Wednesday, December 26, 2007

What Your Brain Looks Like on Faith

Sam Harris, Neuroscience researcher and author of "The End of Faith" and "Letter to a Christian Nation," recently co-authored a study entitled "Functional Neuroimaging of Belief, Disbelief and Uncertainty." And Time.com has an interesting article about it:

Harris tested how the brain responded to assertions in seven categories: mathematical, geographic, semantic, factual, autobiographical, ethical and religious. All seven provided some useful data, but only the ones relating to math and ethics produced results clear enough to give a vivid picture of the way the simple and the complex, the subjective and the objective intertwine. Regardless of their content, statements that the subjects believed lit up the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (VMPC), a location in the brain best known for processing reward, emotion and taste. Equally "primitive" areas associated with taste, pain perception and disgust determined disbelief. "False propositions may actually disgust us," Harris writes.

Is there a practical application here? He speculates that if belief brain scanning were sufficiently refined it could act as an accurate lie detector and help control for the placebo effect in drug design.

Harris says there is no critique of faith hidden somewhere in his brief paper. But his next neurological enterprise may be another matter. He is planning an fMRI run that will concentrate specifically on religious faith, which Harris thinks he now knows how to plumb more deeply. He also plans to set up two different subject groups — the faithful and non-believers. "That way," among other things, he says, "you can ask, 'Do believers believe that Jesus was born of a virgin the same way that nonbelievers believe that Chevrolet makes cars and trucks?'" It may turn out that the brain treats religious faith as its own special category of belief unlike ethics and math.

But that is not what Harris expects to find. He suspects the machines will show that "belief is belief is belief." And that conclusion, he admits, may put him at loggerheads with familiar foes. No one, he says, could accuse him or anyone else of trying to disprove God's existence on the basis of an fMRI. But faith is more vulnerable. "People who feel that religious faith is a singular operation of the brain — if they admit that it's an operation of the brain at all — would object to what I'm doing, since it may show that faith is essentially the same as other kinds of knowing or thinking. The whole thing will seem fishy to anyone who thinks we have immaterial souls running around in our bodies."

7 comments:

wade419 said...

um.

You probably know that this kind of topic piques my interest, but I'm not sure I understand the last part of the article. How will proving that "faith is essentially the same as other kinds of knowing or thinking" be fishy to believers? I for one am not expecting some evidence of a supernatural connection to show up on an fMRI...am I missing something here?

breakerslion said...

What makes this any different from any of the findings in Neurotheology? If the conclusions do not support the mystic hooha, they will be ignored.

AtomicPunk said...

I'm personally an agnostic humanist, which means I find religious zealotry in all its forms distasteful, which, as I see it, includes extreme athiesm (no offense but on the whole athiest fanatics seem to be just as cold and offensive as any other type of religious fanatic). When a person asks "what happens after death" anyone sufficiently intelligent can tell you there's no data either way. This casts doubt not just on theistic interpretations, but also on the atheist contention that there's nothing at all. Atheism is just the religion of the null set.

I don't mean to sound rude, because in the end I have to admit I think atheism has a better support base of evidence, but I would like to point out that the question of "is there something after death" is more of an emotional question than an intellectual one. So no manner of logical argument will ever make a difference unless you acknowledge the emotional side.

I find it sad that so many well known atheists have simply adopted the tactics of their enemy; case in point: God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens. You'll never win the debate by aggressively polarizing the issue. "The meek shall inherit the earth" is pretty wise all in all.

Aaron Kinney said...

Re: AtomicPunk,

Atheism is just the religion of the null set.

Calling atheism a religion is like calling baldness a hair color.

...I would like to point out that the question of "is there something after death" is more of an emotional question than an intellectual one. So no manner of logical argument will ever make a difference unless you acknowledge the emotional side.

Care to support that assertion?

Anonymous said...

I just don't see how you atheists sleep at night. can you really imagine death the way you see it? I have, imagine no sight no thought, NOTHING. Now I was agnostic for a long time but the knowledge never left me that there was a creator and and more than the physical plane. there are fruitful researches going on that are starting to show us that we are more than just a pile of flesh when we go. The works of scientists like Albert Einstein show that the physical world broken down beyond the atom is traces of energy rather than solid pieces, this may the border of where the physical world ends and nonphysical begins. Not to say one religion, reincarnation, or whatever is true. In fact the confusion of it is what made me agnostic, but there is no way that we are just a coincidence of evolution when you think about it.

Aaron Kinney said...

Re: Anonymous,

I just don't see how you atheists sleep at night. can you really imagine death the way you see it? I have, imagine no sight no thought, NOTHING.

Yea, it will be just like before you existed. There was a time you didnt exist either.

Anonymous said...

Care to argue anything else I just posted Aaron Kinney. more scientists are looking for after life proof, some of the findings may put you atheists in an awkward position. Not to say we are right and you are wrong conclusively but we are trying to prove what we believe. Our biggest hurtle is that we are physically trying to prove something non physical you got us there but I don't see you guys debunking it either. So only time will tell with the research.