Friday, May 16, 2008
New York Times columnist David Brooks comments on a trend that hardly surprises me, given today's near-universal intellectual sloppiness and confusion: The embrace of mysticism by scientists. Indeed, although he fails to integrate the progression correctly (or particularly well), he does outline it in the way it unfolded.
Let's follow his outline, but in the vein of understanding how this progression follows from some of the philosophical errors common among today's intellectuals.
In the following, Brooks' comments are in plain text, and mine are in bold.
To these self-confident researchers, the idea that the spirit might exist apart from the body is just ridiculous. So far, so good.
- Instead, everything arises from atoms. Genes shape temperament. Brain chemicals shape behavior. Assemblies of neurons create consciousness. Free will is an illusion. Human beings are "hard-wired" to do this or that. Religion is an accident. Most scientists are determinists and, to my knowledge, regard the idea of free will as inherently mystical. Determinism flies in the face of the evidence that man has volition, but to my knowledge, only Objectivists have entertained the idea of volition as being a form of causation inherent to intelligent beings, and arising from their material nature. On top of that, few understand that it is philosophy that sets the terms of the debate about epistemology, the nature of the mind, and indeed, what constitutes science. So they study the mind philosophically half-cocked and end up attempting to make pronouncements of a philosophic nature based on their evidence, when what they desperately need is a correct understanding of the nature of the mind in order to interpret this evidence properly.
In this materialist view, people perceive God's existence because their brains have evolved to confabulate belief systems. That does follow from materialism, if you mistake the widespread existence of religious belief for evidence that it confers an evolutionary advantage.
If they suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy, they will show signs of hyperreligiosity, an overexcitement of the brain tissue that leads sufferers to believe they are conversing with God. Religion is a tangled knot of horrible philosophical premises and legitimate aspirations -- and the emotions that go with them. Imagine the insights we could have if scientists better understood what religion and emotions were when they were studying them! Instead, we have determinists ignorant about both looking at this. Brooks' hero, Tom Wolfe saw where this would go.
The two sides have argued about whether it is reasonable to conceive of a soul that survives the death of the body and about whether understanding the brain explains away or merely adds to our appreciation of the entity that created it. The scientists are wasting their time here. Like I said, science does not set the terms of philosophical debates. It can eliminate some of the "gaps" in "god of the gaps" types of arguments, but this just proves my point.
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 to end up challenging faith in the Bible. This follows from the nature of faith and the beginning of that slippery slope was the original concession: to "debate" the faithful at all.
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. The false reason-emotion dichotomy pays off in spades for the religionists as scientists, disarmed in the face of (1) evidence that emotions might (gasp!) have a survival role for human beings, (2) their own ignorance of the nature of emotions, and (3) their own implicit acceptance of the reason-emotion dichotomy, find "evidence" of the supernatural.
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. If altruism is everywhere, and a material being cannot have free will, widespread philosophical errors and their consequences must be instinctual!
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. What did I say a while ago about having a grasp of the nature of emotions and of religion before attempting to study what goes on in the brain during religious-types of experiences?
- 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. See Sam Harris.
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. Yeah. The beliefs that already saturate our culture like a sponge left to soak in a sewer.
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. Unexpected -- only to the philosophical victims of Immanuel Kant....
This scientist disagrees.
Today: Corrected a typo from a quote. Evidently, I managed to change "hard-wired" to "hard-wire" after a cut-and-paste without realizing it. You can't sic 'em for being right!