Knowledge, Conviction, and Belief [4]: The Brain vs. the Eternal Soul

brain - illuniated

The period of roughly 2010-2016 apparently was a breakthrough time for neuroscience and the study of consciousness. About then, a scientific consensus began to emerge that the conscious human mind was generated by the brain — or, as some put it, “the mind is what the brain does.”

In a 2016 article[1], University of Sussex professor of cognitive and computational neuroscience Anil K. Seth wrote that,

“In my own research, a new picture is taking shape in which conscious experience is seen as deeply grounded in how brains and bodies work together to maintain physiological integrity – to stay alive.”

Since then, other brain researchers have added a third essential component:  our environment, particularly our cultural setting and its institutionalized belief systems.

Brain, body, environment — that’s it, that’s what brain science has come up with. It went looking for the soul and didn’t find it. As physician and researcher Paul Singh also wrote in 2016[2]:

“The idea of a transcendent self is a myth; the truth is that the self is a constructed self.”

Not only that, but when a consciousness based purely in physicality replaces traditional belief in an eternal, transcendent soul temporarily at home in a physical human body, other companion notions about the self, consciousness, and free will also come tumbling down. Singh admitted this wasn’t going to be easy news to swallow:

“I will be the first one to admit that the debates about the nature of free will, consciousness, and the self are far from over. It is not, however, because we don’t know the answers, but because we are not at a stage of human evolution and progress yet for people to accept such radical ideas. Such truths are scary in the sense that they undermine our ordinary and commonsensical beliefs about human nature and seem to threaten values that we hold dearly — one of the most important of which is moral responsibility.”

Difficult, yes, but not impossible if you can suspend allegiance to the things you’re convinced of and convicted about, and instead give scientific knowledge a try. Singh makes his case with impassioned advocacy of science and the scientific method:

“I believe, however, that the truthfulness of a fact should be judged on its own merit rather than based on its social and emotional implications for the well-being of an individual or society. Truth should be acknowledged first and then solutions sought that will be implemented in light of the good and bad that truth has revealed, not the other way around. Truth is about truth and not about convenience or about making us feel good about ourselves.

“We should never believe a claim to be true simply because on one can prove it to be false. Theologians are experts at this kind of nonsense. Are delusional people making things up? Evidence shows that the human brain is universally delusional in many ways and therefore people who promote superstitions are not particularly more delusional that the rest of us. It is just that examples of religious delusions are rather classic examples of how the brain creates illusions and delusions. The use of logic and scientific skepticism is a skill that can be used to overcome the limitations of our own brains. This skill is like any other skill such as learning to play the piano. It involves training in metacognition as well as basic education in basic sciences.”

Frankly, that kind of rhetoric invariably come across as bombastic and opinionated and therefore easy for those convinced otherwise to dismiss. The well-worn neural pathways of our own brains are deeply rutted with their own notions of what is true, and not about to change to a new paradigm just because someone else is convinced it is the “Truth is about truth.”

On the other hand, in my personal experience, I’ve found that the precursor to scientific knowledge — “scientific skepticism” — is in fact a “a skill that can be used to overcome the limitations of our own brains.” I’ve been developing the skill gradually for years, without intentionally doing so. I was no scientist; I’d spent a lifetime in the humanities; my allegiance was with Romanticism, not the Enlightenment. I was not out to find or prove truth, or convince anybody of it. But I was looking for new thoughts, and years of reading and reflecting — like water carving sandstone — slowly brought my thinking to a new place.

The first time I read about the “materialist” version of consciousness I thought it was just plain odd, which made me highly skeptical. Ironically that skepticism eventually sharpened into a practice that brought me where I don’t find the materialist idea odd at all; in fact, it seems odd to think the way I used to. It now seems simple and obvious that everything we experience is processed within the confines of our largest organ — our skin — and that it has to be that way because, as a biological organism, there’s no other place where it can happen. Even if we think about an eternal, transcendent soul, we do so from our ephemeral, fleshly point of view. That’s all the equipment we’ve got.

Continued next time.

[1] The Real Problem:  It looks like scientists and philosophers might have made consciousness far more mysterious than it needs to be, Aeon Magazien (Nov. 2, 2016)

[2] The Great Illusion:  The Myth of Free Will, Consciousness, and the Self.

