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A sermon by Lach Franquemont for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, July 26, 2009

Finding God in Neuroscience

“What is it that we humans depend on? We depend on our words... Our task is to communicate experience and ideas to others. We must strive continually to extend the scope of our description, but in such a way that our messages do not thereby lose their objective or unambiguous character ... We are suspended in language in such a way that we cannot say what is up and what is down. The word "reality" is also a word, a word, which we must learn to use correctly. We must be clear that when it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry. The poet, too, is not nearly so concerned with describing facts as with creating images and establishing mental connections.” – Niels Bohr

Finding God in Neuroscience
First of all I’d like to acknowledge my friends here from the neuroscience department who are braving the insides of a church for the first time in a non-wedding or funeral capacity. A special welcome to those of you, you know who you are, who haven’t even crossed a church threshold for those purposes. This summer series of lay sermons has been about the spiritual journey. It began with Ryk, who attempted to explain to us how a good Unitarian boy could grow up to be a Christian, admittedly with a decidedly Unitarian flavor. Surprisingly, I think he succeeded for the most part. A couple of weeks ago David House asked the question “Why not God,” and urged us toward tolerance of diverse religious precepts both inside and outside of our congregation. Next week, it is my understanding, that Pete Peterson will be asking the question “Why God,” and demonstrating other sources in which we may find that sense of wonder and mystery outside of a theistic understanding. Our Unitarian-Universalist principles call on us to affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, and that is what we have heard and will continue to hear throughout the rest of the summer.

When I was first asked to do this sermon, I gave the first decent sounding title that came to mind. I seemed like it might fill a few more seats than what might otherwise be the case during the lazy days of summer vacation season. I still intend to talk about neuroscience and analogies from it, ones that I hope will create images and establish mental connections, as Niels Bohr would say, for an increasingly nuanced personal model of the divine. I’ll be addressing other concepts as well, however, such as using the methods of science with aim of religion. Note I did not say the methods of science with the aim of determining the objective nature of God or a higher power. As Lord Kelvin properly put it, though this may be the beginning of knowledge, it scarcely advances to the state of science.

What we can conduct experiments on, with at least a prayer of obtaining measurable results, is ourselves. We know that meditation can enact measurable changes in the brain as shown by Dr, Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin. Coming off a long-term addiction will eventually lead to substantial brain changes over time. Learn about color theory and composition and you will never walk through an art museum in the same way again as shown by the tracking of saccadic eye movements. In his new book Musicophilia, acclaimed neurologist Oliver Sacks details the extreme impact, detectible through scientific methods that music can have on the brain. Other experiments, carried out by various teams of neuroscientists have even sought to quantify the effects the experience of the divine has on the brain; showing increased right prefrontal activation and decreased parietal in the case of studies by Dr. Andrew Newburg at the University of Pennsylvania. Neuropsychologist Michael Persinger has even experimented with the so-called God machine producing mystical experiences through changing magnetic fields around the brain, although it famously failed to convert Richard Dawkins into a believer. I’m going to posit here that learning to model your conception of divinity is an experiment worth undertaking, not because you will come to understand any ultimate objective nature of the universe, but because it gives you a shot at coming to better understand yourself.

I’m not going to argue for any particular sense of the divine. It could involve Jesus, Krishna, Allah, the Greek goddess Eris or any anthropomorphic conceptualization that works. For me, at this present moment, it involves a non-anthropomorphic intelligence that manifest in a self-similar fractal nature from as small as our microscopes show to the depths our telescopes can take us and beyond.

I’m going to come back to the really debatable points of that last statement in a minute and attempt to dispel the purely semantic disagreements but first, to wake you up, a joke, from Tom Barbalet at the Grey Thumb Blog (I know better than to not site my sources from this pulpit.)

A team of neuroscientists is given an elephant to examine. They disappear with the elephant and emerge several years later.

