Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Book of the Month: The "God" Part of the Brain


Back in March I received my first ever solicitation from a publisher to review Matthew Alper’s The “God” Part of the Brain: A Scientific Interpretation of Spirituality and God. Needless to say, I was excited at the prospect. It made me feel like I had finally achieved something as a blogger. Nevertheless, when I received the book, I made a promise to myself not to pander to the publisher and maintain a critical eye throughout the read so that I could provide an honest assessment. To do otherwise would make me feel intellectually dishonest, which is something I refuse to do. What I didn’t expect was how amazing The “God” Part of the Brain would turn out to be. Quite frankly, this is probably the best book I’ve ever read concerning atheism. The writing is great and easy to follow, and, more importantly, the book makes an excellent argument.

As the subtitle explains, Alper sets out to find a scientific explanation for the apparent compulsion humans feel to believe in a god and spirituality in general. Although Alper’s reasoning has drawbacks in a couple of places, which I will cover later, I feel he generally succeeds in his stated task. Not only that, but his logic addresses a number of disparate thoughts I’ve had on my own and ties them together in a comprehensive framework that simply makes sense to me.

The book begins with Alper’s personal reasons for exploring this particular topic, including his battles with LSD, which showed him how easily it was to alter one’s consciousness and personality. Alper saw this as direct evidence that one’s consciousness—what theists consider properties of an immortal soul—is entirely dependent on the electrochemical processes of the brain, thereby making the existence of any sort of spiritual realm a dubious supposition. This observation lays an important framework for the rest of the book. Namely, we are utterly dependent in the chemical and electrical functions of our brain for the basis of our personality and perception of reality.

Next, the book goes into the author’s loss of religion and quest to understand the nature of the universe through science. For the scientifically literate, this is little more than an overview of the current scientific understanding of the universe. Nevertheless, Alper’s writing abilities make it an interesting read.

With the scientific foundation laid down, Alper then moves to the primary hypothesis of the book, a concept he calls biotheology: the human compulsion to believe in a higher power and an afterlife are an evolutionarily evolved genetic trait that serves as a coping mechanism to alleviate our anxiety towards death. For evidence, Alper cites the universality of religion in human culture. Even though each religion has its differences, their basic foundations are remarkably similar in the same way that all languages share specific, essential characteristics. Thus, religion seems to be just another genetically inherited factor amongst several others that make up the human psyche. Certainly, Alper is not the first to suggest such a hypothesis, but he won me over with the novel rationalization behind it (granted, he may not be the first to have come up with this rationality, but it was new to me).

In essence, it all comes down to anxiety. Alper deftly explains how anxiety plays an essential role in the lives of every creature on Earth. It drives us to eat, sleep, mate, flee from danger, etc. Without anxiety, living organisms would feel no compulsion to perform the tasks necessary to our survival as an individual and a species. However, humans had a unique problem. As the first creature to be aware of its existence with the ability to plan ahead and ponder its place in the cosmos, early humans encountered an existential problem. Since we, unlike other organisms, are aware of our impending death, the resulting anxiety would provide a serious problem. After all, what purpose is there to succeeding in life if we’re just going to disappear? Alper argues that this would provide an inescapable source of anxiety with no solution, thereby making everyday function difficult at best. To deal with the problem, natural selection eventually found an end run around this anxiety. As a species, we began to see a spiritual side to ourselves, which we believed would survive death and last for eternity, thereby removing the anxiety of an inescapable demise. Furthermore, the belief that there are all-powerful, paternal figures personally caring for us provides another source of relief from anxiety. Combined, this genetically inherited belief in spirituality and god became the basis for all theistic thought. In an amusing irony, it seems we evolved the need for religion.

For the remainder of the book, Alper tackles the various experiences associated with religion including spiritual experiences, prayer, religious conversion, near-death experiences, speaking in tongues, morality, the existence of atheists, and even why America is more religious than every other developed nation in the world. The best sections come when Alper uses the finds from scientific research to support his hypotheses. His section on spiritual experiences is particularly effective because science has already had great deal of focus on this phenomenon, and Alper has a plethora of documentation to turn to. This includes studies with MRIs that show how meditation has a direct affect on the part of the brain associated with our sense of self. Indeed the sense of “being one with the universe” is nothing more than the restriction of blood flow to the part of the brain that keeps us grounded in reality.

In other areas, Alper deals with logic chains, which are not nearly as convincing. His section on the effects of personal prayer relies on a number interlinked hypotheses that all have to be true in order for the final conclusion to also be true. While he could very well be right that prayer relieves overall anxiety, thereby allowing the body to heal better because there’s less strain on the central nervous system, there’s simply not enough evidence available to support each part.

Another drawback is that Alper is not a scientist. While certainly no fault of his own, he can only rely on what he has taught himself and what the studies of others have found. I’m not saying a person must be a scientist to write about scientific matters. Indeed, I enjoy writing about science, and I’m no scientist. However, for a work that makes such bold, scientifically based conclusions, it would certainly lend Alper a far greater degree of credibility and authority.

Regardless of the shortcomings, I can’t deny that I like and almost entirely agree with Alper’s logic. His arguments are well conceived and well written and almost always backed by scientific research. Even when there’s little evidence to go off of, Alper still performs exceptional thought experiments that maintain their rationality throughout. I could go on and on recounting the great ideas in this book, but, for brevity’s sake, I’ll just ask you to read it for yourself.

In the end, I loved The “God” Part of the Brain. Perhaps it’s simply because Alper provided what I had been looking for. For a while now, I’ve felt there must be a biological reason for the human need for religion, and Alper provided the comprehensive explanation I had sought. While authors like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris provide excellent reasons to doubt the existence of a higher power, they don’t add much to understanding why we delude ourselves. Alper effectively fills in this gap for those atheists wishing to find the answer. More than anything, it forces nonbelievers to consider the reality of our situation. If belief in religion actually is a genetically inherited trait, then it’s not going away anytime soon. With this understanding, perhaps we can find more effective means of communicating with theists in a way that is constructive for both sides so that we can all work together towards a more positive future.

I want to thank Sourcebooks for providing me with Alper’s book. More importantly, I want to thank them for bringing this book to my attention. It truly is a worthwhile read and I recommend you go out and pick it up.

1 comment:

Stephanie said...

I would also recommend for you "Breaking the Spell" by Daniel C. Dennet. It deals with the same subject matter, but more heavily emphasizes the CULTURAL evolution of religion. Pretty interesting stuff.