God on the Brain

Article ID: JAF2332 | By: Angus Menuge

This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume33, number 2(2010). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org.


A sure sign that the West has lost its transcendent moorings is its frenetic search for secular God-substitutes: postmodernism, environmentalism, feminism, Darwinism, and many other isms are frequently embraced not as academic theories, but as deeply religious worldviews. Yet rather like the hapless Mr. Toad of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, many become disillusioned with one ism only to embrace another with equal fervor. A secular grail shining brightly at the moment may be called “neuroscientism”-the idea that neuroscience is the final answer to the human quest for self-knowledge. Not content to tell us how our brains work, some neuroscientists assure us that they can also unlock the principles of superior mental and physical health, of better relationships and more successful businesses, and can even explain the origin of morality and religion.


Synopsis

Scientific materialists are not sure what to make of religion. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins argues that religious faith is a mind virus that has parasitized brains selected for gullibility. Unfortunately, Dawkins’s evolutionary psychology is a universal acid. Were it true, it would undermine the credibility not only of religion, but also of science itself, including evolutionary psychology. Dawkins’s special pleading for science-science is immune from skepticism, because it is tested against reality-is not persuasive, because the scientific method relies on nonscientific principles that cannot themselves be tested. Dawkins fails to engage effectively the question of truth, but, presuming that faith is irrational, he offers an implausible reductionist explanation of it.

In their recent book, How God Changes Your Brain, neuroscientists Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman appear at first to be friendlier toward religion, arguing that thinking about God is good for the brain, our health, and our relationships. But while the techniques of meditation that they study do provide more evidence of the power of the mind over the body, they do not essentially involve faith or support any particular religion. And Newberg and Waldman also promote a spiritual indifferentism and pragmatism antithetical to any traditional religion, including orthodox Christianity.

Unlike Joel Osteen, who can offer only quasi-religious pop psychology, neuroscience has all the authority and prestige of a hard empirical science. This appeals directly to the dominant creed of scientism, which assumes that materialistic science alone is capable of producing knowledge. Yet among scientific materialists, there is significant disagreement about what to make of belief in God. For some, like Richard Dawkins, a neuroscientific account based on Darwinian principles allows us to explain away faith as a harmful delusion.1 Others, like Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman, appear friendlier to religion. These scientists provide experimental evidence that visualizing and thinking about God can be good for subjects’ brains, their mental health, and their relationships.2 But is this sort of account really helpful to the cause of Christian apologetics? In what follows, I will first respond to Dawkins’s charge that God is a delusion, showing that his arguments are self-destructive and fallacious. Then, I will consider whether the “God is good for you” approach of Newberg and Waldman is really an improvement.

THE GOD DELUSION

According to Richard Dawkins, “Natural selection builds child brains with a tendency to believe whatever their parents and tribal elders tell them. Such trusting obedience is valuable for survival: the analogue of steering by the moon for a moth. But the flip-side of trusting obedience is slavish gullibility. The inevitable by-product is vulnerability to infection by mind viruses….The truster has no way of distinguishing good advice from bad.”3

In general, Dawkins argues, religion can be explained “as a by-product of normal psychological dispositions,”4 perhaps “a by-product of the irrationality mechanisms that were originally built into the brain by selection for falling in love,”5 and is a useful form of self-deception because it enables communities to cooperate under some shared goals and guidelines, thus promoting survival.

One major problem for Dawkins’s argument is that he attempts to apply a universal acid only selectively: by its nature, a truly universal acid will eat up everything, including the person applying it. If it is true that our brains are configured by evolution to slavishly trust our elders, and that we have no way of distinguishing good advice from bad, then this would have to include the advice of scientists, who most certainly function as the elders of modern technological societies saturated with scientism. In other words, if Dawkins’s account of our brains is correct, then we can have no good reason to believe it, since we are in no position to distinguish this truth from error.

The same point applies to Dawkins’s suggestion that religion be understood as a “mind-virus,” that is, a collection of “memes.” According to Dawkins, “Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body…so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via…imitation.”6

However, as Alister McGrath has pointed out, “If all ideas are memes or the effects of memes, Dawkins is left in the decidedly uncomfortable position of having to accept that his own ideas must be recognized as the effects of memes. Scientific ideas would then become yet another example of memes replicating within the human mind.”7

