COGNITIVE INFLUENCES BEHIND BELIEFS IN AND CONCEPTIONS OF GOD

This post is an excerpt from the peer-reviewed textbook Cognitive Science of Religion and Belief Systems by David Cycleback.

OVERVIEW

There are many innate cognitive reasons and processes for people believing in and having particular conceptions of God or religious higher power. The belief in and description of god or higher power are byproducts, or extensions, of innate unconscious psychological tendencies humans use to function and survive as a species.

The human brain is a meaning-making machine. Humans constantly look for patterns, meaning, purpose, motives and cause-and-effect relationships wherever they go. These contribute to many religious and spiritual beliefs. Just as one tries to find motives, patterns and identifications in a room, photograph or abstract paintings, so do humans when contemplating the universe and unknowable. 

The following are some of the cognitive processes that lead to religious beliefs.

 

THE SEARCH AND DESIRE FOR ORDER 

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1496 diagram of the cosmos. Symmetrical, neat and orderly

Humans tend to desire and strive to find order in situations, both in their daily lives and in ambiguous and chaotic information and situations. This is a natural part of identification, and an essential aspect of function and survival. Chapter 4 demonstrated how humans make up artificial identifications in ambiguous designs, such as seeing animals in clouds and faces in tree bark.

This extends to people’s perceptions about the unknowable universe and reality. Not only do many people want order and structure in the universe, they imagine it exists and artificially create it. This desire for order, structure and identity influences people in believing in God, a higher power and orderly universe. While not believing in God, many non-theists and scientists imagine that there are order and structure to the universe, even though it is impossible to know there is order. Even if there is order, it may be in a different form than humans can conceive of or sense. 

In some religions, God brings order out of chaos, and religion is a fight for order in the face of chaos. The ancient Egyptians believed that the god Atum created earth and its order and principles out of chaos and darkness. It was the Egyptians’ duty to live moral and ethical lives to keep the chaos at bay. 

It is a common religious belief that moral order comes from God or higher power, and some religious thus believe that an atheist cannot have morals.

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s ‘The Triumph of Death,’ showing chaos and disorder

 

THE INNATE TENDENCY TO PERCEIVE MEANING AND PURPOSE BEHIND THINGS AND EVENTS

It is an innate tendency for humans to perceive and try to find meaning and purpose behind things. As with finding patterns and identification, this has been essential for human survival and function. 

Knowing what is the purpose and meaning of a scene event, groups of people or non-human animals is part of social function and survival. If a group of people or dogs approach you, you want to know and do guess what is their purpose. If you hear a bang in the dead of night in your house, you want to know what is behind it and assume something is. Safety and self preservation are about erring on assuming the worst, which is why many people get out of bed to check for intruder. Humans would not have survived as a species if they did not err on the side of safety. 

In her paper Why Are Rocks Pointy? Children’s Preference for Teleological Explanations of the Natural World (source), psychology professor Deborah Keleman wrote that if you ask children why a group of rocks is pointy, many theorize that it is so animals don’t sit on them and break them. She said if you ask children why a river exists, they will often say so humans can fish in it. The children assign a meaning and purpose where they don’t exist, and ones that match their expectations, biases and human logic. Also note that they perceive the rivers to exist to serve humans.

Because of this bias, Kelemen says that children are able to come to the idea of a being that created the universe and earth with a purpose and meaning. This bias or tendency extends to many adults.

It takes training and education for one to overcome or be able to question these rote beliefs.

“Romanian Roma adults with little formal schooling (less than six years on average) were more than twice as likely to endorse purposeful answers than highly educated Roma adults (averaging approximately 12 years of schooling). They also more closely resembled American schoolchildren (first through fourth grades) than either highly educated Romanian adults or American adults. These results suggest that the tendency toward extending teleological reasoning from living to non-living natural things may recur across cultures, and that it is not merely outgrown but must be out-educated for it to go away.” — Justin L. Barrett Thrive Professor of Developmental Science, and Professor of Psychology at Fuller Graduate School of Psychology (reference )

 

HUMANS PERCEIVE MINDS BEYOND THEIR OWN

Humans are able to perceive others having minds. This is a part of function and survival of the species. Humans are social animals and need to guess the thoughts and intentions of human and non-human animals.

What is telling is that humans not only imagine minds in humans and other animals, but they imagine or project minds and thinking on inanimate objects. These include teddy bears, figures, artworks, dolls, toys, cars, movie projections. Humans easily accept cartoon characters that talk and think, even when the characters are cars, toasters and trees. Humans talk to paintings on their walls, and what the subject is thinking and doing.

Many either figuratively or literally imagine nature and the universe having minds, and this can lead to conceptions of God or higher power. Even non-religious scientists and philosophers talk about plants, the planet and the universe having consciousness, which, some could argue, is coming very close to believing in God. 

 

ANTHROPOMORPHISM

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Humans have an innate tendency to perceive non-humans as thinking and feeling as humans do. Humans often incorrectly believe or imagine that a non-human animal thinks like a human and feels the same way about a happening as humans. Humans make non-human animal and non-animal cartoon characters that act like humans, see human faces in abstract information, and describe inanimate objects and nature in human terms: mother earth, father time. It should not surprise that humans can imagine the unseen universal reality as a being, that deities and Gods are depicted in human-like forms and having human-like thoughts, motives and ideas.

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Similarly, humans often depict non-animal forms as having animal qualities. Howl of the wind, the hound of love. Many deities and gods are depicted in non-human animal forms.

Anthropomorphism is not always meant literally, but often as a symbolic translation. However, this all shows how humans see things and translate things in human terms, even nature, random information and the unknowable.

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Depiction of God in a 15th century German prayer book

Article by Psychology professor Rick Naert : Why Do We Anthropomorphize?

 

HUMANS PERCEIVE THINGS, EVERYTHING, IN HUMAN EMOTIONAL TERMS

Emotions and aesthetics are an integral and constant part of human perception, judging and thinking. Humans innately and automatically make emotional judgments and perceptions. How new scenes are perceived, how to judge a stranger, how a foreign object is perceived, whether a new fact is true or false, are in part done on the intuitive, emotional, aesthetic level. Our descriptions of non-human things are steeped in human emotional and aesthetic terms and imagery: universal love, the angry sea, cruel fate, happy sun.

As people imagine the universe and unknowable in emotional terms, it is natural for people to see the transcendent reality not only in human terms but as human-like. All humans perceive and define the universe and ideas using their emotions and in human emotional terms. And a universe and reality that is believed to made up of human emotions is a step away from seeing it as a living being.

To humans, the meaning of life, of everything, is a matter of mood.

 

HUMANS AUTOMATICALLY APPLY NARRATIVES AND STORIES TO THINGS

Just as humans interpret meaning, motive and identifications in ambiguous information, humans automatically interpret things– an object, a painting scene, a snapshot of a person– as part of an ongoing story and narrative. This is an expression of cause and effect, and human perception of time, meaning and purpose. Humans even apply narratives and stories to abstract information. 

Humans apply such narrative and stories to the universe and the unknown, which means they interpret it in human ways. Religious scriptures are in the forms of stories and narratives. The Christian Bible has been referred to as “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”

 

HUMAN THINKING, INCLUDING ABOUT THE EXISTENCE OF GOD, IS INFLUENCED BY EXPERIENCE, EDUCATION AND CULTURE

What and the way people think, at both the conscious and unconscious levels, is greatly influenced by their education, culture, family, when and where they grew up. Many people believe in God, and a particular condition of God, because they were raised in a theist family and culture. It is not coincidence that most Christians were born in Christian countries and families and Muslims in Muslim countries and families. Read the below two short pieces to see how much human geography and culture affect their perception at even the unconscious levels:

Piece #1:

The BaMbuti Pygmies of Congo traditionally live their entire lives in the dense rainforest, where the furthest away anyone can see is feet. They learned, loved, played and hunted in this environment.

British born Anthropologist Colin Turnbull wrote how he took one of these Pygmies, named Kenge, for his first time to a wide open plain. As the two stood on a hill overlooking the land, a group of water buffalo was seen a few miles away. Having no experience of how things appear smaller over long distance, Kenge asked what kind of insects they were. Turnbull told him they were water buffalo and Kenge laughed loudly at the “stupid story.” Turnbull drove Kenge towards the water buffalo. Watching the animals growing visually larger, Kenge became scared and said it was witchcraft.

Human beings develop an idiosyncratic logic and sensibility distinct to the environment where they were brought up. The environment one grows up in is seemingly the world. A kid born and raised in the inner city versus the country, rich versus poor, in Cairo versus Chicago, conservative family versus liberal, woods versus desert. The person who has lived her whole life in Portland or Cairo may get a chuckle at that story about the Pygmy then dismiss the idea that a similar incongruity could exist with her native logic.

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For example, in this picture, which yellow line looks longer?

The yellow lines are the same length. Measure them yourself. It is your lifelong experience with diminishing scales in open spaces that caused you to perceive the upper line as larger.

Kenge would not have been fooled by this illusion and would have correctly said the lines are the same length.

Piece #2

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Give an objective identification of what is in the three pictures. Answer one picture at a time, by saying the answer aloud or to yourself. 

The images are not digital tricks or manipulations. They were picked because of their straightforward, familiar subjects. I am just looking for quick objective identifications.

One or more of your answers likely was (at least if you are an American) on the order of ‘George Washington crossing the Delaware,’ ‘a bald eagle’ and/or ‘a watch.’ 

