Friday, May 23, 2008

"Neural Buddhists", Christians, and the Mud that failed

Recently we heard about "neural Buddhism" - basically, the BoBos (bohemian bourgeois) are coming to come to terms with the fact that neuroscience is not proving that there is no soul, as Tom Wolfe suggested.

Materialism is in fact "the Mud that failed."

So the BoBos now hope to get by on "neural Buddhism" - they won't be materialists but they won't be much of anything else either.

Ben Wiker's To the Source weighs in heavily, seeing neural Buddhism as an attack on Christianity:
Back to the “latest” in neuroscience. The important thing to understand is that if the discovery of “self-transcendence” in the brain is slightly more scientific than crude soul-crushing materialism, it is far more potent an enemy to true religion. Brooks understands this with admirable but not entire clarity. The lovely hand-holding of mysticism and science is “bound to lead to new movements that emphasize self-transcendence but put little stock in divine law or revelation. Orthodox believers are going to have to defend particular doctrines and particular biblical teachings. They’re going to have to defend the idea of a personal God, and explain why specific theologies are true guides for behavior day to day.”
Hmmmm. Why not plop a bit of ice in that brimstone, Ben?

First, it isn't Christians who should be insulted by this particular display of the BoBo genius for raising triviality to an art form, it's Buddhists! Real Buddhism is NOT about what you don't have to believe, think, say, or do. Real Buddhist monks get slaughtered fighting vicious tyrannies.

And a BoBo "neural Buddhist" does what? Buys a book on how to meditate under a blow dryer while surfing the Net?

Hey, prediction: Neural Buddhism will either grow up into Buddhism, get absorbed into Western theism, or dissipate before the next fad (rural nudism? feral foodism? Don't write to tell me. For truly momentous news like this I should wait for the New York Times).

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Spiritual Brain authors catch bouquets and dodge brickbats

Recently, I heard that The Spiritual Brain received a "highly favorable" review in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, the journal of the American Scientific Affiliation: A Fellowship of Christians in Science. The review won't be on line till next year, but I will try to get a scan.

Meanwhile, an individual calling himself Canadian Cynic was apparently quite upset that The Spiritual Brain was shortlisted for three Canadian Christian Writing Awards. Cynic doesn't like the book and vowed to write the office, but of course the office doesn't interfere with the judges.

Not Cynical enough I suppose. ..

Clearly, people are noticing the Canadian Christian Writing Awards and the Write! Canada conference that follows them. I don't suppose it is any comfort to Cynic that Mario and I are up against strong competitors this year. People who hate The Spiritual Brain will be no happier if the others win.


Near death experiences gaining recognition in medical journals

Gary Habermas offers a talk on near death experiences (experiences that the patient recalls frm a time when he or she is clinically dead), available online. "Near Death Experiences and the Afterlife"was given at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, 2008, and sponsored by the Veritas Forum:

In this talk, Gary Habermas will address the definition of death, and then set parameters for potential afterlife evidence. In looking at testimonies of near death experiences in each of the categories that we will have established, we will discuss the nature of this data and what we can learn about a potential afterlife.
I listened to some of it and it is quite good. One thing Habermas notes is that near death experiences (NDEs) - which we discuss in some detail in The Spiritual Brain - have been discussed in about ten medical journals. The trend today is to seek to understand what is happening and what difference it makes, rather than explain the experience away. One factor has undoubtedly been the increased number of people who have returned to active life from states of clinical death.

Habermas mentions that near-death experiences often don't realize at first that the body they are looking at is theirs, because they don't see the face. (In a medical situation, the face is likely obscured by drapes or medical staff.)

That must be quite the wakeup call. No wonder so many NDEers change their lives' priorities.

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Do you taste what you see? What you remember? What you think you ought to?

