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Jun 21 2006

IDC gets on board the brain train

An article titled Religion on the Brain (subscription required) in the May 26, 2006 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education (Volume 52, Issue 38, Page A14) examined what neuroscientists are discovering about religion and the brain. It is a curious article. The author (Richard Monastersky) seems to be trying very hard to find evidence in support of the idea that brain research is pointing to the independent existence of a soul/mind, but it is clear on reading it that he comes up short and that there is no such evidence, only the hopes of a very small minority of scientists.

He reports that what neuroscientists have been doing is studying what happens in the brain when religious people pray or meditate or think about god or have other similar experiences.

At the University of Pennsylvania, Andrew B. Newberg is trying to get at the heart – and mind – of spiritual experiences. Dr. Newberg, an assistant professor of radiology, has been putting nuns and Buddhist meditators into a scanning machine to measure how their brains function during spiritual experiences.

Many traditional forms of brain imaging require a subject to lay down in a claustrophobia-inducing tube inside an extremely loud scanner, a situation not conducive to meditation or prayer, says Dr. Newberg. So he used a method called single-photon-emission computed tomography, or Spect, which can measure how a brain acted prior to the scanning procedure. A radioactive tracer is injected into the subjects while they are meditating or praying, and the active regions of the brain absorb that tracer. Then the subjects enter the scanner, which detects where the tracer has settled.

His studies, although preliminary, suggest that separate areas of the brain became engaged during different forms of religious experience. But both the nuns and the meditators showed heightened activity in their frontal lobes, which are associated in other studies with focused attention.

The experiments cannot determine whether the subjects were actually in the presence of God, says Dr. Newberg. But they do reveal that religious experiences have a reality to the subjects. “There is a biological correlate to them, so there is something that is physiologically happening” in the brain, he says.

The finding that certain parts of the brain get activated during ‘spiritual experiences’ is not surprising. Neither is the fact that those experiences have a ‘reality to the subjects.’ All acts of consciousness, even total hallucinations, are believed to originate in the brain and leave a corresponding presence there, and why the researcher ever expected this to demonstrate evidence for god is not made clear in the article.

It is clear that intelligent design crationism (IDC) advocates are concerned about the implication of brain studies for religious beliefs. It seems plausible that as we learn more and more about how the brain works and about consciousness in general, the idea of a mind independent of the brain becomes harder to sustain. Hence IDC advocates are promoting meetings that highlight the work of those few researchers who think they see a role for god within the brain. But these meetings are being held in secret.

Organizers of the conference, called “Research and Progress on Intelligent Design,” had hoped to keep its existence out of public view. The university held a well-advertised public debate about ID that same week, but Michael N. Keas, a professor of history and the philosophy of science at Biola who coordinated the private meeting, would not confirm that it was happening when contacted by a reporter, nor would he discuss who was attending.

But one of the people doing this work is not shy about talking about his research.

When the leaders of the intelligent-design movement gathered for a secret conference this month in California, most of the talks focused on their standard concerns: biochemistry, evolution, and the origin of the universe. But they also heard from an ally in the neurosciences, who sees his own field as fertile ground for the future of ID.

Jeffrey M. Schwartz, a research professor of psychiatry at the University of California at Los Angeles, presented a paper titled “Intelligence Is an Irreducible Aspect of Nature” at the conference, held at Biola University, which describes itself as “a global center for Christian thought.” Dr. Schwartz argued that his studies of the mind provide support for the idea that consciousness exists in nature, separate from human brains.

Michael Behe, the author of Darwin’s Black Box which suggested five ‘irreducibly complex’ systems on which the IDC people have long hung their hopes for evidence of god, may be losing his status as the IDC movement’s scientific standard bearer. His book came out in 1996 and nothing new has been produced since then. It is clear that you cannot dine forever on that meager fare, especially since evolutionary biologists keep churning out new results all the time. The need for a new poster child is evident and it seems as if the IDC movement has found one in psychiatrist Schwartz.

Leaders of the intelligent-design movement, though, see clear potential for Dr. Schwartz’s message to resonate with the public.

“When I read Jeff’s work, I got in touch with him and encouraged him to become part of this ID community,” says William A. Dembski, who next month will become a research professor in philosophy at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Texas. “I regard him as a soul mate,” says Mr. Dembski.

This may be a sign that the real science-religion battle is shifting away from biological evolution to brain research. This new battle will not be as high profile as the evolution one simply because brain studies are not part of the school curriculum and thus not subject to the policies of local school boards. So the evolution battle will likely continue to dominate the news headlines for some time.

Tomorrow we will see what neurobiologists think of this attempt to find god in their area of study. If the IDC advocates thought that the biologists were a tough foe to convince, they are going to find that the brain research community is even more resistant to their overtures.

POST SCRIPT: War profiteers

One of the underreported stories of the Iraq invasion is the enormous amount of money that is being made by some people because of it. Coming in fall 2006 is a new documentary by Robert Greenwald titled Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers.

Greenwald’s marketing strategy for his documentaries has been to bypass the main distribution networks and put his documentaries out straight to video for a low price. He did this with is earlier productions Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s war on journalism (a look at the bias of Fox news), Uncovered: The war on Iraq (which exposed the fraudulent case made for the Iraq invasion), and Walmart: The high cost of low prices.

Look out for the release of Iraq for Sale. You can see the preview here.

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