Thursday, July 02, 2009

No More Need for Love Than for God?

Why they won't be crowding the exits running for atheism

Girl Defending Herself Against Love, by William Adolphe Bouguereau (1880)

The gal portrayed by Bouguereau certainly doesn't look estrogen-deprived, but fighting off love the way that she is, perhaps we may infer that she's deficient in oxytocin and vasopressin, even if she ain't really fighting off Cupid quite so hard.

At least that's what the young philosopher, self-taught science buff, and erstwhile educator, truck-smuggler, and screenwriter Matthew Alper would tell us in his 2006 book The "God" Part of the Brain: A Scientific Interpretation of Human Spirituality and God.

Somehow, I don't think a lack of neurotransmitters was quite the message that Bouguereau was trying to put across.

In his book, Alper describes his own relentless personal quest to get at the very heart of the matter regarding God’s existence or non-existence. Eventually he came to the conclusion that the thrust of the quest should not be directed at finding proofs in the natural world outside of our own selves, but within ourselves, in our own brains. I admit that I have a certain frustration that Alper probably shares as well. Many people who believe in evolution and accept that our bodies were shaped by the forces of evolution still want to believe that our minds are a tabula rasa, a “blank slate,” as if human evolution stopped from the neck up. As an organ like any other, our brains were shaped by our evolutionary past, and it makes sense to conclude that both our cognitive and emotional traits are there as the result of forces which maximized our chances for survival and reproduction.

Alper’s main premise is that the “God” part of the brain, reflected in a universal human proclivity towards spirituality and tendency to believe in deities, was an adaptation that formed in us as the result of being self-conscious creatures with foresight who needed a coping mechanism in order to deal with the anxiety caused by the awareness of our own definitive and inescapable mortality.

That’s fine as far as it goes, but there is a bleakness and a coldness among scientifically-minded atheists of the most militant stripe that I find chilling. Not only would someone like Alper want to take down God, but even a most basic human raison d'être like being “in love” as well. Must these reductionists ”reduce” everything that makes us human?

From the footnote on page 110:

A research team led by anthropologist Helen Fisher of Rutgers University has been working to determine the neurochemistry involved in bonding behaviors. Fisher believes the attachments formed by individuals "in love" are caused by changes in the brain involving a group of neurotransmitters called mono-amines, which include dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. To plot these changes, Fisher subjected lovelorn couples to a functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scanner that could pinpoint minute changes of blood flow in the brain associated with bonding and infatuation.

What she found was that whereas lust is governed by testosterone and estrogen, attachment is governed by the neurotransmitters oxytocin and vasopressin. Apparently, even romantic love and attachment can be reduced to neurochemical processes. This hypothesis was later confirmed when Andreas Bartles at University College London found that when students placed in an fMRI were shown photographs of loved ones (versus photos of insignificant others, which had much less effect), specific regions of the brain became highly activated. The areas which lit up were part of the anterior cingulate cortex, the middle insula, and parts of the putamen and caudate nucleus.
Well, there it is. The next time you're swooning and walking on air over someone new, or suffering a broken heart over getting summarily dumped, or mourning the loss of a spouse or a child, just get an MRI, and see which parts of your brain are getting lit up by your mono-amines.

If it's just a matter of your anterior cingular cortex, your insula, or your putamen acting up, heck, maybe you shouldn't take it all so personally...

I don’t know about you, but I’m not letting anyone else have a look at my putamen.

I’m not anti-science. Like a lot of other people, I find evolutionary psychology to be fascinating. I find the logic challenging and compelling, but like the other forms of psychology, it is highly suppositional. If theologians need to show more humility, perhaps darwinists need to be more humble in their claims as well. These days, evolutionary pyschology is even coming under attack for being pseudo-science, like the discredited schools of eugenics and sociobiology that came before it. See Newsweek's June 20th article: Can We Blame Our Bad Behavior on Stone-Age Genes? (Why Do We Rape, Kill and Sleep Around? The fault, dear Darwin, lies not in our ancestors, but in ourselves)

Science is fine, and religious intolerance and violent fundamentalism are indeed serious problems, but what kind of people would the Matthew Alpers, Richard Dawkins, and Same Harrises of the world have us be? Cold, clinical organic machines who need to accept that “even romantic love and attachment can be reduced to neurochemical processes?” Is that the liberation from the shackles of superstition that they are offering us?

In wanting to wrench our eyes away from heaven they would force our gaze upward to the depths of cold, dark, empty space instead, warmed by nothing but the occasional blast of a solar wind. That’s bad enough, but when they start speculating about the possibility of performing surgery on us to remove the "God" part of the brain in a “Godectomy” or treating the malignant spiritual lobes on our brains with medication, then they start becoming downright frightening.

Long live Love, I say, of both the eros and agape variety... For better or worse, I’ll take my life with a bit of poetry in it please.

For what, we ask, is life
Without a touch of Poetry in it?
Hail, Poetry, thou heav'n-born maid!
Thou gildest e'en the pirate's trade.
Hail, flowing fount of sentiment!
All hail, all hail, divine emollient!


Liam said...

Great post, Jeff. Yeah, the problem with their approach is to mistake the process for the thing itself. I too will stick with God, poetry, and love.

Jeff said...

Hi Liam,

The problem with these guys is that they always think they're telling us why when they are simply telling us how. It's not that the how isn't interesting. It is. It's just that it isn't sufficient for everything.

If it's true that fourteen billion years ago all matter was condensed into one single point of pure energy, which exploded in a "big bang," creating this vast and expanding universe which will one day be overwhelmed by the force of gravity, collapse in upon itself, and start the same process all over again, I'm not sure how that's necessarily supposed to demolish my belief in God. It sounds mighty spiritual to me.

charles said...

Right on. I'm so glad that you ended this excellent post with poetry. I've been thinking lately about how religion (done well anyway) presents truths in a way that is more poetic than logical/scientific.

My love is a red, red rose. 'Really, is she made of cellulose and synthesize light?' No Mr. Scientist, and if I have to explain on your terms, you're never going to get it, are you?

secular Charles D.

Jeff said...

Hi Charles,

'Really, is she made of cellulose and synthesize light?' No Mr. Scientist...

Sounds like Mr Scientist is entirely left-brained. He could use some beefing up on those right-hand sided creative lobes. ;D

Jack said...

I'm reading Daniel J. Boorstin's THE AMERICANS - THE COLONIAL EXPERIENCE. I am impressed with the way the Puritans were secure in their doctrine. Sermons were made up of doctrines, reasons and uses. People who did'nt sign on to these doctrines were asked to move on. Uses of scripture to solve day to day problems should be the purpose of sermons. When Captain Bligh climbed into the boat with those 18 men, he wrote down their names in his log and asked them to sign an oath of alligence to him, as captain. They did. All but one survived the voyage. Now we require aligence to the Constitution and the elimination of the 545 politicans responsible for the trouble the country is in. (See 545 People by Charlie Reese.)