Review: Conscience

Conscience

Conscience: The Origins of Moral IntuitionPatricia S. Churchland. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. (Forthcoming June 4) 2019.

Summary: Exploring the neuroscience of our sense of right and wrong, integrating our knowledge of neurophysical causation, social factors, and philosophy, arguing that moral norms are based in our brain functions, interacting with our social world.

Conscience. Unless one is significantly cognitively impaired, there is this inner sense we have about what is morally right or wrong, or sometimes this place where we determine right or wrong. Where does this come from? Theists will claim a transcendent basis for this, something written on the heart. Yet, what is written on one heart often varies from another’s. Often we experience uncertainty about these things in our own hearts. Furthermore, those “cognitive impairments” and advancing neuroscience are demonstrating that many aspects of human moral behavior from social bonding and care for others to where one may fall on the political spectrum with regard to moral issues is rooted in the neurophysiology of the brain. Are we conscious actors, or is our moral sense and moral behavior in some way determined by our brain chemistry?

Patricia S. Churchland is one of the pioneers in the field of neurophilosophy–exploring this intersection of neuroscience research and philosophical discussion of questions like ethics and free will. This work is an engaging introduction to her work that moves between discussions of neurotransmitters and a philosophical survey of theories of moral behavior and the question of free will.

She looks at the role of oxytocin in human attachment (“The Snuggle to Survive”), how we are wired for sociality, and how behavior is shaped by the reward system in our brains, and the physiology of empathy. We learn what the brain response to a person eating worms may indicate about political attitudes. Churchland explores the bewildering field of psychopathology–those whose anti-social behavior reflects a lack of moral compass, guilt or remorse–and thus far, our futile efforts to arrive at remedies.

The last two chapters of the book focus on the philosophical questions, and here is where it got really interesting for me. Churchland considers “rule based” moral behavior from the ten commandments to Kant’s categorical imperative to utilitarian-based systems. The flaw, she argues, is that human behavior endlessly deviates from these rules, and there is even significant disagreement on the rules. She argues for a socio-biological basis for moral behavior in which the evolution of our neurophysiology is such that we are well-equipped to engage in social life and behavior that sustains the bonds between us. This leads her to a definition of morality as “the set of shared attitudes and practices that regulate individual behavior to facilitate cohesion and well-being among individuals in the group.”  She seems sympathetic to forms of virtue ethics in which habits of behaving may be modified by particular case constraints.

The final chapter explores free will, and here, Churchland seems to be trying to navigate between those who would fully advocate for free will, and even argue moral certainties, and those who would argue that what we have learned about causation in neuroscience undermines free will, and exonerates criminals from guilt. She argues for the distinction between causes beyond our control and causes under our control, using the example of Bernie Madoff, who was under no compulsion, but knew exactly what he was doing.

Churchland’s discussion in these two chapters also indicated to me some of the concerns that underlie this book. She is deeply concerned about those who tout moral certitudes and also authoritarian approaches that may lead to morally justified abuses of others. She believes that an understanding of how we are “wired” for morally decent behavior shaped by social norms to be superior to such approaches.

As a Christian theist with a deep respect for scientists, and one who shares a sense of being humbled before the realities of our existence, I wonder whether there is a third way between a pure naturalism of “morally decent humans” and a rule-based authoritarianism, whether rooted in ideology or theology. Might we not allow for the possibility that we are indeed “wired” for moral behavior in social contexts that reflect transcendent concerns expressed in the great commands, which are really broad moral statements of principle, to love God and one’s neighbor as oneself? It seems we often get caught in binary discussions of either science or the transcendent. Might there be an approach of both-and that both celebrates the wonderful mechanisms that bond parents and children, or larger social groups, the mechanisms by which we learn what it is to be moral, in all its societal variants; and recognizes the possibility that at least some communal norms might be grounded in transcendent realities that are not occasions for arrogance or authoritarianism, but humility and grace and empathy, and are consonant with the ways we are wired?

I could be wrong, but it was not evident that Churchland has engaged with neurotheologians like Andrew Newberg, (see my review of his book Neurotheology) who covers similar ground. There are many others interested in a conversation rather than a war between science and religious belief, and see the possibility of a kind of consilience that mutes the voice of neither. When I consider Churchland’s account, I find myself marveling anew at the marvels hidden within my own body and am grateful for her exposition of these. I hope going forward, there might be a growing appreciation on the part of neurophilosophers like Churchland, not merely of problematic aspects of rule-based ethics in philosophy or religious teaching (which I will admit exist, just as there are problematic questions in neuroscience), but also the ways religious frameworks of moral teachings have profoundly shaped many communities for good (for example Andre’ Trocme’ and his community of Le Chambon, which hid Jewish refugees during the Holocaust), and helped individuals lead morally worthy lives as people of conscience.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review e-galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

 

 

Review: Neurotheology

neurotheology

NeurotheologyAndrew Newberg. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.

