Materialism, being a fairly coarse superstition, tends to render its adherents susceptible to a great many utterly fantastic notions. All that is needed to make even the most outlandish theory seem plausible to the truly doctrinaire materialist is that it come wrapped in the appurtenances of empirical science. This is not particularly blameworthy. True believers in any creed are usually eager to be persuaded that there is better evidence supporting their convictions than there really is. But there is a special kind of pleasure to be extracted from the credulity of materialists, if only because they are more prone than most other fanatics to mistake their metaphysical presuppositions for purely rational conclusions drawn from dispassionate reasoning.
Consider, for instance, the recent and curious episode of the “God Helmet.” If you have not heard of it before, this was a device that for a time was believed to have the power to induce “religious” experiences in those who wore it, simply by stimulating the temporal lobes of the brain with weak magnetic field emissions. Its inventor was the cognitive neuroscientist Michael Persinger, who began studying religious mental states as early as the 1970s, and who eventually hit upon the theory that all such experiences have something to do with the structure of the bicameral brain. Perhaps, he speculated, a man who finds himself seized by a mystical sense of an unseen presence—God, an angel, an extraterrestrial, a ghost, a fairy, what have you—is merely experiencing a transient excitation of neurons that causes his brain’s left hemisphere to become indirectly aware of the distinct and usually tacit “alternate self” of the right hemisphere.
Whether or not that could be proved, however, he was sure that the full spectrum of transcendental experiences, from out-of-body episodes to alien abductions to contemplative bliss, could be reduced to the neurological effect of certain electromagnetic events. To prove his hypothesis, he constructed a helmet that would allow him to apply small, sustained magnetic pulses to one or both of the temperoparietal regions of a person’s brain. He hoped in this way to reproduce the entire diapason of extraordinary conscious states, from the vaguely numinous to the vividly visionary, and in 2002 he and his collaborator Faye Healey published the results of laboratory studies allegedly proving that the helmet worked. Whereas two-thirds of those who had worn it and been exposed to doses of magnetism had supposedly reported a sense of some sort of presence (with varying degrees of intensity), only a third of those who had worn an electrically inert version of the device reported similar feelings.
Those sounded like substantial results, and the next logical step would have been yet more rigorous investigations. What immediately followed, however, was nothing so jejune as a series of clinical studies or critical explorations of Persinger’s and Healey’s claims, but rather an effervescent season of celebrity. Excitable print and broadcast journalists, thinking that the source of human religion had actually been discovered in the cerebral cortex, made Persinger’s device briefly famous. At once, it was transformed from an unwieldy item of laboratory equipment into an indispensable fashion accessory of the materialist vogue. Metaphysical skeptics arrived from every quarter, donned Persinger’s bizarre millinery, and waited for the doors of perception to fly open.
The results were varied. The British psychologist Susan Blackmore, whose grasp of reality is so tenuous that she believes in “memes,” claimed to have been carried through a succession of almost unbearable emotions and intuitions and phantom sensations. Richard Dawkins, whose grasp of reality is so tenuous that he invented the idea of “memes,” found himself entirely unaffected (apart from a minor spell of dizziness), and pronounced himself disappointed. Others reported elaborate hallucinations of a vaguely spiritual kind, or fleeting images, or reveries about pretty girls, or indistinct impressions of unseen presences, or nothing at all.
Persinger had a number of explanations for the differences in the reactions his device prompted, none of which could be tested. For instance, he suggested that Dawkins’ immunity to the helmet’s power was due to a peculiar temperoparietal insensitivity. Since his studies had involved no neural imaging of the brain, or any other mechanism for identifying the specific part of the temporal lobes supposedly affected by magnetic fields, the assertion was quite meaningless. So were most of his claims regarding his findings. But no one seemed disposed to ask awkward questions. God had been found out to be a transient electrochemical agitation of a cluster or two of neurons. The BBC was satisfied. What else matters?
Alas, it was all nonsense. To this day, there are obdurate materialists who believe in the God Helmet, but it has been discredited in every significant way. It turned out that the protocols Persinger employed for choosing his test subjects and controls, without divulging the purposes of his experiments, were almost comically inadequate. Moreover, after the results of the initial studies had been published, all who came seeking an encounter with the gods or spirits nestled in their cerebral cortices did so with clear expectations and responded to Persinger’s device in whatever ways their personal suggestibility determined.
Then, however, scientists at Sweden’s Uppsala University attempted to reproduce the results reported by Persinger and Healey, under a rigorous regime of proper experimental controls. They consulted with Persinger and employed methods and technology identical to his own, but they conducted their study as a proper “double blind” experiment. In 2004, the results appeared: None of the significant phenomena described by Persinger and Healey could be duplicated. Magnetic fields had no observable power to induce intimations of unseen presences in the test subjects, let alone extraordinary transcendental states of consciousness, and the Swedish researchers convincingly demonstrated that the effects reported by wearers of the God Helmet were largely products of their own imaginations.
Now, in fact, there really would have been no great problem for believers in the supernatural had Persinger’s device really worked, or had the theory behind it been true. Even if it had turned out that religious states of consciousness have their physiological concomitants in a particular part of the brain that could be stimulated artificially by magnetic fields, that would have had no religious implications at all. After all, practically no one is so thoroughgoing an idealist or dualist as to imagine that the human mind is not an embodied reality that operates through a physical brain. It may well be the case that there are certain brain events necessarily associated with experiences of the spiritual world; but, then again, there are certain brain events associated with hearing the music of a piano, or seeing an open lotus blossom, or tasting wine. So what?
In the case of the God Helmet, however, such considerations scarcely matter, because the one thing that none of the researchers or journalists who made that ludicrous device famous ever thought to ask was whether the experiences described in the original studies actually resembled real religious experiences at all. Nothing so strikingly demonstrates the sheer intellectual slovenliness with which these experiments were initially approached than the utter absence of hermeneutical scrutiny brought to bear on the phenomena supposedly disclosed by Persinger’s magic electrical hat.
In all the great religions and metaphysical philosophies of the world there exists a rich and compendious spiritual literature, which describes the full range of spiritual experience—from the devotional to the contemplative to the mystically unitive—in remarkable depth and detail, and with a very large degree of unanimity on several “phenomenological” matters. Anyone familiar with that literature knows that the experiences supposedly induced by the God Helmet were quite unlike real religious experiences (with the possible exception of certain sorts of mantic states at the margins of cultic practices).
One thing common to almost all great contemplative literature is an insistence upon the lucidity, clarity, and continuity of spiritual experience. For the most part, such experience does not involve visions; even when it does, however, they are nothing like the convulsive emotional fluctuations, hallucinations, and mildly psychotic episodes described by many of the users of Persinger’s device. Even mystic ecstasies have a quality of transparency and cogency wholly different from the delirious dissociations into which certain of the believers in the helmet’s power worked themselves up.
All of this should have been obvious from the start: the clinical incompetence of the original studies, the extravagance of the conjectures surrounding them, the sheer absurdity of the device itself, and the religious illiteracy of those who took it all seriously. And indeed it would have been had Persinger’s theories not appealed so deeply to the materialist imagination, and had they not seemed for a brief exciting moment to confirm certain materialist dogmas.
Most of us tend to see what we wish to see, and to think that it is reality in its unadorned essence. Materialists believe that absolutely everything, even the formal structures of culture and the intentional structures of consciousness, can be reduced without remainder to an ensemble of mechanistic interactions among intrinsically mindless physical elements; and I suppose anyone capable of believing that is capable of believing practically anything.
David Bentley Hart is an editor at large for First Things. His most recent book is The Experience of God.