Faith & Reason: Religious impulses are scientific responses too

Scientists researching the electronic impulses our brains use to carry ideas have hit a glitch in translating matter into spirit. This affects our view of religion

EUGENE D'AQUILI, an American psychologist who died a fortnight ago, was one of the most influential proponents of the argument that we are genetically programmed to develop religious beliefs in a similar way to that in which we are genetically programmed to develop the capacity to speak a language. It is an idea that cuts right across many of the usual battlegrounds in science and religion, because for the most part the strong advocates of genetic explanations are also violently materialist. Religion is meant to be woolly-minded - "spookist" is the latest term of abuse - whereas genes are hard and scientific.

This is related to the battles being fought in psychology to establish consciousness as a legitimate subject of scientific enquiry. There, the battle lines are more confused. Some of the people who hope to explain consciousness scientifically - Francis Crick and Dan Dennett come to mind - believe that a sufficiently clear account from the outside will render accounts from the inside irrelevant.

Others, such as John Searle or Doug Watt, think that the first person perspective is in principle not susceptible to explanations from the outside. So any scientific explanation of consciousness will therefore have to see that first-person accounts explain things that third-person accounts can't in principle embrace. Thus they can all be campaigning for consciousness to be recognised as an important subject for scientific explanation, but with entirely separate expectations of what a victory would mean.

What have these disputes to do with the status of religious belief? They go in fact to the heart of the difficulty convulsing Western religions since Newton at least: the question of what sorts of causes there are in the world. Is matter the only thing that matters? The way this is usually understood, there are two sorts of stuff in the world, matter and spirit, or ghosts and machines. The machines operate according to their own inexorable laws, and the ghosts - which vary in power from mere phantasms to the Holy Spirit - do their stuff in the interstices.

The difficulty with this theory is that there is less and less for the ghosts to do, as our knowledge of the machineries of nature becomes more detailed. One answer, favoured by fundamentalist Protestants, is simply to tell lies about the machinery. Hence the denial of evolution, and the endless chicanery of miracle-working Pentecostalists.

Another is to suppose that all our intuitions about the existence and importance of consciousness are simply false, and that we are no more than patterns of chemical reactions in specialised cells in the brain. For an optimistic view of this, see Crick's The Astonishing Hypothesis; for a more psychologically realistic view, some of the novels of Kurt Vonnegut are in fact written as if we were machines manipulated by chemicals. In one, Breakfast of Champions, the hero keeps reflecting that what he had supposed were his own thoughts and reactions to life were in fact no more than the chemicals in his brain.

To be a machine manipulated by a chemical sounds properly science-fictionish. But in fact it is impossible to write a book from that viewpoint consistently. If you want to analyse the brain as a series of chemical reactions, then fine. But you need to be consistent. There is no personality being pushed around by chemicals; there are only chemical reactions affecting other ones and in their turn being affected in a huge tangled ecology of feedback. If you are going to admit personality at all, it should be analysed in terms of other high-level concepts like ideas, morals, ideals and so on. These are not ghosts in the machine. They are themselves names that we give to particular arrangements of the machinery.

By insisting that ideas are in fact on some level physical things: patterns of chemical or electrical activation, the materialist finds that he has conceded to them the power of affecting the physical world. This concession is entirely unaffected by the fact that we don't know yet and may not know for centuries where an idea in the brain can be found or what it would look like; the dream of a Secret Policeman's Brain Scanner, which would allow me to read out your thoughts from the patterns of electrical and chemical activity in the brain is still a long way off.

In a world where ideas matter - partly because they are arrangements of matter - then it becomes possible for religions to become scientifically important too, not just as delusions but as important ways of understanding the world and of conserving and transmitting these understandings.

This was part of the project on which Eugene D'Aquili was engaged. His theory of "biogenetic structuralism" was wrapped in a jargon hard to penetrate, but its essence was simple. The religious impulse is not only a real part of the world in the sense that it can be mapped in human brains: it responds to realities outside our minds and brains. What is more, it is likely to be a useful and informative response. Otherwise it would have been succeeded by others. The existence of a sense of God, maintained in human populations by natural selection in the same way that a gift for language is, argues that there is something or someone real out there to sense, and to respond to.

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