Neuroscience is the scientific study of the nervous system. This process advanced during the last part of the 20th Century, due to revolutions in molecular biology, electrophysiology, and computational neuroscience. We now understand the processes of a single neuron but not how networks of neurons produce complex cognitions and behaviors.
It is important to keep in mind that the split of psychiatry and neurology came about in the early 20th Century. Psychiatry studied subjective experience and the mind, while neurology focused on the physical brain. Then came the explosion of technology that allowed us to visualize the brain. Functional MRI and position-emission tomography (PET) scans permitted us, for the first time, to see how the brain worked, and where it was active or inactive as it performed such tasks as speech, memory, complex thinking, body movement, sex and dreaming.
Scientists get closer to seeing how the brain works in near death, out of the body, and other “mystical” experiences that people report. These episodes are real to those who have experienced them, and many researchers have concluded that it is simply not scientific to dismiss them all as dreaming or fabrications. It is necessary to examine what is appearing in the brain during these moments of extreme experience. Neuroscience may be able to provide naturalized explanations of religious belief and religious experience.
Four books have been chosen for the Book List, as well as Sam Harris’ two experiments concerning belief and unbelief. The texts are all contributions to our understanding of the mind and brain working in tandem and not as separate entities. Neuroscience is helping in the advance of understanding our brains and our experience. Colin McGinn, an atheist philosopher, delivers a caution, however. He maintains that we may never know the nature of consciousness, free will or other questions. He believes that we are confusing cognitive questions with conceptual ones.
List of books chosen for their merit by critics and readers
Churchland, Patricia S. Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2011.
Churchland is a neuroscientist and a MacArthur Award winner. Braintrust is a lucid discussion of the effect of oxytocin’s stress reducing effect on the human hormonal makeup. Oxytocin is an ancient body/ brain molecule that allows us to develop trust. Churchland believes morality originated in our brains and presents a salient argument for her theory. She discusses “the neurobiological platform of bonding” in combination with evolutionary cultural values that have led to human morality.
Our brain has evolved not only to care for our own self-preservation, but for the well-being of an ever-enlarging circle of people, children, mates, kin and so on. Pain is felt when we are excluded and pleasure when surrounded by loving friends and as a result, our brains adjust their circuitry in conformance with local customs. Braintrust causes the reader to revaluate the priority given to religion, absolute rules and reason as bases for morality.
Churchland is a proponent of many evolutionary psychology tenets. Since some of these concepts are in dispute, readers who are skeptical concerning EP’s scientific basis may not be interested in “Braintrust.” Churchland has a chatty, unadorned style. Her volume is one more addition to the naturalist literature of the brain’s biology and the formation of human culture.
Damasio, Antonio. Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain. New York: Harcourt, 2003.
Damasio is one of a group of neuroscientists studying consciousness who became engaged with emotion. He is chief neurologist at the University of Iowa Medical Center. According to Colin McGinn, an outspoken atheist philosopher, Damasio promotes three theories in Spinoza. (McGinn discusses Damasio’s voume in the New York Times Book Review, Feb. 23, 2003.) The first of these theories is that we do not cause bodily symptoms by our emotions, but first we cry and then are sad. “Feelings,” Damasio states, “are shadows of the external manner of emotions.” His second idea is that a feeling is (identical to) an idea. If you are afraid of a bear, what you are really aware of is the symptoms of fear-racing heart, sweaty palms, and so on. Third, all mental states consist of varying types of bodily awareness. Damasio states: “The mind is built from ideas that are in one way or another, brain representations of the body. He quotes Spinoza: ‘The object of the idea constituting the human mind is the body.”
McGinn maintains that Damasio’s idea is unoriginal and false. He states that William James and Lange both thought of the concept in the 1880’s, and that the idea is the stuff of old-style behavioral psychology. McGinn believes that there is an “interplay between feelings and bodily expressions, rather than a one-way dependence.”
