Thursday, May 15, 2008

The brain, the Buddha, and the ever-baffling David Brooks

It is hard to describe the true awfulness of David Brooks's current column in The New York Times, other than to say that it fleetingly inspired the wish that I had never learned to read. For all the problems that might have brought with it, I would at least have been spared his tortured logic, torrential non sequiturs and curious talent for combining smugness with ignorance.

It's unclear what Brooks is trying to achieve in 'The Neural Buddhists': he starts out by launching an attack on the 'militant materialism' of some 'self-confident researchers' in the natural sciences and then ends his essay by stating that he's not taking sides but merely trying to anticipate where 'the debate is headed'. In between, he doesn't actually say very much that makes sense.

Brooks kicks off his anti-materialist meanderings with references to a...novelist. I admit that I never read the Tom Wolfe essay he cites, 'Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died'. (I enjoyed The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test...reading it, I mean...but haven't read anything else.)

I still haven't given it sustained attention; however, even a quick glance through it has lowered my expectations almost exponentially. Wolfe, you see, is fond of depicting scientists' views as comparable to religious dogma. Certain notions, he claims, are 'devoutly believed' by neuroscientists. Of E. O. Wilson, (or, as he dubs him, 'the new Darwin') he quips: 'no one ever believed more religiously in Darwin I than he does.'

I am not fond of such arguments.

It goes downhill from there, as Wolfe mixes real science with pseudoscience and can't even seem to keep his sciences straight. (Although he correctly notes that E.O. Wilson is a zoologist, he then identifies him as a key figure in neuroscience, and then--later--points out again that he is not a neuroscientist, as if this were some kind of revelation of a sinister scientific fraud.)

And when I see the glib association of the term 'evolutionary psychology' with the phrases 'genetic determinism' and 'hardwired to be polygamous' then I switch off pretty much immediately, as it is then apparent that the person who floats these accusations hasn't actually read much (if any) evolutionary psychology.

He even cites renowned nut-bag Michael Behe as a serious scientific critic.

Although I'm not impressed with Wolfe's knowledge about science, at least he sometimes has a way with words. The same cannot be said of Brooks's clunky prose, but that's not something I want to go into now.

No. What bothers me is that Brooks has apparently no idea what he's talking about and nonetheless gets to flaunt his ignorance in the pages of one of the world's most prestigious newspapers. (He's not the only problem on that score, obviously: why anyone wants to know what Maureen Dowd thinks about politics is beyond me.)

A favourite Brooks tactic seems to be assembling lists in which the first few items are halfway plausible but then--somewhere in the middle--he crosses the line into assertions of a very different character. It would appear that Brooks would like to think that the credit won through making a few comments that are not completely bonkers will carry him through to the end of the paragraph.

Consider his description of what he takes to be the materialist world-view (or, perhaps, just that of 'hard-core' materialism, which may or may not be Brooks's real target, it's hard to tell):

To these self-confident researchers, the idea that the spirit might exist apart from the body is just ridiculous. Instead, everything arises from atoms. Genes shape temperament. Brain chemicals shape behavior. Assemblies of neurons create consciousness.

So far, not so bad, actually, even if the 'arises from' doesn't quite sound so right when it comes to atoms ('is composed of' sounds better to me, but I'll leave that one to the physicists in the audience). However, what immediately follows is this:

Free will is an illusion. Human beings are “hard-wired” to do this or that. Religion is an accident.

Keep in mind, Brooks is here essentially summarising a 12-year-old essay by a novelist to describe scientific materialism.

Apart from that, all three of the last three assertions demonstrate a serious misunderstanding of materialist views that, at least as far as I can tell, are pretty mainstream.

The status and functioning of 'free will' is a vexed issue, true; however at least one fairly well-known hard-core materialist has written a whole book about its evolutionary (and very material) basis.

In any case, whatever capability we have to decide and act wilfully is going to be material in the end. (Though many people seem to have a hard time understanding this, as has been pointed out in these pages before.) This kind of free will is going to be a different one than anything based on the notion of a supernatural 'soul'--and, yes, it might be far more limited than we might hope--but to claim that materialists simply think it an 'illusion' is facile. (Of course, it is in generating clever-sounding shallowness that Brooks's true talent lies.)

