Monday, January 31, 2011

The Chicago Social Brain Network's "Invisible Forces & Powerful Beliefs": Book Review

Gravity's an "invisible force" we believe in, and that's about it on page one for what I hoped would be an extended analogy to the gods and minds of the subtitle. However, as I had just read elsewhere a debate where a scientist defended evolution as an unseen but valid "theory" as was electricity and gravity, that had made me wonder about those who also believe in God and, say, creationism as a valid "theory" too. So, that thought stayed with me when I found this new book.

It's compact, with the U. of Chicago Social Brain Network of scholars who each contribute a chapter on their expertise. It's accessible, for as a non-scientist I had no problem following their arguments. And, it's relevant, for they seek to bridge the gap of disdain or condescension often dividing scholars from believers who trust in invisible forces along with the models of empathy, human nature, faith, and networks studied by professors and researchers. They may name them differently, and in that defining and understanding process, this book takes shape.

If scientists can chart gravity, then they can look for patterns in brains, behavior, and biology equally invisible. The social nature of our species, John T. Cacciopo argues, shows that the real test of our survival is not for us to reproduce, but for our offspring to do so, and to pass on our gene pool. This can be done only if the parents protect their children, and invest long-term in their care and protection. This develops over millennia into empathy and compassion for one's children, and these qualities then extend altruistically to others in an intimate bond in a community.

Cacciopo uses the way salmon group in a ball against a predator as an example of behavior learned over many generations that then takes on survival success passed on to the next generations innately. While Don Browning picks this up and applies it to Aquinas' theology of care-giving promisingly, he skips away from this in perhaps too short a chapter devoted to such a thesis; other chapters also consider points I wanted more reflection upon but they dashed on-- Tanya Luhrmann's on how believers cherry-pick recollections of what happened to them to see God's hand at work intervening in their daily affairs represents another worthy subject I wish had been examined more deeply in her chapter on "How does God become real?"

Still, the range of these essays (even if a bit uneven, as so much is reduced to so short a book) by psychologists, neurobiologists, and linguists among others does represent a promising move into theinterdisciplinary conversations that universities need to make with everyday folks. While many topics such as anthropomorphism, loneliness, and psychosomatic relations seemed to end before they started, this may attest to the richness of the ideas crammed into a few pages each on these vast areas of exploration. This volume's scholarly yet straightforward, with less jargon than I feared if a lot of footnotes to back up comments that often get barely touched upon in what are after all rapidly paced chapters addressed at a wider audience.

In an age when many retreat behind the labels of atheist or agnostic vs. Christian or believer, this book tries to overcome these barriers. It does not try to prove or disprove a deity. It does ask, instead, what effect the belief in a deity or spirit or invisible force attributed to a natural emotion or a supernatural force can be analyzed according to empirical means by a professorial observer or measuring scientist. That makes it a welcome entry in a very old quest for truth. (Posted to Amazon US 1-29-11 & 2-20-11)


tamerlane said...

It's specious to equate 'invisible' with 'undetectable.' Nor is 'belief in' something the same as 'acceptance of the existence of' a thing. If this book elevates divine intervention or the power of prayer to the same footing as gravity and electricity, then it is doomed from the start.

It does sound, however, that a genuine attempt was made to explain the influence of spiritual (non-real) beliefs with concrete, scientific (real) causes & effects. Which must be why it proved disappointing to reviewers of a spiritual/new age persuasion.

One need not "hide behind labels" to defy any entente between Science and religious faith. The former rejects anything that cannot be detected, observed, measured or quantified; the latter insists on embracing the undetectable because of its very "invisibility."

It's an utter waste of time to try and reconcile Philosophy with Science -- the latter has made the former obsolete. Aquinas' Aristotelean / contortionist attempts to explain virtue are flattened once & for all by Hamilton's 1972 work on the cause of altruism in bees, ants & wasps. The four Thomist Laws are neatly disposed of by one law: genetics.

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

TL, this book's far from specious, and I am far from New Age! It does try to account for what cannot be tracked visibly but which brings people together, based on some meme, some "vibe," some common connection. The crew who compiled this are very serious and very secular (even the theologians perhaps in their own spirit?). I'd say the whole point was to detect what cannot be seen. If my review compressed this so much that this theme became less visible, it's my fault and not the writers, although I'd have wished a longer book as the chapters are so brief.

tamerlane said...

"other" reviewers -- I read all the reviews at Amazon. Will keep an eye out for this book.

Memes are real, but intangible. Cacciopo's example of fish schooling is not learned behavior, rather a random phenotype selected by environment. A better analogy (to our memes) is the tool-making of chimps, which have been ID'd to specific troops, with adjoining troops of chimps learning skills from neighbors.