A discussion I had at my blog a long time ago resurfaced. Long time commenter The Jewish Atheist today “reposted” this. The gist of the discussion boils down to on the one side:

  • Millions of people have had “revelatory” experiences.
  • While certainly some of them are due to insanity or fraud … clearly by the numbers not all are.

The counter argument, provided in the link above argues:

  • Yes, but that doesn’t mean they are “real” experiences of what you perceive them to be.
  • In fact, look here, some researcher has produced an apparatus which by putting on this large helmet and applying large (fluctuating?) magnetic fields to the cortex one can simulate similar experiences.

There’s a problem with that counter argument. And the problem is that it is irrelevant.

Consider CGI in the cinema. Now good CGI which looks “real” takes a lot of stuff. You need, in the theatre, a good sound system and good quality projection, and a good audience. On the production side, you need a staff of talented programmers, artists, and a big bank of dedicated graphics “super-computers.” With that, you can give the impression of “seeing something real.”

To “mimic” the revelatory experience you need an experienced technician and some specialized equipment. Just any strong magnet won’t do. I performed experiments and TA’d in labs doing NMR (MRI without the “imaging”) in school. Those experiments produce very strong (not so quickly fluctuating) magnetic fields. People coming out of MRI machines aren’t claiming “I heard the Virgin speak” in great numbers. No. The magnetic field application has to be specifically engineered to simulate this effect.

Humans are physical. If we have revelatory experiences, they impact our physical being. If you cannot mimic that experience with some sort of apparatus or cortical stimulation of some sort then one has to wonder if in fact those people are actually lying. That this experience is something of which the human organism is incapable … and if incapable, how is it happening?

The problem is that “intense specific pattern of electro-magnetic stimulation” to the brain … OK say that can simulate a revelatory experience. Nobody is suggesting that stray radiation is floating around causing it spontaneously. If you see a series of images flash before your eyes in the absence of the cinema you suspect it might be real. If you have a revelatory experience in the absence of a laboratory … you also might suspect it is real. And in both cases, that might be a better guess than not.

Update: Edited, some grammar corrected and language clarified.

Filed under: Mark O.ReligionScience

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