These answers are not objective, being formed in part by value judgments, aesthetic views and other personal biases.

In the lower left picture there is much more than a bald eagle. There is sky, trees. The ‘eagle’ answer subjectively singles out one thing. Part of this is due to a personal and cultural value judgment that a bald eagle is more important than the other objects. Another reason is because the eagle is pictured large, clear and centered. If the picture showed a tree close up and in focus and a small out of focus eagle flying in the distant background, your answer likely would have differed. Change in arrangement, size and focus affect the viewer’s labeling, even when the identical objects are pictured.

Similarly, if your answer to the lower right picture was ‘a watch,’ you made an aesthetic and value judgment about what is and is not important. Placement and focus affected your judgment, along with your feeling that a potentially expensive watch is the center of attention.

In the top image there are quite a few people pictured. If you answered “George Washington crossing the Delaware” you singled out one as being the identity. This is in part due to a higher value placed on George Washington, a famous figure in United States history. This is also due to your knowledge, as Washington is likely the only person you know by name. Again, it is common to focus on the known and ignore the unknown.

If you said “This pictures a bunch of people, one whose name is George Washington” you would have given a broader answer, while acknowledging the extent of your knowledge.

Also, notice that your answer was not ‘sky, water and ice,’ even though sky, water and ice takes up more space than the men, boat and flag. This was due to your bias that the human is the natural center of attention.

The initial request of this chapter was to give objective identifications, but your answers were subjective. I didn’t ask for your moral judgment of George Washington versus other men, whether a bald eagle is more significant than out of focus background trees or the relative financial value of a watch.

These and other types of subjective judgments are both natural and essential to humans. Quick interpretations of scenes, including judging what is and is not important, is essential to getting through our day to day lives. You wouldn’t have lasted long on this earth if you placed equal visual significance on a twig on the pavement and a car speeding in your path. If someone unexpectedly tosses you a ball, you catch the ball by focusing on it. If you focus on the thrower’s shoes or what’s on TV, it is probable you will drop the ball.

The problem is that, while essential, this type of subjective identification helps make it impossible to make objective identification. One’s identification is always shaped by one’s knowledge level, past experience, aesthetic view, pattern biases and value judgments. As shown with the identification of the three pictures, the human is often not aware of this influence. To many people, biases are what others have.

 

RELIGIOUS SYMBOLS AND TEXTS ARE FIGURATIVE AND TRANSLATIONS

Depictions of gods and transcendent reality, religious stories and ceremonies are human translations of abstract ideas for understanding, teaching and communication. The learned religious know that they are just translations of ideas that are beyond human understanding. 

Teaching must be done in languages the students understand. Jesus taught in parables, Buddha in en riddles. The Christian ‘Kingdom of God,’ doesn’t mean a physical building, but a state of enlightenment. Hindus use deities to represent transcendent reality, because a literal depiction would be beyond normal human comprehension and understanding. As the Hindu student becomes more and more learned the depictions of transcendent reality becomes more and more intricate and complex. Jesus himself, or at least as he is portrayed and symbolized, is a metaphor.

Some anti-theists and atheists make straw man arguments against theism, mocking their beliefs in deities and myths. However, they do not realize that the deities and stories are not taken literally by the learned religious. Learned Christians do not literally believe God is an old man with a white beard and robe sitting on a throne in heaven, and learned Hindus do not believe in thousands of Gods. 

 

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The Ancient Egyptian depictions of the gods were not intended as literal representations, as the Egyptians believed the gods’ true forms and natures were mysterious and beyond human comprehension. The depictions were in forms or symbols recognizable to humans and represented each god’s role in nature.

 

ONE’S STYLE OF THINKING INFLUENCES ONE’S BELIEFS

Those who come to conclusions emotionally and intuitively, or ‘from the gut,’ are more likely to believe in God or religious higher power. Those who have had their gut reactions proven correct, are more likely to trust the natural cognitive tendencies described in this chapter, and believe in magic, the paranormal and God. 

Those who think logically and in the past had their intuition proven wrong are less likely to believe in God or a religious higher power. They have learned to question, or double check, their normal cognitive biases and innate tendencies. They think of other possibilities. 

“It is the standard skeptical narrative that people are biased in numerous ways. The “default mode” of human behavior is to drift along with the currents of our cognitive biases, unless we have critical thinking skills as a rudder or paddle (choose your nautical metaphor). Metacognition – thinking about thinking – is the only way for our higher cognitive function (evidence, analysis, logic) to take control of our beliefs from our baser instincts”– Steve Novella MD, Assistant Professor of Neurology, Yale University (reference )

Link: What Kind of Thinker Believes in God?

 

MORE CONSCIOUS REASONS 

Humans often choose to believe in a god and higher powers for conscious and calculated reasons. These include if they so greatly dislike chaos that they choose an artificial answer, they want purpose in their life, they fear death, like the idea of universal justice, want a way to deal with loss or suffering. Some do it because it makes them feel better.

Many are theists in order to fit in with a theistic culture or community. Many religious beliefs are an integral part of culture. Major reasons people belong to a church for the social aspects and community. Believing in a religion and following its practices is as natural as being a part of the community and culture.

 

SOCIAL ORDER

Shared beliefs, purpose and meaning are important for any social group, and many societies and groups have used God or higher power to keep societies together and functioning. Games require rules, often arbitrary ones. This is a standard reason for the belief in God, even today. Of course many leaders have called themselves deities or gods or said they had a special connection to higher power. 

“Dogmatic religion stems from a psychological need for group identity and belonging, together with a need for certainty and meaning. There is a strong impulse in human beings to define ourselves, whether it’s as a Christian, a Muslim, a socialist, an American, a Republican, or as a fan of a sports club. This urge is closely connected to the impulse to be part of a group, to feel that you belong, and share the same beliefs and principles as others. And these impulses work together with the need for certainty—the feeling that you “know,” that you possess the truth, that you are right and others are wrong.”– Leeds Beckett University psychology lecturer Steve Taylor (Reference )

In the beginning and end, humans can only perceive, think about and conceptualize things in human ways– their biases, logic, biology, intuition senses and logic. Thus, the perception of the universe and abstract is seen and described in human ways and with human qualities and concepts. It should be of no surprise that many think of and describe the universe in human-like imagery and with human-like stories and motives. The non-religious do as well, if not invoking a deity. 

 

THESE PROCESSES NEITHER PROVE NOR DISPROVE THE EXISTENCE OF GOD

Some will say these innate psychological processes prove that God does not exist and is merely the product of the human mind. This is not true. They certainly are evidence that religious and other conceptions are in part human creations, but they are not proof against or for the existence of God or higher power. 

 

Further Reading

Cognitive Science of Religion and Belief Systems

 

THE INVENTION, DEVELOPMENT AND IMPORTANCE OF THE NUMBER ZERO

The numeral zero, a symbol and concept, has been called one of the most important inventions of human history. 

While the early numeral systems were fine for rudimentary counting, they were cumbersome, messy and sometimes impossible for multiplication, division and more complex arithmetic. Modern math, such as calculus, could not be done or conceived of with them.  

It was the invention and development of zero that allowed for complex calculations, advanced algebra, calculus, exponential numbers and more. Computers, nuclear physics, modern statistics, space travel, modern science and the couples inventions and knowledge from complex mathematics require the numeral zero. 

The history of the numeral zero is long and winding, with different versions of it being invented in different places, and its provenance certain.  `

Our 0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9 Hindu-Arabic decimal system uses a symbol for zero and a placement system for counting. A numeral is defined by where a symbol is in the number, and zero is used as a place marker.: 10, 100, 203.   This zero and place marker helps us make big numbers without the need for more symbols.

The Hindu-Arabic system adds a zero to get 100.  Add another zero and you get 1000. This makes for division by ten, and exponential numbers, simple.  We take for granted this use of zero and placement to make big numerals, but this wasn’t always the case. 

 

Before Zero

Early numeral systems had no symbol or sometimes even idea for zero. Without a zero, some systems needed a different symbol 10, 20, 30, 40, 500 and so on. This not only made for messy numbers but made division and calculation difficult. 

Imagine division in, say, the Egyptians or Romans system that had no such decimal placement or zero.  1,504 – 103 is a simple calculation. The equivalent in Roman numerals (MDIV – CIII) is messy.

The earliest numeral system by the Summarians had no marker for zeroes numbers, which made for reading numbers sometimes impossible,

Say we have no zero in our numeration system and I give you the numeral ‘11’.  You can’t know if that means eleven, one hundred one, one thousand one, one million, ten million or other.  The use of a zero symbol allows us to say 11 (eleven) 101 (one hundred one), 1001 (one thousand one).

The Babylonians, who inherited and developed their system from the Sumerians, added a space as a marker between numbers to indicate the equivalent of a zero.

If we add a space instead of a zero  we can differentiate between those 11 numbers

11 = eleven

1 1 (one space between 1’s) = one hundred one

1   1 (two spaces between ones) = one thousand one.

The problem with the Babylonian system is you can’t always tell how many spaces are between symbols.

1       1 = how many spaces are between those 1’s? Even I don’t know, as I didn’t count.  

Duly note that Babylonian numerals were used in a context of what was being counted. It was applied to daily events not used abstractly.  If you know the context (sheep in a herd, plates at the dinner table) you could deduce the number. There might be 10 plates at an average Babylonian dinner table, but not 100 and certainly not 10000.  But this space system still caused ambiguity to the Babylonians. 

