In a Spiritual Dimension

One hears, from time to time, statements that suggest that advancements in neurological science will negate belief that the self is anything other than an illusion created by electrical and chemical processes. I’ve always thought such a view to be astonishingly wrong-headed and, in some cases, deliberately misleading.
Stephen Barr takes up the topic in a review of a book about the related science and religion:

It is no less reasonable to accept the existence of both mental and physical aspects of reality and to say that they do in fact affect each other in predictable ways that can be described, without having in hand or even supposing that there exists a “mechanism” for that interaction. Indeed, this is really all that neuroscience itself can do. For instance, it can tell us that a lower than normal concentration in the brain of a molecule called dopamine (a certain arrangement of eight carbons, eleven hydrogens, one nitrogen, and two oxygens) leads to the subjective experience of boredom or apathy. It can find that the electrical stimulation of a certain tiny region of the brain produces mental states ranging from mild amusement to hilarity. It can report, as Jeeves and Brown do, that “damage to a certain small area of the cortex serving vision (called ‘V4’) can strip color” from one’s visual experiences.
But in none of these cases can it explain the connection between motions of material particles and mental experiences any better than Descartes was able to do. For neuroscience, in effect, the entire brain is just Descartes’ pineal gland writ large.
But there is one key difference. Neuroscientists, unlike Descartes, tend to see the action as one-way: Matter can affect mind but not the other way around. Some justify this by saying that any effect of mind on matter would violate the laws of physics. Nothing that is known about physics, however, compels that conclusion.

What’s amazing? That the application of chemicals and electricity to an organism that runs on chemical and electrical reactions can elicit a physical and emotional response, or that some well-chosen squiggles on a piece of paper can do the same thing? The former merely offers a shortcut for something that we’ve always had the power to accomplish.
We would be foolish to dispute that there is some mechanical process for the entirety of an exchange of humor, for example. There’s an economic reason, rooted in biological need to support one’s self, for a comedian to make jokes. There’s a culture and a society through which he knows what makes something funny. There are mental processes by which his brain coordinates that information, mechanical processes whereby his mouth enunciates its conclusions, economic processes that put him on a stage in front of cameras, electrical processes whereby the cameras function and send those signals to your television. And then there are biological processes that bring the light into your eyes and the information to your brain.
Even without minute detail about each step, we can trace the whole thing from beginning to end. That doesn’t mean that there’s nothing more. Much like the movement of electrons begets an electrical field and a magnetic field, the existence of those electrons does not make the field less real. Moreover, you can act on the field without any knowledge of the mechanical basis for it. Just so, we can acknowledge the mechanics of the self and still understand there to be a sort of spirit field.
The major risk of the scientific inclination is that the more efficiently we can manipulate processes — as we move from having to go through an elaborate system of getting a comedian to learn how to make jokes and practice his delivery and work through a major network and a whole industry of entertainment in order to spark the pleasing sensation of laughter to simply being able to offer a pill or a shock to the brain — we can manipulate much more significant and dangerous things than laughter. As we advance, it becomes imperative that we develop our appreciation for this spirit field, and yet, our tendency to give credence to such a dimension at all decreases.
This, indeed, may be the mechanics of the Eschaton. The theological end of the world may have something to do with the fact that, as we “play God,” our appreciation for what God has done, our belief in God, decreases. There are two paths based on increasing knowledge: You can become more God like, more like Jesus (for the Christian), in your actions, or you can become more arrogant and prideful in what you can do to manipulate reality, more skeptical that there is a God. If a series of accidental process, and not an intention, brought us to this point in reality, then there’s less reason to be concerned about the idea of messing with it.
The intelligent being who has mastered laughter has reason to believe that he can put that power to better use than arbitrary circumstances of nature. If, however, there is a God who has thought the whole thing through from beginning to end, we ought to have a greater respect for, and be more humble in our application of, our new powers.
An apocalyptic narrative appears in the assurance that, no matter how far our civilization goes, we can move closer to God as individuals. The more skeptical, secular, and anti-religious the world becomes, the more opportunities there are to behave in a Christ-like manner. Those who take seriously the promise that they are blessed when persecuted will have plenty of opportunities for that blessing, and those who distrust the promise will have plenty of evidence that conversion will mean persecution. In other words, the separation of humanity into binary categories of religious belief and irreligious belief, which sciences dealing with the nature of being accelerate, might, itself, be the process of the end times.

