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Book Review: The God Part of the Brain: A Scientific Interpretation of Human Spirituality and God by Matthew Alper

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Matthew Alper begins The God Part of the Brain with an explanation as to why belief in a supernatural being is important. If God does not exist, absolutes do not exist. For the most part, he says that our laws, our morals … are as flawed and imperfect as the humans who created them. Any notion of good or evil, truth or falsehood would be left to the subjective interpretation of each individual. These concepts become relative terms.

Death would provide a constant anxiety we could never escape. This angst includes not only fear of dying at some remote future time but also the immediate, daily fear of death by sheer happenstance: accident or disease. We see the fate of both old and young: the elderly die, sometimes in agony; we see the young die, maybe with leukemia or in an automobile accident. Alper posits that this fear of non-being would gnaw so heavily on our consciousness that it would destroy evolutionary development, leaving our race to face emptiness, meaninglessness, and ultimate despair.

Next, The God Part of the Brain explains that unlike religious beliefs, the scientific method has provided mankind with a systematic way of observing, testing, and measuring reality as it is perceived by our brains through our senses. Alper only allows himself to believe whatever science can discover about God, including the very nature of this deity from a strictly physical, that is, from a scientific perspective.

From his perspective of a time-line dating back to the Big Bang, Alper emphasizes that science has now explained the origin and evolution of the entire physical universe. This would include the 3.5 billion years of evolution of terrestrial life leading up to the appearance of thinking, conscious man. Yet, every truth mankind knows as certainty has come strictly from science; what we can know with conviction about God is this: God is a three letter word on a page.

Alper explores behavior patterns characteristic of brute animals. Those exhibiting the same instinctual behaviors must be genetically wired to do so, he says. One example he gives is the intense labor behavior in an ant colony. Here, some insects are born to be workers, others become soldiers, some forage for food, one becomes the exalted queen. Without this innate caste system, the ant colony could not survive. Evolution has worked its miracle on these tiny creatures, building into their nervous systems the specific role each will play so that the fittest colonies survive.

Likewise, Alper claims that human animals exhibit predisposed behavior patterns. Although he gives many others, a few example patterns would be: the creation of puberty rites, funeral rites, marriage customs, legal codes, sexual taboos, trade relations, penal sanctions, gift-giving. He would also include abilities such as speech, music creation, math computation, religious beliefs – although false, as evolutionary wired-in behavior patterns. Complex, involuntary, genetically inherited reflexes are responsible for all human expression of emotional states.

Are we really that anthropocentric to believe that we are above the same laws of nature that bind each and every one of our evolutionary ancestors?

The God Part of the Brain reasons that if evolution had not genetically built in a genuine but false belief in the supernatural, all motivation for self-preservation of our species would be gone. In order to survive the hopelessness of death, the first humanoid had to develop a coping mechanism — a God center within its brain, however primitive — or become extinct: "(God is) … a coping mechanism that compels us to believe in an illusory reality to help us survive our unique awareness of death."

With this adaptive function within its corresponding physical part of the brain, the human race has been able to evolve–living and developing as if there is some ulterior reason to be. Man no longer needs to linger in lethargy, only to die by old age, sickness, his own hand, or the hand of immoral others. Although make believe, God is an entity projected out there from sheer necessity.

I can truthfully say that The God Part of the Brain is an easy book to read. While somewhat philosophical and scientific, it is written in terms most any adult could read.

A technical background is unnecessary to follow Alper’s reasoning, or his fascinating concepts. The book is extremely thought-provoking and could be enthusiastically read as an introduction to college level courses in logic, basic philosophy, biology, evolution, and religion.

Atheists admire the work for its assertion that God is a figment of the human thinking process and nothing more. On the other hand, Christians are drawn to the book to disprove Alper’s disturbing theory, so they can persist with their methodical religious beliefs and practices.

As a reviewer, the book fascinated me, but I had a problem with Alper’s main theory from the very first few pages. Here’s why. If evolutionary adaptation instills in our brain the false notion of the supernatural so mankind has a reason to survive, why was continued existence necessary in the first place? Without it, humans would have become extinct—finis—kaput—the end!

