The Island of Doubt

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Warren
    May 13, 2008

    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.

    It doesn’t get much traction with many (western) Buddhists either, the Dalai Lama aside.

  2. #2 Blake Stacey
    May 13, 2008

    Brooks wrote,

    Genes are not merely selfish, it appears. Instead, people seem to have deep instincts for fairness, empathy and attachment.

    With the emphasis added, it becomes significantly easier to spot the evidence that the author is a twit.

    (Sorry I’m a little snappy — I just spent five thousand words “reaching for profundity“.)

  3. #3 Joe Shelby
    May 13, 2008

    And what about the Deists of the 18th century?

    I was about to say the same thing. It seems Brooks is trying to say that there will be a new Enlightenment (with an Enlightenment sort of “God”, as the 18th century Deists had) to follow up this current revitalization of a 17th Century all-punishing “God” the American evangelical movement has been parading around for the last 80 years.

    As A. Whitney Brown once wrote, “History doesn’t repeat itself. Historians repeat each other.”

  4. #4 Joe Shelby
    May 13, 2008

    Actually, what worries me now, if that’s what’s to happen, is that 17th Century “God” didn’t go without a fight. The 30 Years War, The English Civil War, the remants of the Inquisition, the last of the Crusades in Egypt, the death penalty for being “the wrong faith” in the early American colonies, and the community-destroying Salem Witch Trials…

    and that was BEFORE modern technology made spreading the “good” news (along with death) so much easier…

  5. #5 ringo
    May 13, 2008

    All this really comes down to is that some of us can program in assembly language, some prefer a command-line interface, and some can only understand icons.

  6. #6 SC
    May 13, 2008

    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.

    That’s a little straw army, right there. You have to wonder if he’s read anything in the pertinent fields written in the past 50 years.

  7. #7 Wes
    May 13, 2008

    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.

    I think I’ll show this article to my students in my logical and critical thinking class as an example of the fallacy of composition. It’s illogical to conclude that since the genes which make the whole are selfish, therefore the whole must be selfish too. That’s like saying, “The Brooklyn Bridge is made of atoms. Atoms are invisible. Therefore the Brooklyn Bridge is invisible.”

    Brooks seems to be another one of those simpletons who doesn’t understand that the metaphorical “selfishness” of genes is actually an effective way of accounting for why people aren’t necessarily selfish. It explains how altruistic, cooperative beings can emerge by the seemingly “selfish” process of natural selection. But Brooks would rather fixate on the word “selfish”, ignore the vast theoretical work on reciprocal altruism, and base the remainder of his critique on his own shallow understanding of selfishness.

  8. #8 argotnaut
    May 13, 2008

    @ringo: +1. That made me giggle. It’s a great summary.

  9. #9 ngong
    May 14, 2008

    And unless you ditch reincarnation, Buddhism is no more palatable to most materialists than are Christianity and Islam.

    That’s only true for “materialists” who are clueless about Buddhism. The doctrine of “ma-atman” is about as close to soul-lessness as you’ll see in a religion. Egolessness, impermanence, non-inherent existence, the role of the mind in constructing reality, the benefits of mental experimentation…all of this seems at least a tad more in sync with modern science.

  10. #10 afreemind
    May 14, 2008

    Well it had nothing to do with Brooks or his article, but after two and a half decades of fearing God and worrying if my soul was going to hell and hating myself for “moral shortcomings” that were were simply part of the way I was made – things that I *should* celebrate. I found my own peace in the pages of neuroscience journals as I learned how the mind works and how so many things I had always believed I needed a soul for are simply products of my neural biology.

    Perhaps they teach these things in public schools. My school taught me that the earth was 10,000 years old (and I graduated in 2001). I never learned anything about evolutionary biology until I met my bf and started watching Discovery Channel with him. Sure, we learned some stuff in school, but it was always setup to relate back to re-enforcing religious delusions in us.

    So in the sense that Buddhists seek to remove sources of suffering in their lives, I understand what Brooks is trying to say. I don’t think he seriously intended to suggest that materialists will be “converted” to a form of Buddhism through science, but instead that to those who seek to escape suffering caused by religion, the keys to discard irrational belief in souls (and therefore God(tm)) are there.

  11. #11 windy
    May 14, 2008

    Brooks seems to be another one of those simpletons who doesn’t understand that the metaphorical “selfishness” of genes is actually an effective way of accounting for why people aren’t necessarily selfish. It explains how altruistic, cooperative beings can emerge by the seemingly “selfish” process of natural selection.

    Exactly. Reminds me of something Trivers wrote:

    “We do not say of someone who loves his children, helps his family and friends and treats his neighbors with respect, “What a selfish brute he is,” yet all of these traits may be genetically self-benefitting.”

