Thursday, March 03, 2005

The God Gene - Part 1

Near the very beginning of a Belief.net article
about the God gene, Dr. Hammer, a molecular
biologist by trade, is talking about an inherited
capacity for spirituality. The very first problem
that I see with this idea is that it seeks to
reduce spirituality down to material or physical
phenomena. Even if one were to assume, for the
sake of argument, that there is a genetic component
to spirituality, why should one suppose this
component is causal or essential in nature, as
opposed to being merely modulatory, in some way?

For example, Dr. Hammer discusses the gene VMAT2,
which stands for 'vesicular monoamine transporter
no. 2. There are a number of different kinds of
neurotransmitters associated with monoamine production
- among them are: serotonin, norepenephrine, and
dopamine. ... all of which are mentioned in the
article.

Many of these kind of neurotransmitters play a
role in coloring mood, but, some of them also are
implicated in psychotic symptoms. Thus, one theory
of schizophrenia is that some of the symptoms such
as hallucinations and problematic affect (either
too much, or too little) may be the result of an
excess of dopamine. When neuroleptic drugs are
given, these drugs affect the quantity and flow
of the dopamine neurotransmitter.

What is not explained in such theories is how
the chemical imbalance came to be in the first
place. Excess dopamine production is the result
of something else causing such a anomaly within
brain biochemistry, and, as such, it does not
represent the cause of schizophrenia.

Staying, for the moment, with schizophrenia,
there have been a number of genetic studies
done in conjunction with this disorder. What
they have found can be summarized in the
following way:

(1) if you have a sibling or parent with
schizophrenia, your chances are one in ten
of also having schizophrenia;

(2) among identical twins, irrespective of
whether they are raised together or apart,
if one of them suffers from schizophrenia,
the likelihood that the other twin will
also suffer from schizophrenia is one in two;

(3) if one has an identical twin with
schizophrenia, the odds are six in ten
that the co-twin will be similarly
afflicted if they shared a single
placenta while in the uterus;

(4) adopted children who are raised
by someone who develops schizophrenia
very rarely develop schizophrenia.

Taken together, the foregoing suggests there
may be a strong genetic component to the
etiology of schizophrenia. However, item
2 and 3 both indicate that genetics is not
enough to explain the presence of schizophreina
- for, if this were the case, then, 100 % of
the co-twins would be schizophrenic if the
other twin suffered from schizophrenia, and
this is not the case.

Item (3) above indicates that a cause of
schizophrenia may have something to do with
what is trasnmitted via the placenta during
pregnacy. One suggestion in this regard
involves an, as yet, unidentified viral
agent which is passed from mother to child
(children) via the placenta.

Consequently, although genetics may predispose
us to certain conditions, so does life. To say
that genetic factors are correlated with psychotic
disorders and/or spirituality says absolutely
nothing about the causal mechanism.

Identical twins share precisely the same genetic
structure. Yet, not all twins will manifest the
same mental, emotional, or medical condition,
and, therefore, the answer - even in cases as
well-researched as schizophrenia - tend to be
quite complicated and messy.

Spirituality is more than mood. It encompasses
knowledge, understanding, intention, character,
identity, and behavior as well. Are we to suppose
that VMAT2 - the so-called 'God gene' is responsible
for these other dimensions of being as well?

The human brain consists of billions of neurons,
and these billions of neurons are interconnected
by billions of more synaptic junctions which
constitute the microscopic spaces where neurons
exchange information in the form of neurotransmitters.
What neurotransmitters are to be released from these
axon terminals, and in what quantities, and when,
and for how long, and whether or not such
neurotransmitters are to be reabsorbed (called
re-uptake) back into a neuron, and so on is an
enormously complicated business which scientists
are not even remotely close to resolving into a
clear picture.

