Today NPR reported on fMRI research that indicates that when people think of issues pertaining to religion regions of the brain involved in interpersonal relations light up.
The human brain, it appears, responds to God as if he were just another person, according to a team at the National Institutes of Health.
A study of 40 people — some religious, some nonreligious — found that phrases such as “I believe God is with me throughout the day and watches over me” lit up the same areas of the brain we use to decipher the emotions and intentions of other people.
The researchers speculate that the development of this sort of cognition was crucial to the development of civilization:
Without religion, Bulbulia says, “large scale cooperation, which now spans the world, would be impossible. He adds that humans differ from other species in their ability to cooperate in very large groups.
Religion can help foster cooperation because it ensures that people share the same set of rules about behavior, and think they’ll be punished if they don’t follow them, Bulbulia says. Religion also unites people, especially in times of great uncertainty.
This theory, I think, would indicate that it’s rather inaccurate to suggest that the brain processes thoughts of God exactly as it processes thoughts of other persons. Rather, if the evolution of religious thought played a large role in the ability of humans to engage in large scale cooperation, then this is because the thought of God would be something like the “Person = x” similar Kant’s famous “object = x”, functioning as a general structure allowing for the possibility of empathy towards all people irregardless of their differences. Just as Kant’s “object = x” isn’t any particular object but a formal structure that allows objects to be thinkable, so too would the person = x be a formal structure enabling all interpersonal relations (cf. Deleuz’es “Tournier and a World Without Others” for a good gloss on this Other-structure). Where individual encounters with particular people tend to be governed by the same/different schema, allowing for empathy towards those whom we code as “like us”, the formal schema of the “Person = x” would allow these individual differences to be surmounted– to a greater or lesser degree, anyway –allowing for the different to be seen as a part of the same. In this way, differences between different tribes, cultures, languages, customs, etc., could be surmounted to allow for cooperative activity. Of course, at this meta or transcendental level of personhood– the person = x –the same/different schema would still be operative but in a way in which sameness was no longer defined by local and immediate social relations between individuals. In other words, what this neuro-research seems to have uncovered is something like belief in the existence of the Lacanian big Other, where the subject believes, through the screen of fantasy, that the Other is structured in a particular way and that it desires specific things (the transformation of desire into demand via fantasy that fills out the lack in the Other).
Of course, one wonders why neurologists are claiming that the functioning of these brain centers is an evolutionary development (presumably they’re referring to genes) rather than a cultural acquisition. All the fMRI research seems to establish is that certain brain regions light up when people think about religion. Nothing here establishes that the cause of these brain structures must be genetic or innate in character, rather than the result of developmental processes involving our relation to culture.
Anyway, read the article here.