Book assessment of The Transcendent Brain: Spirituality in the Age of Science by Alan Lightman

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In his new book, “The Transcendent Brain: Spirituality in the Age of Science,” Alan Lightman describes watching the lives of a loved ones of ospreys 1 summer season close to his property on a tiny island in Maine. From his second-floor deck, he observed the chicks in the nest starting to flap their wings, expanding larger and stronger. “All summer season extended, they had watched me on that deck as I watched them,” Lightman writes. Then, 1 afternoon, they took their maiden flight. “They did a wide half-mile loop out more than the ocean and then headed straight at me with tremendous speed.” Lightman was concerned a juvenile osprey, although smaller sized than an adult, nonetheless has effective, sharp talons. “My quick impulse was to run for cover, considering the fact that the birds could have ripped my face off,” he recalls. “But a thing held me to my ground.” At the final moment, when the birds have been inside 15 or 20 feet of him, they veered away and soared upward. “But ahead of that dazzling and frightening vertical climb, for about half a second we created eye make contact with.” Following the young ospreys disappeared, Lightman was shaking and in tears. “To this day,” he observes, “I do not fully grasp what occurred in that half second. But it was a profound connection to nature. And a feeling of getting element of a thing a lot bigger than myself.”

And so the author sets the scene to illustrate his profound sense of spirituality as he experiences nature up close. But Lightman also wishes us to know that he is a materialist and that he is committed to a scientific view of the globe. So in this completely researched, effectively-written but eventually unsatisfying book, he maps out a materialist’s view of personhood that is constant with our experiences of the transcendent.

The 1st element of the book is committed to a ground-clearing exercising, describing the a variety of ideas of the nonmaterial soul that function in numerous various religious belief systems. The author excludes them all, asserting that belief in any sort of nonmaterial, ethereal globe lacks empirical help.

It is as a result not surprising that the notion of a nonmaterial thoughts is also dismissed. Substance dualism — the notion that brain and thoughts are composed of two distinct “substances” — receives brief shrift. All is created of atoms, a claim that leads to a short overview of the history of materialism. The philosopher Lucretius is the hero of the story, and Lightman recounts how the Roman’s performs played a essential function in the improvement of his personal considering.

In recounting the history of materialism, Lightman cites numerous organic philosophers (as scientists made use of to be referred to as), such as Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell and Heinrich Hertz. There is a specific irony in that almost all these cited have been people today of Christian faith — in order of look: practicing Catholic passionate theist committed Church of Scotland and lifelong Lutheran. This tends to make Lightman’s history a small much more complex than it could at 1st seem.

But if atoms are all that exist, then what about consciousness? Right here the author adopts the broadly accepted position that thoughts and consciousness are emergent phenomena of the brain. “Emergence” refers to the “behaviors of complicated systems that are not evident in their person components.”

Lightman appears quite concerned to exclude the feasible “intervention of some further ethereal or psychic force” in his account of the relation among brain and consciousness. The causes for this develop into clearer as he requires the reader “from consciousness to spirituality,” illustrated with additional moving descriptions of his personal transcendent experiences — “majestic and profound” feelings that nonetheless arise “naturally from a material brain” and as a result quantity to a “nonreligious spirituality.”

Nonetheless, the author’s general thesis appears to involve some mistaken assumptions. The 1st is that the belief in a neo-platonic soul is crucial for faith. Correct, as early Christianity spread into a globe dominated by Greek philosophy, this view of the soul became common. But in the 13th century Thomas Aquinas baptized into Christian theology Aristotle’s notion that the soul is the “substantial form” of each living physique, which means the soul accounts for the properties of that unique “substance.” The soul was no longer like a bird in a cage, released from the physique by death — alternatively it was much more wedded to the nature of the physique itself. In addition, the founder of neurology, Thomas Willis (1621-1675), a devout Anglican, did a lot to lay the groundwork for what is now theologically commonplace: human nature as a psychosomatic unity with the soul as the “essential I,” the individual who has capacities for understanding God.

Lightman’s second mistaken assumption is that substance dualism is crucial to religious approaches of understanding personhood. Far from it, house dualism (the notion that the globe includes two distinct forms of properties, mental and physical) and much more monistic concepts (which highlight the tight linkage among brain and thoughts) are popular inside Abrahamic faith communities. The notion of thoughts as an emergent house of the brain has been pioneered by Christian thinkers. And this is absolutely nothing new. When I was undertaking my PhD in neurochemistry at the Institute of Psychiatry, London, in the late 1960s, my understanding of the brain was as mechanistic as Lightman’s, as it nonetheless is, completely constant with my personal theistic convictions.

Hovering behind each mistaken assumptions appears to be the infamous “god of the gaps,” the god in whom Lightman does not think, and neither do I. This is the “god” brought in to fill the gaps in our scientific know-how. But belief in such a god was subverted by Augustine’s well-known comment in 415 AD that “nature is what God does.” The scientists the author cites in his mini-history of materialism have been wedded to this standard theology: There is a thoughts behind the entire produced order, and the process of scientists is to discover God’s creation. God is the supply of all existence.

The “mechanical philosophy” of the 17th century was nurtured by theists: All creation’s components are God’s components. Greek atomism, as popularized by Lucretius, was place via a “theistic filter” by the Catholic priest Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655), who saw atoms as the creating blocks with which God chose to style the universe. As Archbishop William Temple commented in 1939, “Christianity is the most materialistic of all good religions.”

So, the author’s try to justify a merely spiritual rather than religious worldview does not fare effectively, for the easy cause that contemporary science has emerged out of a theological womb in which belief in a individual cosmic thoughts behind all that exists gives the popular thread.

The book as a result leaves us with a query: Are transcendental experiences fated to stay locked inside our heads, as Lightman’s thesis suggests, or can they possibly act as signposts pointing to that cosmic thoughts? Albert Einstein commented that he “stood on the shoulders” of the devout Christian and physicist James Clerk Maxwell, who claimed (in 1856) that the laws of nature themselves are signposts: “essential components of 1 universal technique in which infinite Energy serves only to reveal unsearchable Wisdom and eternal Truth.”

Denis Alexander is emeritus director of the Faraday Institute and emeritus fellow of St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge University.

Spirituality in the Age of Science

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