The reverential agnostic

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Fred Reed On Religion over @ The American Conservative. Reed et al. seem to be making the argument that we live in an impious age where people do not reflect upon the “God Shaped Hole” in our brain. Perhaps. But how many times have I heard people thank God after a medical miracle? We do live in an age of piety, just a particular type….

5 Comments

  1. The religious argument with scientists often focuses on astronomists and physicists, those concerned with the big, mysterious “Out There. ” But when they’re talking about what’s missing from the sciences, religious advocates often end up coming back to our emotions and inner life. Happiness, love, awe: science can’t explain them, so this shows there must be something unknowable, higher than ourselves, involved in our daily lives, making us feel good or bad, know right from wrong.

    Maybe physical science can’t explain these feelings. But I always think, how about reading a little neuroscience too? The following quote from the article caught my eye:

    “Here is the chief defect of scientists (I mean those who take the sciences as an ideology rather than as a discipline): an unwillingness to admit that there is anything outside their realm. But there is. You cannot squeeze consciousness, beauty, affection, or Good and Evil from physics any more than you can derive momentum from the postulates of geometry: no mass, no momentum. A moral scientist is thus a contradiction in terms. (Logically speaking—in practice they compartmentalize and behave as well as anyone else.)

    Thus we have the spectacle of the scientist who is horrified by the latest hatchet murder but can give no scientific reason why. A murder, after all, is merely the dislocation of certain physical masses (the victim’s head, for example) followed by elaborate chemical reactions. Horror cannot be derived from physics. It comes from somewhere else. “

    Well, let’s see. Where to start. Affection and overwhelming feelings of love can be induced by stimulating the nucleus accumbens of the deeper recesses of the emotional brain, or administering oxytocin at just the right time, in the presence of another person.

    The fellow-feeling that is encompassed by the word “horror” — visceral revulsion at suffering in another creature, so you almost feel the suffering yourself — also is a concept that can be broken down into component parts. Each of these components is easily managed by the mammalian brain, without any higher intervention.

    Social animals likely evolved these emotions for survival within a group, not for discussions on theology. When the emotional circuitry that governs them goes wrong, the result is often a social outcast with few descendants.

    There’s a terrific cognitive psychologist at the Queen Square Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience in London, Dr. James Blair. He studies people who lack the normal capacity for empathy, in particular the sense of horror at another person suffering: patients with anti-social personality disorder. These are true psychopaths, in the real, technical sense of the word.

    Dr. Blair’s research is quite elegant, and there’s no way I can summarize all of it. But he has found a few striking abnormalities in the functional brain circuitry of these patients. First, they show a selective impairment in their ability to recognize facial expressions of distress. It’s as if they simply don’t see the distress, or mistake it for other emotions (like anger). Second, a normal person will show increased activity in the autonomic nervous system when witnessing another person’s suffering — part of the brain response that makes them feel the suffering as their own, and makes it unpleasant to watch another person’s pain. The patients with antisocial personality disorder show almost no autonomic system response to the suffering of others.

    The ability to recognize suffering, and feel it as your own, need be no less biological than the sense of smell or vision — recognizing that “biological” is not automatically synonymous with “genetic.” I find no need to invoke the concept of God to explain the range of human emotions.

    Here are abstracts to a few of his papers (sorry, no full text available):

    Facial expressions, their communicatory functions and neuro-cognitive substrates.
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov:80/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=PubMed&list_uids=12689381&dopt=Abstract

    Neurocognitive models of aggression, the antisocial personality disorders, and psychopathy.
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov:80/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=PubMed&list_uids=11723191&dopt=Abstract

  2. “Here is the chief defect of scientists (I mean those who take the sciences as an ideology rather than as a discipline): an unwillingness to admit that there is anything outside their realm.”

    Absolute nonsense. Real scientists admit that we could be disembodied brains being stimulated in vats. We could have been created 4 seconds ago along with all our memories, but demand more than wild speculation to find these even remotely compelling as statements of fact.

    “You cannot squeeze consciousness, beauty, affection, or Good and Evil from physics . . . A moral scientist is thus a contradiction in terms. . .Thus we have the spectacle of the scientist who is horrified by the latest hatchet murder but can give no scientific reason why.”

    Fred, Darwin wrote this book 130 years ago. Read it, try and catch up, and stop wasting everybody’s time with your usual slack-jawed ignorance.

  3. I personally agree with Fred, because, logically, IMO, Reality (capitalisation intended) must be conceived of as some collection of propositions for which there are no counterfactuals. After all, if something is absolutely true, then it should be impossible to even conceive of its being false. (i.e. a hypothetical counterfactal situtation shouldn’t be possibile). But any situation we can think of comes comes with possible counterfactual situations. So where does this leave us? With the absolute imponderability of Reality. Some people call this religious mystery. It doesn’t matter what you call it, but people who deny it are being unscientific, because insisting that Reality is some accident instead of what must be is a failure to apply Occam’s razor.

  4. Sporon,

    I rather think that the counterfactualist’s riposte to your Reality is illusion. Of course, this means that reality is susceptible to a certain effort of consciousness which, in turn, assigns illusion to the normal waking state.

    Now there’s one for Darwin – if God does not exist why can we distinguish reality from illusion? Put another way, if man evolves quite nicely (as he self-evidently does) in his ordinary waking state, what is the evolutionary purpose of self-consciousness?

    This game is fun.

  5. Malloy you really are a sourpuss. Even if materialistic scientism is “true”-why does one have to believe it wholehog and disenchant the entire universe?
    Darwin is a downer dude. Worship Gaia for a while-live a little-get a new age hippie chick to assimilate the cosmic sausage. Adopt the same attitude to scientific truth as I urge my marriage minded friends to adopt to the yoni or lingam: it’s better to rent than own.

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