Saturday, June 17, 2006

Want to meet God? Then just don it.

By Badscience's Ben Goldacre:
A “neurotheology” researcher called Dr Michael Persinger has developed something called the “God Helmet” lined with magnets to help you in your quest: it sounds like typical bad science fodder, but it’s much more interesting than that.

Persinger is a proper scientist. The temporal lobes have long been implicated in religious experiences: epileptic seizures in that part of the brain, for example, can produce mystical experiences and visions. Persinger’s helmet stimulates these temporal lobes with weak electromagnetic fields through the skull, and in various published papers this stimulation has been shown to induce a “sensed presence”, under blinded conditions.

There is controversy around these findings: some people have tried to replicate them, although not using exactly the same methods, and got different results. But however improbable or theologically offensive you might find his evidence, because it is published and written up in full, you can try to replicate it for yourself and find out whether it works. In fact, you really can try this at home: the kit needed to make a God Helmet is fabulously rudimentary.

You can order a commercial product online for just $220 (£119): it is basically eight magnetic coils that fit over the relevant parts of your skull; the signal is generated by your computer’s soundcard, and then played through these magnetic elements, instead of through the magnetic coils of your speakers.

More excitingly, you can go to the open source development forum Sourceforge and check out “Open-rTMS”, where designs for the necessary hardware and software are being developed collaboratively and openly, and by the same people who brought you “OpenEEG”, a surprisingly effective EEG system that you can also make at home.

Some months ago Persinger strapped his "God helmet" onto Richard Dawkins. Apparently, Dawkins is immune to electronic-electromagnetic hallucination-inducing devices. Except for some slight physiological effects the contraption did not trigger any religious experience in Dawkins. One wonders how much susceptibility to these neurological effects has a bearing on whether a person becomes a believer in the paranormal/supernatural.

Since we know that such things as sensing "a presence", so-called communiques from supernatural entities including spirits and deities, and other alleged paranormal/supernatural phenomena can be caused by quite ordinary means including electrical stimulation, sensory deprivation, hypoxia, pharmacological substances, we therefore must rule out all naturalistic explanations (but how do you exhaust them when we aren't omniscient of the natural world?) before we can begin to entertain the various proffered supernatural explanations. If I hear a voice in my head telling me I have been specially elected by my deity to be spread his word and be his spokesperson here in the Philippines, it is an epistemic error to say that just because I believe in the premise that angels talk to people, that indeed the voice in my head was one of my god's angels. More parsimoniously, I'm hallucinating, or simply delusional or psychotic, just like that Philippine judge Florentino Floro. So how do we know that ancient sacred text writers and prophets from around the world who claimed to have been communicating with their gods and to whom spirits, angels, and deities have revealed various things had not in fact experienced nothing more than natural neurological phenomena?

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