May 14 2008

David Brooks and Neural Buddhism

Writing in today”s New York Times, columnist David Brooks discusses the relationship between neuroscience and mysticism – saying that in the future the debate will center around a concept that he calls “neural Buddhism”. He says he is not taking sides, just pointing out that this is where the real debate is going to happen. Well – let the debate begin.

First I want to point out that I read David Brooks regularly because I find his style to be very rational, educated, and thoughtful. He is one of those writers who is worth reading regardless of your political ideology. I particularly enjoy those articles in which he takes a step back and looks at the current political topics of discussion in the context of broader cultural trends. That is indeed what he is attempting to do in this article. Although he is clearly well-read on this topic, I think he has misinterpreted the implications of current neuroscience.

To summarize his position, he is saying that recently there has been a public debate between militant atheists and religious believers. In essence the atheists, like Hitchens and Dawkins, have been challenging believers to defend their belief in God. He writes:

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.

I have no problem with differentiating between an abstract god (a form of deism) and specific religious faiths, such as in the Christian bible. I don”t think any science can threaten a faith that keeps itself strictly outside the empirical realm of science. But it does box religion out of the “magisteria” of science (to borrow Stephen Gould”s term). Some may argue that it makes religious views unnecessary – and I agree, but we have to ask “necessary” from what perspective? From a scientific perspective, surely.

But then Brooks goes on to clarify his point and show where he is going:

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.

Here I think Brooks has gleaned the wrong lesson from neuroscience, or perhaps he is just reading about neuroscience from a narrow perspective. Neuroscience, if anything, has become more hard-core materialist – except for those who superfluously lay their deist or Buddhist beliefs on top of the findings of neuroscience.

The statement: “meaning, belief and consciousness seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings,” seems particularly odd. If you remove the word “mysteriously” this is actually a good summary of the materialist model of neuroscience. Yes – everything we experience as mind and self is an emergent property of the firing of networks of neurons in the brain. Brooks seems to be arguing that because this process is still “mysterious”, meaning that it is not well understood scientifically, that it is therefore justification for mysticism. This is nothing more than a god-of-the-gaps argument – inserting mysticism into the current gaps in our scientific knowledge.

Assessing scientific knowledge is always more informative if we take a dynamic rather than static view. In other words – how successful has the current paradigm been in framing meaningful questions and predicting outcomes of research, is a far better question than – are there gaps in our understanding at this moment in time. The purely materialist paradigm of neuroscience has been wildly successful – and increasingly so recently. But the brain is outrageously complex, so of course we still have a long way to go. This is no way points to the need to insert mysticism into the process.

Brooks also writes:

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.

Genes can still be “selfish” even if people are not. It is true that people have an inherent tendency to be empathic, and that we have an innate sense of justice, fairness, and reciprocity. At the same time there are solid research programs showing that such emotions are just as much brain functions as any other mental function, and that personality tendencies are coded in the genes. Further, such traits do not run contrary to evolutionary theories, but rather evolutionary psychology has gone a long way to explain why such traits provide an evolutionary advantage. Each step of the way, materialist explanations are doing just fine -without the need for mysticism.

Brooks then continues this pattern of correctly stating the current findings of science, but then completely misinterpreting their implications, when he writes:

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.

There is a far simpler interpretation of such experiences than mysticism. Consciousness is a dynamic real-time process that results from the interaction of various parts of the brain. Some of the localizable brain functions that are normally part of consciousness are so fundamental that we take them for granted – we have no intuitive sense that we even need them. For example, there are brain structures that create the sense that we are inside our bodies. There are others that make us feel as if we are separate from the rest of the universe. If you impair the functioning of these brain structures with drugs, or when the brain is under physiological stress, or (recently) deliberately suppressing them for laboratory research – then the result is either the sensation of floating free of the body or feeling as if you are one with the universe.

Brooks implies that these experiences are the brain “transcending” its physical self and merging with something real and mystical outside the brain. But a far more elegant and consistent interpretation of the research as that these experiences exist entirely within the brain. When a fundamental neurological component of consciousness is missing, the result is a bizarre experience with unfamiliar elements. Such experiences will seem completely real – because we only have our own brain activity as a standard for what feels real.

Most, if not all, cultures discovered local pharmaceuticals that impair brain function and produce unreal neurological experiences, which were then promptly interpreted as mystical in nature. Ironically, modern neuroscience gives us a completely materialist interpretation of such experiences, and yet Brooks is arguing that these studies support a mystical interpretation. He seems to be misinterpreting the research, implying that our brains are wired to experience the mystical. Rather, these experiences happen when part of brain function is impaired – feeling as if we are floating, for example, seems to be the default sensation unless that part of the brain which evolved to do so is functioning to place our subjective sense of self within our physical bodies.

Brooks then lays out the beliefs he thinks flow from modern neuroscience:

First, the self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships.

I agree with this. What we think of as our self or our subjective experience of consciousness is the result of a dynamic and real-time interaction of various parts of the brain. If you alter this dynamic process, you change the self. But all components of the self, so far, seem to be in the brain. This supports the materialist model of self.

Second, underneath the patina of different religions, people around the world have common moral intuitions.

Again, I agree with this. Brooks seems to be implying, however, that there is a mystical interpretation of our shared moral intuition. However, purely biological interpretations are quite adequate and are also very productive scientifically. The best evidence currently implies that personality is housed in the brain – if you change the brain, you change the personality. Further, personality tendencies are very strongly influenced (if not determined) by our genes. Humans share common moral senses because of our shared heritage. Also – evolutionary scientists are making great progress in explaining how human moral senses provide a survival advantage. In other words – human morality evolved.

Third, people are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love.

This is the point that I think Brooks most fundamentally misinterprets. There are probably two components to such experiences. The first is as I described above – parts of the brain are required for us to have the full normal physical experience we describe as our self or consciousness. When certain brain parts are impaired, we have something less than this full physical experience, producing unfamiliar sensations of floating or connectedness. There is no reason to think that such experiences are “transcendent” or “elevated” and every reason to think they are mundane and neurological.

Let me give an analogy. Many people experience sleep paralysis in which upon awakening they feel as if they are paralyzed, they sense an evil presence in the room with them, they may feel as if they are floating, and they also may experience dream-like hallucinations. Such experiences are often interpreted as “real” – meaning they represent an encounter with something real out in the physical world (like aliens or ghosts). However, we now understand and can completely explain such experiences as the misfiring of specific centers in the brain that are responsible for the sleeping, dreaming, and waking states – producing a fusion state, or waking dream.

There is no more of a need to invoke transcendent mysticism to explain out of body experiences as there is to invoke ghosts to explain sleep paralysis.

The second component to such mystical experiences is likely a hard-wired tendency to believe in a profound meaning beyond oneself – culturally interpreted as god, or an afterlife, or something similar. It is not clear whether this simply is a cultural interpretation of the depersonalization that occurs when certain brain structures malfunction, or whether it is a separate phenomenon. If we assume that it is separate, then it requires a separate explanation. The lack of a current explanation does not imply mysticism – again, that would simply be a god-of-the-gaps logical fallacy. Also, there are plausible materialist explanations.

For example, we now know that altruism, even to the point of self-sacrifice, has a Darwinian advantage. We are more likely to spread our genes to future generations through our kin (so-called kin selection) but also, the willingness to help others at our own expense is likely to engender reciprocity, so others may make sacrifices for us in the future. Computer models show that selective pressures favor altruism.

Part of the altruistic impulse is the sense that there is some meaning to existence that is beyond ourselves – even if it is just the tribe, our people, our culture, etc. Therefore there may have been selective pressures for our hard-wiring to include a sense of the profound, of a greater good than ourselves.

