Review: Principles of Neurotheology

One of the most fundamental quandaries in theology and philosophy is the pernicious difficulty of using the mind to examine itself. The trickiness of inverting conscious attention back towards itself has caused countless philosophers (and their students) to throw up their hands in despair, and it hasn’t made life easy for modern-day consciousness researchers, either. But one scientist claims to offer a new hope: in his new book, Principles of Neurotheology (Ashgate, 2010), Andrew Newberg attempts to outline a bold, even revolutionary, strategy for unifying the study of conscious, subjective experience with the objective research of neuroscience.

Previous writers, notably religion scholar B. Alan Wallace, have articulated their hopes that modern science could learn from traditions such as Buddhism, engaging in rigorous examination of the subjective data of consciousness. But Andrew Newberg, M.D. (University of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson University) goes a step further. In fact, he goes more than just one step further – he’s trying to hike a new trail entirely, one that he self-consciously hopes will lead to a rousing paradigm shift in the science of mind and humankind’s understanding of itself. After this shift, religion will be used to understand science and vice-versa; the understanding of human consciousness will be achieved through a careful combination of scientific and contemplative practices, and this understanding will unleash a new era of advancement for the earth and its inhabitants.

It’s a tall order. The major paradigm shifts Newberg looks to as inspiration are exceedingly rare, and the one he envisions – in which, among other things, scientists will begin to take seriously the possibility that consciousness predicates material reality – would be by leaps and bounds more dramatic than even the early 20th-century transition from Newtonian mechanics into Einsteinian relativity.

For a moment let’s assume that his project has essential validity; even so, for a vision such as Newberg’s to succeed, one needs impeccable timing, powerful presentation, and startling insight into methodological and epistemological problems. Newberg may have items one and three decently wrapped up, but the middle requirement is, as we’ll see, spotty. The result is a bold assay into new territory that may find itself, after setting out, struggling to recruit followers.

The book is divided into nine chapters, a preface acknowledging Newberg’s debt to colleagues and mentors, and a short epilogue. Chapter 1, “The Case for a Principia Neurotheologica,” lays out Newberg’s motivation for attempting to define a broad research program and methodology dedicated to a “new synthesis of scientific and theological discourse” (1). A brief history of the tense relationship between religion and science is offered, including the efforts of scholars such as Ian Barbour to integrate the two, and by page 18 Newberg has offered four basic goals for the development of a discipline of neurotheology: better understanding of the human mind and brain; better understanding of religion; improvement of the human condition in terms of health; and improvement of the human condition in terms of spirituality.

By then two of the book’s important failings have also made their first appearances: slipshod proofing and strangely facile understandings of religious terms and concepts. It’s worth dealing with both immediately, if only for the sake of clearing the way for subsequent treatments of the book’s many strong points.

First, the proofing really is irksome. It’s not just that occasional commas are missing or a preposition or two is left to the reader’s imagination; it’s that very nearly every section of the book features puzzling, basic errors that sometimes interfere with comprehension. In a book that’s self-consciously attempting to forge new methodological ground – in a sphere many established academics view with fairly serious mistrust – such problems, distracting in any context, are more detrimental to the project than they otherwise would be.

Second, Newberg’s understanding of religion and philosophy is expansive, but his perspective appears to skew to the West, and when it comes to other traditions his impression seems to be that all Eastern religions are more or less the same. In one especially telling example in Chapter 8, Newberg attributes the Chinese concept of Qi, or life energy, to the South Asian Yoga tradition, apparently without any recognition that this may be a problem – or that thousands of miles and utterly different cultures separate the two.

Like many Western iconoclasts, Newberg has an unfortunate habit of romanticizing “Eastern” religions as idealized contrasts to our ponderous Western faiths. Unfortunately, treating the extraordinarily vast and complex menagerie of religious and spiritual beliefs, practices, and traditions associated with more than half the world’s people as a hazy sort of appreciation for the Oneness of everything is not an example of the rigor Newberg claims to value. In future treatises a more refined understanding of the relationships and differences between Daoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other “Eastern” traditions would aid his project of developing credibility for neurotheology as a discipline among diverse academic quarters.

Having addressed these weaknesses, another pressing question finds itself in need of answering: what, exactly, is “neurotheology?” A succinct definition for Newberg’s specific purposes is found in the first sentence of the book: “a unique field of scholarship and investigation that seeks to understand the relationship specifically between the brain and theology, and more broadly between the mind and religion” (1). This straightforward description of the project, however, obscures how genuinely radical Newberg’s vision is: the 54 “principles of neurotheology” he suggests in the remainder of the book’s chapters make it clear that what he is aiming at is nothing less than a unified quest for both knowledge and meaning in the same discipline, a kind of mutually informative admixture of objective and subjective inquiry that will help overcome the existential crisis of modern physicalism and the irrelevance of modern religion in one blow. A further important point is that, strictly speaking, neurotheology doesn’t exist yet: Newberg is proposing a new field of inquiry, not describing one.

Citing the earlier Principias of Whitehead, Descartes, and Newton (and thereby perhaps hinting as to which sort of company he aspires), Newberg dedicates Chapter 2 to the definition of terms and concepts for neurotheological inquiry. In discussions of terms such as “mind,” “brain,” and “soul,” the usefulness of various conceptual orientations is examined, and the chapter culminates in a handy list of proposed ad hoc definitions for researchers in neurotheology. Newberg also stresses in this chapter the importance of avoiding a priori assumptions about spiritual or material matters.