To counter this the Babylonians invented a placeholder symbol to clearly mark the spaces between numerals.  For reading a numeral, this worked as the equivalent of our zero.

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The top Mayan number 104 has a space for the tens ‘column’, while the bottom has little titted wedges.

A few other early systems independently invented their own placeholder symbols. The Mayans used a shell-like symbol, while the Khmer used a dot.  

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The number 605 in Khmer numerals, from AD 683). The earliest known material the use of zero as a decimal figure.`

 

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Mayan shell-shaped  zero

A problem with the Babylonian and other early systems is they didn’t use their separation marker or zero symbol after numerals.  Thus, you can’t tell if 11 means eleven, one hundred ten (110 if a zero were used), one thousand one hundred (11000) or other.

Early counting devices– the Inca Quipu, Asian rod counting board and abacus,  had spaces, or blank spots to denote nothing in a digit column.  

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The middle chord on the Inca Quipu has a space for -0 in the tens ‘column’

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The spaces in the Asian rod counting board indicate there is nothing in ones and thousands columns,

 

The invention of zero as a symbol and a numerical concept

While the zero or equivalent as a marker made for easier reading of numbers and doing simple addition and subtraction, zero had to be conceived of and used as an actual concept and numeral/number in and of itself before it could be used for advanced calculations

Though people have always understood the concept of nothing or having nothing. However, nothing as a “thing,” not only a symbol but a concept, took a long while to develop in math.  

“How can anything be something?” was often pondered.   Yet, space is full of nothing. The empty space in an empty box is nothing yet something.  The empty space on the Asian counting board, between the knots on an Inca Quipu, or between the ones and hundreds is something.  In mathematics, nothing is something and is called and symbolized as nothing.   

It was the Indians who began to understand zero both as a symbol and as an idea, and fully developed it in the 5 century AD.   It is believed that they were able to do this because emptiness is a major concept and goal in Buddhism and Hinduism. Thus, the concept of a numerical nothingness or emptiness was something they could more readily understand. The English word zero is derived from the Hindu word “sunyata” which means nothingness. 

Brahmagupta was an Indian mathematician and astronomer, who further developed zero and arithmetic.  He wrote standard rules for reaching zero through addition and subtraction as well as the results of operations with zero.   Brahmagupta was the first to give rules to compute with zero, and wrote the first book that had rules for arithmetic manipulations that apply to zero and negative numbers.  You need a zero before you can have negative numbers. His arithmetic rules were in alignment with today’s except for division by zero.  That would be corrected years later by Isaac Newton and G.W. Leibniz to solve.

It would be a few centuries for zero to reach Europe.

Arabian sailors brought Brahmagupta’s book back from India. Zero reached Baghdad by 773 AD where it was developed by Arabian mathematicians who would base their numbers on the Indian system. In the ninth century, Persian Mohammed Ibn-Musa al-Khowarizmi was the first to work on equations that equal zero. By 879 AD, zero was written almost as a small oval. 

Zero reached Europe by the twelfth century. The Italian mathematician Fibonacci further develop algorithms with the abacus, which until that time had been the most common tool to do arithmetic.  His arithmetic using zero spread with German accountants and bankers. Merchants knew their books were balanced when the positive and negative amounts of their assets and liabilities equaled zero. 

Some Medieval European religious leaders were against the use of the symbol. They felt that if God was everything and in everything, then nothing must be the devil. They sometimes forbid the use of zeros,. However merchants often still used zero if on the sky 

French philosopher, mathematician and scientist Rene Descartes advanced the use and concept of zero.  He introduced the Cartesian coordinate system, which uses the origin of (0,0) to make graphs still commonly used in math and science.

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The cartesian coordinate system with (0,0) at the center

Adding, subtracting, and multiplying by zero are relatively simple operations. However, division by zero long confused even great minds. How many times does zero go into one? How many nothings exist in something? The answer is indeterminate, but using the concept of dividing by infinity and nearing zero is the key to calculus. 

In the 1600’s, Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz independently studied and solved the issue of dividing by zero.  Working with numbers as they approach zero, they invented calculus. Fully called calculus of the infinitesimal, calculus works to find information about time, space, motion at infinitesimal points nearing zero. The calculus formulas are functions of time, and so one can think of calculus as studying functions of time. Among the physical concepts that use concepts of calculus include motion, electricity, heat, light, harmonics, acoustics, astronomy, and dynamics.  It has been essential for everything from physics to economics to statistics to computers.

MYSTICAL EXPERIENCES: THE NEVERENDING DEBATE

Mysticism has long been an attempt to expand the mind and understanding beyond normal boundaries, and mystical experiences were the genesis of religion. Mystical experiences are neurological events where parts of the brain are suppressed in order to more fully utilize other parts. The metaphysical meaning of these experiences has long been debated by theologians, philosophers and scientists.

This is a chapter reprinted from the peer-reviewed textbook Cognitive Science of Religion and Belief Systems by David Cycleback.  

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OVERVIEW

Mystical experiences are altered states of consciousness that seem to the person in the state to take him beyond the normal consciousness and give him a union or experience with a transcendent reality. Mysticism is the area of trying to reach mystical states. 

All religions have their mystical traditions or subdivisions. These include the Jewish Kabbalah, Muslim Sufis and Christian mystics. Some religions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism and some aboriginal religions, can be considered essentially, or largely, mystical. 

Though commonly associated with religion, mystical experiences involve genuine neurological events that are also experienced by non-religious believers, including agnostics and atheists. It is that the experiences are often interpreted by the experiencer as being transcendental reality that it is associated with religion. Mystical experiences are the genesis of religions.

Mystical experiences have been experienced throughout human history, and many people today have them, whether in religious or secular life. According to a 2009 Pew survey, 49% of respondents said that they had a religious or mystical experience, defined as a “moment of sudden religious insight or awakening.” Those who said they experienced them included the young and old, religious and non-religious. (Reference: ‘Frequency of spiritual/religious experiences’ religiousnaturalism.orgr).

During mystical experiences, people feel connected to a transcendent reality and often describe gaining profound knowledge and insights. The experiences involve changes in perception or sense of time, space and reality. Time seems to slow or cease to exist, the sense of self and ego dissolves, and the person feel one with the universe. 

According to Andrew Newberg MD, professor of medicine and religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, the experiencers perceive the physical world in a much more vivid and intense way, as if their senses are heightened ( reference: medium.com). 

The following is famed primatologist Jane Goodall description of her mystical experience:

“Lost in the awe at the beauty around me, I must have slipped into a state of heightened awareness…It seemed to me, as I struggled afterward to recall the experience, that self was utterly absent: I and the chimpanzees, the earth and trees and air, seemed to merge, to become one with the spirit power of life itself…Never had I been so intensely aware of the shape, the color of the individual leaves, the varied patterns of the veins that made each one unique. It was almost overpowering.” (reference: medium.com)

In his landmark book The Varieties of Religious Experiences, Harvard University philosopher and psychologist William James said that the experiences are beyond words. They cannot be fully explained or communicated to others, just experienced. James was only interested in these experiences, and not the human-made dogmas and structures religions used to explain them.

German Lutheran theologian Rudolf Otto similarly said that the mystical experience is a-rational, meaning it is a direct experience and not to be explained with reason. (Reference: Mystical Experience/ Rudolf Otto )

VIDEOS

The following is an audio discussion about the nature of the mystical experience from British philosopher Alan Watts : Alan Watts – The mystical experience

The following is an interview with people who have had mystical experiences: “Enlightened Beings Share Their Awakening, Mystical Experiences”

 

METHODS FOR OBTAINING MYSTICAL EXPERIENCES

Mystical experiences can happen spontaneously and without intention for both the religious and secular. However, there have also been intentional efforts to produce them, including via religious and secular practices. 

Religious mystical ceremonies often involve meditation, music, chants, shamanic drumming, dance or such to achieve a trance-like state. 

For believers, these ceremonies are typically coupled with a way of life, including good living, morality, discipline, freeing oneself from lust and greed and anger, having feelings and actions of kindness and charity. Meditations, reciting mantras, focusing the mind on the higher power are supposed to be a part of daily life. For Jews, the daily life, every event, is supposed to be treated as holy. For many aboriginal tribes, living in harmony and reverence with nature, which they consider holy, is a part of their life. Having a practiced, undistracted, meditative mindset is important to achieving mystical experiences, even for the non-religious. For example, serious non-religious people meditate daily, often multiple times daily, while also being mindful throughout their day.

The following are just a few examples of religious mystical practices and ceremonies.

The Mevlevi Sema ceremony is a Muslim Sufi ceremony with music, singing, dancing, poetry and other rituals. The participants try to purify the soul and connect with Allah. They can enter different physical and mental states, in particular during the dancing. 

A famous Mevlevi dance involves the Whirling Dervishes, who whirl to get into a mystical state.

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Whirling Dervishes

Video: Whirling Dervishes dancing

Video: Whirling Explanation by Shaykh Hisham Kabbani

Hindu Yoga involves mental, physical and spiritual practices. Coupled with a proper lifestyle, they are designed to get the person to the mystical state of enlightenment, the ultimate goal of the religion.

There are four methods of Yoga, each designed for different personalities and ways of learning. Hinduism is psychologically modern in that it appreciates that people learn and experience things differently.

