In a recent issue of the New York Times, respected columnist David Brooks described how what he calls a “revolution in neuroscience” is shaping “how people see the world.” I agree with him—up to a point.
What Brooks calls the “revolution in neuroscience” is the rapidly growing body of research into phenomena such as religious experience and shared moral intuitions.
In one such experiment, volunteers are asked to imagine the following scenario: A village is under attack, and its residents are in hiding. Suddenly, a baby begins to cry. Its crying threatens to reveal their location.
Volunteers are asked whether killing the child to save the others is justified. Not only does the vast majority say “no”—thankfully—but CAT scans and EEGs reveal that the same part of their brains is active when they react to the question.
This and similar studies have, as Brooks put it, “shifted away the momentum” from seeing our minds in purely materialistic terms. Our brains are not “cold machines.” Rather, “meaning, belief and consciousness seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings.”
And Brooks is right when he says that research like this will turn the recent debates over atheism into a “sideshow.” There is simply no way to sustain a “hard-core” materialistic understanding of human consciousness and morality in light of the new research. Where does the consciousness and moral decision-making come from?
However, I disagree with him when he writes that this research will pose a challenge to “faith in the Bible” and, instead, lead to what he calls “neural Buddhism.”
If anything, the opposite is true. This rebuttal of modern materialistic reductionism is a confirmation of what the Scriptures teach us about being created in the image of God.
It corroborates the biblical idea that we are, to use a modern phrase, “hard-wired” for spirituality and God. It suggests that we are irresistibly religious, as philosophers have always argued.
Now, Brooks goes on to say that this will lead to a form of vague spiritual mysticism. This will happen, he says, because Orthodox believers will have trouble defending “particular doctrines and particular biblical teachings.”
Well, Brooks is wrong. The evidence from neuroscience is only part of the picture. While the mystical religious experiences and moral intuitions he writes about are shared by many religious traditions, there is no comparable evidence for Buddhism’s other claims: Its tenets about reincarnation and the illusory nature of physical existence cannot be substantiated.