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12 years ago

I sometimes ask simply because I crave the answer. Such is the case here.
Why must an omnipotent, all-knowing, all-loving, eternal God, need to be “… a God who has thought the whole thing through from beginning to end…”?
What need could God have for “thinking” at all?

Justin Katz
12 years ago

I don’t mean to be coy by answering questions with questions, but it seems unavoidable, in this instance:
How could God be omnipotent and not know everything that has happened and will happen?
If you say that He could be unconcerned about the outcome, then how could He be all-loving?
My view, standing astride the space between religion and science, is that every possible reality tangibly exists from its conceivable beginning to inevitable end and that we, as spiritual individuals, are not all necessarily inhabiting the same one. Within this full range of possibilities, there is one reality that aligns perfectly with God’s nature, and it is our task, in life, to move toward it. Thus there is intention and an objective universal measure against which we can strive to measure our progress.
As for God’s “thinking,” the use of the word, as if God sat down for a couple of hours to ponder the sequential steps of reality as He constructed it, is more representative than literal. It seems to me that it makes no sense to separate “thought” from “process” from “intent” when it comes to God.

12 years ago

I just happened to check AR and saw this. I enjoy these type of philosophical/spiritual/theological posts from Justin.
I agree with Justin’s response in that one cannot rationally separate “thought” from “process” from “intent” when it comes to God or any deity.
A logical view of the relationship between science and religion and their outcomes is difficult at best. I’m not saying there is none but am saying that an argument in defense of a view such as Justin’s view is both hard to swallow and also hard to negate. I guess I’m saying that to me, one can do little more than have faith in the effect of religious belief on reality. The beauty of religious faith is in its very mystery and, in some ways, indefensible conclusions. That is what separates it from science. Don’t mistake my words for saying that religion and science have no common ground or cannot complement one another. They do and can. But it should be obvious that they are different by definition.
What bothers me is that often one is used to tear apart the other. Sort of a metaphor for the current culture uses most personal pursuits – using them as baseball bats rather than baseball gloves.

Justin Katz
12 years ago

I don’t see the complication. Faith has an effect on our behavior, our behavior has an effect in the physical world. Ergo, faith has an effect on the physical world. As I suggested, it’s like creating electrical current with magnetic fields by pushing using them to push electrons along a wire.
The same with the faith/science distinction. In a sense, religion is science for what science cannot do. Religion covers that which cannot be proven; when it can be proven, it moves into the scientific category. The atheist/agnostic attack on that suggestion is that religion is thereby reduced to a superstition covering the unknown, but from my perspective, religion evolves, develops, right along with science. Even if we can explain every process in the universe, we still feel, and we maintain a conscience (if we maintain our humanity). Something still must supply the what and why for our advancing where and how.

12 years ago

I didn’t mean complication as in ‘how can faith affect the physical world?’ but complicated as to the relationship between faith & acts as an argument for having faith/religious beliefs. Simply put, one can also argue that an absence of faith can also affect the physical world.
As far as the faith/science distinction, I agree with you in your response to me. My point was in reference to your original post, to which I also agree, where you said that separation of humanity into categories of belief/non-belief is unproductive at best. I don’t get the how the word ‘secular’ is now associated with atheism. That is not accurate. I believe our country is a secular country to the extent that there is a separation of church and state, which means that the state & church are separate institutions. It does not mean that laws cannot be influenced by religion or any public religious expression is unconstitutional. Simply put, there can be an intersection between religious faith & secularism. And people also have the choice to deny the existence of God without being punished by law. Reading your post I thought of how silly it has become that the practice of science is often portrayed as ‘irreligious’ and faith is now portrayed as ignoring science. To me, it’s sort of become an extreme hyperbolic version of the Scopes Monkey trial.

12 years ago

I thought of a recent local event you’d get a kick out of (as in sadness and eye rolling)
A co-worker told me that one of her children’s teacher’s (public school) was forced to remove her necklace with a cross when teaching. Apparently a non-Christian parent complained that wearing it was ‘ministering’ which violated the separation yada yada.
I told her what was really sad was that if a child came to school with a shirt showing the cross covered in feces, that would likely be protected by free speech.
Unreal. We are now in the days of affirmative action for the disrespectful behavior towards people of faith. Sorry, that is just disrespect towards people of Jewish or Christian faiths.

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