As one might expect, Dawkins has attempted to evade this conclusion by claiming that scientific ideas are a special exception to the rule, because of the way they are tested against reality. But this response is epistemologically naïve, because it forgets that the scientific method depends on nonempirical principles (such as those of deductive, inductive, and abductive logic), and if our minds are as unreliable as he claims, we can have no good reason to trust these principles. Dawkins, blissfully unaware that he is propounding not science, but materialist philosophy, has blundered into the logical minefield exposed by Alvin Plantinga. Plantinga showed that if evolutionary naturalism were true, then it would make our minds too unreliable to trust anything, including evolutionary naturalism.8

What makes matters worse is that evolutionary psychologists have conceded this point without apparently realizing it. For example, Steven Pinker admits that on his view, “our brains were shaped for fitness, not for truth.”9 And Lewis Wolpert claims that “our brains contain a belief generating machine, an engine that can produce beliefs with little relation to what is actually true.”10 With no sense of irony, Wolpert later claims that “science provides by far the most reliable method for determining whether one’s beliefs are valid.”11 The problem, of course, is that if our belief-forming mechanism favors useful but largely false beliefs, this will also include our scientific beliefs. Even if natural selection could somehow hone beliefs relevant to our everyday survival so that they were mostly true, this still would not be good grounds to trust recent scientific theories, because they played no role in the survival of our ancestors. As Pinker says, “Our ancestors encountered certain problems for hundreds of thousands or millions of years-recognizing objects, making tools, learning the local language, finding a mate, predicting an animal’s movement, finding their way-and encountered certain other problems never-putting a man on the moon… proving Fermat’s last theorem.”12

Surviving lions and swamps has nothing to do with the developments of quantum mechanics-or of evolutionary psychology itself. Evolutionary psychology implies that our minds are too unreliable to accept any scientific theory, including evolutionary psychology. Thus Dawkins fails to show that scientific materialism is immune from the corrosive acid he unleashes on religion, leaving his preference for the former a matter of arbitrary intellectual imperialism. McGrath perceptively observes: “Anyone familiar with intellectual history will spot the pattern immediately. Everyone’s dogma is wrong except mine. My ideas are exempt from the general patterns I identify for other ideas, which allows me to explain them away, leaving my own to dominate the field.”13


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There is a second and purely logical flaw in debunking accounts of religious (or moral) ideas, which was exposed long ago by C. S. Lewis in his essay, “Bulverism.” As Lewis notices, merely to offer an account that might “explain away” why someone has a belief simply bypasses the question of whether the content of the belief is true. This question requires us to examine the evidence for and against the beliefs themselves, evidence that exists outside of people’s minds and brains. So before the skeptic can claim that religious ideas derive from a tainted source, he must first show that they have no supporting evidence, or provide more compelling evidence against them.

“In other words, you must first show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly.”14

Upon reflection, no one would take seriously the idea that applied mathematics is false because modern brain-scanning techniques have shown what is really going on in the brain when the mathematician solves differential equations. It is therefore only because Dawkins has assumed that religious claims are noncognitive sentiments unsupported by evidence that he spends so little effort looking into the matter.

When we consider the time Dawkins does devote to the truth question-evaluating arguments for the existence of God and the reliability of the New Testament documents-we find that he simply has not done his homework. Thus, Alvin Plantinga concludes, “You might say that some of his forays into philosophy are at best sophomoric, but that would be unfair to sophomores; the fact is (grade inflation aside), many of his arguments would receive a failing grade in a sophomore philosophy class.”15

Michael Ruse, an agnostic Darwinian philosopher, concurs: “Dawkins is brazen in his ignorance of philosophy and theology (not to mention the history of science). A major part of the book involves ripping into the chief arguments for the existence of God. I confess that it is the first time in my life that I have felt sorry for the ontological argument.”16

When it comes to the New Testament, Dawkins considers only the views of skeptical Bible scholars, ignoring mountains of first-rate work by such leading apologists as Craig Blomberg, William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, John Warwick Montgomery, and N. T. Wright. A good scholar must refute the strongest case for the view that he opposes, not merely cite the chorus of those in his own choir.

The same general moral applies to a variety of other debunking strategies, such as the attempt to explain away religious experiences as a defect in the temporal lobes, the result of a “God gene” or of a misfiring “God spot” in the brain.17 All of them assume without argument that no religion is grounded in evidence. Yet the central Christian claims are about Christ’s saving work in history, and therefore can be investigated using secular, empirical methods.