The flow of neurotransmitters is a function, in
part, of the summation histories involving the
firings of billions and billions of action potentials
within the neurons of the brain. When certain threshold
levels are reached, neurons fire, and when such levels
are not attained, then, the firing of neurons is
inhibited (no one knows, yet, how these threshold
values come to be established for different neurons).

Then, one can really throw a monkey wrench into the
grand theorizing which goes on concerning the biochemistry
of the brain when one considers the work of John Lorber
who, among other things, studied people suffering from
hydrocephalus which arises when the ventricles in the
brain become blocked in some manner, thereby preventing
the flow of continuous circulation of cerebral-spinal
fluid.

Instead, what happens in people with this condition
is that the blocked cerebral-spinal fluid begins to
accumulate within the ventricles of the brain. In
time, the brain begins to be squeezed against the
skull, and if this goes on long enough, the brain
is almost compressed out of existence, with just
a thin millimeter- thick residue left lining the
interior of the skull ... the rest of the skull
cavity is filled with cerebral-spinal fluid.

Usually, these individuals suffer from profound
mental retardation. However, Lorber came across
a few people who, despite having no brains,
functioned quite well - in fact, one of them
was an honors graduate in mathematics from
Cambridge University in England. Articles
about this were written back in the 1970s-1980s
with titles like: "Do you need a brain to think?",
and they appeared in such prestigious journals as
Science.

So, even if one were to come up with a theory which
captured the entire neurochemistry and physiology
of the brain so that one could trace from beginning
to end how different thoughts, emotions, and behaviors
came into existence, one would still have to account
for the fact that such theories don't apply to those
people who, seemingly, function quite well without
the complexities of action potentials, neurotransmitters,
and synaptic junctions.

Dr. Hammer talks about the implications of VMAT2 for
the idea of spirituality. Taken out of context, this
fact seems interesting. Placed in context, and one
has to wonder just what it is that he thinks he has
discovered with respect to the issue of human beings
and spirituality.

The good doctor speaks about the use of a
"self-transcendence scale" He describes how the scale
actually consists of three sub-scales.

He says that this scale seeks to measure a person's
sense of at oneness with the universe in a way that
is independent of religious beliefs. Dr. Hammer goes
on to say that the self-transcendence scale actually
consists of three different sub-scales.

One of these sub-scales is known as: self-forgetfulness
which purports to be an index of an individual's capacity
to "completely lose themselves in what they’re doing",
both with respect to everyday activities, as well as
in relation to spiritual activities. According to Dr.
Hammer, those who score high on self-transcendence
tend to be less preoccupied with themselves while
being more focused on everything outside of themselves.
In addition, those who score high on the self-transcendence
scales "see the connections to things".

Aside from glossing over precisely what "connections"
are being seen by such self-transcendent ones, and
whether, or not, there is any relation between such
connections and the 'truth' or reality of things, one
might also question the whole manner in which self-
forgetfulness is being characterized. For example,
why should one accept the idea that someone who has
forgotten oneself should automatically be more focused
on everything outside of oneself?

The condition of fana is not a matter of being more
aware of either oneself or the external world. Rather,
the condition of fana has been characterized as being
such that the presence of Divinity is so overwhelming
that both one's sense of self and the external world
are eclipsed ... there is only awareness of Divinity,
nothing else.

One also wonders what sort of set of neurotransmitter
transmissions via VMAT2 - the God gene - give expression
to the condition of fana? Perhaps, just as one can speak
about a television's capacity to receive signals without
confusing that capacity with the signals, which are quite
independent of the television set, being interpreted by
the television set, so too, maybe, while VMAT2 affects
- to some degree - the quality of the signal being received,
it does not cause the signal ... and, more importantly,
the existence of VMAT2 does not preclude the possibility
that many, many, many other factors - both material and
non-material - may also be affecting the experience of
the 'signal' to which the Divine gives arise.

According to Dr. Hammer, "The best interpretation is
that the monoamines are affecting higher consciousness.
By higher consciousness, I mean the way that we perceive
the world around us and our connection to it."

