David Brooks’s op-ed, “The Neural Buddhists,” is premised on a variety of conceptual confusions that are worth trying to clear up, although the widespread nature of some of these confusions says something quite interesting about innate human cognitive biases. I think he is mistaken about the precise character of the cultural impact of recent neuroscientific work, but the kinds of mistakes he makes points toward ways in which the contemporary neuroscientific model of the self continues to be misunderstood.

Before I begin, I can’t resist noting that the characterization of “Buddhism” upon which the piece is premised—one that is suspiciously amenable to a modern western liberal lifestyle—gives scholars of East Asian religions fits. I am glad to see that Don Lopez has tried to introduce some historical perspective here. I’ll say no more about this topic, other than to note that a similarly deracinated, Protestantized version of my own focus of research, early Confucianism, has also enjoyed wide currency since the Enlightenment. What I’d like to focus on, instead, is the apparent confusion about what brain imaging technologies tell us about ourselves, and what, precisely, materialism is and is not.

To begin with, Brooks reports that Andrew Newberg’s neuroimaging work “has shown that transcendent experiences can actually be identified and measured in the brain”! Of course they can: all mental experiences can be identified and measured in the brain, or they wouldn’t be mental experiences. This says absolutely nothing about the existence or non-existence of metaphysical entities in the world. A “friend of mine” (for the purposes of maintaining plausible deniability) recalls experiencing mystical states of oneness induced by a variety of hallucinogenic substances consumed in his 20s, including physically flowing into and becoming one with Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County and dissolving into the Pacific Ocean. I don’t know much about the psychopharmacology of LSD and psilocybin, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they, like certain meditative practices, are able to suppress activity in the parietal lobe, among other things. This may explain why both meditators and drug users report Freud’s famous “oceanic feeling” (their monitoring of ordinary spatial boundaries is being altered). While this is interesting—and the fact that it feels so good is even more interesting—it says absolutely nothing about the ontological status of the mystical Ocean.

Brooks’s conclusion that “people are equipped to experience the sacred” would more accurately read, “people are equipped to appear to themselves to experience the sacred.” Moreover, similar mediation- or drug-induced repression of the parietal lobe in practitioners prepared with other cultural primes (for instance, Catholic nuns) would probably result in very different reported experiences: not merging with some indefinite “larger presence” or Mt. Tam, but being physically embraced by a very concrete and vividly perceived Jesus, complete with flowing beard and a retinue of horn-blowing angels. The idea that “God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at [moments of transcendental love], the unknowable total of all there is” is a fairly accurate expression of a vague “spirituality” that is now quite widespread among modern, educated people who eschew the religious beliefs of their parents, but it is in no way “proven” or even suggested by experimental work in the cognitive science of religion.

This confusion of neuroimaging data with some sort of magical report about the true nature of the world, typical of the breathless manner in which the popular press covers this topic, is actually the product of a deeply seated cognitive bias in humans, our innate folk dualism (on this, see especially Descartes’ Baby by Paul Bloom). Intuitively, we think of ourselves as something other than our brains, even though this intuition appears to be empirically wrong. Our folk dualism gives us the feeling that there is a huge gap between “mind”-like activities, which are individual and subjective, and physical events, which are objective and measurable. We then get very excited when we discover that thinking about or experiencing X is accompanied by physical activity in area Y of the brain—X must be real! Properly speaking, though, “our” thinking about or experiencing X is, in fact, nothing more than activity in area Y of the brain (or, more likely, a network of regions).

Brooks’s piece is also characterized by a confusion concerning what “materialism,” as an ontological claim about the world, might be. This seems to be the result of conflating the philosophical position of materialism, or physicalism, with the common use of the word “materialist” to refer to people or beliefs that are perceived to be selfish, unemotional, or unloving. For instance, emotions are not, as Brooks suggests, any more “squishy” than anything else: they are reactions subserved by an entirely material body-brain system. “Hard-core materialism,” like that of Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, does not preclude the existence of emotions, love, or unselfishness—in fact, quite the opposite is true. Recent work on the apparently hard-wired nature of altruism and fairness are entirely compatible with, and indeed predicted by, the neo-Darwinan, physicalist model of the self. It is often in the interest of selfish genes to build selectively unselfish “hosts” to get them into the next generation, and these hosts work best when pre-loaded with a spectrum of fast, “emotional” responses to their environments, including the all-important environment of other people. Human beings, as well as other social primates, seem to be built by their genes to be guided primarily by reactions we would characterize as “emotional,” to have the capacity for deep familial and romantic love and attachment, and to perform great acts of apparently selfless altruism for kin or ersatz-kin (such as co-religionists and fellow soldiers). Similarly, there is no reason to think that because consciousness depends upon “idiosyncratic networks of neural firings,” the relationship between neurons and consciousness is “mysterious” or somehow non-physical: the collection of dust particles I see on the floor next to my desk is idiosyncratic, but not non-physical. Again, Brooks’s conclusion here seems to involve unexamined, and unjustified, folk beliefs: if my neural network is “idiosyncratic,” then it’s unique to me, and I am non-physical, something other than my brain or my body; therefore, idiosyncratic neural networks mean that hard-core materialism is wrong.

Finally, Brooks is right that behavioral neuroscience is having a lasting impact on culture, but it isn’t going to prove that Alan Watts was right and that big bad atheists are wrong. It’s that physicalism—the idea that we are nothing more than our body-brains—fundamentally contradicts deeply-seated folk ideas that we have about free will and responsibility. This in turn has profound legal and social implications. As more and more studies come out concerning the correlation of brain state X with certain undesirable behavior Y, we are seeing more and more instances of what Michael Gazzaniga calls the “my brain made me do it” defense in legal cases. Paul Bloom is one of the people who has articulated most clearly what is wrong with this type of thinking; as he notes in a recent commentary:

Micheal McGough, reporting on a 2005 conference on law and neuroscience, outlines [the “my brain made me do it”] logic very clearly in his first paragraph:

“Suppose you’re a juror in the trial of an accused child molester. A medical expert called as a witness for the defense says that magnetic resonance images of the defendant’s brain show unusual activity in an area that lights up in many—though not all—pedophiles. Are you now willing to acquit the defendant on insanity grounds?”

For anyone who is not a Cartesian dualist, this is all seriously confused. There is no immaterial conductor using the brain to accomplish its will. And the notion that pedophilia involves the brain is not a bold empirical hypothesis; it is a truism, and if it leads to the conclusion that the pedophile is blameless, then it follows that everyone is blameless for everything.

The “everyone is blameless for everything” position is not one likely to be widely embraced, but it does raise challenges. How to get our intuitive notions about free will and moral responsibility to peaceably coexist with a materialist conception of the person—which, pace Brooks, is in fact the consensus coming out of modern cognitive science—is the real intellectual and cultural task that still needs to be accomplished.