Monday, October 06, 2008

Neuroscience: Getting past the "You are a computer made of meat" phase

In "Faith Beyond the Frontal Lobes" (Washington Post, September 27, 2008) Michael Gerson offers a common sense corrective to rampant materialism in neuroscience. Reviewing Andrew Newberg's work with meditators, which Mario and I discussed in The Spiritual Brain, he notes,

Human beings routinely have experiences that are not commonly associated with normal consciousness yet seem more real than normal consciousness. "There is something in the brain that facilitates and rewards that type of experience," Newberg says, "and our brain desires to make sense of it."

This leads some, of course, to reductionism -- the assertion that a physical basis for transcendent experience proves there is no such thing as transcendence. It is an evolutionary joke on humanity -- perhaps useful, but not accurate -- because everything explainable is thus illusory.

But this view is not more "scientific" than other views. It involves a philosophic materialism that is entirely faith-based. We know, for example, that a complex series of physical, hormonal changes helps bond a mother to her newborn child. Does this mean that parental love is a myth? Only according to the philosophic claim that chemicals exhaust reality. Is it not equally possible that a cosmos charged with transcendence might organize itself in such a way that human beings can sense transcendence?
Yes, it is equally possible. And it is also a better explanation than reducing ideas to chemicals.

Put another way, the chemicals that help mothers bond to newborn children don't help us understand why there is a black market in babies for infertile women who have never experienced such chemicals. Nor do they help us understand Mother Theresa and her Missionaries of Charity, who provided homes for thousands of children, even though they never tried to have any children themselves.

Neuroscience can help us understand some important things about human beings, but it will be the most use if it is treated as one source of information, rather than as a reductionist explanation of the whole subject- especially when the subject is something like spirituality.

For example, Gerson notes that some people's genes might not predispose them to spiritual experiences. Perhaps, but many spiritual traditions do not emphasize personal experiences; they are viewed as a gift that can become a distraction from the main business of learning to live as a whole human being.

See also:

"Neuroscience: Getting beyond the mind-body problem

"Neurotheology": Bad neurology and bad theology?

Neuroscience: Meditation really can change the brain

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