Faith - Part 1
Posted December 3, 2010
The case of demonic possession
We say that Krsna consciousness is a science, but it is certainly a faith as well, as is what we call science… Scientists believe that the atom is composed of neutrons, protons and electrons, not because they have seen it, but because that model supports the data and allows for a predictable interpretation of it. If they did not have that faith, and always doubted that the data could be interpreted by using another model, then they would be always at square one, instead of finding ways that the science can be used in the service of humanity, as many scientists do now. Considering this, it appears that both scientists and believers are counted in the ranks of the faithful. What we call religion and science is not about faith or lack of it, but how one directs one’s faith according to one’s desire- either to disprove God, Spirits, and Angels, or to prove them… or neither.
This series on faith is about challenges to one’s faith-- for faith, like a muscle, becomes stronger when it is challenged. Therefore, Prabhupada pushed his new disciples into the preaching arena, knowing well that they would not know how to meet each challenge, but that they would become strong by rising to it. In an effort to protect one’s faith, sometimes we act irrationally, and discard scientific discoveries that oppose our faith as “the result of faulty senses”, and don’t do the same for discoveries that support it. But if one considers them seriously, and challenges oneself through them, then one’s faith becomes stronger, and more meaningful for oneself, and more convincing to others.
I found myself challenged thus, when watching a documentary about the true story behind the film “The Exorcism” and its scientific interpretation, using the “latest findings” in how the brain works. Most of the documentary was about what actually happened as witnessed by many people- inert objects shaking, being thrown about or levitating; welts appearing on the body, forming words; extraordinary physical strength in the possessed figure of this slight, 13-year-old boy. I have had experience of such forces myself, in the past- being attacked by them, but not possessed- and the evil, violence and hatred was so real that I was certain of it, and suffered tremendously. I prayed that if Krsna consciousness is real and right for me, the evil forces would stop their attack. They did, and for thirty years I have not felt their effect. Similarly through sincere prayer to the Lord and angels, to rid the boy of the demons, he actually returned to full health, led a normal life, and now works for NASA, his identity being protected by the film-makers by change of name, gender etc.
These events were interpreted by a neurosurgeon to be the result of brain activity and nothing to do with supernatural forces. He “proved” this in an experiment by stimulating, electrically, the part of the brain that becomes active when one is undergoing a religious or supernatural experience. He did this to a large group of people, and 80% of them had a supernatural experience- according to their faith. Some had an experience of Jesus, or God, but some also had an experience of intensely malevolent beings attacking them. Thus, he argued, even what appears so very real, is nothing but the discharge of electrical activity in the brain, making it appear real. There is nothing there, only neural activity.
This argument, however, can be turned on its head. The experience of sensations we consider real are also accompanied by brain activity- the sight of a loved one is accompanied by activity in one part of the brain, the smell of food in another- all real events and objects are accompanied by corresponding brain activity, and experienced and interpreted by us in that way. Since both real and imagined sensations are experienced through brain activity, then brain activity accompanying a religious or supernatural experience does not prove or disprove it. All it indicates is that we are experiencing something.
But in this case, neural activity did not just accompany religious experience, or be the result of it, it appeared to actually cause it. When the experimenter stimulated the same part of the brain that spontaneously becomes stimulated when one has a supernatural experience, the supernatural experience was felt, and so the experimenter thought this was proof that the electrical discharge caused the experience, and nothing supernatural. However, real objects, appearing before our sight, also cause electrical activity in the brain, through which we experience their existence. To do the experiment properly, one would have to stimulate that part of the brain that becomes active when we see a real object, such as an apple, without the real object being there, and ask if the real object was seen. This would indicate whether the electrical activity causes the sensation of something being there, independent of the object being there, in fact.
Thus, the experiment was incomplete and simply proved what is undisputed- experiences both factual and imagined, are felt via the machinery of the brain. But it also points to the fact that something real and factual originally causes the electrical activity, which then causes the experience. In the case of the experiment, the cause of electrical activity was the person conducting the experiment. In normal daily life, such as the case of seeing an apple, it is the apple’s existence which causes the electrical activity to cause the experience of it being there. In the case of a dream of seeing an apple, it is the prior experience of the brain activity associated with seeing the apple, being experienced again via the brain. Again the experience of seeing an apple, a real object, is the original cause.
What of a religious experience, something one has not encountered in “real life” before, specifically experiencing the presence of a being of exceptional violence, evil and hatred-- or one of unbounded love? Unlike a dream, it is not prior experiences being experienced again in a processing fashion, via the brain, and unlike a dream, it is not accompanied by a shutting off of awareness of “real objects”. I, and others who have experienced the supernatural, can attest to this fact- one sees everything in the room, in a waking state, and also the supernatural being/s.
If all brain activity in the area of perception of form is either the direct (waking) or indirect (dreaming) result of real objects, then perception of the supernatural form by the brain is proof that it exists. In either waking, dreaming or under experimentation, something causes the sensation of form. Artificially, a scientist may stimulate the part of the brain that is stimulated when one experiences supernatural form or real form- he is doing the stimulating, creating an illusion of perception. But what of religious or supernatural experiences that happen when there is no one intervening-. what is causing the experience then? Certainly drugs can alter brain activity, but neither I nor the boy were under such influence. Drugs tamper with the brain, much as the experimenter did, and cause that to appear which is not there, in fact. In all cases, from the experimenter, from the drugs, or from a real object (present or past), there is always a cause to the electrical activity and the sensations experienced from it. In the absence of interference with brain activity, it is to be assumed that what is being experienced is indicative of something out there, indicative of reality.
Other aspects of the case of demoniac possession met with even more constrained interpretations from the scientific community. The welts on the boy’s body which formed words, were given to be interpretations of a reality which was quite different- simply random welts caused by the boy being restrained. An example was given by a picture of a particular tree, the bark of which appears to resemble the Virgin Mary to the religious, and simply a tree to others. However, all read the same words from the welts- there was no one who took them to be random welts, so the comparison is inappropriate. The moving objects were all taken to be the effects of belief as well- one expects them to move, because one believes the boy is possessed. However, this was a family that was modern, and had a hard time even believing that possession was possible, what to speak of it causing objects to be thrown on the floor and around the room
These are interpretations of the blindly faithful, non-seekers of truth, who have concluded something to be true- in this case, they concluded, a priori, that only that which follows the accepted laws of physics is real- and trash all evidence to the contrary. Ironically, they are regarded as scientists, and those who accepted the evidence as it was, un-interpreted, as believers…
It is not a question of faith or non-faith. Everyone has faith, but some want to believe in the existence of God, angels, and demons, and some don’t want to, and they interpret data accordingly. Real faith that is not blind, is achieved when one is willing to look at all evidence with equal interest and curiosity, putting aside both hope for the afterlife, or fear of it, and simply be after truth. That is a rare state to be in, but is something we must all strive towards, for the topmost devotee has faith of a specific kind- faith that is not blind.
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