Chapter 3, “The Principles of Interaction Between Neuroscience and Theology,” asserts that neurotheology is not meant to be merely an investigation into religious states and practices using the tools of neuroscience, a trap Newberg describes as “procrustean” (53). Instead, as Principle VI states (53), neurotheology should be a two-way conduit between science and religion. The result may be a kind of “megatheology” (Principle XIII, p. 66), a theological system whose tenets, extracted from both scientific investigation and the world’s religious traditions, will be universally valid. Unfortunately, this chapter suffers from a kind of out-thereness that is perhaps necessary for people with big goals but has the natural consequence of making those goals seem quixotic; for example, in this chapter Newberg variously suggests that neurotheology may be able to prove God’s existence; wonders about proving the validity of one religious tradition over all others; and discusses the possibility of proving the existence of telepathic phenomena.

Chapter 4 describes the principles by which neurotheological investigations ought to be carried out, with an emphasis on rigor in both science and spirituality (Principle XIV, p. 67). This chapter, with its trend towards neuroscience, is stronger than the previous ones, providing a useful description of the various ways human brains can be deceived. It is also in this chapter that Newberg introduces the conundrum he hopes to unravel using neurotheology; namely, that the limitations of the human brain place grave limits on epistemology, and that highly creative methods of inquiry are therefore necessary to approach thorny questions like the origin of consciousness and the nature of reality.

In the fifth chapter, “Towards a Neurotheological Hermeneutic,” Newberg further addresses the physiological context of human epistemology, setting the goal of investigating the ways neurology and psychology “affect, alter, and constrain the human ability to think specific theological and philosophical thoughts” (87). Some of the points in this chapter are frivolous, such as the question of whether our mental models of hell being below us and heaven above reflect the actual physical relationship of these spiritual realms (106). Others are insightful and methodologically fertile, such as the assertion of Principle XVIII (89) that all brain structures ought to be considered useful for understanding theological and philosophical data. This chapter also raises the interesting question of why unity among parts is often considered aesthetically pleasing, while disunity is not (98).

Principle XX, heading up Chapter 6, is perhaps among the most useful principles in the book for understanding what it is that Newberg is really after. Stating that “(n)eurotheology must strive to support both practical and esoteric goals of scholarship and research” (116), this Principle sums up Newberg’s hope that neurotheology will be not only a discipline of scientific inquiry, but a tool for generating insight into and meaning out of the subjective data of experience.

Chapter 6 inaugurates a new conceptual rigor that lasts the rest of the book, marking a turning point in the text. From here on out, with exceptions, the points are subtler and more sophisticated, the concepts more finely graded, and the sensitivity to methodological issues more prominently placed. A hugely useful section on the strengths and weaknesses of various imaging technologies is included this chapter, as well as a thoughtful discussion of the cultural difficulties and potential confounders in neurotheological research.

Chapter 7 presses on with the nuanced integration of data from neuroscience and physiology with targets of inquiry from spiritual and subjective experience, and vice versa. This is the book’s most fascinating and fecund chapter, featuring eyebrow-raising research into the physiological correlates and products of ritual practice, the results of repetitive collective motion, and the precise manner in which the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems may interact to produce physiological effects from spiritual or religious behaviors. It is here that the reader begins to gain a sense for the genuinely vast potential of Newberg’s neurotheological project; when scientific rigor combines with informed understanding of spiritual and religious behaviors, the results can be deeply insightful revelations into the human condition.

The potential applications of rigorous neurotheological research are further detailed in the following chapter, which opens with an investigation into the usefulness of philosophical materialism. While it’s obvious where Newberg’s metaphysical commitments lie (he’s pulling hard for a non-materialist metaphysics, although he irregularly claims agnosticism), he raises an interesting point when he asks why such a thing as consciousness would be necessary in a purely physical world. Newberg also asserts that neurotheological investigation may be useful for the understanding of human creativity and intangible elements of human life such as love or aesthetics. The connection between spirituality and health is also given an informative treatment.

Chapter 9 focuses on the God question, asserting that neurotheology should attempt to assist people in understanding the nature of God (Principle XLV, p. 235). While this is not a credible goal for a scientific research program, it does fit with Newberg’s overarching goal of providing not only information but meaning. Chapter 10 ties his many Principles together with the assertion that, because of fundamental physiological and psychological limitations on human knowing, only investigative methods that combine subjective and objective inquiry can hope to make progress in the difficult questions of consciousness and the nature of reality.

Newberg’s book is a haphazard, enthusiastic collection of proposed principles for a field of inquiry that he hopes will revolutionize epistemology and human self-conception, but which does not yet exist. The book starts off unsure of itself; Newberg knows he wants to say something very important, but there is so much to say that he often appears to be tripping over himself in order to say it. As the book progresses, though, a rhythm is found, and by the later chapters a picture begins to emerge of just how powerful a tool Newberg is attempting to offer the world. While his own skepticism regarding the dominant materialist worldview is clearly on display, his point is valuable regardless of the reader’s position: there is much to human experience that cannot be quantified but must, nevertheless, be taken absolutely seriously as data for interpreting reality and the condition of life. Theology, as Paul Tillich wrote (cited on p. 39), is about the value of life, not just abstruse questions about God’s properties and nature.

While Newberg’s effort is flawed and, at points, downright frustrating (especially for English majors), his project has the potential to shed genuine light on our predicament as human beings. This initial effort, with its sense of being slightly rushed and its clumsy prose, is not so much overambitious as not quite up to snuff in its presentation – in the mechanical as well as substantive senses. It remains to be seen whether, as Newberg hopes for in his epilogue, it will nevertheless have the ability to bring us toward a “new enlightenment” (267). One suspects that this particular book will not be the one to ignite the revolution; but it will certainly provide inspiration for the author of the one that does.

See here for a link to Principles of Neurotheology at Ashgate Publishing.

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