Fourth, God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is.

God can also be understood as a cultural construct to explain unusual neurological experiences, including feeling one with the universe, and to give a concrete conception to the abstract sense of a meaning or greater good that is beyond our individual existence.\r\n\r\nIn other words, there is a purely materialist explanation for all that is interpreted as mysticism. The materialist model of neuroscience has been progressing rapidly and has proven to be a powerful explanatory system and basis for fruitful research.

Brooks concludes:

In unexpected ways, science and mysticism are joining hands and reinforcing each other.

I disagree, for all the reasons I already stated. I want to further point out that this statement is exactly the kind of statement that some mystic-loving physicists and others have applied to modern physics, especially quantum mechanics (see The Tao of Physics, for example). But there is no more reason to insert Eastern mysticism into neuroscience than there was into quantum mechanics. The predictions of the “quantum Buddhists” have not materialized – even after decades. Modern physics still pursues its materialist research, and the promise of the merger of mysticism and physics has not materialized.

Likewise, I see no merger of neuroscience and mysticism. Quite the opposite. The ghost in the machine is long dead and only the machine remains.

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49 responses so far

49 Responses to “David Brooks and Neural Buddhism”

  1. petrucioon 12 May 2008 at 12:57 pm

    I agree with your points, Steve. It basically boils down to semantics.

  2. deciuson 13 May 2008 at 5:43 am

    Steve, it seems to me that Brooks is advocating higher states of consciousness emerging as epiphenomena, rather than a dual quality of the mind, as implied by your “ghost in the machine” remark.
    Nevertheless, even if my interpretation turned out to be correct, your critique still stands on each point.

    On a footnote, one day I will have to take you to task for your benevolent standing on deism, which seems to be all too common, and yet has no firm rational basis, in my view.

  3. Sastraon 13 May 2008 at 7:41 pm

    If modern neurology confirms God, what kind of findings would have disconfirmed God? It seems to me that Brooks, like many other fans of mysticism, is doing nothing more than making an elaborate appeal to a variation of the old question “why is there something rather than nothing?”

    I suspect that Brooks real point is not that “meaning, belief and consciousness seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings.” Even if we had a play-by-play description, so what? It’s that they emerge at all. Presumably, if materialism was true, we would find out that the brain was a “cold machine.” We would have discovered that people felt nothing, and never felt any sense of right and wrong, and never had mystical experiences.

    Well, how wrong the “hard-core” materialists were! It turns out we DO have moral intuitions, a sense of fairness and empathy, and there are times when we feel as if we are in contact with a Transcendent Importance.

    Take that, Straw-Man Reductive Materialism! Neurology has confirmed spirituality. Not that we needed any brain studies to tell us any of this. But it’s nice to confirm what spirituality has been telling and telling and telling us all along. We feel emotions. Materialism is finally falsified: the more successful it is at explaining how we have emotions, the more it is wrong, because under materialism there wouldn’t be any.

    Dude.

  4. Dr Benwayon 13 May 2008 at 8:48 pm

    Materialism. It’s what’s for dinner!

    It won’t hurt you so long as you don’t get hung up on the word “merely.”

  5. petrucioon 13 May 2008 at 10:39 pm

    @decius:

    I think Steve probably thinks deism is also crap, just like the rest of us. It’s clearly the god of the pre-Big-Bang gap.

    But if you pick on gods too hard, you may end up getting swept away in it, and can’t do nothing else. People will focus on that whenever they talk about you, and you won’t be able to focus on other topics. For example, it would probably be a bad move to cast Dawkins or Hitchens on the Skeptologists.

    You want to avoid being labeled as a ‘New Atheist’ depending on who you are and what you do. So the rogues tell us that you have to be an agnostic if you want to be intellectually honest. Well that’s crap and you know it, rogues. You do live your life as if there were no gods, and for all intents and purposes, IMO, you are atheists. The problem with telling other people you are an agnostic, is that it would in their minds create the illusion that you are undecided – like it’s a 50/50 decision.

  6. Steven Novellaon 14 May 2008 at 8:39 am

    Petrucio

    We have been over this topic ad nauseum. I suggest you look for the relevant threads in the SGU forums.

    You are incorrect in your assumptions – this is NOT posturing to avoid pissing people off.

    Here is my position – very briefly. It is important to distinguish between propositions that are false and those that are outside the arena of science. Those ideas that cannot be tested, even in theory, are simply not science, and they are unknowable (I am talking about factual claims, not value judgments).

    Unknowable propositions are worse than wrong – they are unnecessary. As I said – deism is unnecessary. That doesn’t mean there is no god – it means that the notion of a god (depending upon how it is conceived, but the basic idea of a being outside the confines of our physical universe and its laws) is simply unknowable. It is simply wrong to say that we can know god does not exist. The only logically consistent position is agnosticism. But you can combine that with the notion that such unfalsifiable claims are unnecessary. If someone chooses to have faith in such a thing, like the FSM, I really don’t care – as long as they keep it pure faith and do not make any logical or empirical claims – that’s cheating.

    Regarding the term agnostic – I would rather have the opportunity to explain to people why I am agnostic than to create the other misconception (which is absolutely used as often as possible by believers) that atheists have faith in the non-existence of god. You’re burned either way, and you will have to explain yourself, so don’t shy away from philosophical purism.

  7. daedalus2uon 14 May 2008 at 9:21 am

    It is interesting that David Brooks uses Buddhism in his example of spirituality in rationalizing his belief that spiritual experiences provide evidence for God (as he defines God). A belief in God or Gods is not a part of Buddhism.

    The Dalai Lama has said that if science disproves a tenet of Buddhism, then Buddhism will change. It is not that scientists will adapt their understanding to conform to Buddhist teachings, rather Buddhist teachings will conform themselves to science.

    Spiritual teachings do not “reinforce” scientific understanding. Those teachings may supply anecdotal experiences which provide starting points for the generation of hypotheses that can be explained by physiology and tested by experiment. Spiritual teachings may equally well obstruct progress by blinding individuals to the underlying physiology and leading researchers down blind alleys. I think the search for the ghost in the machine is an example of that.

  8. DevilsAdvocateon 14 May 2008 at 9:44 am

    I sense increasingly irrelevant spiritual and religious believers and proponents grasping at the shirt tails of science as it whizzes past and ahead (in the big-picture sense), hoping to be taken along as a some sort of component in the rapidly growing understanding afforded by the sciences.

    This was an excellent deconstruction of Brooks’ attempt to pin the mysticism tail to the scientific donkey trotting past.

  9. Fifion 14 May 2008 at 10:41 am

    daedalus2u – Actually there are many schools of Buddhism (just like in Christianity and all other major faiths, it adapted to the local belief systems and people as it spread).

    While it’s common for North Americans to see Buddhism as secular and non-deist – and certainly that’s often how it’s promoted in North America and how many people practice it – it’s common for various sects have many gods, demons and so on – including Tibetan Buddhism (even within Tibetan Buddhism there are different factions and schools, some so bitterly competitive for power that they engage in murder). The Dalai Lama only has influence over his own sect so he doesn’t actually have the authority or power to “change Buddhism” and is already experiencing resistance from within Buddhism.

    That said, I have great respect for the Dalai Lama and there are certainly Buddhist practices that are proving to make for interesting studies on the brain and how mind “arises” (and no doubt analogous practices in other religions involving concentrating on feelings of love, though perhaps fewer awareness practices). He’s an interesting figure – particularly since he himself seems to question some of the practices and beliefs of the religion that he, though no volition of his own, ended up being the (god)head of.

