Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The sublime synapse

Not one but two different SCT readers pointed me in email to an NY
Times article on the attempt by literary theorists to harness neurology and cognitive science. The Times has since followed up with a collection of essays ruminating on the never-ending search in Humanities departments for the so called Next Big Thing, of which this engagement with neurons is the latest chapter. (The trend is more than just a fad; dissertations are being written and careers founded. One website devoted to developments in the field is this one, with a useful page of further links).

It all brought to mind an article I read some time ago by philosopher Raymond Tallis. Tallis belongs to the venerable tradition of doctor-thinkers that stretches from Heraclitus to Karl Jaspers. When he opines on matters medical, he is remarking on something he knows a little bit about. It's somewhat refreshing, then, to read his curt dismissal of what he sees as the pretensions of scientific accounts of consciousness. I don't know whether he is right or not, but Tallis' emphasis on how little we know, and his argument that consciousness does not reduce in any simple sense to brain states, just smells better to me than the over-confident predictions I read of being able to model states of mind or to "explain" consciousness. (It's the over-confidence, not the explanation per se, that I don't trust). In the case of our aesthetic experiences, Tallis is quite impatient with claims to account for them, or even to shed much light on them, via neuroscience.

Likewise with spirituality; Tallis contends in this article that attempts either to defend or to attack spirituality by finding some basis for it in brain science, or in evolutionary psychology, are misguided. The believers are wrong to think that a neural or evolutionary hardwiring of the religious instinct would lend much weight to the case for belief--not unless you are prepared to buy into intelligent design, which already betrays the premises of the evolutionary psychology it relies on; but, Tallis says, the nonbelievers are wrong too, because the explanations just don't work for anything as complex as religion in any case. (Tallis has spelled out some of his own account of human nature and culture in a number of works, most notably his trilogy, The Hand, I Am, and The Knowing Animal.)

For the record, I think Tallis somewhat overstates his negative case (I am more enthusiastic about his positive formulations, insafar as I understand them). While he's clearly sensed that some of the motivation behind "neuro-(a)theology" is to "cut religion down to size," the value of science, even when spurred by unscientific motives, is not nil. The refusal to look through Galileo's telescope is not, and never was, tenable. But how to understand what any sort of -scope shows, is a different matter.

For myself, while I take pleasure in Tallis' acerbic prose, and I welcome the arguments of an atheist chiding his fellow atheists for over-reaching (to forestall the objection that any criticism of gung-ho scientism must be motivated by some irrational religious ideological commitment), I'm pretty content to let the whole thing go by; count me as already persuaded. Both literature and spirituality (whether you want to talk about the latter in terms of "beliefs," "states," "practices,' even "memes," or whatever) are certainly going to have a lot of physiological and neural substrata--it's almost laughable to even have to say it--as they are things that human beings do, and humans come with their nervous systems or not at all. To be interested in these substrata is not inherently to be a reductionist. But reductionism is a real (and mistaken) possible stance, and not always an avowed one. Tallis' warnings against it may be over the top (Sam Harris certainly thinks so), but his point is well taken.


  1. I'm still reading the many useful links you've supplied on this topic. But let me briefly say that my hopes for the field of cognitive science in terms of spirituality differ a bit from others.

    I don't expect for a rational description of the processes at play--I'm more optimistic than you on this as I expect to see conscious machines in my lifetime--to in any way undermine spirituality. What I hope to see undermined is the privilege associated with spirituality. It is the rule of priests, the hierarchy, that I would like to see affected. When we discover that there are many paths by which one may achieve similar (if not the same) psychological states that are present when people are being 'spiritual' how will they continue to claim a monopoly on the experience? At that point I would expect spiritual traditions to compete on aesthetics. We now know, it will be argued, that one doesn't have to fillet a virgin and wear her skin to please the gods, one may just as well sit quietly in a room of friends with tea and doughnuts. And when we have real choice about these matters, how long will we tolerate ugly wrong doing by the spiritual leaders? If a church is associated with child molestation then crush the infamous thing! I guess what I would like to see is a pope who is no longer dominus but doula of the spiritual births he is to aid.

    Another possibility that intrigues me is that when we see a well structured spiritual part of the brain we may, far from reducing it to meaninglessness, have to wonder if it isn't an organ that perceives something about reality. Sharks "see" electromagnetic waves, perhaps humans are perceiving something about reality or about what it means to be humans.

  2. As a good anarchist (he said, pausing to see if anyone would bite...), I would be only too pleased to see the "monopolies" you mention undermined. The "One True" truth game has been crying out to have its rules renegotiated for a good long while, rather than just sort of fudged. While I am dubious that traditions will have only aesthetics left to differ on, I tend in my optimistic moments to agree with you that no matter how science winds up construing the neural and physiological substrata of spirituality, it will leave spirituality itself untouched (in its human significance). Likewise for ethics. (I have my pessimistic moments, too, though, and these tend to fuel my writing; knowing what one is against is maybe not half of self-knowledge, but it's sometimes half of self-presentation).

    I recall making a suggestion (to Fred Hagen) similar to yours about the possibility of a natural faculty in the human being that "senses" something about The Way Things Are. Hagen, not surprisingly, did not think my analogy was well-founded. Unfortunately, just then his cigarette was finished and smoke break was over, and we never picked up the conversation again.