Once again, the 'hard-wiring' bit is a non-starter: all serious neuroscience and evolutionary psychology is essentially interactionist, taking into account innate predispositions that can be profoundly influenced by the environment.

By stating that 'religion is an accident', Brooks hauls out that old misunderstanding that evolution is a 'random' process. Which it is not.

But he compounds the incoherence of his argument by--in the very next sentence--arguing that the 'materialist view' is that 'people perceive God’s existence because their brains have evolved to confabulate belief systems.' (Emphasis added.)

You can't have it both ways David: either something is 'accidental' or 'evolved'.

Furthermore, there is no single materialist view of the origins of religion. Indeed, much of the debate among 'materialists' about the origins of religion is to try to comprehend whether it provided some kind of evolutionary advantage (say, to groups) or whether it is essentially a side-effect of other evolutionarily shaped capabilities and predispositions (e.g., the tendency to imbue inanimate objects with agency).

But here we see the seeds of another Brooks tactic that, over the course of his essay, grows into a big ugly weed: the creation of a strange and non-existent division between 'hard-core materialists' and some putative other group that Brooks never names. (We might call their world-view 'soft-core materialism': materialism without the naughty bits, perhaps.)

In any case, although there is disagreement among scientists about the reasons for religion, what all materialists would tend to argue, David, is that many of the core claims of religion are not true. And this is a point to which we'll have to return.

Channelling Wolfe, again, Brooks says that the central 'assertion' of what he's challenging is this: 'everything is material and "the soul is dead"'.

The various scientific research that Brooks comments on, however, is not merely based on an 'assertion': an 'assertion' is a more like a statement that starts out 'god wants us to...' or ends with '...because God/Jesus/Allah/Zeus tells me so'. The notion that the universe--and all our mental activity and experiences--is fundamentally material has rather more evidence behind it than mere assertion. (See several centuries of materialist inquiry.)

I would like to think that Brooks understands this. And indeed, he then moves on in his column to cite some empirical neurological work that, he thinks, challenges 'hard-core materialism'.

Over the past several years, the momentum has shifted away from hard-core materialism. The brain seems less like a cold machine. It does not operate like a computer. Instead, meaning, belief and consciousness seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings.

[Brief note to Brooks: materialism does not require thinking people are machines, 'mysterious' is not a synonym for 'supernatural' and neurons guessed it...material. OK, back to the babbling.]

Those squishy things called emotions play a gigantic role in all forms of thinking. Love is vital to brain development.

Researchers now spend a lot of time trying to understand universal moral intuitions. Genes are not merely selfish, it appears. Instead, people seem to have deep instincts for fairness, empathy and attachment.

OK, the amount of Pure Stupid piled up here poses a serious danger of collapsing in on itself and causing injury, so be careful.

It's not that each of Brooks's statements is all wrong; however, gathered together into an argument that supposedly challenges materialism, they suggest strongly that Brooks doesn't understand the term he's critiquing or the science that he's citing.

I will pass quickly over the comment about 'selfish genes' and the fact that it reveals that Brooks hasn't actually read the book that it is not-so-subtly referring to. I have commented on this mistake before. Quite recently, in fact. (For his part, Dale has already taken a textual baseball bat to Brooks on this point. For that and for the reference to Brooks's wisdom, I am grateful.)

Let's keep this simple: if there are 'universal moral intuitions' and 'deep instincts' that are shared among all representatives of Homo sapiens (and I think there are many good reasons to think so), then this can only be the product of a common psychology that is fundamentally material.

Certainly, they are experienced and developed according to environmental circumstances (um...which are also material), social relationships and inherited accumulations of culture. But, David, your evil 'materialists' have been talking about this for decades.

Finally, Brooks wanders into some very strange territory and turns all spiritualist. This is never a good sign. Observing that 'Scientists have more respect for elevated spiritual states' (whatever the fuck that means), he points to (um, materialist) research that shows how 'transcendent experiences' can be measured.

That is true, and that research sounds very interesting.

However, see if you can make any sense of the following sentence:

The mind seems to have the ability to transcend itself and merge with a larger presence that feels more real.

