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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22 Comments.

  1. “Underneath the patina of different religions, people around the world have common moral intuitions”

    I tend to think statements like that are generally achievable only through a careful elision of all the various ways in which religious morals differ from one another.

    “God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is.”

    That might be compatible with some accounts of god. It might also be compatible with an assumption that any human experience of god is highly likely to originate within the mind rather than from the ether.

  2. “(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.”

    It’s interesting how he goes from a relatively simple psychological observation (1) to a somewhat less simple and more universal (or what might be called, with careful restriction, transcendent) psychological observation (2) to a psychological observation with a sudden value-laden word (sacred) that seems to be acceptable (3) to defining these observations, now moved from mere observations to claims about experiencing certain values, in terms of a religious concept that is not clearly defined but seems to change everything (and thereby win over the argument) because it is a religious term (4). This seems to me like something good for use in an informal logic course in showing how to watch for gradual shifting of terms and context in an argument.

  3. Maybe there is this “soul” or maybe there isn’t. How can anything non-material even be proven to exist? I think people only want there to be a soul, but this can create a bit of a problem. If we go looking for galleons flying in the sky, we are bound to see a few in the clouds that roll by. We must remember that constellations are completely subjective. And now, as we look into our brains, we see that there are things going on in there that maybe quite unexpected and of unknown function. All people have to do is look at that and say “That’s it! That’s our mind! Right there!” And they may point, but they point at nothing.

    The argument remains, what is the mind/soul? Where is it? Thank you religion for starting all of this (insert appropriate noun here). Well it doesn’t seem to have to be anywhere. We generally tend to think that its where our brain is. This makes sense. Our brain is in our head. On our head we have both our eyes, our mouth, our nose, and both our ears. Almost all senses are accounted for in this small area. It makes sense that our mind should be somewhere with a window to outside, unlike, say, our foot. And we do think with our brains. But the mind does not have to be anywhere. But anyway, what is this mind? Consciousness? Does calling it something scientifically defined change anything? Then we need examples of the mind. We have “morals”. We have thoughts. People can share these things commonly. But what is our mind? Materialisticall speaking, it is nothing. Or maybe not even. Nothing seems to be the absence of something, but there is no something to begin with.

    So then what is the question? I’m sure I’ve forgotten somewhere…

    I have a problem with these concepts of neural Buddhists. 1) The self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships… What does that tell me? (2) Underneath the patina of different religions, people around the world have common moral intuitions… I can accept that. No one likes to be beat up and mistreated. (Although I think it is the fear of that happening to us if we do it to someone else that drives this sense of common morality). (3) People are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love… What is sacred? What causes people to transcend these boundaries? Why love? But, in an ambiguous religious kinda way, I think I can swallow that. (4) God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is… This does not define God. This attempts to define the “nature” of said experiences with a thing taken to be understood as not being understood.

    So what is God? It seems to me that God is to be understood as the Universe, in its entirety, everything from quark and atom, to physics, to consciousness, to stars, to plants, everything and everything. This means both personal and non-. I kinda like that. God is us and God is everything around us.

    But what does this mean for the mind and the spirit? I don’t know; I don’t think I can know. Maybe I just need to have one of those experiences.

  4. I wouldn’t take David Brooks all that seriously. He’s the nice conservative to whom the New York Times has given a permanent column to balance their otherwise progressive columnists, who in reality aren’t generally so progressive. Brooks has a great sense of humor: he wrote one hilarious column on the joys of airline travels with children, but he is hardly a serious thinker. He isn’t even a serious political analyst, much less a philosopher. Brooks can be a witty observer of contemporary society, and that is his specialty, not the philosophy of mind. By the way, none of the NYT columnists qualifies as a serious political analyst, except Paul Krugmann. I’d suspect Thomas Friedmann of being in the pay of the CIA, but I doubt that he’d pass the Agency’s IQ test for personnel. How sad that the best newspaper in the United States features these clowns on their editorial page!

  5. Eric MacDonald

    Thanks for pointing out the article Jean. No, I don’t read David Brooks as a rule. And yes, I think this one is very annoying. Take this, for instance:

    In this materialist view, people perceive God’s existence because their brains have evolved to confabulate belief systems.

