How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist - Andrew B. Newberg, Mark Robert Waldman (2009)

EPILOGUE. IS GOD REAL?

A Personal Reflection

Throughout this book Mark and I have attempted to speak to you with a united voice, liberally substituting I and we as a literary device. Some of the personal anecdotes were mine, and some were Mark's, but we chose ones that reflected our research and mutual beliefs. In closing, however, I wanted to spend a few pages sharing with you my personal journey and the ways that God has changed my brain.

God, for me, is a very personal concept, one that has preoccupied my thoughts since childhood, and I often just sit back and watch where my mind wants to go. One day, I was thinking about God, and I had the startling revelation that the relationship was strangely analogous to my relationship with my dog. I do not mean this in a literal sense, but more as a metaphor. It occurred to me that when it comes to communication, God is to man as man is to dog.

I played with this idea for a while, contemplating the enormous differences between species. Our lives are thousands of times more complex than that of a dog. We have so many more relationships, so many different ways of behaving and responding to others, and so many different thoughts and feelings when compared to the life of a pet. We understand our pets, or at least we think we do, but I am certain that dogs have little understanding of us. They cannot comprehend what we do at work, how we drive the car, or how we know when and what to feed them. Dogs clearly have emotions and thoughts, but these are extremely limited when compared to the average human being.

Even if dogs could begin to understand what we were thinking, it would be impossible to explain it to them since they have only a minimal understanding of our language. For the most part, all they usually understand are their name and a limited number of commands such as “Sit,” “Stay,” and “Fetch.” We may like to think they understand us, but what they probably hear is “Blah blah blah, Rover, blah blah food.”There is no way to explain to them why work is difficult, why you feel frustrated with one of your friends, or why you're excited to be going away over the weekend with just your wife. Fortunately, they do understand basic behaviors. They can tell if you like them, or whether they have done something wrong. But this is usually the limit of their understanding of us. Everything else we do is essentially a mystery to them.

My thoughts then turned to our relationship with God. For many people, God is generally regarded as an infinite, all-powerful, and all-knowing being. In contrast, we are finite and fairly weak and limited, even though we think we know more than we actually do. How can we ever hope to comprehend the infinitude that is God? It is probably a million times more difficult than a dog's ability to understand us, but the analogy seems to fit. We cannot understand what God does at work, whether God has any “friends,” what God looks like, or what God's personality actually is. These are human characteristics, and they are unlikely to be applicable to God.

Of course, there are those who believe they have received the word of God, either directly or through the scriptures. But even the Bible cannot fully capture the reality of God. Our understanding will always come up short, no matter how perfect the words may be.

To me, it seems rather arrogant to believe that we fully comprehend what God is, or how God wants us to live. Even the Ten Commandments strikes me as a very limited version of what God must want us to understand, and it reminds me of the way we give simplistic commands to our pets. Instead of “Don't bite,” “No barking,” and “Heel,” we are told “Don't lie,” “Don't kill,” and “Honor the Sabbath.” Dogs often fail to carry out our commands, and people often fail to honor God's commands. Please understand that I am not in any way trying to belittle the holiness of God. I am merely pointing out that as incredible as God is, we can only hope to understand the smallest aspect of God. It's like the story of the blind men and the elephant. Each touches only a small part, and that is what they know. And when it comes to God, we are all partially blind.

This brings me to a final point in this allegorical comparison. Even though dogs can barely understand who we are and what we say, they are extremely compatible with us. If we show them love, they return it tenfold because they faithfully depend on us for their safety. Similarly, if we believe in God, we express great love and devotion and we hope that God will do the same. And even though we can barely understand God, many people faithfully depend on God for ultimate security and strength.

Faith steps in where understanding falls short. As a physician, I might not be certain if a cancer treatment will work, but I sincerely hope that it will. And I have faith that a patient's beliefs in the treatment will improve the odds of recovery. Physicists and astronomers do the same when they consider the universe in its entirety. They realize the incredible limitations of the mind to comprehend its truths, and yet they have faith in their hypotheses and beliefs. Scientists and theologians never give up the search.

Still, how do we ever know if our beliefs about the universe or about God are accurate or true? Wouldn't we have to experience and evaluate every possible perspective? And when it comes to spiritual truths, is there anyone who has fully read the sacred texts of every religion on Earth, or engaged in all of the rituals? Of course not! Even if we could test every religious belief and spiritual practice, each of us has a brain that will interpret the data and experiences in very different ways. There may be a universal or ultimate truth, but I doubt whether the limitations of the human mind will ever allow us to accurately perceive it or find any common ground, especially when it comes to the reality of God.

