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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