Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Neural Buddhists

David Brooks has a fascinating column in today's New York Times that makes some provocative claims about the effect of cognitive science on our understanding of God. Here are some highlights:

The atheism debate is a textbook example of how a scientific revolution can change public culture. Just as “The Origin of Species reshaped social thinking, just as Einstein’s theory of relativity affected art, so the revolution in neuroscience is having an effect on how people see the world.

And yet my guess is that the atheism debate is going to be a sideshow. The cognitive revolution is not going to end up undermining faith in God, it’s going end up challenging faith in the Bible.

Over the past several years, the momentum has shifted away from hard-core materialism. The brain seems less like a cold machine. It does not operate like a computer. Instead, meaning, belief and consciousness seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings. Those squishy things called emotions play a gigantic role in all forms of thinking. Love is vital to brain development.

Researchers now spend a lot of time trying to understand universal moral intuitions. Genes are not merely selfish, it appears. Instead, people seem to have deep instincts for fairness, empathy and attachment.

Scientists have more respect for elevated spiritual states. Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania has shown that transcendent experiences can actually be identified and measured in the brain (people experience a decrease in activity in the parietal lobe, which orients us in space). The mind seems to have the ability to transcend itself and merge with a larger presence that feels more real.

This new wave of research will not seep into the public realm in the form of militant atheism. Instead it will lead to what you might call neural Buddhism.

If you survey the literature (and I’d recommend books by Newberg, Daniel J. Siegel, Michael S. Gazzaniga, Jonathan Haidt, Antonio Damasio and Marc D. Hauser if you want to get up to speed), you can see that certain beliefs will spread into the wider discussion.

First, the self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships. Second, underneath the patina of different religions, people around the world have common moral intuitions. Third, people are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love. Fourth, God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is.

In their arguments with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the faithful have been defending the existence of God. That was the easy debate. The real challenge is going to come from people who feel the existence of the sacred, but who think that particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits. It’s going to come from scientists whose beliefs overlap a bit with Buddhism.

In unexpected ways, science and mysticism are joining hands and reinforcing each other. That’s bound to lead to new movements that emphasize self-transcendence but put little stock in divine law or revelation. Orthodox believers are going to have to defend particular doctrines and particular biblical teachings. They’re going to have to defend the idea of a personal God, and explain why specific theologies are true guides for behavior day to day. I’m not qualified to take sides, believe me. I’m just trying to anticipate which way the debate is headed. We’re in the middle of a scientific revolution. It’s going to have big cultural effects.



Read it all here.

James Hrynyshyn has a detailed critique of this column that concludes:

We may indeed be headed for a cultural shift that eschews a personalized god in favor of a more abstract an ill-defined alternative that, as Brooks writes, "can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is." But I don't see how that's all that different from what "a new group of assertive atheists," to use his words again, are pushing for.

Sam Harris, in The End of Faith, wraps up with an extra chapter devoted to the merits of meditation. Richard Dawkins has long espoused a philosophy that embraces a profound respect for the incredible complexity and beauty of nature. Einstein said pretty much the same thing more than half a century ago. And what about the Deists of the 18th century?

Granted, these thinkers would probably not use Brooks' language, but in the end, they're all talking about getting rid of religion and replacing it with something grounded in the here and now. This is not a new idea. It's great that Brooks is paying attention to what's going on in neuroscience. I wish more popular media pundits would do as much. But what he's anticipating and what the materialists have been discussing for hundreds of years are essentially the same thing: the death of religion.



Read it all here.

I agree with James, but also think that Brooks overstates the impact of neoroscience on faith.

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