  12. #12 Paul A
    May 14, 2008

    I’m a materialist and see nothing wrong with Buddhism, at least as long as you define Buddhism as the teachings of Buddha stripped free of all the spiritual/animistic crap that has attached to it over the years. All it is is a set of guidelines for leading a ‘good life’ and reducing your own mental suffering. Properly understood, concepts like reincarnation refer to rebirth in this life i.e. transforming yourself for the better.

    There’s nothing supernatural, no mysterious forces, no other worlds, no gods, just philosophy. As far as I’m concerned any form of Buddhism that invokes the supernatural simply isn’t Buddhism. My thanks go out to my dad-in-law for explaining it to me :-)

    Oh, and The Tao Of Physics is full of crap, Deepak Chopra probably masturbates over it though…

  13. #13 Blake Stacey
    May 14, 2008

    As far as I’m concerned any form of Buddhism that invokes the supernatural simply isn’t Buddhism.

    No true Scotsman. . . ?

    I’ve grown accustomed to self-identified Christians declaring that the actions of some other self-identified Christians, say the Westboro Baptist Church, reveal that those others are “not true Christians”. On the one hand, I’m more likely to enjoy the company of somebody who thinks Fred Phelps is repulsive, but at the same time, I have to acknowledge that we can’t identify any one faction of Christianity as the true form on secular, empirico-rationalist grounds. Never mind asking “What Would Jesus Do,” we can’t even figure out what Jesus actually did — not from the records we’ve got, which were written decades after the events they purportedly describe, and survive only in manuscript copies dating decades or centuries after that. And even then, you’re sure to find somebody who self-identifies as Christian but proclaims that one must be “open to the entire history of revelation”. On the “fundamentalist” side, you’ve got the King James Only folks, some of whom believe that God spaketh unto the translators of the KJV, making their English words even more inspired than their Hebrew and Greek sources. Similar attitudes to text and translation could be found among believers who are more socially liberal, too.

    So, as far as Christianity goes, saying that we’ll just stick to the words of Jesus is a non-starter.

    AFAIK, the life story of Siddh?rtha Gautama has also been embroidered with legend and presented differently by various schools. Even his birth and death dates are uncertain. I confess myself ignorant of large swaths of Buddhist history, philosophy and factionalism, so I don’t know if looking for the “historical Buddha” is truly a thankless endeavor; however, I suspect that in the final reckoning, we do not know the Buddha, but have only a flux of representations of the ten thousand Buddhas — some of which would be quite cool with that fact.

    Oh, and The Tao Of Physics is full of crap, Deepak Chopra probably masturbates over it though…

    Ewww! Kind of gives a whole new meaning to “quantum vibrations”, doesn’t it?

  14. #14 ngong
    May 14, 2008

    As far as I’m concerned any form of Buddhism that invokes the supernatural simply isn’t Buddhism.

    So…99.9% of the folks born into Buddhism misunderstand it, but you’ve got it figured out.

  15. #15 scicurious
    May 14, 2008

    I do think that what David Brooks ends up alluding to is pretty similar to the deism of the 18th century, but isn’t that better than the predominant views now? An increase in moderate views over verse-spouting creationists to me can only be an improvement. Of course he worked hard not to go too far, and he worked hard to make it look like something people could recognize. But at least he’s not saying scientists are horrible. It looks like a step in the right direction to me.

  16. #16 jeff
    May 19, 2008

    I have to agree that Brooks’ article is shallow and out of touch. That said, I do agree with his premise that some aspects of Buddhism are quite well suited for a modern, scientific culture.

    I don’t consider myself a strict materialist : I don’t _demand_ that all phenomena must of necessity arise from a material cause. Rather, I’d call myself a resigned materialist : I’ve seen that physics, chemistry, biology, etc. do a damned good job of explaining things, and before I accept anything more I’d better see some damned good evidence first. And I haven’t. But I did spend a good chunk of my life (when I wasn’t studying physics) studying Buddhism, and what I got from it was very satisfying and very useful.

    Buddhism (all of it, not just the true Scottsman’s version) is based on the premise that human suffering can be reduced without the need to believe in a higher power or an immortal soul. For those who choose to practice it, meditation – observing how the mind operates – is used to unravel the confusion which, according to Buddhism, is at the root of suffering. From that point of view it has more in common with flossing your teeth than it does with religion.

    That is not to say that over 2.5 millenia various traditions haven’t embellished it with all sorts of religiosity. But the interesting distinction is that in Buddhism, all the religious trappings (and the philosophical trappings) are regarded as expedient means (tools) to achieve the main goal : release from suffering. It happens that Buddhism arose and prospered in cultures which already believed firmly in reincarnation, so that is a frequent element of Buddhist teachings; but it is not a required belief. One nice side-effect of this view is that people who _want_ a religious approach to life can have it, and there’s no need to go off and kill other people with a different approach. I can drive a Ford, you can drive a Chevy, and we can all get along.