THE GOD PLACEBO

After seeing one’s religious beliefs dismissed out of hand, it is initially comforting to read that some neuroscientists think that religion might have a more positive role. The title of Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman’s 2009 book seems encouraging: How God Changes Your Brain. But it turns out to be yet another contribution to the cottage industry of books that appear to be about God, but really are not.18 The authors admit early on that “neuroscience cannot tell you if God does or does not exist.” Instead, at most they are studying mental representations of God, “as an image, feeling or thought,” and they are not really interested in the question of truth, because they follow the same line of thought as other evolutionary psychologists, according to whom “most of the human brain does not even worry if the things we see are actually real. Instead, it only needs to know if they are useful for survival.”19 As a result, the authors completely bypass the questions of which religion’s portrait of God is closest to the truth, and instead focus on the pragmatic benefits of various spiritual ideas and feelings for people’s health.

When we look at the actual techniques of meditation presented in Newberg and Waldman’s book, it is not clear that even a vague, unitarian spirituality plays a role. The authors cite yoga, which, with its meditation and focused breathing, helps “improve memory and cognition” and “counters the effects of depression.”20 But the techniques were tested on a construction worker-”Gus”-with no spiritual focus: “Our study shows that meditation can be separated from its religious roots and still remain a valuable tool for cognitive enhancement.”21 Again, they tell us that they “discovered that you could take God out of the ritual and still influence the brain.”22 And in fact, all of the techniques presented in the book can be practiced by secularists: “For the purpose of reaching the broadest audience, we have removed the religious inferences.”23

Well, if God, religion, and spirituality play no essential role in any of these exercises, the logical conclusion is that the source of their efficacy lies elsewhere. The authors admit that driving Gus’s four-step plan to improve memory is “expectation,” which “is one of the underlying principles of optimism,” which “also governs the…’placebo effect.’”24 So a perfectly reasonable conclusion, having nothing to do with spirituality, is that the human mind can exert a downward causal influence on the brain, precisely the conclusion of neuroscientists Jeff Schwartz25 and Mario Beauregard.26 Alas, Newberg and Waldman, who are thoroughly wedded to the scientific materialism conventional in their discipline, do not seriously pursue this line, probably because they do not really accept that the mind has any real causal power over and above that of the brain. They content themselves with saying that the power of expectation “is simply the brain doing what millions of years of evolution have led it to do,”27 which confirms their materialist orthodoxy, but provides no explanation whatsoever. In my opinion, the real value of the book (more evidence that materialism is false because the mind has independent causal power28) is buried by a smokescreen of talk about spirituality, which the authors admit is irrelevant to their actual results.

Along the way the authors make numerous, unrecognized assumptions that beg important questions. For example, they assert that “the benefits gleaned from prayer and meditation may have less to do with a specific theology than with the ritual techniques of breathing, staying relaxed, and focusing one’s attention on a concept that evokes comfort, compassion, or a spiritual sense of peace.”29 But the benefits the authors are studying are health benefits, and most people are not praying for or meditating about their own health! For example, if a prayer is for someone else’s health and the prayer is granted, the important results are not in the brain of the person praying. More importantly, Christian believers are concerned with praying to the true God and conforming their will to His will: the whole pragmatic approach of the book suggests erroneously that the only reason to believe in God is for the benefits He may bring us, as if God is a kind of cosmic vending machine. This hardly matches Christ’s prayer to the Father in Gethsemane, “Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36 NIV).

The underlying problem is that like Daniel Dennett,30 Newberg and Waldman seek to study religion as a natural phenomenon, which leads them to make numerous category mistakes. Thus they have headings such as, “What part of the brain makes God real?” and “The chemical nature of God,”31 which reduce God to something like a secretion of our own brains. If God is real, and He made us, the language is quite absurd. If the topic had been scientific beliefs, would the authors have used the headings, “What part of the brain makes laws of physics real?” or “The chemical nature of physical laws”? They do, of course, note that some kinds of drugs (like psilocybin) make people more open to certain “feelings of unity, sacredness, intuitive knowledge, and ineffability,”32 but provide no criteria for distinguishing illusions from veridical experiences, and appear naively to assume that such spiritual experiences are necessarily positive, having no definite doctrine by which to test the spirits to see if they are of God (1 John 4). The fact that the authors find it unimportant to know any serious theology does not help.

