July 8, 2008

The Neural Buddhists

Index - Article - One - Two - Three - Four

Some time ago I engaged in a discussion about the existence of the soul with members of a Net forum that I hang out at, which is a place that is generally spiritual in its outlook and topics of discussion. While some discussion occasionally takes place on scientific subjects, I do not think that these are covered in much depth. In any case when one member posted The Neural Buddhists article from the New York Times, which happened to be the most emailed article that day, I posted my thoughts on it.

What follows is that article interspersed with my thoughts. This led to an interesting discussion about the existence of a soul between myself and several forum members, which I would like to outline in forthcoming posts on this blog. Some details will be changed in order to make the points clear and coherent for this blog audience but the verve will remain the same. So without further ado:

"In 1996, Tom Wolfe wrote a brilliant essay called 'Sorry, but Your Soul Just Died,' in which he captured the militant materialism of some modern scientists.
"To these self-confident researchers, the idea that the spirit might exist apart from the body is just ridiculous. Instead, everything arises from atoms. Genes shape temperament. Brain chemicals shape behavior. Assemblies of neurons create consciousness. Free will is an illusion. Human beings are 'hard-wired' to do this or that. Religion is an accident. In this materialist view, people perceive God’s existence because their brains have evolved to confabulate belief systems. You put a magnetic helmet around their heads and they will begin to think they are having a spiritual epiphany. If they suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy, they will show signs of hyperreligiosity, an overexcitement of the brain tissue that leads sufferers to believe they are conversing with God.
"Wolfe understood the central assertion contained in this kind of thinking: Everything is material and 'the soul is dead.' He anticipated the way the genetic and neuroscience revolutions would affect public debate. They would kick off another fundamental argument over whether God exists. Lo and behold, over the past decade, a new group of assertive atheists has done battle with defenders of faith. The two sides have argued about whether it is reasonable to conceive of a soul that survives the death of the body and about whether understanding the brain explains away or merely adds to our appreciation of the entity that created it.
Comment: I have to admit that the question of whether the soul exists or not is one of my current muses. Just a couple of days ago I read a transcript of a 1999 debate (actually a discussion) between Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker who more or less presented the "hardcore materialism" and "cognitive neuroscience" viewpoints respectively. Perhaps I need to read through it again to refamiliarise myself with his points but I found Pinker's candour refreshing: the soul can't exist because the brain is essentially modular; there is a module for "this" and a module for "that", if a module stops functioning through brain injury or whatever then that part of the person is gone. The person may lose their ability to see, think or feel in a certain way, or in cases like Phineas Gage they undergo a complete personality transformation. This and other examples provide evidence of a sort that shows that the mind is an entity in the physical world as much of its functioning is due to the proper functioning of neural correlates.

Incidentally, this started me thinking about the institutional belief in the the eternal existence and indivisibility of the soul which is a hallmark of Hindu/Buddhist religions that generally proclaim the view that "Consciousness is the symptom of the soul". So then, what about paraplegics and quadriplegics? They are paralysed from the waist or neck down, so those parts of the body are now soul-less since they are no longer conscious? The soul is divisible after all?

"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 to end up challenging faith in the Bible."

Comment: I would prefer it if faith in God was undermined or completely eradicated altogether, but this is utopian and probably will never happen. We as a race will probably kill ourselves over religion instead of living long enough to intellectually evolve to the state of realising the utter redundancy of religion in an organic manner. Such a bitter irony.

"Over the past several years, the momentum has shifted away from hard-core materialism. The brain seems less like a cold machine. It does not operate like a computer. Instead, meaning, belief and consciousness seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings. Those squishy things called emotions play a gigantic role in all forms of thinking. Love is vital to brain development. Researchers now spend a lot of time trying to understand universal moral intuitions. Genes are not merely selfish, it appears. Instead, people seem to have deep instincts for fairness, empathy and attachment.

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

Comment: I'm not too well-read on the capabilities of the parietal lobe, but it doesn't strike as sensible to say that a module primarily concerned with spatial orientation can "transcend itself" to feel things that are essentially emotional in content, a characteristic of the temporal lobes or general limbic system. I'd be interested in reading Newberg's papers though, I'll have a root around on PubMed when I get a chance.

