God Speaks

In the previous post, Psychology of Belief, perhaps the most interesting of the videos is this one: Psychology of Belief, Part 6: Hallucinations.

One of the believers in the video said, “God speaks in a whole bunch of different ways”, and there’s the rub. For the believer who avoids inflicting some of the psychological influences on others, do they check to see if they’ve been influenced that way? I think this particular psychological effect is probably the trick that holds it all together, the self-affirmation, the self-reassurance, that all the other psyche effects are in fact valid, because we’ve experienced God speaking to us. But have we?

Being told to listen and God will speak can lead us to interpret that in any way that seems to fit – confirmation bias – and so maybe our own intense feelings are interpreted as God speaking. When we think of how our brains work, using what little we yet know, we have a mechanism that consists of neurons, chemicals and electrical impulses, and out of that come feelings, sub-conscious events, and conscious awareness and thoughts. The latest thinking is that the conscious thoughts we have are the outcome, the awareness that comes to the fore, of other events in the brain; so that conscious thoughts are post-event stories that we use to monitor what the brain is doing and to plan and feedback down to the sub-conscious and the motor areas. This is a mechanism that builds from birth and is something we take from granted as much as speaking – when in the full flow of free conversation we have no idea how the vague notions that we want to express are formed into grammatical words and syntactic sentences, it just happens.

Using this model it seems plausible that we could mistake rising awareness of feelings and sub-conscious thoughts as being from elsewhere. We have so many instances where thoughts just pop into our heads, and if we have the time to consider we sometimes wonder, where did that come from. We notice it most when we’re with someone and we’ve been trying to remember a name but can’t quite get it, so we forget the search, and sometime later up it pops, and we wonder, where did that come from? This particular type of event is so noticeable that we even comment to each other – if I suddenly say the name, ‘out of the blue’, the other person will ask, where did that come from?

Some pop ups have an obvious cause. If I’m thinking about a topic in full concentrations and something comes into my field of vision, or the phone rings, it’s clear that the interruption, the pop up, has an external source. If I suddenly get an itch, or a stomach ache, I know the noticeable has come from my body. But how do we judge were subconscious thoughts and feelings come from. The sudden intense rush of inspiration or insight or overwhelming awe or a divine intervention such as words from God, I think, are all events that occur in the brain through the stimulation of intense thought, the power of stress, or any number neurological stimulations.

That the brain is capable of intense feelings from neurological events is indisputable – that is how the brain works after all. But to put it in context we can think of the images of brain seizures, such as epilepsy, as an extreme case of brain event that is out of control. I’m not say that clinically these inspirational events are the same in any way – I don’t know the neurophysiology of what’s happening – but as an extreme model it seems plausible. The fact that epilepsy has been speculated to be the cause of many recorded events in history is an indication of the similarity, whether it be possession by demons, appearances of visions or words from God.

This video is one in a series on epilepsy. Though this series is focusing on the clinical condition of epilepsy it does give some insight into how the brain can have extreme events; and it’s something like this I’m speculation could be the mode of operation of inspiring brain events – as opposed to real words from God or possession by demons. Which seems more likely? Video #1 is also of interest in this context.

Having a feeling that we are in touch with God, or that we experience God does have a possible neurobiological explanation. There’s the notion of the ‘God module’ in the brain. I missed this Horizon programme. I don’t know to what extent Dr Daniel Giang, neurologist and member of the church, is right in his medical opinion, or to what extent he has confirmation bias. The important point is not that is a module that is specifically for seeing or hearing or experiencing God, but that it is one area of the brain that has several functions, and one apparent effect, possibly a side effect, is that it causes or interprets brain effects as divinely inspired and generally cause the subject to believe in the divine.

The brain has the ability to convince itself of something, even when on another level the subject knows intellectually that his own brain is mistaken. This is a well know example of a woman experiencing a man behind her. Other direct brain stimulations have been recorded as causing familiar songs to be hear in the brain, even though the subject knows there is no music playing. And in another case it has been possible to cause out of body experiences. Out of body experiences can also be induced with VR.

Also, to figure out whether a divine event is real, consider: are you measuring the misses as well as the hits? Or is a cognitive bias persuading you you’re hearing God speak, when it’s your own internal experiences, of yourself. Watch for the auditory illusion towards the end – “You can’t miss it when I tell you what’s there.” To what extent are interpretations of inner messages influenced by religious priming, so that just a ‘feeling’ can be interepreted as divine?

Hearing God speak, either as an auditory signal in the audio cortex, or as a deep emotional experience, doesn’t seem to need divine intervention – the brain can do this all by itself, and convince the subject that it is a divine intervention. If the subject is primed for this it might even be inevitable that the subject is convinced.

