Monday, May 19, 2008

Who is mooning who? Neural Buddhists and the Dharma Bums

David Brooks of the New York Times wrote a great essay last week about the paradoxical relationship between scientific research (especially in neurology) and its role in bolstering religion. I am sure most have read or heard about the writeup in some form, but just in case…

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. 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.

My only fear is that scientific research in this arena is pliant to construal both ways. Some time back, I had written here about ‘out of body' experiences praising the underlying scientific explanation. However, it is interesting to note that researchers construe the same phenomenon in two radically different ways as seen below.

In the words of a researcher: “There is nothing mystical about these ghostly experiences, said Peter Brugger, a neuroscientist at University Hospital in Zurich, who was not involved in the experiments but is an expert on phantom limbs. The sensation of still feeling a limb that has been amputated, and other mind-bending phenomena. The research shows that the self can be detached from the body and can live a phantom existence on its own, as in an out-of-body experience, or it can be felt outside of personal space, as in a sense of a presence”.

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.

All said, a great article from David Brooks.

For a more theological discussion on this article, Andrew Sullivan has a great one going.

Nick Walker, Moona Lisa, 200, stencil spray paint and acrylic on canvas, 183X122 cms (source)

1 comment:

Tree said...

I, too enjoyed the Brooks piece. I hardly ever have time to read the NYTimes anymore but I did catch this the other day.
But, I believe people should be comfortable believing what they want about their own experiences. I for one find the scientific explanations of my own experiences interesting but ultimately lacking. Science isn't the ultimate answer, in my opinion but another piece to the puzzle.