Summary: A survey of the field of neurotheology, arguing for its viability as a field of inquiry, exploring the various research studies on religious and spiritual experience and practice and correlates of activity and changes in various brain structures, and what might be learned at the intersection of religion and neuroscience that may help us understand the most profound questions of our existence.

There has been an explosion of research in the field of neuroscience and related disciplines in the study of the functioning of the brain and how various brain structures interact with everything from autonomic processes like breathing and heart rate, creation and loss of memory, reasoning, stress responses, sexual response, motor skills, language–indeed every aspect of human experience. This includes a growing field of studies of religious experience and a whole host of questions that arise as to whether brain differences account for different experiences, how such experiences change the brain, and even whether the neuroscience of religious experience can account for the religious nature of human beings. Needless to say, such inquiry can both offer deeper insight into the significance of religious practices, rituals and experiences in our lives, and arouse controversy around the fear that neuroscience could “explain away” faith.

In this work, Andrew Newberg navigates this potentially contentious ground by offering us a survey of the work that has been done, the research questions that might be explored, and the potential or actual value that may be derived from this multi-disciplinary approach to studying neuroscience and religion.

Newberg begins by discussing the “happy prison of the brain” within which all of us are trapped and that all of our perceptions of the world come through our senses and are processed by our brains–religious perceptions as well as scientific ones. He contends that an approach that draws upon both has the potential to help us more fully understand what it means to be human and our belief systems and how we experience them.

The early chapters of the book focus on overview, defining neurotheology and the disciplines that contribute to this study, the most relevant neuroscience data looking at different brain functions as they pertain to religious and spiritual experiences and the elements of religion and spirituality that might be studied by the neurotheologian and the tools that may be used in such study. I was struck by how much was defined by what could be studied while in an fMRI scanner, although sensor “helmets,” magnetic fields, as well as survey data are also used. I wonder for example about how one would study various forms of active service in one’s community or one’s ethical behaviors that arise from one’s faith.

Beginning with chapter 6, the focus of the next three chapters are on what various scientific disciplines contribute to our understanding. Evolutionary biology and anthropology helps us understand the evolution of the human brain and known correlates between the development of aspects of religion and the development of specific brain structures. Psychology helps us understand various “cognitive, emotional, attachment, and social elements of religion” and their connection to brain processes. The study of brain pathologies and pharmacology reveal the connection between some forms of brain disorders and some extreme types of spiritual experience. This raises the question of “the God delusion,” although the author notes that if this contention is true, much of humanity is delusional.

Chapter 9 and following turn to elements of religion–the creation of mythic stories, rituals and practices like prayer or meditation. Each of these chapters explore some of the brain processes that connect to the various elements of religion as they have been studied. Then chapter 12 and the remaining chapters focus on some special questions such as whether there may be differences in brain function between religious, “spiritual,” and non-religious persons, what neuroscience reveals about free will (or free won’t, as the author suggests at one point), and the nature of mystical experience, where one experiences transcendence, perceiving that one has escaped one’s body. It is fascinating to see the changes that occur both in the frontal and parietal lobes during such experiences.

The final chapter (15) was perhaps the most controversial to me in the author’s proposal that neurotheology might offer a “metatheology” or “megatheology.” This struck me as at best unhelpful to collaboration between science and faith, suggesting that particular religious or theological perspectives might be subsumed in some universal. This feels a bit like those who claim with smug superiority that all religions really are “different ways up to the ultimate” that they, unlike the poor benighted adherents of particular religions, are enlightened enough to see. Much of this work was characterized by a becoming modesty, that seemed to be suspended at this point. The most charitable interpretation I can place on this is the author’s enthusiasm for this multidisciplinary approach, which made this an informative and engaging read.

Overall, I found this work quite helpful in getting up to speed on the current state of research in this field. I found myself often reading with a sense of wonder at how amazing the brain is that is reading that text (not that I am claiming my brain to be amazing in any distinctive way)! Personally, I think, just as we are wired up to function in so many ways effectively in the world, so it is not incredible that if there is a spiritual dimension to life, we would equally have cognitive capacities to apprehend and experience those realities. I do hope there can be a continuing respectful conversation between scientists and believing people (sometimes they are one and the same!). It is clear we have much to learn from each other!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The World in Six Songs

the world in six songs

The World in Six SongsDaniel J. Levitin. New York: Dutton, 2008.

