Saturday, February 10, 2007

Getting Genetic Treatment for My God Problem

{ Audio of this essay @ 11min @ 1.3MB } There is a controversial position about religion, which runs as follows:

“[S]ome human beings bear a gene which gives them a predisposition to episodes interpreted by some as religious revelation.... the God gene (Vmat2), is not an encoding for the belief in God itself but a physiological arrangement that produces the sensations associated, by some, with the presence of God or other mystic experiences, or more specifically spirituality as a state of mind.”[1]

The main proponent of this view is none other than geneticist Dr. Dean Hamer, the director of the Gene Structure and Regulation Unit at the U.S. National Cancer Institute.[2] Hamer has multiple publications in heavyweight scientific journals,[3] and a full pedigree as a well-trained scientist making claims within his field of expertise; thus, his studies correlating human behavior – in this case religious behavior – with genetic profiles cannot be easily dismissed as uninformed quackery.

I would like to give a quick over-view of two positions which share similarities to Hamer's claim -- namely, from Sigmund Freud and from Ludwig Feuerbach. After this, I would like to develop a thought experiment that builds on the assumption that Dr. Hamer got it right.


Note well that a position like Hamer's is not exactly a new take on explaining religion, but merely the latest instance of a more general program which says that religion is sufficiently explained by some other naturalistic phenomena. A couple of examples can be adduced from history.

1. In Sigmund Freud's time religion was explained in terms of his (now passe, if not outright dismissed) theory of psychology:

“When the growing individual finds that he is destined to remain a child for ever, that he can never do without protection against strange superior powers, he lends those powers the features belonging to the figure of his father.” [4]

God is an idealized father figure for humans, providing psychological security against the travails of life's troubles. Indeed, God is constructed in man’s own image, inversely from what orthodox Christian theology teaches; and, stands as the “ultimate wish-fulfillment”[4] of human desire for a loving father.

2. A more interesting variety of naturalistic explanation can be found in Ludwig Feuerbach. On his view, God is an idealization of that singularly special trait of humans: consciousness. As he writes, “God is the idea of the species as an individual…freed from all limits which exist in the consciousness and feeling of the individual … . (GW V:268f; EC 153)”[5] So God is less seen as a simple abstraction from a family father to a heavenly father, but as a more erudite abstraction from an attribute shared by all humans to some singular entity having the attribute unto perfection -- again, the magic attribute in question is consciousness. (I should add that since what consciousness comes to is anything but clear, it is hardly surprising that it is likewise anything but clear what Feuerbach 's position comes to.)

Typically, advocates of religion have claimed that positions like Freud's, Feuerbach's and other so-called naturalistic reformulations of religion are merely consistent with God's subtle revelations of God's self to humanity, and are hardly threatening arguments: Yes -- God is indeed like a father, and this would be one way of seeing (understanding) his role (by analogy) in human affairs; thus, Freud has merely identified this particular aspect of God's revelation. Likewise, Yes -- God is indeed a perfect exemplar of consciousness, hence Feuerbach has merely deduced this attribute of God from careful philosophical speculation. In God's prevenient grace at the design and creation of the world, God has built-in, so to speak, evidence of himself.

The same kind of deflective reasoning can be applied to the God-gene hypothesis. On the assumption that God has designed the world such that natural biological processes bring about self-aware agents, it need be no surprise that the very gene-design which allows consciousness has the advantage of “pointing toward” the existence of God. Or so religious advocates could claim.

So the Freud, Feuerbach , and Hamer cases can indeed be explained away with the handy theologizing, but the convenience of such theologizing also makes the pious view indefeasible – which is to say amassing further information would not be able to falsify or verify such theologizing:

“Falsifiability is “the most fundamental rule of evidential reasoning” and requires that “it must be possible to conceive of evidence that would prove the claim false.”[6] If nothing conceivable could disprove a claim, evidence wouldn’t matter and the claim is meaningless, logically impossible. Such claims are devoid of content, useless; emotional, but not factual.”[7]

In this instance, all that earlier deflective theologizing ends up taking any such evidence as supportive, for one can always posit that God subtly pre-designed the system such that our genes bear witness to our brains that we are children of God.


Defeasibility issues aside, stipulate for purposes of philosophizing that Hamer got it right: that my genome is structured such that I cannot help but to interpret my first-person experiences as God experiences. Perhaps when I hear gospel music[8] on the radio, I immediately want to contemplate what the nature of a superbly loving, universal mind would be like. Again, when I'm at work, in the pharmaceutical laboratory, I see the intricacy of cells and viri, and I cannot but help my believing that some grand designer has put this world together. Gothic Cathedrals[9] make me ponder the esoteric beauty of the Roman tradition. Amish carriages allure me towards the basic truths of living a simple life when deeply embedded in a tight-knit community.[10] On and on it goes.

One day, I decide that such religious motifs in my consciousness are taking time away from the practical affairs of life. Over the course of my day, I've noted two, sometimes even three hours (when I try to total them) are spent thinking along purely religious lines; and never, of course, as a pre-planned part of my daily routine. It's just happening. I need help. I need genetic therapy.

Genetic therapy obtains when

a 'normal' gene is inserted into the genome to replace an 'abnormal,' disease-causing gene. A carrier molecule called a vector must be used to deliver the therapeutic gene to the patient's target cells. Currently, the most common vector is a virus that has been genetically altered to carry normal human DNA. Viruses have evolved a way of encapsulating and delivering their genes to human cells in a pathogenic manner. Scientists have tried to take advantage of this capability and manipulate the virus genome to remove disease-causing genes and insert therapeutic genes.[11]

Having heard about the big money the US government spent on sequencing the human genome, I immediately take advantage of online information, and learn the following particulars about the process:

Target cells such as the patient's liver or lung cells are infected with the viral vector. The vector then unloads its genetic material containing the therapeutic human gene into the target cell. The generation of a functional protein product from the therapeutic gene restores the target cell to a normal state.[11]

Yes, that's the treatment for me! Ultimately, I decide to retain one Dr. William French Anderson, former director of the Gene Therapy Laboratories at the University of Southern California (USC) -- a man with a very shady past, a terribly tarnished reputation,[12] and an extraordinary amount of technical know-how. He needs the money; I need the procedure.