    It’s also relevant to remember that the monks being tested are people who have been intensely meditating for the majority of their lives. It’s a bit like testing an Olympic athlete really, not the common person who runs every once in a while. It will be interesting to see what the research on average people reveals.

  10. rbstansfieldon 14 May 2008 at 2:04 pm

    I cannot understand how someone can see evidence that parietal activity decreases when you meditate suggests that people *actually* are transcending anything. People cling to dualism irrationally.

    It’s really hard to explain to people that dualism is dead. I find Chomsky’s approach (as in this awesome speech: http://news.uconn.edu/commencement/speeches/1999_Chomsky.php) works better than the more intuitive approach you use here.

    Most people don’t want to think of themselves as machines. No matter how hard you try to communicate the awesome complexity of the brain, if your point is that it there is no ghost in it, your listener will be insulted.

    Ultimately, the nature of matter and energy is itself quite a mysterious thing. And though we know a lot of how it behaves and understand many of the myriad ways it tends to self-organize, we know very little about exactly what we are made of and why. We gloss over a lot of the mystery when we teach physics and chemistry, often with no loss of fidelity. But it is one thing to explain the atomic structure of gold to a student, because that student can feel and see and value the gold no matter its atomic weight. It is quite another to explain to the student that he himself is made of gooey gray and white matter, and that all his subjective experiences arise from that stuff. He will never reject his qualia in favor of your explanation.

    I think Sagan was doing much the same thing with his “we are made of star stuff” line. Connect people to the mystery of the natural world and they will more willingly understand. Call them machines and they will plug their ears.

  11. Roy Nileson 14 May 2008 at 3:50 pm

    Excellent comment as usual from rbstansfield (among others as well, of course). But I have a quibble with the following:

    “Most people don’t want to think of themselves as machines. No matter how hard you try to communicate the awesome complexity of the brain, if your point is that it there is no ghost in it, your listener will be insulted.”

    I think the point has to be made at some point to any listener, or student as the case may be, that there IS a ghost in the brain, and that’s its ghostly influence remains a reality.

    And that as machines go, the brain is the mother of them all.

  12. fontinalison 14 May 2008 at 4:19 pm

    Cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary psychology may be a little soft around the edges, but for Brooks to have misinterpreted the findings so completely is very odd. I can’t decide if he simply needs to read a few more books by those actually working in the disciplines — or a few less by Deepak Chopra.

  13. DevilsAdvocateon 14 May 2008 at 5:53 pm

    To add to Mr. Nile’s observation…

    I’ve read Brooks many times before and he is smarter than this, so I’d have to suspect some personal bias is at work, knowingly or otherwise.

    For some, it is no great effort to abandon religious or spiritual beliefs wherever science proves How Things Are is different than was supposed. Personally, I was raised in an a-religious home or origin – father vocally atheist (with the subtlety and fine grasp as had Archie Bunker on race), mother lapsed Catholic out of church since adolescence, and hence, I was never indoctrinated into any particular belief system. I’ve never been to a regular church service of any kind, except for weddings and funerals. Nothing I learned from science gored any ox of mine. The transistion from ignorance to knowledge in those areas was painless.

    Not everyone has it so easy. Many atheists/agnostics – most of them I’d guess – began life with some degree of indoctrination into religion, with services attendance, praying, recitations, rituals, ceremonies, etc., and a set of causal beliefs that will be proved wrong by science. That person, no matter how intelligent or well-educated, had a considerable transformation to make to get from traditional belief to atheism/agnosticism: from denial, to open minded investigation, to evaluation, to consideration of the possibility the spiritual beliefs were wrong, to acceptance, to making those changes indicated by the new knowledge. Along the way all sorts of secondary and tertiary changes are instigated, such as wondering how mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, and the preacher got it so wrong – what else did they get wrong? This can be a messy, painful process. Human beliefs are not wisps of thought into action; it takes a lot to cement a belief in place and a lot more to dislodge it.

    I don’t refer to my religious standing in any particular way but, by Dr. Novella’s definitions, I’m an ‘agnostic’. When conversing with believers I don’t hesitate to describe what I know about biology in terms of ‘machinery’ and I understand many don’t like thinking of themselves as ‘machines’, but I also haven’t needed to ‘connect people to the mystery of the natural world’ -instead- of the nasty old reductionist, materialistic ‘we’re a machine’, just along with it.

    I’m suggesting it isn’t so much the ‘machine’ image of humanity that prevents or prolongs acceptance of scientific where they contradict cherished religious beliefs, but that any cherished belief is going to die a slow death, fighting all the way.

    It is particularly difficult to disinfect the rationality of a religious believer because of the belief template said beliefs stamp into the reasoning process. Much of religion is magical thinking, requiring suspension of disbelief and acceptance of the most unlikely things, and yet, they do so efortlessly and meld it to the real world without apparent conflict. Beliefs formed without logic, reason, and physical evidence won’t easily be affected by logic, reason, and physical evidence, in fact, in many religions defying logic and reason in favor of faith is considered a great, great attribute, a strength.

    I think patience and a chipping away at a very large and heavy boulder is the way to go.

  14. mat alfordon 14 May 2008 at 6:08 pm

    David Brooks may be misguided in his interpretations, but his thoughts are probably shared by many (non-scientific) intellectuals and an increasing number of the population at large. Therefore, there may be some validity to his conclusions and the future society he can envisage.

    And even this is many times better than what we have now. He is effectively predicting the demise of christianity and organised religion as we know it. This future world is certainly one where being an ID proponent would be a looney fringe activity, for example!

    Steven, if this post dosen’t bring Pec back, nothing will….

  15. daedalus2uon 14 May 2008 at 9:11 pm

    What happened to the comments?

    I was going to post a comment replying to Fifi’s reply to mine, which without the context will be out of place. I will hold off until pehaps the “gods” of the internet have restored the original comment list.

  16. Mikeon 14 May 2008 at 9:25 pm

    Database problem, it’s being restored. Slowly. Sorry about that.

  17. Neural Buddhism « Buttle’s Worldon 15 May 2008 at 1:33 am

    [...] particularly liked this analysis by Steven [...]

  18. Nevaron 15 May 2008 at 1:59 am

    Dr. Novella

    As far as I understand, atheist means not believing in a god or gods. It says nothing about the existence of god(s). If one does not believe in a god, or a specific religion, by definition one is not a theist, one is an atheist (without belief).

    I think most dictionaries get that wrong. Where the prefix ‘a’ is used to mean ‘without’, with ‘atheist’ they turn it into “do not believe god exists” vs. “without belief in god”. Strange. One either believes in god or not. Theist or atheist. Agnosticism is an philosophical view on an issue.

    Perhaps the complete term could be agnostic atheist: I do not have belief in a god, and god’s existence or non-existence, is unknowable. Of course, if my understanding of the term ‘atheist’ is incorrect, I will also gladly only claim the agnostic position :)

  19. Nevaron 15 May 2008 at 2:43 am

    (Sorry for double posting)

    Ok fine, I realise I’m arguing semantics. The word ‘atheist’ has come to mean something specific regardless of what it actually means. It’s annoying. I think naturalist is one of my favourite terms. I will probably explain my understanding of atheism to people anyway and then see if I need to invoke agnosticism to reach common ground.

  20. mjrobbinson 15 May 2008 at 5:46 am

    Re: Nevar

    Talking about what words like “atheist” or “agnostic” mean semantically or philosophically is interesting, but not that helpful. The important thing is what they mean practically, politically.

    And that’s where the problem lies for me. The word “atheism” has been hijacked by the Dawkins/Myers brigade of militants. It used to be a neutral term, meaning “I don’t believe in God”, but now it is a politically-charged term meaning “I’m actively against religion”.