Summary: Proposes that all the world’s songs can be grouped into six categories, and explores the evolutionary, cultural, and musical reasons for each category.

According to Daniel J. Levitin, I could reorganize the music in my collection into six categories–at least the music meant to be sung.

They are songs of:

  1. Friendship: These are the songs that emphasize the bonds within a group, from the classic “Smokin’ in the Boys Room” to protest songs like “For What It’s Worth” that promoted solidarity around a cause.
  2. Joy: Songs that express delight, the thrill of a wonderful experience, or of just being alive. These include everything from ad jingles like “Sometimes I feel like a nut” to “You are My Sunshine” and often have a TRIP structure (Tension, Reaction, Imagination and Prediction). Singing these songs often releases endorphins  and oxytocin, hormones often release during peak physical experiences including sex.
  3. Comfort: These are the cathartic songs that lift our spirits in times of crisis, from “God Bless America” (during the aftermath of 9/11) to many country and blues songs, that comfort through the release of prolactin, a hormone associated with crying replacing sorrow with a kind of peacefulness and hopefulness for the future.
  4. Knowledge: Many of these are songs that convey information that help us learn everything from the alphabet (A-B-C-D-E-F-G) to counting songs like “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” to “Thirty Days Hath September.” He explores why sung words are so readily remembered (as I found out the Karaoke night when I got called out to sing “American Pie” and discovered I knew most of it from memory!).
  5. Religion: He includes here all the songs we use for the important rituals of our lives such as “Pomp and Circumstance” and “The Wedding March” and why they are not appropriate outside certain settings. He proposes evolutionary origins behind why music may be so powerfully connected to the rituals that express ultimate human concerns.
  6. Love: He explores the paradoxical quality of the romantic songs we sing and how they often express some ideal version of real human relationships. Yet there are others that express more realistically the choices in love, such as Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line,” the line being one between marital faithfulness and philandering.

The author is a researcher in Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University, but has also worked as a professional musician and music producer. What is surprising is that this is not a research-based book. There is no research by Levitin or others cited to justify his six categories. It seems, rather that this is simply his own conceptual schema, which he fills out in this book. Chapters are made up of a mix of musical examples, musical anecdotes including interviews with musicians ranging from Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon to David Byrne and Sting. He also incorporates speculative theory on evolutionary origins of particular aspects and effects of music, and draws on cognitive research on the neurophysiology of music, a field where he has made his own contributions, as may be found on his website.

I found this an interesting but rather “rambling” book. The particular song type of each chapter seems just a starting point for a wide-ranging mix of research, song lyrics and anecdote, that doesn’t always seem well connected, but certainly reflects his wide experiences playing with bands like Blue Oyster Cult, visiting the hotel suite where John Lennon, Yoko Ono, staged their “bed-in” and recorded “Give Peace a Chance,” as well as his explorations of evolutionary biology and cognitive research.

I came across a small factual error where he refers to the four “student protesters” (p. 69) who were killed at Kent State. In actual fact, only two of the four were protesters, the other two were students in the vicinity walking between classes who were not part of the protests. This factual inaccuracy (easily checked online) led me to wonder about the author’s method and how much he relied on recollection as opposed to carefully documented and cross-checked research. I would probably place the highest confidence in those areas most directly related to his own field of cognition.

One of the most moving sections was in his chapter on “Religion.” He writes of attending his Jewish grandmother’s funeral and the powerful effect of singing a version of Psalm 131. He writes:

“It was not the memorial speeches that brought us to tears, not the lowering of her casket into the ground, but the haunting strains of that hymn that broke through our stoic veneer and tapped those trapped feelings, pushed down deep beneath the surface of our daily lives; by the end of the song, there wasn’t a dry cheek among our group. It was this event that helped all of us accept the death of my grandmother, to mourn appropriately, and ultimately, to replace rumination with resolution. Without music as a catalyst, as the Trojan horse that allowed access to our most private thoughts–and perhaps fears of our own mortality–the morning would have been incomplete, the feelings would have stayed locked inside us, where they might have fermented and built up tension, finally exploding out of us at some distant time in the future and for no apparent reason. Grandma was gone; we had shared the realization and etched it in our minds, sealed with a song” (p. 228).

While Levitin’s ideas sometimes get lost in his rambling narratives, his categories and discussion do help us understand the different ways that music powerfully works in our lives, and what might be going on in our brains as it does so.

