Monday, April 27, 2009


Here's what I don't like about Matthew Alper's The "God" Part of the Brain:

1. Mr Alper has a trajectory, which he disguises in a narrative of discovery. His whole discussion of religion is framed in the question of whether there is a deity, a god-person. That's the question he seeks at the start of the book to discern, and it's the question he answers by the end, in the process doing a fair amount of steamroller-ing.

2. Mr Alper overgeneralizes. There's a lot of "no society in human history" and "this trait is inherent in all humans." To me this obvious call to people to recall exceptions weakens his argument.

In short, it's making his discussion of the neurological basis of spirituality into an argument that I don't like.

On the other hand, here's what I like about the book:

1. Religious activity and spirituality fill a human need. Being our own subjects, it's easy to be blind to this, and Alper is relentless in zeroing in on particular activities and habits that are common enough to suggest a human predisposition.

2. The book begins as a personal narrative of a search through most of the major formal fields of knowledge, and I enjoyed the way these field are shown to fit together.

3. No only does what we call "religion" in English fill a specific set of human needs, it makes a lot of sense to me that these particualar predispositions have a historic basis in how homo sapiens and our ancestors operate. I don't agree with all of Alper's specific speculations, but I like the general question, "Why do human animals need this? What advantage does this give us?"

To me, this way of approaching spirit, of acknowledging that our experience of spirit has a functionality, feels like the beginning of a bridge between "religion is a bunch of superstitious bunkum" and "science is trying to take away that which is most precious to me." Both of which feel like crippled half-truths. The bridge isn't built, but this to me feels like a good, solid foundation to begin working on it.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

David Brooks is on to something

The current op-ed column by David Brooks, "The End of Philosophy," makes interesting reading. I'm in the middle of reading The God Part of the Brain, and I find a circling-around-something going on in wider public discourse, a way to find spiritual experience neither pooh-pooh-able "mere superstition" nor an anthropomorphized center of the universe. I find seeing these threads working towards something loosely like a cloth kind of exciting.

And I know I'm way behind the times in following this. Forgive me.