Saturday, March 14, 2009

My Neurons Saw Jesus on a Grilled Cheese Sandwich

I’m leafing through the current issue of Time while in the doctor’s office, and stumble upon an article on “Faith & Healing: A Forum.” It seems to be a moderated panel of three people discussing faith, science, and health. The “moderator” is often ridiculous. To one panelist: “(Y)ou are careful not to talk about humans as being hardwired for religion, because hardwiring implies a hardwirer, and science hasn't yet established that.” First, when humans are described as being hardwired, it generally refers to the fact that the brain consists of electrochemical neural circuits, and thus, talking about people being hardwired in no way implies a hardwirer. And second…Yet? Science hasn’t established a hardwirer “yet”? Science hasn’t established that the moon is made of green cheese, either. Not yet, at least. Anyway, one panelist, Richard Sloan, addresses “the seductive allure of neuroscience explanations,” which I just blogged on. He does it quite well, so I thought I’d mention it here.
TIME: (C)an't the tools of science (brain scans and the like) be used to teach us about the subjective experience of religion? Sloan: Let me ask you a different question. Would it be meaningful if we did a brain scan of someone before and after eating cheese? I don't understand the value of developing beautiful images, very appealing, aesthetic images of brain scans and people engaged in various religious experiences. I don't see the value any more than imaging people while eating cheese. TIME: We explore what the brain looks like in depressed people, in people struggling with memory issues ... Sloan: But why? To understand how the brain works so we can develop interventions to treat depression and to treat memory loss. And that's absolutely appropriate. Are there interventions that will come from [imaging religious experiences]? (…) (T)here's a seductive appeal about neuroscience explanations, that there must be something significant here because you can see it in the brain scan. We're infatuated with neuroscience because of the very beautiful images that we can see, but the real question is, What do those images tell us that's of any value, whether it's basic science or applied?
On an unrelated note, the magazine issue also has an article on one of my favorite authors, Donald Barthelme. Read my favorite story of his - “The School” - here. Buy an essay on the story because you’re too lazy to write 843 words (and hope your instructors are really stupid) here.

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