For some reason, The God Part of the Brain almost suggests purpose was involved in human adaptive evolution – it seems important that man survived. Also, how then can an atheist exist? Evolutionary adaptation should have weeded non-believers out aeons ago. Alper would explain that all human traits and characteristics fall within the parameter of the normal bell curve: "On the opposite end of this same curve are those we might call spiritually deficient, those born with an unusually underdeveloped spiritual function."

He claims that atheists fall at the lower end of the standard deviation of the religious bell curve. These folks are spiritually deficient in the same manner that some people are musically deficient. They have little or no talent nor are they able to appreciate melodies.

To this reviewer, Alper’s solution is problematic. Evolutionary adaptation of a God brain center so the species can survive is quite different than adaption of a music center. In the former case, non-adaptation would lead to extinction and evaporation of being. In the latter case, it would simply lead to some humans developing with more talent than others.

I would be very interested in what other readers think about the book itself and my own comments in these last paragraphs. Remarks can be left below this article by scrolling to where it says: Add Your Comment; Speak Your Mind.  

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About Regis Schilken

  • duane

    Interesting stuff, Regis, Nice synopsis, well peppered with your own arguable assessments. A few comments:

    Alper emphasizes that science has now explained the origin and evolution of the entire physical universe.

    Well, not quite.

    Yet, every truth mankind knows as certainty has come strictly from science;

    Science doesn’t deal in “truths.” Scientists know nothing with what most people would call certainty. What humans know about the physical universe is all based on models. Even if a model works extremely well, there is always the likelihood that it is an approximation to “the truth.” The history of science bears this out.

    The God Part of the Brain reasons that if evolution had not genetically built in a genuine but false belief in the supernatural, all motivation for self-preservation of our species would be gone.

    I’ve heard this before. I’m not yet ready to believe it. The tendency toward self-preservation at the species level might be based upon much more immediate concerns than those stemming from philosophical meanderings originating in higher-brain function, such as a sex drive, just for example.

    If evolutionary adaptation instills in our brain the false notion of the supernatural so mankind has a reason to survive, why was continued existence necessary in the first place?

    I think this is somewhat bogus. Natural selection at work does not imply necessity, as if there were a purpose to it all.

    Also, how then can an atheist exist?

    Atheists just wanna have fun. That leads to procreation. Simple as that.

    He claims that atheists fall at the lower end of the standard deviation of the religious bell curve. These folks are spiritually deficient in the same manner that some people are musically deficient. They have little or no talent nor are they able to appreciate melodies.

    I’m not buying that. It’s a gross over-simplification. I do accept the notion of the bell curve. I don’t buy the underlying assumption that it’s one-dimensional.

    Evolutionary adaptation of a God brain center so the species can survive is quite different than adaption of a music center.

    Not necessarily. Recent studies have suggested that those “selected” to possess artistic ability have an enhanced attractiveness to the opposite sex based on a hard-wired disposition.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    I’d be surprised if some of the smarter primates and cetaceans didn’t have an awareness of mortality – if not pertaining to the individual then at least in general. Chimpanzees in particular surprise us all the time with displays of intelligence, ingenuity and cleverness of which we hadn’t previously believed them capable.

    Yet, as far as I’m aware, none of these species has ever been observed in any sort of religious behavior. (African elephants, possibly, have – although it’s important to avoid ascribing an anthropic motivation to what they do when they ‘mourn’ their dead.)

