Newberg's 'Reality':
Experientially Or Externally Real?
James E Archer

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "James E Archer"
Subject: Re: April Issue Lauds, Tackles Newberg Book
Date: Sunday, May 13, 2001 2:16 AM

Newberg more than thoroughly covered the notion that the experience is "real" for the one experiencing it -- as real as any waking experience, if not more so (if that can be -- but this is the language that the mystics tend to use). But all this got lost for the skeptical reader when the author carried it much further than this by suggesting that the mystical experience might be a way to actually detect a "reality" that we cannot otherwise detect.

Newberg and I both clearly state that his research does not prove the existence of an external reality. But in Newberg's work, this (again) gets lost in his attempts to show the possibility that this could be how a God might relate to humans ("if there is a God," he says repeatedly).

As the final paragraph in the first chapter mentions, how to tell what's real is the very question this entire book raises. It's almost as if the research is relegated to being a backdrop for the epistemological arguments that ensue.

This is a difficult question, indeed, and taxed the limits of my current philosophical education. We welcome further discussion of the philosophical implications of Newberg's work, as our goal was only to scratch the surface of the basic problems with his arguments (this reflecting the limits of our resources at the time). I am looking forward to reading the additional perspectives slated to come from Michael Shermer's camp. Victor Stenger says he will address some of these issues as well, but admits that he doesn't have much if anything to add to what our group has already covered. Over all, I am proud of the work that our team did in addressing the main issues raised by this book, and in putting together probably the most comprehensive critique of the philosophical implications of Newberg's research, as well as the problems with his interpretation of his own work.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

Graphic Rule

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "James E Archer"
Subject: Re: April Issue Lauds, Tackles Newberg Book
Date: Monday, May 14, 2001 3:08 AM

Just remember that at tempting as it may seem to say that this disproves the existence of God, I doubt this does, and I strongly warn against suggesting that it does. If someone can overcome Newberg's objections to this effect, I'd really like to see what they have to say.
 

If it's science, we can each perform the same experiments and get the same results. If we each see something different, it's not science. The only thing scientific about Newberg's experiments is the measured reduction of activity in the orientation association area, and some elements of the descriptions of the mystics (the feeling of being "at one" with [whatever]). What the mystics felt "at one" with varied -- depending, of course, upon the religious presuppositions of the mystic. Although this seems pretty cut-and-dried from a skeptics perspective, we still haven't disposed of Newberg's objections, and we may never dispose of them. The bottom line is that this research does not answer the questions he raises, but they must be addressed from other angles.
 

Worse than that: In order to empirically prove the existence of a creator, we must cough up a creator. In other words, we must develop a way not only for all experimenters to come up with the same results each time, but a way to falsify the hypotheses of God. And given the God claims that have been floating around during recorded history, this we cannot do.
 

We do know that the mystical experience is a function of the nervous system. The question that Newberg raises is a good one: If a God exists, would He need to use the nervous system to communicate with humans? Newberg says yes, and then runs with this concept (although those who posit an incorporeal "soul" would disagree with Newberg on this, and would suggest that God communicates not through the nervous system but via the incorporeal "soul" or "spirit"). Newberg admits, though, that his research is no proof for the existence of God, and openly admits that the "illusion" explanation just might be the right one.

Again, all this gets lost in his attempts to show that it could actually be God or Ultimate Reality that the mystics are experiencing.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

Graphic Rule
Added: May 15, 2001

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "James E Archer"
Subject: Re: April Issue Lauds, Tackles Newberg Book
Date: Tuesday, May 15, 2001 4:34 AM

It doesn't look good for that claim, to be sure, but this research does not undermine the possibility that a "higher power" could be involved, as Newberg points out. He is right when he says that if there is a God, He would be limited to the human nervous system as a means for communicating with humans (unless the "spirit" angle holds weight, a possibility that Newberg completely avoids because that one would work against his suggestions from a religious point of view, and also because Newberg probably thinks his research disproves the "spirit" angle).

However, this research strengthens the argument that mysticism is probably entirely natural. The natural angle is so much an obvious and natural conclusion from this research that Newberg and his camp will have to do some rather intricate spinning to keep this natural conclusion from becoming the popular paradigm, thus discrediting religion itself on a wide scale.

Nevertheless, we will (I think), discredit our own position if we assert that this proves the nonexistence of God: the most we can say is that this is just one less reason to believe that a God exists, and I don't even go that far, because Newberg does have a point in this respect.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

Graphic Rule

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "James E Archer"
Subject: Re: April Issue Lauds, Tackles Newberg Book
Date: Tuesday, May 15, 2001 4:55 AM

You especially cannot empirically disprove an existential claim (a claim that a thing exists). This is why we have the Burden of Proof. Without it, the more unreasonably unassailable a claim is, the more vehemently we would be forced to believe it. You would have to believe my now-famous claim that an invisible green leprechaun lives under my Chicago Cubs cap simply because you cannot prove me wrong. With the Burden of Proof, though, it is my responsibility to bring fourth evidence and strong argument that you ought to believe my claim; otherwise, you have no business believing me.

