Professor Steve Jones has published an exhaustive account* of why mysticism, and spiritual experiences in particular, are just so much joshing around by a playful, but totally out of its depth, human brain.
That last bit is my own interpretation, not his. He is a clever, but deeply conventional, aficionado of the genomic view of life, whereby the world is reduced to four letters and an ocean of numbers. What else would one expect from a geneticist who has spent “a lifetime studying snails”?
In his favour he issues a small caveat which suggests a grain of self knowledge: “I have a blind spot. Brain science sheds little light on why I am denied an experience so central to the lives of others; [mystical experience] and its failure reminds us how little success technology has had in understanding the workings of the inner angel that lives within every nervous system.”
There’s only one reply to that: why bother then if it isn’t science?
If I were his professor I’d also point out that technology has no understanding of anything at all, it merely follows instructions from the human world. However, the flaw in his sentence — one that many of his undergraduates might make — throws bright light on the Problem of Science: definitions.
To be able to speak or write authoritatively on a complex subject, such as spiritual experience, requires precise definitions of crucial terms. It also helps to have some practical knowledge of the processes involved.
Here’s another example: “Devotees insist that when they put their trust in a higher power they ascend into a universe of thought denied to sceptics.”
Such elementary errors might suggest sloppy editing, but I suspect it goes to the heart of the science delusion. “Thought” is part of the contents of consciousness, along with emotions and impressions, not consciousness itself, as he intimates — (see first link below). Spiritual experiences take us way beyond thought. In fact, you can even observe your own thoughts and thinking processes from above — (see second link below).
Another fundamental misunderstanding is revealed in this passage: “Science, in its banal fashion, makes it possible to study the mind in ways impossible in the days of [William] James. The visions of saints, sinners, dreamers, drug users or anyone else can now be explored with technology. To do so may not give much insight into piety [?] itself, but hints that at least some of its symptoms are side effects of the machinery of the nervous system.”
Technology can only point to areas of the brain that become active in certain instances. The brain is like a set-top box on your television. If you didn’t know that invisible radio waves surround us every moment of the day, you might assume that the box was actually producing the TV programmes all by itself.
By extension, and personal experience, the brain is an essential interface into the body for events and conditions, most of which take place outside the human person. As the philosopher Plotinus put it: “We are at all times swimming in a sea of consciousness.” The soul is completely separate from the machinery of the body, including the brain.
Apart from the lack of precision in word definitions, understandable in someone who has not experienced the states he is describing, it’s as if he is painting a picture of the Himalayas from a map in an Atlas of the World. The awe generated by the might of Mount Everest will be completely absent, as well as an accurate depiction of its three-dimensional shape. That would not be “scientific”.
Jones continues his snail’s-eye view of the spiritual landscape: “Priests of many religions spend solitary hours in darkness or silence. Such experiences may activate the pineal gland at the base of the brain. Descartes believed that to be the seat of the soul. Be that as it may, the structure is the source of melatonin, a chemical concerned with sleep and wakefulness. Those who meditate may have more of it than others, with a shift in mental condition.”
Again, “may” and “might” have no place in a scientific treatise. It’s the world according to chemistry. But chemistry is just a servant not a master.
As for the rest of the book, I have only read the Daily Telegraph extract and listened to three of his radio broadcasts, but I would recommend he has it re-edited for precision, for if there are this many inaccuracies in such a short article, what must the final total be?
Back to the real-world drawing board, Professor Jones.
* The Serpent’s Promise, published by Little Brown on May 2 (rrp £25).
… who is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.
Coming eventually: Mystology: A different way of looking at the world. Also a website, mystology.com.