 

Review: The Mind’s Eye

the-minds-eye

The Mind’s EyeOliver Sacks. New York: Picador USA, 2010.

Summary: Narratives of those who because of optical or neural issues experience distortions in or loss of sight, and how they adapt to such losses.

Neurologist Oliver Sacks left us a series of narratives of neurological impairments and how people with these adapted to life. In this volume he considers cases of visual impairment or loss, describing both a collection of different impairments, some in the eye, some in the brain, and how real people have adapted to losses or changes in this seemingly essential sense.

He begins with a concert pianist who loses her ability to read music. She could remember pieces and play them with perfection, and yet could not make sense any longer of musical notation. In this, as in other narratives, he wrote eloquently, and with admiration of her adaptation:

“Lilian had been ingenious and resilient in the eleven or twelve years since her illness started. She had brought inner resources of every kind to her own aid: visual, musical, emotional, intellectual. Her family, her friends, her husband and daughter, and above all, but also her students and colleagues, helpful people in the supermarket or on the street–everyone had helped her cope. Her adaptations to the agnosia were extraordinary–a lesson in what could be done to hold together a life in the face of ever-advancing perceptual and cognitive challenge. But it was in her art, her music, that Lilian not only coped with disease but transcended it. This was clear when she played the piano, an art that both demands and provides a sort of superintegration, a total integration of sense and muscle, of body and mind, of memory and fantasy, of intellect and emotion, of one’s whole self, of being alive. Her musical powers, mercifully, remained untouched by her disease.”

In succeeding chapters, he describes a patient with receptive aphasia resulting from a stroke, a man who no longer could decode letters into words and sentences, even though he could continue to write them, the challenges of those who are face-blind, a woman who through therapy, achieves stereoscopic vision for the first time in her adult life, and how this changed her perception of the world, and what happens within the brain when a person becomes blind and yet continues to have a “visual sense” of the world– a “mind’s eye.”

Perhaps the most moving was the description of the author’s own experience of visual distortion due to a form of melanoma and eventual loss of stereoscopic vision with retinal bleeding in one eye. He describes the changes in his own perception of the world, his loss of a sense of the existence of half of his visual field, and how he personally adapted to this loss.

Like other books by Saks, he brings together the fascinating world of neuroscience, and the marvelous uniqueness of the human beings whose stories he tells. He helped me marvel at the sense of sight that I take so for granted, and yet could change or be lost for a host of reasons (I need to make that eye check up appointment!). And he helped me appreciate the tremendous ingenuity of individuals, and the fascinating properties of the brain, that enable people to adapt to devastating loss.

Review: The Wired Soul

the-wired-soul

The Wired Soul, Tricia McCary Rhodes. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2016.

Summary: Explores how our communications technology is changing how our minds work in ways that militate against a centered, focused life and introduces practices of reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation that help us attend to God in a distracted world.

There is no question that laptop computers, wireless technology, tablets and smartphones, and other electronic devices in our lives have changed the way we live and think. They provide an unprecedented connectedness (during the recent attack at Ohio State, I learned that 150 friends were “safe” in under an hour thanks to a Facebook app). They give us instant access to information and also to consumer opportunities. They also can be a huge source of distraction. The average person checks a smartphone at least 100 times a day. It cuts into productivity, distracts driving, and even interferes with our sleep.

Tricia McCary Rhodes asks the uncomfortable question of how all this affects our spiritual lives and our ability to pay attention to God. Drawing on some of the latest findings in neuroscience, Rhodes writes that this technology, and our use of it literally rewires the neural pathways in our brains. We read differently, we are more easily distracted, we no longer remember things like phone numbers or directions that we once remembered. This has implications both for how we read and reflect upon the scriptures, our ability to slow down, and focus upon and attend to God.

Rhodes draws upon the Benedictine practice of lectio divina and the four most common elements of this practice, to counter the influences of this technology. In each section, she includes not only some basic discussion of the practice, but also exercises that can be done in 15 minutes to an hour, that take us into spiritual practices, indeed alternative liturgies, to use James. K. A. Smith’s terminology, on which she draws, to help us engage with God. These four elements are and the specific practices are:

  • Lectio. Here she focuses on both slow and reflective reading. In the slow reading, she has us focus on a single paragraph that we read and re-read, and then reflect upon. In retentive reading she introduces a method of Bible memorization.
  • Meditatio. The section on meditation focuses on giving our whole-body attention to God through an exercise that combines breathing, simple motion, and words. The exercise on biblical meditation begins with establishing a clear intention, moves to preparation of the heart, and then uses a set of simple questions to reflect upon a biblical text.
  • Oratio. In this section the focus is on prayer. First, she introduces the examen as a way to “pray the texts of our digital lives” and to consider their influence upon us. Then she turns to considering our relationships and the proportion of virtual to real face to face interactions make up our lives. She concludes with encouraging the practice of table conversation over meals.
  • Contemplatio. Reflects a movement from stillness in the presence of God into action shaped by that awareness of God. She offers exercises that help to enter into that place of resting in God, and then to return to that contemplative place throughout an active day.

