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A Philosophy to Match the Science

ewippermann's picture

Sociologist Marvin Bressler said that the “dogged preservation of age-old religious belief systems ‘encourages decent men to tremble at the prospect of ‘inconvenient’ findings that may emerge in future scientific research. This unseemly anti-intellectualism is doubly degrading because it is probably unnecessary’” (Ellerman). The majority of religions or organized spiritual systems have had to fight against the findings of science, but the most Buddhists have embraced new research; the methods and modes of Buddhist practice are even shown to have a very firm neurological effect. In 1989, when accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, the Dalai Lama stated that “both science and the teachings of the Buddha tell us of the fundamental unity of all things,” and the cohesion of ideas driving neurological research and Buddhist practice clearly show a unity.
            In Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley argues for the existence of a biological mechanism in the human brain that inhibits our perception of reality. This cognitive moderator limits our perspective to what is commonly referred to as “reality,” a reality in which we eat, reproduce, and carry out the functions necessary for life to continue. This moderator can be and has been systematically bypassed, however, through the use of psychedelic drugs, fasting, and meditation—all of which are employed in many religions and spiritual practices to have a religious or spiritual experience. Only by circumnavigating the cognitive mechanism can you perceive and experience the true “reality.” There is no research to support the concept of a moderator, but there are studies that show that these spiritual experiences, regardless of means or mode, are all located in the left prefrontal cortex (Kaufman). Buddhism is perhaps the most successful of organized practices in addressing and teaching followers to aspire toward goals and practices that utilize the biological mechanisms that allow us to escape this reality and perceive a happier, enlightened one.
            In this paper, I refer to spirituality and religion as evolved cognitive functions, biological phenomena that aid humanity in maintaining hope (and therefore survival) despite the potential for crippling self-awareness. This is not a consensus by any means, but if you want further readings and research about this concept, I recommend The God Part of the Brain, by Matthew Alpers, and The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins. Here’s my attempt to explain and summarize the hypothesis: As our species evolved, self-awareness and consciousness were acquired through natural selection as traits that enabled our predecessors to survive winters by sewing coats instead of growing fur and to feed themselves by creating tools rather than developing bigger fangs. With the knowledge of the self, however, came the understanding of death. And because consciousness to this extent could have easily rendered our entire species suicidal, those organisms with a predisposition to believe in something that caused hope reproduced most successfully. Cognition that incorporates a life beyond mortal life led cognition of a mediator of this afterlife, a god or gods that also helped shape moralities that held communities together and prevented the disassembling of society.
            Identical twins are more likely to both have spiritual or religious tendencies than fraternal twins. Conversions often run in families. Religiosity and spirituality as genetic predispositions can be diagrammed on a bell curve just as musical talent can be. All humans are born with a capacity for music, but the ability ranges from Mozarts to the tone-deaf—the same principle can apply to religion and spirituality. On the side of the Mozarts, those with a high capacity, are very religious or spiritual individuals. At the other end of the curve are the atheists, the spiritually and religiously tone-deaf (Alpers 180-3).
            With this evolutionary perspective, it is very significant that humans have systematically circumvented the standard perception of reality—and that perceiving the other reality is cause of great peacefulness and contentment. The left prefrontal cortex is strongly associated with happiness, positivity, and emotion, and this is the area of the brain that Buddhist meditation stimulates the most.
            Researchers at the University of Wisconsin have been working with Tibetan monks over the past few years, and they have been able to translate the experience of meditative practice into high-frequency gamma rays and brain synchrony, pinpointing the left prefrontal cortex as the main area of increased brain activity. In 1992, the Dalai Lama initiated a relationship with Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the university, and send eight of his most practiced monks to Davidson’s lab for a neurological study of meditation. The monks had been training in meditation for fifteen to forty years, resulting in approximately 10,000 to 50,000 hours of practice. Ten student volunteers were chosen as a control group and were given a week of training. All the practitioners were hook up to 256 EEG sensors and told to meditate on unconditional compassion. The study has so far shown that meditation can physically modify the circuitry of the brain, heightening mental awareness and activity (Kaufman).
            Meditation produces permanent change; “the monks had considerably more gamma wave activity than the control group even before they started meditation” (Kaufman). While the students showed only a slight increase in activity, in the monks, the electrodes picked up incredibly fast and powerful gamma waves that moved through the brain in a much more organized and coordinated manner—some of the monks produced the most powerful gamma wave activity ever recorded in a healthy human.
            The unity of ideas between science, philosophy, and Buddhism is really extraordinary. Buddhism could be the first spiritual paradigm to be incorporated into science and future research. The Dalai Lama’s attitude exemplifies this unity beautifully: when asked what would happen if findings in neuroscience directly contradicted Buddhist philosophy, the Dalai Lama answered, “Then we would have to change the philosophy to match the science” (Nature).
Works Cited
"Buddhism on the Brain." Nature. Nature Publishing Group, Dec. 2004. Web. 5 Apr.             2010. <>.
Ellerman, Derek. "Buddhist Meditation and the Brain: The Neural Basis for Mystical             Insight." 09 Sept. 2000. Web. 5 Apr. 2010.
Kaufman, Marc. "Meditation Gives Brain a Charge, Study Finds."             Washington Post, 3 Jan. 2005. Web. 5 Apr. 2010.
Alper, Matthew. The "God" Part of the Brain: a Scientific Interpretation of Human             Spirituality and God. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Rogue, 2001. Print.



Paul Grobstein's picture

empiricism, metaphysics, buddhism, and the brain

"we would have to change the philosophy to match the science"

The idea of empiricism trumping metaphysics appeals to me, so long as one also allows for a reverse potentially useful role for metaphysics in empiricism.  And I like a lot "cognitive functions, biological phenomena that aid humanity in maintaining hope ... despite the potential for crippling self-awareness."  But are those "cognitive functions" the ones responsible for philosophy or for empiricism?  Perhaps both?  Buddhism too has a lot of appeal for me, but it too seems not to be THE answer.  Have a look at Enlightenment Therapy.