Dan Forbush* 2005. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
November 13, 2005
Good morning. I appreciate very much the opportunity to be here today and to make one small contribution to your series of services on the brain.
It's always a pleasure to connect with other Unitarian Universalists, and it's a special pleasure to do so here in sunny California.
By way of a further introduction, I should perhaps mention that I come from a long line of Congregational ministers, and that this heritage undoubtably has something to do with my being in your pulpit this morning. My great-grandfather, grandfather, and uncle were all men of the cloth and though I myself decided not to go that route, it seems pretty clear that they passed on the God gene. Only this would explain why I find so compelling such matters as conscience, destiny and cosmic heroism. And only this would further explain why I'm profoundly driven to write a screenplay that features, among others, a Unitarian minister named Peter Gilman who confronts a series of ethical dilemmas 20 years in the future. It's a form of meditation, I've concluded.
More about Peter later. Let's talk about revelation.
I won't attempt to define the term. Instead, I'll give you what I consider to be a quintessential example of the kind of experience I think we all commonly mean when we use it.
This is given to us by a Jewish author named Stephen Mitchell who became so intrigued by the Jesus story that he wrote a book [The Gospel According to Jesus] in which he imagined Jesus as a plain old human rather than the virgin-born, resurrected deity that most religions now herald him to be.
"People from all over Israel came to see and hear John. They confessed their sins, and they were washed and blessed by him in the Jordan River.
"Jesus went to John and was baptized by him. As he emerged from the water, he had the kind of experience that is called enlightenment or awakening.
"Jesus felt that he had been reborn. It was if the whole world had dissolved into light. There was a joy in him that he had never known before, a love in his heart that was larger than the world and older than time. He felt absolutely safe and taken care of. He was in God's hands - in God's arms. It was as if God had told him, 'You are my beloved child.'"
Whatever happened to Jesus that fateful day, we can be certain of this much: It happened in his brain. It happened in the ten billion neurons and one trillon synapses that make all experience possible in all humans.
And we know this much, too. Similar experiences can now be routinely produced in the lab. It can be done in a variety of ways, but one of the most successful is a technology called transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS for short.
In fact, you can now buy your very own transcranial magnetic stimulator, and enjoy your very own visions, revelations and awakenings in the privacy and comfort of your own home.
And here it is, my friends: The Shakti Eight-Coil Experimental Neurostimulator. It's called the "eight coil" because that's how many electromagnets are stuck on with Velcro(R). Four come in from the left side of your brain, and four come in from your right. It comes with this software, which you just load into your PC, and then you plug the unit itself into your sound card, which enables you to fine-tune the delivery of magnetic signals deep into the brain structures that contribute most to sensations of spirituality.
Grace on demand. G-O-D.
When I showed this to my friends in the Stony Brook UU congregation last Sunday, a lot of them thought I was making this up. No. It's real. I'm sure you won't be surprised when I tell you that I bought it on the Internet on a site called spiritualbrain.com. And you probably won't be surprised either when I tell you it was hand-crafted by a Californian named Todd Murphy, who's a Ph.D candidate in neuroscience. The hat actually comes from wine country.
As crude as this device may look, it's based on serious science that's being done by - among others - a Canadian researcher named Michael Persinger. A few years ago, Persinger rigged a motorcycle helmet with electromagnets in the same way. The results he generated with his so-called "God helmet" has attracted the interest of researchers and spiritualists around the world.
Here's a brief reading from a chapter Persinger contributed to this book, Neurotheology:
"Our research indicates that experiences and beliefs about gods are normal properties of the human brain. In all probability, they have developed within our species with other cognitive functions in order to facilitate adaptability. The primary role of the beliefs may have been to reduce anxiety about self-dissolution that, if not controlled, could have interfered with adaptation."
This makes perfect sense to me. In his Pulitzer-Prizing winning book, The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker showed how the fear of death looms like a grim boulder in the unconscious and forces us to continually create meanings for which we have no evidence. Meanings like destiny, God, and an abundant, blissful after-life.
Looking into the future, Persinger continues:
"There are many stimuli, perhaps some yet to be discovered, that can evoke experiences of God and foster religious beliefs. If the history of science predicts the future as it has explained the past, future discoveries will likely reveal phenomena that are even greater than the God experience and the God belief. Like the phlogiston of preconceptual chemistry...the current explanations for the experiences of the Sentient Being as a Creator and assurance of personal immortality will no longer be required. Such changes are the nature of scientific discovery."
As UUs, what should we make of this. Is this a good thing? Do we want it ourselves? How badly?
This is what Peter Gilman must decide. He's the minister of the First Unitarian Church in tiny Cardigan Falls, New Hampshire, which is where SyraCorp, Inc., has built its high-security laboratory on the eastern shoulder of Langdon Mountain in an abandoned mica mine. SyraCorp senior scientist Rosalind Peat attends Gilman's church, and that's how Gilman and his parishioners get in on the ground floor of ThinkPal's development.
ThinkPal is the most advanced neural implant SyraCorp has ever made for the consumer market. You can imagine the kind of neural appliances SyraCorp makes for the military, given that DARPA is already funding experiments to link the brain directly to weaponry and to enable soldiers to go a week without sleeping.
But that's an aside. The key point is that ThinkPal has all of the functionality of the Shakti 8-Coil, plus many, many more, since this is, after all, the future. SyraCorp engineers have crafted ThinkPal in the shape of a rear molar, so that it can be easily inserted into the empty lower left socket where your wisdom tooth used to be. That's where they hardwire it to the trigeminal nerve, which carries ThinkPal's synchronizing signal up through the pons and onward to the thalamus, the brain's main distributor.
It's powerful stuff.
Gilman ultimately decides to try ThinkPal because he believes - along with an increasing number of prominent thinkers - that the brain must be redesigned and rewired if humankind is to survive and its evolution continue.
"We must fix the two great sicknesses of the human psyche," he tells his parishioners in a sermon he titles A Theology of Carbon. "The first is our urge to carry out vendettas across generations. The second is our tendency to fasten group labels on people rather than to see them as individuals."
He continues: "It's time we combine in a coherent science of man insights from our growing understanding of the human brain, our genetic continuity with the rest of life, and the history of our religious ideas."
To be honest, I'm attributing to Gilman here words that I especially like in a remarkable book by Sam Harris, titled The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. It's a ringing cry against the ignorance by which the vast majority of citizens on this planet are trapped by the prescriptions and prophecies of texts written thousands of years ago, as though we have learned nothing since.
"It is time we recognize," Harris writes, "that the only thing that enables human beings to collaborate with one another in a truly open-ended way is their willingness to have their beliefs modified by new facts. Only openness to evidence and argument will secure a common world for us....This spirit of mutual inquiry is the very antithesis of religious faith."
"We are the final judges of what is good, just as we remain the final judges of what is logical," Harris writes. "The only angels we need invoke are those of our better selves: reason, honesty and love. The only demons that we must fear are those that lurk inside every human mind: ignorance, hatred, greed, and faith."
On that note I'll close and open the floor for comments.
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