In any case, I find that a good dose of chocolate helps me feel transcendent and aware of a larger presence. Forget about soma and LSD, Cadbury's Dairy Milk is where it's at! ;-)

"This new wave of research will not seep into the public realm in the form of militant atheism. Instead it will lead to what you might call neural Buddhism. If you survey the literature (and I’d recommend books by Newberg, Daniel J. Siegel, Michael S. Gazzaniga, Jonathan Haidt, Antonio Damasio and Marc D. Hauser if you want to get up to speed), you can see that certain beliefs will spread into the wider discussion."

Comments: Good tips. I especially like Gazzaniga and Damasio.

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

Comment: I don't see how No. 4 follows from No. 3, neither do I agree with this guy's definition of "sacred". People can have moments of elevated experience from viewing a wonderful piece of art or a nice example of architecture, or even a great book, which can overwhelm one to the point of ecstasy and fill one with a boundless sense of appreciation for the amount of work that has gone into producing such an example of beauty. Standards are variable. I suppose this is "sacred" in some way, when one's heart is touched in this way, but trying to extrapolate that into some kind of definition of God (how nice and ambiguous his definition is, it may as well not exist at all!) is a bit much if you ask me.

Besides, this guy is skirting over at least 6000 years of human history. People haven't gone to war throughout the centuries over some feelgood feeling.

"In their arguments with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the faithful have been defending the existence of God. That was the easy debate."

Comment: Hmmm, I don't really think there was any "debate" at all. How exactly is one supposed to "debate" the contention that something doesn't exist? Prove that it exists? Where is this proof then?

"The real challenge is going to come from people who feel the existence of the sacred, but who think that particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits. It’s going to come from scientists whose beliefs overlap a bit with Buddhism."

Comment: I think that most intelligent people have already figured out that religions are a huge mess of constructs and shaky scaffolding ostensibly based on some original emotions and feelgood feelings that really were as feelgood as it was possible to be then. Except for Islam and Mormonism I'd say. This is not an out-of-this-world observation.

I do find it rather interesting how some prominent neuroscientists have Buddhist interests. I wonder why? I'd like to do some reading on that. Or if somebody with greater access to PubMed or PsycInfo than I could send me an article from a journal that I don't have access to, I'd really appreciate it. Here's the reference for you lovely people willing to do me this favour:

Mikulas, W. (2007). Buddhism & Western Psychology: Fundamentals of Integration. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 14:4, 4-49.

If you have an ATHENS login, you can get it from here. I downloaded this article a while back when I had a better login but carelessly deleted it. Now my current login is insufficient for this journal.

"In unexpected ways, science and mysticism are joining hands and reinforcing each other. That’s bound to lead to new movements that emphasize self-transcendence but put little stock in divine law or revelation."

Comment: Sure, but I don't think science and mysticism are joining hands. They might do so in very small ways such as OXSCOM's attempt to understand pain, but not in terms of the bigger picture. Just because Stephen Jay Gould tried to butter both sides of the debate up with his ideas of separate magisteria (see his 'Rock of Ages') doesn't mean that these magisteria exist, and certainly doesn't mean that these magisteria can overlap or unite.

"Orthodox believers are going to have to defend particular doctrines and particular biblical teachings. They’re going to have to defend the idea of a personal God, and explain why specific theologies are true guides for behavior day to day."

Comment: What does he mean "going to"? Every dog has its day and, in my opinion, religion's day ended back in the 19th Century or so. As far as I'm concerned, religion and religious people have nothing substantial to contribute to any such "debate". Instead of defending the idea of a personal God, perhaps they should set about proving that one exists in the first place. Then there would be no need of any such defence. Hahaha, this one line shows the redundancy of this argument.

"I’m not qualified to take sides, believe me. I’m just trying to anticipate which way the debate is headed. We’re in the middle of a scientific revolution. It’s going to have big cultural effects."

Comment: It is indeed a most wondrous and fascinating journey.

Index - Article - One - Two - Three - Four

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