Thursday, May 15, 2008

Neuro-theology: A Category Mistake

[A fragment from my upcoming book.]

In recent year, a host of brain researchers have been exploring and conjecturing on the biological basis for religious beliefs. The basic thesis of many of these opinions is that beliefs in God or the sacred can be explained on the basis of certain functions in the brain. That is, neuroscience gives the answer to why we have religious beliefs—it has nothing to do with any objectively real state of affairs that we perceive or discern in some sense.

Most of these views presuppose materialism. The reasons is this: Since we know that there is no God and no sacred realms (since all is material), we need to explain (and explain away) why so many have religious experiences. Of course, if this assumption is wrong, then there is no need to engage in such reductionism. I can be argued on the basis of natural theology that there is good reason to believe in a creator, designer God who is the source of the moral law. (See my book, In Defense of Natural Theology, for starters.) If so, the materialist assumption is unfounded. But it is no threat to religious belief if certain brain states correlate with certain religious beliefs or experiences. We are material as well as spiritual beings. The mind interacts with the body, as Scripture teaches and our experience confirms. The threat appears when this correlation is taken to be a reduction of the spiritual to the material. But philosophically it is impossible to translate first-person experiences (whether of carrots of or God) into third person, physical accounts, no matter how sophisticated these accounts are. These qualia (subjective experiences) are a different category of being than quantitative reports of what is going on in the brain (objective reports of states of affairs).

But there is another problem for this reductive view: it serves as a boomerang on itself. If all mental states and experiences reduce to physical states in the brain (and are so explained away as unreal), the belief that “There is no God” is also reducible to physical states in the brain (and can be explained away as unreal). Therefore, it’s all in the mind here, too, then. But if so, then all thought and reasoning is discredited by materialism (an idea we address elsewhere). It speaks volumes to note that while millions of grant money goes to explaining the neurological basis of religion, nothing goes to explain the neurological basis of atheism.

Therefore, despite all the advances in the knowledge of the neurological workings of the brain and its relation to religious beliefs and experiences, these in no way refute the truth of these beliefs. That project is the work of philosophy. Here, as in so many other areas, science is an unaccredited usurper of intellectual authority.


Just Jeff said...

The comment of a long time lurker.

"Here, as in so many other areas, science is an unaccredited usurper of intellectual authority."

Taken out of context, this statement would seem quite unfounded and bordering on anti-intellectual. However, your post does very well to establish a basis for the comment. In a world controlled by the person who is able to conjecture the most obscure and untestable evidence, these type of posts are needed. Scientists discovering something in a small and controlled test is often able to usurp the truth (in appearance only) simply because there are so few who can intelligently argue against the validity and importance of such findings. I look forward to reading your new book.

Robert Velarde said...

This post reminded me of Lewis's argument from reason, as delineated most articulately in chapter 3 of Miracles ("The Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism"), wherein Lewis quotes J.B.S. Haldane, who, by the way, was antagonistic towards Christianity:

"If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true ... and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms."

Lewis's argument from reason is articulated and defended admirably in C.S. Lewis's Dangerous Idea by Victor Reppert, as well as in Philosophia Christi, "Symposium on the Argument from Reason," Vol. 5, No. 1 (2003), pp. 9-89. I also address the argument in my book Conversations with C.S. Lewis.

Carol Jean said...

David Brooks discussed this in the New York Times this week in The Neural Buddhist He posits

And yet my guess is that the atheism debate is going to be a sideshow. The cognitive revolution is not going to end up undermining faith in God, it’s going to end up challenging faith in the Bible.

and concludes:
In unexpected ways, science and mysticism are joining hands and reinforcing each other. That’s bound to lead to new movements that emphasize self-transcendence but put little stock in divine law or revelation. Orthodox believers are going to have to defend particular doctrines and particular biblical teachings. They’re going to have to defend the idea of a personal God, and explain why specific theologies are true guides for behavior day to day. I’m not qualified to take sides, believe me. I’m just trying to anticipate which way the debate is headed. We’re in the middle of a scientific revolution. It’s going to have big cultural effects.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

Nothing anti-intellectual here: just keeping science in its place. If we don't, it destroys itself and any comprehensive sphere of meaning.

Theist said...

The problem with such a foolish thesis as neuro-theology is that it is a double edged sword. One could easily posit neuro-atheism in response and have just as much "evidence".

Lastly, here is a list of causes of atheism which you might wish to consider:

Jim Pemberton said...

I just realized something reading this. Pure materialism is physically deterministic. Metaphysically speaking either God created a world where physical laws are always consistent or God's creation entails the occasional breaking of physical laws. If the latter, then one occasion is the formation of a human thought. As spiritual entities, we are agents of the metaphysical manipulation of physical laws. Ultimately, unless God is not sovereign, there is a determinism albeit on a higher level than we are capable of fully apprehending. As far as our experience entails and considerations may allow, we can only act as free agents and that fundamentally metaphysically. Ironically, we tend to react rather strongly to existential stimuli although the foundation of our psychological reaction is metaphysical.