As an aside, "strong" atheism (sometimes called "positive atheism" but not in the way we use the phrase), does not claim to empirically disprove the existence of God, but uses other means to establish the nonexistence of God as being a claim that is on solid ground.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

Graphic Rule
Added: May 16, 2001

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To:
Subject: Re: April Issue Lauds, Tackles Newberg Book
Date: Wednesday, May 16, 2001 4:12 AM

This is implied in my suggestion that those who believe in a "spirit" would object to Newberg's presupposition that God would necessarily use material means, but would, according to their view, use incorporeal means.

But since Newberg is stumping for the angle that this could be a way for God to commune with humans, it is understandable that he'd avoid mention of these other possibilities. (But you can bet that if he has appeared on any call-in talk shows, he's definitely fielded this objection!)

Also, since Newberg is an unashamed materialist (as is shown in the earlier chapters of his work), this could explain why he might be oblivious to the "spirit" explanation (though I don't think so: methinks he was and is fully aware of the "spirit" objection).

But since the material is the only thing we can show (we can neither prove nor disprove the "spirit" angle), then, using the materialistic premise, Newberg does have a point in saying that since the human "self" is established by the nervous system (the materialist view), even God would need to somehow interact with that nervous system to commune with humans. But those who posit a human "spirit" will most certainly disagree. This is Newberg's most enticing point (even if he's wrong, it's the point he drives home most vividly) and I expect liberal theists (a la Bishop Spong) to run with this one.
 

This is implied in my objection that only very few people ever experience a full-blown mystical state. But what if the function that Newberg describes could be seen as natural? (I see it somewhere between being natural and being an aberration: not a bona fide seizure but not the same as, say, the sense of hearing, or even an orgasm, for that matter.) Even if Newberg's state is not a malfunction (let's grant him that for now), it certainly is not normal in the sense that hardly anybody does this: "Abnormal in the classic sense of abnormality -- out of step! If everybody did this, it would be cool! It would be hip!" (Lenny Bruce at Carnegie Hall).

So, since Newberg's state is the exception rather than the rule, he will be hard-pressed to show that this is the way that God has devised for us to commune with Him. You will have to go back to the style of Timothy Leary and the other Acid Utopians of the last century and suggest that we are still evolving "up[ward," that these "circuits" are latent, that we can expect them to blossom sometime in the future, and that the evidence for their existence is that some adepts have already gotten in touch with these "circuits." (And I can just hear certain New-Agers and Aged Hippies talking like this!) Worse, they might have to revert all the way back to Calvinism and suggest that God developed this "method" but allows only a handful of select individuals to enjoy His fellowship in this manner.

But anybody who tries to say that this function was designed by God so that He could have a means to commune with humans must wiggle around the clear and obvious objection that hardly any humans can even get in touch with this function (if very many can even comprehend what Newberg is trying to say).
 

Obscure? Definitely! Years of practice just to latch on to the technique? and then at least an hour or so just to trigger a single experience? Obscure is just about the right word to describe this one! As with the Pubs of Dublin's where it takes upwards of 15 minutes just to pour a pound of Guinness, this is definitely not something for the instant, push-button culture spoofed by "The Jetsons," but rather comes at a very high price. I can see some counter-arguments along these lines, such as mention of just how long it takes to learn how to talk, etc., but this experience is definitely obscure: "Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it" (the Sermon on the Mount). I cannot foresee any counter-arguments that would directly address the problem of obscurity.

However, I don't know if this is rightly called "ineffective," because those who go there tend never to be the same afterward. It would all depend on what one means by effective. This is the one thing I am almost prepared to grant to Newberg, that those who achieve mystical state tend to come back much less likely to insist that theirs is the only thing going and that the rest of us had better get with the program -- unlike those who have not been there but who merely dogmatize the reports of someone who has been there.

At least, this is what Newberg leads us to believe. I don't know. It would be an interesting study to identify the known mystics throughout history and catalogue their opinions on various issues regarding intolerance, etc., and see if Newberg's suggestions along these lines have any weight (he specifically suggests that the mystical experience and intolerance do not mix). After all, his reports of other matters, such as the health benefits of religion, ended up being very flawed.
 

My only problem, I think, is with the meaning of the word undermine, so I will describe rather than use these words, because I think we're both on the same track.

I think this research poses grave problems for the position that the mystical experience has much if anything to do with the supernatural -- just as Gora's fire-walking extravaganzas almost obliterated the notion that supernatural powers were required in order to walk on hot coals. In other words, the cat is out of the bag. Gora cannot show that religious people don't have the aid of a supernatural being, but his showing that such aid is unnecessary posed grave problems for the notion that there is something supernatural going on during the fire-walk.

