This writeup came out of a much longer paper I wrote about some of the theological responses to AI and the related brain sciences. What follows is one of the issues I have looked at, but more will probably come.

Neuroscience and God

One of the great questions that arises from the intersection of the brain sciences and theology is this: given that machines could become conscious and intelligent in the same sorts of ways that human beings are, would they be able to have spiritual experiences? This is a question that puzzles theologians and AI researchers alike. The difficulty hangs on the slipperiness of spiritual experiences, which are problematically subjective and frequently evade description. The brain sciences have attempted to make headway on this problem by examining the correlation between spiritual experiences and neurological processes. A number of experiments have been performed in this quest for correlates, producing fascinating results. One of the most fascinating and well-documented is the discovery of the “god spot” or “god module,” a cluster of nerve cells that appear to be strongly correlated to spiritual experience. The god spot has been thoroughly covered on E2, so it won’t be my focus here. However, it is interesting to note the response of Richard Harries, the Bishop of Oxford, to news of the god spot. According to Ray Kurzweil’s 1999 book The Age of Spiritual Machines the Bishop said, “it would not be surprising if God had created us with a physical faculty for belief.”

In any case, the correlations between religion and neuroscience are not limited to the discovery of the “god module.” In an essay in the journal Zygon, Ian G. Barbour notes the work of James Ashbrook and Carol Albright, who have attempted to use the findings of neuroscience as a model by which to understand the nature of God itself, based on the idea of the tripartite brain.

  1. The upper brain stem, which humans share with animals as far back as reptiles, governs the basic life-preserving functions. The theological analog of this system is God as “the sustainer of the conditions for life.”
  2. The limbic system, which humans share with mammals, comprises the localization of emotions, which make rich social relationships possible, and allow behaviors like empathy and care of the young. From this system develops the human recognition of emotion and social relationships as part of reality, and the corresponding analog is the idea of a nurturing and interacting God.
  3. Finally, the neocortex, which appears only in primates and humans, is the center of interpretation, organization, symbolic representation, and rationality. The neocortex and its activities parallel the idea of a “purposeful God who rationally orders and pursues goals.”

Taking these aspects of God as accurate descriptions of God’s being, which is surely a leap of faith, Ashbrook and Albright find a divinely structured parallel between the brain of human beings, the order of the universe, and the nature of God. They maintain that God has ordered the cosmos, and that the human brain, as part of that cosmos, reflects in its structures the nature of the cosmos. In the opinions of Ashbrook and Albright, there seems to be a similarity to the profession of the Bishop of Oxford: both hypothesize a physical constitution of human beings that is naturally* geared toward an understanding or belief in God. Whatever one believes about the existence or nature of God, and perhaps especially if one is skeptical about those matters, it is certainly interesting to note such findings as partial but plausible explanations for the emergence of religious behavior in homo sapiens.

Yet despite the possibility of a strong correlation between spirituality and neural activity or brain structure, these discoveries and theories are a far cry from a complete explanation of spirituality or religion. While the neurological aspects of spirituality are fascinating and important, there are other aspects of religious experience to consider, including the social contextualization of spirituality that gives meaning and structure to the subjective experience.

* Here I am using “naturally” in a sense that is synonymous with “divinely” to better reflect the modern theological position. This synonymy is based on the opinion of Fraser Watts that for modern theologians, “it is a mistake to ask whether we should attribute a God or to nature.”

  • Ian G. Barbour, “Neuroscience, Artificial Intelligence, and Human Nature: Theological and Philosophical Reflections,” Zygon 34 (September 1999).
  • Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines (New York: Penguin Books, 1999).
  • Fraser Watts, “Toward a Theology of Consciousness,” in Consciousness and Human Identity, ed. John Cornwell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).