Newberg and Waldman assume that everything real is best understood from the outside, studied as a specimen, but as C. S. Lewis argued, this discounts the possibility that there are some things best understood only from the inside. Just like a pain, a religious experience can be correlated with a neural event, but impersonal knowledge of this event does not tell us what it is like to have that experience. “It is perfectly easy to go on all your life giving explanations of religion, love, morality, honour, and the like, without having been inside any of them. And if you do that, you are simply playing with counters. You go on explaining a thing without knowing what it is.”33

Further, Lewis pointed out, it must be a fallacy to suppose that all that is really going on in these experiences is the neural events, for then, “what about the cerebral physiologist’s own thought at that moment? A second physiologist, looking at it, could pronounce it only tiny physical movements in the first physiologist’s skull. Where is the rot to end?”34

In fact, neuroscientists themselves continue to rely on subjective conscious states, both for their subjects’ reports and in their own observations. The renowned neuroscientist Benjamin Libet confirmed this: “The whole foundation of my experimental studies of the physiology of conscious experience…was that externally observable and manipulable brain processes and the related reportable subjective introspective experiences must be studied simultaneously, as independent categories, to understand their relationship.”35

As for the question of whether an experience is an illusion or a genuine insight into reality, this can only be investigated by examining the world outside of people’s brains. No one would take seriously the idea that a formula of applied mathematics should not be used to build bridges because we now know what is going on in the engineer’s brain when he thinks of the formula. We would test the formula against objective reality. Newberg and Waldman never consider the idea that a religious claim could be tested against the objective facts of history, yet this is precisely what the Christian claim allows and even demands. As Paul tells us, if Christ was not raised as a matter of genuine, historical fact, then our faith is futile (1 Cor. 15: 17), and in defending the resurrection, Paul appeals to the public evidence reported by hundreds of living witnesses (1 Cor. 15: 3-8).

Despite their professed scientific neutrality, the authors in fact share a large collection of nonscientific prejudices about which religions are most “advanced.” They think that religions that are maximally inclusive, tolerant, and nonjudgmental are clearly superior. In one of their surveys, they were disappointed to discover that only thirty percent of respondents answered “yes” to the question, “Are other religions correct, even when they differ from my own?”36 The authors have simply assumed that religion is a matter of subjective feeling with any confessional statements serving only as mantras, making their cognitive content irrelevant. Anyone who understands specific religions immediately sees the problem with accepting all religions as true-they make mutually exclusive claims about who or what God is and about how humans can be saved. For example, Christians claim God is triune, that God became man in Christ through whom alone we can be saved (John 14:6; Acts 4:12), but Muslims deny the Trinity and incarnation (and the crucifixion and resurrection) of Christ, and deny that we need Christ to be saved. It is not intolerance, but simple logic that leads the faithful Christian to think that Islam is not correct.

Further, the more inclusive, pluralist religion that Newberg and Waldman prefer is not really tolerant at all.37 For it logically implies that all of the specific religions that make definitive claims about the nature of God and salvation are false. It is also clear that the authors have begged the question against any religion claiming that God has specially revealed Himself through scriptures, by assuming that all religious experiences are “generated” by the brain and that this explains “the great diversity of religious ideas and theologies.”38 What if God revealed Himself by acting in ordinary history, and inspired authors to record what happened, as Christians claim? Then these ideas were not ultimately “generated by the brain” but derive from historical fact. The same presumption makes Newberg and Waldman talk of “the future of God,”39 as if it were a matter of our constructing the most socially and genetically useful concept of God. Perhaps we should have a referendum and find out which god most people would like? Better yet, a “god of the month” club might be popular-for a while. Evidently, the authors can only conceive of theology from below: human attempts to reach up to the divine, which inevitably means making a false god in our image. The idea that we should humbly conform ourselves to the living and true God in whose image we are made is never considered.

While Newberg and Waldman see a lowest common denominator religion as a panacea, it is really only what Christian Smith and Melissa Denton have identified as “moralistic therapeutic deism,” a nondoctrinal spiritual pragmatism, devoted to being good and feeling good, with a distant god who is there if needed, but not involved in most of life. Such a religion provides us with no clear portrait of whom we should worship, and its god does nothing to solve our deepest problems-our moral failures and our mortality. As Lewis observed, “A minimal religion…has no power to touch any of the deepest chords in our nature….There is…nothing that can convince, convert or (in the higher sense) console; nothing, therefore, which can restore vitality to our civilization. It is not costly enough. It can never be a controller or even a rival to our natural sloth and greed. A flag, a song, an old school tie, is stronger than it; much more, the pagan religions.”40

Ironically, Smith and Denton observe that the followers of this creed still find their life in particular places of worship with specific teachings. The minimal theism of moralistic therapeutic deism “appears to operate as a parasitic faith….This religion generally does not and cannot stand on its own, so its adherents must”-despite obvious contradictions-”be Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deists, Jewish Moralistic Therapeutic Deists, Mormon Moralistic Therapeutic Deists, and even nonreligious Moralistic Therapeutic Deists.”41

FAIR WARNING

A clear enemy is easier to defend against than a false friend. Those like Dawkins who attempt to explain faith away are obviously hostile. But when scientists proclaim themselves friendly to poorly defined notions of spirituality and religion, there is a danger that well-meaning Christians will uncritically embrace a Trojan horse. Although they claim to provide a neutral scientific account of religious experience and practice, Newberg and Waldman advocate a nebulous indifferentism that is flatly incompatible with Christian faith. It would be wise to beware of neuroscientists bearing gifts.