"Affecting higher consciousness" is not the same thing
as causing higher consciousness. One can, if one wishes,
permit VMAT2 to have a modulating role without, in any
way, supposing that it plays a central or causal role
with respect to spirituality.

Eating too much, or sleeping too much, or being with
people too much, or being too self-involved can all
affect higher consciousness. This is why there is
something called "suluk" (spiritual journeying) which
encompasses, among other things, a discipline for
trying to suppress the problematic modulating effects
on higher consciousness which such activities have.
However, trying to reduce this all down to the
activities of the VMAT2 gene seems ultra-reductionistic
and with limited heuristic value as far as coming to
understand the essential nature of spirituality is
concerned.

According to Dr. Hammer, a second component of the
'self-transcendence" index is suppose to involve a
psychic element known as "transpersonal identification."
This is said to refer to having a sense of unity with
the rest of the universe.

Leaving aside, for the moment, the question of why
one should refer to this sense of oneness with the
universe as a psychic element - thereby confusing
the occult with the mystical - let us assume that
I have such a feeling. Or, let us suppose that I
answer all the items on the 'self- transcendence'
index which suggests that I have a sense of being
one with the rest of the universe.

Let's ask a question about this. What is the
reality of my sense of things?

By this, I am not asking whether, or not, we are
at one with the rest of the universe because the
basic truth is that there is only Divinity and,
therefore, it is impossible to be other than one
with the universe. Instead, the aforementioned
question is about whether or not I have realized
the spiritual station of oneness with the rest
of the universe and, as a result, I am in a
position to draw upon the knowledge, insights,
wisdom, discipline, stations, and behaviors
which are made possible by such a realization.

I am willing to wager that if one were to have
a billion people undergo the self-transcendence
index talked about by Dr. Hammer, then, at best,
not more than a very few might actually be able
to walk the walk and not just talk the talk.
Furthermore, it strikes me that someone who was
actually realized would not be much interested
in taking such a test in the first place.

People tend to be very poor judges of where
they are - in reality - spiritually speaking.
This is one of the reasons why authentic guides
are necessary since, among other reasons, as
Hazrat 'Ali (may Allah be pleased with him) has
indicated, the one who would step onto the mystical
path without an authentic guide has Iblis for a
guide - and, undoubtedly, Iblis counsels many
people to interpret the results of an index
like the self-transcendence to mean that when
they feel or believe they are one with the
universe, then, they should assume that they
have actually realized this condition.

Dr. Hammer also speaks about a third sub-scale
of the self-transcendence index which is known
as “mysticism” or “spiritual acceptance”.
According to Dr. Hammer, this sub-scale
touches upon such things as one’s belief
about whether, or not, everything can be
explained by science, or whether one is
open to the idea of phenomena such as ESP,
or whether one feels that one’s life has
been changed by mysticism.

Again, one might ask the question of what,
if anything, such a sub-scale has to do
with either spirituality or mysticism -
as a reality and not just a belief system.

One doesn’t even have to touch upon the
issue of mysticism in order to be able
to agree that there are all kinds of
things which science cannot explain.
For instance, science can’t explain
consciousness, or intelligence, or
creativity. In fact, science can’t
explain the very processes which are
used by human beings to do science
... how do ideas come into being? From
where do insights come? What is the source
of logic? What makes talents such as art,
music, writing, and invention possible? How
is langauge possible?

Science is often very good with setting up
linear systems of mathematical description
which are capable of reflecting some of the
facets of experience to an extent where certain
kinds of limited problems can be solved.
Unfortunately, most of the physical universe
is non-linear in nature, not linear, and, as
a result, much of science - despite all of
its accomplishments - is, for the most part
looking at reality from the outside, in a
rather limited fashion.

Once one throws spirituality and mystical
issues into the fray, things get really
confusing and problematic ... Very quickly.
Science can’t proceed unless one accepts its
assumptions that spirituality is a physical
phenomenon and that material instruments
(whether physical or mathematical) can be
devised which are capable of accurately
probing the realm of spirituality.