Consider this carefully: does the ability of the brain to generate feelings mean--in any way--that it has the ability to 'transcend itself'? What does this mean?! And what of the 'larger presence' (nice word that, 'presence' vague, so meaningless) that 'feels more real'.

It seems quite clear what all that research points to: the powers of the imagination.

Brooks, however, seems to forget that talking about the mental states that the brain can generate does not say anything--nope, not a damned thing--about any phenomenon outside of the brain.

This would be, you would think, be easy. A no-brainer even.

But Brooks thinks that this 'new wave of research' will not comfort 'militant atheism'. (Ah, 'militant atheism'. Another lovely term. Have we heard it before? I believe we have.)


Instead it will lead to what you might call neural Buddhism.

It was at this point that my own brain nearly caused me to spit out my coffee this morning.

What does this mean? What does this mean? What, David, does this fucking mean?!

I'm at a loss, as 'the literature' that Brooks recommends people read ('if you want to get up to speed', he blithely and somewhat condescendingly says...David, some of us are already up to speed thank you and waving fondly to you from the passing lane) seems to have very little to do with 'neural Buddhism' and everything to do with the materialism that Brooks began his essay condemning.

Apparently based on these authors, he observes that 'certain beliefs will spread into the wider discussion', namely:

First, the self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships. Second, underneath the patina of different religions, people around the world have common moral intuitions.

With certain qualifications, the first point is unobjectionable (but also not incompatible with materialism). The second point also seems sensible: and, again, appears a thoroughly materialist statement.

The third point, however, is reminiscent of Brooks's comment above about transcendence:

Third, people are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love.

The first half is mostly fine (though 'sacred' is a terribly vague word): we are, obviously 'equipped' to be capable of having certain mental experiences that are emotionally power. (If we weren't, we wouldn't have them and we would not be having this discussion.)

But what does he mean when he says that these experiences lead us to 'transcend boundaries'? Which ones? How? Is he talking about connecting with a 'presence' outside the mind again? If so, what is this presence? Can he provide any proof of it?

No, outside of his own mental ouija board obviously he can't. Which leaves us in the realm of feelings, which leaves us--however flooded and drenched with love we might be--stuck in our embodied brains.

Maybe this is, you know, kind of a drag (though I'm OK with it, actually), but it seems to be reality.

And then there's this:

Fourth, God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is.
Which is all nice and inclusive and everything, but it kind of reminds me of the things I've heard stoned people say, usually at about 3 a.m. Other than that, I can only ask: if you're going to be this vague about 'God', why use that term if what you're actually talking about is the universe.

I'm baffled, moreover, about how Brooks arrived at these conclusions based on the authors he recommends.

OK, Jonathan Haidt, as I've discussed, has some questionable ideas about religion and group selection, even while he has some very interesting (and thoroughly materialistic) ones about moral psychology. (Marc Hauser--one of those on Brooks's list--has criticised Haidt for 'bad evolutionary reasoning' with regard to the former, though praises his work on the latter.) I can't imagine Brooks getting much reassurance from someone like Michael Gazzaniga, who has emphasised how much of our thought and action is automatic: the mental 'interpreter' module he posits is one that often is devoted to developing rationalisations for actions we have already taken.

Furthermore, like the others on his list, Gazzaniga and Hauser are both dyed-in-the-wool materialists when it comes to the question of where our mental processes come from. All of them, I think, would immediately note Brooks's sloppy sleight-of-hand rhetorical trick, shifting between noting feelings of transcendence and claiming some kind of factual transcendence.

Of course, those feelings of transcendence can be quite powerful.

As evidence, just look at how successfully Brooks transcends logic and sense:

In their arguments with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the faithful have been defending the existence of God. That was the easy debate. The real challenge is going to come from people who feel the existence of the sacred, but who think that particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits. It’s going to come from scientists whose beliefs overlap a bit with Buddhism.

'That was the easy debate'? Is Brooks convinced that 'the faithful' have won that debate? Easily?

Again, it is worthwhile drawing attention to a fundamentally wrong-headed tactic used here, where Brooks refers to 'people who feel the existence of the sacred'.

Feelings are one thing, and if you want to define 'sacred' as meaning something like 'the experience of awe or joy' or 'the feeling of being at one with the universe', then, yes, that is very possible and interesting and might be achieved via many routes (sex, drugs and rock'n'roll being just three of them).

