neurononsense and neurotheology (Scruton)

Like many others, I’m extremely curious about new developments in neuroscience and their implications for faith. Philosopher Roger Scruton busts a bit on this impulse in More than meets the MRI (Sunday Times.)

…Thanks to these techniques, scientists can link highly specific mental operations — intending to lift your hand, thinking of your mother, hearing music in your head — to precisely located neural activity…Philosophers, psychologists and neurosurgeons have all weighed in to take charge of these incredible discoveries…[saying] There is a “God spot” in the brain that is activated by thoughts of the divine, and which is located in a part of the middle frontal gyrus known to be associated with positive emotions, hence the God idea is an adaptation that has promoted our survival in times of trial…

…I am reminded of the street evangelist who cries “Jesus is the answer”, but who never defines the question. In the same way, we have an accumulation of answers, with no questions asked. Take any aspect of the human condition in which people have invested their hopes and fears — the love of God, of neighbour, of beauty, of virtue — boil it down to a few neurons, and tell the whole story in Darwinese, and you create the impression that some part of the human mystery has been solved. The amazing and puzzling qualities that distinguish us from the rest of nature are merely adaptations, and all are “hard-wired” in the brain.

…the neurononsense that I have summarised tells us nothing about the self, about free will, about God or about beauty. It associates ideas with parts of the brain; but it does not tell us what the ideas mean, or what they refer to. It tells a story about neurons, which cause my arm to rise; but it says nothing about what I do when I raise my arm. And the talk of “adaptations” turns out, on inspection, to be trivial. It tells us that the love of God, of neighbour, of beauty and virtue are not dysfunctional from the point of view of reproduction. Otherwise they would have all died out. Big deal.

The advances in neuroscience have led to a new academic disease, which one might call “neuro-envy”. Old disciplines in the humanities, which relied on critical judgment and cultural immersion, can be given a scientific gloss when rebranded as “neurophilosophy”, “neuroethics”, “neuroaesthetics” and the like. I have come across “neuromusicology”, “neurotheology”, and even “neuroarthistory”, …

Brain imaging won’t help you to analyse Bach’s Art of Fugue or to interpret King Lear any more than it will unravel the concept of legal responsibility or deliver a proof of Goldbach’s conjecture; it won’t help you to understand the concept of God or to evaluate the proofs for His existence, nor will it show you why justice is a virtue and cowardice a vice…

Scruton – More than meets the MRI (5 July 2009)

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One thought on “neurononsense and neurotheology (Scruton)

  1. kizzuck says:

    Hmmm interesting! I like the exploration from an experiential POV! Please check out this posting on the god helmet and the phenomena of mystical experience.

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