The Neural Buddhists

“In 1996, Tom Wolfe wrote a brilliant essay called ‘Sorry, but Your Soul Just Died,’ in which he captured the militant materialism of some modern scientists. To these self-confident researchers, the idea that the spirit might exist apart from the body is just ridiculous. Instead, everything arises from atoms. Genes shape temperament. Brain chemicals shape behavior. Assemblies of neurons create consciousness. Free will is an illusion. Human beings are ‘hard-wired’ to do this or that. Religion is an accident.

In this materialist view, people perceive God’s existence because their brains have evolved to confabulate belief systems. You put a magnetic helmet around their heads and they will begin to think they are having a spiritual epiphany. If they suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy, they will show signs of hyperreligiosity, an overexcitement of the brain tissue that leads sufferers to believe they are conversing with God.

Wolfe understood the central assertion contained in this kind of thinking: Everything is material and ‘the soul is dead.’ He anticipated the way the genetic and neuroscience revolutions would affect public debate. They would kick off another fundamental argument over whether God exists.”

(via The New York Times. h/t: Neuroanthropology )


  1. Cool, you beat me to posting this. I’ve been thinking about writing something about emergent intelligence and naturalistic pantheism, and coming across the article you just linked as well as this: give me more material to draw from.

    In the meantime, here’s a brief reaction to the article you linked to:

    What Brooks is describing sounds a lot more like atheism than Buddhism or religion to me. At the very least it’s a pretty revisionist approach to Buddhism. Buddhism has been used to justify suicide bombing (see: and and enslaving and torturing people (see: At its core, religion means having faith that certain things are true, despite lack of evidence or even evidence to the contrary. At its worst, it’s faith that doing very bad things is actually virtuous.

    If you strip away the faith, and strip away the irrational and still unproven aspects of Buddhism (karma, reincarnation), is it still Buddhism?

    One needn’t dress up awe of nature and the universe as religion or mysticism. I was reminded of the following quote by Dawkins by today’s news about Einstein’s letter that talked about religion:

    “When Einstein said ‘Did God have a choice in creating the Universe?’ he meant ‘Could the universe have begun in more than one way?’ ‘God does not play dice’ was Einstein’s poetic way of doubting Heisenberg’s indeterminacy principle. Einstein was famously irritated when theists misunderstood him to mean a personal God. But what did he expect? The hunger to misunderstand should have been palpable to him. ‘Religious’ physicists usually turn out to be so only in the Einsteinian sense: they are atheists of a poetic disposition. So am I. But, given the widespread yearning for that great misunderstanding, deliberately to confuse Einsteinian pantheism with supernatural religion is an act of intellectual high treason.”


    This is a good one too: “If that is religion, then I am a deeply religious man. But it isn’t. And I’m not.” from

  2. Very interesting article, thanks.

    I’m gradually moving, I think, towards a very simple notion: that there’s nothing wrong with believing something that’s irrational, providing you are aware that you are doing it; that the reason that so much intolerance and violence in the world seems to be inspired by irrational belief is not caused by people believing things that are irrational, but by trusting that those beliefs can substitute for your moral sense.

  3. I comment the comments by Klintron and Shadowfirebird. I could add very little. Glad to be in such company.

    Science is a ‘story’ just like superstition, math, folktales, etc. But this particular story has a moral that is different than any other story. The moral, the punchline, is this: “I have just said what I think is true. I may be wrong. If you can show me where I am wrong, we will both benefit.” That falsifiability is the demarcation line between science and not-science.

    Hope is having a goal in mind even when the evidence is stacked against that goal, while acknowledging that hope is not fact. One can hope to get better when the evidence is one’s disease is terminal. Faith is having a goal in mind even when the evidence is stacked against that goal, while while substituting faith for fact. One can have faith one will get better even though SHUT UP. Hope is associated with all sorts of things, but faith is associated with miracles. Miracles are the explanation that don’t explain anything. If something happens and it’s a miracle, that means SHUT UP. Stop asking questions.

    Science is the anti-SHUT UP.

  4. Change that to: “Miracles are the explanations that don?t explain anything.”

  5. The laws of interaction are lows of nature. God doesn?t perform miracles, one who believe in miracle is ignoring the true phenomena.

  6. “shut up” is waht i’ve been trying to do ever since my second lsd hit four years ago.
    no way not to comment on occurrence , sure silent observer moments exist but only to be jived about.
    Hear i my thoughts trough birds.

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