Book Review: The God Part of the Brain
Matthew Alper is a lot smarter than he initially lets on. He begins his narrative in The God Part of the Brain softly and carefully as a recounting of his journey toward self-realization. This reveals itself as a tactic to play to the undecided, spiritual, or mystically inclined reader. In this vein, he makes a lot of concessions to philosophical uncertainty, and the problems of perception. His journey included the use of psychedelics, then other drugs to counteract their after effects. These gave him the perspective to understand the purely chemical nature of consciousness. This turned him toward science as the only reliable tool for the investigation of the true nature of reality.
But then he began to question science, and whether reality could be truly investigated at all:
…no matter how much faith one places in science, he must realize that at no time can it ever represent anything more than just another belief system, just another way by which humans can choose to interpret reality…Who, for instance , could say with total assuredness that his experiences are anything other than an illusion or a dream? –pp.16-17
I have to admit, passages like this nearly scared me off. I was ready to put this book down and chalk it up as yet another misguided attempt at feel-good pandering to uncertainty, solipsism, and new-age mysticism.
But since I was sent the book for review by the publisher, I thought I owed them and the author at least a thorough reading. Things quickly changed. It was the exact opposite experience from what I had last year when I read Andrew Newberg’s Why God Won’t Go Away. The themes of the two books couldn’t be more similar. In fact, when I first heard about the book, I thought to myself, “what could Alper say about this subject that Newberg hasn’t already said?”
Now this isn’t exactly fair, because the first edition of The God Part of the Brain came out in 1996, long before Newberg’s book (2002). In fact, Newberg came to nearly the identical set of conclusions Alper drew. He was at the very least working from some of the same research as Alper, in terms of both the innate and sociocultural basis for development of functional religious belief. These sections of both books cover nearly identical points:
…all the lofty reaches to which human achievement has carried us from the first flint spearheads to the latest innovation in heart transplant surgery can be traced to the mind’s need to reduce the intolerable anxiety that is the brain’s way of warning us that we are not safe. –Newberg p.60
…it is this anxiety function that has motivated us to manufacture fire and electric lights, to develop all sorts of medical technologies, to build dams and structural fortifications, direct silos to store vast deposits of food, and to devise methods of refrigeration…if nature didn’t provide our newly emergent animal with some type of adaptation through which to counter the anxiety induced by mortal awareness, it’s quite possible our species might not have endured. In order to compensate for this debilitating awareness, nature was going to have to modify our animals cognitive processing in such a way that we would be able to survive our unique awareness of death…as generations of these proto-humans passed, those whose cerebral constitutions most effectively dealt with the anxiety resulting from their awareness of death were most apt to survive. This process continued until a cognitive function emerged that altered the way these proto-humans perceived reality by adding an “spiritual” component to their perspectives. Just as the human brain had evolved linguistic, musical, and mathematical intelligence, we apparently evolved “spiritual” intelligence as well. –Alper pp.114-123
Though they agreed on the natural evolution and purpose for spirituality, the trajectory of Newberg’s discussion moved in the exact opposite direction from Alper’s. Newberg began his book with a very technical (and scientifically accurate, from what I could tell) analysis of how religious and spiritual people perceive God, and what are the neural correlates to their experiences as measured with SPECT scans, fMRI, and other techniques. These include the limbic system, the OAA (orientation association area), and states of the autonomic nervous system including: hyper quiescence, hyper arousal, hyper quiescence with arousal breakthrough, and hyper arousal with quiescent breakthrough. But while Newberg tries to build a case for the ontological “reality” of these spiritual experiences as the book moves on, Alper systematically dismantles these assumptions.
Though a scientist and M.D., Newberg seems blatantly gullible, (more so as his book progresses), and supports some of his theories with quotes from theologians like Meister Eckhart, as well as the recounting of mystical experiences from Sister Margareta, and the meditations of Buddhists. Newberg conveys no stronger impression in his book than that he wants to “believe.” Alper on the other hand, has no letters after his name, but seems to have a far greater grasp on both the science of what he calls Biotheology, and what constitutes acceptable evidence for what can be called “real.”
In summary, and this is not overstating the case, Newberg’s book ends up feeling almost willfully fraudulent and contrived–as if he had deliberately checked his scientific credentials at the door after about chapter 5. In stark contrast, Alper left me with a really solid understanding of the basis for human religious belief. While I definitely got the message from Newberg that God is wired into our brains, he sought to extrapolate from that fact a whole other set of conclusions about reality for which he provided only conjecture and personal testimonials by his experimental subjects.