Catholic mystical prayer is meditative prayer that Catholics say they use to expand the mind and commune with God:

“Contemplative prayer has the tendency to become ever simpler and more silent. As we gain experience in this form of prayer we need fewer and fewer thoughts, until finally one single thought may be sufficient to find the way to truth and God. Fewer thoughts demand fewer words. St. Francis used the phrase My God and my all’ as his theme of contemplation for a whole night. . . . In contemplation our mode of thinking changes. From its usual restlessness it becomes a quiet beholding and a comprehending, a watching and a witnessing. Our voice changes: it becomes softer and lower. Finally, speech dies down and its place is taken by a silent regarding and longing between the soul and God. If we should reach this stage in contemplation, we should not force ourselves back into the diversity of thought. When simplicity contains the essence, there is no need for diversity; when silence is eloquent, it is greater than words.” — ‘The Art of Contemplative & Mystical Prayer’ by Father Romano Guardini (catholicexchange.org )

The Jewish Kabbalah is a mystical sect of Judaism that does many things to try to personally/experientially get closer to God. Judaism teaches the contradiction that God is both beyond humans, yet humans can have a connection to Him via mystical experience.

Video: Sacred Practice: Kabbalah Practice with Rabbi Lawrence Kushner

The Sun Dance is a ceremony of some American Indian tribes of the United States and Canada, primarily the Plains tribes. The ceremonies include ancient songs, prayers, drumming and dances, fasting and the ceremonial piercing of the skin during a trial of endurance.

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Lakota Sun Dance

Video: The Sundance Ceremony 

Taoism is a mystical religion that uses mystical practices, such as Tai Chi, to connect to the perceived flow of the universe. Taoists believe that physical movement, even in how one walks across the room, is important to becoming connected with ‘the way’ of the universe.

Interfaith religions, and many other religious leaders and theologians acknowledge that there are many different personal paths to achieve mystical experiences and enlightenment, based on the person’s personality, background, language and culture. Though one must focus in the specific method, whether it is secular meditation or Christian prayer. The human requires focus, and one cannot obtain enlightenment through proverbial multitasking.

“There are hundreds of paths up the mountain, all leading to the same place. The only person wasting time is the one who runs around the mountain telling everyone that their path is wrong”– Hindu proverb

MEDITATION

Meditation is commonly associated with Buddhism and Hinduism, but is used in all religions and also by the non-religious. Mediation works to calm the conscious mind, to remove the daily conscious chatter and idle thoughts that enter human minds. 

The meditator uses various possible methods to clear quiet. One is to focus on a single thing– a mantra, one’s breath. A common Hindu meditation is to not focus on anything but remove external thoughts as they enter. With the mind quieted, and the conscious thoughts removed, there can be a mental awakening. Buddha and Mohammed achieved enlightenment after lengthy periods of medication. 

“Emptiness meditation — to sit quietly and empty oneself of all mental images (thoughts, feelings, and so on), to ‘forget about everything’, in order to experience inner quiet and emptiness. In this state, vital force and “spirit” is collected and replenished.”– Taoist meditation (thewayofmeditation.com.au)

All religious mystical practices involve meditation in some form or other. It can involve the meditative practice of focusing on a mantra, focused scripture reading, drumming, ceremonies, music, art, dance, even walking or eating. The counting of the Catholic rosaries is a meditative task. Any singular repeated or focused task, even playing chess or knitting, can be meditiative if it involves singular focus and removal of other thoughts.

Nearly all sacred religious scripture alludes to meditation:

“Commune with your heart upon your bed, and be silent”– Hebrew Bible

“Verily, from meditation arises wisdom. Without meditation wisdom wanes”– Buddhism, Dhammapada 282

“He is revealed only to those who keep their minds one-pointed on the Lord of Love and thus develop a superconscious manner of knowing. Meditation enables them to go deeper and deeper into consciousness, From the world of words to the world of thoughts, Then beyond thoughts to wisdom in the Self.” — The Upanishads (Hinduism)

MYSTICAL EXPERIENCES THROUGH SECULAR PRACTICES

Mystical experiences happen not only in religious settings, but secular. Many atheists and agnostics have such experiences when meditating, focusing on work, study, when in nature, and experiencing art, athletics, fasting. Some say the runner’s high, or the athlete being in the zone is a form of mystical state.

“To those who do not know mathematics it is difficult to get across a real feeling as to the beauty, the deepest beauty, of nature . If you want to learn about nature, to appreciate nature, it is necessary to understand the language that she speaks in.”–Nobel Physics Prize winner Richard Feynman on the spiritual experience of doing math

“A chess player (said) that when he plays the game, ‘I have a general sense of well-being, a feeling of complete control over my world.’ Similarly, a dancer told him that during her performances, ‘A strong relaxation and calmness comes over me. I have no worries of failure. What a powerful and warm feeling it is! I want to expand, to hug the world. I feel enormous power to affect something of grace and beauty.’”– Psychologist Steve Taylor, Spirituality: The Hidden Side of Sports (ru.org)

 

ART

“Bach is Bach, as God is God” — Hector Berlioz

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The Fox Hunt’ (1893) by Winslow Homer

Art is a common source and device to achieve mystical experiences. 

“It is inevitable that inspired art and illumined writing should arouse the beginning of mystical feelings in the hearts of those prepared and sensitive enough to appreciate mysticism. But even in hearts not so ready, the dim echoes of such feelings are often aroused. This is particularly true of music. If he can lay himself open to the power of beauty in art or nature, letting it get deep inside him, he may receive an intuition or attain an experience as mystical as the meditator’s.”– Paul Bruton, British theosophist and spiritualist, ‘Art Experience and Mysticism’, Notebooks of Paul Brunton (paul brunton.org)

The perception of art is dealt within chapters 23 and 28-34 of Understanding Human Minds in their Limits

By definition, art produces a sublime experience that is more than the sum of its parts. What is telling is that art produces the experience through fiction, artificial devices and the subjectivity of the audience. It expresses things that cannot be directly expressed in reality and literalness. This is a commentary on the human mind and understanding.

“Art is a lie that takes us closer to the truth”– Picasso

University College London neurobiology professor Semir Zeki said that, though they didn’t realize it, great artists were neuroscientists in that they used angles, symbols, colors and other qualities to influence the audience’s minds. 

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Composition VI (1913) by Wassily Kandinsky. One of the first non-representational abstract painters, Wassily Kandinsky was an academic who carefully studied and theorized how colors, shapes and other qualities resonated with the viewer. He was also a devout Russian Orthodox Christian who aspired to make his paintings a spiritual experience for both himself and the audience.

It is also telling that the artistic experience is subjective to the person. People may get similar sublime experiences, but through different artworks. As the old saying goes, art is in the eye of the beholder. This is a commentary on other religious practices that are psychologically interpreted by the individual.

DRUGS AND MENTAL CONDITIONS

Certain drugs have been shown to lead to mystical states. These include LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, peyote and marijuana. Peyote is used in some American Indian ceremonies, and marijuana is sometimes used by Hindus and Rastafarians. 

These drugs work by suppressing the parts of the brain that create geographic and time categories and labels, and allow the intuitive, emotional perception of sensory information that is the mystical experience.

Video: Harvard psychologist and Hindu spiritual teacher Ram Dass on drugs and mysticism

Video: University of Toronto Psychology Professor Jordan Peterson on Mystical Experiences through Psychedelics

Article: Harvard Psychiatrist and Minister Walter Pahke on drugs and mysticism

Some mental conditions have been associated with mystical experiences. These include some forms of epileptic seizures, schizophrenia and bipolarism. 

Video: Scientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s experience after having a stroke

“Ecstatic epileptic seizures are a rare but compelling epileptic entity. During the first seconds of these seizures, ecstatic auras provoke feelings of well-being, intense serenity, bliss, and ‘enhanced self-awareness.’ They are associated with the impression of time dilation, and can be described as a mystic experience by some patients.” — Markus Gschwind and Fabienne Picard, Neurology Department at the University Hospital of Geneva (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4756129/)

Link to Article on psychiatric medicine and spiritual states by psychologist Lynn Vanderpot 

 Link to Paper on Schizophrenia and mysticism by Joseph Parmas and Gram Henrickson of the University of Copenhagen (Mysticism and schizophrenia: A phenomenological exploration of the structure of consciousness in the schizophrenia spectrum disorders)

Link to Article on epilepsy and mystical experiences by University of South Carolina-Aiken philosophy professor D. B. Dillard-Wright 

 

THE DEBATE ABOUT THE NATURE, MEANING AND AUTHENTICITY OF THE MYSTICAL EXPERIENCES

While there is no debate that they involve genuine neurological experiences, there is an ongoing and ultimately unanswerable debate over what are the musical experiences and what if any metaphysical/spiritual meaning they have: if they are authentic views of transcendent reality, merely delusory/hallucinatory states of the mind, or some combination.

 

RELIGIOUS TRUE BELIEVERS

Many religious believers believe that mystical states are authentic, direct looks into a transcendent reality and even God. They believe either that these states and knowledge are given to them by God, or the altered state involves a cleared mind that allows them to see truth.