Angus Menuge, Ph.D., is professor of philosophy at Concordia University, Wisconsin.


NOTES

1 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006).

2 Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman, How God Changes Your Brain (New York: Ballantine Books, 2009).

3 Dawkins, 176.

4 Ibid., 177.

5 Ibid., 185.

6 Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, rev. ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 192.

7 Alister McGrath, Dawkins’s God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), 124.

8 Alvin Plantinga’s argument traces to C. S. Lewis’s argument in chapter 3 of his Miracles. Plantinga first stated the argument in “Is Naturalism Irrational?” chapter 12 of his Warrant and Proper Function (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993). A later version of the same argument, including a technical correction and some helpful simplifications is presented in Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000). More recently, Plantinga has responded at length to his critics in “Reply to Beilby’s Cohorts” in James Beilby, ed., Naturalism Defeated: Essays on Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002). For a defense of Plantinga’s and Lewis’s argument, see my “Beyond Skinnerian Creatures: A Defense of the Lewis/Plantinga Critique of Evolutionary Naturalism,” Philosophia Christi 5, 1 (2003): 143-65.

9 Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), 305.

10 Lewis Wolpert, Six Impossible Things before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief (New York: W. W. Norton, 2007), 140.

11 Ibid., 216.

12 Pinker, 304.

13 McGrath, 124.

14 “Bulverism,” in Walter Hooper, ed., God in the Dock, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 273.

15 Alvin Plantinga, “The Dawkins Confusion,” 1 (http://www.christianitytoday.com/bc/2007/marapr/1.21.html).

16 Michael Ruse, review of The God Delusion, Isis, 98, 4 (December, 2007): 814-16.

17 For more on this topic, see Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’ Leary, The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), which I reviewed in Christian Research Journal 32, 4 (2009): 54-55.

18 A similar work is Dean Hamer’s The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired into Our Genes (New York: Doubleday, 2004), a study of “self-transcendence,” which has nothing specifically to do with God. Locals near my home regularly achieve “self-transcendence” by immersing themselves in the Green Bay Packers. Self-help spirituality is also not really about God (or at any rate, not the true God), but about techniques of self-motivation that deny the full reality of sin and the necessity and sufficiency of Christ’s saving work. The best recent critique of this phenomenon is Michael Horton’s Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008).

19 Newberg and Waldman, 4-5.

20 Ibid., 27.

21 Ibid., 31.

22 Ibid., 44.

23 Ibid., 174.

24 Ibid., 34.

25 Jeff Schwartz and Sharon Begley, The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force (New York: HarperCollins, 2002).

26 Mario Beauregard, “Mind Does Really Matter: Evidence from Neuroimaging Studies of Emotional Self-Regulation, Psychotherapy and Placebo Effect,” Progress in Neurobiology 81, 4 (March 2007): 218-36.

27 Newberg and Waldman, 34.

28 For a recent defense of the downward causal power of the mind over the brain, see my article, “Is Downward Causation Possible?” Philosophia Christi 11, 1 (2009): 93-110.

29 Newberg and Waldman, 48.

30 Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Penguin, 2007).

31 Newberg and Waldman, 54-55.

32 Ibid., 58.

33 C. S. Lewis, “Meditation in a Toolshed,” in God in the Dock, 214.

34 Ibid., 215.

35 Benjamin Libet, “Do We Have Free Will?” in Anthony Freeman, Keith Sutherland, and Benjamin Libet, eds., The Volitional Brain: Towards a Neuroscience of Free Will (Exeter, England: Imprint Academic, 2000), 55.

36 Newberg and Waldman, 70.

37 This point is well made by J. I. Packer in his “Paul against Pluralism,” in Tough-Minded Christianity: Honoring the Legacy of John Warwick Montgomery, ed. William Dembski and Thomas Schirrmacher (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2008), 2-19.

38 Newberg and Waldman, 79.

39 Ibid., 82.

40 C. S. Lewis, “Religion without Dogma?” in God in the Dock, 142-43.

41 Christian Smith and Melinda Lindquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 166.