If spirituality is not a physical phenomenon,
then, what good is a discipline which demands
that everything be reducible to physical phenomena
before one proceeds. One cannot assume one’s
conclusions, and if spirituality is a non-material
set of phenomena, then, there is absolutely nothing
which modern science, as presently conceived, has
anything of value to say about such matters - and,
of course, this explains why so many scientists are
so insistent on either reducing spirituality down
to material/physical phenomena, or dismissing all
things spiritual as being unscientific.

This sort of dismissal of spirituality is supposed
to have import. After all, if something is not
scientific, then, it’s reality is not worth pursuing
and the ‘substantive’ nature of such phenomena does
not belong in the realm of the important discourse
of the sciences.

How self-serving of scientists - they discover
a phenomenon which is entirely beyond their capacity
to understand or even study with their methods and
instruments, and, so, they relegate such phenomena
to the dust bin of the trivial, uninteresting,
unreal, and/or unimportant.

Or, they do a condescending two-step dance in
which they say that although spirituality is not
unimportant but just not scientific, and, therefore,
not of much value when it comes to trying to
understand fundamental things about real issues.
Many scientists are like the drunk who was seen
crawling around beneath a street lamp looking for
his keys and when asked if that is where he lost
them, he replies: “No, but this is the only place
where there is light.”

Dr. Hammer indicates that scientists rounded up a
bunch of people and had them take the self-transcendence
measure. These researchers, then, scoured the genes of
such individuals looking for differences, and they found
that the gene VMAT2 was correlated with people who also
scored high on the aforementioned self-transcendence
index. The monoamines which are synthesized through the
activation of this gene have, according to Dr. Hammer
“a lot to do with emotional sensitivity.”

Now, apparently, spirituality is to be defined as
being a function of “emotional sensitivity.”In fact,
the neurotransmitters which are synthesized through the
activation of the VMAT2 gene (and, remember, nothing has
been said about what causes a VMAT2 gene to become
synthesized in the first place, and, so, at, best, VMAT2
activation is a result of something else, and not a cause
of anything in and of itself) are implicated in a lot
of different functions - not just emotional sensitivity.

For example, dopamine is involved in the regulation of
muscle movement. That is, in order for muscles to be used
in a controlled fashion, there must be adequate supplies
of dopamine available.

Tardive dyskinesia is an affliction which is caused by the
way in which certain drugs - for example, chlorpromazine,
a 1st-generation neuroleptic given to schizophrenics -
depletes the supply of dopamine in the brain. So, while
the depletion of dopamine does seem to help reduce certain
symptoms of schizophrenia (such as auditory hallucinations),
unfortunately, in the process it also may interfere with
normal muscle functioning, and, consequently, in some
patients who are given such dopamine-depleting drugs, they
develop uncontrollable tics and tremors.

This is an irreversible process. Once the damage is done,
its results remain even if the person discontinues taking
the drug.

To oversimplify mysticism and spirituality as merely
variations on a condition of emotional sensitivity - as
Dr. Hammer does - is one problem - a huge one. To
oversimplify neurochemistry and to say that monoamines
only function as mood stabilizers - as Dr. Hammer does
- is another big problem. To fail to say anything about
whether the group of people who were rounded up for the
self-transcendence/VMAT2 gene correlational study was a
randomly selected group and, therefore, capable of,
possibly, reflecting something about populations in
general is a third problem. To fail to note - as Dr.
Hammer failed to do in the article - that correlation
is not necessarily an index of causation is a forth
problem. And, to try to claim that the self-transcendence
index is an accurate measure of spirituality or mysticism
is a fifth problem - also very huge.

