Saturday, May 24, 2008


Last spring David Brooks stood “on a hill in East Jerusalem, amid the clash of religious and political orthodoxies” and admired a grand Darwinian narrative that imbues history (and presumably postmodern society) with purpose:

“According to this view, human beings, like all other creatures, are machines for passing along genetic code. We are driven primarily by a desire to perpetuate ourselves and our species.

The logic of evolution explains why people vie for status, form groups, fall in love and cherish their young. It holds that most everything that exists does so for a purpose. If some trait, like emotion, can cause big problems, then it must also provide bigger benefits, because nature will not expend energy on things that don’t enhance the chance of survival….

We have a grand narrative that explains behavior and gives shape to history.”

The sleight of hand in this exposition turns on the word “purpose.” Brooks employs the term to cover retrospective explanations within an evolutionary framework. Strictly speaking, however, the term “reason” is more accurate. After all, orthodox Darwinians regularly assert that evolution itself has no goals—that it is, as Richard Dawkins insists in The Blind Watchmaker, a purposeless process.

Only a year after this misbegotten tribute to Darwin, Brooks is off on another philosophical tangent. This effort starts out well by mentioning Tom Wolfe’s 1996 essay, “Sorry, but Your Soul Just Died.” It ends by taking another detour into philosophical dilettantism.

Brooks summarizes Wolfe’s typically insouciant remarks about the implications of a worldview where genes determine behavior and free will is illusory. Then he proposes a new philosophical perspective—“neural Buddhism.” This viewpoint is an improvement on genetic determinism since it appears to treat emotions, morality, and religion as more than epiphenomena rooted in a blind, mechanistic process. But the extent of this advance turns out to be less than advertised.

Scientists, Brooks informs us, now vouchsafe the reality of these basic human traits because belief and consciousness “seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings.” Also, according to this cutting-edge research “elevated spiritual states” can now be associated with “a decrease in activity in the parietal lobe.”

Our vast ignorance about the interplay between “neural networks” and “consciousness” leads Brooks to associate these findings with mysticism and Buddhism. Brooks also implies that micro-neurology somehow supports the idea that “particular religions are just cultural artifacts.” Religion in the most general sense, on the other hand, has a more substantive pedigree—presumably because it can be linked to those all-important neural networks. (One wonders how brain researchers isolate purely general religious vibes in neural networks from vibes infected with “cultural artifacts.”)

The problem with this bio-electrical analysis is that it reduces “reality” to what can be grasped or verified via scientific paradigms. Only on the playing fields of physics, neurology, or biology does one achieve truly significant findings—disciplines where objectification and measurement are essential rules of the game. Naturally, the way Brooks talks about “reality” is also shaped by these disciplines.

Unfortunately, isolating “idiosyncratic networks of neural firings” is as unhelpful to understanding the products of consciousness as discussing Shakespeare’s ink is to discovering the motivations of Hamlet or Richard III. Nor will insights into the nature of love spring from a discipline that sees it as a vehicle for “brain development” (as if that four-letter mystery were an important neural vitamin). A similarly reductive approach, I might note, now touts music education as an effective mental stimulant.

As far as the authority of specific religious traditions are concerned, one doesn’t need conjectures based on neural pyrotechnics to bring absolutist claims into question. The study of religious traditions over the last two centuries has accomplished that task quite well. Likewise, cultural anthropologists are well positioned to make pronouncements about the ubiquity of certain moral norms.

If EEG squiggle-readers wish to interpret their data in similar fashion, they are free to do so, but neurology isn’t designed to address such questions. Nor are truth-claims about religion, morality, and free will obliged to squeeze through that science’s methodological doorway. The unwarranted assumption that all truth statements must quack like a neuro-duck once prompted a medical doctor in my philosophy class to assert, “A thought is a protein”—an observation as meaningless as Brooks’ effusions about “squishy emotions.”

The mathematically gifted philosopher, Blaise Pascal, observed in the 17th century that “the heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.” A more prosaic affirmation would note that religion, morality, and consciousness don’t mesh well with neurology—Buddhist or otherwise. Like Darwinism, its disciplinary structure doesn’t accommodate terms like “purpose,” “good,” “evil,” or “love”—except by draining them of the significance they have in immediate experience.

In his aforementioned essay, Tom Wolfe makes this weighty observation: “We now live in an age in which science is a court from which there is no appeal. And the issue this time around, at the end of the twentieth century, is not the evolution of the species, which can seem a remote business, but the nature of our own precious inner selves.”

The author’s skepticism about the authority of this scientific Supreme Court is communicated via an ironic portrait of a fidgety youngster who (prior to being Ritalinized for Attention Deficit Disorder) spent hours before a television set—watching cartoons and playing video games. Wolfe’s concluding remarks about built-in limits to human knowledge also suggest a less-than-awestruck attitude before scientific findings that have an increasingly short shelf life.

“More skepticism, less awe” would be a good prescription for David Brooks the next time he feels the urge to promote a scientific discipline into the High Court of Metaphysics.

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