We reach an agreement.

In and out of his secret lab, after a few days of the flu (from the viral vector), and with a large transfer from Guinea's West Africa Conakry Bank to a private account in Mexico, I'm duly on my way.

Admittedly, there were a few days of worrying afterwards. I was not sure whether I was thinking about God (which meant all my money and time was wasted), or whether I was, in good second-order fashion, thinking about my thinking about God (which meant I was merely pondering memories, not having new on-going religious thoughts as a result of my consciousness doing its normal routine).

There came a moment, however, went I noted two full days without any religious thoughts at all. (We had a big government audit at the lab.) But then, suddenly, I found myself back at worrying on religious topics; but, this time I realized it was just me obsessing. In time, this re-dwelling of my own thoughts would pass, not unlike what a state trooper experiences after viewing a nasty carweck scene.

I'm cured.

At a very conservative estimate of two-and-a-half hours a day, at 35 more years of life (to assume an average life expectancy of 72 years for good-ol' American me), I've been given an extra 31, 937 hours to live my own life – and those are waking hours. Those are hours to think my own thoughts, to have true autonomy of choice, to live the victorious life free of that horrid malady.

Quite of my own will and with the full backing of modern genetics, to this very day, I can voluntarily praise God for His grace, for giving us science and technology so that I no longer suffer from that terrible religious malady which forced me to involuntarily praise Him in the past.


[photo] “The God Gene” Neil Hague Gallery

[1] “God Gene” Wikipedia

[2] “Staff Pages, Scientists, Dean H. Hamer, Ph.D.” Center for Cancer Research

[3] “Scientists, Dean H. Hamer, Ph.D., Selected Publications” Center for Cancer Research

[4] Freud, Sigmund. The Future of an Illusion. Trans. Peter Gay (New York: Norton, 1961), p. 30.

[5] “Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

[6] Lett, James. 1990. “A field guide to critical thinking.” Skeptical Inquirer 14(2):153 (winter).

[7] Paul Nickel “Reasoning, Writing and Rare Resources: The Independent Thinker’s Toolbox” Oregonians for Rationality]

[8] “So - #1 Online source for Southern Gospel, Gospel Music, News & Christian Resouces ”

[9] “Gothic Medieval Cathedrals Virtual Tours” New York Carver

[10] “The Amish & The Plain People”

[11] “Gene Therapy” Human Genome Project Information (US Government Site)

[12] “Gene therapy scientist sentenced to 14 years on sexual abuse charges” People's Daily Online (English Version)


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At 5:52 PM, Anonymous w0lph said...


I believe that Dr. Hammer's statement is true. That is, the actual existence of a "god-gene" (which is confusing since Hammer stressed any sort of mystical experience) does/not qualify God's existence. As I read your article, I find my own mind wandering (metaphor) down the path of the the following argument:

i. if an object is "holy", then it has states that we cannot know about.
ii. God is such an object.
... God is something that we cannot know about.

Even though we might have a mystical experience (God reaching down from on high, and instructing young lab-bound montgomery on how to build a dna strand that eliminates cancer), that still does not answer the problem of God's existence (see above argument). Thus, we can have any experience that we want, and God still not exist.

Freud's view is promising, but ultimately NOT convincing, since it is historically stated (in most cultures that are monotheistic, or at least support a superior God -Zues, for example) That God contains properties that we simply do not have, not that we can obtin them, but that simply do not exist for us. We can then say that Freud is wrong for suggesting that God is the father figure that we attach ontological dependce upon, since such a father figure would be incompatible with anything that we know.

Feurbach -to me- is a little more entertaining: God is (in the words of Neizstche) a super-man. Although, I believe this suffers from the same ontological problem as Frued's explanation. yet, if God was a super-man, than he could concievably have properties that would exist only for him (like being able to heal the blind). But God would still be bound to the laws of physics, and therefore, God also cannot be simply a super-man.

And even to the point: a god-gene fails in the face of a telelogical argument on GOD, but not neccessarily on mysticism, or even the afterlife, since we can know about properties of the afterlife (brilliant white light, etc). But God, as he stands on his own, is unknowable.

My point is this: God is unknowable because there can be no object that exists that is "unknowable". God is in essence, an epistemological contradiction, and is not falsefiable.

However, the god-gene does have some potentional: can we say genetic bootstrapping? Say we do make it out into the wild frontier of the stars, we could configure our brains to interpret interstellar (or other kinds) data via an interface to our god-gene. Mystical illusions could help us download complex patterns into our brains so that we could navigate advanced spacecraft, build entire planets, and even live out an eternity in come quantum-generated state, whilst our bodies are jacked into wires. I don't know, and such a future seems pointless. Maybe my god-gene is telling me that without God, there can be no hope of an afterlife that is at least partially familiar with my 4-dimensional surroundings.

Take care.

At 4:12 PM, Blogger ladylittle said...

i am so glad you are now posting audio to accompany the blog...

At 7:01 PM, Blogger Isaac said...

has any of the discussion in the philosophy/theology depts centered around the claims made by james cameron? i'd be interested to hear your take on it after the program airs.

At 2:54 PM, Anonymous Mr. Wright said...

Thought you might find that link entertaining.


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