Wildman, Wesley J. and Leslie A. Brothers. A Neuropsychological-Semiotic Model of Religious Experiences."
In A Neuropsychological-Semiotic
Model of Religious Experiences, Wesley J. Wildman and Leslie A. Brothers
observe that the neurosciences have largely succeeded, through their analyses
of brain structure and function, in portraying that which is distinctively human
as continuous with the laws and forms of complexity observed throughout the
natural world. This generally accepted conclusion about human beings
reconfigures the whole theory of religious experience by proposing explanations
for them that are independent of the assumption that they are experiences of
anything properly called a religious object. This reductionistic challenge is
not different in philosophical terms from earlier challenges, but it does
invite theories of religious experience that attend to the neurosciences.
As Fraser Watts points out
in his essay, religious experience is notoriously difficult to define and
delimit. Wildman and Brothers choose the term experiences of ultimacy both to
focus their study on a subset of the broader category of religious experience,
and also to avoid prejudicing their treatment in favor of theistic religions
that focus on (putative) experiences of God.
The goal of this essay,
then, is to present a richly textured interpretation of experiences of
ultimacy. The authors develop this interpretation in two phases. First, they
describe these experiences as objectively as possible, combining the
descriptive precision of phenomenology, informed by the neurosciences, with a
number of more obviously perspectival insights from psychology, sociology,
theology, and ethics. Their hope is that the resulting taxonomy will be
compelling enough to support constructive efforts in theology and philosophy
that depend on an interpretation of religious experience - including those in this
volume that attempt to speak of divine action in relation to human
consciousness (Note: See especially the essays by Watts, Peacocke, and Ellis).
The authors make two
constructive ventures on the basis of this description. In the first, inspired
by existing social processes used to identify authentic religious experiences,
they describe a procedure whereby genuine experiences of ultimacy can be
distinguished from mere claims to such experiences. They recognize a variety of
markers that together point toward authenticity: subjects descriptions
(considered within their socio-linguistic contexts), phenomenological
characteristics, judgments by experts in discernment or psychology, conformity
with theological criteria, and ethical transformation. Judgments of this sort
bring such experiences into the domain of public, scientific discussion as much
as they can be, and the authors speculate that this will encourage more
mainstream discussion of such experiences by scientists and others.
The second constructive
venture is the authors attempt to evaluate claims made concerning the cause
and value of experiences of ultimacy. The modeling procedure they adopt makes
use of semiotic theory to plot the traces of causal interactions in the form
of sign transformations, though not the causal interactions themselves. In the
language of semiotic theory, these causal traces take the form of richly
intense sign transformations. This proposal keeps ontological presuppositions
to a minimum by focusing on causal traces rather than the causes themselves.
Nevertheless, the authors contend, it does offer a religiously or spiritually
positive way of interpreting authentic ultimacy experiences. At the end of the
essay the authors offer a suggestion about the nature of the ultimate reality
that might leave such causal traces.
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