  21. Steve Pageon 15 May 2008 at 6:08 am

    And that’s where the problem lies for me. The word “atheism” has been hijacked by the Dawkins/Myers brigade of militants. It used to be a neutral term, meaning “I don’t believe in God”, but now it is a politically-charged term meaning “I’m actively against religion”.

    How exactly have they ‘hijacked’ a word that accurately describes their position? Public perception of what ‘atheist’ means may have changed, but that’s not due to a misuse of the word by Dawkins or Myers. Hitch’s term, ‘anti-theist’, is more accurate to describe someone who is actively against religion.

    On one of Dawkins’ documentaries, Deepak Chopra bemoaned the fact that physicists had hijacked the word ‘quantum’. The suggestion that ‘atheist’ has been hijacked by atheists is almost as erroneous.

  22. Steven Novellaon 15 May 2008 at 7:53 am

    After years of wrestling with the whole “atheist vs agnostic vs bright vs naturalist” thing – I have come to the conclusion that the whole situation is a semantic mess. There is no one scheme of definitions that are broadly agreed upon and understood. So, no matter what, you are going to have to qualify your personal position – no label or suite of labels will do.

    Having said that – I do agree with the “atheist agnostic” label in that it professes the absence of belief in a god and the philosophical position that such propositions are inherently unknowable.

  23. daedalus2uon 15 May 2008 at 8:16 am

    Fifi, I have more respect for the Dalai Lama than for all other (extant) self-proclaimed religious figures put together. If the type of Buddhism that He follows is the only one that conforms itself to reality (i.e. discards tenets shown to be false), then eventually His will be the only one (Buddhism sect and religion) left that corresponds to reality (perhaps it already is).

    Many of the behaviors considered to be “spiritual”, such as love, generosity, altruism, forgiveness, affection, reciprocity are mediated through physiological pathways that are mediated through NO (such as oxytocin). Those mental states that are considered to be signs of “true” spirituality are more difficult to achieve and in some cases incompatible with low NO levels. A large part of why I think that is due to my research in basal NO and especially how ATP regulation is coupled to it. Behaviors such as love, generosity, altruism, forgiveness, are extremely difficult to practice while one is in a “fight or flight” state because the organism is trying to survive. They are luxury behaviors that are only advantageous to practice after basic needs have already been met.

    The specific type of meditation that the Dalai Lama practices (for 2 hours/day) is known to increase levels of nitric oxide in the brain. Meditation of that type is the only known technique to raise basal NO levels (other than the bacteria that I am working with). For this reason (that the type of Buddhism the Dalai Lama practices increases NO levels the most), I think that the type of Buddhism the Dalai Lama teaches will be the most successful. I don’t know very much about the other types of Buddhism, but as far as I can tell, there is nothing that He is doing that will lower His NO level. As I see it, practices that increase NO levels facilitate “spirituality”, practices that lower NO levels antagonize “spirituality”, practices that do neither are superfluous.

    ATP in cells is regulated (in part) by the NO level. NO activates sGC and the threshold for activation depends on the ATP level. High ATP goes along with high NO (and vice versa). Low NO means low ATP. Low is only in a relative sense. ATP levels are still fully regulated even when NO levels are low, they are simply regulated to be slightly lower. The ATP concentration being variable allows it to be used as a control parameter. There are many hundred of thousands of pathways in each cell that consume ATP. Their use of ATP is regulated exquisitely well, in real time, on a second-by-second basis. The only type of control that could possibly work is active control. The only possible signal molecule that could possibly couple to so many pathways and to ATP status is ATP itself. (One has to discard the wrong idea of homeostasis to appreciate this.) ATP consumption is regulated by ATP concentration. It has to be for stable regulation. It is the turning off of (relatively) low priority ATP consuming pathways to free up ATP for higher priority pathways that exacerbate the degenerative diseases associated with stress.

    ATP is used for so many different things, that in a very real sense, ATP is the primary “need”. Cells needed to evolve pathways to regulate ATP levels before they could evolve any pathways that depended on ATP. When other needs arose that cells needed to evolve pathways to cope with, cells most likely evolved elaboration of existing pathways rather than generate pathways de novo. After ATP, the next “need”, is substrate to make ATP. Physiology triggers food seeking and food consuming behaviors by invoking hunger. Likely other “needs” are invoked by elaboration of those fundamental and primal “needs”. That is they are coupled to ATP status (in very complex ways). I think this is (part of) the physiology behind eating when one is under stress.

    Most historic figures that have been considered highly spiritual (rather than the charismatic leaders of organized religions), have had little to no interest in attaining wealth. They have been poor, and have not tried to amass wealth but rather practiced great charity. Usually they have been thin, virtually never have then been obese. My understanding of that is that it reflects their NO status. A high NO status is incompatible with a self-perceived need to acquire wealth. My perception of the self-proclaimed religious individuals who do seek to acquire wealth (or who have acquired it) is that they are business people first and spiritual people much later (if at all).

    When fMRI is used to look at brain activation, the BOLD technique is used, the Blood Oxygen Level Dependent MRI signal. This looks at the magnetic susceptibility of oxyhemoglobin/deoxyhemoglobin in the blood. When a particular brain region is activated, there is an increase in blood flow in that region, which shows up as increased oxyhemoglobin produced by acute vasodilation in that brain region. Those acute changes can be measured with sub-second time resolution. What causes that acute vasodilation on that time scale is neurogenic NO release. Vasodilation is (very likely) only one of the things that that neurogenic NO release is causing to happen. I very strongly suspect that neurogenic NO release is the mechanism by which activation of brain regions occurs, that is the mechanism by which the brain metaprograms itself. All the NO would have to do is increase the probability of a down-stream nerve firing in response to an up-stream nerve firing. On average, only one down-stream nerve fires per up-stream nerve firing (if more than one fired, the firing would increase exponentially until all nerves were firing, a seizure). There are on the order of ~10^4 connections, changing the probability of firing from 0.9 in 10^4 to 1.1 in 10^4 would be enough to completely change the local properties of the neural network. NO has been shown to increase long term potentiation. Presumably it increases potentiation at multiple time scales. If it does so in sub-second time scale, then NO could be the mechanism by which the brain is metaprogrammed.

    Fundamentally, stress is a low NO state, and a low NO state is a state of stress. Stress activates the “fight or flight” pathways by lowering NO levels which lowers ATP levels (which triggers ischemic preconditioning for example) and revs physiology up for what ever “fight or flight” response might be needed. Things that cause “stress”, fighting, lying, cheating, stealing, hurting others, are incompatible with a high NO state. People who live their lives as spiritual people cannot maintain a high NO state while fighting, lying, cheating, stealing, hating and hurting others. Groups that practice these things are not spiritual religions (in my view), they are cults. To me, cults are characterized by low NO, by the psychosis and delusion of acute ATP depletion.

    The IDiots who lie about evolution are not being “spiritual”, they are being delusional cultists (in my opinion). Religions that preach and tolerate hate are cults.

  24. Fifion 15 May 2008 at 10:27 am

    daedalus – Personally I respect the Dalai Lama as a person (or the image he projects since I’ve never met the man) and think it’s great that he engages with science. That seems to be a personal thing though, he’s quite careful about what he presents to Westerners and tends to downplay the magical and superstitious aspects of Tibetan Buddhism as well as the internal strife (for quite obvious political reasons). All religions tend to do this when it has to do with survival – the Catholic church in it’s own slow way is doing the same thing – they either embrace the new understandings and social systems or violently refute them….progress into a new church or regress into a fundemantalist orthodox one.