I see zero difference between Gora's fire-walk lesson and what Newberg has shown us: these two feats can be performed entirely through natural means. What was once touted as requiring supernatural intervention is now shown to be entirely natural.

However, as powerful as are the implications of this research, all we've really done is show that this particular experience is mechanical and not (necessarily) supernatural. We really cannot go further than this -- any more than Gora can go further than to say that walking on hot coals does not require supernatural powers. Paranoid Evangelical Christians could easily take Newberg's findings and go, "Aha! See? I told you this was Satan's counterfeit of true fellowship with God!" And if this thing is as obscure as all parties have been saying it is, it could go either way without affecting the vast majority of believers one whit. Whether this is natural or God or Satan is merely academic to all but a handful of people who have experienced it (and I can see it being academic for most of them, as well). The fire-walk lesson likewise attracted the attention of many but profoundly affected only a few -- because only a few people were taken in by the fire-walk hucksters.

Newberg's research addresses only the mystical experience, which is just one small (and very obscure) element within the vast array of god claims being made. In other words, as serious as these implications may appear for us (and many others, to be sure), we really cannot say much with this information when it comes to the big picture of the ongoing theism-atheism debate. The bulk of the theism-atheism discussion centers on other issues, most having to do with specific descriptions of particular deities: the Argument from Evil versus monotheism; the Argument from Nonbelief versus Christianity; Evolution and the Big Bang versus the notion of a Creator; the problem of ineffability versus the Hindu godhead; skeptical debunking versus claims of the paranormal. None of these axes even begin to cover the entire discussion; the theism-atheism question does not turn on any one of these axes, at least not for the honest and serious philosopher. What is being impacted here is the mystical experience itself -- and not any comprehensive god claim.

Granted, I think we skeptics stand on more solid ground for calling this a feather in our cap than do the theists for calling it a feather in theirs. But that's really all it is, just one feather -- just one more mystery that was previously explained with that catch-all, three-letter answer for all mysteries: "GOD." We haven't solved all the mysteries, nor have we addressed all the issues with this one. Do I see a trend? Always! Do I draw what many would call the obvious conclusion from this trend? No. I fall short of doing this because I submit to liberal scientific method where all claims to fact are always up for grabs.

But to show that the ultimately intimate mystical experience itself has a natural explanation does have grave implications for theism as a whole. This has more to do with how the public (and our progeny) will see these findings than it does on the philosophical questions themselves. Newberg and his people probably know this, and this is probably why they are literally scrambling to spin his findings the other way. And unfortunately, from what I've heard about various television reports, etc., they seem to be doing a pretty good job.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

Graphic Rule
Added: May 16, 2001

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To:
Subject: Re: April Issue Lauds, Tackles Newberg Book
Date: Wednesday, May 16, 2001 8:47 PM

How true. It is the ones positing a nonmaterial or supernatural scenario who are required to explain why we should assent to the notion of this mechanism (non-mechanism?) which, they tell us, works in addition to what we already know is happening. But if the material explanation that we already have is sufficient to explain what's going on, then we best not add to that unless and until they provide us with powerful reasons for adding to the explanation that we already have.

Creationists can claim any number of things which they say "point to" the existence of a Creator. However, the only way to prove that creation occurred is to cough up a Creator. So if the Big Bang and Evolution sufficiently explain our existence, we best leave it at that unless and until we are given powerful reasons to carry it further. Likewise, if the immaterial is influencing the lives of certain people, they will need to demonstrate that this is a better explanation than what we now have before we are justified in giving it our assent. They can "point to" it all they want, but I think they'll have to do the mystical equivalent of coming up with a Creator if they want to overturn the obvious implications of this research.

And I will not rule out the possibility that they might some day do this. But for now, it does not look good for that camp.

Newberg's toughest argument is the notion that in the mystical experience we have found a way to actually detect this "Ultimate Reality" (or "God"). To do this, he needed to get funny with the very definition of reality and do some interesting gymnastics with the already fuzzy question of how we determine what is real. But to prevail, I think his model will need to overcome more than just a "funny" definition of reality and be able to address more than just his understanding of how we determine reality.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

Graphic Rule
Added: May 22, 2001

Graphic Rule

Material by Cliff Walker (including unsigned editorial commentary) is copyright ©1995-2006 by Cliff Walker. Each submission is copyrighted by its writer, who retains control of the work except that by submitting it to Positive Atheism, permission has been granted to use the material or an edited version: (1) on the Positive Atheism web site; (2) in Positive Atheism Magazine; (3) in subsequent works controlled by Cliff Walker or Positive Atheism Magazine (including published or posted compilations). Excerpts not exceeding 500 words are allowed provided the proper copyright notice is affixed. Other use requires permission; Positive Atheism will work to protect the rights of all who submit their writings to us.