Neural Buddhists

If you don’t read David Brooks in the New York Times, then you don’t periodically waste half the day mulling over how annoying he is. His latest annoying column contains this odd sentence: “In their arguments with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the faithful have been defending the existence of God. That was the easy debate.”

Hmm. The faithful evidently won that argument one day when I wasn’t looking.

Alright, so what’s the hard debate? It’s the debate between those who believe in the personal god of the bible, and the new “neural Buddhists”– psychologists and brain scientists like Andrew Newberg, Daniel J. Siegel, Michael S. Gazzaniga, Jonathan Haidt, Antonio Damasio and Marc D. Hauser.

The way Brooks reads these people, “the momentum has shifted away from hard-core materialism.” The neural Buddhists are claiming things like this–

(1) The self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships. (2) Underneath the patina of different religions, people around the world have common moral intuitions. (3) People are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love. (4) God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is.

Jonathan Haidt and Marc Hauser do say things like (2) and Haidt has done research suggesting (3). I don’t doubt there are people on the list who say something like (1). But (4)? As far as I know, nobody on the list says any such thing. Haidt, for example, is an avowed atheist. Studying religious experience is one thing, but saying it’s of God, or of “the unknowable total of all there is” is something else.

What’s most misleading about the editorial is the suggestion that these scientists are heading away from “hard core materialism,” because the complex things they do say about the mind are certainly in tension with the idea that the mind is the brain. But there is no renaissance of belief in a soul.

Of course, the $64,000 question is how such things go on in the brain. Philosophers of mind have lots of suggestions, but for the vast majority these days, no other possibility can be taken seriously.

Brooks reminds me of a little kid who’s bargaining for dessert. Well, if we can’t have chocolate cake, can we at least have apple pie? If we can’t have the biblical God, can’t we have a nice spooky soul that nobody can really understand? I’m afraid we just can’t, because it really is grossly incoherent to suppose that there are mysterious intruders on the workings of the physical world.

You’d have 101 imponderables to contend with if you did think each person had his own special spiritual part working behind the scenes. When does it come on board? Do animal brains need that spiritual part to function as well? How does the spiritual part latch on, and interact with the brain?

Recent psychology and brain science is discovering that very, very interesting things go on in the brain or because of the brain. It’s just wishful thinking (wishful for people who find the material world “not enough”) to suppose what’s being discovered is that there’s a shadowy spirit lurking in (behind?) the brain.

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