Toward the end of the interview with Dr. Hammer, the
person conducting the interview asks why the doctor
does not wish to use the VMAT2/self-transcendence
study as a basis for saying anything about the
existence of God. Dr. Hammer replies that he feels
that such research is really agnostic with respect
to the question of whether spirituality is all in
the mind or due to the presence of some higher power.
He goes on to point out that the research concerning
the so-called God gene is really only about the way
in which the mind operates and, as a result, perceives
things.

I remember when I was going through an oral defense
of my honors thesis when I was undergraduate. One of
my examiners was Robert Rosenthall known for, among
other things, the Pygmalion Effect fame (roughly,
and over-simplistically, the expectations of teachers
concerning students influences both student performance
as well as the evaluation of such performance) who, at
one point, in response to something I said in conjunction
with the issue of proving God’s existence, said words to
the effect of: “To prove the existence of God, all one
has to do is take a group of people and ask them whether
they believe in God.” I replied that this didn’t prove
the existence of God, it only proved what people believed
about the idea of the existence of God.

Similarly, the whole idea of the ‘God-gene’ really has
not much to do with anything. At best, it reflects the
beliefs of some researchers, such as Dr. Hammer, about
their interpretation of that research concerning the
correlation of the VMAT2 gene and how people score on
a self-transcendence scale.

The short version of their understanding is this: there
is a gene (VMAT2) which, when called upon to do so by
some other dimension of the human being, synthesizes
monoamines that, under some circumstances, have been
implicated in affecting mood, and, possibly, emotional
reactivity. In addition, there are certain people who
score highly on one, or more, of the sub-scales of a
self- transcendence index who, statistically, have been
shown to being correlated with (and no indication was
given in the interview of just what the strength of
this correlation was, so we have no way of knowing if
where it was between 0 and +1) with people who also have
the VMAT2 gene.

It is only the worst kind of loose use of language,
scientific methodology, and extrapolation which results
in calling VMAT2, the ‘God gene’. The gene really has
not been shown to have anything to do with spirituality,
mysticism, transcendence, or anything similar unless one
accepts the assumptions underlying the self-transcendence
scale as being accurately reflective of what spirituality,
mysticism, and transcendence involve - and that scale is
just not a good, reliable, reflective instrument in any
of these respects.

What is the meaning of the correlation between the presence
of the VMAT2 gene and spirituality/ mysticism/transcendence?
The truth of the matter is we don’t know.

Bad science leads to problematic conclusions, and that
is precisely where Dr. Hammer has brought us with his
talk of a ‘God-gene’. Furthermore, contrary to his
contention that all his research shows is the way the
mind perceives things is, the fact of the matter is he
really hasn’t even demonstrated this.

He has shown, possibly, that there may be some
connection between the synthesizing activity of VMAT2
and some of the beliefs, ideas, and emotions which are
entangled in the self-transcendence scale. Given that
VMAT2 is responsible for the production of neurotransmitters
which have the potential to modulate mood and lend (when
directed to do so by an unknown prior element within the
etiological picture) a certain kind of color to emotional
experiences, really, this is not saying very much except
that, now, Dr. Hammer, if he wishes, can add the interview
in Belief.net, as well as the publication of his book on
the God-gene to his CV and enjoy whatever perks may ensue
from this - but what he says in either instance seems to
have limited relevance to issues of spirituality, mysticism,
transcendence, or realizations thereof.

[Part 2 will be posted tomorrow]

God Gene-2

Anab Whitehouse

1 comment:

Kurt said...

God Gene Exists

Theories on the fourth dimension vary widely. I believe that there is a fourth-dimensional world containing forces that can act upon and influence us three-dimensional beings, as the Spiritualists assert.

