Op-Ed: The neurology of faith: brain scans for beliefs

Posted Dec 18, 2007 by Paul Wallis
Sam Harris is no great fan of religion. He wrote a book called The End of Faith, a best seller. He’s now become a little more technical, and maybe a bit more upmarket, and come up with "Functional Neuroimaging of Belief, Disbelief and Uncertainty."
Time Magazine, for reasons which I’m sure are plausible, have put this article in the Health section:
The current paper recovers Harris's identity as a doctoral candidate in neurology at UCLA, his occupation before he commenced what he calls his "extramural affair jumping into trenches in the culture wars." It is an addition to the growing field of brain scan trials, and Harris thinks it may be the first to detail how the brain processes belief. At first read, it seems less dangerous to Christianity than to another cherished pillar of Western thought — that "objective" beliefs like "2 + 2 = 4" and "subjective" beliefs like "torture is bad" belong to entirely separate categories of thought.”
Matter of fact it’s not the first physiological study of spiritual/moral issues. There's even been genetic testing. But it’s a truly interesting idea. Harris really went to work on his subject, and the tests produced a remarkable result that while the higher brain does a lot, the “primitive” part, like taste has a role in decisions. Literally, something might “smell bad”, as the article says.
Interestingly, that fits to some extent with the genetic findings.
I don’t know a lot about Harris. I find fanatics on both sides of the religious debate equally offensive and ignorant, usually regarding their own arguments as much as their opponents'. I also find that most of them are playing to audiences.
He’s hit a good question, though.
Religion, and religious ritual, is conscious. There does have to be some participation in the physical practice. The brain is involved. Given his results, the question is how the brain processes faith as both a higher and lower brain function.
Harris has his own view:
"People who feel that religious faith is a singular operation of the brain — if they admit that it's an operation of the brain at all — would object to what I'm doing, since it may show that faith is essentially the same as other kinds of knowing or thinking. The whole thing will seem fishy to anyone who thinks we have immaterial souls running around in our bodies."
OK, so maybe he doesn’t know that even the idea of a soul isn’t a particularly religious concept. It was originally a philosophical/metaphysical concept, which appears all over the world. You find either it or things like it in Hinduism, Buddhism, all predating Judeo-Christianity by a long way. Spirit is another immaterial form, occurring in animism, and many so called pagan religions.
Nor does he seem to have bothered to consider that something immaterial is rather unlikely to show up on an MRI scan.
Or that he’s come up with an opposing argument on what seems like a justification of his position, rather than a representation of any actual opposition to his work. He's had a lot of flak for his previous work, so perhaps this is what he thinks they think.
It's as good a basis for argument as any, using an immaterial, currently non-existent, opponent.
Harris has had a good idea despite himself, as far as I can see.
One of the positive roles of religion is that it does provide some relief to people. Some of the poorest people on Earth have almost nothing else. It’s the one thing that provides them with some… stability’s not the word… peace, I’d say, would be closer.
If it’s possible to find out how to put some peace into human minds, and find out what the machinery is that does it, it can’t be all bad.
I just wish he’d pay a bit more attention to what he’s talking about. Should read some history, too. Religion, notably Islam and early Christianity, did do a lot in the formative years of modern civilization.
It was far too easy to pick that series of positions apart.
He does have a website, and appears to be expanding his role to Islamic issues. It’s worth a look, but there’s nothing in his Response to Controversy that I haven’t seen before in some form.
“Belief and behavior” is the main theme, and frankly it’s a gimme of selectivity. If one Christian is a genocidal nut, does that make all Christians genocidal nuts? Are all Muslims members of Al Qaeda?
There also seems to be a support mechanism from the rest of the antireligious community.
Frankly, Ho Hum.
it looks like just another pimple in this fearless, immature, process of forming groups for the purpose of agreeing with each other, which routinely doesn't achieve a bloody thing but more social division and hatred.
Of course I’m just a writer, but I see a market position, not a lot of new ideas.