From its earliest days psychology has been curious about religion. Sometimes that curiosity tilts towards hostility – Freud, of course, didn’t have many good things to say about religion- “infantile neurosis” is a choice phrase. But at least four of his twenty-something books deal explicitly with the topic. So it’s safe to say he was curious. More recently, psychologists’ curiosity has tilted towards openness or outright encouragement. Part of that recent movement has involved an enormous amount of research on the impact religion has on mental health.
You’ve probably read about these studies. “Spirituality is a Key Element of Mental Health” or “New Study links belief in ‘Punitive God’ to Emotional Problems.” If not, you should check out the Punitive God one – it’s got a great picture of an angry God. But the story these studies tell isn’t as neat and clean as they make it seem.
Nearly a month ago, author Benjamin Fong wrote an op-ed for the NYTimes- Bursting the Neuro-Utopian Bubble. Most opinion pieces about neuroscience, and there are plenty of them, flit from my memory pretty quickly, but this one has stuck with me. Fong was the first to put into words the danger underlying our inflated hope in neuroscience. He did so by talking about tuberculosis.
Most philosophers who’re wary of neuroscience critique it by talking about the problem of consciousness- What is consciousness? Most commonly they point out that many neuroscientist’s solution to this question is implicit in their methods and research: they’ve already assumed that consciousness is just a product of brain juices, now the task is just to find which brain juices. When they find the right brain juices, they then take that as confirmation of their initial assumption- that consciousness simply is those brain juices. I tried to make that understandable by saying “brain juices,” but the point these philosophers are making is that neuroscience is side-stepping the question by assuming its answer from the beginning.