  • Robert Westafer

    Brain Identity

    Suppose we have all been misled by language invented by our predecessors and the simple truth turns out to be that we are not “human beings” or “persons” but rather human brains that are intimately connected to all the organs and other parts of the particular human body in which we reside.
    What if the word “person” and the “personal pronouns” we commonly use such as “I”, “me”, “we”, “you”, etc. are only linguistic inventions of human brains that for one reason or another were unable to identify themselves correctly as actually being human brains?
    It can be shown that a human brain has the ability to create and use spoken and written language through the use of certain areas of cerebral cortex located usually its left hemisphere. Strokes or other damage in these areas cause impairment or loss of a human brain’s ability to produce and understand spoken and written language. Precisely which linguistic abilities are impaired or lost in any given instance and to what degree depends upon the exact location and extent of the brain damage.
    We know that every human brain and body has been built from a new combination of parental DNA that resulted from the union of a particular egg and a particular sperm which formed a single new cell; and over about a nine month period the information stored in the DNA inside that first new cell allowed it to divide and grow into trillions of new cells of various types, all of which were organized into the complexity of nature that in our linguistic simplicity we refer to as a newborn baby.
    We also know that having been built by DNA, each brain and body – beginning even during the building process and continuing ever after – has been continually modified by an enormous amount of environmental variables and experience which includes the present moment.
    Suppose for the sake of argument that I actually am a human brain that is continuous with a spinal cord and connected through nerves to all the organs and other parts of the body in which I reside. Such an identity may take a bit of time getting used to. But if that is my true identity, does that fact automatically mean that it is impossible for anything else to exist that is not made of atoms and molecules like I am? Or is it possible that something might exist that may be many orders of magnitude more intelligent and powerful than I am? Is it possible that something might exist that is in some way related to the awesome complexity of nature that is evident in the cosmos and can be seen throughout the living world on our planet and of which I am a part? Is that something that human brains might choose to call a “Supernatural Power”, or perhaps “God”?
    I am thrilled to be able to understand the basics of what I am and how I came into existence. But having such an understanding does not somehow automatically enlighten me as to the nature of everything else that may or may not exist.
    If I am only linguistically a “human being” or a “person” – a fictional entity invented by my predecessors that does not exist except in language, and that can be theoretically thought of as perhaps “owning” a brain and a body – but in reality I am actually a particular human brain that has been built by my DNA and modified by a ton of experience and that is intimately connected to and living within a particular human body, my body, then the brain inside my head – the brain that thinks precisely what I think, feels exactly what I feel, remembers everything that I remember, knows what I know, and has experienced everything that I have experienced – that brain located behind my forehead and inside my skull cannot be called “my brain”, as if I am somehow a separate entity that “owns” that brain, because that brain is, in fact, “me”.

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy

    Professor Gerald Schroeder deals with this issue in his various books, “Genesis and the Big Bang”, The Science of God”, and others, but to be precise, he dealt with how the brain receives consciousness of the Almighty at a lecture he gave at the Israel Center some years ago. I was master of ceremonies and made extensive notes of the lecture. Dr. Schroeder went over those notes, correcting my errors.

    Concerning the brain, Dr. Schroeder explained,

    You may see a house, a garage with an open door and a car parked within the garage. Your eye picks up the vision of the light waves and transmits it using the optical nerve to go to the brain to interpret the house, garage and car. But where does the actual picture go? Nobody seems to know where. They know where they can go to put an electrode to get you to describe the house, garage and car in excruciating detail. But the actual image itself nobody – except the owner of the brain being tested – can reach.

    This has an implication. The implication is that the brain is kind of a radio picking up the data of the mind. The implication is that the mind is separate from the brain. Scientists can go only so far in this description, but Dr. Schroeder quoted scientist after scientist, most of whom were Nobel Prize winning physicists and biologists, indicating in one way or another that the universe had the characteristic of thought rather than matter, that the materialistic view of the universe was in some way not explaining the data at hand. He pointed out that some scientists had a lot of trouble embracing the idea that the universe was thought – that’s metaphysics. But there was the data.

    I ended the article (which was an explanation of Dr. Schroeder’s lecture) with

    The following is what I understood Dr. Schroeder to be leading up to, though he did not say this himself at the lecture.

    We are emerging from a false perception of the universe to finally begin to perceive its true nature – the Thought of G-d. This is the point of the word b’reishít at the beginning of the Torah. This is why we can’t seem to find so many sub-atomic particles whose presence are sensed and detected. They are products of Mind, of the Thought that brought the universe into existence 15 billion years ago with a Big Bang. If this is so, our brains are physical tools to access this Thought, which we add to with our own experiences in the lives we lead. And then once we pass on, hopefully we are gathered to our people with an opportunity to understand more of that Thought and move on to the next stage.

    This is a five year old lecture, and information has been gathered since then to modify the concepts that Dr. Schroeder presented in July, 2004. But it appears, from what little I know, that the evidence for the universe being Mind rather than Matter has grown stronger rather than weaker, further backing up the idea that the brain is a receptor for data from a Universal MInd – the Mind of G-d.

  • Rege Schilken

    Interesting comments, Ruvy!