Most reviewers are not as negative as McGinn. However, critics agree that Damasio is at his best when discussing MRI and the brain, and when writing on the effects of certain brain states, such as behaviors associated with damaged brains. Damasio is a brilliant thinker, and his book is an absorbing experience. It has been noted by some that he does not provide enough proof for some of his theories. In any case, this book and Damasio’s other volumes are a welcome addition to the literature concerning the brain. His theories merit consideration from atheist readers.
Another book of Damasio’s, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain (2010,) has been critically reviewed by John Searle in the New York Review of Books. Searle discusses the question that he considers “the most important question in the biological sciences today.” His article contains a footnote with references to books on consciousness by important thinkers in the field since around 1992 to the present. He has reviewed books by such writers as Roger Penrose, Daniel C. Dennett, and Christof Koch. Here is the reference to the article, a very important one:
Searle, John. “The Mystery of Consciousness Continues.” Rev.of Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. By Antonio Damasio.The New York Review of Books. 9 June, 2011. 50-54.
Gazzaniga, Michael S. The Ethical Brain: The Science of our Moral Dilemmas. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005.
Michael Gazzaniga’s book has been referred to in Applied Ethics: Stem Cell Research and in Determinism and Free Will in the Atheist Scholar. He served on the President’s Council on Bioethics and is a preeminent neuroscientist. Gazzaniga writes in a plain spoken and non-condescending style on an array of important contemporary issues, such as stem cell research, abortion, mind enhancement through drugs, ageing brains and more. His logical and controversial opinions are thought provoking even when the reader may be prompted to disagree.
Gazzaniga’s short discussion of religion in Ethical Brain will be of interest to many atheists. The statistics he cites concerning religion in the world are troubling. There are still 2 to 3 religions being founded every day, with a total of 10,000 religions in 2005. Since 1993, the depiction of religious symbols and spirituality on television has risen by 400%.
Gazzaniga has some provocative things to report concerning Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, which affects about a million Americans and is undiagnosed in possibly another million. These patients frequently appear fairly normal and their symptoms are mild. They do not pass out or have spastic muscle reactions during epileptic seizures but they may not be able to speak for a second or seem somewhat dazed. One of the five traits of the Geschwind Syndrome, as it is called, is a prevalence of reported religious experience during seizures and a fairly intense religiosity between episodes. The brain’s temporal lobe is also activated when people not suffering from epilepsy undergo religious experiences or during auditory hallucinations, so the connection between temporal lobe stimulation and “religious experience” is tantalizing. The entire chapter of “The Believing Brain” is worth reading, as Gazzaniga discusses out of the body experiences, how researchers stimulate parts of the brain to create religious experiences, and the brain’s workings when creating a sense of self.
Gazzaniga hopes that someday people can come to a consensus on a universal moral system by basing what we know about the brain now and what we will learn in the future. He would like to combine that scientific knowledge with an understanding of how we humans depend on biased tales from the past. At the same time, he believes our thinking about ethical concerns should be refreshed. Gazzaniga maintains that our species wants to believe in something, a natural order, and that there is no other path than for science to provide ideas for how “that order should be characterized.”
Nelson, Kevin. The God Impulse: Is Religion Hardwired into the Brain? Great Britain: Simon & Schuster UK Lit, 2011.
Dr. Kevin Nelson has been receiving a reputation for belief in mystical experiences and for predictions of a new direction for spirituality in the future. However, this particular volume, The God Impulse, is an excellent review of many facts that neuroscientists have learned concerning the material processes the brain undergoes during “mystical occurrences” and how parts of the brain can be stimulated to achieve those occurrences. The atheist reader is advised to read the book for its naturalistic approach to near death, out of the body, spirit twins, and so on. Nelson has been a neuroscientist for over 30 years and his explanation for mysterious episodes concerns what takes place inside the physical brain. There is not a hint of any transcendent force or spirit causing the reported episodes in The God Impulse. In fact, to Dr. Nelson’s credit, despite any beliefs he may sustain, he maintains that statements from religious or other concerned parties about mystical experiences proving that there is a god are deplorable.
