The Phantom God: What Neuroscience Reveals about the Compulsion to Believe (Hardcover)
Does neuroscience have anything to say about religious belief or the existence of God? Some have tried to answer this question, but, in doing so, most have strayed from the scientific method. In The Phantom God, computational biologist and neuroscientist John C. Wathey, Ph.D., tackles this problem head-on, exploring religious feelings not as the direct perception by the brain of some supernatural realm, nor as the pathological misfiring of neurons, but as a natural consequence of how our brains are wired. Unlike other neurobiological studies of religion and spirituality, The Phantom God treats mysticism not as something uniquely human and possibly supernatural in origin, but as a completely natural phenomenon that has behavioral and evolutionary roots that can be traced far back into our vertebrate ancestry. Grounded in evolutionary and behavioral biology, this highly original and compelling book takes the reader on a journey through the neural circuitry of crying, innate knowledge, reinforcement learning, emotional bonding, embodiment, interpersonal perception, and the ineffable feeling of certainty that characterizes faith. Wathey argues that the feeling of God's presence is spawned by innate neural circuitry, similar to the mechanism that compels an infant to cry out for its mother. In an adult, this circuitry can be activated under conditions that mimic the extreme desperation and helplessness of infancy, generating the compelling illusion of the presence of a loving, powerful, and all-knowing savior. When seen from this perspective, the illusion also appears remarkably like one that has long been familiar to neurologists: the phantom limb of the amputee, spawned by the expectation of the patient's brain that the missing limb should still be there. Including a primer on the basic concepts and terminology of neuroscience, The Phantom God details the neural mechanisms behind the illusions and emotions of spiritual experience.
John C. Wathey, Ph.D., is a computational biologist whose research interests include evolutionary algorithms, protein folding, and the biology of nervous systems. Previously, he was a senior applications scientist at Biosym Technologies (now named Biovia), a company that develops molecular modeling software for the pharmaceutical industry. He then founded his own business, Wathey Research, and since that time most of his scientific research was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health. Wathey has published his peer-reviewed research results in distinguished scientific journals, including Biophysical Journal, Journal of Neuroscience; Brain, Behavior and Evolution, and Neuroscience Letters, among others. He is the author of The Illusion of God's Presence: The Biological Origins of Spiritual Longing and has published popular articles in the Huffington Post, Skeptic Magazine, and The Jonestown Report. For more information, visit https: //www.watheyresearch.com/.