Summer Reading

Although not your standard escapist novels, these two books are definitely beach worthy. The first is The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris. The second is The Ethical Brain by Michael Gazzaniga. Harris has a degree in Philosophy and is now completing a doctorate in neurosciece. Gazzaniga is a prominent neuroscientist and a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics.

The End of Faith evolved from a long essay, written after 9/11, on the need to set aside belief that is unsupported by evidence. Along the way, Harris covers a lot of history, some neuroscience and a bit of philosophy (duality). Much of his commentary on religion will be very familiar to the regulars. His basic argument, though, is that we are wired to believe (what we see), beliefs influence our emotional state and very much influence the actions that we take. However, acting on beliefs that have not been verified by fact(s) can lead to disastrous results. For a recent example, consider the tragedy described in Mayo’s post here.

Harris takes no prisoners. On Islam and the Koran he comes down right next to Pat Robertson, his description of the Bible as codified barbarity is akin to Tom Paine’s but without the Deism, and on religious moderates I will let him speak for himself.

One of the central themes of this book, however, is that religeous moderates are themselves the bearers of of a terrible dogma: they imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of others. I hope to show that very ideal of religeous tolerance—born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God—is one of the principle forces driving us to the abyss.

Another of his themes is that there is some sort of spiritual need in our psyche that will not be fulfilled by a “mere understanding of our world, scientific or otherwise.”

There is clearly a sacred dimension to our existence, and coming to terms with it could well be the highest purpose of human life. But we will find that it requires no faith in untestable propositions.

He is not talking new wave. At the end of the book he discusses the hard question of neuroscience—consciousness. And, suddenly, after a lot of hard core materialism (mind is matter), he is into the wisdom the east.

Gazzaniga is a kinder, gentler author who discusses a number of current moral or ethical issues in light of what he knows about neuroscience. These include: conferring moral status on an embryo, aging, brain enhancement (through genetic engineering, or training or drugs), and a section titled Free Will, Personal Responsibility and the law. The chapters are reasonably short and each concludes with a section in which he gives his take on the issue just discussed.

A digression on free will. Neuroscience shows that our brains actually make decisions shortly before we become conscious that we have done so. This clearly has to be an evolved survival skill. Here Gazzaniga uses the phrase “free won’t.” Mental impairment aside, we have the ability to veto our unconsciously-generated decisions to act; and are, therefore, accountable for our actions.

I found the closing chapters of the book to be the most interesting. Is there a genetic basis for religiosity? Gazzaniga gets at my God-gene question in a couple of ways. The first is through what he calls the left-hemisphere interpreter. This is a construct that derives from his work with split brain patients. The left brain quite literally makes up stories to explain events. (Question to self. Is it more than coincidence that the major speech processing centers are also located in the left hemisphere?). Here is an abbreviated quote.

Any time our left brain is confronted with information that does not jibe with our self image, knowledge or conceptual framework, our left-hemisphere interpreter creates a belief to enable all incoming information to make sense and mesh with our ongoing idea of ourself. Nowhere does this operate more than on the cultural phenomen of religeous belief.

[Omitted material contrasts religions that originated in Egypt and Messopotamia]

One has to think, it seems to me, that religions, while originating from a common moral core we all possess, are interpretations built on surrounding cultural realities.

Hugely fascinating. In some sense, then, there is a genetic basis for religiosity. The evolved brain provides a fertile bed for religious thought. (That was my aha moment not Gazzaniga’s. That said, his chapter on how the interpreter operates to resolve moral dilemmas was worth the price of both books.)

Gazaniga’s other take on religion is what Toby Lester of the Atalantic Monthly calls “supernatural selection.” In addition to providing a place of worship, churches that survive also provide social services that their members find useful: promotion of health, mate selection, and security. As examples he cites the growth of the Mormon Church and the differential success of new starts in Africa. He also speculates about the success of religious concepts that mesh with our sense of self (spirit = person). Here he is describing God-memes rather than God-genes. I have to believe that the two interact powerfully.

After a chapter on temporal lobe epilepsy and religious belief, he closes with a discussion of scientific evidence that might support a universal inate moral sense.

Both authors champion reason in their own way. Harris offers a terse prescription for the problem that he outlined. That being to answer our children’s questions truthfully. Gazzinaga’s insights show just how improbable it is that we will ever do so.

2 thoughts on “Summer Reading

  1. Great books to add to my summer reading list. Even though events in recent years have triggered so much debate about ethics, belief and the state of world now and in the coming years. No doubt most readers here have heard cries from both sides of the spectrum that either that God no longer plays a factor in our daily lives (and never actually did) or that the whole world has been rigged so that good will once and for all defeat evil.

    I believe, that we are no where close to either polar. We are somewhere stuck in the middle with no definite answers, neither from science nor religion. We will also continue to be stuck in this gray area for a long period of time. Our world and our sense and intellect have become tired and the diverging extremes have produced a divide that is too wide to comprehend anymore.

    A long time ago I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and I remember in one of the passages something to the effect that if we travel beyond the Mythos we constructed so long ago (whether we constructed them because of our genes or social needs) we will not find anything but madness. Not an exact quote nor a paraphrase, but something close to the meaning as I understood it and this is where we are at this point of our existence, INMHO.

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