Saturday, October 27, 2007

Spirituality and the letters of the law

In this Books & Culture essay, Religion Reviews editor Jana Riess recounts the adventure of secular New York Jew A. J. Jacobs, who tried living for a year by the precepts of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments.

The Old Testament customs seem stranger to Jacobs than the New, but that's really no surprise. The Old Testament took shape in an ancient agrarian society, but the New Testament is largely a series of letters written to ancient people who lived in cities, just as Jacobs does today. So he encounters many fewer customs that he simply cannot understand, let alone carry out.

As to Jacobs' project in general, engagingly described by Riess, I think it is founded on a misunderstanding. We must get to the heart of what the Biblical customs are trying to achieve, as well as see how they tried to achieve it. For example, Riess writes,
Of course, some of the Bible's laws prove too strange even for Jacobs. The notion that one should break the neck of a cow near the scene of an unsolved murder (Deut. 21:4) is a bit too bizarre to be transforming the NYPD anytime soon.

But there is nothing bizarre about it at all. Deuteronomy 21:1-9 outlines the procedure by which an ancient community was to swear publically and officially over a sacrifice that no one in authority was concealing the murderer. There was no equivalent of the NYPD in those days, but there was a real risk of blood feuds if collusion were suspected.

Today's NYPD faces an unrelated set of problems, including many more unsolved murders than were likely in an ancient tribal community (where most people knew quite a bit about their neighbours' business). And breaking a cow's neck would not help.

What does happen to Jacobs is most interesting:
Despite the individualism of Jacobs' task and focus, the haunting and glorious truth of the book is that his most significant spiritual experiences all happen not as part of his solitary year-long quest, but in community. He dances exuberantly with the Torah scrolls with hundreds of black-hatted Hasidim on Simchat Torah, celebrating the joy of the Bible in a way he never did on his own. He delves into Jewish family rituals, like the bat mitzvah of his niece or the circumcision of his twins, because he has decided that indeed, it is not good that man should be alone (Gen. 2:18). He assembles a sort of spiritual advisory board and tries to meet with or talk to at least one member of that group each day. Along the way, he discovers that a vital part of religion is belonging in community, whether or not we always understand (or agree with) why that community does what it does. One of the book's most illuminating moments, in fact, comes when Jacobs tries to think like a biblical creationist and realizes that despite its abuses of science, creationism is actually about a theology of human relationship:

"The first thing I notice is that I feel more connected. If everyone on earth is descended from two identifiable people … then the "family of man" isn't just pablum. It's true. The guy who sells me bananas at the deli on 81st Street—he's my cousin."
Uh, ... yes! And it's more important to know that than to know the entire history of the world.

And how does Jacobs' quest end?
Despite his confusion about the Bible's quirky mishmash, Jacobs comes away, like any pilgrim, changed by his experience. From his beginnings as a person who says he never uttered the word "Lord" unless it was followed by "of the Rings," he now describes himself as a "reverent agnostic" who, though he is unsure about God, recognizes the existence of the sacred in prayer and in each life. He realizes that the Bible is far more than he—and many devoutly religious people—had reduced it to. It is more than a mere self-help tome or an extended history lesson. It is something that requires everything he has:

"It's not like studying sumo wrestling in Japan. It's more like wrestling itself. This opponent of mine is sometimes beautiful, sometimes cruel, sometimes ancient, sometimes crazily relevant. I can't get a handle on it. I'm outmatched."

Well, it's not for nothing that they say that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

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Neurolaw? Your brain is your best defense ... literally!

In “Why blame me? It was all my brain’s fault”, Raymond Tallis warns against “the dubious rise of neurolaw”. Essentially, this is an effort to calim that the defendant's "brain" did it (and therefore he himself didn't). He writes,
Those who blame the brain should be challenged as to why they stop at the brain when they seek the causes of bad behaviour. Since the brain is a physical object, it is wired into nature at large. “My brain made me do it” must mean (ultimately) that “The Big Bang” made me do it. Neuro-determinism quickly slides into determinism tout court.

And there is a contradiction built into the plea of neuromitigation. The claim “my brain made me do it” suggests that I am not my brain; even that my brain is some kind of alien force. One of the founding notions of neurolaw, however, is that the person is the brain. If I were my brain, then “My brain made me do it” would boil down to “I made me do it” and that would hardly get me off the hook. And yet, if I am not identical with my brain, why should a brain make me do anything? Why should this impersonal bit of matter single me out?

Of course, the underlying idea, as Mario Bearegard and I explain in Chapter 5 of The Spiritual Brain is that consciousness and free will really don't exist.

And sure enough, the comments to the article make that agenda perfectly clear:
... a central tenet of neuroscience (as distinct from both neurolaw and neuromythology) is that behavior is the result of neural activity -- there is nothing extra. While this conclusion may be debated, if it is true then the question is not to distinguish between acts caused by brain activity and those caused by persons, but to distinguish between pathological from normal neural activity,
writes Paul C. from Atlanta.
We, as a society, will need to come to terms with the fact that true free-will and genuine responsibility in the sense people want it to be true are not scientifically (or philosophially) viable. Instead, our apportioning of blame, or not, to individuals for their actions is based on a blend of culture and evolutionary traits.
chimes in Elan from Boca Raton.

Neither commenter explains how that has been demonstrated, and for a very good reason: It hasn't been demonstrated. Rather, it is a central tenet of materialism! If you are a materialist, you will believe that that is true and you will look for confirmation. You will ignore or treat as a problem any evidence that it is not true.

Read the Introduction to The Spiritual Brain here for a look at the actual state of the evidence, which is quite different from what the materialist implies. Note, for example, that a recent edition of Scientific American we read:
How Does Consciousness Happen

Two leading neuroscientists, Christof Koch and Susan Greenfield, disagree about the activity that takes place in the brain during subjective experience

By Christof Koch and Susan Greenfield

Well, if there is still debate even about what activity takes place (and this doesn't even address the "hard problems" of consciousness), you can be pretty sure that materialists have not made their case.

In the end, neurolaw is just another materialist fad like Freudianism or Marxism or Darwinism. My brain made me do it instead of my mother made me do it or my class position made me do it or my animal ancestors made me do it.

The best argument for the self ever devised is the strange fact that, whenever there's trouble, the only one who DIDN'T do it is me.

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