Religious experience

Just as my lawyer friends cannot watch "Law and Order," my doctor friends cannot watch "ER," and my military friends cannot watch "Missing in Action," I find it hard to read things like the following meditation on the philosophy of mind from David Brooks.  He writes:

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.

That could be any number of views known as materialism (or compatible with it).  Brooks contrasts this view with the following:

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.

That's still materialism of a fairly decisive variety.  On the strength of this, he erroneously concludes:

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.

Notice these descriptions are all brain-sided.  Intuitions, experience, "love," etc., all are all, on the view Brooks is describing, neurologically based.  That's still a variety of materialism. 

3 thoughts on “Religious experience”

  1. Wow. I thought he was just going to shift from a “cold” materialism to one which heeds emotional and altered states of consciousness–a move which has indeed occurred in psychology and to some degree philosophy, and a fact that might have been worthwhile to point out in the popular press. But no, Brooks went all out.

    – (1) “transcendent experiences can actually be identified and measured in the brain.”
    – (2) Therefore, “the mind seems to have the ability to transcend itself and merge with a larger presence that feels more real.”

    (2) here seems to be making claims about the actions of an actually existing mind, at least by my reading of it. Which means that it doesn’t follow from (1) in any way. It should be:

    – (2′) The mind seems to have the ability /to undergo/ [passive] transcendent experiences which /feel as if/ [experiential] it is merging with a larger, more real presence.

    Given that his earlier claims about cold materialism are still on the table, this is hardly much ammo to base his four conclusions on.

  2. That same portion stood out for me, “The mind seems to have the ability to transcend itself and merge with a larger presence that feels more real.” So the brain does interesting stuff, therefore it is more than just a brain. Thus, if there’s non-brain stuff, there is a larger presence of non-brain stuff. Oh, and of course there’s a mind that’s different from the brain. Gobbledegook.

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