Wednesday, May 14, 2008

David Brooks is a Buddhist? AKA My Unknowable Total of All There Is Is Better Than Yours

"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."

Hmm, interesting lede. But with "cold machine" and "squishy" in there I think I know where this is going.

"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."

Any theory that failed to explain fairness, empathy, and attachment would be an incomplete theory, no?

"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."

If we find neuron activity tied to these emotions and "elevated spiritual states", whatever those are, doesn't that lead you to believe that they are in fact the result of physical processes within the body?

"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."

I don't know, this sounds like the same old debate to me. I'm not confident that David Brooks has a good understanding of Buddhism or neurology. Maybe he does but had to cut some explanation out to fit his column space. If we are finding physical manifestations of deep emotions and transcendent experience, doesn't that weigh in favor of materialism instead of against? And what does Buddhism have to do with all of this? Are all "elevated spiritual states" Buddhist? Am I a Buddhist when a pretty girl sits next to me? Maybe so.

Brooks lists the following arguments as flowing from new neurological discoveries:

"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."

David, these are incompatible with atheism at all until you throw God in there at the end. And if God is "the unknowable total of all there is" then what's the point of fighting about it?

Read the whole article here.


yoggoth said...

Hey, at least we don't have to look at Jimmy Fallon anymore.

Herr Zrbo said...

A bit confusing, no? 'Elevated states of awareness are results of neurological processes, which makes them more than neurological processes!' (???)

Little Earl said...

Yeah, I don't really understand where he's going with this, although it's a nice try. Is he trying to say that the materialists "lost"? Is he trying to say that Orthodox believers should work harder at justifying their faith in light of new scientific developments? He says "We’re in the middle of a scientific revolution. It’s going to have big cultural effects." What revolution? How is the scientific revolution we're supposedly in the middle of right now any more amazing than, say, the Renaissance? Is the big discovery that spirituality and chemicals are related? And what does this have to do with Buddhism, or a debate over the existence of God? Maybe this article is the Unknowable Total of All David Brooks Knows About Column Writing.