Saturday, May 17, 2008

Responses to David Brooks'"The Neural Buddhists"

David Brooks has recently written an op-ed column about religion in the light of scientific developments. Brooks has two or three good lines in the piece but he wimps out completely in the end and takes the side of Chrisitan orthodoxy by the neat trick of claiming to not take sides. I am most amazed to read a conservative Christian like Brooks have anything nice to say about Buddhism.

But if one reads his column closely, Brooks doesn't really say anything affirmativly positive about Buddhism as such; he only says that the area of human knowledge where science and Buddhism intersect is the central challenge to Christian orthodoxy. In this, Brooks is only echoing Pope Benedict's endorsement in 1997, when still known as Cardinal Ratzinger, that Buddhism in the 21st century would replace Marxism as the Catholic Church's greatest challenge. The Pope then called Buddhism "a spiritual self-absorption" that "offers a possibility of happiness by touching the infinite, without having concrete religious obligations." Brooks astutely stayed away from any discussion of morals or ethics either in Buddhism or science, for that is quicksand he would surely sink in.

Here are some of my spontaneous comments to Brooks's column, paragraph by paragraph.

Gregory Wonderwheel

May 13, 2008
Op-Ed Columnist
The Neural Buddhists
In 1996, Tom Wolfe wrote a brilliant essay called ““Sorry, but Your Soul Just Died,”” in which he captured the militant materialism of some modern scientists.
To these self-confident researchers, the idea that the spirit might exist apart from the body is just ridiculous. Instead, 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.

Comment: This is a strawman argument. No self respecting scientist says “human beings are hard wired. to do this or that.” No sociologist or psychologist says “Religion is an accident” except in the most general sense that the universe is an accident. In human interactions scientists see religion in terms of social dynamics or psycho-dynamics, not as an accident.

In this materialist view, people perceive God’s existence because their brains have evolved to confabulate belief systems. You put a magnetic helmet around their heads and they will begin to think they are having a spiritual epiphany. If they suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy, they will show signs of hyperreligiosity, an overexcitement of the brain tissue that leads sufferers to believe they are conversing with God.

Comment: Here Brooks is confabulating two kinds of “religion”, the spirtiual kind and the psychotic kind. Obviously since the mind is one, there are not literally two kinds of religion, but as there are two kinds of things, those that exist and those that don’t exist, there are two kinds of religion, the kind that exists and the kind that is a delusion. When a person is “conversing with God” it depends on what the words “conversing” and “God” mean to determine whether they are living words or dead words. Brooks doesn’t distinguish between living and dead words.

Wolfe understood the central assertion contained in this kind of thinking: Everything is material and ““the soul is dead.”” He anticipated the way the genetic and neuroscience revolutions would affect public debate. They would kick off another fundamental argument over whether God exists.

Comment: Brooks doesn’t know the meaning of the word “material”. No materialist would say the “the soul is dead” because they would not acknowledge that a soul ever lived. Brooks doesn’t seem to acknowledge that the argument over “whether” God exists is really an argument over “what” is God.

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.

Comment: Brooks assumes the Christian framing of the “debate.” Since Christians define “soul” in a certain way he says the argument is whether the Christian conception of soul is reasonable or not. Also he presumes that an “entity” created the “soul.”

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.

Comment: Brooks is a textbook example of how rhetoric is used to confuse people. Of course new views of reason and analysis affect culture and socity. But they don’t affect everyone as shown by the anti-evolution supporters of Christian faith and Brook’s political conservatism.

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.

Comment: Again Brooks can’t tell living words from dead words. Most people who still have a literal “faith” in the dead words of the Bible arn’t going to be persuaded by any argument by a neroscientist. And those who have a faith in the living words of the Bible and so don’t need to take the Bible literally, also arn’t going to have their faith shaken by neuroscientists.
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.

Comment: Here’s a paragraph that mixes up several issues. Every development of intellectual technology, from the book to the photograph and computer, has been used as a metaphor for how the brain works. No scientist confuses the metaphor for the reality. When people talked about the mind as a “blank page’ no one thought it was made from tree pulp. When people talk about memory as photographic, no one imagines film in the brain. When people talk about the mind operating like a computer, the computer is a man-made metaphor. The computer emulates the brain, not the other way around. Brooks has no theory of emotions and thinks he has elucidated something b calling them “squishy”. This is the kind of analysis that Bible bangers use in elucidating revelation.