    He’s talking about Tom Wolfe here. But then he hasn’t really told us anything different. He says we have elevated ‘religious’ experiences, but that at the belief level religious belief is – guess what? – confabulation! Human constructions built on top of the mental equipment we’ve got, whatever that is.

    And then, of course, he goes on to do some construction work on the side, without any of the usual warning signs. As you point out, there is no evidence for the idea that ‘God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is.’ This is just rhetorical flourish to justify his rather portentous: ‘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.’

    Wow, journalism is fun!

  6. Eric, It’s just funny how he’s so eager to read all these psychologists as resurrecting God and the soul (so to speak), when it’s really not remotely true.

    Amos, I agree with you about David Brooks–just thought it was a good excuse for a little “mind talk” around here. I agree with everything you say, esp. about Friedman. Paul Krugman is a good guy and so is Nicholas Kristof. Maureen Dowd needs to move to the style section. Very disappointing, but funny. I read Brooks because I want to know what conservatives are thinking without absolutely gagging.

  7. Neural Buddhists - pingback on May 30, 2008 at 1:11 am
  8. Jean: I have no opinion on neural Buddhists, but, as you say, Maureen Dowd belongs to the styles section or shoe section. Nicholas Kristof is a good person, as you say, and writes well, but I would hardly call him a political analyst. He’s the NYT’s resident humanitarian. Krugman, who interestingly supported your candidate, Hillary, was the only one who bothered to analyze the issues in the primary season and not the candidates’s body language, acting talents, charisma or lack of charisma.

  9. michael reidy

    Jean:
    Debates get lost when you assume your interlocutor is stupid. Not that losing debates proves anything. Here we have some scientists making certain claims. It is legitimate to ask whether what they claim can be supported by the evidence or whether, and this is more likely, the supposed claims are merely the simplisms of a hack.

    What would poor Pascal think of all this? Let me offer a conjectural aphorism:
    They have proven God by way of a lie-detector. And what have they proven? A transcendent lie.

  10. Jean, re your later non-Brooks remarks: … it really is grossly incoherent … You’d have 101 imponderables to contend with … It’s just wishful thinking” Is it too much to ask why? If incoherent then presumably imponderable and probably wishful thinking (why else?) but why incoherent? Of course, I can’t demonstrate coherence, since I don’t have a complete theory of the soul. But can you demonstrate incoherence?

    What I can do is mention that relevant physical closure has not yet been indicated (i.e. that the quantum-mechanical collapses within living human brains are not random, as those of electrons are); and that all the alternatives generate more and more implausibilities as they are investigated, e.g. robots with sufficient complexity, or number of components, acquiring (mysteriously) feelings, and (for no-collapse theories) infinitely many of each of us, splitting every instant, etc.

  11. I don’t go for robots with sufficient complexity having consciousness. It seems to take special physical stuff (such as neurons) to generate consciousness. I suspect robots don’t have the right stuff. I do think it’s very strange and mysterious that some physical stuff “glows” with consciousness…so it’s not that it’s not a huge enigma. But dealing with it by saying it’s not actually the physical stuff that’s “glowing”? It doesn’t seem helpful.

    It’s easy to explain why spiritual stuff glows with consciousness, but too easy. That’s just what spiritual stuff does– that seems vacuous. And then…how does it make “contact” with the brain, so it can get inputs and produce outputs…and where does soul stuff drift in from, and does it even latch on to the brains of cats and dogs (or are they automatons, like Descartes says)?

    Maybe “incoherent” is not exactly the right word–more like very unhelpful. A soul doesn’t seem to solve problems, but create new problems.

  12. But which problems? From my perspective, physicalism creates unrealistic problems (how does matter oose mind) and just ignores important ones (what is the purpose of ensouled brains). Conversely, dualism can’t be too easy and imponderable! You are right that just saying “it’s souls” is too easy, of course; but so’s just saying “it’s all physical.” There are similarly great mysteries with either approach, it seems to me…

    Take your idea that it’s not the complexity; well, what could it be about the neurons? The physical responses can be modelled; could it be the internal electron configurations? But that is so close to consciousness being quantum-mechanical; and the obvious dualistic interaction is quantum-mechanical. Why do souls latch onto individual brains? Well, why do individual brains give rise to individual subjects?