Alper doesn’t just rely on assertions, but traces a long path through the origins of innate behaviors, starting with the phototactic reflexes of planarians. He continues on through discussion of how honey bees construct their hives, how three spined sticklebacks perform their mating dance, and how herring gulls feed their young. These behaviors have all been proven to have a genetic origin. He then discusses innate behaviors of cats and other small mammals, moving to primates, and finally to humans. Readers need not take Alper’s word for this, he provides references to many studies which confirm it. Much of this discussion of the role of genetics in cognitive development and personality still remains controversial. But books such as The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker have also discussed the twin studies, and shown how strong genetic influences on human behavior can be, and that they do in fact propagate through generations. Of particular interest is Pinker’s Appendix called “Donald E. Brown’s list of human universals.”
This list, compiled in 1989 and published in 1991, consists primarily of “surface” universals of behavior and overt language noted by ethnographers. It does not list deeper universals of mental structure that are revealed by theory and experiments. It also omits near universals (traits that most, but not all, cultures show) and conditional universals (“if a culture has trait A, it always has trait B”). A list of items added since 1989 is provided at the end. For discussion and references, see Brown’s human universals (1991) and his entry for the MIT Encyclopedia of the cognitive sciences (Wilson and Keil, 1999).
Having read Pinker’s book, and studied the list of human universals with great interest, I had no problem understanding the basis for Alper’s theories, which are on solid ground. He did a much better job than Newberg of convincing me how fundamental human God-wiring is–that it is not completely universal, but rather varies in intensity from person to person, and that variation is alomst certainly genetic. In chapter 17, entitled Why is America so religious?, Alper provides a pretty good theory of self-selection and genetic drift. Since America was started by Puritans, who fled European religious persecution, religious belief was a founding principle and highly reinforced as America was colonized:
I’d like to offer an analogy: imagine we were to take the entire New York Philharmonic — let’s say a couple hundred people altogether, people not only possessing a distinct passion for music but also a heightened degree of inherent talent — and we were to banish them to an isolated island. Now imagine 200 years later we were to pay a visit to their surviving progeny: would it be unreasonable to presume that we would most likely find a society steeped in musical culture? Granted, as the island’s founders would most likely have stressed musical appreciation and education to their offspring, a great deal of this could be attributed to environmental factors. Nevertheless, isn’t it also reasonable to presume that some portion of the society’s musical nature might result from inherent aptitudes and proclivities passed on by their forefathers enhanced musical genes? Even if several generations into this island societies’ genesis new immigrants were to arrive — many with little or no inherent musical talent or inclination — isn’t it highly probable that the island’s strong musical heritage would still persist to some extent?
Alper has also finally made me understand that it may be futile to try to remove god-belief from a person who has a genetically well-developed spiritual function. The best we may be able to hope for is to help them understand themselves a little better. Alper sums up by proposing that if we can show a person that they have a built-in perceptual alteration, they may be able to learn to correct for it. But first they have to accept the nature of reality.
This is where Alper almost lost me a second time, as he again raises the question of Kantian subjectivity. Another review over at Daylight Atheism seemed to confirm my difficulties. On page 226, Alper asks:
So what if Kant was right? What if all of our conceptions of reality are really nothing more than the products of internally generated cognitions, sensations, perceptions, “the outward picture of an inward condition”? In such a light, we must accept that all we interpret as being “real” or “true” is subjective, relative to the manner in which our species is hardwired to perceive the world. Because each species processes information differently, each species consequently interprets reality from its own unique perspective. As all of our perspectives are relative, no species, nor any individual within a species can ever claim that its interpretation of reality constitutes any absolute truth.
I think Alper should have dealt with this question in the beginning of the book and been done with it. He’s just taken us through an entire journey toward finding out that all of our perceptions have a physical correlate in the brain. Now he’s asking us to again consider that it might all be a solipsistic illusion? How can we know anything at all then? To me this was the absolute low point of the book. I think he made a deliberate concession to the relativists here. I know logical positivism is out of style. But he’s led us on through 18 chapters to an understanding of this incredible cognitive machine inside of our skulls and its ability to form models of reality, and the physical nature of all our experiences, only to tell us that none of our perceptions may be real? He then invokes the analogy of schizophrenia and its treatment, and then uses that to describe how a “normal” person might learn to become objective:
As another metaphor, imagine we are looking into a mirror that can offer a pure reflection of ourselves. Now imagine that placed between us and this pure reflection is a series of invisible lenses, ones that will distort our otherwise unadulterated view in some way. Because we are ignorant that these lenses exist, we have no way of knowing that our self-perceptions have been distorted. though we may believe that our view represents a perfect reflection of ourselves, we are actually misinformed. Not until we become aware that these lenses exist, until we learn to look past them, to push them aside, will we be afforded a true reflection of ourselves. –p.229
I see where he was going with this, but it was an unfortunate departure. It’s hard enough to get people to understand how to define scientifically objective reality in the first place. If you’re going to be a reductionist, than go whole hog. Mount a detailed analysis of consciousness, subjectivity and objectivity and stick to it. The Blade Runner analogy helps a little bit, with his discussion of implanted memories in the replicants (which would be possible for them to learn were false) But I think most people will wind up terribly confused.