“My most formative religious experiences were a series of mystical experiences. They began to occur in my early thirties. They changed my understanding of the meaning of the word “God”-of what that word points to-and gave me an unshakable conviction that God (or “the sacred”) is real and can be experienced. These experiences also convinced me that mystical forms of Christianity are true, and that the mystical forms of all the enduring religions of the world are true.”– Oregon State University Professor of Religion Marcus Borg (marcusjborg.org/mystical-experiences-of-god/)

“The same dynamic takes place when God reveals Godself to women and men. At certain times in our lives, God’s gracious presence becomes manifest in our lives as God communicates God subjectivity through subjectivity. Through concrete events in our lives, or particular words– very ordinary things– God becomes present and palpable to us in God’s incomprehensible, inexpressible, mysterious reality. This is the pattern of divine revelations: the finite reveals the infinite, the objective reveals the subjective, what is ordinary reveals what is Mystery.”– Stephen B. Bevans. Jesuit Priest and Professor of Theology and Culture at Catholic Theological Union, in An Introduction to Theology in Global Perspective (Orbis Books).

In non-theistic religions- such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and some traditional aboriginal religions– there is no god but an enlightenment or higher state of awareness. These can be considered constant mystical states. Jesus, Buddha, Moses and Muhammad were said to be enlightened individuals, or people living in mystical states. 

In the interview, ‘‘Can We Trust Religious Experiences?” (link ) Christian professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, William Lane Craig, said that, even using normal logic, the religious mystical experiences could be argued to be authentic. His argument is that there are many unprovable things that humans all accept as true, due to experience and innate thought. These include that the external world humans perceive is real, that the past was real, that humans aren’t computers run by a mad scientist, that they weren’t born five minutes ago with an implanted false memory of the past. He said human’s shared beliefs about these things are unprovable, yet humans accept them as self evidently true. He said people come to these conclusions using what is widely considered to be good reason and logic. He said that, along these rational lines, someone’s perceived personal experience connecting with God, coupled with that many people have these shared experiences, can just as reasonably be considered real. These mystical experiences with God probably being called real is as reasonable as the average person probably saying the external world he perceives as being real. 

Of course, it could be argued that neither perception was correct, and both involve delusion and biased answers to some degree. Both views could be delusory, and all human perception and judgment involves delusion and subjectivity.

 

SKEPTICS

Skeptics, including some scientists, say that mystical experiences are strictly in the mind and are on the order of delusions or hallucinations. That drugs and mental illnesses can lead to them have is seen to them as proof of this. Many of these people accept the humanistic, rational point of view of the world, and accept the normal human perception of the world as accurate. Many of these people use science as arbiter, and don’t buy anything that hasn’t been, or the can’t be, proven by science. 

Article: “Turns out near-death experiences are psychedelic, not religious” 

 

THE MIDDLE ROAD

These people say that the experiences are the result of changes to the brain, but that the experiences are not hallucinations or psychoses, but different than normal sensory experiences. 

Neuroscience studies of the brain support this contention that mystical experiences are different experiences of sensory information. 

During mystical experiences, the parts of the brain that are associated with filtering and translating sensory information, categorization, language, creating ideas of self, separation of self from other, perception and categorizing of time and space are reduced. The person receives the sensory information unfiltered and untranslated (or at least to a much lesser degree) by these parts of the brain. Thus, the sense of self seems to dissolve, normal categorizations and perceptions of time and space disappear, and there is a rush of sensory information. 

Additionally, there is often a rush of dopamine that makes the person feel bliss. Thus, people not only get a different rush of sensory information, but an associated sense of beauty, happiness and love. Aesthetics and emotions are an integral part of humans accepting facts and ideas. (“To humans, the meaning of life, of everything, is a matter of mood.”– Noise Music: Cognitive Psychology, Aesthetics and Epistemology).

“The frontal lobes are the most evolved areas of the human brain, and help control and make sense of the perceptual input we get from the world. When the frontal lobes’ inhibitory functions are suppressed, a door of perception can open, increasing the chances of mystical experiences.”– Jordan Grafman, Professor and Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Cognitive Neurology & Alzheimer’s Disease Center, Northwestern University Medical School ( reference: livescience.com)

“When activity in the networks of the superior parietal cortex [a region in the upper part of the parietal lobe, which is a structure slightly above and behind our ears] or our prefrontal cortex [the section of the frontal cortex that lies at the very front of the brain] increases or decreases, our bodily boundaries change. These parts of the brain control our sense of self in relation to other objects in the world, as well as our bodily integrity; hence the ‘out of body’ and ‘extended self’ sensations and perceptions many people who have had mystical experiences confess to. . . . At the same time, midbrain dopaminergic pathways — key circuits in the brain that create and release the neurotransmitter dopamine — are activated to release dopamine in networks of the forebrain,” — James Giordano. Professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center 

“Andrew Newberg believes a cause of these feelings is the reduced activity he saw in their parietal lobes, the orientation area of the brain responsible for perceiving three-dimensional objects in space. A meditator may experience a sense of oneness with all living things or unity because the reduced activity blurs the perceived lines between the meditator and other objects . . . When the parietal lobes are damaged, patients have distorted beliefs about their own bodies and are sometimes confused about their spatial orientation to outside objects. In an example from Why We Believe What We Believe, patients think one of their own legs is not theirs, and have been found trying to throw this other leg out of their bed. In his new book, Newberg cites a study led by Dr. Brick Johnstone that found that damage to the right parietal lobe caused patients’ self-transcendent experiences to increase.” ( Reference: theatlantic.com )

“This suggests that these spots may be linked to inhibitory cognitive functions, and a suppression of these functions, which typically help us regulate and resolve our perceptual experiences, appears to open up a ‘door of perception’, exposing people to more mystical experiences.” Dr. Irene Cristofori from the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and French National Centre for Scientific Research ( reference )

The psychedelic drugs can do this. American Indians practitioners say that the peyote is not the source of the vision or mystical knowledge, but used to cleanse the mind for them to have the experience.

“Sometimes we ask the peyote to help us cleanse the illnesses away and cleanse our mental being, our spiritual being, And we believe that’s what peyote does, too. That’s why we call it a sacrament, a sacred herb.” — Navajo High Priest Fred Harvey ( reference: npr.og )

“The Peyote Sacrament and Its Way is part of the Great Mystery. Its focused agenda is for the maturing of the soul. Peyote unique abilities can cut through any resistance, whispering to the inquisitive heart a fundamental question at the core of every soul’s experience, “What are we? . . . . Indigenous people of North and South America have a long, rich tradition of experiencing themselves as part of all that we see. There is no separation between our surroundings and us. Intelligence is experienced to be in and through all things…birds, bees, rocks, trees, plants and water…the list includes all of Creation.”– Kevin ‘He Who Has Know Name’ Towt, President of Oklevueha Native American Church of Orderville and Toquerville (references: nativeamericanchurches.org)

In his book Waking From Sleep (Penguin Random House, 2010) Leeds Beckett University psychology lecturer Steve Taylor writes that schizophrenics have unfiltered sensory information– heightened senses, more information–, but without the normal conscious cognitive functions that organize it. In the book, a woman with schizophrenia said that schizophrenia is great for painting and writing poetry, but she can’t drive a car because she notices all the details in and to the side of the road (the crack in the road, a leaf, etc).

 

MYSTICAL EXPERIENCES DEMONSTRATE THE ARTIFICIAL COGNITIVE CONSTRUCTS OF THE HUMAN MIND 

This all points to that the standard human perceptions of time, space, categories, labels, linguistic explanations, rationality are artificial constructs of their mind. The mystical experiences are unfiltered, or less filtered by these. There is no separation of things, language and categories and labels don’t apply. Mysticism is a method to try and free one of these artificial constructs of the normal mind.

The conscious structures, arbitrariness and labels are required for function and survival of the species, but should not be confused for reality or objective truth. In fact, function requires false beliefs, arbitrary rules and distorting information (See chapter 18). This is is only in part because the human mind needs attention to function and function requires rules and focus, even if delusory or arbitrary. So the conscious mind is in part designed to fool and lie and hide facts from the mind and make artificial rules and constructs. And mystical experiences remove or suppress these, and people who have had mystical experiences suddenly see the falseness of these traditional perceptions.

In Awakening from Sleep, Steve Taylor writes that mystical experiences contradict ordinary consciousness in three ways:

“As we see, the experiences tell us that our normal view is false. This strong ego structure has given us some massive benefits, such as greater powers of abstract thought (when we analyse, deliberate and plan) and greater conceptual knowledge (e.g., knowledge of the laws of nature, of the structure of matter and of the universe self. It has also given us more personal autonomy, leading to more control over our life. But in a sense the ego has become overdeveloped. Its boundaries have become too strong and its self-reflective ability has muted into the chaotic thought-chatter that runs through our mind whenever our attention isn’t occupied.“

Many ancient mystical religions, such as Sufism, Buddhism and Hinduism, discuss the cleansing of the mind, ridding oneself of normal mind chatter and categorization and labels in order to perceive reality. Buddhist meditation attempts to move beyond symbolic human language. This was before science learned what was going on in the mind. 

American religious philosopher Huston Smith said that humans are divine within, as there is divinity without, but that they can be like a dirty lantern with caked on soil that masks the light. He said it is an endless quest to keep the surface of the lantern clean. (Reference: Huston Smith: Psychology of Religious Experience )

University of Pennsylvania’s Andrew Newberg says that human epiphanies, the small ‘Aha!’ moments, are moments of mystical clarity. The person is suddenly seeing things from a different picture, seeing the big picture, and things fall into place in the mind.

