A few items from John Horgan

John Horgan and George Johnson are going at it again on Bloggingheads. The most interesting part, I thought, was the discussion of EO Wilson’s turn towards group selection; one of the themes of Gould’s last book was the existence of levels of selection above the individual and the gene. Gould and Wilson had such a bitter antipathy towards each other that it is fascinating to see this sliver of convergence now.

For more Horgan, check out his recent article in Slate—it’s a skeptical look at neurotheology. Persinger and Hamer, oh my — two guys whose real talent is the ability to prompt eye-rolling and giggles in scientists.


  1. Rienk says

    Actually, I find Persingers work really interesting, especially in the light of phenomena like alien abductions, divine visions, out-of-body experiences, and the sorts. No giggles here… accept for the adoption of the word neurotheology and how people run away with the findings of these studies.

    Persinger and colleagues discover that all these “paranormal” phenomena are actually nothing more then (by-)products of our own brain.

    This data fits the (quite compelling) theories that many of our Christian Saints, the Muslim Prophet, and other religious figures where epileptics (Aquinas), Schizophrenics even (Jean D’Arc).

  2. says

    Every time Horgan gets mentioned in these parts, I find he manages to astonish me with the sheer shallowness of his understanding. . . I’m actually a little nervous to click those links.

  3. dorid says

    OMG, Rienk brings back memories. Took a graduate course in Med Lit where we did a review of literature. Jean was one of the prof’s personal heroes, I thought he was GENUINELY interested. After going through the transcripts of the trial, and doing a review of the literature on her, I wrote a paper on how schizophrenia was the much more likely answer, and how historically writers have taken a simple medical problem and expanded it into something mystical and holy.

    My professor wrote across my paper: THIS IS OFFENSIVE and gave me a “C”

    As far as the “Skeptical Look at Neurotheology” is concerned, perhaps being out of the field, I see nothing wrong with it. My understanding has been that there are things in the brain that “hardwire” us to faith, although as rational beings, we have the ability to overcome that. I have no doubt that people who have their neurological signals scrambled by either chemicals or some electromagnetic source (assuming they know how to do that accurately, which I haven’t read enough about to form an opinion) have “mystical” experiences. Why, my schizophrenic son also sees ghosts and demons, so I have no doubts. Yes, I believe insanity can be induced. But I don’t believe that the things seen are real.

    The problem, as I see it, with these studies is that for some reason these hallucinations and delusions are being separated out and valued. Now I can accept this to a point in some cultures (sure, my kids’ father’s people were into the peyote) but I rather thought we grew out of this kind of escapism in the late 70s.

  4. says

    Um, Sudbury is not in “Mid-Western Canada”, it’s in northern Ontario, which AFAIK is considered eastern or central Canada. I don’t think we have a “Mid-West” as such.

    As for the article: meh. Horgan is skeptical (he labels it “flakey”), but otherwise doesn’t say much. Obviously mystical experiences come from someplace in our neurology, some of us are more prone than others, and studying and inducing them seems like interesting research in its own right. The boundary between science and woo depends on whether you think there’s something from “another realm” causing them, or they’re just odd neural states we can sometimes get into, given appropriate chemical, electromagnetic, or cognitive/emotional stimulation. The “neurotheolgy” label seems goofy to me.

  5. NC Paul says

    That article certainly doesn’t do Persinger any favours by the way it off-handedly dismisses his work. I got the impression from what I’ve read of it that he’s always tried to find the rational explanation to supernatural claims.

    If religious experiences aren’t the Sky Fairy dialling you direct, then there’s got to be some neurological basis for them in the old brain meat. That’s not to say that the Sky Fairy is real, of course.

    And this line:

    “Given that brain researchers have no idea how I conceived and typed this sentence, I doubt they will ever account for religious experiences in all their vast diversity and subtlety.”

    is a bit presumptuous and pessimistic.

  6. Jameson says

    Whatever. That “god machine” thingy is the same contraption I’ve been getting at NINDS for their research on strokes. They put the TMS over my motor cortex. I never saw god, but it made my finger twitch.

    Not sure what B.S. wants to convey with the “sheer shallowness of [Horgan’s] understanding” line besides typical posting hyperbole, but I’ve read Rational Mysticism and its a good piece of investigative journalism.

  7. maria says

    This article seems to suggest that those of us with an un-spiritual brain are missing out on something, and gee, wouldn’t it be great if we could fix that…um, no thanks. I rather resent the notion of a “natural mystical capacity” – come on, it’s more like conditioned stupidity. Of course, that’s exactly what you want in your constituents, if you happen to be a religious or political leader.

  8. windy says

    [Horgan on the God Machine:] …he bombarded my brain with electromagnetic bursts patterned after brain waves of epileptics in the throes of religious visions…

    Is that thing even safe? What if the subject has latent epilepsy or something?

  9. chuko says

    Where did this idea that group selection was impossible come from? This is not my field, but it always seemed obvious to me that group selection would occur.

  10. windy says

    Not impossible, but the question is, is it strong enough to overcome other forms of selection, when it’s working in a different direction than individual or kin selection? Or even necessary as a level of explanation, when it’s working in the same direction as individual selection?

  11. chuko says

    Hmmm, thanks. Any recommendations as to where someone with a very extensive math background (postgrad and beyond) could find papers/books/whatever on the math of the subject?

  12. Nick Tarleton says

    Maria, as someone who has had mystical experiences (and is still an agnostic atheist who believes that those experiences very likely come solely from within his own brain), trust me, you are missing something, no less than (and possibly more than) someone incapable of enjoying sex is missing something. It is not necessary to believe irrational. Consult Sam Harris on this, or this essay.

  13. windy says

    Very extensive? You could probably whip up a couple models yourself :)

    I don’t know any extensive treatments off the top of my head, but do you want classic or recent stuff?

    Here’s something on the Price equation:

    Wade’s 1976 paper is sort of a classic (but experimental, not math) – it shows that group selection can be “rigged” to function in the lab:

    Fresh debate on kin vs group selection:

  14. Caledonian says

    and how historically writers have taken a simple medical problem and expanded it into something mystical and holy.

    There is nothing ‘simple’ about schizophrenia.

  15. says


    sure, my choice of words was not the best here. What I meant was that this is a MEDICAL CONDITION, and there is nothing magical, or mysterious (in a religious way) about schizophrenia. Unfortunately it seems a lot of people seem to think that because something is a disorder in the brain (vs other parts of the body) that there must be something more too it. We haven’t come too far from the days of thinking mental illenss as some sort of denomic influence… You’d be surprised at some of the crap some people beleive about schizophrenia and other psychiatric (and sometimes developmental) disorders.