Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The Neural Buddhists

A friend sends us a link to The Neural Buddhists (free subscription may be needed) on the New York Times website. Read the whole thing, it's not very long. Here's a couple of paragraphs from near the end:
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.
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.
We expect we were supposed to comment on the whole piece, and so we did.

Overall reaction: It's like the Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy's description of the earth. Mostly harmless.

Nevertheless mildly annoying for its slightly supercilious tone, especially when referring to "militant atheists" and "hardcore materialists". A sort of, "Look, there are human experiences that are 'transcendental', that can't be explained by science, and are best described as having to do with the 'spirit' or 'soul' and maybe there's something to this whole spirit/god thing after all."


Here's what we had to say (excerpts from email, edited for anonymity etc.):
Kind of bogus op ed, no? Construct straw men, light match, dance in glee around the flames types.

This guy misrepresents a number of things knowingly or unwittingly and is trying to find a conflict where none possibly exists. Some comments:

The first paragraphs are possibly trying to be neutral in tone, but taken together seem to be disapproving of materialism. See such phrases as "militant materialism", "free will is an illusion", "human beings are 'hard-wired'.."

Then he has stuff like, "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."

I don't think any of the "hard-core materialists" claims that the brain is a cold machine, or that they know how meaning/belief/consciousness emerge from neural firings. They will gladly admit that it's a mystery, it's interesting, it's a great scientific problem to study. Their biggest objection is to people taking the weird option of calling these mysteries "god" or "soul" or whatever. What's the problem with just leaving it a mystery?

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

This is a bit of a fake move. Disclaimer: I've not read "The Selfish Gene" in full myself, but I've heard this argument advanced here and there, that instincts for fairness, empathy and attachment are somehow incompatible with "the selfish gene". I think Dawkins' rebuttal to this is that "selfish" is almost a bad choice of adjective, the gene isn't "selfish" in the sense of people being selfish. It's not sentient and thinking it's way through existence. There's no reason why selfish genes are incompatible with fairness/empathy/attachment and all the touchy-feely stuff, in fact they probably explain the touchy-feely stuff. Fair, empathetic, emotional beings are probably in the interest of the "selfish gene", which is only concerned about spreading itself far and wide. Anyway...

"Scientists have more respect for elevated spiritual states."

Again, a bit of a naming issue. What "spiritual state"? What "spirit"? Wouldn't the same sentence be equally true if he'd said, "Scientists have more respect for the physiological effects of meditation (or opium or sex or chocolate)."

Why is he trying to work in something called a "spiritual state" as though "spirit" exists and it has states? If it's just a euphemism for a physiological condition, shouldn't he use the language of science to describe it?

The other thing is that he carefully avoids mentioning what the so called "militant atheists" and "hard-core materialists" think about these "spiritual states", transcendence etc. Paul Harris (one of the militants), for example, is into meditation and so on because he finds value in it. I don't think any of them denies that there are such things as transcendent experiences, it's just that they refuse to ascribe a "god" or "spirit" as the reason for them. In the worst case, all we can say is, "Well, these things exist, and we don't know yet how they work."

"The mind seems to have the ability to transcend itself and merge with a larger presence that feels more real."

Again BS, no? What "larger presence"? Just because someone's mind seems to think that it has merged with a "larger presence", suddenly this "larger presence" exists?

"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."

This is almost funny, if it weren't so sad. Isn't Buddhism itself as it's core atheistic? So what's this guy saying, that he's just changed names and is calling "atheism" "neural Buddhism" from now on?


"Second, underneath the patina of different religions, people around the world have common moral intuitions. "

Ha ha. That's probably because they're all fundamentally the same creature, same genes, same physiology! If anything, it actually buttresses the case for the selfish gene.

"Fourth, God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is."

So basically he's saying, "Hey there's all this stuff we don't know about and don't have explanations for. Let's call it 'God'." I say, "Hey there's all this stuff we don't know about and don't have explanations for. Let's call it 'Tingripoo'." Same difference.

Bugger isn't saying anything fundu at all.

You may have a different take on this. We can talk :PP Let's put some chai sometime!
We've agreed to have chai next week. Watch this space. Meanwhile, we're off to contemplate the Great Mysteries of Tingripoo for a bit...


Anonymous said...

Ditto...nonsense mumbo-jumbo...
hum, bum, scum, tingripoo namaha...

helo from beograd...

p.s. - why no comments on this one? says a lot about your audience, does it?
uegsbrha - offering to tingripoo while shivering

Ram Tekumalla said...

is truth absolute?

Ludwig said...

[rama] spot on.

[ramtek] nuvvu nee yaksha presnalu! define "truth" and "absolute". while you're at it, define "is" also. i can already sort of see the tack you're going to take, but it will have to wait.

Ram Tekumalla said...

bring it on, I say.

Anonymous said...

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