as that experienced in nonchemically induced experiences of a religious, spiritual, or paranormal nature; second, however we are to understand or interpret all this research, the data do not definitively rule God in or out of the scientific equation or of the equation of human experience. A broader range of data, a better model of critical categories, and a sensible universe of discourse for this kind of paranormal human experience are required to construct a science of the spiritual or paranormal world of human events.
Horgan concludes sensibly by acknowledging that neither the exact sciences nor the social sciences, in their present state, can assure us whether God exists out there objectively in a transcendent sphere beyond the boundaries of time, space, and materiality, or only in our perceptions of what our paranormal experiences mean. As my grandmother lay dying, she joked with the family about many things, including her husband, whom she affectionately called “Pa” and who had preceded her in death. In the middle of a sentence, she suddenly looked up toward the corner of the room, stopped talking, and then, with an enormous expression of delight on her face, reached out her hand and said, “Oh, Pa!” Then she was gone. Was that the mystical imagination of a dying brain, or did she know what she saw and what she meant? Sometimes a cigar really is a cigar!
To put it in Horgan’s closing words:
Why do some scientists continue the search for the roots of religious experience? Shouldn’t such claims of oneness with God be judged by their fruits, rather than their roots, as William James wrote in The Varieties of Religious Experience? Researchers may persist at these efforts because such studies offer the potential to alter our lives. In principle, these findings could lead to methods—call them “mystical technologies”—that reliably induce the state of spiritual insight that Christians call grace and Buddhists, enlightenment … Suppose scientists found a way to give us permanent, blissful, mystical self-transcendence. Would we want that power?
Of course we would, if it gave us the psychospiritual skills to heal our bodies of dreadful diseases or relieve suffering and prolong life. As I write this, my friend is dying at age 68. Cancer is killing him. He has successfully fought it, leukemia and pancreatic cancer, for 25 years, but now it is finally taking him down. He is getting very thin. The cancer is eating his nutrition intake faster than his body can get to it. He will die today or tomorrow. I would welcome the power around the edges of which the scientists are working, if I could go into that hospital room this afternoon and provide Charlie the power to win this long fight after all.
John Matzke played football for Dartmouth. He got malignant melanoma in a lump in his armpit at age 30. They said he had 18 months to live. Ten years later, it had spread to his lung. They said the inevitable outcome was death within months. John took a month off, decided to delay standard treatment, and began long walks in the mountains. He improved his diet and began to meditate. In his meditation, John visualized himself healthy, with good, strong blood cells destroying the cancer.
After his month off, he returned to the Veterans Administration Hospital for further evaluation regarding a treatment regimen. Dr. “O’Donnell repeated the chest X rays to document the size and location of the tumor before starting treatment. But instead of the large cancerous lesion in Matzke’s lung, he saw … nothing. O’Donnell recalls, ‘When John came back a month later, it was remarkable—the tumor on his chest X-ray was gone. Gone, gone, gone.’ … Doctors would like to understand cases like Matzke’s.” So would we all.
Such cures intrigue us all, physicians, research scientists, patients, and friends of the suffering. This volume is about pressing on in that quest for an understanding of new psychospiritual ways we can improve the medical and therapeutic events that so dominate our tragic human adventure. We want and need to understand what is really going on in those moments when we experience miracles, when God, science, and psychology combine in the paranormal and all the rules seem, for a blessed moment, to be redemptively changed. This work is for that end.