I read and reread chapter 19, and I think I understand what he was getting at: even though we can’t rid ourselves of the God Part of the Brain, according to this metaphor, we might be able to adapt our perceptions to minimize the harm of it. After all, it is a vestigial part of ourselves which only evolved to deal with existential anxiety in proto-humans. Alper believes we should try to leave it behind along with other elements of the primitive cultures which lacked the scientific understanding we now possess.
In conclusion, I began this book expecting to be disappointed. I thought it would cover mostly familiar ground. But the depth and complexity of Alper’s arguments, as well as the personal nature of his journey were impressive and engaging. Readers of Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, Pinker, Buss, and Ridley will find a startlingly original take on well-worn premises which support the human origins of god-belief.
Book I: Theory’s Evolution
1. Throwing Rocks at God
- Begins with recounting of bad LSD trip, realization of the chemical nature of consciousness.
- If self-perception could be so radically altered by a chemical, then it had to be chemical in nature.
- Therefore, to understand self, one must understand science. But isn’t science just another form of faith?
2. What is science?
- Begins long section on philosophy of science, discussion of subjectivity–begins with apology to solipsism, relativism, nothing can be known, problem of qualia. What is reality?
- Eventually settles on science as delivering the best result which has the highest probability of coinciding with the physical world.
- Light discussion of problem of induction, without reference to Hume.
- Wonders how people who doubt science are so willing to partake of its fruits.
- But if one is looking for god in science, where does one start?
3. A very brief history of time
- Goes through the evolution of the universe, touching on all the physical sciences, and how they blend with and evolved from one another, starting with physics, and ending with anthropology.
- Ends chapter with positing of non-overlapping magisteria: science explains the “how” but what about the “why?”
- Moves from exterior search for god to interior. Discusses nature of reality, e.g. The Matrix, how do you define reality?
- Cites Critique of Pure Reason. Limitations of human perception, to pre-existing mental structure, vs. John Locke, Tabula Rasa ideas. Work of Piaget on the perceptual limitations of children, and developmental stages. Innate modes of comprehension.
- Much of this ground also covered in The Blank Slate.
5. God as Word
- This is one of the most subversive chapters. I began by thinking he was talking about word as Word: As in John 1: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God…”
- Actually, he was talking about God as a word. As in a word you can type into your word processor, to represent a concept. By this Alper acknowledged the only provable real thing about God: It is a word which represents a concept we can discuss and basically understand what it means: “the concept of a trancendental/spiritual force or being.”
- So we can acknowledge that since humans were the first ones to come up with this concept and put it into words, that the concept of god originates with humans (also explored by Dennett in Breaking the Spell extensively).
6. Universal Behavioral Patterns
- Covers innate traits and behaviors of many species. Planarians, honeybees, three-spined sticklebacks, herring gulls, cats, primates.
- Asks question, can we not ascribe many traits and behaviors as innate to humans? (Also covered by looking at the list of human universals in The Blank Slate.)
- Shows how specific areas of the brain correspond to particular aspects of speech and comprehension.
- Cognitive traits are very similar to other traits, and are inherited.
- Music aptitude and “perfect pitch” are inherited and cannot be learned. Certain types of music are universally experienced as rousing, calming, etc. across all cultures.
Book II: Intro to Biotheology
7. The Spiritual Function
- Every civilization has had faith in gods. Therefore, we must look for a gene which perpetuates tendency to believe.
- This leads us to look for the expression of that gene, which would of necessity be a neurophysiologically based spriritual function, or the titular “God part of the brain.”
- Jung theorized the collective unconscious and archetypes. A “shared psychic substrate”. This directly contradicts Locke. Contents of myths are generated from these archetypes. Jung considers spirituality as basic to the human condition as the instincts of sexuality and aggression.
- Every culture has maintained a dualistic view of reality. Religious works of art. Belief that physical actions have effects on the spiritual realm and vice versa. Immortal soul.