Admittedly, I find this conclusion somewhat disconcerting, but I try to stay focused on my optimism, believing there may be some way of getting to the answers of the really big questions in life. And as Mark and I have often stated, our faith is our strongest asset.

THE ULTIMATE METAPHOR

In looking at the positive side of our ability to understand our universe, I like to think of God as a metaphor for each person's search for ultimate meaning and truth. Financial and relationship stability may be a major goal for most people, but I believe that within each of us there is a primal drive to reach for something higher. We want to understand why we're here and what our purpose should be. We want to understand where we came from, and where we will eventually go. And we want to understand what reality actually is. With that understanding, we are then compelled to act in a more intuitively rational way.

Immanuel Kant called this the “categorical imperative,” the notion that we are essentially driven by reason to follow an intrinsic moral law. This concept was quickly adapted by other philosophers to reflect a divine voice that guided the human spirit into consciousness. But I see the human spirit as being driven by a cognitive imperative, and from the moment we are born, we strive to learn as much as we can about the world. That philosophical drive is biologically embedded in our brain.

Sometimes I think that my dog, Rock, may be a philosopher too, but only to the extent that he wonders where I am. He does not think about what it means to be a dog or how he should act according to the natural “dogginess” inside of him. He does not wonder how he is guided through his life. But I think all human beings ponder what it means to be human, and I believe that most people try to act according to the natural humanity inside of them. Yet that humanity is often a challenge to maintain because of the selfish and negative tendencies generated by our brain. Thus, many people, beginning in childhood, conceive the possibility that there is someone, or something, that is guiding them through life in a positive direction. But the human brain does not rest. Instead, it wants to know where God might be. At that moment, the philosopher brain becomes a theologian.

However, we are not born with either a philosophical or theological mind, but only the potential for it. As children, our neural connections are so incomplete that we are utterly dependent on others for direction on what to believe. We're too young to invent or discover God, yet we are surrounded by others who actively proclaim God's existence. For better or worse, we start out life with our parents’ and society's religious beliefs.

At this vague stage of awareness, God remains an uncertainty. But the human brain doesn't like ambiguity, so it tries to give God a shape, starting with a face. Why? Because faces tell us about the inner emotional states of others. With this information, the brain can determine if the person or being is a friend or a foe, something that is essential for a young child to grasp. In fact, most children will shy away from a doll that has an angry or fearful expression on its face.

For the first few years of life children can only construct the world using concrete images in the mind, so in all cultures, spiritual concepts are first embedded in familiar objects that exist on the physical plane. And then, at around the age of ten, something happens in the child's brain. The more he or she thinks about God, the more God becomes an abstract or supernatural force. This is because the neural connections that govern abstract reasoning are growing at a stupendously rapid pace.

When adolescence hits, most neural connections are almost complete, and the human brain, having access to greater knowledge and cognition, begins to reevaluate its old beliefs. In this biological quest for independence, the skeptical brain is born, and so most teenagers start to question nearly every aspect of life: values, morals, and especially religious beliefs. Some want to believe, but can't, and those who do believe develop doubts. Some like the idea of a loving, protective God, but most despise the image of an angry, authoritative God.

At this stage of human development, many adolescents are burdened by the emergence of an agnostic brain. For some, God may be real, but distant. For others, science and spirituality may appear incompatible. And for a few, negative religious experiences may cause internal conflict and pain. But for those who remain open-minded, or experiment with different religious rituals, something happens in the brain that can tip the scale toward an acceptance of spiritual truths. For some people, God takes on a living reality. For others, God becomes a metaphor for inner values. And for a few, old notions may give way to a transcendent perception of the world. Such experiences can be so profound that it changes a person's career.

For those who embark on a spiritual journey, God becomes a metaphor reflecting their personal search for truth. It is a journey inward toward self-awareness, salvation, or enlightenment, and for those who are touched by this mystical experience, life becomes more meaningful and rich.

