The Corner

David Brooks Today

Very interesting piece by David Brooks today. He’s certainly been doing some good human-sciences reading, though Pinker’s an odd omission from his list. Yogi Berra syndrome perhaps: “Nobody goes there any more, it’s too crowded.”

My own strong impression, most recently from that Tucson conference, is that what Brooks calls “the neuroscience revolution” has been considerably oversold. There are a lot of bitty experimental results, some of them very suggestive, and some plausible attempts at grand theories (Global Workspace, or Penrose/Hameroff’s “quantum neurobiology“) that sure are fun to talk about, but are still data-light. The metaphysical problems of mind are, as I say in the current NRODT, still pretty much where they were when ‘Omer smote ‘is bloomin’ lyre.

Brooks’ remarks about institutional religion are, I think, sensible. Human beings are spiritual creatures, and that side of our nature must find nourishment. That the big old institutional faiths – Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism – will continue to provide that nourishment is open to reasonable doubt. We are more and more accustomed to high evidentiary standards in our work and leisure – if only from watching courtroom dramas on TV or doing quality control and evaluative work. Each of us has his own threshold of credulity, of course, but it’s hard to believe the average hasn’t been creeping up, and will continue to do so. This saps away at faith in the magical and miraculous, without which the big old religions are holed below the water line.

Probably Brooks is right, or part-right. Reflective people will indeed turn to a sort of “neural Buddhism,” some kind of organized system of spirituality that doesn’t require us to believe in incredible occurrences in the remote past, or in the individual personality surviving death. For the unreflective, Chesterton’s rule will kick in, and people will drift off into Wiccanism, Scientology, or The Secret.

This could be an interesting century for religion; and not necessarily (David Brook’s guess, and mine) in ways that would gladden the heart of either Richard Dawkins or Benedict XVI.

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