neuroscience is the new buddhism

Today's New York Times had an article on what columnist David Brooks calls Neural Buddhism. The link to the article is here. Before I get into the article, however, I just want to give some context.

As an aspiring christian and neuroscientist, I often find myself getting frustrated over what I see as a push for widening the divide between spiritual and scientific worldviews. It is hard to locate the epicenter of this push, but it really doesn't matter: now that the lines have been drawn, polarization and extremism are inevitable. And now we get to listen to endless arguments in behalf of a rift that, while almost wholly cultural, pretends to be a clear-cut matter of one's ontological commitments and the methods employed to arrive at those commitments. Of course, there are real differences between the scientific method and what could, with only a staggering amount of distortion, be called a spiritual method. And, yes, these real differences in method tend to lead one to different ideas about what exists.

These differences should only matter to those who are concerned about 1) the truth-value of claims made by the opposing sides, and/or 2) the ethical implications of those claims. Perhaps I'm deluded or self-deceived, but it has never been difficult for me to see that scientific and spiritual pursuits are clearly not playing by the same rules with regards to truth, and that for us to demand one universal set of rules for both games is, at best, premature; at the worst, it betrays smallness and intolerance. In the words of the smartest person I know, "truth is independent in [its own] sphere." I'm open to hearing arguments that either science or spirituality should be held to the standards that the other has spent centuries developing specifically for its own ends and goals (which are not the same), but few people seem to agree that this is an argument that even needs to be made.

And as far as ethics go, I think it is telling that many of these arguments cannot help but devolve into nothing more than historical smear-campaigns, where the same people who were so morally bankrupt that they could self-justify their efforts to orchestrate and carry out the wholesale destruction of entire cities and ethnic groups were also supposedly pure vessels of the deep religious or scientific ideals permeating their culture. Jonathan Lehrer, over at the frontal cortex, has a good discussion of some recent research that suggests something that most people can intuitively guess: our moral decisions are not the direct result of a rational comparison between how things are and how things should be. If neuroscience has anything to say about the inherent ethical soundness of one ideology over the other, it should perhaps be this: "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence." (nod to Ludwig)

In his article, The Neural Buddhists, Brooks takes stock of this culture war and predicts that a shift is coming. The real war isn't going to be fought over the existence of God, but over the notion that God is someone or something that tells us exactly how to live a good life. Philosophies like Buddhism, says Brooks, appeal to neuroscientists because they (the philosophies) emphasize self-transcendence over revealed guidelines and laws, and self-transcendence is something that neuroscientists just might be able to work with. And in today's scene, if neuroscience takes a side, the fat lady has officially sung, right?

It's important, I think, to point out that this shift would only be a shift in the popular discourse. I don't read Dawkins, Dennet, Harris, etc. as saying that spirituality and self-transcendence are necessarily wrong-headed. I've heard interviews where Dawkins essentially agrees that there is nothing wrong with believing in God if it helps you live a better life, as long as you recognize that God is a metaphor for something else that is entirely based in your biology (one interview was with Bill O'Reilly). However, since most of the popular discourse still fails to appreciate this point, I can still see a shift of sorts happening in the future.

I would welcome this shift, but let's not fool ourselves. Even if it were a battle to be decided by neuroscience (and it isn't), it is silly to suggest, as Brooks seems to do, that the field could, as a whole, be unified in support of one side of this sort of issue. If such a battle comes, there will be a handful of superstar New York Times bestsellers, columnists and bloggers will get excited about it and consolidate only a few of the most sensationalistic points for public consumption, chats at the cafe might be a bit different, a few thousand people may be swayed to switch sides, and then we'll move on. Maybe the next big battle will come. Meanwhile, I believe people inherently want to be good, and that they want to continually improve. If they find a vehicle for that improvement in science, religion, or mystical spirituality, they'll use it, regardless of what Christopher Hitchens or Andrew Newberg have to say about it.


Russell said...

I don't know--Christopher Hitchens has never seemed very compelling to me but I often find Andrew Newberg's arguments quite troubling.

Anonymous said...

The trouble with David Brooks altogether is that he is as thick as a brick and wouldnt know his anal from his neural.

Put in an other way he is religiously and spiritually illiterate.

daniel said...

Hitchens I find quite dismissive in ways that are hard not to find intellectually repugnant.
I have problems with Newberg too. His approach is try and scientifically validate religious experience, but in my opinion he does it at the cost of transforming religious experience into a watered down trace-paper of everything that makes religious experience important to us.