- Rituals mark passages in physical life. Without these rituals, such as baptism, or bar mitzvah, people don’t accept the person as having fully arrived.
- Every culture has possessed a priest class. A mediator between the physical and spiritual.
- Every culture has its sacred spaces and objects. Superstitions. Talismans, Guilt. Atonement.
- Distinction between spiritual and religious function. Spiritual concerns inner life, religious concerns ritual and social aspects.
- If religion did not exist, it would be created anew by any isolated society–much as isolated humans would re-create language.
- Examination of spiritual aphasias, people who have some sort of damage and are incapable of ‘spiritual’ experience.
- The fact that humans create gods is the best evidence against the existence of any actual god, since they are all different. One would expect if there were actual gods being contacted, they would be the same.
- “Not only does this spiritual function act to transform our perception of reality, but it also seems to possess the ability to override our capacity for critical reasoning.”
- “religion therefore represents the social medium through which are spiritual and religious impulses are given form and expression. The drive, therefore, to create a religion, with all of its codes, customs, and ritualistic behaviors, stands as its own distinct impulse.”
- various cultures and tribes create sacred animals based on animals native to their regions
8. The Rationale
- Everything that exists is rational and runs by the principles of cause and effect
- Religion must be useful, or it would not have been supported by evolution
- Humans are unique in their capacity for self reflection
- Pain, and the avoidance of pain dominate our lives. This is a necessary evolutionary reality for survival.
- Anxiety is the result of the pain function projected forward into the future.
- Since our evolutionary response to danger in the moment is fight or flight, there must be a corollary in terms of self reflection and future planning: it is anxiety
- Our fear of death, and our constant reflection on death leads to a natural reflex toward anxiety. In evolution, this could have made human intellect a danger to human survival. So it was necessary to evolve a response. This response is religion. It allows humans to continue to function and take advantage of their high intellect, without the paralyzing burden of existential anxiety.
- Even our enumerative function, allowing us to grasp concepts such as infinity only serves to increase our awareness of the severely limited nature of life, against the backdrop of eternity
- Our instinct toward valuing the protective function of the father becomes useless once we realize our parents are powerless to prevent death. So this infinite longing and helplessness we feel for the father is projected outward onto our supernatural God father, who according to Freud: “God is the exalted father, and a longing for the father is the root of all religion.”
9. The Spiritual Experience
- mystical experiences can be invoked by meditation, sports, tai chi, yoga, as well as worship.
- All mystical experiences have in common feelings of unity, timelessness, spacelessness, the dissolution of ego boundaries
- temporal lobe epilepsy has been correlated with heightened spiritual experiences or a “sudden sense of enlightenment”
- transcranial magnetic stimulators can create “mystical” feelings
- removal of various regions of the brain can remove the ability to have these experiences.
- Disabling the amygdala or anterior cingulate can cause loss of free will.
- Piaget studied the development of self-awareness in children and showed that it came in distinct stages.
- the ego is protected from overwhelming anxiety by the transcendental function.
- Meditation has physical consequences, including the change of brain wave states and the ability to lower blood pressure and decrease response to pain
- this can be termed a state of “absolute unitary being”
10. Drug-Induced God
- psychedelic sacraments have been used throughout the world, including mescaline by Native Americans, Ayahuasca in the Amazon, Iboga in equatorial Africa and others
- these are called entheogenic drugs, because they generate an experience of God from within
- no drug can cause the brain to respond in any way, to which we are not physiologically predisposed.
11. The Spiritual Gene
- debate between nature versus nurture.
- Twins and adoption studies by Waller (1990) came to the conclusion that religious attitudes and interests are genetically influenced
- multiple other studies, one on 30,000 sets of twins, confirm this result
12. The Prayer Function
- some studies seem to confirm that prayer (though not when other people pray for them) helps people to heal faster
- Alper theorizes this has to do with the anxiety reducing characteristic of prayer. This may be related to supernatural beliefs and rely on the placebo effect
- guilt, which is also often times religious in origin can have the opposite result of increasing stress, which is then often relieved through prayer.
13. Religious Conversion
- individuality is replaced by ideology.
- The only other time a person’s core personality undergo such an abrupt and drastic change is when they are stricken by psychosis.
- In studying 2,174 cases of religious conversion, E.T. Clark noted. “Sudden conversions were associated with fear and anxiety.”
- for psychologically troubled individuals, their emotional states often improve following conversion.
- Vulnerable people such as the recently divorced are often targeted by the ministries of Evangelicals and others.
- Support groups are also often targeted, and many converts have stories of success in overcoming addictions.