The Dark Side of Perfection

dark side

Photo by Krzysztof Niewolny on Unsplash

“The Enlightenment was a curse and a blessing.” Chris Hedges writes in  I Don’t Believe in Atheists,

“Its proponents championed human dignity and condemned tyranny, superstition, ignorance and injustice.

“But there was a dark side to the Enlightenment. Philosophers insisted that the universe and human nature could be understood and controlled by the rational mind. The human species, elevated above animals because it  possessed the capacity to reason, would break free of its animal nature and, through reason, understand itself and the world. It would make wise and informed decisions for the betterment of humanity.

“The disparity between the rational person  and the instinctive, irrational person, these philosophers argued, would be solved through education and knowledge.”

Sounds exalted, but we know better. Neuro-psychology — including Nobel-prize winning research in behavioral economics[1] –shows that we rarely reason our way to informed decisions. Instead, we rationalize our choices and behaviors after the fact to ensure that they line up with what we were individually and culturally predisposed to decide and do in the first place.

“Rationalization happens in two steps: A decision, action, judgement is made for a given reason, or no (known) reason at all. A rationalization is performed, constructing a seemingly good or logical reason, as an attempt to justify the act after the fact (for oneself or others).”

Then, once we are full of rationalized belief in the rightness, truthfulness, fate, destiny, inevitability, divine initiation  of our belief and actions — and therefore ourselves and our place in the world and in history —  we believe what we believe to a fault, which makes us capable of all sorts of evil in the name of good.

“If we see ourselves as the culmination of a long, historical process toward perfectibility, rather than a tragic reflection of what went before, then we are likely to think the ends justify the means. …

“Fascists and communists combined violent, revolutionary fervor with the Christian millenarian dream of a heaven on earth. They adopted the pseudoscientific doctrine that it was possible to have complete knowledge and complete mastery of the human species. It was that fusion of utopian violence and industrial and bureaucratic power that marked the birth of totalitarianism.”

Once we get rolling on the path to perfection, we can pick up unlikely allies along the way, as has been the case with the radical secular and religious fundamentalists:

“The liberal church also usually buys into the myth that we can morally progress as a species.

“It is this naïve belief in our goodness and decency — this inability to face the dark reality of human nature, our capacity for evil and the morally neutral universe we inhabit — that is the most disturbing aspect of all these belief systems.

“There is nothing in human nature or human history to support the idea that we are morally advancing as a species or that we will overcome the flaws of human nature.

“We are not advancing toward a glorious utopia.”

After his unrelenting excoriation of rational and religious fundamentalists and their allies, Hedges identifies one kind of belief system that seems to have opted out of the rush to dystopia.

“An atheist who accepts an irredeemable and flawed human nature, as well as a morally neutral universe, who does not think the world can be perfected by human beings, who is not steeped in cultural arrogance and feelings of superiority … is intellectually honest. These atheists may not like the word sin, but they have accepted its reality. They hold an honored place in a pluralistic and diverse human community.

“Atheists, including those wo brought us the Enlightenment, have often been a beneficial force in the history of human thought and religion. They have forced societies to examine empty religions platitudes and hollow religious concepts. They have courageously challenged the moral hypocrisy of religious institutions. The humanistic values of the Enlightenment were a response to the abuses of organized religion, including the attempts by religious authorities to stifle intellectual and scientific freedom. Religious authorities, bought off by the elite, championed a dogmatism that sanctified the privileges and power of the ruling class. But there were always religious figures who defied their own. Many, such as the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, were branded as heretics and atheists.

“The pain of living has also turned honest and compassionate men and women against God. These atheists do not believe in collective moral progress or science and reason as our ticket to salvation. They are not trying to perfect the human race. Rather, they cannot reconcile human suffering with the concept of God. This is an honest struggle. This disbelief is a form of despair, not self-exaltation.”

I found this short and surprising passage the most hopeful and personally affirming in the book.

