Some psychologists have suggested the existence of a “god-shaped hole” in the mind — a set of psychological functions that evolved for some other purpose (like detecting predators sneaking up behind us), but which predispose us to believe in gods, or in God, or the supernatural, or the preternatural, or something out there other than ourselves.
Christian apologists would have you believe that there’s an aching void located in the heart that can only be filled by God, but that is a different argument, ably refuted by Adam Lee at Daylight Atheism. It’s also been suggested that we can fill any inner void in the psyche by connecting with our authentic self.
But in this post, I am talking about the brain functions that might give rise to perceptions of gods, spirits, and the like.
I recently finished reading Robert Sawyer‘s Neanderthals trilogy (Hominids, Humans, and Hybrids). In the last book, it becomes apparent that Ponter Boddit, the Neanderthal character, doesn’t have a “god-shaped hole” (this isn’t a spoiler because it is rather incidental to the main plot). The “god-shaped hole” is revealed to be located in the parietal lobe, which deals (among other things) with visual-spatial processing. In the story, a psychologist develops a “God helmet” that stimulates numinous experiences (but only in Homo sapiens, because our species has a “god-shaped hole”). The characters who have a numinous experience perceive the deity as being behind them. The real-life version of this research is controversial and several researchers have been unable to replicate it.
This got me thinking.
First, the fact that these brain functions exist, and evolved for some other purpose, doesn’t necessarily mean that the preternatural doesn’t exist; it does mean that a part of the brain acts as a receptor for (or generator of) experiences of the preternatural and the numinous.
It also occurred to me that the experience of aphantasia (the inability to visualise) might be relevant to this. Most people can form a picture in their minds, but not everyone. Could it be that the ability to visualise is a building block of the predisposition to theism?
Many people describe the experience of ‘aspecting’ or invoking a deity as a feeling that the deity approaches from behind, similar to the description in Sawyer’s book. (This perhaps backs up the idea that the functionality originally evolved to perceive predators sneaking up behind you. The Neanderthals in the story have an excellent sense of smell, so wouldn’t need the parietal lobe functionality to detect predators.)
It has been suggested that experiences of the numinous and preternatural are stimulated by electromagnetic fields. The human nervous system generates an electro-magnetic field. What if there was an interaction effect between our personal electromagnetic field and that of the environment around us? The strength of the Earth’s magnetic field fluctuates quite considerably. Every hundred thousand years or so, the magnetic poles switch over, and the current fluctuations seem to portend a switch over. What if the intensity of magical experiences are related to the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field, either because magic and spirits are better able to manifest in a strong magnetic field, or because our parietal lobe is more likely to generate these experiences when stimulated by strong electromagnetic fields? In Sawyer’s story, the magnetic field switches over, and the Homo sapiens characters have a numinous experience during the switch.
I am sitting on the fence as to whether or not there is any objective external reality to these experiences. My gut feeling is that deities and spirits are phenomena extrinsic to me, but I can’t prove that. Physicists have not yet determined the nature of consciousness (as far as I know), and we don’t know what else has consciousness other than animals. Maybe plants do. Maybe rocks do, but at a much slower frequency than ours. Maybe magnetic fields can capture traces of emotion, memory, and thought. Specific places seem to have a personality. My theory is that there’s an underlying field of consciousness, and that certain places (hills, standing stones, holy wells, certain trees) act like a gravity well in the field of consciousness. The more people interact with these places, the more their personality develops, and the deeper the ‘gravity well’ in the field of consciousness.
My fence-sitting on whether there’s an objective reality to all this has a long and honourable history, which can be traced back through a whole tradition of philosophical and theological thought. The twilight realms of mystical apprehension of the numinous are not reducible to either/or models of reality. Both theists and atheists would do well to contemplate apophatic theology, the idea that every definite thing that can be said about the divine must be countered by a negation, and only thus can we arrive at a mystical understanding of the divine. In the 9th century, Eriugena wrote that God does not exist: God is existence. This sounds rather similar to Spinoza‘s idea of God as Nature. Similarly, Paul Tillich stated that God is the ground of all being.
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4 thoughts on “The God-shaped Hole”
All of this is basically what I did my MPhil on, and it’s a fascinating field of study. For what it’s worth, I’m of the opinion that the “sensus divinatis” or god-shaped hole is an emergent property of an evolutionary bias to detect agency, but as you say that has little bearing on the question of whether an external agent (such as a god) exists or not.
Interesting question regarding aphantasia and religious experience, and not one that I know of any research on. There’s a PhD in there somewhere 😉
I recall that some studies suggest that infrasound can induce a sense of “other” presence, which has tentatively been offered as an explanation for some experiences of hauntings, so I’d not be surprised if magnetic fields could have a similar effect on the brain.
Like you, I remain agnostic to the nature of consciousness and the possibility of what might for lack of a better word be called the divine or spirit or what have you. My own theological background was in apophatic theology, so I’m happier not trying to peiece the “cloud of unknowing”.
Fascinating stuff, and if your books cover similar ideas, I must add them to my reading list!
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That’s a good point about it being the by-product of a function to detect agency. Ditto regarding infrasound.
There’s a lot of theology in my books 🙂
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Another place where electro-magnetic fields affect our brains is sense of direction. I find I have a very good sense of direction in the mid-latitudes, but close to the arctic circle I do not. There are other things that seem to be affecting my brain that far north as well, in that I feel more out of touch and confused (hard to describe exactly – it is a feeling of misalignment, of being out of touch). As we know that birds use electro-magnetic fields as a navigational aid, we are not the only beings that are affected by electro-magnetic fields. Whether my sensations are a form of disconnect from the universe, I don’t know – they are a sense of disconnect from geography.
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