A cognitive revolution?:

Is this anything or is this nothing?

posted by Brent A. Field

The New York Times opinion piece by David Brooks, titled “The Neural Buddhists,” drives a wedge between mystical and “revealed” religions by citing recent philosophical and scientific scholarship. Brooks suggests that neuroscience (including psychology) poses a considerable challenge to religions that emphasize divine law or revelation. Brooks is right to predict that neuroscience will profoundly affect our culture’s thinking. Neuroscience forces us to revise our concept of self. And I agree that the investigation into universal moral intuitions raises interesting questions about the emergence of religion. My guess is that its most significant cultural contribution will be, simply, increased happiness.

However, Brooks unadvisedly argues that neuroscience will affect metaphysics. He claims that neuroscience can validate sacred experiences and that it can show us that these experiences are the same as God. “Scientists whose beliefs overlap a bit with Buddhism,” Brooks writes, will be the primary challengers of revealed religions. The implication is that neuroscience has found a way to transcend the practical and philosophical boundaries within which it operates. This has not occurred. Moreover, my years of reflecting on brain and behavior have made me deeply appreciate how scientifically intractable metaphysical propositions are. While individuals should be encouraged to form their own private opinions, there is no need to adopt religious intolerance in the name of neuroscience. Below I share a few reasons why I think this is the case. Each speaks to the difficulty neuroscience has characterizing the ultimate nature of reality.

First, there is Brooks’s claim that people are equipped to “to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love.” At present, neuroscience is poorly positioned to evaluate this. The brain’s complexity is a tremendous practical constraint on neuroscience’s reach. New kinds of measurement bring about advances in neuroscience: the more sensitive, reliable, and physically interpretable a measure, the better. Much of the challenge in developing new measures is finding an interpretable signal buried in all the complexity. We do not have a sensitive, reliable, and physically interpretable measurement of “transcendence” or related phenomena.

The brain is active from early in development until death. It would be remarkable if there were no brain activity during a presumed mystical state. A challenge confronting neuroscientists who study mystics is determining which part of observed brain activity relates to the subjectively meaningful part of a mystical state. Brain activity may arise from performance anxiety, daydreaming, or attention to the endeavor at hand. One way to evaluate this would be to correlate brain activity with real-time ratings of subjective mysticism. We could ask someone who is attempting to cultivate such a state to adjust a knob every few seconds according to the intensity of the experience. However, doing so might interfere with the state.

Late night television comedian David Letterman occasionally does a sketch called “Is This Anything?,” where he and sidekick Paul Schaffer jokingly debate whether some bizarre stage performance is “nothing” or “something.” By analogy, neuroscience has confirmed that mystically oriented practices are “something.” However, as in the comedy sketch, “nothing” isn’t really an option.

We can currently evaluate comparatively mundane aspects of mystically oriented practices. Are practitioners subsequently less distracted or anxious? Does a given practice increase antibody titers, or decrease inflammation? Are practitioners better at spatial reasoning or math? Such things are measurable. Some such findings may prove useful to society, but will likely not take a side in the worldview debates.

There are more deeply philosophical reasons why neuroscience will stay out of metaphysics. For instance, neuroscience may never solve the age-old philosophical puzzle of how primal our subjective experience is. This is my second disagreement with Brooks. He says, “God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at [mystical] moments, the unknowable total of all there is.” I am sure that some people have these deeply meaningful experiences. However, it is pointless for neuroscience to update a term (God) that in conventional parlance refers to the ultimate power that rules the universe.

It is true that our access to the “real” world, meaning the objective world “out there” that science purports to study, is through our subjective awareness. Some proponents of the ancient Greek school of Solipsism have maintained that the only thing that is knowable is this subjective awareness. To cite one recent popular example: how can I possibly prove that I am not part of a video game? The blockbuster movie The Matrix portrayed a world whose inhabitants were unknowingly part of a fictitious computer-generated world, a world piped straight to their brains. A Matrix scenario challenges universality and other assumptions of physical law. Non-universality opens an infinite number of alternative options for how the universe works. It is easy to imagine a future interactive video game in which the game engine treats each player differently, with a strain of fundamentalism being “true” for some, and quantum electrodynamics being “true” for others.

Solipsism has vexed philosophers throughout history. Most have thought it unlikely. However, most also have thought it causes trouble. One critic, the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer spoke of it as an irremediable evil. I, too, feel uncompelled by solipsism. Because I think about the chasm between introspective awareness and the physical world, however, I am sensitive to the trouble it causes. The Matrix illustrates just how poorly positioned one is to see the grand design of the universe. No functional neuroimaging device, even if it is pointed at the most transcendentally devoted brain, will take us to the highest vantage point in the universe.

Nevertheless, there is promise in pointing tools at mystics’ brains. We will not find true metaphysical reality or define God. Instead, such research is an opportunity to explore something different from standard lines of inquiry, something that may cast new light on how the brain works. Resulting findings will fold into the evolving model of the nervous system. Perhaps these new understandings will benefit mental health or improve technology.

As for neuroscience as a whole, it will give society a lot of new material to work with. For both pragmatic and philosophical reasons, however, it is clear that Brooks granted neuroscience an undeserved authority over metaphysics.

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