But note the tricky insertion of 'existence of' in there, which makes Brooks at least sound like he's suggesting some actual connection with something outside of our skulls.

Having not defined at all the points at which he suspects science and Buddhism 'overlap', I've no idea what he's on about at this point.

But I do know that his conclusion is, by turns, both batty and bathetic:

In unexpected ways, science and mysticism are joining hands and reinforcing each other. That’s bound to lead to new movements that emphasize self-transcendence but put little stock in divine law or revelation.

Oh, man: joining hands!? Is Brooks gunning for a Templeton Foundation grant or what?

As to the 'new movements', he may be on to something. There just might be a series of movements emphasising self-transcendence (whatever that means). Maybe. Sometime in the future. Maybe they'll refer to themselves by some trendy label such as...oh,...I don't know...'New Age'. Yeah, that's a good one.

Keep your eyes open in case such a movement might arise. Sometime.

David Brooks certainly has his finger on the pulse of our times, I tell you.

Nonetheless, he seems to have overlooked the fact that a great deal of present-day religious movements do, in fact, put a great deal of stock in divine law and revelation. They might pose, I think, far more of a 'real challenge' to our world than the 'hard-core materialists' Brooks warns us about.

Perhaps I have been too harsh on Brooks. He does, as I've pointed out, say a few things that are not completely dumb. And he comes up with a few profound things at the very end of his column:

We’re in the middle of a scientific revolution. It’s going to have big cultural effects.

Oh yeah. Big effects, I tell you. Well spotted, David.

And he's certainly right about one thing:

I’m not qualified to take sides, believe me.

Truer words, better evidenced, were rarely spoken.


Phila said...

Nice work. And I admire you for being able to wade through it. My ability to read Brooks, let alone critique him, has pretty much evaporated.

This kind of free will is going to be a different one than anything based on the notion of a supernatural 'soul'--and, yes, it might be far more limited than we might hope--but to claim that materialists simply think it an 'illusion' is facile.

IMO, all this boils down to the conservative view of the Free Market (which they routinely conflate with God and yesterday's Michael Medved column). They find even the idea that one must achieve free will politically intolerable. What Brooks is objecting to, I'm guessing, is the notion that people don't necessarily make their own choices, and therefore can't be accused of deserving whatever they get.

J. Carter Wood said...

Yes, it was a tough old slog through a swamp of confused thinking indeed.

Admiration right back at you for managing to wade through Medved. Though I'll have to take your word on the contents of what he wrote.

I couldn't handle reading both of them on the same day. That would be like slogging through the above mentioned swamp but with added vicious alligators and Claymores.

And I'm just not up to that today.

I fully agree on what might be one of the underlying right-wing problems with accepting a human nature that suggests we're a lot more than Rational Self-Interested Agents.

On the other hand, it doesn't seem (at least from personal experience) that those from the liberal-left end of the spectrum are entirely comfortable with it either.

It's weird being human.

And 'weird' doesn't seem to fit too well into any party's political programme.

Pity, really.

Great to hear from you. And I like your blog very much.

Anonymous said...

Well, under your own philosophy (all your protestations to the contrary), you were as bound and determined by purely material causes to write this post as Brooks was to write his article. So how do I decide who is right? I guess I'll go with Brooks because he was read by more people, thereby having a greater material effect on the world as a whole. Also, I find your argument style interesting. Apparently italics are the bearers of incontrovertible logical force.

Gwyn said...


So how do I decide who is right? I guess I'll go with Brooks because he was read by more people, thereby having a greater material effect on the world as a whole.

Ironic that you then go on to criticise JCW's "logic" given your clunking argument ad populi...

(And look, I just quoted you in italics, but it didn't make what you said look any less stupid!)


I'd recommend checking out Steve Novella's blog entry on this as well, if you haven't already.


J. Carter Wood said...

@anonym ('anonymous' for you non-German speakers...)



1) If you're going to come here and spew nonsense, please do so under your own name or a recognisable pseudonym that leads somewhere where I can harass you in return.

If you're going to stab someone, you know, stab them in the front.

It's polite.