9 thoughts on “God Speaks

  1. Yep.. often mistaken my own psychoses or deepest feelings for the voice of God… lots of misses… The misses generally have the characteristic voice of my inner critical parent.However, I do believe that I have occasionally scored some hits, and seen some other hits scores.. specific information in some cases and a sense of calling in other cases.

  2. I take things like believing I was called to be a priest as a hit.. of course I could be wrong, but I had a sense of it for a while and then had a rather strong sense of confirmation in various forms, the first being rather hard to explain other than it being of God and then the others humanly explicable but encouraging nonetheless.

  3. Hi Lesley,I think we can make decisions based on hunches or other influences, and if they turn out right we can attribute our good fortune to the source of the hunch, in your case a calling from God. This in itself is a hit, and therefore you think the attribution to God fits. What about the calling you got from God to be an XYZ (enter 'car mechanic' or anything else you have been or thought of being) that you ignored? I think the notion that you get a strong calling, that you think the calling is from God, you fulfill the calling, and it shows you more about God, is all a self-fulfilling sequence of events.I always wanted to work with computers, from being very young, when they filled a room and could only add up. But the vision, the foresight of what might be was transmitted to me by science fiction and programmes like Tomorrows World. It's turned out better than anticipated because I've worked from home while my kids have been growing up, which was a big unexpected bonus. This is natural inspiration at work though that led me here. A religious person in my position might attribute it to a message from God telling them what is best for them. But does the fact that it took me a few tries to get to this, via engineering and teaching, mean that my callings to those professions were instances of God getting it wrong? Or was I ignoring God then and received his message now? Or maybe one of those professions would have been even better for me, and God is sat there thinking, well Ron, you wouldn't listen? In other words, whatever our story, we could always make it fit the facts. margaretkiaora on your recent Devil post said, "I believe there is a fallen angel we call Satan or The devil because Jesus believed he existed, and thats good enough for me." – which is about as obvious as it gets that people believe what they want to believe. "Why do you think there's a supernatural entity called the Devil?", "Because another supernatural entity (the divine Jesus) said so." – This is using the presuppositions of the divine to confirm the divine, which doesn't really work.

  4. I can understand what you mean, but this call that I speak of is much more urgent and also trying to get me to do something I don't want to do.Most people I know who have experienced a call to priesthood have fought it, ignored it and generally run away until they exhausted themselves and gave in.

  5. Drug and alcohol addiction, Tourette syndrome, the the urge to scratch an itch in public, the reluctance to give up on a bad relationship, being inspired to serve others, are all conditions where subjects feel compelled in some way, so I wouldn't see that being so compelled to become a priest as confirmation of divine persuasion. It's a natural human characteristic. So I still don't understand why it is so convincing.

  6. Yup. I dunno – just get a 'shit, what the f*** is going on feeling.. It is a bit like trying to describe the Muntjak and Wild Boar thing isn't it? Given that it isn't an inch, isn't Tourettes, isn't alcoholism etc, I think it is God..

  7. also if I can add my two-penneth… a calling or a word from God is often confirmed by others who may not have had prior knowledge of the siutation. which I suspect you will call 'coincidence', but at what point does something go past a coincidence and become an unexplained incident? at this point I would believe it is God, especially if the confirmation comes from more than one source.

  8. Hi Red,I think it starts as unexplained incident.Then your evidence of confirmations should be examined – is there any way they could have deduced it from other things you've said, not so directly? Is it a general vibe, given the intensity of the feelings you have, your behaviour, and so on.If it all seems too spooky for coincidence, then I can understand a believer thinking God must have a hand it. But when you think of all the really helpful interventions God could perform; all the prayers that go unanswered. If he really wanted you to be sure of your faith wouldn't he rely on your faith itself to convince you, and the way he communicates with you personally? Does he really need to prompt other people to say, oh, I thought you would, or whatever other confirmations you've had. The idea that God needs to go around planting 'I told you so's in other peoples minds seems pointless, and beyond what such a God would do.But your conviction that all these signs are signs of God only mean something if there's a God in the first place. If there isn't, then they are pure coincidence, or some other effects are going on that you're not aware of. Can you see how circular your affirmations are? If we apply this sort of reasoning to the mundane the fault of the reasoning becomes clear. If I say my local soothsayer tells me a stranger is going to call at my door today, the odds are pretty good, and no one would suddenly think, wow, spot on. And if no one turned up, we'd probably forget the incident and the prediction. I don't know how I could offer any more explanation or alternative possibilities without speaking to the various people involved.

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