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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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