Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Religion and Neuroscience

You know that something's happening when David Brooks writes a column about Neural Buddhism.
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.
And this:
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.
Half-right. It's going to have an effect on the public discourse, but things are still pretty mechanistic in the brain. The clockwork brain may have been the last of the old Laplacian concepts to die, but Brooks is trying to replace it with something mysterious and unknowable. In fact, the brain will turn out to be something pretty prosaic: a very large, non-linear pattern matching system exhibiting self-organizing complex behavior.

It's true that the neural correlates of a religious or transcendant state are beginning to be understood and have been shown to be good for you. And it's true we've found that all sorts of altruistic behavior have genetic influences that are counterintuitive if you look at simple individual well-being. But the attendant mystery is purely of the "we need to run some more experiments so we can refine our theory" sort, not any great unknowable.

That's pretty thin beer for those that need to believe in something greater than themselves. Those that need to believe in an afterlife are in even more trouble. This is not where the great accomodation between religion and science will occur. That may never happen.

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