David Brooks has a fairly goofy column in today’s New York Times. Apparently “hard-core materialism” is on its way out:
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.
The idea that meaning, belief and consciousness emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of nerual firings is not an alternative to materialism, it is a consequence of it. The alternative to materialism would be to argue that meaning and the rest emerge from the interaction between the physical brain and some ineffable, non-physical “mind-stuff.” That idea is sometimes referred to as dualism, and it is not something for which very many neuroscientists have much sympathy.
Before moving on, let us not overlook the last two sentences of Brooks’ paragraph:
Those squishy things called emotions play a gigantic role in all forms of thinking. Love is vital to brain development.
Brooks seems to think that this revolution in neuroscience has some relevance to the theism/atheism debate:
In their arguments with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the faithful have been defending the existence of God. That was the easy debate. The real challenge is going to come from people who feel the existence of the sacred, but who think that particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits. It’s going to come from scientists whose beliefs overlap a bit with Buddhism.
In unexpected ways, science and mysticism are joining hands and reinforcing each other. That’s 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. I’m not qualified to take sides, believe me. I’m just trying to anticipate which way the debate is headed. We’re in the middle of a scientific revolution. It’s going to have big cultural effects.
What on Earth is Brooks talking about? Defending the idea of a personal God, particular doctrines, and particular biblical teachings is precisely what Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins are asking religious people to do. That traditional religions are cultural artifacts built on universal human traits was the primary thesis of Daniel Dennett’s book, and is discussed as well by Richard Dawkins. And Sam Harris devotes a whole chapter to the importance of spiritual experience and meditation (a chapter for which some atheists have, unfairly in my view, assailed him.) Brooks is not challenging the arguments of these gentlemen, he is confirming them.
What Brooks describes as “neural Bhuddism” offers nothing that ought to persuade an atheist to rethink his views. Quite the contrary.
Brooks, I believe, suffers from a common afliction among high-minded critics of people like Dawkins and Hitchens. On the one hand, he basically agrees with what the New Atheists are saying. He has no particular use for religious doctrine and ceremony. He might believe in God in some tenuous and abstract sense, but he does not devote much time to worrying about what God wants of him. And he recognizes that religion is a singularly effective device for rallying large groups of people to exceedingly stupid behaviors.
But at the same time he also knows that arguing about religious minutiae is decidedly low-brow, and is not the sort of thing one does in polite society. So he feels he must cement his bona fides by including some obligatory criticism for people like Hitchens and Dawkins, even while making arguments that fit very comfortably within their world-view.
My SciBling James Hrynyshyn provides some further commentary here.