God, Neurology, And Bliss

A vision of God’s not the slightest bit odd
When your brain’s shutting down, argues Sacks
But you knew all along some would find his view wrong
And would write of the logic he lacks
We might not be deceived; perhaps God was perceived
When the cranial neurons misfired
That was already known. What these data have shown
Is… to see Him, no God is required.

Oliver Sacks writes today in The Atlantic–a highly accessible piece on the neurology of life-altering religious experiences. He notes the documented role of epileptic seizures, typically of the right temporal lobe, which may sometimes give rise to overwhelming feelings of bliss. Other brain activity, of course, may be involved in auditory and visual hallucinations. Essentially, the same areas of the brain that are involved in feeling bliss for mundane reasons are stimulated by seizure, in the absence of some awe-invoking stimulus to account for them, or the face-perceiving fusiform area is stimulated in the absence of an actual face to look at.

It’s a bit like running in place; same muscles involved as in running, but different context. In these cases, your brain is running in place. (It is worth noting that there are many different sorts of experiences that get lumped together into, say, “near death experience”, so it is not reasonable to expect the same physiological underpinnings should account for all of them.)

These experiences are incredibly vivid, and those who experience them are loathe to accept mere biological explanations–which Sacks also illustrates.

But to me, the better illustration came in the comments. To paraphrase a number of commenters… One need not have experienced such a seizure and its accompanying bliss in order to deny a naturalistic explanation. After all, the fact that we can see faces without a face being present does not disprove the existence of faces in the real world! Maybe some people who claim to experience God are only experiencing a seizure, but who knows how many are actually, really and truly, experiencing God’s love directly? It’s only Sacks’s materialistic world view that prevents him from seeing this possibility!

Of course, Sacks knows full well that his article, and all the evidence it cites, could not hope to disprove the ultimate unfalsifiable hypothesis, god.

But it does show that the claim of experiencing the touch of God, even if taken as one’s honest and truthful view, need not require any actual god. We have, now, at least two competing hypotheses which both account for a feeling of overwhelming bliss.

Only one of which requires violating naturalistic assumptions.


  1. coragyps says

    “We have, now, at least two competing hypotheses which both account for a feeling of overwhelming bliss. ”

    Three, if you count lysergic acid diethylamide and its cousins as separate from internally-derived agents like Sacks discusses.

    If I’m remembering the late 1960’s right, anyway…………..

  2. Cuttlefish says

    One would hope that would account, for the most part, for *known* and (so some extent) *planned* instances of overwhelming bliss.

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