Monday, August 18, 2008

"Neurotheology": Bad neurology and bad theology?

In "God, theologian and humble neurologist", Alasdair Coles of the Department of Clinical Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge reviews recent books, Did my neurons make me do it? and The Soul in the Brain for Brain (June 23, 2008). He and I share a dislike of "neurotheology," which he describes as "bad neurology and bad theology" (and which I have described less elegantly as "neurobullshipping"):

In the 1980s, a small group of neuroscientists arrogated for itself a new field of ‘neurotheology’ which has become—not to put too fine a point on it—an embarrassment. In privatized discussions, over-interpreted accounts of poor experiments are recycled to construct grand schemes to explain religious experience.
Yuh. Mario and I discussed a number of these schemes in The Spiritual Brain, and they all have one thing in common: They aim to explain religious experiences away rather than explain them.

It is as if someone were to explain Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel in terms of infighting at the Vatican. If infighting at the Vatican in those days explained the Sistine, no one would bother with it now.

Coles also talks about another favourite subject - the apparently sudden emergence of human consciousness, especially as expressed in art, literature, music, and spirituality:
The Upper Paleolithic Revolution consisted of more than just cave paintings. Visual creativity emerged in many other ways. Burial rites become more complex. And, it is speculated, the first music was made and the first words spoken. van Huyssteen argues that the key distinction between Upper Paleolithic man and homo sapiens elsewhere and earlier hominids, was the power to construct and understand symbol, of which language of course is a part. This ability to ‘code the invisible’ allowed for storage of information outside of the gene and the start of the cultural
non-genetic inheritance. The ‘mental toolkit’ required to manage symbolic representation is the ‘ability to be conscious of being conscious’ and to search for meaning. The new humans wake up, discover they are naked and meet God.

[ ... ]

So it seems that, some 30–40 000 years ago in Europe, humans suddenly acquired the gifts of self-awareness, symbol, language and creativity. Which of these was the foundational event is hard to know, and perhaps need not be known. But, importantly, spirituality was part of the package.
Yes, and that spirituality seems so evident in the cave paintings! The pantings are not about animals literally, in the sense that an anatomical diagram or textbook description might be about animals. The cave paintings are about the artists' perceptions of animals, their relationship to animals, and their explorations of what it must feel like to be an animal.
Tour the caves, courtesy France's culture ministry. Also tour the Lascaux caves here (at Virtual visit) and view Altamira cave images here.

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose.

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