Tuesday, 24 January 2012

from The Catholic Herald, January 20, 2012

God, the brain and the myth of 'rude atheism'

'War of the Worldviews', by Deepak Chopra & Leonard Mlodinow

In the 21st century’s “war” between religion and the New Atheists, both sides often like to protest that they are the underdog. The former point to aggressive secularism in the workplace and public sphere, while the latter lament the persistence of Christian Creationism, especially in the United States, and the appeal of violent Islamism. In a society that places a premium on victimhood this is not surprising, but is it true? And as they say, can the two sides ever be reconciled?
This series of dialogues between Deepak Chopra, “a world-renowned authority in the field of mind-body medicine”, and the theoretical physicist Professor Leonard Mlodinow, mercifully avoids repeating the cliche that “science explains the how and religion explains the why”. Instead, it is a measured exchange that seeks to address pithily all the big questions: how did the universe begin? Why is there something rather than nothing? Can there be a mind without a brain? And is God an illusion?
The authors’ central point of contention is the mind-body division, and if there really is one. This, it transpires, is the key to determining the meaning (or lack of it) of existence. If there is no “mind”, only brain activity, there is no soul, and therefore no God (as we know Him). Mlodinow, a materialist, doesn’t believe that there is a “ghost in the machine”, elaborating that neuroscientific experiments demonstrate that thoughts, feelings and sensations in subjects’ minds can all be traced to specific areas and activities in the brain. “Every day more evidence emerges to support the idea that mental experiences like beauty, love, hope, and pain are produced by the physical brain,” he writes.
This is most commonly seen in people who suffer damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, with a consequent loss of empathy and reduced revulsion to hurting others. Strokes also can alter personalities. Last November it was reported that after suffering a stroke while playing rugby, a 19-year-old man from South Wales recovered to find he had become gay. Other stroke victims have woken up with hitherto unknown artistic skills or speaking in a foreign accent, which adds weight to the argument that who you are is what you are made of: literally.
Mlodinow’s counterpart remains unconvinced, regarding the mind and brain as working in symbiosis. “Human consciousness created science, which ironically is now moving to exclude consciousness, its very creator!” he says. And he is even less keen on atheists than he is on scientists. “We live in a time of rude atheism,” writes Chopra, repeating a now familiar cry, that at the mere mention of God, your average atheist will become enraged, start shouting and throw furniture around the room. If you read the journalism of the late Christopher Hitchens or listen to Richard Dawkins on the radio, you could be forgiven for thinking this. But most atheists are not so intolerant (and thus not so vocal), and Dawkins the author of science books is far more measured than Dawkins the crabby media personality.
Dawkins has argued that the straw man of the “militant atheist” is the creation of those who believe it taboo to have their belief system questioned. And some people do not like having their feelings hurt. Rather than seeking to refute the argument that those who experience visions or mystical experiences may be suffering from brain lesions or epilepsy, Chopra decries such judgments as “foolish” and “insulting”. This is not a rational retort, but it is befitting of our culture in which being “offensive” has become a secular sin (witness the disproportionate opprobrium recently heaped upon footballers who’ve said stupid things), and being a “victim” bequeaths one secular sainthood. Chopra may bemoan the hegemony of science (“Now we are paying the price... Homo sapiens is in danger of extinction”), but Mlodinow replies similarly by complaining about how many Americans don’t believe in evolution, and that America would never elect an atheist president. “Science is not the lord of modern life Deepak imagines, but its under-appreciated servant”.
In an age of being inoffensive, Chopra’s perspective is appropriately “spiritual” and “non-dogmatic”. His response to dealing with life’s big questions is therapeutic: “I believe every home should have a nook devoted to divinity – a shrine or roses, or an altar of scented lavender. A shard of crystal would do, or a small bronze Buddha placed where the sun can warm it.” Ultimately, in a logical dead end, he announces: “Belief becomes knowledge that can be trusted.”
Urging us to be “open-minded”, not “empty-minded”, Mlodinow is more circumspect, asking what, if there is a designer, explains wisdom teeth and the appendix. There needn’t be Intelligent Design either, he says: beauty can emerge from randomness, in the form of rainbows and snowflakes. “Whereas Deepak and I both would like to see a better world, one in which people have transcended their worst impulses, as a scientist I cannot let the way I want the world to be drive my apprehension of the way the world is,” he writes.
This strikes me as a more honest appraisal of your average atheist, who is sceptical rather than cynical, a slightly gloomy borderline agnostic, and more likely to be a secularist than a dogmatist.
Despite the inconclusive nature of War of The Worldviews, the sober dialogue is refreshing, and far removed from the shrill certitudes held and insults often exchanged on this matter.

Patrick West is a music columnist for Spiked-online.com