    “We are emerging from a false perception of the universe to finally begin to perceive its true nature – the Thought of G-d. This is the point of the word b’reishít at the beginning of the Torah. This is why we can’t seem to find so many sub-atomic particles whose presence are sensed and detected. They are products of Mind, of the Thought that brought the universe into existence 15 billion years ago with a Big Bang.”

    If we are moving toward the next stage, I wonder what that might be? I’m convinced that the REASON we search for the unknown is because we have a HINT that there is an answer. It is this HINT that keeps each generation, each person, each scientist hunting for answers to their questions.

    A wonderful book written by Michael Polanyi (physicist/philosopher) titled, PERSONAL KNOWLEDGE, points out this search. When science seeks its answers by first stating a hypothesis and then trying to prove or disprove it (null hypothesis), this certainly seems to be true.
    Regis

  • Rege Schilken

    Regarding Robert Westafer’s comment above:

    “Or is it possible that something might exist that may be many orders of magnitude more intelligent and powerful than I am? Is it possible that something might exist that is in some way related to the awesome complexity of nature that is evident in the cosmos and can be seen throughout the living world on our planet and of which I am a part? Is that something that human brains might choose to call a “Supernatural Power”, or perhaps “God”?”

    Seems that a certain consciousness pervades the universe — perhaps keeps it in existence. I think one of the reasons why the ultimate particle cannot be found is that it is an object of our consciousness.

    The directions that science keeps hunting for — that instructs DNA — that tell an arm or a leg when and where to grow — that tell a tiny seed how to grow into a giant oak — that tell natural selection when and what to select — these directions are not within, but without. These directions come from a consciousness outside of matter and form and nature as we know it.

