There are basically two kinds of news consumers. Those who will find David Brooks’ latest creation from his corner of the New York Times stable of columnists absolutely irresistible and those who will cross the street to Fox News before reading anything with a headline like “The Neural Buddhists.”
This David Brooks fellow is a funny sort. Conservative, but not as conservative as some. Respectful of science and reason, but not as respectful as some. Today, perhaps bereft of anything else to say about the candidate who wouldn’t die, he decided to wade into the atheism debate. The Neural Buddhists reaches for profundity, weighing in on the big questions, referencing the paradigm-shaking power of The Origin of Species and suggesting that there’s something really big coming down the cultural pipeline, just not what everyone else expects.
But in the end, it’s hard to know how what he’s predicting isn’t all that different from the conventional wisdom.
Brooks begins by summing up the science of the conventional wisdom:
…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.
One can quibble with his inclusion of free will as illusion and religion as accident. But no matter. What Brooks posits is that such thinking is old hat, and that the militant materialism of the atheists who champion such views is being eclipsed by a more sophisticated understanding of such question the existence of the soul.
… 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 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.
Again, I don’t think Brooks quite gets what most biologists who subscribe to gene-centric evolutionary theory mean when they talk about selfish genes, but no matter. For Brooks, there’s a revolution in the works, and it will be the product of “scientists whose beliefs overlap a bit with Buddhism.”
To me, that evokes Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, a popular but confusing book that tries to find congruency between particle physics and Zen Buddhism. That sort of thing has never held a lot of traction for most scientists. And unless you ditch reincarnation, Buddhism is no more palatable to most materialists than are Christianity and Islam.
We may indeed be headed for a cultural shift that eschews a personalized god in favor of a more abstract an ill-defined alternative that, as Brooks writes, “can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is.” But I don’t see how that’s all that different from what “a new group of assertive atheists,” to use his words again, are pushing for.
Sam Harris, in The End of Faith, wraps up with an extra chapter devoted to the merits of meditation. Richard Dawkins has long espoused a philosophy that embraces a profound respect for the incredible complexity and beauty of nature. Einstein said pretty much the same thing more than half a century ago. And what about the Deists of the 18th century?
Granted, these thinkers would probably not use Brooks’ language, but in the end, they’re all talking about getting rid of religion and replacing it with something grounded in the here and now. This is not a new idea. It’s great that Brooks is paying attention to what’s going on in neuroscience. I wish more popular media pundits would do as much. But what he’s anticipating and what the materialists have been discussing for hundreds of years are essentially the same thing: the death of religion.
And if you think I’m being too critical of Mr. Brooks, check out Scibling Jason Rosenhouse , who is even less impressed.