Nelson’s ability to communicate to people with little or no background in science is helpful and many readers will close this book with a greater understanding of the natural functions of the brain under pressure or deficiency of different types (such as oxygen deficiency) that give rise to unusually concentrated reactions.
Nelson explains that near death experience is “reliably” caused by stimulating the brain in the temporoparietal region. (141) The tunnel and light reported by many near death patients is a natural phenomenon, according to Nelson. The visual brain is stimulated in near death and the severely low blood pressure causes the eye’s retina to lose peripheral vision, creating a tunnel. Ambient light comes through our eyelids, and strikes the retina, and then the light is conveyed to the brain which is on the edge of consciousness. By this time smudges of light at the end of the tunnel are perhaps all the brain can see. (212-213)
The orbital prefrontal lobe is the region that responds to so-called “reward,” such as food, flavor, texture, temperature and so on. It is a motivator, but can be a negative factor, causing some of us to crave heroin and cocaine. Dr. Nelson theorizes that it is this area of the brain that may be responsible for the brain’s belief that it will have a reward as it is near death or trying to reach enlightenment. (180)
Nelson explains the distorted sense of self, “oneness with the universe,” REM states, out of the body experiences, life after death states and much more with scientific precision and a plain-spoken, easy to understand style. The text presents empirically tested, peer reviewed examinations of our mind/body experiences, which are all based on physical, even primal brain/body functions, according to Nelson. The God Impulse’s text is accompanied by graphs, charts, and pictures which add to the reader’s understanding of the scientific explanations. There is an excellent and thorough section on references and sources which leads readers interested in pursuing books and/or experiments to the original sources.
Is Nelson using spiritual for lack of a better word? Or does he have a spiritual agenda that he sugarcoats in this book? One need not agree with him but read him for his well communicated and naturalistic theories. Such an eminent neuroscientist as V.S. Ramachandran calls God Impulse “a bold, provocative and highly readable account.” Atheists will come away with evidence, explanation and conviction concerning the natural, non-spiritual sources of “mystical experience.” This volume is recommended, with caution.
The end of this Preface’s Book List is an excellent place to stop and remind ourselves of Colin McGinn’s caveat that we are only at the beginning of understanding the mind/body connection. Despite promising experiments, many of our theories about the brain and mind are still speculative. Hopes that science may clarify and construct a universal morality may be overly optimistic. Still, as David Wulff states in his volume, Psychology of Religion: Classical and Contemporary, (1997) there is no other approach in the psychology of religion that promises as revolutionary a future as the biological one. (112)
Sam Harris, the renowned atheist author and neuroscientist, has performed two experiments concerning truth statements, false statements and undecidable statements. They are labeled, respectively, belief, unbelief and uncertainty in the first experiment, which covered a wide category range of statements- ethical, semantic, factual, mathematical and so on. 44 adults judged written statements in these categories and using MRI, their brain sections were activated at differentially distinct regions in the prefrontal and parietal cortices, as well as the basal ganglia. Unbelief and belief activated relatively primal regions of the brain.*
In the second experiment, 15 committed Christians and 15 committed atheists assessed the truth or falsity of religious and non-religious propositions while being assessed by MRI. For both, statements of belief, sentences judged as either true or false, were associated with increased activation of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a region associated with emotional judgment, processing uncertainty, assessing rewards, thinking about oneself and so on. Harris and his fellow researchers state that the difference between belief and disbelief was the same, regardless of what was being thought about.** Another interesting finding of the experiments was that true statements were judged as believable faster than those judged unbelievable or undecidable. Disbelief appears to require a subsequent process of rejection. Michael Shermer reports that Harris and his colleagues believe that these results support the conjecture of the 17th Century philosopher, Spinoza, who thought that mere comprehension of a statement entails the tacit acceptance of its being true. He thought that belief comes naturally and easily to people, and skepticism arrives slowly and feels unnatural. ( Shermer. “Adam’s Maxim and Spinoza’s conjecture.” Web. Sam Harris Blog The references to the papers on the experiments are listed below and make interesting reading.)
