Monday, September 22, 2008

The Immanent Frame - Mind Sciences and Religious Change in America

An interesting discussion on mind sciences and religious change in America from The Immanent Frame. Seems that some Christians are applying the discoveries of neuroscience to their beliefs, not seeing them as a rebuttal of their faith.
A cognitive revolution?:

Mind sciences and religious change in America

posted by Christopher White

Like others in this discussion, I’m not sure that recent neurological studies will dramatically change contemporary religious belief or practice, though my reasons are more historical than philosophical or psychological. To put it simply, American Christians and Jews—Brooks’s embattled Bible believers—have shown themselves remarkably adept at harmonizing new scientific insights with older religious notions and practices. Let me offer three historical examples that illustrate this, and a few final comments concerning the astonishing survival power not of a generic new religion (neural or otherwise) but of an older, doctrinal one: Christianity.

I’m an historian of American Christianity, so my examples will be American, but it should be said that the conversation about neurology and religion has roots in centuries-old reflections in Europe about how to understand and map out the inner contents of the self. This conversation became intense in the centuries after the Protestant Reformation, when reformers wary of “empty” rituals and old Christian traditions relocated true Christianity in faith and personal piety. This was a powerful moment of turning to the interior life—toward examining the inner self, probing it, wondering about it. That we today think experimental studies of personal religious experiences can test the truth of a particular religion is itself evidence of the dominance of this Protestant perspective. Leigh Schmidt makes this point, in a slightly different way, towards the end of his contribution to this discussion.

So let me turn to a few historical examples to illustrate the point I’m making about Christianity’s adaptability. Though as a system it seems ridiculous to us today, phrenology initially emerged with the same fanfare that has accompanied neuroscience, for it was a way finally to see with certainty into our inner lives, a method for mapping out elusive dispositions and feelings on the physiological self, especially on the head and brain. At long last, here was a philosophy of mind that, because it linked mental capacities to physiological structures that could be measured, resolved interminable metaphysical debates about human nature, free will, and the nature and existence of divinity. All of these problems could be probed by examining the organs of the brain and body. It was not just scientists and philosophers who were keyed up about this new knowledge. “If…we can know the condition of the physical organism at any time, we can determine therefrom the condition of the mind,” one American minister wrote. In this new procedure lay “the mysterious pathway to the court of the soul.” Others agreed that older philosophies of mind amounted merely to “conjecture, speculation, theoretical abstraction,” and that newer sciences, such as phrenology, promised greater certainty and clarity for pastors and others pursuing self knowledge.

The irony here, of course, an irony not noticed by most who embraced this new science, was that moving the site of experience outside of its mysterious, interior spaces and onto the outer surfaces of the brain and skull did not solve the problem of seeing mental and spiritual things clearly. This was so because ways of interpreting body and brain were changing too, and, thus, in very short order, phrenological categories and practices took their turn as too imprecise and “speculative.”

The so-called “new psychology” that arose in the 1860s and 70s, essentially modern experimental psychology, was seen as an improvement upon the old way of searching in the body and skull for clues about mind and spirit. This is a second historical moment worth mentioning. By the second half of the nineteenth century the correspondences posited by phrenologists had been shown to be erroneous, even if the impulse to localize mental capacities in the brain and nervous system continued in different forms. (The new psychology shared a methodological assumption with both nineteenth-century phrenologists and today’s neurologists: that all mental events can be located in the body.) New psychologists located the mind not in the brain per se but in stimulus-response patterns that made up nervous processes. They were interested in what we today would call sensation and perception, in arcs of nervous transmission as they pulsed from initial sensation to muscle contraction, nervous transmissions that in aggregate made up the self. It was now possible, these scientists thought, to understand and explain complex human behaviors by examining how they were made up of simple stimulus-response patterns.

Again, scientists involved, and some lay observers, predicted a revolution in how Americans saw both human nature and religion. Finally, human beings were peering with clarity into the deep parts of the self.

Read the whole article.

The idea presented here -- that neuroscience offers new ways to be religious -- is interesting, and proof that faith cannot be dispelled by science.

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