Wednesday, May 14, 2008

"Neural Buddhists" & Soul-Seeking Scientists

In my reviews here and on Amazon of Christopher Hitchens' "god Is Not Great," I criticized him (not that he's listening in all probability, but as my duty as a conscientious blogger and fair-minded reviewer no matter how few you my devoted readers may be) for his dismissal of the Dalai Lama's attitudes towards modernization. As I reported last month, Pico Iyer in his "Time" cover story on His (Fourteenth as opposed to hundreds of popes) Holiness cited the subject of his new biography as claiming that if science proved truths held by Buddhist teaching as erroneous, that he'd accept science. The AOL teaser news blurb I did not open up yesterday now: Pope says ok to believe in alien life. Religion need not-- and must not if Hitchens and his neo-atheist campaigners and Catholics, Buddhists, and people of honest inquiry are ever to keep civil, smart, and ecumenically conversing-- shut out science. Else we fall into creationism, fundamentalism, and flat-earth revivalism.

David Brooks in today's New York Times comments on the future discussions we're likely to have. Not so much from Hitchens and his colleagues on God's existence or the lack of proof of such, but how we seem to be less hard-wired for mechanical, materialist, and soulless functions than for moral, spiritual, and creative insights.

I'm less confident than Brooks that since we have no other way to comprehend this universe, this shift from deterministic to more open-ended neural networking may only show our own tendencies mirrored, but Brooks nevertheless summarizes intriguing possibilities. Still, I feel like I'm reading in Richard Dawkins about the anthropic cosmological principle again, in which we argue that the universe was designed so we could comprehend it. Enough for lamas and doctors, priests and physicians, to spend the next few million years meditating on together as they continue this discussion.

Here's highlights from Brooks' column. He starts by summarizing the attempts by science to reduce the mind to its atomic and genetic components. Brooks explains how the past decade shows a move away from such equivalences by neurologists. This shift, he emphasizes, matters more than the current controversies over belief in God.
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.

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.

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.
After summarizing recent studies (I read the Newberg & Demasio one a few years ago, "Why God Won't Go Away," and recommend it to my students intrigued as I am by such explorations. It was one of the first studies to popularize, as you can imagine by the title, the studies of brain scans done of nuns as they prayed.

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.

In their arguments with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the faithful have been defending the existence of God. That was the easy debate. The real challenge is going to come from people who feel the existence of the sacred, but who think that particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits. It’s going to come from scientists whose beliefs overlap a bit with Buddhism.

In unexpected ways, science and mysticism are joining hands and reinforcing each other. That’s bound to lead to new movements that emphasize self-transcendence but put little stock in divine law or revelation. Orthodox believers are going to have to defend particular doctrines and particular biblical teachings. They’re going to have to defend the idea of a personal God, and explain why specific theologies are true guides for behavior day to day. I’m not qualified to take sides, believe me. I’m just trying to anticipate which way the debate is headed. We’re in the middle of a scientific revolution. It’s going to have big cultural effects.

Full article: The Neural Buddhist
Image: paper print: Eric Gill, The Soul and the Bridegroom (1927)

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