Monday, January 07, 2008

Antony Flew: Is emotion really better than reason in religious matters?

Recently, I both reviewed Antony Flew's There IS a God and responded to claims that, at his advanced age and suffering a cognitive disorder(84), he either couldn't write the book or doesn't know what he thinks. I have dealt with those claims as well.

But another claim that surfaced was that Flew should have had an emotional religious experience rather than merely changing his mind for rational reasons. Those who think so might also want to look at the case of fellow philosopher (and atheist) A. J. Ayer, who actually had a near death experience (NDE) in 1988 - and see what happened. Here is a brief excerpt from The Spiritual Brain on that subject. During the experience, Ayer had encountered a painful red light that he took to be responsible for the government of the universe, and he thought it was his job to put things right. He remained an atheist until he died a year later, but according to a source close to him, he became much more interested in others (a classic outcome of a near death experience). And what of his philosophical views? Playwright William Cash, who staged a play based on Ayer’s account of his NDE at the Edinburgh Festival, was told by Ayer's doctor,
George recalls that Ayer told him, “I saw a Divine Being. I’m afraid I’m going to have to
revise all my various books and opinions.”
But he didn't. I must assume that he had reasons for not doing so that seemed good and reasonable to him, but the fact is that he didn't.

Perhaps this demonstrates that, in a person of philosophical temperament, reason is more critical than emotional experience.

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The Spiritual Brain reviewed in Jesuit thinkmag America

I was a bit nervous when I heard that our Spiritual Brain had been reviewed in America. Mario Beauregard is a research scientist and I am a journalist. Our evidence is good, but a philosopher could probably tie me up for hours in mind games (though he might not fare as well with Mario).

However, John F.Kavanaugh, S.J., reviewed the book and actually had good things to say about it, for example,
The fact that most humans report religious, spiritual and mystical experiences has sent some materialists on a scavenger hunt for a "God-spot" in the brain, a "God-gene" hiding in some chromosome and even a "God helmet" that stirs up an electromagnetic field to give the brain a spiritual buzz. Beauregard's fMRI work shows that, while all human cognitive experience is accompanied by firings in the neural network, the experiences themselves are utterly unlocalizable.

The workings of the brain accompany spiritual experience but do not fully account for it. What is more, although human experience requires the brain as a necessary condition for our embodied personal acts of self-consciousness, mindfulness, freedom and love, the brain cannot adequately explain them. Beauregard examines cases of the paranormal, the placebo effect and therapeutic auto-suggestion, all under fMRI conditions, to show that the brain-driven content of our experience is different from our self-directed consciousness of the content. Most remarkable here is the report of a near-death-experience of someone clinically dead, with a flat EEG but nonetheless aware.

Kavanaugh, who teaches medical ethics at St. Louis University, Mo., is himself the author of Who Count As Persons? (Georgetown Univ. Press, 2002).

And more. I don't think this article is on line yet, but you can register to read the whole for free.

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Is there a rock solid "Religious Right" vote in the United States?

In the wake of the Huckaboom (as well as the Obama-boom) in the US primaries in Iowa, which saw evangelical Mike Huckabee and dark horse cum rising star Barack Obama leading (when they weren't supposed to), we can expect to see considerable obsessing in media about the prospect that the "Christian right" will act to make Republican Mike Huckabee the next US president. You know, teetering on the edge of theocracy and all that.

Actually, a reality check is in order, and has been for a long time. In Huckelujah Ann Coulter and in Secular left vs. Christian left Mark Steyn make quite clear that Huckabee is not an anointed candidate simply because he is obviously an identified Christian.

In "what we really want", Christianity Today, the flagship publication of American evangelicals, offers some balancing thoughts:

... evangelicalism doesn't function like an AFL-CIO, granting endorsements and delivering votes on election day. There isn't an evangelical vote. We are not some pious voting bloc up for grabs.