 

THE MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE IS EXPLAINED THROUGH ONE’S CULTURE, LANGUAGE, BELIEFS, SENSORY ABILITIES, BIOLOGY

Even if the mystical experiences of people are very similar, the individual interpretations and explanations are influenced by the individual’s background, culture and beliefs. 

In his book Religious Experiences (University of California Press, 1985), Columbia University philosophy of religion professor Wayne Proudfoot writes that mystical experiences are explained in a religious framework, and that the framework is unconscious. A Christian may say she saw the Christian God, a Muslim Allah, and an atheist a secular vision.

In his book Mysticism and Philosophy, Princeton University philosopher Walter Terence Stace says that mysticism is perception not interpretation, and that only after the mystical experience is the interpretation made. 

Psychologist Carl Jung discussed how much of human’s cognitive ordering, how they feel and react to a situation is, is evolutionarily ingrained in us. He said that the mythical archetypal visions of hero, tree of life, mother, birth, death, wise old man, are ingrained in their minds, shared by most humans, and thus theoretically appear in mystical visions across many cultures. 

With his theory of Pluralism, influential religious philosopher and Presbyterian Minister John Hick believed that if different religions have genuine views into transcendent reality (and he believed that they have), these views are filtered through each religion’s/people’s culture, time and place in history, political happenings, language, sentiments and artistic traditions. 

“In the late 1960s, Hick had (a) set of experiences that dramatically affected his life and work. While working on civil rights issues in Birmingham, he found himself working and worshiping alongside people of other faiths. During this time he began to believe that sincere adherents of other faiths experience the Transcendent just as Christians do, though with variances due to cultural, historical, and doctrinal factors. These experiences led him to develop his pluralistic hypothesis, which, relying heavily on Kant’s phenomenal/noumenal distinction, states that adherents of the major religious faiths experience the ineffable Real through their varying culturally shaped lenses. ” — David Cramer, Religious Studies Dept., Baylor University (reference) 

Hick knew how human minds work, and that the broader reality and universe are beyond human conception and senses and had to be translated for humans to grasp. The translation is via language, culture, aesthetic norms, sentiments and social standards. The sacred texts are composed by people for people and their understanding and learning, written in human language and cultural sensibilities. Jesus and Buddha used instructional parables humans could understand and relate to. Hindu texts and art uses symbols and deities to represent higher reality. Organized religions and their scriptures are human products and artifacts, and are inherently human-centric with all the associate issues that come with human-centrism and human methods of sensing and thinking.

And, as is apt to happen, some will interpret the particular path they took to achieve the mystical state (ceremony, religion, artwork, other) to be the ‘correct’ if not ‘only true’ path to enlightenment. It is like people who try to ‘objectively’ identify the best art, when the artistic experience is personally subjective.

 

EVEN BEYOND THESE DIFFERENCES CAUSED BY THE BELIEFS, THE EXPERIENCES ARE STILL NOT PROVABLE OF TRUTH

Even though these experiences point to human’s normal views of realism being artificial and arbitrary constructs, that does not mean the mystical experiences are ‘truth’ or ‘reality’– though many claim they are. 

The experiences are experiences. They may be less formed by the normal artificial cognitive constructs of the mind, but they are still formed by the limits of human senses, their biology. They are still a limited sensory view. There is no way to know this heightened sensory experience is ‘truth’ or ‘reality.’ 

In the beginning and in the end, they are experiences. Trying to interpret them, assign meaning, translate them into language, communicate what they are to others, are at odds of what the are. It is fine to have an opinion about what is this experience– but realize that it is just that, an opinion. Humans want explanations for events, but not only cannot that be done here, the rational or intuitive translation itself is opposed to the experiential nature. 

It is interesting to note that theologians say that God or higher reality is both beyond human comprehension and not. An oxymoron. They discuss how God and transcendent reality is beyond human language, logic, conception and human constructs, but that one can have a personal relationship or experience with it (mysticism). They also talk how God or transcendental reality cannot be understood intellectually but can be through the personal mystical experience. They say the mystical experience is a matter of being viscerally/experientially aware of it. They see the mystical experiences as truth, which is debatable, but are sharply aware of the dual nature of the mind and thinking. Look at the competing quotes from the Koran:

“No vision can grasp Him. He is above all comprehension.”– Quran

“Allah as close to a man as the vein in his neck.”– Quran

Mystical experiences are good as they offer a different mental viewpoint that demonstrates that the normal human view is arbitrary and false, and that there are different ways to look at things. This itself is mind expanding. However, in the end they are just experiences and there is no proof or real reason to think of them as ‘true.’ 

 

WHETHER REAL OR NOT, MYSTICAL EXPERIENCES CAN BE LIFE CHANGING

Whether or not they are truthful looks at reality, the mystical events can change people’s lives and help their lives. Even if they are not insights into objective truth, they can give people new perspectives on things, new perspectives on their lives. They can make one reflect on the artifice of one’s life and society, put things into different perspective. 

“Mystical experiences are events that can shake up your world in a single moment. They can also help us ‘on the way out’; we exit them ‘transformed,”meaning that the insights into our personal life or our very sense of being are deeper and sharper after them.” — Andrew Newberg MD, University of Pennsylvania. 

One should also not merely try to expand one’s mind through the rare mystical experience, but through daily work. This includes meditation or helpful spiritual practices, and paying attention to the world. ‘Stopping to smell the roses’ may not induce a mystical state, but it is a daily practice that opens the mind and keeps things in perspective. 

“There are two mistakes you can make. One is that you’re too afraid of them, so you don’t allow them at all in your life, you’re terrified of letting go of control. The other mistake is that you’re really attached to them, so you’re constantly searching for a high. It’s about finding a place for these experiences in your life.”– Jules Evans, research fellow at Queen Mary University of London’s Centre for the History of Human Emotions

 

SUMMARY: KEY POINTS
Mystical experiences are altered from normal states of consciousness where it seems to the experiencer that one has an expansive view or experience of the universe. The normal perception of time, categorization and space dissolve, and the senses seem more heightened. People often think they receive great insight and sublime knowledge.

Mystical experiences can happen unintentionally, and happen to both the religious and non-religious. There are many ceremonial and other methods to try to achieve them. These include religious art, music, meditation, drugs. Meditation, or meditative states, is a common strain.

Mystical experiences involve genuine neurological changes in the brain. During the experiences, the normal cognitive filters are lowered that allowed a heightened, relatively unfiltered experience of sensory information. This is often coupled with a dopamine rush that gives a good feeling and association.

There are debates about the authenticity and what the experiences mean. True believers believe them a genuine look into reality, transcends reality and even God. Skeptics say they are are just delusions on the order of hallucinations. Those in between say they are genuine sensory experiences when the filters are removed, but assign no special or ‘higher’ meaning to them.

These experiences show that the normal human concepts of labels, categories, self and time are artificial constructs of the mind. 

To the human, the mystical experiences are just sensory experiences. They cannot be explained or interpreted accurately– because that is at odds with the sensory experience. The ‘truth’ or ‘meaning’ cannot be known. Plus, the sensory information is still filtered and formed by human sensory capabilities and biological methods.

These experiences can expand the mind, by giving new experiences, by showing the shallowness of human normal thought and ways of thinking. However, they are still channeled by the mind and senses and are unverifiable.

 

FURTHER READING

Article: “How does neuroscience explain spiritual experiences”

Stephen Hawking’s Views on Mysticism and Science

Article: “Brain origins of mysticism found”

Article on runner’s high

Article: “Neurotheology: Where religion and science collide”

Article: Do Animals Have Spiritual Experiences?

 

6.11 QUESTIONS 

  • Have you had a mystical experience? If so, explain it. How did it/does it affect you?
  • What are your opinions about mystical experiences? What is your opinion about their authenticity? Are there any points in this chapter with which you disagree?
  • Do you think mystical experiences are important? Is honing them important for expanding the mind?
  • How do you think mystical experiences relate to the topic of this book? Do they serve to expand the mind? If so, how?
  • Do you believe in a transcendent reality beyond humans?

Attribution substitution, art perception, and why you can’t affirmatively or negatively say that you believe in god

bikes

In this picture, which cyclist is going fastest? Most will say the cyclist on our left is going the fastest and the one on the right the slowest.

There are, however, unanswered and unanswerable questions that make it impossible to know. Did they start at the same place? Did they start at the same time? Are they moving forward or backward? Are they moving? I’ve seen sprint cyclists stand still during a race. Even if it’s a normal 1-2-3-Go! race, it’s possible the guy on the right is going the fastest and the guy on the left the slowest at the moment the image was shot. Catching up, slowing down and switching positions are normal parts of all races.

The initial guess was made on a made-up simplified explanation to a complex and unanswerable image.

* * * *

In cognitive psychology, “attribution substitution” is an automatic subconscious process that the mind uses to make speedy decisions needed to function, but that contributes to many cognitive biases, misperceptions and visual illusions. It is a heuristic, or mental shortcut, used when someone has to make a make a judgment about a complex, ambiguous situation and substitutes a more easily solved situation.

The substitution is done at the automatic subconscious level and the person does not realize he or she is actually answering a related but different question. This helps explain why many individuals can be unaware of their own biases and even persist in the bias when they are made aware of them.