[1] Richard H. Thaler is an economist at the University of Chicago, and Cass R. Sunstein is a Harvard Law School Professor. Together, they wrote Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (2009). See also The Nobel In Economics Rewards A Pioneer Of “Nudges” — Richard Thaler becomes one of very few behavioural economists to receive the discipline’s highest honour, The Economist, October 9, 2017 and This Headline Is A Nudge To Get You To Read About Nobel Economist Richard Thaler — Okay, it’s not a very good nudge, but his work is really important! Vox, October 9, 2017.

Heaven: A Clear and Present Danger

1939, THE WIZARD OF OZ

Religion’s endgame is perfection:  bliss, rapture, Heaven, life everlasting, enlightenment, Nirvana, mystical union. Perfection is your reward — in this life and the one to come — for practicing what your religion preaches.

The Age of Enlightenment is also after perfection:  Utopia, the march of civilization, the triumph of human progress, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It puts its faith in reason, science, technology, humanism.

Historically, religion and the Enlightenment have been sometimes friends or at least respectful adversaries, but nowadays they are — like everything else — polarized, wary, distrustful, disrespectful, and often vicious adversaries. But their shared endgame makes them barely distinguishable in their attitudes and agendas says Chris Hedges in his book I Don’t Believe in Atheists, which he wrote after debating Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens — two of the “four horsemen” of the “new atheism.”[1]

The book’s title might be too clever for its own good — a later version adds the subtitle “The Dangerous Rise of the Secular Fundamentalist.”  Hedges doesn’t have anything against atheists in general, but he has a lot against the new atheists, likening them to religious fundamentalists:

“The utopian dream of a perfect society and a perfect human being, the idea that we are moving toward collective salvation, is one of the most dangerous legacies of the Christian faith and the Enlightenment.

“We prefer to think we are the culmination of a process, the result of centuries of human advancement, rather than creatures unable to escape from the irrevocable follies and blunders of human nature. The idea of inevitable progress allows us to place ourselves at the center of creation, to exalt ourselves. It translates our narrow self-interest into a universal good. But it is irresponsible. It permits us to avert our eyes from reality and trust in an absurdist faith.

“These atheists and Christian radicals have built squalid little belief systems that are in the service of themselves and their own power. They urge us forward into a non-reality-based world,  one where force and violence, self-exaltation and blind nationalism are unquestioned goods. They seek to make us afraid of what we do not know or understand. They use this fear to justify cruelty and war. They ask us to kneel before little idols that look and act like them, telling us that one day, if we trust enough in God or reason, we will have everything we desire.

“Fundamentalism is a mind-set. The iconography and language it employs can be either religious or secular or both, but because it dismisses all alternative viewpoints as inferior and unworthy of consideration it is anti-thought. This is part of its attraction. It fills a human desire for self-importance, for hope and the dream of finally attaining paradise. It creates a binary world of absolutes, of good and evil. It provides a comforting emotional certitude. It is used to elevate our cultural, social, and economic systems above others. It is used to justify imperial hubris, war, intolerance and repression as a regrettable necessity in the march of human progress. The fundamentalist murders, plunders and subjugates in the name of humankind’s most exalted ideals. Those who oppose the fundamentalists are dismissed as savages, condemned as lesser breeds of human beings, miscreants led astray by Satan or on the wrong side of Western civilization. The nation is endowed with power and military prowess, fundamentalists argue, because God or our higher form of civilization makes us superior. It is our right to dominate and rule. The core belief systems of these secular and religious antagonists are identical.”

And that’s just a taste. The whole book is like that. It’s like reading the Prophet Amos — it thunders.

Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why do you want the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, not light;
19     as if someone fled from a lion,
and was met by a bear;
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a snake.
20 Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?

21 I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Amos 5:  18-24 NRSV

I Don’t Believe in Atheists has the most wildly polarized reviews I’ve ever seen. People love it or hate it, and the ones who hate it, hate it savagely — beginning with the book’s title, which apparently commits the unpardonable sin of not making it instantly clear whose side it’s on. Hedges, for his part, believes that the fatal flaw of both religious and secular fundamentalism is that neither actually believes in sin.

There’s a lot to talk about here. More coming up.

[1] For more on the new atheists, you might investigate the Closer to Truth video series “Is Atheism a New Faith?”.