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Saturday, February 20, 2016
Brain / Mind ... Religion ...

I recently finished watching a Teaching Company “Great Course” series about neuroscience — specifically, an 18-hour / 36 lecture course entitled “Neuroscience of Everyday Life“, by Princeton University Professor Sam Wang. As the title says, the focus is on everyday life, on relating what neuroscience has learned about the structure and dynamics of the human brain to our everyday lives. A big part of the everyday life of many people is religion and spiritual belief, and thus Professor Wang spends an hour (two lectures) discussing religion, along with theistic belief, spiritual presences, near-death and outer-body experiences, meditation and other varieties of “transcendent awareness”.

The good professor points out that many of the experiences upon which people have based their faith in an omnipotent yet unseeable creator / sustainer / redeemer do not hold up well in the light of modern research. A fairly easy-to-understand circumstance such as inadequate oxygen in the brain or excessive physical stress can adequately explain many seemingly transcendent phenomenon, including ghosts, outer-body experiences, and visions (especially on mountaintops, where the air is thin — recall Moses and the bush, and the transfiguration of Jesus). Obviously, the theological skeptic and atheist will find something of interest here.

Despite this, Professor Wang does not seem set on declaring God to be dead. When getting down to the notion of a conscious yet transcendent master force in the universe, Wang focuses on the brain capacities that facilitated such a notion, and the ultimate social effects of those capabilities. In his guidebook for the course, Wang states that “religion is a highly sophisticated cultural phenomenon . . . brain capacities important for forming and transmitting religious beliefs include the search for causes and effects, social reasoning, and language and the cultural transmission of information . . . the ability to cooperate and to compete with our fellow beings may have set the stage for forming religious mental constructs”.

Dr. Wang does not go into too much detail about all of this in his lecture, but his mentioning of “the search for causes and effects” as a mental foundation for the emergence of religious belief is interesting in light of the various academic papers that have been written over the past 20 years or so relating theistic faith to evolutionary forces, and even specific genes. This theory is sometimes summarized as “the God gene” hypothesis, although the overall topic is broader and more complex than any one particular gene mutation. It is better described as an “evolutionary psychology of religion“. Many atheists embrace these theories, claiming that they support their contentions that God does not exist, and that belief in God stems from human delusion (even if such delusions were evolutionarily useful, recall Robert Wright’s recent book “The Evolution of God“; they have positive social impacts along with beneficial personal effects . . . although there have also been many negative social impacts from religion).

A problem with this alleged atheist victory over what seemingly amounts to superstitious ignorance can be seen by going back to Wang’s list of the three neurological capabilities that facilitate religious belief. The atheists zoom in on the first factor, i.e. the search for causes and effects. But what about the second factor, i.e. social reasoning? And also the third, cultural transmission of information. In my opinion, the ties between these biologically based mental traits and human theistic belief support a strong existential rationale for the actual existence of a transcendent universal meta-consciousness. Yes, like our fascination with cause and effect, these factors probably stem from evolutionary processes (at least in part). But they point to something bigger, something more universal. And that thing is the primacy of relationship.

Many people think that human beings have become the most adaptable and widespread species on the planet because of our wonderful, highly capable brains. But what might be even more important to our success is the high degree to which homo sapiens is a social species. We need each other; that is baked-in to our nature. We have evolved and developed in a network-like fashion; our entire design and its success in keeping us alive assumes that we communicate and work together. We would not have done nearly as well as solitary creatures. Our high-capacity brains themselves would probably have not reached their incredible level of development had humanity not evolved in such an interdependent fashion.

On the more cosmic level of basic physical laws, it seems apparent that the most fundamental elements of nature are time, space, and energy fields (of which matter is just a particular manifestation, sort of like a chunk of ice floating in a cold river). But cosmologists and theoretical physicists are starting to realize that time, space and even physical forces are ultimately an illusion, an “emergent phenomenon”. We can only speculate what the ultimate “mosaic piece” really is, but the most important feature that determines the reality we know and live in is the INFORMATION which relates such mysterious pieces to each other, akin to what happens within a computer. If information is a static entity and a computer is the dynamic aspect of it, the conceptual bedrock underlying both is RELATIONSHIP. Information is about how things relate. Computation is making those relationships happen, setting them in motion — which is ultimately just a higher level of relationship. When looked at this way, you can see that our physical reality is ultimately a matter of relationship.

So, relationship is pretty darn important. Without it, there is nothing. Blank, zip, nil, nada, beyond any attempt to even think about it or imagine it — like deep sea fish trying to imagine what the sky is like. To continue the fish analogy, “relationship” is like the water in which fish swim . . . it is so close to us and so ubiquitous, we also cannot detect it and truly appreciate it. Unless we really put our minds to it, which fish cannot do.

So the human need for culture, society and relationship (the first two are really just ways of saying the third) is not surprising, given the deepest nature of the universe. And as Prof. Wang said, this human need (accurately or inaccurately) encourages the notion that there is some bigger form of relationship, something that ties us to everything. Our conscious natures, which allow us to carry forth our relationships to the highest degree possible, seem to point to an even higher conscious form to relate to, a universal consciousness of some sort. This, I think, is what the idea of a God is really all about — more so than any human tendency to know about causes and effects.

Admittedly, this rationale does not prove the existence of a transcendent God in any scientific sense. But I feel that it does provide a better understanding of why the idea of God is so widespread amidst our species, and why that idea has such a long history. And also why it is so hard to defeat, despite the usefulness and power of the modern scientific method. We know inherently that we need relationship, we know that everything that exists exists because of relationship, and thus we feel a longing for some ultimate level of relationship. Science and logic cannot go to this place with us. It can neither affirm nor disprove this intuition and longing, no more than it can ultimately reduce and specify the experience of conscious being. Certainly, science CAN tell us a lot of interesting facts about these experiences, about what physical factors they correlate with; but it doesn’t have a ruler or a metric to ultimately measure and classify them. It doesn’t have a bigger framework to relate them to. Because they are relationship itself.

Well, this goes well beyond where Professor Wang left off in his discussion on religion and the brain. But his respectful and deferential approach to the topic would certainly not forbid it. It might surprise him that his course material provided me with such fertile soil for theological and metaphysical reflection. I hope that I have helped both believers and non-believers understand just why human religious instincts are so deeply and fundamentally grounded, and why they are not mere evolutionary holdovers, ancient shadows that will yield to the light of modern reason. As modern times have shown, that light, however beneficial, is not at all fundamental; too often we have seen it flicker and wane as the winds of history blow. We need something more than secular humanism. With all due respect to the humanists, I hope that they can respect this quantum physics-like zone of existential indeterminacy. (And I also hope that believers can respect the fact that it’s not real just because the Bible or the Pope tells you so.)

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:30 am      

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