For the past 25 years, I have had the great fortune to be able to work in an emerging field sometimes referred to as “neurotheology” :
The term itself reflects a hybrid, multidisciplinary approach that does not eliminate either the scientific or the spiritual side, but seeks to find ways of integrating them in such a way that helps us more deeply understand who we are as human beings.
I typically like to define neurotheology broadly so that the “neuro” side includes fields such as neuroscience, neuroimaging, psychology, and consciousness studies. The “theology” side includes theology itself, but also religious and spiritual practices, experiences, and beliefs. Today we have the ability to combine the best that both sides have to offer to deepen our understanding of ourselves and what it means to be human.
With that in mind, neurotheology has profound implications for the study of consciousness in terms of both its potential material and non-material aspects (or local and non-local aspects). After all, many spiritual traditions embrace the notion of altered states of consciousness that might arise through various rituals and practices. These altered states of consciousness may manifest as spiritual experiences of varying types, near death experiences, and ultimately some of the most powerful mystical or enlightenment experiences known to human beings. In addition, many religious and spiritual traditions acknowledge aspects of the world that go beyond the purely material and may include spiritual healing, the notion of spirits or angels, psychic concepts, and
Divine processes including revelation. neurotheology asks us to evaluate both the spiritual and/or consciousness perspective, as well as the neuroscientific perspective in helping us to better understand the true nature of these experiences. In this regard, neurotheology has much to contribute to consciousness studies. neurotheology takes a critical, yet open look at all of these phenomena. The principles of neurotheological scholarship remind us to try to develop studies with rigorous science, but also to be aware of the limitations of current scientific methods. New, multidisciplinary methods must always be considered and explored. And interpretations of any research or scholarship must also be carefully developed.
If I perform a brain scan on a deeply religious individual who has the experience of being in the presence of God, the scan does not prove or disprove God’s existence. The scan findings only reflect what is going on in the brain when the person has that experience. Similarly, brain studies of various states of consciousness must be carefully interpreted. While we might ultimately be able to design studies that help us understand the true nature of consciousness, some of the current neuroscience methods may not be able to make such a distinction.
At the present time, a brain scan of a particular state of consciousness does not, by itself, prove whether consciousness is created by the brain or the brain is created by consciousness. The brain scan only shows what is going on in the brain when the person experiences that state of consciousness. This last point is crucial. Without knowing the subjective nature of any given experience, neuroscience is likely to be very limited. A brain scan might show activity in the visual cortex, but does not tell us what the person thinks he is seeing and does not tell us about the person’s personal awareness of that experience. We must ask the person directly and then correlate that experience with scientific findings.
On the other hand, it may be possible to develop studies to better determine how the brain relates to consciousness and what creates what. To some extent, many studies have already helped to show that consciousness might affect objects at a distant, consistent with its non-local nature. One approach might be to use neuroscientific methods in similar studies to help determine whether brain changes precede or follow any type of non-local effects of consciousness. But even if we were to make such a find, we would have to interpret the results carefully. And as all good scholarship proceeds, it is likely that as more and more research is done, we will get closer to learning the true nature of consciousness and possibly make some paradigm-shifting conclusions
In the following series of posts, I hope to provide some background regarding neurotheology and consciousness with the goal of opening fruitful discussions for future research and scholarship.