by Patrick Lewin
from Signs of the Times No. 27 - Oct 2007
[Other parts: • part 1part 2part 3part 4part 6]

An unforgettable etching shows a philosopher standing robed in his study, surrounded by books, scientific instruments, and a globe, staring into a mirror. Caption: 'His one insoluble problem.' Who am I? What makes me tick?

Neurologists are helping us towards an answer but disagree among themselves about the significance of experiments carried out by Benjamin Libet and reported in Vol. 6 of The Journal of Consciousness Studies, also published in hardback as The Volitional Brain, 1999. Volunteers looking at a spot of light revolving on an oscilloscope marked like a clock were asked to flick or flex their right wrist at a time of their choosing. The evidence showed their brains had begun to ready the requisite muscles half a second before they consciously chose to act.

Libet's theory is that the brain, receiving input from all the senses, takes that time to organize this into a message sent to our much narrower consciousness and it's generally best to do what the brain suggests, though we do have a momentary right of veto. How else explain the familiar experience of driving along a main road, our mind miles away, and then something happens further up the road and we are immediately alert and ready to take the appropriate action?

Neurologists who dispute the significance of Libet's experiments point out that the volunteers knew in advance they were to act. Real life experience indicates both sides are wrong. The higher brain may organize what is sent to our consciousness but in a crisis there is often no right of veto. Richard Hammond's brain last year had no control of the jet-car once it took off at close to 300 mph.

But in practice for the 8th East African Safari in 1960 an event occurred that could have been fatal. Travelling fast on a dark night along a winding escarpment, a rock wall on the left and a sheer drop to the right, a driver was keeping within the limit of his lights, which included a long beam spotlight and a wide-angle fog lamp, when suddenly all four lights cut out and he could see nothing at all through the windscreen. At that moment, completely calm, he saw his right hand come off the steering wheel, travel down the steering column and flick the dip switch. The dip lights worked, he slowed down, and when half an hour later at the next stop he switched off the engine he heard a strange noise to his left. It was the navigator's teeth, still chattering.

On another occasion he was driving during rush hour in Nairobi when the accelerator jammed and the car leapt forwards towards the main avenue at a T-junction. The brain may have organized the simple solution and readied the muscles but he leant forward and switched the engine off as he applied the brakes. He didn't just sit there and watch himself do it.

Reading Tør Nortrander's fascinating book, The User Illusion, 1998, which gives other examples of what has happened in real life, enabled him to understand in detail what had been going on in his brain on the escarpment. The brain saw that the dashboard lights were still on so the whole electrical system hadn't failed. There must have been a sudden spike which blew the delicate bulbs that were switched on. What bulbs at the front were not switched on? The dip bulbs. But it took time to work that out, so instead of giving what may be thought of as the personal 'I' a choice it simply acted while the personal 'I' calmly and passively watched. A right of veto then would have been a fatal luxury.

Which would we prefer, the uncomfortable truth or the comfortable untruth? We know the answer expected. What some may not know is that if in reality we prefer the comfortable untruth it may not be the personal 'I' that does the choosing but the whole higher brain, dedicated to protecting us. Many older people lack the energy to be patient and and those at any age may become inflexible. They oppose change so Death remains the great reformer.

Religion, superstition and magic

Magic has two connections with religion. Magic is contrasted with religion when, rather than seek to do God's will, we seek to persuade God to do ours. In primitive sympathetic magic, rituals were conducted at a sacred shrine so that a god or the gods would fertilize the soil, leading to an abundant harvest. Then there is the placebo effect. Religion is a powerful comforter and uplifter but if all the rituals and prayers for miracles were abandoned it would lose its hold on us. Only a small minority of humankind is as yet equipped with enough knowledge of the world's workings and a theology not at odds with modern science to be able to face reality without the comfort and inspiration of traditional beliefs.

There's a fine line between religion and superstition and it's often hard to know if one has crossed it. Luke's version of Paul's most famous speech begins, 'Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.' (Acts 17.22) But the Greek can also be translated, 'I perceive that in all things you are too superstitious.' Just conceivably Paul was being provocative or thought he'd begin by making them laugh, but competent translators think that improbable, it being the custom of Greek historians to make up speeches thought appropriate to the occasion.

But what is one to make of sincere accounts of religious experiences with life-changing effects? Take that of Hugh Montefiore as a Jewish boarder at Rugby, which he wrote about more than once. He believed that when he was 16 and in his study alone one afternoon Jesus appeared to him, clothed in white, and said 'Follow me'. As he wrote in On Being a Jewish Christian, 'In the morning, I was a Jew and by the evening I was a Christian.' He went on to become a bishop. Why not put it down to a psychological experience in a Christian school? In an essay in Christian Believing, 1976, he described it as 'a sudden and intimately personal experience irrupting into consciousness...  I could not accept [it] was delusory...  any interpretation which denies its transcendental origin is for me inadequate.'

From earliest times the accounts are legion. We may have had one or more ourselves. A boy of seven was in his bedroom upstairs having an enforced siesta after lunch on a sunny afternoon in the highlands of Kenya. Thinking of how much he enjoyed the thunderous roar of a tropical cloudburst on a corrugated iron roof, he asked God to make it rain. The roof was tiled and there was no thunder and lightning but in next to no time his request was granted. He wasn't surprised. It was the first genuine prayer of his life and everyone knew God answered prayers. He didn't even say Thank you.

But he didn't tell anyone and he asked for nothing again until the first real crisis of his life, when at Oxford. (Answered too, in its way, without miracle.) Only more than thirty years later did he realize what probably happened. Bands of rain in the tropics can often be seen moving along while the sun is shining, the vertical leading edge clearly marked. He had either heard the rain or smelt it, or both. That experience was part of what in time led him to take religion seriously, but only a small part.

So much that happens in our lives is outside our control. Our genetic inheritance, our parents, in most cases hugely influential, people we meet by chance, random events. Robert Walton in a fine short book, The Roots of Experience, 1965, tilted at a sacred cow. 'The Gifford Lectures delivered by William James [The Varieties of Religious Experience, 1902] have been regarded for more than half a century as a standard work on the subject. They are, however, misleading and perverse because the total impression left upon the reader is that religion must be a very odd affair...  They often reveal abnormal psychological states: that they throw any light upon the essential characteristics of religious experience is highly doubtful...  The experience of the religious man is, basically, everyday experience.' As M. V. C. Jeffreys had put it in Glaucon, 1950: 'Religious experience is normal experience understood at fullest depth. What makes truth religious is not that it relates to some special area of life, but that it goes to the roots of the experience which it interprets.'

Are visions self-authenticating? Clearly not. 'The neurotic builds castles in the air. The psychotic lives in them. And the psychiatrist collects the rent.' 'By their fruits ye shall know them,' but the fruitcake and the psychopath may be the last to know.

Passion overmasters reason. Keeping prejudice at bay and ourselves open and welcoming to new truth is a life's work.

[Other parts: • part 1part 2part 3part 4part 6]

Patrick Lewin was convenor and chair of a philosophical society and is a Modern Church council member.