Several months ago, Gizmodo reported that scientists have discovered what happens in the brain when people have out-of-body experiences. In short, a pair of researchers used fMRI scanning to discern the changes in brain activity that occur when a particular test subject initiates an out-of-body experience, which she claims to be able to do at will.
The application of brain imaging to religious experience is not new, and the neuroscientific study of religion is even older: scientists have been using fMRI technology to examine what occurs in the brain during “peak experiences” (to use Maslow’s term) for at least 15 years, and were using EEGs to study the associated changes in brain waves since the middle of the 20th century. In fact, around the turn of the millenium this topic seemed to have a brief moment of popular interest, with several books published on the subject that inevitably drew conclusions about the implications of our ability to observe the brain states associated with religious experience. It is worth noting that these conclusions differed significantly from one another.
It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the Gizmodo article draws its own conclusions about the validity of out-of-body experiences–and it is these conclusions with which I take issue. The second half of the article asks whether the test subject’s experiences are “real” or not. The author states that the experience “is real in the sense that she’s actually experiencing it. The brain scans show that she’s going through what she’s claiming. But that doesn’t mean that her ‘soul’ is getting out of her body. This is not an astral trip, like those described by mystics. There’s no paranormal activity of any kind.”
It is tempting for some to conclude that because we can observe a phenomenon using the methods of science, there is nothing about the phenomenon that is paranormal or otherwise outside the realm of scientific inquiry. Such a conclusion, however, is deeply problematic and in the final analysis unsupportable. Let us assume for the sake of argument that a person does have some sort of spiritual faculty that transcends the body. Let us also say that this person experiences what they perceive to be an astral trip, an out-of-body experience. Finally, let us assume that this is in fact an occasion in which their spirit or center of consciousness releases from their body and perceives independently from their physical senses. Regardless of the underlying metaphysics, the fact remains that if we do have a spirit, while we exist as human beings that spirit is joined to a corporeal body. I would argue that all of our experiences, including spiritual ones, must therefore be mediated through our brains and their inherent faculties. Why would spiritual experiences not be reflected in the activity of our brains?
The conclusion that the author of the article arrives at is predicated upon the key assumption that the body is the body and the spirit is the spirit, and never the twain shall meet. I know few if any people that believe in the existence of a spirit or soul who subscribe to this notion, at least as it pertains to living human beings. For those who assume the existence of such a spirit, it generally seems uncontroversial that the physical actions we take–prayer, meditation, ritual, or what have you–affect our spiritual states. Similarly, for those who believe in magic, the power of prayer, divine intervention, or some other ability of the spirit to affect the physical world, the causative relationship flows in the other direction as well.
The only way in which one can make a valid claim that the ability to observe a neurological change in response to a spiritual experience disproves any spiritual or paranormal dimension to that experience is if one commits to a philosophical position in which the body and the spirit have no ability to affect each other. This is hardly a necessary position, much less a popular one. Such a position is also well outside the empirical boundaries of scientific investigation.
So, what are we to make of this? While the Gizmodo author’s conclusions are untenable, we also cannot determine that the test subject’s experiences are therefore necessarily paranormal in nature. To be honest, there are few conclusions we can draw. But this in itself is a valuable lesson! A healthy dose of skepticism is a good thing. It keeps us from believing claims uncritically, causes us to investigate our world more deeply, and prevents us from sending money to people on the internet who claim to be Nigerian princes. But skepticism isn’t merely applicable to spiritual or paranormal claims. Wielded properly, it must also question the presuppositions of those who deny such claims, and suspend judgement on a given issue when no compelling case presents itself. While science may be able to comment on the empirical components of paranormal claims, it is inherently unable to comment on the metaphysics thereof. It is perfectly reasonable to conjecture and philosophize as to what our ability to observe the neural dimensions of religious experience may imply, but it is not reasonable to make scientific truth claims based on these conjectures.