Rhodes is not a Luddite, urging us to throw away our tablets and smartphones. Some of the exercises include their use and she speaks both of the helpful uses of this technology, and her own struggles with it. Most of all, Rhodes gives us some helpful practices to keep technology in its place, to keep it from becoming, in Neil Postman’s words, technopoly that controls and shapes our way of life. Christ followers want a Christ-shaped, rather than iPhone-shaped life. In a simple, readable format, Rhodes introduces us to some practices and helps us to ask some challenging questions that help us to embrace the life to which Christ calls us in a wired world.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher . I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Truth About Science and Religion

the-truth-about-science-and-religion

The Truth About Science and Religion, Fraser Fleming, foreword by Gary B. Ferngren. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2016.

Summary: A historical, scientific, and theological survey of the interaction of science and religion around the big questions of purpose, beginnings, the rise of life, the rise of human beings, the nature of mind and consciousness.

“Science and religion are intertwined like DNA. Science and religion provide two perspectives on reality that speak to life’s most fundamental issues: purpose, meaning, and morality.”

With this statement Fraser Fleming, head of the Chemistry Department at Drexel University, introduces this book which explores the intersection and interaction between science and religious faith, often thought to be a highly contended space. The author, however, explores the possibility that these two perspectives may be mutually enriching and together may give us a larger grasp on reality, though not without posing to us challenging questions that go to the core of what it means to be human and to exist in this world.

The first four chapters of the book survey what we know about the cosmology and biology of how we got here and the questions this poses and how science and faith have interacted around these. Chapter one considers the beginnings of the cosmos, the fine-tuning of the universe that has made the rise of biological life possible and the questions of whether this demonstrates a certain design and purpose inherent in the universe and how this is to be understood. Chapter two turns to the very beginnings of biological life on the planet, the emergence of cellular life from some form of pre-biotic soup, how the information code for all of life, DNA, arose, and eventuated in living cells. And how does all this relate to religious accounts including the early chapters of Genesis. Chapter three explores what is known of evolution from single-celled organism up to higher primates and explores the questions of whether randomness and natural selective forces are sufficient to account for the emergence of increasingly complex forms of life. The question is posed of how we are to understand pain and suffering, even before humans came on the scene. This, then leads to chapter four and the rise of human beings including homo sapiens, how we think about the development of religion, the existence of Adam and Eve. In each of the chapters of this section Fleming considers different explanations that have been advanced and ways religion and science have sought to address the fundamental issues of existence without arguing for or directing the reader to a particular conclusion.

Chapter five then takes a more theological turn, and particularly a Christian one, give the author’s own faith perspective. He considers the supernatural in the person of Jesus Christ, where he believes God and human experience intersect in the historical person of Christ. Under this heading he explores prayer, miracles, what he calls “the causal joint” (the intersection of the supernatural with physical processes in the world), and the resurrection.

Fleming then returns to science in chapter six, one of the longest chapters, in which he surveys science from its Egyptian, Babylonian, and Greek roots, and up through the contribution of Islam. He then chronicles the rise of modern science, which he considers significantly aided by Christian premises. He profiles key figures of the modern period from Copernicus to Kepler to Galileo (whose ego leading him to go afoul of certain religious figures may have been much of his problem), up through the differing beliefs of Newton, Darwin, and Einstein. He shows how each engaged religious concerns, and in various ways approached religious faith or skepticism.

Chapter seven then explores the presently emerging field of neuroscience which raises all kinds of questions of what makes us “us.” To what extent is our consciousness, our mental processes connected to the neural networks of our brains? How are we to understand free will? What do we make of mystical and near death experiences, and what of us survives our deaths? From here, we move in chapter eight to a kind of summing up of the different models of how science and religion have engaged, from warfare (actually less common than thought), through separate spheres of inquiry to some form of integration of science and religion. The question is whether religion makes any difference. And this leads to the concluding epilogue where the author relates his own journey to Christian faith, and while admitting that other may see things differently, invites people to explore and seek for themselves.

