Monday, March 19, 2007

The "God" Part of the Brain: a scientific interpretation of human spirituality and god

by Matthew Alper

I was really intrigued by this book — that is, until I read it. (Well, some of it anyway. I couldn't finish.) I'm really interested in neuroscience and neurophysiology, and I've been thinking about god and religion lately, so I was pretty excited to read this book.

Where to begin? Title, subtitle, and... what the heck is that? Off to the side of the cover, vertical rather than horizontal, there's a sub-subtitle: "a personal journey." So our author is neither scientist nor theologian. He is widely, but not deeply, read. As a result, some of his ideas and interpretations are over-simplified, and the superficiality tends to undermine the cross-discipline synthesis he's attempting.

That said, the underlying concept is pretty interesting. Just as our capacity for language, for example, is tied to certain physiological sites and structures within our brains, and these sites and structures have developed through evolutionary processes, perhaps we have also evolved a capacity to think and to experience the world in spiritual terms. (Now I'm simplifying. This part of the argument takes up a number of chapters.)

OK. Fine so far. So what's the evolutionary advantage of our spiritual capacity? (The author sometimes calls it a "tendency.") The author suggests that as our time consciousness evolved and combined with our awareness of our own mortality, we would have been paralyzed by fear of our inevitable death. And this is where he loses me. I don't get why the fear of death would be so great that proto-humans (or whatever) would be unable to perform the tasks of day to day survival. The author's analogy of a bunny confronted by a mountain lion does not compute. Fear of imminent, violent death is not equal to fear of theoretical, potential, eventual death. (Yeah, any of us could die in the next two seconds, but probably not.) Dragging in our ability to conceptualize infinity (and therefore to recognize our personal insignificance) does not, for me, enhance the fear — or the thesis. Ditto for fear of losing loved ones; it's just not scary enough to make me stop eating.

I soldiered on a bit, but it only got worse. Next the author tries to explain the range of spirituality and religiosity with the bell curve: most people fall somewhere in the middle, but some people are at the extremes. Atheism is the side of the curve where folks have little to no spiritual capacity/tendency. So why aren't atheists acting like terrified bunnies? Why aren't they dying because they're too scared to live? This incongruity further destabilizes the already shaky theory.

And then I quit reading.

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