An example is when you judge the intelligence or beliefs of a stranger by his or her looks, fashion, age, race, sex, accent or nationality. Determining a person’s intelligence and beliefs is a complex question and must be done at the closely examined person-by-person level. However, even those who claim they don’t, make automatic judgments from their stereotypes (simplified generalizations) before they’ve talked to the person or even when shown a picture. As said, this is an innate automatic process.

* * * *

ART JUDGMENTS

People judge a work of art by deciding what they think it is– how the pieces fit together, what is its intended meaning, genre, etc– then judging that. When someone says a work of art is trite and silly, what he is saying is his interpretation of what is the art is trite and silly.

I didn’t say the work can’t also be trite and silly.

* * * *

“DO YOU BELIEVE IN GOD?”

Answering this question “Yes” or “No” is an example of attribution substitution.

God (and I’m not making a statement there about whether or not God exists or my personal sentiments) is impossible to define. Even theologian know and say that ‘God’ itself is just a human-made word, and God is beyond human definition, language and conception. Asking if someone ‘believes in God’ is, as my professor dad would phrase it, is a non-question. One hundred different people have 100 different incomplete and subjective definitions and conceptions. Thus, all the person is actually answering is if he believes in the existence of his personal definition or conception of God which isn’t and cannot be the true or accurate depiction of God. You can’t believe in what you don’t know. Two of those people may say Yes to the question, but, as their definitions and conceptions differ, they do not believe in the same thing.

An anti-theist, or someone who answers “No,” is using the same attribution substitution process. She is making up a personal definition and conception of God, or using someone else’s definition and conception of God, then saying that that does not exist.

In short, belief in God (as a real thing, rather than an artificial conception) or belief that God doe not exist is a question that is impossible for a human to answer. The question itself is nonsensical or a “non-question,” as it’s asking for an answer as to the existence of something that question doesn’t and cannot define.

Or, as I respond when someone asks me if I believe in God, “I cannot answer that. However, if you give me your definition of God I’ll tell you if I believe in that.”

HOW WILL ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE EFFECT RELIGION?

From the ebook Philosophy of Artificial Intelligence

So long as there are humans, there will be religions. Artificial intelligence, especially sentient artificial general intelligence, will challenge and change religions.

Religions come in a wide variety of beliefs and systems. They are human centric, about human relations and connections with higher powers or transcendent realities. They are attempts to answer the big human questions: “What is the meaning and nature of the universe?”, “What is a human’s purpose and place on earth?”, “Where did humans come from and what happens after they die?”, “How should humans act?”, etc.

There are two basics aspects of religions. One is the structure, dogma, texts and spelled-out belief. These often give the specifics of the beliefs, rules of conduct, the required ceremonies, social and community order. Even if a religion involves insight into a transcendent reality, its structure is in part formed by its culture, language, time and place, politics and circumstance.

The major second aspect is the mystical mental attempt to become closer to God, the universe, transcendent reality or whatever is their belief is the ultimate power and being. Often in the form of an altered state mystical experience, this was usually the genesis of the religion, while the dogma is constructed in response to that.

Not all religions are theistic. While Abrahamic religions believe in a single god, Buddhism is atheist and believes in higher, transcendent reality. Similarly, Hinduism believes in a greater reality or intelligence (Brahman), and many ancient aboriginal religions worshiped not a god but a greater life force (such as American Indians’ ‘Great Spirit’) or a mystical, enlightened sense of reality.

Whatever is the perceived higher power or transcendent reality, all religious people try in some fashion to become closer to it. Catholics try to have a personal relationship with Jesus and their God, while Buddhists and Hindus try to gain enlightenment. All religious have their mystical traditions and subgroups, and some religions, such as Buddhism and the mentioned aboriginal religions, are seen as essentially mystical.

Artificial general intelligence, computers with sentience, superintelligent cyborgs and transhumanism would upset the order and beliefs of religions that have strict dogma and ancient scripture that says humans are the ‘highest’ being on earth and the only one with sentience and souls. Many religions are against humans ‘playing God.’ Many religious people will be against AGI, and may be one of the influences that slow it and affect its nature. Many government policy-makers, industry leaders and people who vote are religious or are influenced by traditional religious cultures and beliefs.

Artificial intelligence will find new information, perspectives and insight that will contradict or conflict with religious sacred texts and dogma, just as Darwin’s and Copernicus’ findings contradicted centuries old Christian scripture and beliefs. There will remain the hardcore believers no matter what the new facts and insights. However, the new facts and perspectives will cause shifts in these religions and prompt many people to leave these religions. In the modern age of scientific discovery and reason, many have left the Abrahamic religions or, as with the Jews, become secular, while the religions and the believers have been been changed by science and new views. Many Abrahamic believers follow science and believe the world is round and the sun in the center of the galaxy, while many denominations have changed their views and practices surrounding women, race and the environment. Some Christian and Jewish denominations have ordained women as ministers and rabbis, something that was unthinkable just decades before.

Artificial intelligence is not incompatible with some ancient religions. Hinduism and Buddhism are about methods to expand the mind and reach mental enlightenment in order to know about the self and transcendent reality. The ultimate goal of these religions is to gain complete knowledge and transcendental intelligence. If artificial intelligence aids in expanding the mind and consciousness, this would go hand in hand with these religions and should be accepted.

Similarly, mysticism across religions uses various methods to expand the mind and learn more about transcendent reality. These methods include ceremonies, meditation, dance, art, music, prayer, fasting, lifestyles and drugs. Artificial intelligence and transhumanism would be used as methods to expand the mind.

Whether you call them religions or belief systems, world pantheism and secular humanism are atheistic belief systems (or religions) that believe in science and human reason. As a method of scientific and fact discovering, artificial intelligence would influence these belief systems. Alternately, these belief systems are as human centric as theistic religions, at least in the sense that they have human created dogmas, and a differently-thinking artificial general intelligence would by its existence challenge the dogmas.

New religions will be formed, based on or influenced by artificial intelligence. Interspiritual religions incorporate aspects of various religions, along with secular and scientific views. Some new religions will envision creating an artificial god. However, really, at their best they will use artificial intelligence as means for spiritual and intellectual exploration.

Download for free the book Philosophy of Artificial Intelligence

Thermoluminescence Testing in Ancient Artifacts Authentication and Fake Detection

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Ancient Greek ceramic

Thermoluminescence Testing (TL) is an advanced scientific method used to help date ceramics, clay, lava and some bronzes. It measures the accumulation of natural radiation in the item since it was last fired at high temperature, such as when ceramics were originally made or during a volcano eruption.

Depending on the conditions, it has a margin of error of about 7% to 50%. However, even at the high margin of error, it is still useful in determining if a vase or ceramic figure is really ancient or a modern fake.


The science of thermoluminescence testing
Most natural minerals, such as the quartz and felspar contained in clay and ceramics, have the property of thermoluminescence where they retain energy from natural radioactive decay in and around the mineral. The retained energy is in the form of trapped electrons. The energy naturally increases at a steady rate over time. Raw (unfired) clay in the ground has had an accumulation of this radiation energy from millions of years.

When a high amount of heat– such as when firing clay to make a ceramic bowl, a big fire or a volcanic eruption–, this energy is released from the material as thermoluminescence. Thermoluminescence literally translates to ‘heat light’, and it is given off in the form of a faint blue light. The more energy in the material, the brighter the light. This heating that releases all the thermoluminescence sets the material’s “thermoluminescence clock” to zero. The material then again slowly accumulates the radiation from that zero point.

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ancient lava stone formed at extreme heat

The second heating– the thermoluminescence test done in a laboratory– releases the thermoluminescence that the material has gained since the first firing, and this thermoluminescence is measured.

Knowing the annual rate of thermoluminescence accumulation in the material, the time since the original heating can be calculated.  This means that, with the margin of error, it can be determined how long ago the ceramic was made, or the lava was formed by the volcanic eruption.

The simple equation for this is:
Age = accumulated themrolominence / rate of themoluinensce gain per year

Though this sounds straightforward, there are the mentioned margins of error.

In the ideal situation– such as when the item is taken directly from the site of an archaeological dig or where there is original dirt still affixed to the object– other objects and surrounding dirt and clay can be taken for testing comparison. In these cases, the margin of error is at the low end: say 7-10 percent.

However, some items are tested without any original material for comparison, and this raises the margin of error.

Further, there are environmental and other causes that make the equation’s rate of accumulation time line less than linear, raising the margin of error. Exposure to heat, light and x-rays (such as at airports or during conservation) can make the line less linear.

In extreme cases, the margin of error can be 50%. However, even with a margin of error of 50%, this is usually enough to determine if the material is really ancient or modern. The object has usually already been examined and judged by historians and other experts for stylistic, material and other related evidence of age and authenticity, and the thermoluminescence test is the final piece to the authentication puzzle. Even at the high margin of error range, it determines if the material is “old or new.”

The experts at the thermoluminescence labs will take all these and other issues that can affect the margin of error, and discuss the issues with you.

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thermoluminescence testing equipment


Other problems and issues in thermoluminescence dating
There are a number of issues that must be taken into consideration, including attempts by forgers to trick the system.

The test requires that small samples are taken from the item, though they are usually taken from inconspicuous areas and the spots can be neatly restored afterwards. 

Some forgeries involve putting together separate pieces.  A piece can be made from different ancient parts, or a combination of ancient and modern parts.  A commonplace forgery involves putting a modern fake on top of an ancient base from a broken piece.  This is problematic, because the testing samples are often taken from the inconspicuous places, such as the bottom.  

