The first three postings in this series remind us how complex the individual topics of cognitive science, Buddhism, and religious experience can be. Certainly there are many interpretations of each—many more than an entire monograph could account for, let alone a column in the New York Times—and reminders of the density of such topics are valuable and need to be repeated. But the cultural phenomenon that David Brooks’s column describes is its own topic altogether. Just what this phenomenon is will probably take a while for historians to describe and for critical scholars to assess. My preliminary suggestion is that we are witnessing an aesthetic urge, in which scientists and Buddhists find common cause in their pursuit of a beautiful—albeit potentially dangerous—”theory of everything.”
Barbara Herrnstein Smith reminds us that “neither the computational-modular model of the mind nor the idea of innate, automatically triggered mental mechanisms is a foregone conclusion of contemporary cognitive science or of any other science.” This is perhaps the most significant caution stated so far. Contrary to the overreaching claims of some scientists (and their followers in the world of religious studies) that the mind can be, and has to a great extent already been, explained, there is a huge gap between any cognitive model of the mind-brain and the real thing. It is also quite far from obvious that even the most virtuous and useful cognitive model would render superfluous other kinds of investigation into religion, whether scientific or non-scientific, naturalistic or non-naturalistic. But triumphal assertions (based on one science or another) that we now have the “real story” behind human behavior have been an ongoing theme in modern western history, and they probably will not subside any time soon. This is a phenomenon worth noting in itself.
Donald Lopez comments that what David Brooks appears to assume about Buddhism—that it is centered on meditation, that it is free of dogmas, and that it is compatible with science—are “historically dubious when one surveys the various forms of Buddhism that emerged across Asia over the past 2,500 years.” It is a historian’s prerogative to remind us that the “Buddhism” we take for granted in the current conversation about neuroscience is a very limited, modern variety. True enough, but Buddhism is a living as well as evolving tradition, and now a part of contemporary western society. It is for the active participants of Buddhist tradition to decide what Buddhism will become, and the prospect of synergy between Buddhism and science (particularly neuroscience) seems to generate energy no matter how many times scholars call this a modernist Buddhist apologetic. It is worth asking what cultural configuration keeps this interest afloat, more than a century after the discourse on the scientific nature of Buddhism began.
Kelly Bulkeley not only points out that there are different versions of religious experience that measure differently in brain scans, but that what the neuroscientific study of religious experiences implies is up for grabs. For Brooks, neuroscience dignifies and substantiates a certain version of religion; diehard materialists claim religious experiences are nothing but abnormally functioning brain states. Thus, “Contrary to the popular view that [Andrew] Newberg’s research supports religion, it can readily be taken as supporting the ‘militant atheism’ Brooks wants to reject.” What we see is that religionists utilize science, and its social authority, when it is useful for their purposes, and point to the limitations of science when it counters their interests. Conversely, materialists maintain that science can explain everything (irrespective of whether or not such explanations are very useful), and deploy the ready trump card that what science cannot explain now will surely be explained in the future or that it does not exist. So the question of whether religion ultimately trumps science or vice versa is answered by one’s initial ideological commitments. Leaving aside such irresolvable debates, what is truly fascinating is how it is that such contrary agendas can be served by the same practices—in this instance, the neuroscientific study of religious experience.
My very preliminary and unscientific observation is to suggest that we are witnessing an aesthetic phenomenon. The reason why dreams of the reductive “theory of everything” persist is that such visions are enormously satisfying and beautiful. As Einstein famously expresses it, “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.” Comprehending is an act of unification, and scientific theories are particularly poetic and elegant in this respect. Just listen to scientists rhapsodize about the ability of evolutionary theory to abstract and organize the disparate data of biology into a unified picture, and you can sense the aesthetic pleasure. The economy with which the chaos of the world is marshaled into order by a theory renders that theory into much more than a scientific description: it is the thought that makes scientific thinking itself possible, and it becomes the object of its own enthrallment.
It is also the case that western scientists are drawn to Buddhism. This too is aesthetic, at more than one level. The first entails the more discrete sense of aesthetics, which refers to an interest in sensory data and experience. Perhaps western scientists are indeed deluded with an image of Buddhism’s non-dogmatic, non-superstitious, and non-ritualistic nature. But the affinity between science and the Buddhist focus on the nature of our experience within the world (in lieu of theistic revelations) is very real. Both traditions are interested in empirical observations, causal explanations, and the processes by which physical and mental phenomena arise. And the intelligence of Buddhist observation and analysis, even though its ends are quite different from that of modern science, commands the respect of western intellectuals just as it has commanded the respect and attention of other highly self-regarding cultures, such as that of China.
The larger aesthetic impulse behind the “Buddhism and science” phenomenon is the way in which Buddhist tradition seems to aid the scientific desire to unite all knowledge. Einstein again: “All religions, arts, and sciences are branches of the same tree.” But most modern western manifestations of this idea are of the “science trumps religion” variety. On the other hand, while Buddhism shares significant epistemological practices with science, they are always put in the service of ethics and human religious transformation. There are plenty of triumphal materialists who tell us that ethics and spirituality can be subsumed under the known dynamics of material forces. But it seems that there are lots of other people—many scientists among them—who yearn for a less simplistic account of such things, which honors their necessary depth and complexity. This seems to me an improvement upon the status quo.
My own critical response to the “neural Buddhism” phenomenon is that theories of everything, despite their beauty, can be dangerous things because their abstractions must sweep away much of what concerns us. I do not mind them, actually, if many theories of different kinds can be allowed, but such pluralism does not seem to be commonly accepted in our current scientific culture. The drive for the totalizing narrative is very strong, and maybe someday, cognitive science may even be able to explain with satisfying detail the neural structures and processes that create this drive.
In the meantime, it seems prudent to recognize the power of such visions. It is like pointing to a portion of the rainbow and designating it as “red.” Once you have named it, it is not possible to see that region of the color band as other than red. Now it has become something obvious to be seen in the world. If neural Buddhism injects things like social and environmental interconnectedness, selflessness, and nirvana into our world as well, it seems to me an obviously good thing.