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Watts, Fraser. “Cognitive Neuroscience and Religious Consciousness.”

In “Cognitive Neuroscience and Religious Consciousness,” Fraser Watts notes that when divine action is considered in relation to the physical sciences the rationality of Christian faith may be at stake, but when God’s action is considered in relation to the cognitive neurosciences the credibility of daily religious life and practice may be at stake as well: How do humans relate to God as persons who are not mere minds, souls, spirits? Two major issues raised are the validity of revelation and the nature and possibility of religious experience.

There are both scientific and theological reasons for attending to the brain when attempting to understand religious experience. However, Watts resists the question of whether religious experience is caused by the brain or by God. Theological and neurological explanations are complementary; one is free to privilege the level of explanation that is most relevant in a particular context.Watts considers two developments in attempts to understand the involvement of neural processes in religious experience. The first is based on claims that temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) patients have more religious preoccupations than others; this has given rise to the further claim that religious experience should be linked with the neural basis of TLE. However, Watts disputes both the data and this interpretation. A second attempt to link religious experience and the cognitive neurosciences is that of Eugene d’Aquili and colleagues. Watts finds this research of more interest in that it involves a somewhat more sophisticated theory of religious experience and ties it to a theory of more general cognitive functioning - d’Aquili’s theory of “cognitive operators.”Watts’s own thesis is that a truly adequate cognitive theory of religious experience would benefit from attention to analogies between religious and emotional experience. The most valuable cognitive theories of emotion are multi-level, for example, distinguishing the sensory-motor aspects from the interpretation of the experience, and further distinguishing between intuitive perceptions of meaning and the ability to describe the experience propositionally. Watts speculates that this latter distinction, in particular, will shed light on the phenomena of religious life.An attempt to understand the role of God in religious experience will be hampered, according to Watts, by too narrow a focus on “divine action.” Any analogy with human “action” needs to be balanced with other metaphors that keep before our mind the fact that God’s action is constant rather than episodic, interactive rather than controlling. He suggests the concept of “resonance” or “tuning” as an image for understanding the divine-human interaction. Conscience might then be understood in terms of resonance with the will of God.

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