American Pseudo-Religion; Science and Experience

The title of David Brooks’s op-ed Tuesday, “The Neural Buddhists” (The New York Times, 13 May 2008), sounded cyberpunk and that was enough to entice me to read it. Turns out it’s some comments on the trend in neurological and genetic research toward characterizing the religious tendency and the religious experience. A lot of the editorial is wishful thinking on the part of a religious conservative, but then there’s the musings from which the piece draws its title:

This new wave of research will not seep into the public realm in the form of militant atheism. Instead it will lead to what you might call neural Buddhism.

In their arguments with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the faithful have been defending the existence of God. That was the easy debate. The real challenge is going to come from people who feel the existence of the sacred, but who think that particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits. It’s going to come from scientists whose beliefs overlap a bit with Buddhism.

I often point out that the fastest growing religion in the U.S. today is not Mormonism or any branch of Christianity, but the poorly conceptualized “spiritual but not religious” (“Teens: Spiritual, But Not Religious,” smarties, 11 January 2005). This isn’t some entirely post-1960s baby-boom or gen-X phenomenon. It is the latest manifestation of a long line of uniquely American religion stretching from the Enlightenment deism of the founding generation to the transcendentalism of the late Nineteenth Century to the Progressive era psycho-spirituality of William James. It pulls together an idiosyncratic combination of Christianity, grand historical conspiracy theories à la the Freemasons, various strains of mysticism, yeoman pragmatism, naturalism, popular science, amateur philosophical speculation, do-gooderism, health fads, self-help, popular psychology and positive thinking. It’s all of a piece with American mesianism, paranoia, individualism, pragmatism and the melting pot. It’s a little incipient and a little too convenient for the American way of life, having dispensed with the hard truths and the dark side of religion as well as any of the really imposing moral injunctions, but there it is. And Mr. Brooks is right to point out that the best fit for this among the ancient religions is Buddhism.

As for the rest of the article, it’s just the ontological argument for the existence of god without the minor premise. And the refutation is the same today as it was in the Eighteenth Century: you can’t imagine something into existence. A recurrent dream of Pegasus, however deeply felt, is not the existence of Pegasus. Conversely, the Pegasus of the recurrent dream is not what people would mean were they to speak of the existence of Pegasus. The question isn’t whether one has a particular brain experience. People have all manner of experiences, imaginary and not, as well as everything in between — in fact, the vast bulk of human experience probably lies somewhere between the real and the imagined. The question is whether or not a given experience correlates to an existent external state of affairs.

Amidst the natural sciences the question of correlation between a purported experience and a state of affairs external to mind is not something determined in some crass way. “It really happed.” “No it didn’t.” “Yes it did!” There is simply no sense dwelling on a single instance. Scientists discount a sample size of one. If there is too much dispute over a particular instance, simply drop it in favor of further inquiry. Fleeting and unitary experiences are dismissed in scientific practice in favor of what might be called the intersubjective (see e.g. intersubjectivity or intersubjective verifiability), the societal nature of scientific knowledge or a Wittgensteinian denial of a private language in favor of the essentially public nature of our scientific discourses.

For all of Nietzsche’s fretting that the death of god had unchained the Earth from the Sun, religion was every bit as arbitrary and subjective as its adherents today accuse irreligion of being. In the end, the whole of society swings over the abyss on a tether of fundamentally ungrounded beliefs. Science at least has the merit of basing its propositional criteria on egalitarian public discourse. Religion is based on all manner of purportedly private experience — revelations, miracles, conversations with the gods, passions, et cetera — all considered beyond criticism. Some people are chosen, enlightened or who knows what — the plans of the gods are inscrutable — and the rest of us, not so exalted, accept or reject religious belief on the authority of those possessed of such experiences. To those who prefer something more determinate, Jesus reiterates the Deuteronomic injunction, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Matthew 4:7, Deuteronomy 6:16).