    Or how about if I said, it’s easy to explain why space is extended, but too easy. That’s what spatial stuff is–that seems vacuous (ha ha). So we should assume that relationalism is true, we should reject substantivalism as silly. Then we can address the strange and mysterious ways in which objects oose spatial relationships. (Now, there are arguments for relationalism, but they do go via metaphysics and relativistic physics, or they ought to.)

    So I’d say that physicalism and dualism are more alike than you think. And I’d bet that what makes people prefer one to the other has very little to do with mind, more to do with other aspects of atheism versus theism. Your questions are fair enough, but akin to Dawkins’ objections to theism. I could ask you annoyingly simplistic questions about Naturalism (one benefit of studying philosophy is that I now have that power!) but instead I just wonder why you think that Dawkins would not accept “It’s a huge enigma” as an answer to his objections.

  13. michael reidy

    In all of this the really brave one is Colin McGinn who seems like the Sufi of the story in the other thread who has blurted out of his wisdom ‘this is beyond our understanding, we are constitutionally unable to comprehend what the unity of mind and brain that we live is’. If he had only been caught in time and instructed to give the metaphysicians something to get hold off however palpably nonsensical eg. the mind is the brain or the brain secretes consciousness as the liver secretes bile, then he would not be the first item on the review list – 1: McGinn: The arch prophet of the New Mysterianism.

    Rain falling on a rock having become slightly acidic, in its passage through the upper atmosphere, pits it or informs it which allows it to hold more water and begin the process of soil creation. All being or being a rock or being rain is informing or minding. In human being the minding seems to be detached from its physical actuality in that a memory of a picnic on the grass is more than neuronal activity but that is only so because we have separated the being of the neuonal activity from information. The being of the actual is informing. Come in Aristotle, come in Shankara.

  14. Another problem in this debate, it seems to me, is the binary thinking that goes on – the legacy of Cartesian dualism. You’ve either got to be a conviction materialist, or one of its ontological cousins, physicalist or naturalist; or you’ve got to believe in the soul as a ghost animating the carbon-based machine.

    Perhaps the truth lies beyond the conception of both these options. We just can’t conceive what.

    Though some, at least, are sensing a radical shift is necessary. For example, it is the case that many big time physicists cannot really be called materialists, but believe that some kind of mentality may be the fundamental property of things. It is that mentality from which matter emerges (roughly the opposite of the idea that consciousness somehow emerges from matter). Physicists from Heisenberg, to Bohm, to Wigner, to Swimme fall in this camp.

    Alternatively, it is striking how many are revisiting the insights of Plato, mathematics appearing to have the characteristics of his notion of Forms in several respects (such as that we appear to discover not make mathematic truths or they seem to be necessary and immutable). Roger Penrose is perhaps the obvious person here. He believes that the problems of interpreting quantum physics and the hard problem of consciousness are one and the same, and that a Platonic conception of things provides the best way forward.

    This is not to say that you can jump to the conclusion that God is being resurrected by science, of course. But it is to suggest that when it comes to physics at least, materialist presumptions about things are struggling to provide an adequate metaphysics in a way that would have been thought wholly unlikely until quite recently. In a literal sense consciousness is shadowy – in the shadows, and perhaps beyond our sight. (Though there is tons of wooly talk that floods into this epistemological vacuum, from ‘neural Buddhism’ which as far as I can see means little more than a certain warming towards religion as long as it doesn’t require belief in a personal God; to epiphenomenalism and talk of supervening which just does away with the reality of subjective conscious experience, to my mind at least.)

    Having said that, I think there are plenty of individuals reinventing an understanding of God based upon science, typically as a kind of pantheistic God. For example, Haidt may not do it but his collaborator in positive psychology, Martin Seligman certainly does, imagining a God who comes at the end of time, based upon the possible tendency within evolutionary processes to generate greater complexity, that includes consciousness and moral sense. He sums it up here: http://www.edge.org/q2007/q07_3.html.

