Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Explaining away the supernatural as brain misfirings?

Several of my posts have mentioned work suggesting a basis for phenomena like out of body experiences or sensing the presence of phantom others: in the temporary perturbation of brain processes that normally arrange our perception of the external world and others in it. These perturbations have been observed during epileptic seizures and electrical or magnetic stimulation of regions of the brain. Deborah Blum, author of “Ghost Hunters: William James and the Scientific Search for Life After Death.” weighs in on this issue in a Op-Ed piece in the Dec. 30 New York Times. She cites work from Blanke's laboratory that I mentioned in my Oct. 3 post. She seems critical of scientists who "concluded that ghosts are mere “bodily delusions,” electrical misfirings and nothing more" and cites work done on psychic phenomena by respected scientists in the late 19th century. Blum says "Dr. Blanke believes that even this one subject’s experience serves as an example of how we may mistake errant signals in the brain for something more. Humans tend, he points out, to seek explanation, to impose meaning on events that may have none. The pure rationalists among us suggest that our need to add meaning to a basic, biological existence easily accounts for the way we organize religions and find evidence of otherworldly powers in the stuff of everyday life."

Blum then continues: "The nonpurists suggest a different conclusion: willful scientific blindness. And there’s no reason Dr. Blanke’s study can’t support their theories of the paranormal. Perhaps his experimental electric current simply mimics the work of an equally powerful spirit. Much of the psychical research done today applies similar principles: brain-imaging machines highlight parts of the brain that respond to psychic phenomena, while other devices are used to search for infrared radiation or increased electrical activity in haunted houses."

Wait a minute... Equally powerful spirit? Will someone please measure this spirit with a physical instrument, because it is altering physical processes in the brain! Or, "parts of the brain that respond to psychic phenomena?" What is cause and what is effect here? Are we presupposing the existence of psychic phenomena as causes? Then please measure them. I'm sorry, but I can't give up my skepticism about things that alter material physical processes in the brain, how can a non-physical process (spirit, ectoplasm, soul, whatever) change them? We're back to Descartes putting the soul in the pineal gland.

Photo credit: New York Times.

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