*Harris, S., et al. “Functional neuroimaging of belief, disbelief and uncertainty.” Ann Neurol. 63 (2): 141-147.
** Harris, S., et al.”The Neural Correlates of religious and nonreligious beliefs.” PLOS One 2009. http:// plosone.org
Antonio Damasio. Descartes’ Error (2005); Self Comes to Mind (2004); V.S. Ramachandran. The Tell-Tale Brain. (2011); Oliver Sacks. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. (1998); The Mind’s Eye (2010); Joseph Ledoux. The Emotional Brain. (1998); Synaptic Self (2003); Paul L. Nunez. Brain, Mind and the Structure of Reality. (2010).McGinn, Colin. The Problem of Consciousness. (1991.) Daniel Dennett. The Intentional Stance. (1987); Consciousness Explained. (1991)Gopnik, Adam. Mindless: The New Neyro-Skeptics.
September 9, 2013. New Yorker, pages 86-88.
Adam Gopnik reviews some of the newest and best volumes on the much-debated topic-“…that brain science promises much and delivers little.” It is an excellent, lucidly written review that airs some of the most interesting writers in the field.
For atheist readers who are interested in a beginning background in the field of neuropsychology, one of the best textbooks on the market is Bryan Kolb and Ian Q. Whishaw. Fundamentals of Human Neuropsychology. 6th Ed. New York: Worth Publishers, 2008. This book is considered one of the best, if not the best, texts in the field. It has a readable and student friendly text, pictures and graphs, and a website that functions as a study aid. Recommended.
The Great Courses offers excellent courses on the science of the mind, brain and emotions. The courses consist of 12 or 24 classes, of about a half hour each. Some of the offerings are: Philosophy of the Mind: Brains, Consciousness and Thinking Machines; Understanding the Brain; Origins of the Human Mind; Neuroscience of Everyday Life; Passions: Philosophy and the Intelligence of Emotions; Understanding the Human Factor: Life and Its Impact. https://www.thegreatcourses.com/
1 “Neuroscience” in Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuroscience
2 Nelson, Kevin. The God Impulse: Is Religion Hardwired Into the Brain? Great Britain: Simon &Schuster, UK Ltd., 2001. 5.
3 Noelle, David C. “Cognitive Science and Unbelief.” In Tom Flynn (ed.) The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. 202.
4 McGinn, Colin. “Can the Brain Explain Your Mind?” Rev. of The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human. By V.S. Ramachandran. The New York Review of Books. 24 March, 2011. 32-25.
Churchland, Patricia. Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2011.
Damasio, Antonio. Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain. New York: Harcourt, 2003.
Gazzaniga, Michael S. The Ethical Brain: The Science of Our Moral Dilemmas. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005.
Noelle,David C. “Cognitive Science and Unbelief.” In Tom Flynn, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007.
McGinn, Colin. The Problem of Consciousness. Oxford, U.K.; Cambridge, Mass.: B. Blackwell, 1991.
McGinn, C.”Can the Brain Explain Your Mind?” Rev. of The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human. by V.S.Ramachandran. The New York Review of Books. 24 March 2011.
Nelson, Kevin. The God Impulse: Is Religion Hardwired Into the Brain? Great Britain: Simon & Schuster, UK Ltd. 2001.
Searle, John. “The Mystery of Consciousness Continues.” Rev.of Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. By Antonio Damasio.The New York Review of Books. 9 June, 2011. 50-54. This is a very important article, with references to important thinkers’ books on the problem of consciousness. Searle has been reviewing important books on the topic since about 1992.