- Conversion often works on the very young–studies showed that the average age of conversion was 15.2 years
- the tendency toward conversion is a cross-cultural characteristic of our species, and therefore should be looked at as being innate
14. Why Are There Atheists?
- how can there be atheists, if we are wired to believe?
- spiritual tendencies exist on a bell curve, like other traits such as visual acuity and hearing
- some people are tone deaf, while others become great composers
15. Near-Death Experiences
- near-death experiences have been reported throughout history.
- Much of the euphoria stems from the bodies endogenous opioids called endorphins.
- One hospital tried to test the validity of near-death experiences by placing the computer display at ceiling level facing upward. No patient ever reported seeing the information on the display
- another component of the NDE is the neurotransmitter glutamate. Injection of ketamine can produce nearly identical effects
16. Speaking in Tongues
- this phenomenon happens in nearly all religious cultures. It involves a trance like state followed by an abrupt change in the brain state from alpha waves to beta
- temperature differentials between the right and left hemisphere of the brain were found to increase during this practice
17. Why Is America so Religious? A Bio-Historical Hypothesis
- normally the religiosity of the nation is inversely correlated to the level of the human development Index. In.
- the United States is a stark exception to this rule
- religious persecution drove people to immigrate to America, therefore the population was self-selected for religion
- de-facto theocracy existed in much of colonial America
- we can take as an example, what might happen if a group of musicians went to an island, and we came back 200 years later. We would expect to find a high degree of musicality in the population.
- This has been shown with other genetic traits such as Tay-Sachs disease in the Ashkenazi Jews
- religion in the United States has also been culturally self-reinforcing
18. The Guilt and Morality Functions
- this chapter is a kind of review of what Dawkins and Pinker discussed in The Selfish Gene and The Blank Slate
- morality arose as animals moved from solitary living to becoming social species.
- Groups had to prevent behavior which threatened the group, and this became a matter of survival
- this is achieved through the hierarchy system to maintain stability and order. Therefore, an individual within such a system would develop a healthy sense of fear of transgression
- Humans have changed all this, because they do not any longer rely on physical dominance to maintain order. Anyone can use a weapon to kill anyone else. Therefore, it was necessary to develop laws and moral codes, and the penal system.
- The case of Phineas Gage, whose prefrontal cortex was destroyed, demonstrated the innate basis of self-control and morality.
- MRI scans can pinpoint the region of the prefrontal cortex involved in making moral choices.
- Broad categories of good and evil, and the concept of sin remain constant across most cultures
- the concepts of heaven and hell are universal
19. The Logic of God: a New “Spiritual” Paradigm
- what if Kant was right? what if we can never truly perceive reality?
- Like teaching a schizophrenic to recognize his delusions, what if we could teach ourselves to understand our spiritual perceptions were internal?
- Spiritual consciousness is nature’s white lie, a coping mechanism selected into our species to help alleviate the debilitating anxiety caused by our unique awareness of death
20. What, If Anything, Is to Be Gained from a Scientific Interpretation of Human Spirituality and God?
- The reverse Pascal’s Wager: if God exists, and we are immortal, what harm can there be in considering the possibility that he does not?
- But if he does not, and we end up spending our lives acting as if he does, we fail to act in favor of the greatest human happiness, and we also have no immortal life.
- The key to happiness lies in the love of knowledge.
- No other creature has cognitive self-awareness.
- We have the ability to modify our thinking.
- If spiritual and religious consciousness are evolutionary adaptations, we need to work on objectively evaluating their impact, and try to turn the weaknesses into strengths.
- Spiritual impulses are not in and of themselves destructive, it is only when dogmas and creeds arise. The problems are created.
- Religious certainty pits societies venomously against one another, inciting acts of hostility, aggression, and genocide.
- belief in immortality reduces the value of the short life we do have
- we could possibly write up a world spiritual constitution, codifying universally accepted spiritual principles and guidelines by which each religion would agree to abide.
- We should stop teaching our young to only honor and respect those with whom they share the same religious ideology.
- How much longer will we be slaves to destructive religious creeds before we can transfer our faith over to the natural sciences?
- it’s a choice either or. Either hold on to those antiquated belief systems that sprang from our prescientific ignorant past, or choose knowledge and reason.
- It is overwhelmingly likely that once our brain dies, once its cognitive processes stop functioning, so does our conscious experience. Never again will we exist in the same exact molecular combination. Never again will we undergo the same conscious experience. Therefore we are far more precious and unique than we may have imagined.
- what would outside observers such as extraterrestrials think of all our fevered religiosity?
- “Let the secular revolution begin…”