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.

Comment: That researchers are trying to develop hypotheses about morality, ethics, and fair play has nothing to do with a materialist or anti-materialist science. The concept of the “selfish” gene is a metaphor and another type of straw-man argument. I doubt that Brooks has any analysis of what an “instinct” is or does.

Scientists have more respect for elevated spiritual states. Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania has shown that transcendent experiences can actually be identified and measured in the brain (people experience a decrease in activity in the parietal lobe, which orients us in space). The mind seems to have the ability to transcend itself and merge with a larger presence that feels more real.

Comment: More respect than who? Certainly scientists have demonstrated more respect for human experience of kind labeled spirituality than most Bible banging church leaders have demonstrated. Such reverends and ministers could care less about anyone’s spiritural experience unless it fits into and is subservient to their own molded interpretation of revelation. Brooks’ declaration of merging with a “larger presence” is an argument that is presuming the conclusion. Saying that the “mind” is transcending itself for a larger presence is presuming that the mind is a small mind not the large mind that is ever present, as well as presuming that the larger presence isn’t the mind itself It is Brooks who is materialistically objectifying his so-called “larger presence.”.
This new wave of research will not seep into the public realm in the form of militant atheism. Instead it will lead to what you might call neural Buddhism.

Comment: One wonders how and where Brooks has come upon his image of Buddhism. Certainly from his politics, he shows little if any personal understanding of Buddhism.

If you survey the literature (and I’d recommend books by Newberg, Daniel J. Siegel, Michael S. Gazzaniga, Jonathan Haidt, Antonio Damasio and Marc D. Hauser if you want to get up to speed), you can see that certain beliefs will spread into the wider discussion.

Comment: Brooks is confirming that he has no personal experience with what he is talking about but is attempting to digest what he has been reading, if in fact he has read these works.
First, the self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships. Second, underneath the patina of different religions, people around the world have common moral intuitions. Third, people are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love. Fourth, God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is.

Comment: That is a good list for beginners who are weaning themselves of Biblical materialism and literalism. However, in Buddhism the self is neither a fixed entity nor a dynamic process of relationships. Self is used only as a term of discrimination not as an assertion of something that exists. So what he is describing should not be called “neural Buddhism” if it asserts a self. Second, the basis for our common moral intuitions is the mind we all share. The one mind is no-mind. Third, people experience strong emotions that are sometimes called “the sacred” or “love” but the experience of the sacred is the medicine for the disease of the mundane, it is not a state in and of itself to be made into a new object to grasp. Fourth, Brooks has stated good conception of God from a perspective where we all have difficulty speaking. Is he prepared to meet this God without objectification in the moment of the now? This unknowable total is totally unknowable. Who can die in this unknowability?
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.

Comment: In what way does Brooks mean to say that people who defend the “existence of God” had an easy debate? Brooks doesn’t seem to have a clue that the people defending the existence of God are generally the Bible bangers who say the Bible is literally true and that God is a person who speaks to them. How is it easy for Bible bangers to debate Richard Dawkins? By discounting everything he says as only the words of a scientist, and as these Bible bangers assure us, since we all know that scientists went to college and are just elites and liberals, what they have to say is just political not real. Here I can agree with Brooks that the area where scientists overlap with Buddhists is the area that presents the greatest challenge to contemporary Christian beliefs. But the challenge is not to those people holding conventional Christian beliefs because they will continue to claim the world is only 5,000 years old because the Bible says so, no matter what the evidence presented to them says. The challenge will be to those who are not brainwashed by Christian fundamentalism. But this is a challenge that Thomas Jefferson and the Age of Reason brought to the table long before Buddhism was known widely in the West.
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.

Comment: By saying he is not “qualified to take sides” Brooks is acting the fool. Does he really expect people to accept that he has no position regarding the literalism of Bible revelations? Does he really expect us to believe that he has no opinion about whether or not the Bible is to be taken as literally true? His cowardice is astonishing only to those who do not know is work. Brooks is actually holding onto Biblical revelation in the face of the scientific revelation and by saying that he can’t take the side of reason, he has committed himself to the side of Biblical delusion.

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