  • Himangsu Sekhar Pal

    IF GOD IS IN THE BRAIN ONLY, THEN RELATIVITY THEORY DOES NOT
    MAKE SENSE

    Today’s scientists are like religious gurus of earlier times. Whatever they say are accepted as divine truths by lay public as well as the philosophers. When mystics have said that time is unreal, nobody has paid any heed to them. Rather there were some violent reactions against it from eminent philosophers. Richard M. Gale has said that if time is unreal, then 1) there are no temporal facts, 2) nothing is past, present or future and 3) nothing is earlier or later than anything else (Book: The philosophy of time, 1962). Bertrand Russell has also said something similar to that. But he went so far as to say that science, prudence, hope effort, morality-everything becomes meaningless if we accept the view that time is unreal (Mysticism, Book: religion and science, 1961).
    But when scientists have shown that at the speed of light time becomes unreal, these same philosophers have simply kept mum. Here also they could have raised their voice of protest. They could have said something like this: “What is your purpose here? Are you trying to popularize mystical world-view amongst us? If not, then why are you wasting your valuable time, money, and energy by explaining to us as to how time can become unreal? Are you mad?” Had they reacted like this, then that would have been consistent with their earlier outbursts. But they had not. This clearly indicates that a blind faith in science is working here. If mystics were mistaken in saying that time is unreal, then why is the same mistake being repeated by the scientists? Why are they now saying that there is no real division of time as past, present and future in the actual world? If there is no such division of time, then is time real, or, unreal? When his lifelong friend Michele Besso died, Einstein wrote in a letter to his widow that “the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Another scientist Paul Davies has also written in one of his books that time does not pass and that there is no such thing as past, present and future (Other Worlds, 1980). Is this very recent statement made by a scientist that “time does not pass” anything different from the much earlier statement made by the mystics that “time is unreal”?
    Now some scientists are trying to establish that mystics did not get their sense of spacelessness, timelessness through their meeting with a real divine being. Rather they got this sense from their own brain. But these scientists have forgotten one thing. They have forgotten that scientists are only concerned with the actual world, not with what some fools and idiots might have uttered while they were in deep trance. So if they at all explain as to how something can be timeless, then they will do so not because the parietal lobe of these mystics’ brain was almost completely shut down when they received their sense of timelessness, but because, and only because, there was, or, there was and still is, a timeless state in this universe.
    God is said to be spaceless, timeless. If someone now says that God does not exist, then the sentence “God is said to be spaceless, timeless” (S) can have three different meanings. S can mean:
    a) Nothing was/is spaceless, timeless in this universe (A),
    b) Not God, but someone else has been said to be spaceless, timeless here (B),
    c) Not God, but something else has been said to be spaceless, timeless here (C).
    It can be shown that if it is true that God does not exist, and if S is also true, then S can only mean C, but neither A nor B. If S means A, then the two words “spaceless” and “timeless” become two meaningless words, because by these two words we cannot indicate anyone or anything, simply because in this universe never there was, is, and will be, anyone or anything that could be properly called spaceless, timeless. Now the very big question is: how can some scientists find meaning and significance in a word like “timeless” that has got no meaning and significance in the real world? If nothing was timeless in the past, then time was not unreal in the past. If nothing is timeless at present, then time is not unreal at present. If nothing will be timeless in future, then time will not be unreal in future. If in this universe time was never unreal, if it is not now, and if it will never be, then why was it necessary for them to show as to how time could be unreal? If nothing was/is/will be timeless, then it can in no way be the business, concern, or headache of the scientists to show how anything can be timeless. If no one in this universe is immortal, then it can in no way be the business, concern, or headache of the scientists to show how anyone can be immortal. Simply, these are none of their business. So, what compelling reason was there behind their action here? If we cannot find any such compelling reason here, then we will be forced to conclude that scientists are involved in some useless activities here that have got no correspondence whatsoever with the actual world, and thus we lose complete faith in science. Therefore we cannot accept A as the proper meaning of S, as this will reduce some activities of the scientists to simply useless activities.
    Now can we accept B as the proper meaning of S? No, we cannot. Because there is no real difference in meaning between this sentence and S. Here one supernatural being has been merely replaced by another supernatural being. So, if S is true, then it can only mean that not God, but something else has been said to be spaceless, timeless. Now, what is this “something else” (SE)? Is it still in the universe? Or, was it in the past? Here there are two possibilities:
    a) In the past there was something in this universe that was spaceless, timeless,
    b) That spaceless, timeless thing (STT) is still there.
    We know that the second possibility will not be acceptable to atheists and scientists. So we will proceed with the first one. If STT was in the past, then was it in the very recent past? Or, was it in the universe billions and billions of years ago? Was only a tiny portion of the universe in spaceless, timeless condition? Or, was the whole universe in that condition? Modern science tells us that before the big bang that took place 13.7 billion years ago there was neither space, nor time. Space and time came into being along with the big bang only. So we can say that before the big bang this universe was in a spaceless, timeless state. So it may be that this is the STT. Is this STT then that SE of which mystics spoke when they said that God is spaceless, timeless? But this STT cannot be SE for several reasons. Because it was there 13.7 billion years ago. And man has appeared on earth only 2 to 3 million years ago. And mystical literatures are at the most 2500 years old, if not even less than that. So, if we now say that STT is SE, then we will have to admit that mystics have somehow come to know that almost 13.7 billion years ago this universe was in a spaceless, timeless condition, which is unbelievable. Therefore we cannot accept that STT is SE. The only other alternative is that this SE was not in the external world at all. As scientist Victor J. Stenger has said, so we can also say that this SE was in mystics’ head only. But if SE was in mystics’ head only, then why was it not kept buried there? Why was it necessary for the scientists to drag it in the outside world, and then to show as to how a state of timelessness could be reached? If mystics’ sense of timelessness was in no way connected with the external world, then how will one justify scientists’ action here? Did these scientists think that the inside portion of the mystics’ head is the real world? And so, when these mystics got their sense of timelessness from their head only and not from any other external source, then that should only be construed as a state of timelessness in the real world? And therefore, as scientists they were obliged to show as to how that state could be reached?
    We can conclude this essay with the following observations: If mystical experience is a hallucination, then SE cannot be in the external world. Because in that case mystics’ sense of spacelessness, timelessness will have a correspondence with some external fact, and therefore it will no longer remain a hallucination. But if SE is in mystics’ head only, then that will also create a severe problem. Because in that case we are admitting that the inside portion of mystics’ head is the real world for the scientists. That is why when mystics get their sense of timelessness from their brain, that sense is treated by these scientists as a state of timelessness in the real world, and accordingly they proceed to explain as to how that state can be reached. And we end up this essay with this absurd statement: If mystical experience is a hallucination, then the inside portion of mystics’ head is the real world for the scientists.