Personally, I believe there has to be an absolute truth about the universe. I don't know what it is, but I am driven to seek it, using science, philosophy, and spirituality as my guide. Mark, however, takes a more skeptical view:

Personally, I find science more satisfying and mysterious than philosophy or theology. So for me, God is a metaphor, not a fact. Yet I consider a person's search for God a noble quest, and the questioning of God's existence is an essential part of that quest. I'm utterly fascinated by the stories people tell me about their spiritual journeys, be they fundamentalists, atheists, agnostics, or mystics. I see truths and values in people's beliefs and disbeliefs, so I suppose this makes me a humanist and a pluralist. But even these terms fail to capture who I am or what I really believe. In fact, I dislike all categories and labels because they create arbitrary lines of separation between people.

Personally, it really doesn't matter if one chooses to believe or disbelieve in God. What matters more, at least to me, is how one behaves toward others. If you use your belief in God to practice charity, compassion, and acceptance, that's great. But if you use your beliefs to generate any level of discrimination, then I personally have a problem with that. Still, I have faith in human beings, and I believe that each of us can be held responsible for creating an ethical life that allows us to get along with others, irrespective of one's religious or political beliefs. If we can do a good job at that, everything else will hopefully fall into place.

Unlike Mark, I harbor the hope and feeling that God or some ultimate reality, in whatever form it may take, actually exists. I don't know if my intuition is true, but I am quite comfortable with my uncertainty. Indeed, it allows me to appreciate both sides of any argument or debate. I have my father to thank for this, for I spent many adolescent hours debating everything under the sun, including God. My father is a true agnostic, with a law degree, so whatever side I took, he could brilliantly argue—and win—the opposing point of view. But he did it with immeasurable love, so I grew up with the belief that every perspective is neither right nor wrong and that both sides reflect valid points of view coming from a limited brain trying to understand a limit less universe.

Mark can attest to this quality of mine, because every time he tries to pin me down to a position, I involuntarily argue the other side. I would even say that it reflects a basic spiritual truth that borders on the mystical, a view that is captured in the following Sufi tale:

The Mulla Nasrudin [a whimsical character who appears in numerous Middle-Eastern teaching stories] was sitting court one day. A husband and wife came in to settle the matter of who should be in charge of the education of their son. The wife argued that she should be given sole custody, giving many fine reasons to support her view. The Mulla said, “You are absolutely correct!” Then the husband spoke to defend his position. In response, the Mulla again exclaimed, “You are absolutely correct!” Immediately, a cleric in the back of the court stood up and cried out, “Nasrudin, they both can't be right!” To which the Mulla replied, “You are absolutely correct!”

I must admit that I am like the Mulla, and this allows me to see some truth in everything. I only wish that more religious believers felt the same. Atheists, agnostics, and theologians have all made substantial contributions to humanity, morality, and the quest for ultimate truth.

I don't know what that ultimate reality or truth may be, but as far as I can tell, no one does. This brings every one of us back to our inner beliefs and the faith we must rely upon as we strive to comprehend the world. Contemplating God brings us face-to-face with such ultimate issues, while lesser concepts (like money) won't take you to those deeper questions. For some people, science will raise such questions, but I have also argued that science, by itself, is not enough to understand the underlying meanings of life.

DON'T TAKE THE EASY WAY OUT

People often ask me if I believe in God. A simple answer like “Yes” or “No” can't do justice to such a profoundly personal belief, so I used to answer with a rather long-winded discussion about the complex nature of God, science, and religion. Now I respond by asking for that person's definition of God. It's not easy to do, and again, as our surveys have disclosed, nearly everyone's definition is unique. Depending on what the individual says, I might agree with some aspects of their definition while rejecting others. But the moment someone tries to confine the definition of God, I immediately know that it can't be true. One cannot limit what is infinite, and thus science—as wonderful as it is—cannot hope to untangle this knotty problem of God's existence by itself. Science can't find God because we don't even know what to look for. And if we did find God scientifically, we might not even realize it.

Science, however, can help expose some of the ways we think and feel about God, and this can help us broaden our personal beliefs. This is also why I think it becomes necessary to help science along by studying the concept of God on a personal, subjective, and theological level. By combining the goals and perspectives of science and religion, I think we stand a chance at answering the God question. Both science and religion, by themselves, face too many limitations and difficulties. This is the true nature of the journey—challenging ourselves to push our minds and brains to the limit. Then, and only then, can we begin to change the world.

But don't take the easy way out. Work hard to explore the nature of the world, and share your uncertainties with others. If you let your curiosity and compassion play with all the possibilities, then you'll enrich your life, and hopefully improve the world. And by all means, go deeply into your contemplation of God, because you'll eventually discover yourself.

This, for me, is how God and science, when the two come together in the brain, can affect and transform your life.