Wednesday, March 04, 2009


Comment on “Born believers: How your brain creates God” by Michael Brooks, New Scientist, 04 February 2009.

I will indulge my inveterate habit of reacting to what I sense (rightly or wrongly) to be assumptions underlying the title of a piece of writing and then proceed to comment on the argument of the writer as I read on.

Mr Michael Brooks heads his article with the title “Born believers: How your brain creates God”. My first reaction is to ask: Is it our brain or our mind that creates God? Perhaps Mr Brooks sees no difference between the alternatives or possibly he may find the mind version of the question meaningless. But I contend that there is all the difference between a brain-created God and a mind-created God. I maintain that a brain, as brain, bereft of all mind-created ideas, may at best produce a sensation, a feeling, a vague urge, but not any thought. I restrain myself from peregrinating further: I have not yet read a word of what Mr Brooks has written beyond the title.

The first two paragraphs of the article confirm my suspicion that Mr Brooks fails to distinguish mind and brain. We are told that “human beings have a natural inclination for religious belief” and then that our brains “effortlessly conjure up an imaginary world of spirits, gods and monsters” and then again that “our minds are finely tuned to believe in gods”. So apparently ‘human beings’, ‘brains’, and ‘minds’ are for Mr Brooks interchangeable terms: I think this does not make for clear thinking.

I detect another possible confusion behind the statement, “Religious ideas are common to all cultures”. Religious sentiment is ubiquitous and ideas are commonly attached to the sentiments, but the ideas themselves are not commonly shared. The Buddha was deeply religious but he did not believe in any god or gods.

Since my position, though far-removed from being monotheist or supportive of any established religion, is directly opposed to that of Mr Brooks, let me state it bluntly. I believe it is not for science to deal with religious belief or religious ideas. When scientists speak of our “religious beliefs” being “hard-wired”, I cannot help feeling that scientists are in as deep a befuddled state of mind as the worst of theologians. Both parties juggle with empty words that they think mean something. (Just as economists were fooling themselves and fooling all of us with their mystifying jargon until their illusionary edifices crumbled in their hands.)

The mind – not the brain – poses questions; that is the nature of the mind, not the brain; and the mind produces answers, good or bad, to its questions, because that gives it satisfaction, not because it makes for survival. It is the task of the mind, in its philosophical capacity, to examine those answers, to show them to be reasonable or unreasonable, not to show experimentally that they are “hard-wired” and therefore to be rejected, which is both meaningless and inconsequent. Indeed, if it is our brains that produce belief in God, then that would be as good an argument for the claim that belief is implanted in us by God as for the assertion that it is engendered in us by evolution. It is science tampering with what is not its business that gives support to Creationists and Intelligent-Design propagandists. Only pure philosophy is competent to show what ideas are rational and what irrational. Reductionist scientists, determined to do away with the mind, leave us at the mercy of the mindless.

I will not comment on all the arguments presented and all the experiments reported in Mr Brooks’ article. All of these are open to diverse interpretations and all controversy around such questions is futile. My concern is with the fundamental approach involved. Science can tell us how a given phenomenon comes about, but it cannot speak of the meaning or the value of the phenomenon. Early in his article Mr Brooks says that religious ideas “like language and music, … seem to be part of what it is to be human.” I could say that I wholeheartedly endorse that, but I know that what I mean by these words would be very different from what I assume the words mean for Mr Brooks. What I mean is that our dreams, our myths, our fantasies, as well as our most abstract mathematical and astrophysical theoretical constructions are what constitutes our special character as human beings and are what is most worthwhile in us: and all of that is mind, and all of that is our spiritual dimension. It has no being apart from our brain but it is not our brain. Brain is for science to examine and to study; mind and the spiritual realm it encompasses is for philosophy to examine and to study, and I maintain that any mixing of these two harms both science and philosophy.

Let me assure all concerned that if “atheism will always be a hard sell” that will only be so when atheism is packaged with reductionist empiricism. Let people be assured that their inner life – the soul if I dare use the anathema word – is what is real and is what is truly worthwhile in them, and they can do without a transcendent God. God as pure idea, the God within them, will be enough for them. That is what I meant when I said at the beginning that a mind-created God is a very different thing from a brain-created God.

D. R. Khashaba
Cairo, Egypt, 04 March 2009.


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