    Unfortunately, while the Dalai Lama seems genuinely curious and interested in science quite a lot of westerners who get into Buddhism seem to believe that their personal, subjective observations of subjective experiences are equivalent to using the scientific method. I’m not saying self observation can’t be highly educational and useful, and that our subjective stories aren’t important to us in how they create meaning in our lives, just that there are inherent problems with observing the self (which some schools of meditation recognize). One can interpret many Buddhist ideas about consciousness via cog sci and an understanding of the “illusions” of perception OR via religion and the concept that the illusions are the reality. The first leads one to understand that “maya” or illusions are created by the subjective nature of experience and the quirks of perception. The second one leads one to believe that one is creating the material world with one’s thoughts (not one’s personal experience of the world, that’s option one, but the actual physical reality is just a product of individual thoughts).

    I can’t speak to your NO theories but I’m curious as to why you seem to think it’s the underlying mechanism in everything that’s brought up on these blogs…is it possible to explain in simple terms why you think this?

    Um, I’m guessing you haven’t seen the fat Buddha statues?

  25. barrydauphinon 15 May 2008 at 12:07 pm

    In other words, there is a purely materialist explanation for all that is interpreted as mysticism.

    I’ve got to quibble with you here.

    No, there currently is not a materilistic explanation for all that is interpreted as mysticism. If there is, please explain it all, make it a correct explanation and don’t leave out any details, no matter how trivial they seem. I think you meant to say that you have reasoned belief that one day there will be a materialist explanation for all that is interpreted as mysticism. We ain’t there yet. Of course, I think you also meant to say that there will be a true or correct materialist explanation, since there can be false explanations to lots of things (as you believe mysticism to be a false explanation).

    But the issues you and some readers raise about semantics and I raise about precise langauge all speak to many difficulties in arriving at truth. We create symbol systems to represent the world. We render the world, and we can’t actually compare our representations with the world as it is, because all we can do is represent it in one form or another. We don’t have unmediated access to the world. For example, when you mentioned that “I have come to the conclusion that the whole situation is a semantic mess. There is no one scheme of definitions that are broadly agreed upon and understood.“, my question would be, isn’t science supposed to help us out of such mess? Is this problem beyond the reach of science (and is anything beyond the reach of science)?

    Last, I think you and Brooks will disagree no matter what. But it is helpful to note that he wrote his column under the space limitations imposed upon him by editors of NYT. Blogs don’t have such space limitations, which is one of the reasons they are probably better suited to address such issues. Go, blogs!

    Nice post on an important topic, in many ways the topic of our times I think.

  26. daedalus2uon 15 May 2008 at 12:16 pm

    I have seen the fat Buddha statues. I am not sure how I understand them. My understanding is that the Buddha’s youth was spent not in a state of spirituality, and we now know that once fat cells are generated, that it is very difficult for them to go away. Is the corpulent way He is represented reflect that, or is it the artistic license of those who made the statues, or is it a flaw in my NO theory of spirituality as it relates to that individual, or all individuals, or something else? I don’t know.

    I know little about Buddhism and spirituality. I think that I have a completely “hard science” world view. I view all reports of religious experiences as perhaps accurate reports of the experiences of those reporting them, as perhaps data reflecting the experiences of a particular individual at a particular time under particular circumstances. As far as I know there has been no report that does not have a non-supernatural explanation. The most likely explanation is that all religious experiences are mediated through physiological and neurological effects.

    Nothing about NO is simple, other than it is a simple molecule.

    It is well known to be involved in hundreds of pathways, very likely involved in thousands of pathways. Because there are no barriers to NO diffusion, and each “NO sensor” only senses the sum of NO from all sources, all NO pathways are coupled, to each other and to the basal NO level. This coupling is a large part of what keeps physiology “in sync”. That is “in sync” inside an organelle, inside a cell, inside a tissue compartment, inside an organ, inside an organism.

    Keeping everything “in sync” is especially important during stress. Changes in NO levels do have effects on physiology. If NO synthesis is blocked during a certain few hour postpartum period, ewes do not bond to their lambs. If NO is restored artificially, they do. I see this as the “normal” stress mediated regulation of maternal bonding. If the “stress” level is high enough (as measured by low enough NO), then bonding to an infant is a bad idea and so evolution has configured successful mothers to not do so. This is simply one example (out of many) where the basal NO level affects behaviors.

    It needs to be appreciated that many of these physiological effects brought on by low NO are not on-off effects. They are continuous rather than discrete. Extremely low NO will block maternal bonding. High NO will facilitate it. Presumably some intermediate level will produce bonding but of a lesser fidelity (and perhaps otherwise different). Since NO is already actively regulating maternal bonding, any change in the basal NO level will affect that bonding. Lowering NO levels by any mechanism will tend to block maternal bonding (to some extent). If maternal bonding can range from 0 to 10, what effects does changing it from 8.4 to 7.3 have? How does a particular infant develop bonded to a mother at a 7.3 level instead of an 8.4 level? These may be smaller than our ability to measure in individuals (if we had twins separated at birth for example), but that effect may not be zero.

    The effect known as the “cycle of violence” is well known. Some individuals exposed to violence in utero, as infants, as children, as adolescents and as young adults become more violent. What is the physiology by which the “cycle of violence” is mediated? I think it relates to low NO caused by stress, and growing into a more violent phenotype is one of the responses that physiology can have. We know that virtually every organ in the body is programmed in utero, including liver, pancreas, heart, vasculature, muscle, neuroendocrine system, and others, many known to be programmed by pathways mediated through NO. It would be beyond surprising if the most important organ (the brain) were not programmed in utero too.

    If an infant develops bonded at 7.3, when that infant becomes a mother, how will she bond to her infant? If the NO level of the entire population is skewed in one direction, that may have implications in future generations.

    I only bring up NO where I think the underlying physiology is influenced by it. That does happen to be in a lot of different circumstances. According to my understanding of physiology, raising basal NO levels by any mechanism will have the same effect as raising it by any other mechanism. I think that the bacteria I am working with will have effects in the same direction as does meditation. The relative magnitude of those effect remains unknown, but they will be non-zero and in the same direction as any other form of stress relief, and will be additive to that from any other form of stress relief.

  27. Fifion 15 May 2008 at 12:40 pm

    daedalus – I think you may be reaching by trying to equate religiousity/spirituality with being slim since there are plenty of fat gurus and monks out there. Certainly someone who is schizophrenic and sees visions may not eat much and fasting is often used to reach certain states, and there are specific ascetic sects in all religions (just as there seem to be somewhat more Dionysian ones…major religions seem to come in many flavors so as to please as wide a consumer base as possible), but I think you’re reaching with the attempt to fit it into you hypothesis.

    Why do you see NO as the explanation for everything? I ask because it seems almost like an article of faith not science to apply it to any and every situation – that could of course just be ignorance about NO on my part so I’m not trying to assert that’s what’s going on, just telling you how it seems to me from my subjective perspective. (I mean no insult and am not knowledgeable enough about what you’re talking about to make any kind of value judgment about your theories about NO. I’d be interested in the thoughts of anyone who does know more about the subject.) Is NO an area of professional research for you? How did it become the lens you see everything through? (If you don’t mind indulging my curiosity, of course.)

  28. Steven Novellaon 15 May 2008 at 1:15 pm

    barry – you wrote: “No, there currently is not a materilistic explanation for all that is interpreted as mysticism. If there is, please explain it all, make it a correct explanation and don’t leave out any details, no matter how trivial they seem. I think you meant to say that you have reasoned belief that one day there will be a materialist explanation for all that is interpreted as mysticism. We ain’t there yet.”

    I disagree with your premise here – that a scientific explanation has to be complete down to the last trivial detail in order to be considered an explanation for a phenomenon. Science just does not work this way. Scientific explanations are never complete. There are always deeper levels of explanation we can get to, and there are always more details you can look at.