What I appreciated about this work by a committed Christian was the even-handedness with which he dealt with science, religion, and their interaction. It is clear that as a scientist, he takes scientific inquiry seriously, is willing to look honestly at different explanations, consider hard questions, and leave room for differing conclusions. While it is clearly evident that the author would hope others follow him in embracing Christian faith, one never feels a pressure to do so or that one is being proselytized. I was struck with his honesty posing hard questions, for example why God’s revelation of himself comes so late in human history, and why there is so much pain and suffering before “the fall.”

This spirit of honest exploration of these important questions continues in the discussion questions at the conclusion of each chapter and the diverse recommendations for further readings reflecting a spectrum of views. His discussion presses skeptics, explorers, and people of faith to go deeper and wrestle with tough and important questions. I would highly commend this to groups of faculty, or others who are scientifically literate who are concerned about how science and faith address the most important questions of existence.

Review: What Your Body Knows About God

what your Body Knows

What Your Body Knows About GodRob Moll. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: Explores how our neurophysiology enables us to connect to God and others and how spiritual practices, liturgies, and opportunities to serve enable us to physically as well as spiritually thrive.

Believing people have long contended that to be human is to be made for God–to commune with God, to live in the world for God. Rob Moll, in this fascinating book, shows how the latest neuroscience and physiological research show how indeed our bodies seem disposed to spiritual seeking and living that spiritual life in the physical world.

For example: contemplative prayer practiced over eight weeks results in people who are more compassionate and observable changes occur in the brain. We are born connectors with an inborn capacity for relationship. Children who experience deeply love and mentoring in multi-generational Christian communities most often go on in adulthood to mature faith (my own story). Mirror neurons enable us to sense the mental states of others. The social nature of our brains suggests that our believing and belonging are connected. The powerful neurotransmitters secreted in our experiences of intimate love, whether mother and child, loves, or more darkly with various forms of pornography re-wire our brains for deep intimacy or auto-erotic isolation. It is often in our deepest weakness and physical suffering that we experience the most profound spiritual transformation.

Spiritual disciplines work by physical practice that shape our desires and emotions. The combination of social and multi-sensory experience (bodily movement, sound, smells, visuals, taste, and more) all combine to shape our knowledge of God. Serving others is indeed deeply satisfying and more so than self-indulgence. Moll summarizes his findings in this way:

     “Our physical bodies, down to the wiring in our brains and the genes in our cells and the chemicals filling the synapse between neurons, need this kind of faith. We have been designed for it. We are made to perceive and connect to God in a way that changes our very nature. And these changes are made most manifest in the tangible ways that we care for one another. As we connect with God and invite others to join this life of prayer, worship, community and service, we align our biological and spiritual selves with the Creator of the universe and the most fundamental guide for life–loving God and loving others” (p. 201).

It strikes me that there are two ways to respond to the knowledge Moll describes. One is the direction Moll goes which is to recognize the deep wisdom in the scriptures and centuries-long traditions of the church. The other could be scary, a form of psycho-social engineering of experience to manipulate spiritual experience. One treats people as free agents made for God and seeks their flourishing by inviting them into the wisdom of the Way which is also a wisdom of the body. The other manipulates people, using knowledge of neurophysiology to control responses and devotion. It is the method of cults and fanatical movements.

Moll doesn’t discuss the latter, but understanding the true has not only its own benefits, but also helps us recognize the counterfeits and the power of the spurious. Perhaps this is also knowledge the body needs.

 

Review: Musicophilia

MusicophiliaMusicophiliaOliver Sacks. New York: Vintage Books, 2008.

Summary: Renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks chronicles the neuroscience of music–the various ways music affects the brain, and the unusual effects of various neurological conditions on our perception, performance, and experience of music.

Oliver Sacks died on August 30 of this year. A few months earlier, my son gave me this book, and it seemed especially appropriate to pull it off the “to be read” pile and acquaint myself with the work of this neuroscientist and physician. Before opening the book, I had one of those heart-stopping moments as I found myself staring at the cover picture of Sacks and thought I was looking at a doppelganger! I guess balding men with graying beards, glasses and a certain shape of head can look a bit like each other.

What Sacks does is chronicle the fascinating ways music and the brain interact and some of the unusual conditions that involve unusual responses to music. In the course of this book he explores a range of phenomena beginning with a sudden onset of musical interest following a lightening strike, the ways music might evoke seizures or suppress the tics of Tourettes or the shaking of Parkinson’s. He wonders whether the advent of iPods will result in more brainworms–those tunes we can’t get out of our heads.He describes musical hallucinations, where one hears music in one’s head even when none is playing.