We sometimes hear it said that human beings are far less sensitive than animals to smell and taste (the two senses being linked somewhat). One complexity is that cultural and personal ideas about what we are tasting play a major role in how we respond. In "Science: Could martinis be the secret of Bond's success?" (Telegraph, May 20, 2008), Roger Highfield offers some examples,
The appearance of a drink can also affect how happy we are with it: our brains make a pleasant association between the colours of ripening fruit and increased sugar content.

"Such colours, particularly bright reds, are especially powerful visual cues," says Prof Spence. "When incorporated into a drink, they can dramatically change the perceived flavour, as well as increasing the perceived sweetness by as much as 12 per cent."

French researchers tested this by using an odourless dye to colour white wine red. The wine tasters who tried the result used typical red wine descriptors, suggesting that its colour played a significant role in how they thought of it. "In cocktails, I'll look at how the very same colour can lead different people to think of, and therefore taste, very different flavours," says Prof Spence.

So did James Bond, world's best known secret agent, ace the cocktails? Apparently yes, and to celebrate the centenary of Bond novelist Ian Fleming's birth, Professor Charles Spence and Dr Andrea Sella will lecture on the proper way to prepare a cocktail he would love at the Cheltenham Science Festival in June. All for the good of science, of course.

Didn't you hear what I said? All for the good of ... okay, okay, it sounds to me like a good ol' bash too. Won't be quite the same without Fleming and Bond though.

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The selfish gene visits the four-year-old who saved her sister

Here’s a recent story about a four-year-old girl who saved her infant sister’s life:
The next morning, park groundskeepers saw Lindsay stumbling out of the woods holding the baby. She collapsed. The children were bitten so badly by insects that sheriff's deputies thought they had been burned. In the hospital that night, a sheriff's spokeswoman told me, Lindsay refused to sleep until nurses brought her baby sister to cradle in her arms.

[ ... ]

The Baton Rouge Advocate reported that Lindsay came to the funeral with a white scarf hiding her neck wound. Erin Manning, a Fort Worth writer, observed on my blog that the scarf conceals a profound mystery: "We can't bear to look at the sacrificial cost of love — a wound so bravely borne because at some level, this child's love for her tiny sister outweighed her terror and her pain."
- Rod Dreher, "From horror, a child's loving gift", May 11, 2008

A key recent project of materialist psychology, usually under the banner of evolutionary psychology, is to demonstrate that the cause of the girl's behaviour is her selfish genes. Because her genes are related to the infant's genes, there is said to be a sort of genetic program that causes the girl to act to save her sister.

Sometimes other theories, taken from animal studies, are called upon. A friend sent me this Roundup news note he came across in Science:
The Evolution of Cooperation

The question of how natural selection can lead to cooperative behavior has intrigued biologists for decades. On one hand, evolution is based on fierce competition and should therefore reward only selfish behavior. Yet cooperation is common throughout the biological world, whether between genes or cells or within animal and human societies. In a Review article in the 8 Dec 2006 Science, M. A. Nowak discussed five possible mechanisms for the evolution of cooperation: kin selection, direct reciprocity, indirect reciprocity, network reciprocity, and group selection. And in a related Report, S. Bowles developed a model -- using genetic, climactic, archeological, ethnographic and experimental data -- to help explain the prevalence of altruistic behavior in human societies. According to his analysis, the ecological challenges facing humans during the late Pleistocene resulted in intense competition for resources, frequent group extinctions, and intergroup violence. Members of a group bearing genes for altruistic behavior paid a tax by limiting their reproductive opportunities in order to benefit from sharing food and information, thereby increasing the average fitness of the group, as well as their interrelatedness. Bands of altruistic humans would then act in concert to gain resources from other groups at a time when humans faced daily challenges to survival. An accompanying Perspective by R. Boyd considered how these views fit with other hypotheses about the evolutionary processes that spawned our uniquely cooperative societies.

My friend commented, "I never cease to be amazed by the rampant speculation that is so accepted in the soft sciences."