  15. “dualism can’t be too easy and imponderable!”

    Enigman, I think dualism is too easy in one sense, creates imponderables in another.

    The too easy part–yes, it’s a huge mystery how brain oozes mind. The dualist thinks this is just too inexplicable, so postulates a soul. But wait! Maybe there’s a problem how soul stuff oozes mind! Dualist: no problem, that’s its job! This is very, very easy.

    The imponderables–when do souls latch on, where do they latch on, do animals have them, how does soul stuff interact with physical stuff, where do souls go after death, where do they come from before birth. etc.

    The “soul” solution to “how does the brain ooze mind” is a bit like the God solution to “why is there something rather than nothing?” The question is real and profound in each case, but the answer is not intellectually satisfying.

    Mark, Yes, there are subtle positions that don’t simply say the mind is the brain, but don’t postulate souls either. Property dualism, supervenience, stuff like that. Also, as Michael says, “mysterianism.” We may not be able to explain how the brain oozes mind….but we don’t make things any better by postulating spooky mind stuff.

    I don’t see how supervenience talk does away with consciousness, though it does raise questions about mental causation.

    There is no God talk whatever in Haidt, but Seligman does have that strange section about God at the end of “Authentic Happiness.” Must have a look.

  16. RE: The question of God, Mind, Spirit, etc.

    Jean Kazez, et al: As usual, very nice discussions above. However, I would like address the query as referenced above–one that has had been raised by Miles and quoted below.

    Specifically, Miles, on May 29th, 2008 at 10:45 pm Said:

    “So what is God? It seems to me that God is to be understood as the Universe, in its entirety, everything from quark and atom, to physics, to consciousness, to stars, to plants, everything and everything. This means both personal and non-. I kinda like that. God is us and God is everything around us.[1]

    “But what does this mean for the mind and the spirit? I don’t know; I don’t think I can know. Maybe I just need to have one of those experiences.[2]”

    1] I thought Miles has had reached an accurate conclusion about the theory of (or belief in) God (as one in Abrahamic monotheism)!

    Briefly, this conundrum of concept-belief in God has had taken me over 15 years to query and research–only to reach the same conclusion as Miles’ above–and presented it all (scientifically, philosophically, and psychologically as a quantum mechanics of “Memophorescenicity” in our brain) in my seminal book “Gods, Genes, Conscience” (iUniverse, 2006; Chapter 15: The Universal Theory of Mind).

    2] As to Miles’ second question, it is more complicated to explain because it involves both our explicit and implicit knowledge of subject matters; but let me try: In fact, we are all experiencing both the Mind and the Spirit at all times, in and for as long as we live, so to speak–lest our normal mechanism of Memophorescenicity would and could be robbed or deprived by the several neural degenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, schizophrenias, etc.

    Specifically, our Mind is explicitly caused by our voluntary actions of intellect, like thinking, reasoning, doing sciences (including philosophy of sciences), etc; whereas our Spirit would always be emanated and experienced implicitly by our involuntary (or autonomous or subconscious) reactions of emotions, like feeling, dreaming, religious chanting (as in Buddhism), prayers (as in Christianity), and reciting (as in Islam), etc.

    Historically, our “emotional and/or religious state” of Mind (and Spirit) has had been all mischaracterized by varied religionists (including shamans, metaphysicians, theologians, Buddhists, etc) and even by early-renowned psychologists (to name just a few below) like:

    Sigmund Freud, who tried to define “it” as the “royal road to the subconscious,” as presented in his interpretations of dreams, desires, wishes, etc;

    Carl Jung (a Freudian disciple-turned-rival), who broadened “it” as the “collective consciousness” of the spirits or souls, such as our common experiences in spirituality, religiosity, mysticisms, etc;

    Whereas both William James and Alfred Wallace were duped to seek such an evidence of “it” (in vain) in those very deceiving “spiritualists” or “medium” channeler-charlatans, etc–although James did recognize, characterize, and advance “it” as the “varieties of religious experience” in his 1902 seminal book with the same title;

