Last month, The Chronicle of Higher Education posted a series of articles discussing “what science can and cannot tell us about free will.”
Posts Tagged ‘neuroscience’
What is evil? The question is asked in very different ways in two recent articles. The first, by Ron Rosenbaum at Slate, asks whether, in the terms of neuroscience, evil can be said to exist. He’s unsure about this.
At 13.7: Cosmos and Culture, a blog sponsored by NPR, astrophysicist Adam Frank takes on the changing relationship between Buddhism and science. Early interest in Buddhism among scientists had to do with an assumed parallel between the principles of quantum physics and ancient truths of eastern religion. In Frank’s estimation, this 1970s discussion was “mostly silly.”
More recently, however, the discussion has shifted. Today, scientists take an interest in Buddhism in hopes of learning something about mind and consciousness.
The current issue of Nature includes a report on a new study in Italy about the connections between certain brain regions and religious experience.
Let me assure you. Ongoing neurological studies will not dramatically change religious belief or practice. As Robert Bellah notes in a recent comment, brain research does not have a direct effect on what people believe. Or as Christopher White thoughtfully writes in this forum, there is no wholesale transformation of religion on the horizon. I agree with both. But rather than maintain a defensive posture at this juncture in history, I believe that a more aggressive stance may be called for. […]
Like others in this discussion, I’m not sure that recent neurological studies will dramatically change contemporary religious belief or practice, though my reasons are more historical than philosophical or psychological. To put it simply, American Christians and Jews—Brooks‘s embattled Bible believers—have shown themselves remarkably adept at harmonizing new scientific insights with older religious notions and practices. Let me offer three historical examples that illustrate this, and a few final comments concerning the astonishing survival power not of a generic new religion (neural or otherwise) but of an older, doctrinal one: Christianity. […]
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. […]
David Brooks’s op-ed, “The Neural Buddhists,” is premised on a variety of conceptual confusions that are worth trying to clear up, although the widespread nature of some of these confusions says something quite interesting about innate human cognitive biases. I think he is mistaken about the precise character of the cultural impact of recent neuroscientific work, but the kinds of mistakes he makes points toward ways in which the contemporary neuroscientific model of the self continues to be misunderstood. […]
David Brooks, in his New York Times op-ed column “The Neural Buddhists,” offers speculations about how the “cognitive revolution” will impact religious belief. He goes on to cite studies by Andrew Newberg and others studying brain states that correlate with particular religious practices and experiences and then speculates as to what such research might mean for undercutting or bolstering particular religious commitments. Specifically, he suggests that doctrinal and theistic religions may be more threatened by contemporary science in this area than mystical religions. I suppose there is little harm in speculating, but we should get our “revolutions” straight. […]
A century ago, in “Religion and Neurology,” the opening chapter of The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James argued against a “medical materialism” that would reduce religious experiences to their neurological causes for the purpose either of dismissing them or confirming them. Since that time, many have tried to understand religion through the study of religious experience and, like James, many have given special attention to mysticism. New techniques for the study of the brain have brought great advances, but David Brooks’s New York Times column “The Neural Buddhists” and the work of Andrew Newberg, to whom he refers, stand squarely in the tradition James was criticizing. […]
Not long ago, researchers wired up the atheist Richard Dawkins with a helmet that would create magnetic fields partially simulating the brain activity of temporal lobe epilepsy, which they linked to dramatic visionary religious experiences and to less dramatic feelings of sensed presences. It turns out, though, that hooking up a hardboiled atheist to a machine, known as the transcranial magnetic stimulator, produced no such experiences. “It was a great disappointment,” Dawkins related after 40 minutes on the machine. “Though I joked about the possibility, I of course never expected to end up believing in anything supernatural. But I did hope to share some of the feelings experienced by religious mystics when contemplating the mysteries of life and the cosmos.” As my own mind was being massaged with images of Richard Dawkins having his temporal lobes stimulated, an odd notion popped into my head: namely, when it comes to religion, history and culture trump neurology. […]
On Sunday May 25, 2008 the New York Times published an article entitled “Superhighway to Bliss” about Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroscientist who suffered a stroke in 1996. After she regained the ability to speak, she described the experience as “nirvana.” Neuropathology as religious experience is nothing new, yet the next day, the piece was number one on the Times list of most e-mailed articles. In the Science Times section of the paper the following Tuesday, there was an article entitled “Lotus Therapy,” on the growing use of the meditation cushion to treat problems previously consigned to the analyst’s couch. The next day, “Lotus Therapy” had taken over the top spot as the most e-mailed article. Clearly, something is going on. But that had become clear two weeks earlier when the conservative commentator David Brooks entitled his May 13 op-ed piece, “The Neural Buddhists.” […]
To appreciate the cultural impact of the “cognitive revolution” discussed by David Brooks in his New York Times op-ed column “The Neural Buddhists” (May 13, 2008), we need to be clear about what has and has not been revolutionized by neuroscience. Brooks gets the research essentially right, but he overlooks some key issues raised by “neural Buddhism” that make me question his view of its future effects on religion and culture. […]