This is one of the major divisions between science and religion. Were science to start poking its nose into religious business, the religious person would object that the spiritual is a realm of deeply personal experience, not subject to the critical dissection of all comers. And yet in it’s public aspect, religious practitioners are expected to take the word of people having had religious experiences. No attempt is made to abstract an experience away from an individual experiencer. Religion believes every obscurantist story that any old quack tells, at least where not condemned by religious authority.

A recognition deeply built into the practice of natural science, even if never properly conceptualized or explicitly taught, is the recognition of the fallibility, or at least the broad diversity in function, of the human mind. The well observed fact of low brain performance, stretching from simple poor judgment, forgetfulness, error, misperception and dishonesty to careerism, optical illusions and dreams, all the way to delusion, mental disorder, group psychology and mass hysteria has been incorporated into the background of scientific practice. In this regard a particular theory of mind is a part of the body of scientific practice. And, importantly, it’s not a complicated theory of mind — though one can pursue it to various levels of sophistication — but rather one built upon rather day-to-day observation of human foibles. I think the books of reference here are not any of the ones that Mr. Brooks lists, but David Linden’s The Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams, and God or Gary Marcus’s Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind.

One doesn’t have to search very far in one’s own life to find examples of how the brain, while a miracle of evolution, only works so well. At least a couple of times a week I experience a random, spasmodic jerk of some extremity. My cube neighbor at work, my brother, my highschool physics teacher and a former priest all have facial ticks, some rather elaborate, of which I am certain they are completely unaware and were they to become aware, would not be able to control. So-called religious phenomena — feelings of destiny, hearing voices, talking to god, heightened emotional states, impulses, a sense of unity, feelings of disembodiment — are of a piece with this. I don’t deny that religious people have the experiences that they claim. Subjective experiences are experiences nonetheless. What I deny is that such experiences have any greater significance.

Or for that matter there is the even more commonplace matter of difference in perspective. In this sense science is a highly stylized political methodology for producing consensus amidst the rocky shoals of vast differences in human experience.

These commonplace observations are the cause for the emphasis on repeatability and independent verification in scientific practice. It’s not enough for one person to have had an experience, or even for a very large number of people to have shared that experience for it to be established as a scientific fact. The standard for a scientific fact is that it must be something accessible to all; it must be something determinately replicable. A scientific community employs a fairly common engineering method for combating error: given that humans are cheap and plentiful, accommodate for the very low performance of each individual unit of scientific production by performing each task in redundancy. The inaccuracy of any given unit is cancelled out over the span of the entire system.

This is also the cause for the conservatism in science when it comes to abandonment of a long-standing theory. Nonscientists are fond of pointing out one or two contrary studies or a handful of unexplained mysteries and thinking a major theory overturned. The more efficient explanation is to discount early anomalies as human fallibility. The efficient practice when dealing with a theory propped up by thousands of observations, millions of person hours of labor and the consilience of logically related theories and at the same time a small set of recalcitrant data is to wait and see. That’s not to say that anomalies are dismissed — from economics, to discount something is to calculate the present day value of something that will potentially be of a different value in the future — they are merely tabled pending additional information. But should the accumulation of anomalies reaches a critical mass, they will eventually be widely admitted into the corpus of accepted fact. It’s the other side of the redundancy equation.

“We’re in the middle of a scientific revolution. It’s going to have big cultural effects.” True, just not the ones Mr. Brooks is thinking of. I think that what we’re seeing is essentially Antony Flew’s “Theology and Falsification” playing out on a societal scale. Atheists keep on raising unanswerable objections to religious belief — and not just in polemics, but ubiquitously in the zeitgeist — and religious people are staging a fighting retreat by continually lowering the bar and circumscribing ever more narrowly the propositional territory it is that they are defending. Neural Buddhism, spiritual but not religious — people may continue to profess all manner of confusion on the matter — it’s all a track to an essentially irreligious society.