The Neural Buddhists of David Brooks

It definitely appears that the New York Times columnist David Brooks is on a neuroanthropology kick. Today he’s published an editorial called The Neural Buddhists, which complements previous ones on globalization and cognition and demography and cultural identity.

Brooks’ editorial comes down to three things: dispatching soulless science; presenting the new touchy-feely brain; and taking on our culturally hard-wired Protestantism.

Richard Dawkins stands in nicely as the representative of the old science—genetic determinism, lumbering machines, neo-Darwinian atheism. Tom Wolfe, as Brooks points out, described this world view well in his essay Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died. On this site Greg fought the good fight against Dawkins’ memes in February, while I had fun taking on Dawkins’ protégé, Steven Pinker, and his argument about hard-wired morality back in January.

Unfortunately for people like Dawkins and Pinker, but fortunately for the rest of us, the brain plays a different game. Here’s what Brooks says about the new neuroscience:

The brain seems less like a cold machine. It does not operate like a computer. Instead, meaning, belief and consciousness seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings. Those squishy things called emotions play a gigantic role in all forms of thinking. Love is vital to brain development.

Ah, music to my ears. Indeed, Greg took down the computer metaphor some weeks ago. I wrote on emotion’s role in decisions making (sorry, rational-genetic man). Still, a lot of old brain crap gets out in both scientific journals and the popular press. So Time Magazine’s version of love, the not-quite touchy-feely view, got Hannibal Lecterized at the start of the year.

After establishing that love is vital, Brooks turns to religion with this provocative statement: “The cognitive revolution is not going to end up undermining faith in God, it’s going to end up challenging faith in the Bible.”

Well, I am sure he’s going to get a lot of negative comments on that! But I think what he means is our present-day search for something besides the Protestant Ethic—work hard, take care of yourself, develop a relationship with God through the Bible, and you’ll be all right.

We don’t live in that world anymore. Technology, consumerism, and interaction with other cultures have radically de-centered how we live our lives and how we understand ourselves. To go back to Brooks’ cognition piece, in a global world how can we still have local meaning, meaning in those last few inches where our minds meet everything else?

Hard-nosed atheism, especially when driven by hard-nosed science, doesn’t have a good answer for that. Does neural Buddhism? Brooks argues that at least it will change the terms of the discussion. The new terms?

First, the self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships. Second, underneath the patina of different religions, people around the world have common moral intuitions. Third, people are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love. Fourth, God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is.

As we’ve discussed here, meditation can make the brain more compassionate. The placebo effect is better conceived as a meaning response. Beauty centers on experience and relationships, not biology or culture. Free will is more than what we see in a brain scan.

For Brooks, this emerging scientific view does what science has often done, undermine claims to revealed truth. Here is how he describes the emerging dilemma:

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… Orthodox believers are going to have to defend particular doctrines and particular biblical teachings. They’re going to have to defend the idea of a personal God, and explain why specific theologies are true guides for behavior day to day.

Brooks ends by writing, “I’m not qualified to take sides, believe me. I’m just trying to anticipate which way the debate is headed. We’re in the middle of a scientific revolution. It’s going to have big cultural effects.”

Greg and I both hope that neuroanthropology, this mixture of brain science, understanding of ourselves, and culture, will be at the center of this scientific revolution. Otherwise, the brain scientists’ reach will exceed their grasp. Meaning cannot be reduced to even a touchy-feely brain. Nor can it all be placed on particular doctrines, whether religious or anthropological. No one field has the key to the truth. But change is coming.

9 thoughts on “The Neural Buddhists of David Brooks

  1. In my master’s thesis at UC Santa Barbara, I argued that nudges toward conclusions like “neural Buddhism” should be viewed not as unassailable scientific determinations but as another step in the lineages of religious thought. I deal directly with a number of the figures that Brooks mentions here, especially Andrew Newberg.

    It is available in unpublished draft form on my website. A simplified version is currently available in the May/June issue of Science & Spirit magazine as well.

  2. I found the Brooks article (and your commentary) fascinating. One thought: I think it’s wrong to assume that, because consciousness is still a “mystery” (a word that is increasingly loathed by scientists who are interested in consciousness, I think) and emotions play a bigger role than we ever imagined, the brain is any less a cold machine now than it ever was. Maybe it’s just the circles I run in, but I don’t get the feeling that the touchy-feely brain is as hip as Brooks makes it out to be.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s