Here’s a second installment on Thomas Metzinger, following up on yesterday’s post.
If certain aspects of consciousness are ineffable, we obviously cannot correlate them with states in our brains… But pinning down the neural correlates of specific conscious contents will lay the foundation for future neurotechnology. As soon as we know the sufficient physical correlates of apricot-pink or sandalwood-amber, we will in principle be able to activate these states by stimulating the brain in an appropriate manner. We will be able to modulate our sensations of color or smell, and intensify or extinguish them, by stimulating or inhibiting the relevant groups of neurons. This may also be true for emotional states, such as empathy, gratitude, or religious ecstasy.
– Thomas Metzinger, The Ego Tunnel, pp. 19-20
Neuroscientific research has already made good progress in identifying brain coordinates for color perception, and investigation of the role of mirror neurons in empathy is a hot topic in the field. But being able to stimulate the neurons directly doesn’t belie the more important empirical evidence that these neurons are usually activated by information extracted from the environment. I.e., the parts of the brain that detect the color apricot-pink are tuned in to specific frequencies of radiomagnetic waves reflected by the surfaces of objects out there in the world, detected by photoreceptor cells in the retina, and transmitted via neural pathways to the brain.
So what about religious ecstasy? Already it can be artificially stimulated by shysters and hucksters; some day brain probes might be able to do the trick. But just because the religious ecstasy neurons can be juked doesn’t imply that all religious ecstasy is an illusion. Color-detecting neurons detect features of environmental surfaces; mirror neurons detect features of other humans. Might not religious ecstasy neurons detect features of other sorts of non-human, super-powerful sapient beings that are out there in the environment somewhere?
I know this idea has been proposed before, that the gods have equipped humans with internal mechanisms for detecting the gods’ presence or for receiving their messages. Metzinger refers to our internal representation of the environment as a “tunnel” because of its narrow bandwidth. We are equipped to detect only a small fraction of the almost unimaginably rich environment in which we are immersed. Maybe the gods are out there chattering and emitting vibes all the time, but we just can’t pick up the signals.
Humans who have never previously seen a snake exhibit fear on first contact with one. Presumably this is because the instinct to fear snakes was adaptive in the environment in which humans evolved. Our ancestors who had active snake-fear neurons avoided snakes, didn’t get bit, and so survived to pass on the snake-fear gene. Surely some ancestors who didn’t fear snakes managed to survive, and so there are surely some among us today who do not instinctively fear snakes. But there’s certainly no evolutionary pressure for the snake-fearing gene to go extinct in a snake-free environment. The snake-fear neurons are still there in the brain even if the bearer of that brain never once encounters a snake in the world.
So what about the god-detector neuron? Most people in the world claim to detect the presence of the gods. In a sense it doesn’t matter whether these billions of people’s god-detector genes are activated by real gods in their environment or whether they are artificially stimulated. The point is that these hypothetical god-detector neurons can be activated. Maybe in the evolutionary environment it was adaptive for humans to be aware of the gods. Maybe the gods enhanced survival value by conveying information about where to find food or where predators were hiding or how to overcome an enemy. Still, some of our ancestors who couldn’t detect the presence of the gods might have survived anyway, passing the god-indifference genes on to subsequent generations. Just as the absence of snake-fear genes does not hinder survival in an environment in which there are no real snakes, so the absence of god-detection genes might pose no handicap in an environment where the gods have departed or where they no longer provide survival benefits to humans.
Maybe the god-detector neurons need to learn — that is, they have to be put through some input-output-feedback iterations before they become properly attuned to the signal. Neurons assigned to language processing never function properly if you happen to be raised by wolves. Exposure to language-speakers during early childhood is necessary if the child is to learn to speak and understand speech. Maybe this iterative learning circuitry is necessary also for the god-detector neurons. If during the critical developmental period a person is not exposed to the gods, that person never develops the ability to detect gods if they happen to show up later.
It’s also possible that the god-detector neurons can become hypersensitized. I’ve come to the conclusion that I have hypersensitive asshole detector neurons: they’re chronically inflamed, always alert, always receiving signals alerting my brain to the proximal presence of assholes. The problem with a hypersensitive detection mechanism of this sort (or so I’m told) is that it generates some false positives; i.e., I’m prone to detecting assholes when none are present. Maybe this same problem of false positives plagues those burdened with hypersensitive god-detector neurons: they detect divine activity everywhere and all the time, even when it’s not present. Alternatively, people with dulled, insensitive detector neurons may experience a high proportion of false negatives. They don’t detect assholes or gods even when they’re staring them in the face.