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In his new book, The Transcendent Brain: Spirituality in the Age of Science, Alan Lightman describes how a single summer time he observed the lives of a household of walnut trees close to his property on a little island in Maine. From his second-floor deck, he watched as the chicks in the nest started flapping their wings, developing larger and stronger. “All summer time they watched me on that deck as I watched them,” Lightman writes. Then a single afternoon they took their very first flight. “They produced a wide half-mile loop across the ocean and then headed straight for me at tremendous speed.” Lightman was worried A child nutcracker, although smaller sized than an adult, nonetheless has highly effective, sharp claws. “My instant impulse was to run for cover, as the birds could have ripped my face off,” he recalls. “But some thing kept me grounded.” At the final moment, when the birds have been inside 15 or 20 feet of him, they turned and took off. “But just before that dazzling and terrifying vertical ascent, we produced eye make contact with for about half a second.” Just after the young eagles disappeared, Lightman shook and cried. “To this day,” he notes, “I never have an understanding of what occurred in that half second. But it was a deep connection with nature. And the feeling of getting portion of some thing considerably larger than myself.”

And so the author sets the scene to illustrate his deep sense of spirituality as he experiences nature up close. But Lightman also desires us to know that he is a materialist and committed to a scientific worldview. So in this completely researched, properly-written, but eventually unsatisfying book, he presents a materialistic view of character that is constant with our experiences of the transcendent.

The very first portion of the book is devoted to the practice of cleansing the earth, describing the different ideas of the immaterial soul located in lots of unique religious belief systems. The author guidelines them all out, arguing that belief in any type of immaterial, ethereal planet lacks empirical assistance.

It is as a result not surprising that the idea of an immaterial thoughts is also rejected. Substance dualism—the thought that the brain and thoughts are produced up of two unique “substances”—is finding brief shrift. All the things is produced of atoms, a claim that leads to a short history of materialism. The philosopher Lucretius is the hero of the story, and Lightman recounts how Roman’s operates played a important function in the improvement of his personal pondering.

In recounting the history of materialism, Leitman quotes lots of organic philosophers (as scientists utilised to get in touch with themselves), which includes Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell, and Heinrich Hertz. There is a specific irony in that just about all of these listed have been men and women of the Christian faith — in order of look: believing Catholics passionate theist consecrated Church of Scotland and lifelong Lutheran. This tends to make Lightman’s history a bit far more complex than it very first seems.

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

Lightman appears incredibly concerned to rule out the doable “intervention of some further etheric or psychic force” in his account of the partnership among the brain and consciousness. The causes for this develop into clearer as he leads the reader “from consciousness to spirituality,” illustrated by additional poignant descriptions of his personal transcendent experiences—”magnificent and profound” feelings that nonetheless arise “naturally from the material brain” and as a result represent “non-religious spirituality”.

Nevertheless, the author’s all round thesis appears to involve some faulty assumptions. The very first is that belief in the Neoplatonic soul is vital to faith. Accurate, as early Christianity spread into a planet dominated by Greek philosophy, this view of the soul became common. But in the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas baptized into Christian theology Aristotle’s thought that the soul is the “substantial kind” of each living physique, which suggests that the soul explains the properties of that distinct “substance”. The soul was no longer like a caged bird, freed from the physique by death – alternatively, it was far more bound to the nature of the physique itself. Additionally, the founder of neurology, Thomas Willis (1621-1675), a devout Anglican, did considerably to lay the groundwork for what is now theologically commonplace: human nature as a psychosomatic unity with the soul as the “vital self,” a individual capable of recognizing God .

Leitman’s second flawed assumption is that substance dualism is vital to religious methods of understanding personhood. Far from it, inherent dualism (the thought that the planet includes two unique sorts of properties, mental and physical) and far more monistic concepts (which emphasize the tight connection among brain and thoughts) are typical in Abrahamic faith communities. The idea of the thoughts as an emergent home of the brain was pioneered by Christian thinkers. And this is absolutely nothing new. When I was undertaking my PhD in neurochemistry at the London Institute of Psychiatry in the late 1960s, my understanding of the brain was as mechanistic as Lightman’s, as it nonetheless is, completely in line with my personal theistic convictions.

Behind each false assumptions appears to be the infamous “god of the gaps,” a god that Lightman does not think in, and neither do I. This is a “god” brought in to fill in the gaps in our scientific expertise. But belief in such a god was overturned by Augustine’s well-known comment in AD 415 that “nature is what God tends to make.” The scientists the author cites in his mini-history of materialism have been tied to this standard theology: Behind the whole designed order is thoughts, and the activity of scientists is to investigate God’s creation. God is the supply of all existence.

Theists cultivated the “mechanical philosophy” of the 17th century: All the supplies of creation are God’s supplies. Greek atomism, as popularized by Lucretius, was place by way of a “theistic filter” by the Catholic priest Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655), who saw atoms as the developing blocks by which God chose to shape the universe. As Archbishop William Temple commented in 1939, “Christianity is the most materialistic of all the excellent religions.”

Hence, the author’s try to justify only a spiritual and not a religious view of the planet does not go properly, for the easy purpose that contemporary science emerged from the theological womb in which the belief in a private cosmic thoughts behind almost everything that exists offers the typical thread.

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

Dennis Alexander is director emeritus of the Faraday Institute and emeritus of the College of St. Edmund University of Cambridge.

Spirituality in the Age of Science

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