"So, what can you tell us about the elephant?" asks the eager public. "What elephant?" respond the neuroscientists. "Ah, you are referring to the antiquated concept of elephants. We have shown that elephants do not in fact exist but are illusions created by the presence of skin, bones, muscle tissue, blood, and other materials in a certain configuration." So the definition I gave. First of all, like I said, I don’t really give a lick whether it describes objective reality, which begs the question about the reality of objective reality, but that would be a digression that would bring up more arguments than I want today. I choose my definition because I like what it does for me and my sense of mental well being. For me it’s non-anthropomorphic because my conception can’t only be contained in a human form. My argument for a fractal nature of the universe would put me at the extreme of this argument, but is supported in one direction by physicists Francesco Sylos Labini and Luciano Pietronero going out as far as our telescopes can reach and scientist Colin Hill who argues for the hierarchy of self-similar electrically powered loops appling even at the atomic level. There is no scientific disagreement of the fractal nature through many orders of magnitude. The more important point is that it lets me see a part of God in anything I want to. It gives me an idea that my mind can grasp both intuitively and intellectually producing wonder and reverence. Then there is intelligence.

One of the things that my training has taught me is that I don’t know anything about intelligence. What I have come to believe is that it is a much larger concept than I once suspected. Most people would grant that the majority of the human race is intelligent, although I’m also sure we could all make up a list of exceptions. Some would grant that animals are intelligent. How about an anthill? Is the Internet intelligent with us acting as the receptors and neurotransmitters? Will it ever be intelligent? Maybe the global economic system (hopefully recovering from its recent stroke)? I don’t know. How about a solar system, or a galaxy operating over a tremendous scope of space and/or time? What I know is that by looking at all the mechanisms that make our brains function, the mental connections have been forged enabling me to see intelligence, as I have come to define intelligence, everywhere. Who am I to say though, for as I have said I now know that I know nothing about the subject?

In my day-to-day work I study the movement of the arm and its neural correlates. We use a full range of filters, estimators, classifiers, tuning functions and other mathematical and statistical tools to try to classify the signals that we detect from individual neurons. It is our method of measuring the brain and then expressing it in meaningful numbers. At most we have a couple hundred neurons that our probes can detect at any one time out of the billions of neurons involved with movement. From this limited sample size we hope to be able to accurately predict arm movement utilizing as many joint positions and their derivatives as we can. At least high enough to eventually restore movement to a paralyzed arm in a useful fashion. We use the highest level of technology currently available and the most advanced methods of analysis yet we can be relatively sure that any assumptions we make distort the full reality of neural functioning. We try to find the best way of looking at the data, the way that will provide the most information. Of course we want to get closer and closer to a larger understanding of the brain but for some others, and me the utility of the research is extremely important. It can become problematic for scientists when we forget the limitations of even the best methodology and instruments, because it can present us with the illusion that we have come to comprehend what is an extremely complex system that can only be approximated at best by our models.

The study of the brain keeps me humble. The more I study it, the more complex it becomes. The less able I am to be able to answer relatively simple questions about it. Instead of causing me to despair, this surprises me and delights me. It drives me to continue reaching for that next level of knowledge. I remain open and teachable and I pray that I always will. The study of the brain also keeps me humble in another way. Neuroscience can be studied using worms and flies and many major findings have come about this way. What becomes evident is that humans are no more highly evolved; we are only evolved in a way that optimizes certain traits while undercutting others. Animals and insects experience the world in a way that is different but not inferior. Once I removed myself from an exalted place in the cosmic script, I came to see the universe, great and small, as more filled with mystery and wonder, and for me this has lead to an inner peace.

In the end, though we are a part of an interdependent web of existence, we experience that web through one portal, one body. The richness with which life is experienced is highly dependent on how we engage the world around us. For me learning to engage with my own sense of the divine has brought wonder, humility, happiness and even discipline and strength. As Unitarian Universalists, our spiritual journeys can take us many places and within the church numerous tools exist that can take us down the road we travel. Obviously you don’t need to study neuroscience to find this. You may find it in Monday meditation, Sunday services, small group ministries, working for social justice committees or as a part of the lay ministry and caring committee. Since church is perhaps most importantly a state of mind, we can find our worship in many places outside of these halls. If I may be so bold as to offer advise, however, become more conscious of what you feel, see, hear, taste and smell and this it may take work. Learn to optimize the sensors on the equipment and strive for the most rigorous analysis you can. In other words, strive to become present, and you may be surprised when a spark of the divine creeps up on you.