But the rampant speculation is easier to understand if you consider what underlies it. Recently, another friend asked me for essay help on evolutionary psychology, and I replied,
A driving force behind evolutionary psychology is an account of human behaviour that does not depend on the existence of the mind.

Evolutionary psychology tries to show that major human drives do NOT result from thoughts or judgements or preferences but are governed by the desire of selfish genes to spread themselves. So the mind does not cause thoughts, values, or judgements. A genetic or neural mechanism, triggered by accidental environment conditions causes the behaviour.

The curious thing about evolutionary psychology is that - despite the fact that the human genome has now been mapped - those who hold it do not usually identify actual genes. Instead, they attempt to show - as in the discussion of co-operation - how a given form of behaviour might have helped early human ancestors survive. We are expected to conclude that therefore the behaviour somehow originated and is passed on in their genes or brain structure. Otherwise, how can it be said to have evolved?

The problem is, of course, that a variety of opposing behaviours might help early human ancestors survive, just as a variety of opposing behaviours help people survive today. Many influences encourage us - and encouraged them - to choose one behaviour rather than another. The idea that behaviour is passed on in genes is speculation, especially when specific genes are not identified.

The following item, which I wrote for Salvo Winter 2008, expands on that point. I should really have called it "Evolutionary psychology and the reality of the mind" but I had to follow a pattern for that issue.

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Intelligent design and the reality of the mind

(I published this article on evolutionary psychology in Salvo 4, which mainlly addressed the intelligent design controversy, and I think it's been three months so I am free to republish it here now.)

In 1995, midway through the Decade of the Brain, journalist Michael Lemonick observed in Time Magazine, "Utterly contrary to common sense . . . and to the evidence gathered from our own introspection, consciousness may be nothing more than an evanescent by-product of more mundane, wholly physical processes.”

May be. The working assumption of materialism is that the human mind is an illusion generated by the frantic neurons of the brain. That assumption plays some interesting tricks with the explanations of human behavior that are accepted as reasonable. Consider, for example, evolutionary psychology - the effort to derive laws of human psychology from the behavior that helped our Pleistocene ancestors survive, and is transmitted willy-nilly in our genes. It regularly offers complex, exotic explanations for common human behavior. A recent article in Psychology Today (July/August 2007) avers that men prefer women with big breasts because the man can see whether the woman’s breasts sag, which indicates reduced fertility.

Really? Isn't the general human preference for the anticipated pleasure of abundance over scarcity a better explanation - and a wee bit simpler too? But to think that way is to be out of step with the whole point of evolutionary psychology, which derives from a materialist view of human nature. To say that men prefer abundance to scarcity is to say that they have minds and that - to their minds - abundance seems better than scarcity.

But to an evolutionary psychologist, framing the preference that way is simply not acceptable. Evolutionary psychology looks for a program in the genes that governs what men like. Its practitioners are entirely convinced that such a program exists. The program must exist because the mind does not cause anything to happen. Men do not know what they like until their selfish genes act on their neurons, creating the appropriate buzz. The man himself has no preferences, but his genes do.

The same approach may be observed in much materialist-driven research into religion, reported breathlessly in popular science media over the years. Researchers, we are told, have discovered a God spot, circuit, gene, or module in the brain. They have also discovered that, by putting on a special helmet, you can have mystical visions, and that Darwinian evolution selected cavemen who believed in religion. That is why humans can't help but believe (though the theorist can help it quite easily).

As with evolutionary psychology, the bizarre nature of these explanations for religion through the ages is not intentionally perverse. Not at all. It is rather the outcome of a duty to prefer a materialist explanation, however ill-suited to the case, to a non-materialist explanation, however well-suited. The materialist would use better materialist explanations, if he had them, but he often doesn’t.

How does this relate to the intelligent design controversy? Well, if the universe is intelligently designed, at least one Mind is real. We can then accept the available evidence from cognitive psychology for the reality of our own, lesser minds.

Denyse O’Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain (HarperOne 2007)

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