Evidence for a belief in a loving God

Does modern science teach us anything about the religious impulse? Andrew Brown has been attending a conference in Tucson, Arizona, on the study of consciousness.

I have just spent a holiday at a conference on the scientific study of consciousness. My head feels as if it had been stuffed with rocks. There is such an enormous amount now known about the workings of our brains, and it only serves to illuminate how much greater is the extent of our ignorance. Most of the emerging science of consciousness is more or less explicitly anti-religious. John Searle, a noted American philosopher who likes to put away disputed points with the dispatch and brutality of John McEnroe, told an audience of scientists and theologians discussing these matters in Cambridge last autumn: "When the brain goes, I go."

His attitude was certainly the norm at the much bigger conference in Tucson, Arizona, where I was last week. Dualism, which would imply that there was some kind of separate soul-stuff or spirit-stuff, distinguishable from matter, in which our real selves reside, has been thoroughly rejected by both science and philosophy. Even those who believe that consciousness is a fundamental characteristic of the world see it as an irreducible aspect of the universe and not as a separate quickening principle (as in the book of Genesis, for example). The links between body and personality are simply too intricate for us to suppose that personality is something superimposed on the brain, rather than something that grows there.

This is bad news for much traditional religion. The basic assumption among consciousness researchers is one of sturdy atheism, perhaps most vigorously expressed by Dan Dennett, the author of the books Consciousness Explained and Darwin's Dangerous Idea, who is also a notable prophet of artificial intelligence. Yet two themes running through the conference made me suspect that the religious impulse is not easily stamped out by factual knowledge.

The first touches on a taboo subject in America at the moment. Even alcohol is a suspect pleasure there now, let alone the more exotic drugs which everyone was scarfing down 20 or 30 years ago. Yet an extraordinary number of the philosophers, doctors and psychologists at the conference first had their attention turned towards consciousness direction by LSD. One man now employed by a most respectable American university confided that he had been the first person ever arrested in California for dealing LSD after it became illegal. These people had all, one way or another, been confronted with the brute fact of consciousness: the fact that we live in our minds and cannot ever escape into a pure objectivity, as it was one of the myths of the Fifties that we could.

A development of this theme was the extraordinary reverence given to Eastern religious practices. This was not just the case on the fringe, though the conference's fringe of cranks was as fluffy and tangled as anyone could hope. But even in the main sessions there was a large contingent of people who could be described as materialists who meditate, among them several conference speakers. Some of these people had adopted the quasi- religious adoration of DNA popularised by Richard Dawkins, but most of them just seemed able to hold in their minds a belief in strict materialism alongside a faith in enlightenment, pure content-free consciousness, without any apparent discomfort. This seems to me a remarkable tribute to the geometry of the human brain.

On the other hand the Buddhist materialists are undoubtedly right to hold their views from a phenomenological point of view. They experience the world as deterministic and regulated by scientific laws; they also experience the clear light of nothingness. Brain science teaches us that neither experience can be raw, so to say. Both must have been the product of innumerable unconscious transductions and transformations. Why should our knowledge of the external world, which grows more fallible the more we look at it, be viewed as intrinsically more authoritative or reliable than our knowledge of the internal world, from which religious belief arises and is nourished?

This is a question that suggests that religion of some sort is built into the structure of the human mind. There is even some evidence that a belief in a loving God may be. Certainly, all our intellectual faculties appear only after the emotional wiring is in place in the brain; and if those connections do not develop properly, we get intellectually crippling diseases like autism. It would appear that there is some neurological warrant for a belief that love really is the ground of our being.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of a HR Manage...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - HR Consultancy - £65,000 OTE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + £65,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Birmingham, M...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all