2) You don't seem capable of recognising my point of view, as you seem to think that it is a strictly determinist one.

I was careful to point out (as I have been on several occasions) that I don't adhere to that perspective. You seem to believe you have discerned some real argument behind my text, but, no, I assure you, my 'protestations' are not a distraction from my argument, but actually are the elements of my argument.

Please learn to recognise the difference. Indeed, please learn to understand when a point is being made at all. I have my doubts that you can. Thank you.

3) Even had I been making a materialist-determinist argument of the sort you claim (i.e., we are all driven by our biology in some way that we have absolutely no control over) this would not mean -- by any means -- that there would be no way to distinguish between arguments.

I.e., even if we're all determined by material in some robotic way (again, not an argument I'm making) then it is still possible that people have different material qualities and, therefore, that their arguments are of differing values.

This seems obvious.

Furthermore: The quantity of people who happen to hear an argument is thoroughly irrelevant to its quality.

Or do you have a different view?

Given the poor quality of your own arguments, I must say, I'm not sure where your smarmy sarcasm comes from.

4) You seem to have a problem with the idea that the universe (and our minds) are fundamentally material, i.e., based on matter.

Are you proposing an alternative? If so, what is it, and what proof do you bring to the table?

5) Italics, you may have noted in your random journey through the internet and other sources of text-based media, are a common means of noting emphasis in sentences, thereby increasing clarity.

You seem to have some strange phobia about them.

This may have to do with your sorry material circumstances.

Over which you have no control.

For which, you do have my pity.

I am also, you will note, a great fan of commas, periods, quotation marks and the odd parentheses.

But it has never occurred to me that this has anything to do with the quality of my argumentation.

You are an odd one, yes indeed.

But I wish you the best, all the same.

Phila said...

On the other hand, it doesn't seem (at least from personal experience) that those from the liberal-left end of the spectrum are entirely comfortable with it either.

No argument here.

Great to hear from you. And I like your blog very much.

Thanks! This is the first post of yours I've read, but the feeling is most definitely mutual.

Dale said...

Excellent cutting -- both of Brooks and of the anonymous commenter.

My bat swings at Brooks were clumsy; by the time I wrote on it I was carried a little downstream into the critiques I'd read of his column and I overstated what he specifically attributed to Dawkins and The God Delusion. But it goes to show, I suppose, that you just need to swing a bat at all to hit some of the larger repositories of bullshit out there. And all things considered, I was close enough for the internets.

All due apologies to anonymous for my use of italics above. Apparently it's hurtful and confusing and such.

Note I said all due apologies. And oh, there I go again with the italics.

Stay sharp!

J. Carter Wood said...


I thought I had written a comment responding to yours last night, but it seems to have disappeared....

Thanks for the link to Steve Novella. Although he's too kind about Brooks's writing in general, it's an excellent post which responds very effectively to Brooks's comments (and to other efforts to undercut an essentially materialist science with mystical woo woo).

This passage by Novella, for instance, was very good (mind the pointy italics, please, they can be painful):

"Consciousness is a dynamic real-time process that results from the interaction of various parts of the brain. Some of the localizable brain functions that are normally part of consciousness are so fundamental that we take them for granted - we have no intuitive sense that we even need them. For example, there are brain structures that create the sense that we are inside our bodies. There are others that make us feel as if we are separate from the rest of the universe. If you impair the functioning of these brain structures with drugs, or when the brain is under physiological stress, or (recently) deliberately suppressing them for laboratory research - then the result is either the sensation of floating free of the body or feeling as if you are one with the universe.

Brooks implies that these experiences are the brain “transcending” its physical self and merging with something real and mystical outside the brain. But a far more elegant and consistent interpretation of the research as that these experiences exist entirely within the brain. When a fundamental neurological component of consciousness is missing, the result is a bizarre experience with unfamiliar elements. Such experiences will seem completely real - because we only have our own brain activity as a standard for what feels real."

In short: the drugs do work.

The Wife and/or I will be in London on and off this summer, Gwyn, it would be nice to meet up. We should arrange something.

Thanks, as always, for stopping by.

Gwyn said...

Hi John,

That would be great. Let me know when you're around - it would be fun to discuss things in person.