If evangelicals functioned as a voting bloc, Pat Robertson would have in 1988 soundly defeated then-Vice President George H.W. Bush for the Republican nomination. But Robertson failed, as did evangelical activist Gary Bauer after him, in the 2000 presidential race.

They also note that evangelicals are "remarkably united" on the issues they are concerned about, as set out in a landmark National Association of Evangelicals document (2004):
freedom of religion and conscience; protection for families and children; protection of all human life, compassion and justice for poor people; global human rights; the pursuit of peace and restraint of violence; and biblically based creation care.

But evangelicals come to different decisions about which candidate offers the best package for these concerns.

I can't yet find this editorial on line but when I do I will try to remember to come back and link to the whole article. Meanwhile, let me say that the research I did for The Spiritual Brain bears out the point that the CT editors are making: There is no evangelical Christian voting monolith. For one thing, black evangelicals overwhelmingly vote for Democratic candidates - and Hispanic evangelicals largely do. That greatly undermines the effect of white evangelicals who vote disproportionately for Republican ones. And that's just the beginning of the many saw-offs ....

Update January 8, 2008! Here is an enlightening column by Janet Shaw Crouse that addresses the reality of the evangelical Christan vote in the United States via exit polling data:
Evangelicals are not a monolithic entity. Contrary to media coverage that assumes all Evangelicals vote alike, Evangelicals in the Iowa Caucus supported a wide range of policies and candidates. While 46 percent of Evangelicals voted for Huckabee, more than half of them (54 percent) split their vote among the four other candidates (Romney, McCain, Thompson and Paul). Huckabee benefited from the Evangelical vote, but his support was much broader and deeper than one voting segment.

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Psychiatrist reviews The Spiritual Brain in The Anglican Planet

The Anglican Planet, a Canadian Anglican publication, edited by Toronto photojournalist Sue Careless, published a review of The Spiritual Brain by Toronto psychiatrist John McCormick which said, among other things,
Dogmatically holding that only physically observable phenomena are real is incompatible with honest, open scientific inquiry. Studying mystical experiences can and should be done using a harmonized framework of biological, psychological, social and spiritual approaches. The brain may be seen as a transducer of spiritual realities, rather than an originator of them, much as a television set receives and interprets radio waves broadcast from elsewhere.

I recommend this book for the thoughtful general reader. It is an excellent review of the philosophical questions faced by people who take their science and religion seriously. It has helped me further pull together related fields that are too often not on good terms with each other.

Enough technical material is presented to support its contentions but not to overpower the reader. The depth of scholarship is apparent in the 146 pages of references and notes. A six-page glossary is not exhaustive but covers some of the main anatomical, psychological and philosophical terms. A number of black and white diagrams orient the reader to the main neuroanatomical structures. Sidebars give further detail to technical concepts. As one who works daily with patients, I found this book heavy and substantial reading, but well worth the effort. It is one book I plan to read several times.

And, while we are here, I recommend The Anglican Planet to all who are interested in global Anglican/Episcopalian affairs. (Anglicans (called Episcopalians in the United States) are the English-language Reformation church.)

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Neuroscience and religion: Key medical journal prints thoughtful article

We all like pleasant surprises, and Mario Beauregard and I were pleasantly surprised by a recent article in the elite New England Journal of Medicine by Solomon H. Snyder, "Seeking God in the Brain - Efforts to Localize Higher Brain Functions." Snyder, a famous neuroscientist, takes a cautious approach. About claimed links between brain malfunction and religious visions, he notes, "attempts to localize such purported functions within the brain are always fraught with hazards," also observing,
... , any extrapolation from a mapping of brain areas that mediate language
use to likely cerebral contributions to religious or creative dispositions would be highly speculative.

In an age when just about anyone can come up with a crackpot theory to explain spirituality - and expect public attention! - we find much to praise in Snyder's caution. Mario hopes that the journal will publish more articles on the serious study of spirituality and the brain, such as he and colleagues such as Andrew Newberg engage in. Newberg is the author of the excellent Why God won't go away.

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