Some forgeries are modern carvings made out of old material, such such as carving a figure out of ancient Chinese brick.  Even though it is a forgery, the thermoluminescence test will say the carving is old, because the material is old.

This is why it is ideal to take samples from different parts of the object, and thermoluminescence testing should be used in conjunction with other tests and examination including a historian’s stylistic analysis and historical knowledge, x-ray/uv/ir examination to identify any restoration or alterations, looking for alterations to patina, and looking for glue or adhesive where parts are affixed together.

Spectroscopy can identify modern added materials, alterations to patina, and has been demonstrated to be useful in identifying items recently reworked from old material.  Spectroscopy identifies chemicals and compounds at the molecular level.  With an unaltered ancient item, the outer surface should spectroscopically test different thant inner parts, as the outer layer is altered by years of exposure to the elements, often gaining a patina.  If the outer layer and inner parts measure identically by a spectroscope, that suggests the material was carved recently.

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Tang Dynasty pottery horse

Since the test is destructive, porcelain, should not be thermoluminescence tested except for very special reasons.  This test is usually only done for porcelain in cases such as court dispute or insurance valuation for a broken piece.

Some have wondered if forgers will try to beat the test by artificially adding thermoluminescence by their own heating. However, experts consider this type of deception far fetched because getting the right “date” would take great technical expertise and expensive equipment that only advance laboratories have.

Getting an object thermoluminescence tested

These tests are done in a laboratory with expensive equipment and trained scientists. There are numerous places around the world that do this testing, often universities, but also a number of private institutions. Amongst the most prominent testing sites are:

Oxford Authentication in Oxford England: http://www.oxfordauthentication.com/

Daybreach Aecaemoetric Lab in Connecticut USA: http://daybreaknuclear.us/bortolot_daybreak_frameset.html

Spectroscopy in Art and Artifacts Authentication

In its most general sense, spectroscopy (often called spectrometry) is the science of examining and measuring light as it interacts with or is emitted by matter, and includes such basic things as measuring light passing through a prism and observing with our eyes the colors of objects.  When you shine a blacklight on an object to see the color and brightness of the fluorescence, that is a basic form of spectroscopy.

In art and artifacts authentication and forgrery detection, however, spectroscopy involves various highly advanced methods of analyzing the molecular structure of material and objects by shining infrared, x-rays, gamma rays and lasers at the material and analyzing the electromagnetic radiation that is returned.  

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mass spectrometer

Whether reflected, fluoresced or scattered, the returned light is determined by the molecular makeup of the material, and the advanced forms of spectroscopy can be used to not only identify the material, but identify the material’s exact chemicals and compounds and their concentrations.  

Knowing the material, chemicals and compounds is invaluable in authentication and forgery detection, and has identified some of the most sophisticated and famous forgeries. Many sophisticated forgeries have been identified because the chemicals and compounds identify the material as being from the wrong time and even originating from the wrong place.  Spectroscopic analysis can go as far as identifying the geographical origins of pigments, ivory and gems.

 

Colorimetery: the scientific measuring visual light

While spectroscopy gets highly advanced and technical, a basic method of it is called colorimetry.  Colorimetry measures the visual color of materials and objects.  

The most basic form of colorimetery, and spectroscopy, is when we judge the color of something with our own eyes.  Under white light, we see a ball as red or a coffee mug as blue.  We identify different kinds of wood in part by their different shades of brown.  The color of the light we see is determined by the atomic makeup of the material.

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The visual colors of everyday objects are determined by the atomic makeup of the materials.

However, human vision is inexact and subjective.  As demonstrated by color vision tests at the optometrist, it varies from person to person, and even a person’s eye to eye.  

Colorimetry uses a scientific instrument called a colorimeter to measure color at a precise and objective level.

Identifying color at such a precise level is important in numerous areas and for many reasons, including when examining inks, paints, dyes and gems.  In cases of court contested documents, such as wills and contracts, alterations to the writing are often  discovered because a colorimeter identities by the color that different inks were used.  The colorimeter identifies very slight differences in color of the inks that are unnoticeable by the naked eye.

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Chinese Purple, sometimes known as Han Purple, was a manufactured pigment used by ancient Chinese.  Made from the metals barium and copper, along with the elemnet silicon, their most famous use was on the Terracotta Army. Being able to identify colors and knowing when they were introduced and used is important in dating items.

 

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Precisely identifying the colors of printing inks is an important part of dating printing. Shown at the microscopic level, the magenta in this lithograph print identifies the printing as modern.

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Colorimetry is commonly used in the examination and identification of pen inks on questioned documents.

 

Infrared, Raman, Mass and X-Ray Spectroscopy

As mentioned, advanced spectroscopy shines different ranges of electromagnetic radiation on the material and examines the light that is return.  These methods use an expensive device called a spectrometer, which can be a stand alone, but is often hooked up to a computer and sometimes a microscope.  They range in size from handheld to large complex-looking systems.

While there are many different kinds and variations of advanced spectroscopy used for many purposes and in many areas, the ones most commonly used to examine art and artifacts are infrared spectroscopy, Raman spectroscopy, X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy and mass spectrometry.

Infrared spectroscopy shines infrared light and measures the inter-atomic bond vibrations.  It is based on that molecules absorb frequencies depended on their chemical structures.

Named after the 1930 Physics Nobel Prize winner C. V. Raman, Raman spectroscopy shines a laser beam of light, and measures slight energy changes to some of the scattered back light that is caused by material’s molecular vibrations.  C. V. Raman was the first to publish a paper on this vibrational scattering, which is called Raman scattering or the Raman effect.  

X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy measures the x-ray fluorescence given off from a material when shortwave x-rays or gamma rays are shined on the material.  The shined x-rays or gamma rays add energy to the atoms.  The atoms can hold this energy only for a short time before having to give it off.  The atoms give off the energy in a different form than received– a longer wavelength of x-rays that is the fluorescence.  You can see how this is related to ultraviolet or blacklight fluorescence, where the black light causes the material to give of a visible light fluorescence.

Done in a vacuum, mass spectrometry ionizes the atoms of the material and measures the mass-to-energy ratio.  Francis Aston and J. J. Thompson won Physics Nobel Prizes for their work in this area.

These different types of spectroscopy examine and measure different aspects of the materials and create different spectrum charts.  Shown on a computer screen, each spectrum is based on the molecular makeup of the material and and serves as a fingerprint for identifying the chemicals or compounds in the material.  Each chemical or compound will have its own, unique spectrum.

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Infrared spectroscopy spectrum for d-glucose. This spectrum is unique to the sugar, and serves as a fingerprint for identification.

The spectrometer has software that contains a library of the spectrums that will match up the tested material’s spectrum and tell you what what is the compound or chemical.  

The process can be as simple as shining the spectrometer on the material, and the software telling you on the screen that the material is iodine, aspirin, gold or whatever it is.  Handheld spectrometers are used at recycling centers to immediately identify the scrap metal compositions, and at airports to quickly identify mysterious substances, such as pills and powders.  

Further, the height of the peaks of the on the spectrum tells you the concentration of the chemicals in the material.

Certain ranges of light interacts better with certain chemicals ,so the different types of spectroscopy are often used complementarily with each otherwhen examining a material. For example, infrared spectroscopy is better at reading a certain range of chemicals, while Raman spectroscopy a slightly different range.  Thus, an old painting may be examined by both infrared and Raman spectrometers.

This analysis can be non-destructive— meaning no sample has to be removed from the object– and can often be be done on sight.  The scientist can bring the Raman, infrared or x-ray fluorescence spectrometer to the huge painting on the wall of the museum, rather than the painting having to be brought to the lab.

The exception is with the mass spectrometer that requires a sample, in part because the process takes place in a vacuum.

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handheld x-ray fluorescence spectrometer

 

Why being able to identify the chemicals and compounds is important to authentication and forgery detection

Knowledge of the materials and their chemical makeups in an artwork or artifact is important to authentication and forgery detection in many ways.  There is much known, and continuous research, about the invention, chemical makeup and historical use and making of materials.  It is sometimes even known where artists and cultures obtained the materials to make their objects– such as the imported minerals used to make paint or local stone to make artifacts.  Thus, spectroscopic analysis of a questioned object can identify materials, chemicals and compounds in it that are consistent with the item being genuine and of the correct age, and conversely compounds or materials inconsistent if not impossible with the item being genuine.  The following are examples:

  • Hans van Meegeren’s forgery of a 1600s Jan Vermeer painting was in part verified as fake because the paint contained Bakelite, a synthetic resin invented in the 20th century.
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Han van Meegeren forgery of a Vermeer

  • A painting forger used the correct type of lead white for an Old Master’s painting, but the specific compounds used to make the paint came from a geographical source unavailable to the original painter.
  • Forgeries of Man Ray’s photographs were identified due to too modern of chemicals in the photopaper.
  • Spectroscopy can tell the difference between natural and synthetic diamonds as it can identify the source chemicals the gems were produced from.
  • It has identified sophisticated forgeries of ancient precious metal relics, because, while the correct metal was used in the forgeries, the specific compounds of the metals were different than used by the original peoples.
  • Spectroscopy identified the crystal anatase in the ink used on the Vinland Maps, with anatase being unknown in use that early.
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the long disputed Vinland Map

  • The Hitler Diaries were identified as forgeries in part because the binding material was identified as a modern synthetic and the paper contained chemicals that were introduced after World War II.