    And finally, of course, the renowned (shamanic and theocratic) Tibetan Buddhism (as one religion that is different from monotheism)–as one that has had been religiously pursued by the 14th Dalai Lama and his followers as a “Science of Mind and Life” or “neuroscience” since the 1990s–thus so-called its practitioners, the “neural Buddhists,” who would insist in their belief that their emotions could be all resolved by their meditations–alone–while without resorting to any introspections or self-comprehensions of the root causes or sources of their “perceived and repressed” emotions, or self-contradictions, such as those implicit “sufferings” and explicit “pursuits of simplicity in Life and Mind by self-repressions,” while without engaging oneself in or promoting any socioeconomic developments, or self-growth (intellectual and spiritual) management, that would be very adaptive to and coexist with the modern times and all, etc.

    Thank you all for your kind attention and cooperation in this matter–Author “Decoding Scientism” (work in progress since July 2007).

  17. Jean, minds aren’t so much souls as incarnate souls, for Cartesian dualists, so it’s a deep problem (not quite imponderable, but certainly not trivial) to draw lines between spiritual and mental stuff. Our memories, for example, seem to be almost entirely tied to the neurological, in this life. And our moods and our other intellectual powers similarly, and maybe most of what passes for moral matters too. Not to mention all those propositional thoughts that exist only because we learnt our languages. Similarly with the rest of what you say. It’s not your fault, there are just not many good dualists about, and for myself I’m a very slow thinker, who’ll never produce much.

    But incidentally, dualists are fans of neuroscience, because the mind is produced by the soul interacting with the brain, and souls are obscure (rather than imponderable, e.g. poetry and mysticism may provide clues, but how can we judge?) so the interaction of psychology and neuroscience is what dualists look to. I just hope that materialistic presuppositions don’t stop those sciences being as empirical as they should be (I think here of how set theory and string theory come to dominate mathematics and physics, rightly or wrongly).

  18. A Neural Buddhist

    I’m sorry that you believe you know whether there is a God or not. You don’t *know.* No one *knows.* If you think you know, that proves that you don’t know what know means. Lots of liars say they know. I think the people who reject the idea of God have no morals, and don’t want to feel anything when they make a decision that hurts others, so they lie to themselves to make themselves feel better. Notice, I just said I think that, I didn’t say I know. I know better than to say that I know. You know? No?

  19. Jean, something that makes me think I have a soul is that (some) music seems to be talking to my soul, to some unearthly heart of me, rather than to my mind. I don’t know how to understand what I seem to understand in music if I don’t have a soul that belongs in some better world. It’s not like the music speaks to me of cakes and girls and sunny weather. It’s not that the music sounds better if I assume I have a soul.

    Like many people more normal than me, I need a Moorean stance, on something that seems solid to me, to ground my thoughts. So that’s the main reason why I take dualism seriously as a theory of mind, That and the fact that dualism makes more sense under monotheism. But again, I’m a monotheist (partly by upbringing and) because I seem to know there’s a God behind things when I see divine things, and because (it seems to me that) I see such things. Again,a Moorean stance; such as makes me think that (I know that) matter lies behind ordinary objects. Dualism also relies on naive views of ordinary objects, as much as of ourselves.

    Without such a common-sense view of matter, I might tend towards Idealism, property dualism or neural buddhism myself, given modern physics and all. Of course I may just be too dense to appreciate such theories; but it seems to me that, beyond a certain point, the words themselves start to lose their senses… I call a spade a chunk of metal on the end of a wooden stick, and by such I mean solid lumps of mind-independent matter, by which I just mean such things as are clearly around me, things I can know directly, not by definition; such stuff as sensible definitions are made of…

  20. The greatest part, is the whole of all in all.
    -Aiya-Oba (Poet/Philosopher).

  21. Enigman, I take my own intuitions very seriously, so I’m not about to complain if other people do. By the way, I’m curious about Peter Unger’s book All the Power in the World (great title), which defends substance dualism, apparently. I have the feeling he means something extremely arcane and abstract by that, but I’m curious. 600 pages, $110, hmm.

  22. Wow, there are more dualists about than I’d thought (I’ve only heard of Popper and Swinburne). I’m going to check out Unger’s book as now I’m very curious about it, thanks.

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