Why Neuroscience is neither necessary, nor sufficient, to explain religion.

Recently, scientists and historians have come together to explain history through the lens of cognitive psychology. This new field, known as “cognitive historiography” — or CH for short — even has its own journal The Journal of Cognitive Historiography; not really creative, but it is to the point.

In its upcoming issue, the world’s foremost neuroscientist of religion, Dr. Patrick McNamara (also my boss at the Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion), argues that we must use neuroscience to explain religious experiences and texts.

I would like to disagree. I think that making the leap from religion to neuroscience totally misses the point. Furthermore, neuroscience cannot provide a sufficient explanation for religious phenomena and it is, until further notice, unnecessary to boot. Here’s why:

Religion is a social phenomenon.

It is nothing if not social. As a matter of fact, if you (and only you) believe that a magic person lives in the sky and talks to you, and you can talk to him, and he can control the entire universe and make magic things happen, there is a name for that in psychology, Geschwind syndrome. However, if you and a few friends believe it, it is a religion.

Religion is the product of human minds.

Religions are defined by their beliefs and behaviours — which specific beliefs and behaviours we choose to use to define them is beside the point here. However, the behaviours and beliefs are undoubtedly the result of human cognitive processing. Whether it is how memory functions to help us remember prayers, doctrines, or initiations or how believing a prophecy failed might motivate us to leave a group or (oddly enough) try and get others to join our group. These behaviours and everything in between are mediated — at least in part — by our cognitive machinery. Beliefs, which have to be memorized, may even help us to justify things like acts of terrorism or beliefs that we don’t have to worry about death because of an afterlife. Regardless, these beliefs are also the result — if not wholly, at least in part — of our cognitive machinery.

The MIND cannot be reduced to the BRAIN… yet.

Ok, so here’s the tricky part. The mind is the mental (i.e. cognitive) facilities that we have that allow us to do things through the day. If the brain is like a computer, think of the mind as the software. It is our operating system that allows us to do all sorts of fun things in the world. The brain is the physical organ, developed over evolutionary time, that facilitates most of the mind’s ability to work. So, if we still think of the brain as a computer, the brain is the hardware of the computer. It is the CPUs and SSDs and all those other green boards and metal wires in our electronics that we’re totally at a loss to say how they work. The transistors that open and close (representing the 1s and 0s of the computer’s information manipulation) are like our neurons.

Here’s the issue, we don’t know how the brains PHYSICAL structures cause the mind’s MENTAL capacities. We believe that the brain clearly supports them because, well, if you put a rod through the right part of the brain it can turn a normal person into a right asshole. If a man has a stroke near what we refer to as the language centres of the brain, he has a hard time talking. So we know that some parts of the BRAIN are correlated with some functions of the MIND.

OK, so what’s the problem? The problem for using neurophysiology as an explanation for religious behaviour is that we don’t know how the physical arrangement of the brain results in the cognitive mechanisms of the mind. We can study how individuals act in groups and how individual cognitive mechanisms result in religious behaviours through psychological experimentation. Carefully and over time we can begin to propose how information (like a belief in god, or an invisible ancestor, or an extraterrestrial) is manipulated by our psychological mechanisms. The issue is that we don’t know how our neurophysiological structures result in the cognitive mechanisms we propose.

Let’s return to our nerdy computer analogy for a moment. In a computer, we have the hardware (the brain) and the software that runs on the brain (the mind). When a nerd like me develops software, we have to make our computer code translatable into the 1s and 0s (known as “binary”) that are compatible with the transistors of the computer chips. This is known as a “machine interpreter” (depending on the language it may be an assembler or compiler, but thats a bit beside the point). The machine interpreter takes the rather human-like computer programming code and turns it into a basically unintelligible set of 1s and 0s. for example, if you right click this page and select “view source” you’ll be able to see the computer code that is used to create this website. Your computer has the ability to convert all of the nonsense there into 1s and 0s so that it is reduced to either an open flow of electricity (1) or a closed flow of electricity (0). Those patterns closely resemble the firing patterns of neurons; thus it is a well fit analogy.

However, in psychology, there is no way to convert the 1s and 0s of the firing of neurons, or the clusters of neurons that make up the different brain regions like the hippocampi, amygdala, thalamus, etc. into the software of the mind. There is no machine interpreter in neuroscience that can sufficiently explain the cognitive mechanisms that facilitate religious beliefs and behaviours.

Therefore, in a scientific framework, all we are left with are correlations. We know that if a monk goes into a fMRI or someone is praying while wearing an EEG, this and that will happen. However, we don’t have a well formulated theory that will allow us to say, well when X, Y , and Z happen at the neurophysiological level, that person will be caused to do this. Perhaps you’ve heard of the old adage, correlation is not causation? Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m talking about here.

Just to back up, and back off, for a moment though. The entire field of neuroscience has this issue; it is not unique to Dr. McNamara’s work at all. As a matter of fact, when you look at Dr. McNamara’s work overall, his focus on participants with abnormal cognitive functioning (e.g. people suffering from Parkinson’s, PTSD, and sleep disorders), he is on the right track to — if only accidentally — uncover aspects of what this machine interpreter is.

Now, again, I don’t think that neuroscience is useless, quite the contrary. However, neuroscientist should be more focused on developing theories that can close the gap between the information processing mechanisms at the cognitive level and their physiological underpinnings. Until such a time, I disagree with Dr. McNamara. Neuroscience is not necessary for the understanding of religion: cognitive psychology may be — and in turn, neuroscience is almost certainly necessary for the understanding of cognitive psychology. Neuroscience is orthogonal to the phenomena at hand. Furthermore, neuroscience is certainly not sufficient; there is no religion part of the brain that would cause one to fully instantiate religious beliefs and behaviours, all things being equal. Any neuroscientific argument for an explanation of religion — even if we assume that they have a well-founded theory that can address the issue of a lacking machine interpreter, still needs to use cognitive psychology to show how the neurophysiological patterns result in the beliefs and behaviours of the individual as well as how they spread amongst the members of a social group (remember, religion is nothing if not social). So, in my opinion, to jump from religion to neuroscience is to jump over an explanatory gap for which there is no theoretical bridge.

For more on the idea, I’ve written a piece for the Religious Studies Project here in response to a podcast done by a collaborator on my current project Robert N. McCauley.