Thursday, May 15, 2008

WTF is he blathering about? Does he even know?

David Brooks has a meandering, self-contradictory column up at the Times today that makes me wonder if he's capable of rational thought at all.

Here we go:

To these self-confident researchers, the idea that the spirit might exist apart from the body is just ridiculous. Instead, everything arises from atoms. Genes shape temperament. Brain chemicals shape behavior. Assemblies of neurons create consciousness. Free will is an illusion. Human beings are “hard-wired” to do this or that. Religion is an accident.

In this materialist view, people perceive God’s existence because their brains have evolved to confabulate belief systems. You put a magnetic helmet around their heads and they will begin to think they are having a spiritual epiphany. If they suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy, they will show signs of hyperreligiosity, an overexcitement of the brain tissue that leads sufferers to believe they are conversing with God.

That's right. Back in the 60's, those awful materialists suggested that religious experience may be the result of specific states of the brain, that it can be mapped and measured materially. Oh, how silly! How foolish those arrogant materialists were!

Fast forward a few years....

The brain seems less like a cold machine. It does not operate like a computer. Instead, meaning, belief and consciousness seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings. Those squishy things called emotions play a gigantic role in all forms of thinking. Love is vital to brain development.

Researchers now spend a lot of time trying to understand universal moral intuitions. Genes are not merely selfish, it appears. Instead, people seem to have deep instincts for fairness, empathy and attachment.

Scientists have more respect for elevated spiritual states. Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania has shown that transcendent experiences can actually be identified and measured in the brain (people experience a decrease in activity in the parietal lobe, which orients us in space). The mind seems to have the ability to transcend itself and merge with a larger presence that feels more real.

Let's work through this. The brain does not work like a machine, but consciousness emerges from neuron firings. Emotions play a role in thinking (which says nothing about the physical mechanism underlying either.) Genes are not merely selfish--well, I'm not sure what that bit of anthropomorphism is supposed to mean, other than the suggestion that natural selection may have selected for those traits in social species such as ourselves, due to a survival advantage gained by them. Nothing mystical there.

And transcendent experience can be identified and measured in the frontal lobe. Sounds pretty materialist to me. His statement that the mind has the ability to "transcend itself and merge with a larger presence that feels more real" describes the subjective state of feeling merged with the universe, with God, whatever, that is frequently described by meditative practitioners of various faiths. In other words, the mystical experience can be linked to specific brain activity in specific brain regions. Again, very materialist. The subjective feeling of something larger being there doesn't mean there is something there, but he overlooks that.

So, to summarize: Back in the 60's, the bad materialists said that religious experience was probably a function of brain activity. Today, the good scientists are finding that it is, and describing it objectively. This is a repudiation of the earlier view.... how?

But wait, it gets better.

In unexpected ways, science and mysticism are joining hands and reinforcing each other.
In his mind, maybe.

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. I’m not qualified to take sides, believe me.
The last sentence, at least, is correct.

The "profound insights" Brooks cites, evidence that science is "proving" that a quasi-buddhist mysticism is objective truth, is a rehash of second-year philosophy:

First, the self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships. Second, underneath the patina of different religions, people around the world have common moral intuitions. Third, people are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love. Fourth, God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is.
The first has been known even to materialist social-psychologists for years. The second 'insight' is still a matter of some debate and not considered proven. Third, yes, people can feel something, they can experience something... and we know what parts of their brains do that. Which he railed against in the first few paragraphs, then trotted out as profound later on. The fourth? Well, define "God" however you want. That definition is one that's been bandied about. His point that there's no evidence for a personal, biblical, magic daddy in the sky, is of course correct. But in an act of moral cowardice, he refuses to carry that thought through. Why should we believe in any god at all, even one that is more process than personality? Indeed, if we can show that the experience of god is just a function of brain activity, doesn't that suggest the lack of anything non-material undergirding it? Doesn't that reinforce the "radical atheism" he deplores so much?

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