    DNA is an explanation for heredity. It was an explanation before the current level of details were worked out, and it remains a viable scientific explanation even as we are discovering epigenetic factors to heredity. But, even absent all the details, it was an explanation – meaning a viable scientific theory – that obviated the need to say that there is a mystical or magical explanation required for heredity to happen.

    And THAT is the context of this discussion – the brain is an adequate explanation for all mental phenomena. We do not need to introduce mysticism or magic to explain mental phenomena. This does not require or imply that all the details have been worked out. This is a very important point to this whole discussion, and is central to understanding how science operates.

  29. barrydauphinon 15 May 2008 at 2:00 pm

    But surely ever greater precision is desirable (necessary) for science (and that is partly what holds open the possibility for falsification too). Some religious folks might chortle that the devil is in the details.

    I disagree that we currently have enough of an explanation for all mysticism at this point in time. I recognize we have promising possibilities. I fully expect great progress on this front and a more wholistic understanding of brain activity, even the development of theories as acceptable to the public as DNA (I think the public swallows Mendel a bit more easily than Darwin). But more of a detailed explanation is needed that it’s in the brain (my inclusion of trivial details was partly tongue in cheek, an indirect suggestion that a tad more in the way of qualifying statements can go a long way).

    Scientific explanations are never complete. There are always deeper levels of explanation we can get to, and there are always more details you can look at. I couldn’t agree more. That’s why science functions best with being somewhat less certain about things. Even scientists can respectfully disagree on how science works.

  30. Charlie (Colorado)on 15 May 2008 at 2:03 pm

    Hmmm. A whole bunch of points here, forgive me for a long comment.

    Capital lettering: Daedelus2, it’s not necessary — and better Buddhism — to not capitalize “he” when referring either to the Buddha or to our friend Mr Gyatso, the Dalai Lama. They’re not deities.

    Buddhism and science: Fifi, I think you’re exactly right that Buddhism would and should give way to science, and you don’t need the Dalai Lama to say so — even Buddha said we should only accept those parts of Buddhism that agree with reason and common sense. The notion that Tibetan Buddhism has “gods and goddesses” is a bit mistaken, though — like any religion, Buddhism has a bunch of syncretisms, like Tara in Tibet, kuanyin/Kwannon in China and Japan. These are interpreted as bodhisattvas, though — advanced beings who refrain from entering Nirvana in order to help the rest of us. They’re not essentially different from us, just more skillful.

    Fat buddha statues: the “fat buddha” we often see is budai (布袋, Japanese “Hotei”). The usual interpretation of the symbolism is that the “seat of the ‘soul’” — xin 心 — is the stomach (the character is a picture of heart, lungs, and liver) and so the big stomach is symbolically a big soul. The notion that Buddhists are necessarily skinny is still mistaken — Gautama specifically gave up asceticism and advises against is as “not helpful to enlightenment.”

    Unknowable propositions are worse than wrong – they are unnecessary. If you’re saying this as a matter of personal preferences, Steven, I can’t argue with you, but if you mean it more prescriptively, I think you’re clearly wrong. I’m a mathematician/logician/computer scientist in the day job, and we make extensive use of the knowledge that certain propositions aren’t knowable.

    I think you’re exactly right on the notion that the existence of a deity not being scientifically knowable, though; Stephen Brams makes that argument in his Superior Beings, and it’s pretty clear intuitively that what we would consider a “deity” could not be experimentally verified. That is, neither “a deity exists” and “no deity exists” are falsifiable. Cantor, Gödel, Turing, ahd Chaitin seem to make a generally good case for the notion that exploring the bounds of a system is useful, and that we can’t neglect the potential of new things that can be learned from looking at things outside the bounds of one system. So making the next step — that questions like “where did it all come from and how did it get here” aren’t good and valid questions — seems a bit of a leap.

    Brooks, in specific. I think there’s a lot of interpretation going on here of things Brooks is supposed to have implied, instead of what he said. “Mysterious” needn’t imply “mystical”, and as Brooks is a fairly careful writer, I don’t think it makes sense to assume it does. Brooks dos seem to be saying that this sense of the transcendent convinces a lot of people of the existence of a deity in some sense, but until you can propose a falsification by experiment, I don’t think it’s “reasonable” to say that he’s misled for thinking so.

    Brooks’s notion that enuroscience and Buddhism are reaching similar conclusions, though, is a good one. “[T]he self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships,” is good Buddhism, from the start to current understanding: it’s called “the doctrine of anatman”, which is to say “the doctrine of the non-existence of a permanent and immutable soul.” The whole notion of a sense of self is “illusion” (Sunyata) and “consciousness” is specifically an epiphenomenon that arises as a result of perception, interpretation, and recall. (See, for example, my translation and gloss of the prajñaparamita hridaya sutra.)
    Notice, also, that even in the presence of reincarnation — something the Buddha was a lot cagier about than most western people realize — the “soul” is “illusion”. It is transitory, and disappears when correct understanding of the real nature of things is realized, even if it has proceeded through many reincarnations.

    Atheism vs. agnosticism. I think I’m with you, Steven: given that we have to conclude that the question of the existence of deity is not knowable from the scientific epistemic position, we can’t claim anything stronger scientifically than a-gnosis: “we don’t know”. Dawkins, Hitchens, et al, though, seem to be making the stronger proposition that a belief in a deity, and all religion, is actively bad, and that seems to fall into the same trap as Ben Stein’s assertion that science without religion is actively bad.

    What I do know is that many years of studying science, and mathematics, and even Buddhism, have convinced me the universe is really really cool and worthy of awe and admiration. Wherever it came from.

  31. Charlie (Colorado)on 15 May 2008 at 2:19 pm

    I disagree with your premise here – that a scientific explanation has to be complete down to the last trivial detail in order to be considered an explanation for a phenomenon. Science just does not work this way. Scientific explanations are never complete. There are always deeper levels of explanation we can get to, and there are always more details you can look at.

    Steven, I’m confused: are you asserting that all mystical experience is explained by science and thus there is no room for a “mystical” interpretation? If so, what about the lacunae you and Barry have agreed exist? Or are you asserting your belief that everything that might be “mystical”is capable of being explained by science?

    If so, is this belief “scientific”? It would appear to be incapable of falsification, since anything that isn’t explained at time t_0 might be explained at some time t>t_0; that is, there is no experiment that can say “if this isn’t explained scientifically now, it can never be.”

  32. Fifion 15 May 2008 at 2:20 pm

    barrydauphin – What “mystical” events/experiences/phenomena do you think there isn’t an adequate real world explanation for? What do you mean by “all of mysticism”? The explanations aren’t one neat answer like “god” but the ability to observe the brain has led to real world explanations for various experiences that have previously been attributed to various mystical sources or “god/s”.

  33. daedalus2uon 15 May 2008 at 2:23 pm

    Fifi, There may be fat gurus. There certainly are fat self-proclaimed religious figures. There are certainly self-proclaimed religious figures that preach hatred and intolerance and who seek to become wealthy actions which actually contradict the religious teachings they claim to be following. Self-proclaimed religious figures who preach hatred may delude themselves and their followers that they are preaching love as in “hate the sin, love the sinner”. They are not deluding me. If someone claims to be religious and spiritual and then cannot “walk the walk” that they preach, which do I believe, their words, or their works?

    I have only been doing NO research for the past 8 years or so. I discovered that the bacteria I am working with generate NO/NOx and live on the surfaces of eukaryotes, and the NO/NOx they generate from the ammonia released by the eukaryote is important in that eukaryote’s physiology. These bacteria are obligate autotrophs, so they are not culturable by any technique used to isolate pathogens. I think that is the only reason they have not been found in association with organisms and are recognized as commensals earlier.