The Fourth Dimension Simply Explained by Manning, Henry P. states, ”Is there a real fourth-dimensional world? It is highly improbable. If there were such a world would it be inhabited by beings that could act upon us three-dimensional beings, as the Spiritualists assert? We reasoned the possibilities of a fourth-dimensional world by analogy -- we must reason this question in the same way. If there is a fourth-dimensional world containing beings that can act upon and influence us, who are but three-dimensional, then, by analogy, we would expect the existence of a world of two-dimensional beings upon whom we could consciously act. We do not know of such a world. Also, we would expect a fifth-dimensional world with beings that could influence the beings of a fourth-dimensional world, and so on. Perhaps there is a two-dimensional world that we cannot influence. Then, the other worlds should be independent also, and if the fourth-dimensional beings can still influence us, then the fourth-dimensional world would be an exception in the great plan of creation. The existence of such a world with beings that can influence us is, therefore, highly improbable.”

I am a rational, logical, non-religious sixty-five year old retired California Real Estate Broker, living in Newport Beach. I considered my first spiritual interaction fifty years ago a possible dream until I had two additional distinct spiritual interactions in September 2001. I then came to the conclusion that they definitely were not dreams. It results when, via meditation, the state of consciousness is placed into a trance, it is a displacement, standing out from the proper place, hence a spiritual rising above; A transference of consciousness from the physical plane to another inner and superior plane, accompanied by awareness and memory of the experience. It is necessary to distinguish between an astral-psychic experience and a truly psycho-spiritual one. The former is delusive, the latter is the state of illumination spoken of by Plotinus, resulting from the true asceticism of the disciple and in its highest form is the same as the high stage of meditation; "the liberation of the mind from its finite consciousness, becoming one and identified with the Infinite".

The India Daily Technology Team on May 28, 2005 published the following editorial in their newspaper.

“Physics meets paranormal - Finding nearest openings to seven parallel Universes - Near death experiences.

The ultimate bending space and time results in finding the opening to the nearest parallel space and time. According to advanced researchers in Physics, there are seven parallel Universes. These Universes are so different in their perception that with conventional physics we can never find where they are and how they are. However, the concept of accelerating to speed much higher than light and take us to these parallels Universes through an opening in our vicinity. You do not have to travel a thousand light years into a black hole to go there; that is just one of the ways to approach the parallel Universes. But our mind and spirit has the psychic power that can make us travel through the nearest opening into the parallel Universes. Those who have experienced near death experiences move into these parallel Universes through the tunnel with a while light at the end of the tunnel. All of those who had near death experience report similar happenings. How can this be explained with physics?

Our spirit or soul is a source of electromagnetic energy that can infinitively amplify if needed. Inner satisfaction of a soul results in elevation of this energy. It is also true that we move into these parallel Universes using intense electromagnetic flux with the help of dark energy. We just do not know how to do that. The problem is that if we try to do it using physical means we encounter a situation that is infinitely impossible to achieve. But accelerating through a black hole or applying dark energy in a suitable manner in the immediate vicinity theoretically can take us to the parallel Universe. But a much better way is to traverse to the parallel Universe through our inbuilt psychic power. When our spirit is allowed freedom through death or through transcendental meditation, the unleashed electromagnetic flux crates the miracle - it finds an immediate opening to the parallel Universe in the close vicinity. Religious prophets in various religions as well as those who have experienced near death experience the parallel Universes. Most of them report part of oneness and tranquility. They also report of completeness of knowledge.

Will we eventually find the electromagnetic fields and the change that runs this Universe? The other parallel Universes may not work the same way. That is the reason what is energy or spirit in this Universe is part of tranquility and eternity in another Universe. This has now been verified by Transcendentalist Kurt Kawohl from the USA. When he had a near-death experience in 1956 at age fifteen his soul traveled into a higher-level parallel universe. What happens to us after death has now been made clear. Kurt twice repeated this experiment in 2001 when he placed his body in stasis and used his psychic power via transcendental meditation to again access this parallel universe where spiritual life thrives. Some researchers believe that parallel universes exist in our immediate vicinity.

Please feel free to visit http://transcendentalists.org and http://www.lulu.com/kkawohl1 to learn more about Kurt Kawohl's experience”.