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Is God All in Your Head?

Inside science's quest to solve the mystery of consciousness
by Craig Hamilton

Like a lot of people interested in matters of the spirit, I've always had a somewhat conflicted relationship to science. On the one hand, for anyone interested in humanity's further evolution, it's hard not to be excited by the latest findings of a discipline that, in a single century, has managed to cure polio, crack the genetic code, send a probe to Saturn's largest moon, and invent the internet. But on the other, there is something about science's tendency to reduce even life's greatest mysteries to the movements of matter alone that has always left me a little chilled.

It probably goes back to my childhood. Raised by theologically ambivalent parents who were as committed to their agnosticism as many are to their faith, I was taught early on that science, reason, and rationality are a far better guide to truth than inspiration, doctrine, or dogma. But as years passed, and my inbred agnosticism gradually gave way to a committed spiritual quest, I soon began to have experiences of a deeper reality, far beyond anything described in my science textbooks. In the face of this unfolding world of meaning, purpose, and mystery, the notion that science held the keys to ultimate truth began to seem increasingly hard to accept.

I think the tension between these two sides of myself hit its peak during my senior year in college. Having majored in psychology because I thought it would help me understand human nature, I'd spent my first three years judiciously avoiding the “harder” scientific side of the field, focusing instead on the “softer,” therapeutic, social, and humanistic dimensions. So when I finally signed up for the dreaded, mandatory “Statistical and Experimental Methods” course, the last thing I expected was to be interested. But as we sank our teeth into data analysis and experimental design, once-foreign concepts like “statistical significance” and “double-blind control” began to take on an aura of magic for me. Even in our mock experiments, the fact that I could scientifically, experimentally, statistically prove that one hypothesis was right and another wrong acted on my nervous system almost like a drug. By the end of the term, to the disbelief of my friends, I was even considering applying to graduate school in experimental psychology. But as I began to look a bit more closely at what would be involved, I soon came face to face with an almost dogmatic materialism that seemed to grip the entire field. In the end, my interest in higher matters got the better of me, and it was my minor in religious studies and my growing passion for the spiritual quest that ultimately set the course for my life and career.

Although the call of the spirit saved me from a life in the laboratory, however, my sympathies for science haven't gone away. One result of this split personality is that whenever I'm confronted with the battle between science and religion, I always find it hard to take sides and end up in a sort of internal battle of my own. Whether it's the ethical debate surrounding biotechnology or the argument over the anthropic principle* in cosmology, it's as if I have a red-horned skeptic on one shoulder and a white-winged believer on the other, and it's hard to know who to listen to.

Admittedly, the further I look back in history, the less ambiguous it gets. When I think of Giordano Bruno having an iron rod driven through his tongue and being burned at the stake for proclaiming that the universe is populated with other suns just like ours, I don't have much difficulty condemning the Church's narrow-mindedness, to say nothing of its tactics. And there is certainly no doubt in my mind over what the outcome of Galileo's trial should have been. But follow the timeline a little closer to the present, and, for me at least, the picture quickly starts to muddy. Take the evolution vs. creation debate. There are few public expressions of ignorance more annoying than the insistence by fundamentalist Christians that biblical creationism be taught as an “alternative theory of origin” in our public schools. Yet when I see evolutionary biologists using the unproven dogmas of neo-Darwinian theory to convince our kids that they live in a purposeless universe, my sympathies toward science start to fade once again.

Of course, if the science and religion battle were to stop with the debate over biological evolution, I would, in the end, have to come down on the side of science, even if I were to quibble over the interpretation of some of the data. But if current trends are any indication, the battle is not stopping there. Nor does it seem to be calming down. In fact, in recent years, thanks to the ambitions of two influential new scientific disciplines, the attack from the science side seems to have taken a somewhat more insistent turn. And this time, the target is nothing less than our humanity itself.

The first of these emerging disciplines is evolutionary psychology. Originally dubbed “sociobiology” by biologist Edward O. Wilson, this relatively new field of study is responsible for the frequent headlines in Sunday science sections announcing the evolutionary origins of such complex human tendencies as monogamy, moral outrage, and our love of golf. Think Darwin as humanity's psychoanalyst, tracing the psychological quirks of the species to the adaptive challenges we faced in our childhood on the ancient savannah. Armed with this powerful new explanatory tool, a growing throng of theorists are racing to force every aspect of higher human behavior—from altruism to spiritual seeking—through the mechanistic grid of natural selection. As a result, many dimensions of human experience that were once considered to be beyond science's explanatory reach are now coming under the scrutiny of the microscope.

But as effective as evolutionary psychology has been at stretching Darwin's dangerous idea to its logical limit, it is still largely a theoretical discipline, deriving its strength more from the explanatory power of its model than from the testability of its hypotheses. As such, it is, at best, still a moderate weapon in the arsenal of those who aim to scientifically explain the causes of human behavior and experience. For the heavy artillery, however, they need not look far. The thriving field of neuroscience promises to fill that void and then some. Employing powerful new methods for studying the intimate workings of the brain, the pioneers of this increasingly self-assured discipline aspire to demonstrate once and for all that the mind, emotions, and even consciousness itself are entirely generated by the three-pound lump of gray matter in our skulls. For a generation of researchers in this field, the prime directive is to prove what Nobel laureate Francis Crick, who turned to neuroscience after co-discovering the DNA helix, called “the astonishing hypothesis”: That “you, your joys and sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. . . . You are nothing but a pack of neurons.”

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