    How important NO is in physiology is not appreciated by virtually all scientists, even by most working doing NO research. There are only a few that share my expansive view of the importance of basal NO. That expansive view originated with Stefano GB, who has published extensively about it (see PubMed). He is the one who first proposed that the placebo effect is due to NO. I learned about the importance of basal NO from his work, and was able to greatly expand it once I found an important physiological mechanism that sets the basal level (the bacteria I am working with). I was one of the first to appreciate how NO couples to ATP concentration (in both directions) providing a mechanism for how increased NO from the placebo effect does improve actual healing (by increasing ATP availability). That explains how “stress” exacerbates degenerative diseases. Low NO lowers ATP availability and shuts down healing pathways to conserve ATP for things that might be more important (such as running from a bear). The only mechanism that physiology has for measuring its state of stress is the NO and ATP level. If those are low (for what ever reason), then stress responses are invoked (the details of which are very complicated).

    There are a number of reasons why this understanding is not widespread, such research is quite difficult. The levels of NO that are important are in the nM/L level, less than 30 ppt. Those levels are difficult to measure in vitro; there are no techniques for measuring these levels (sub nM/L) in vivo on the length (sub micron) and time scales (sub second) that are important. Because the measurements are so difficult, people take “short-cuts”, instead of measuring NO, they measure the terminal metabolites, nitrite and nitrate, and then “say” they are measuring NO. That is not true. Nitrite and nitrate levels reflect production rate of NO, not concentration of NO. All the “NO sensors” only sense NO concentration, not NO production rate.

    It isn’t a matter of “faith”. There is well done research in the literature that shows that these things are related to NO, that they are regulated by pathways involving NO. If they are regulated by NO, then basal NO is one component of the NO signal, and low basal NO will affect the range, onset time, and duration of every NO signal with no threshold. If pathways are regulated by NO, then low basal NO will skew them in a characteristic direction, again, with no threshold. Physiology cannot “compensate” because it is the compensatory pathways themselves that are affected. That is how physiology compensates. It accommodates itself with the low basal NO level. That is an ordinary hypothesis. It is completely consistent with everything that is in the literature. To me, that makes it “ordinary”.

    It is not a simple hypothesis. Many of the details remain unknown. It is extremely complicated. Systems of even a few coupled non-linear parameters are inherently chaotic and unpredictable. Physiology has at least thousands if not tens of thousands.

    Dr. Novella makes an excellent point. We don’t need to know every last detail before having a viable scientific hypothesis. NO is an explanation for many aspects of physiology. Many of the details remain unknown. Many aspects of physiology are known to be coupled on multiple different time scales in multiple different tissue compartments. NO physiology provides explanations for some of that coupling. It explains the sign of the coupling, it explains and predicts which disorders should correlate with stress and with each other, and pretty much they do.

    I do have explanations of some aspects of NO physiology on my blog, and would be happy to answer questions there in great detail. I can better link to the literature there.

  34. Charlie (Colorado)on 15 May 2008 at 2:25 pm

    Dammit. The dead link to “Sunyata” should go here.

  35. Steven Novellaon 15 May 2008 at 2:29 pm

    Charlie,

    I am not appealing to any future discoveries.

    My point is this – we have a finite set of observations regarding what people experience, how they behave, and what they report about how they feel and what they think. My position is simply that mystical explanations for any of this are unnecessary. Further, there is no reason to even hypothesize a mystical cause.

    This is not the same thing as claiming that the mystical does not exist – science cannot prove a negative. It is also not saying that we have a neuroscience explanation for all mental phenomenon to an infinite depth of detail, or that we ever will.

    Rather – we have a materialist neuroscientific explanatory theory of mental phenomena, including those that have been traditionally explained as mystical. This theory makes a number of predictions that perform very well under observation and experimentation. Further – the theory has proven useful and is resulting in steady progress.

    Predictive power, utility, and usefulness to research are how we judge scientific theories – not a snap shot of the current depth of detail that they have explained.

  36. Charlie (Colorado)on 15 May 2008 at 2:29 pm

    Hmmm. Steven, it looks like my longer comment may have gone astray. It may be hiding in your spam queue; otherwise, the blog link under my name will lead to my blog, which has it as well.

  37. Charlie (Colorado)on 15 May 2008 at 2:31 pm

    Steven, it would appear then that you agree with me that this belief is not, in itself, “scientific”. I agree.

  38. Fifion 15 May 2008 at 2:48 pm

    Allowing that we’re not dealing with facts here but mythology, fat Buddha is from after he was enlightened from my understanding.

    As I said, I can’t speak to the validity or potential of the ideas you present about NO. The reason it seems like an article of faith to me is simply because you present it as being the causative factor in pretty much everything – a sort of grand unifying theory. I have no way of knowing whether it is or not because I’m not qualified to judge – so you’re getting no judgment on your theory from me. I could rely upon an expert but you’re saying that it’s not a commonly accepted theory amongst experts on NO so that’s not much use in this situation. The combo of a grand unifying theory of everything combined with the outlaw science thing does tend to make me – and this is my bias based on past experience – less interested in the idea but nonetheless curious about how you arrived at it and why you offer it up as an explanation for most topics raised here. Thanks for indulging my curiosity and good luck with your research.

  39. barrydauphinon 15 May 2008 at 4:26 pm

    Steven

    Thanks for being a good blog host. Best wishes for your research.

    Barry

  40. Charlie (Colorado)on 15 May 2008 at 4:42 pm

    More than that, Fifi, budai is either a Chinese guy from the 5th century CE or he’s Maitreya, the buddha to come.

  41. barrydauphinon 15 May 2008 at 5:13 pm

    barrydauphin – What “mystical” events/experiences/phenomena do you think there isn’t an adequate real world explanation for? What do you mean by “all of mysticism”?

    Fifi

    Didn’t mean to go past your question before signing out.

    Well I guess, I’m looking for a good explanation for any aside from the usual “The brain lights up…” stuff. What causes the brain to light up then? I’m looking for a more coherent, unifying causal model for brain activity. I would think if there are good (i.e., true and comprehensive) explanations, they could be presented fairly completely.

    Also my point is in some ways about communicating with excessive confidence, which I suggest is not in keeping with the scientific approach. I was taking this to mean something more than “it’s in the brain” as constituting a good explanation. Something that went beyond correlations between the description of something mystical and a brain region being active. Also I don’t imagine that experiemnts have been done on all the varieties of mystical experiences, and I meant “all” to address Steven’s post in which he indicated that there is a materialist explanation for “all” that is mysticism. I understand feeling confident that we’re getting there or at least getting somewhere but not that we’re all there.

  42. daedalus2uon 15 May 2008 at 5:49 pm

    Fifi, I don’t consider my ideas constitute “beliefs” or “outlaw science” in that I have a robust chain of facts and logic that leads to each one. I am certainly ready to abandon or modify them should new data or analysis become available.

    Many of the neurological aspects of my ideas started from my own experiences when I raised my NO level (which were totally unexpected). I do have a low NO physiology, and have had it my entire life. I inherited it from my mother, who I am quite sure had Asperger’s. She and both her parents died with advanced Alzheimer’s, which I am sure came from their low NO physiology. I have Asperger’s, which I only recognized after it got better when I raised my NO level. I am an MIT grad, Tau Beta Pi. I have access to the MIT libraries, and am not quite hyperlexic, so I have read a great deal of the literature pertaining to NO and other aspects of physiology that relate to it. When I raised my NO level my thinking became much clearer and more creative. My ability to absorb and integrate information improved remarkably (it was never poor). My depression and anxiety improved remarkably, I lost weight, my liver enzymes improved greatly, my metabolic syndrome greatly improved, my hypertension improved. I have a lot of personal insight, due in part to being able to dissociate (and 20+ years of therapy). The changes I experienced since raising my NO level were much greater than from any prior treatments, and were unexpected.

