Tag Archives: Neuroscience

Religion and Your Future Self

Jonathan Morgan

Woman looking to the futureConsider yourself in ten years.  What’ll you be like?  Will you be as funny, kind, or wise as you are now?  Now, as you’re thinking about yourself in 2024, consider one more thing- how connected do you feel to this version of yourself?  How real does she or he feel?

I know, it’s hard enough to imagine 2024, especially considering that in 2004 Lance Armstrong was winning his 6th Tour de France, a gallon of gas cost around $2, Colin Powell was resigning from his position as Secretary of State, and thefacebook.com was just being launched.  Who knows what 2024 will look like, but regardless of how sci-fi it might be- how strong does your connection to your future self feel?

It’s a weird question.  The obvious answer is very connected- “it’s me after all, how could I be anything but connected to myself?”  But think about how hard it is to keep new year’s resolutions or how easy it is to procrastinate.  These issues, which we all face, have lead psychologists and neuroscientists to explore the relationship between our present and future selves.  The converging opinion is that this connection is more tenuous than we initially assume.  But, it’s also widely agreed that we can do things to strengthen the connection.  And perhaps religion is one of those things.  But before speculating about how to fix the connection, it’s worth reviewing the research that says it’s in need of fixing in the first place.

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Religion in the Brain-Scanner

Jonathan Morgan

MRI,brainLast week I wrote about the dangers of reducing experience down to the chemical reactions and physics of our bodies.  For a great look at the depths of this problem, check out my colleague David Rohr’s essay at Patheos.com.  But all this may leave you wondering whether this is really a danger.  Am I just arguing against a straw man or fighting windmills?  Don’t get me wrong, I think Don Quixote’s great, but here’s why I don’t think this is an imaginary debate.

Check out this paper from a group of neuroscientists and scholars in Maryland- “Cognitive and neural foundations of religious belief.”  I get super excited when I see titles like this.  Understanding the brain mechanisms beneath belief would help us understand how religion might have emerged in early human communities.  I’d likely regret it, but I wish I could time travel just to see those early communities begin to use language and form early rituals.  That’d be amazing!  Good academic papers are kind of like imaginary time machines that give us a glimpse into our past.  At least the good ones do.

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Free Will and the Brain

Jonathan Morgan

Young girl thinking with glowing brain illustrationA while ago, the social psychologist Roy Baumeister wrote a piece on free will for Slate.  In an age where neurobiologists claim to understand love because they understand some neural correlates, Baumeister’s philosophical piece is a breath of fresh air.  His argument hinges on the idea of causation, which is a good place to put any argument about free will.  When it comes down to it, isn’t whether we have free will a question about what causes our actions?  Saying that I’m writing this essay of my own free will is the same as saying that nobody is forcing me to write.

But when scientists claim that we have no free will, they aren’t talking about personal interactions.  They’re talking about physics and chemistry.  The idea is that we live in a world where cause and effect are determined by physical laws.  When my bike goes downhill, it goes quickly.  Thanks gravity!  When I put on my brakes, my bike stops.  Thanks friction!  When I hit those train tracks, I wreck.  Ouch!  We live in a physical world and that world is governed by predictable laws.  Physics is really good at describing those laws.  But does this mean that if we just had enough information about physics then we’d understand why I got on my bike in the first place?

No, that’s silly.  Baumeister makes this point by noting that each science deals with different causes.  More importantly, as we move up the ladder of complexity, new causes enter the picture.  Economics can’t, and shouldn’t, focus on the strong nuclear force as the cause of the European Debt Crisis.  No doubt, if there wasn’t the strong nuclear force (that’s the one that makes the nuclei of atoms hold together) there’d be no European Debt Crisis.  There probably wouldn’t be much. Thanks nuclear force!  But dependence isn’t the same as causation.

That’s all well and good when it comes to the difference between atoms and international economies.  But what about the leap from neurology to experience- is this too far to talk about causation?  Here we enter some murky ground and it’s not entirely clear how to proceed.

But I think Baumeister gives us a helpful guide.  Yes, experience depends on the brain working well.  And interesting things can be found by studying the brain.  For example, emotions are heavily involved in decision-making.  That’s worth knowing and reveals new aspects of our experience.  In the same way that physics constrains my bicycle, neurology likely constrains our experience.  Understanding some of those constraints can help us understand experience in new ways.  But to argue that the neurons firing cause certain experiences is likely to miss the point.

It misses the point because experience always happens on a social level.  Even if I’m alone in the woods, I’m still interacting with the woods.  So if you want to understand experience, are you better off looking at the interactions between neurons or the interactions between people and their environment?  Well, both, but looking at the level of the environment is probably going to be more meaningful.

So what does all this have to do with religion?  It hopefully raises the question: what is the appropriate level to study religion?  Should religion be studied like economics- focusing on the community level?  Or is it more appropriate to study religion at the psychological level, like personality or desires?  Are meaningful insights likely to come from neuroscience or physics?  Of course the answer to all these questions is, yes!  Each level will contain different insights about religion.

The larger point is that each level can’t be meaningfully reduced to those below it.  Doing so would cause you to miss essential pieces of religion.  If you were to argue that religion is all about psychological benefits, then you’d miss the larger social dynamics that forge religion through a history of conflict and politics.  Likewise, if neuroscientists find a pathway that lights up when people meditate, they can’t reduce religion to this stream of chemical juices.  That pathway may tell us some interesting things about religious experiences, but it’s not the only thing going on.  In fact, it may not even be the most relevant thing going on!

All levels are significant and they should be considered in tandem.  So as more research emerges about religion and the brain, be wary of any claims that religion is just such and such a neural pathway.  These notions are about as silly as claiming that free will doesn’t exist just because we depend on the physical environment.

Fong’s Neuro-Utopian Bubble

Jonathan Morgan

Social networkNearly 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.

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Is Religion Beyond the Brain?

gears and headThe field of neuroscience is booming.  New discoveries emerge daily, and given the overwhelming complexity of the brain, many profound and important discoveries surely await.  This creates a furor of research, but it also encourages over-reaching generalizations.  People are quick to offer up interpretations about what all these new discoveries mean for our daily lives, for our religiosity, our relationships, our work, our health…  The brain and the mind are so intrinsic to who we are, and the research is so fascinating, that it’s hard to resist making these leaps of interpretation.  As a result, we see a slew of books and articles describing religion in terms of the brain, or vice-versa.  But, all too often, these works are philosophical speculation with a scientific façade.

Last week the New York Times columnist David Brooks critiqued the tendency to overextend these discoveries, by describing the difficulties faced in exploring the brain.  But in the end, he just returned to his philosophical camp by proclaiming, in opposition to most neuroscientists, that “The brain is not the mind.”  Okay, that’s fine to say and true to what most of us feel, but it does little to unearth the real richness of the problem: if the brain is not the mind, then how are the two interacting?  For a deep and quick overview of the mind-brain problem, see this lecture (if you’re worried about time, the relevant section is only six minutes long, starting at 9:27).

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