He explores musicality from tone deafness to perfect pitch (which occurs more in musical families and where musical training begins early) and synesthesia, where music is associated with color. He explores the connections between music, memory and movement. He describes Clive, who because of brain infection that affected his temporal lobes lives in a perpetual present with no memory of past moments. Yet somehow he remembers music he knew in the past.

Perhaps a highlight of the book was his description of a camp for people with Williams syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects the development of the brain resulting in low IQs and yet incredible verbal and musical skills. He describes the delight these people had in talking and making music with one another.

In one of the concluding chapters he describes the work done with Alzheimer’s patients and how, for them as well, music is a connection to memories of the past, and an anchor to their no-longer remembered lives that is profound. He talks about “the loss of self” and how music helps Alzheimer’s patients connect to some sense of “self” when the other memories are gone.

The book left me in wonder at the intricacies of the human brain and how the neural circuitry related to our perception, memory of, and making of music interact with speech, thought, emotion, and other memories. And it reminded me of the power of music–a power to evoke emotions, memories, and even to address troubling neurological conditions. It reminds me of how when I am learning, singing and performing a piece of music, I find myself tapping into a different aspect of who I am from when I am simply speaking or writing or reading. And I found myself thankful for the life of Oliver Sacks, who cared for people with troubling conditions and brought together his love for his patients, his skills in research, and his own musicality and life history into this fascinating narrative of music and the human brain.

The Month in Reviews: March 2015

This month I reviewed a dozen books (no, not a baker’s dozen–just a real dozen). My reviews included a couple books on higher education, both recommending a form of “unbundling”. There was an account of Jeff Bezos and the birth of Amazon, a couple of books exploring the paradoxical character of Christian experience, an unusual crime novel, a history of the clashes between Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall that defined the Supreme Court, a book on neuroscience, and several books exploring theological topics ranging from political witness to suffering to whether we can still believe the Bible.

What it comes down to is that I find a wide range of things interesting. Even so, I’ve also had the recent experience of refusing several people who wanted me to review their books–either because it was outside my range of expertise, or interest. I guess I still like the idea of defining what I think will be interesting to read and review!  Anyway, here is the month’s tally, along with my best book and best quote of the month:

1. College Unbound by Jeffrey Selingo. The first of two books I read about the challenges confronting higher ed. Of the two, I think this gives the broadest survey of innovative approaches being taken to “unbundle” higher ed.

College UnboundThe Everything StoreChristian Political WitnessFrom London Far2. The Everything Store by Brad Stone. A fascinating chronicle of the rise of Amazon, the relentless passion of Jeff Bezos to serve the customer, and the line between genius and hubris that he walks.

3. Christian Political Witness by George Kalantzis and Gregory W. Lee (eds.). This is a collection of papers from the 2013 Wheaton Theology Conference exploring a variety of perspectives on Christian engagement in the political realm.

4. From London Far by Michael Innes. A rather far-fetched plot of an Oxford don and a fetching woman scholar who fall into and try to subvert a plot to steal antiquities and art from throughout Europe.

5. The Steward Leader by R. Scott Rodin. Rodin develops a model of leadership around the idea of the steward that challenges the transformational, transactional, and servant leader models.

Minds, BrainsCan we still believe the BibleGrand Paradoxsteward leader6. The Grand Paradox by Ken Wytsma. The author explores the mysteries and apparent contradictions that come with the life of faith.

7. Can We Still Believe the Bible by Craig Blomberg. Blomberg takes on the critics and debunkers of the Bible and makes a scholarly case for the Bible’s trustworthiness.

8. Minds, Brains, Souls, and Gods by Malcolm Jeeves. A career professor of psychology explores the brave new world of neuroscience and the questions about the nature of being human and belief in God being raised by the contemporary research.

9. What Kind of Nation by James F. Simon. Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall clashed over the developing shape of American Federal government with Marshall playing a crucial role in upholding both a strong Federal government and a strong Supreme Court whose power of judicial review balances the powers of the other branches of government.

What Kind of NationA Glorious DarkCollege DisruptedSuffering10. A Glorious Dark by A. J. Swoboda. Another book exploring the paradox of our glorious hope revealed in the tension between the darkness of Good Friday, the waiting of Saturday, and the wonder of Easter Sunday.

11. College Disrupted by Ryan Craig. Craig describes the “unbundling” of higher education in the face of cost and value pressures, particularly through the use of innovative educational technologies including “competency management platforms.”

12. Suffering and the Search for Meaning by Richard Rice.  The book surveys seven ways Christians have dealt with the problem of suffering, assessing strengths, weaknesses, and how we might draw from all of these in coming up with our own ways of making sense of suffering.