    I appreciate that that my experiences are “anecdotes”, but I am only using them as a starting point for hypothesis generation. There are well known physiological pathways described in the literature mediated by NO involved in (just about) all the things that I have experienced. For the most part I experienced them before I read about them. I appreciate that until someone understands the details it won’t seem credible and until it seems credible no one is going to try and understand the details. I don’t know how to explain it except by going into the details. That is the way I came up with them, that is the only way I know how to understand them, that is the only way I know how to explain them. I am happy to discuss my motivations in pursuing these ideas more, but that won’t help you understand them, and without knowing me and where I am coming from, hearing my motivations provides for no increased credibility.

    I have talked with George Stefano, and he and I are on exactly the same page. We emphasize different things, but I don’t think there is any serious disagreement between us. He is an academic researcher who needs to keep his lab funded; I am solely interested in trying to commercialize my bacteria. He doesn’t get the respect in the NO research community that he should.

    I appreciate that some aspects of the Buddha story have mythic components. One of the things that I have been trying to understand lately is what aspects of physiology have caused human myths to adopt the form of the monomyth that Joseph Campbell talks about in his “Hero with a thousand faces”. Many aspects of stress physiology involve NO, and quite a few of the transitions Campbell talks about can be partly “explained” through NO physiology. Most modern humans have never experienced the life threatening stress that was common in human evolutionary time. Unless you have experienced it, it is difficult to appreciate what it can do, and what it can invoke in people.

    Part of what is compelling me to try and get my story out there is that I appreciate what low NO can do. I am quite sure that it is low NO that induces the acute psychosis of postpartum psychosis in women, and which induces the “berserker” state in men. Low basal NO makes that state easier to enter. I suspect that incidents of “road rage”, school shootings and infanticide have components related to low basal NO levels.

    We know that physiology is extremely complicated. We know that virtually every aspect of physiology is regulated extremely well (even though the details are not understood). When physiology “goes bad” and results in disorders or diseases, those regulatory systems must have “gone bad” for that to happen. For the most part that regulation is feedback regulation. Each aspect of physiology that requires feedback regulation requires a setpoint and regulation around that setpoint. When that regulation “goes bad”, is it good regulation around a bad setpoint, or bad regulation around a good setpoint?

    If it were bad regulation around a good setpoint we would expect to see both positive and negative deviations around the “good” setpoint. Perturbing physiology so as to improve regulation would be expected to improve regulation and improve what ever disorder has occurred.

    If it were good regulation around a bad setpoint we would expect to see deviations in only one direction. The only way to fix good regulation around a bad setpoint is via shifting the bad setpoint to a good setpoint. This is an extremely important distinction. A bad setpoint is like a thermostat set too high. You can overwhelm a thermostat set too high by bringing in enough ice to overwhelm the heating system. But that causes the heating system to run at maximum heat delivery.

    In all the neurodegenerative diseases it is observed that there is reduced brain metabolism. Is that reduced ATP generation and consumption due to a few pathways “gone bad” (i.e. bad regulation around a good setpoint)? Are there a few pathways that consume enough ATP that if they “went bad” sufficient reduction in ATP production and consumption would be observed? I think that if only a few pathways had “gone bad”, it would be pretty obvious which ones had gone bad because there are at most only a few pathways that can consume enough ATP to cause the observed perturbation were they to go bad. In other words, there can be at most 2 pathways that consume 50%, 3 that consume 33%, 4 that consume 25%, 5 pathways that consume 20% of ATP production.

    If more than 5 or 10, or 20 pathways have to “go bad”, to cause the observed ATP reduction, the premise that these pathways have “gone bad” simultaneously becomes unlikely. It becomes more likely (in my opinion) that instead of bad regulation around a good setpoint, it is good regulation around a bad setpoint. For many pathways to go bad simultaneously that is the only credible mechanism, good regulation around a bad setpoint.

    Nitric oxide is one of the few things that does affect global setpoints in many different pathways. There has to be a mechanism that keeps all of the different pathways “in sync” as organisms change their physiology to accommodate different needs. For example, NO sets the ATP setpoint via sGC and cGMP. NO is what causes mitochondria biogenesis. Low NO invokes ischemic preconditioning which reduces ATP levels and ATP consumption.

  43. [...] taken a hostile view of David Brooks column. One of the less hostile, but still critical, is by Steven Novella But there is no more reason to insert Eastern mysticism into neuroscience than there was into [...]

  44. Fifion 16 May 2008 at 11:36 am

    daedalus – “Fifi, I don’t consider my ideas constitute “beliefs” or “outlaw science” in that I have a robust chain of facts and logic that leads to each one. I am certainly ready to abandon or modify them should new data or analysis become available.”

    My apologies if I’ve insulted you or got the wrong impression. It seemed to me that you were saying your theories about NO were controversial (particularly because of their expansive or inclusive nature) even amongst those in the same field as you. My main point was my own lack of ability to be able to discern the validity of your theory on its own merits since I’m not qualified and that since there is controversy amidst experts there’s added problems in my trying to understand how valid your theory is considered by people who are qualified to discern such things. Thanks for being open about your own commercial aims – it’s refreshing.

  45. daedalus2uon 16 May 2008 at 12:58 pm

    Fifi, they are “controversial” in that they are not generally accepted by most experts, but those same “experts” are unable or unwilling to suggest to me when I speak with them directly where any of my ideas might be wrong or mistaken or inconsistent with any reliable information in the literature. I am quite sure that they are not inconsistent with anything in the literature because I have read a great deal of it and so far I have found nothing that is inconsistent.

    I don’t at all feel insulted; it is hard enough to communicate in person, let alone over the intertubes. I know I can’t do a data dump that includes all the background and all the chains of facts and logic that lead to my conclusions.

    I do have “commercial” aims, but my real motivation is to improve people’s health. If it is correct that many of the health effects of meditation are mediated through NO (Stefano’s and Benson’s hypothesis, not mine), and that some of those same health effects can be achieved by raising NO levels other ways (Stefano’s hypothesis), and if the bacteria I am working with are natural commensal bacteria (my discovery) then raising NO levels with my bacteria (my conclusion) could be a tremendous health boon with no negative side effects (my conclusion). If the same health effects as 30 minutes of meditation could be achieved in non-meditators with a non-invasive, benign measure, the public health implications would not be small.

    I think the most important public health effect would be to reduce the level of conflict among people. I think you would agree that if everyone in the world had the physiological effects of 30 minutes of meditation every day, that the world would be a very different place. That is the kind of world that I want to live in. That is my ultimate motivation, to produce that kind of world for my children and for everyone’s children to live in.

  46. afferentinputon 16 May 2008 at 8:19 pm

    Excellent analysis. I’ve long expected that neuroscience would soon rise the ire of the religious. In fact, a major tenet of intelligent design creationism relies upon the rejection of a naturalistic, materialistic explanation of the mind. Dembski in particular is the worst offender.

  47. Charlie (Colorado)on 17 May 2008 at 4:13 am

    Uh, afferent, what ire?

  48. [...] http://www.theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php?p=293#more-293 [...]

  49. free dream interpretationon 18 May 2008 at 2:30 pm

    [...] debate will center around a concept that he calls ???neural Buddhism???. He says he is not taking sihttp://www.theness.com/neurologicablog/?p=293This week in the arts The Columbus Dispatch CLASSICAL MUSIC ??? Pianist Anton Kuerti will perform [...]

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