I admire David Brooks for trying to expand the list of topics written about by Times columnists. (To be honest, I’m a little tired of reading about presidential politics.) His latest column, on “The Neural Buddhists,” tries to interject modern neuroscience into the current debate over New Atheists and religion.
Lo and behold, over the past decade, a new group of assertive atheists has done battle with defenders of faith. The two sides have argued about whether it is reasonable to conceive of a soul that survives the death of the body and about whether understanding the brain explains away or merely adds to our appreciation of the entity that created it.
The atheism debate is a textbook example of how a scientific revolution can change public culture. Just as “The Origin of Species reshaped social thinking, just as Einstein’s theory of relativity affected art, so the revolution in neuroscience is having an effect on how people see the world.
And yet my guess is that the atheism debate is going to be a sideshow. The cognitive revolution is not going to end up undermining faith in God, it’s going to end up challenging faith in the Bible.
Over the past several years, the momentum has shifted away from hard-core materialism. 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.
As you can probably imagine, some other Sciencebloggers didn’t care for this take. I’ve worked hard to avoid the atheism arguments, so I’m going to steer clear of that side of the op-ed. But I do think Brooks does a good job of capturing the newfound respect among neuroscientists for “squishy” subjects like emotion and the self. These subjects used to seem unscientific because they couldn’t be confined to specific neural correlates. Where, for instance, is the self? As I wrote in my book:
If neuroscience knows anything, it is that there is no ghost in the machine: there is only the vibration of the machinery. Your head contains 100 billion electrical cells, but not one of them is you or knows you or cares about you. In fact, you don’t even exist. The brain is nothing but an infinite regress of matter, reducible to the callous laws of physics.
Obviously, this scientific solution isn’t very satisfying. It confines neuroscience to an immaculate abstraction. My own sense is that there’s an increasing interest among neuroscientists to grapple with what David Chalmers calls “the hard problem,” so that the subjective nature of human experience isn’t simply brushed aside as an “epiphenomenon”. In other words, you can’t study the brain by pretending that emotions and the self don’t exist. Here is how Brooks summarizes the intellectual atmosphere:
The momentum has shifted away from hard-core materialism. The brain seems less like a cold machine. It does not operate like a computer.
Well, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a neuroscientist who wasn’t a hard-core materialist. That, after all, is why they’re studying the brain. But I do think there’s an increasing respect for entities (like the self) that can’t be studied simply in materialist terms. Or at least there’s an increasing recognition that reductionist materialism has real limitations. As the novelist Richard Powers wrote, “If we knew the world only through synapses, how could we know the synapse?”
Brooks ends by arguing that “science and mysticism are joining hands and reinforcing each other.” Mysticism is a loaded word, but I’d certainly agree that many of the most profound mysteries of human existence have been deepened, and not erased, by modern neuroscience. Here’s how I put it in Seed a few months ago:
Only a few decades ago, scientists were putting forth confident conjectures about “the bridging principle,” the neural event that would explain how the activity of our brain cells creates the subjective experience of consciousness. All sorts of bridges were proposed, from 40 Hz oscillations in the cerebral cortex to quantum coherence in microtubules. These were the biological processes that supposedly turned the water of the brain into the wine of the mind.
But scientists don’t talk about these kinds of bridging principles these days. While neuroscience continues to make astonishing progress in learning about the details of the brain–we are a strange loop of kinase enzymes and synaptic chemistry–these details only highlight our enduring enigma, which is that we don’t experience these cellular details. It is ironic, but true: The one reality science cannot reduce is the only reality we will ever know.