International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience

by Eugene G. D'Aquili , Andrew B. Newberg

Introductory Essay by Shiva Khalili

This book belongs to a series of volumes contributing to the dialogue between theology and the sciences. The authors intend to develop the concept of neurotheology which refers to the study of theology from a neuropsychological perspective. 

The book has three parts. The first part provides basic information about the brain and central nervous system. The authors start with the presumption that the mind is the product of the functioning of the brain. To avoid dualism, d’Aquili and Newberg adopt the term “mind/brain”. The subjectivity/objectivity problem remains an issue throughout the whole book – in the study of objective brain states generating the subjective experiences, and in the last part where the authors look for criteria for reality (and so for the existence of God).

The authors suggest that since the brain and “mystical” mind generate, experience and interpret religious phenomena, understanding theology is intertwined with the understanding of mind/brain.

In the second part, the authors present a theoretical model of the neurophysiological mechanisms underlying various religious states. They describe how the mind/brain generates consciousness, myths, mystical states, religious rituals, near death experiences and culture. The role of these states and capabilities in the evolution of human beings is also discussed. 

In the third part, the authors explain different definitions of religion as the functioning of the mind/brain’s causal, binary and holistic operators and of other brain structures. The “cognitive imperative”, based on the ingrained need in human beings to organize their world cognitively, is a general function of the mind/brain. It generates myths and necessarily begins to analyze such myths rationally, which leads to the creation of theology. Theological concepts such as free will and first cause are explained as functions of different cognitive operators and association areas and are broken down into their neuropsychological components.

The authors then claim that the phenomenon of absolute unitary being (AUB), which is experienced as a state of pure awareness without the self-other dichotomy or any content, can be regarded as more real than the baseline reality of everyday life. AUB is generated by deafferentation of areas of the parietal lobe and differs from hallucinations or dreams which are later referred to as inferior to the baseline reality by individuals who have experienced them. AUBs can be found cross-culturally in the mystical literature of all the world’s great religions. The authors conclude that the starting point for criteria for reality and the choice between external reality and subjective consciousness can be seen as well in AUB. Each choice will lead to a theological conclusion: God (AUB) is generated by the world (the brain and the rest of nervous system) and the world is created by God.

The authors argue that neurotheology can be developed to a metatheology, explaining the myths, rituals and logical systems of the entire range of world religions and theologies based upon the function of the mind/brain. Finally, neuropsychological analysis can form the basis of a megatheology (i.e. a universal theology), that could be adopted by the world's great religions as a basic element without any serious violation of their essential doctrines.

The mystical mind opens an exciting dialogue between science and theology on issues of the human experience of God and the human-God relationship. However the metaphysical approach of neurotheology towards the question of the existence of a real God – one that exists not only in the mind of the human – is one that remains open in The Mystical Mind and will present this field as a chance and/or challenge for theology.