Best of the Month: I would have to choose A Glorious Dark, because of the honesty and depth of the writing that explored the Triduum and the paradox of the glory of our faith revealed through the suffering of the cross.

Best quote of the Month: I liked this quote on the proper tension of engagement in the political process that Christians must seek, by former Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Kenya, David Gitari, cited in Christian Political Witness:

“Our relationship with powers that be should be like our relationship with fire. If you get too close to the fire you get burnt, and if you go too far away you will freeze. Hence stay in a strategic place so that you can be of help. You can support the authority, but when they become corrupt you can criticize fearlessly.”

In the month ahead, I will be reviewing a book on shalom in higher education, another book on paradox and faith, a new book on nonviolence by Ron Sider, some historical fiction of Edith Pargeter, and a recent history of Africa (if I get through it in April) and a collection of essays on Christology by majority world authors. Happy reading!

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Review: Minds, Brains, Souls, and Gods

Minds, BrainsSummary: A discussion, cast in the form of a conversation, of the latest findings in psychology and neuroscience, and their implications for what it means to be human and for what it means to believe in God. Written for the thoughtful undergraduate, it is helpful for students in these fields and others concerned about the implications of neuroscience research for faith.

Is there such a thing as free will or are all our thoughts and actions determined by chemical reactions within our neural networks? Do studies showing activity in specific centers of the brain when one is engaged in religious activity demonstrate that the quest for God is simply a genetically, physically determined activity. Given the increasingly close linkages between physical structures and processes in the brain, and our thoughts and actions, is there anything that makes me me apart from those structures? What about the soul?

Recent research in neuroscience and psychology raises all of these questions. In this book, Malcolm Jeeves discusses these as both a scientist and believing Christian. The book is cast as a conversation, an exchange of emails between Malcolm and a student named “Ben”, discussing a succession of questions that arise for Ben in the course of his studies in psychology. I found this a helpful form for presenting the latest research and exploring the Christian implications of that research. He explains the latest research findings in terms educated lay persons can grasp.

He begins with a discussion of how one should think of the field of psychology and notes that the Freudianism and behaviorism of prior generations (what I learned in my own psych courses) has given way to cognitive psychology heavily influenced by neuroscience research. He goes on to explore the question of the connection of mind and brain, arguing for the mind and consciousness as an emergent property of the brain that cannot simply be reduced to brain processes, allowing for “top down” influences. This leads to a discussion of free will, where he argues against the kind of determinism that makes all our actions, including writing books and proposing theories, as simply the “chattering of neurons.” He then discusses social influences on cognitive processes and this contributes to Jeeves contention that there are multiple levels of explanation for psychological processes.

Jeeves turns to a discussion of the soul and argues that the best understanding of this is to translate nefesh, the Hebrew for soul, as “living creature”. In Genesis, this is used of animals as well as humans.  What Jeeves would argue for, and where others, particularly dualists, will differ (and he acknowledges this) is for what he calls “dual aspect monism”–that mind or soul and body are two aspects of one being–we do not have souls, we are embodied souls. But for him, this allows him to see mental states as closely connected to physical processes without denying something essential to being human.

Succeeding chapters then explore various questions around the nature of being human from near death experiences to our moral sense and altruism, and our usage of language. In a number of these areas, Jeeves notes both similarities with animals, particularly chimpanzees, and the stark differences between us and them.

One thing to be noted is that in all of this, Jeeves is responding to research being done and its implications, a very helpful process. At the same time (and perhaps this could not be done in one book) I would have liked to see some thought given to how Christian premises might uniquely influence the research questions one asks in these fields–what does Christian thought contribute to psychological and neuroscience research?

The closing chapters explore questions of neuroscience and belief and whether belief can be reduced to the physical processes at play when persons engage in religious activity and that may be more prevalent in those of a religious nature. Jeeves is careful here to acknowledge the work being done in this area and that further research will likely yield an even fuller picture of these processes. At the same time he contends that the question of the reality of a God or gods is not something that can be proven or dismissed on the basis of this evidence. As a Christian, he would contend that these are matters that rest on the historical evidence for the acts of God in history including the death and resurrection of Jesus.

This last is one of the great values of the book. Jeeves both argues for the value of neuroscience research and against the hegemony of any particular area of science (levels of explanation) or of science as a whole over and against other ways of knowing. He provides a thoughtful model of measured conversation bringing both scientific research and the best of Christian thought together, free of neither sensationalistic claims or knee-jerk responses.