Elf M. Sternberg (elfs) wrote,
Elf M. Sternberg

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Why Oh Why Can't We Have A Better Pundit Class (David Brooks edition)?

David Brooks is a historian and pop culture commentator for the New York Times who fancies himself a "on the ground" futurist. He waggles his fingers at the ongoing pornification of our culture, but is mostly content with the way we have embraced "both the frankness of the left and the wholesomeness of the right." It's pretty well agreed that the very phrases "red state" and "blue state" are his creations.

Brooks, however, falls off the rails this morning with one of his futurist articles, The Neural Buddhists (NYT), in which he proposes, bizarrely, that pratical neurophysiology is going to change the way we think about religion-- the statement I agree with-- and that "science and mysticism are joining hands and reinforcing each other"-- the statement with which I must vehemently disagree. Brooks concludes with a horrible mishmash of bad science and popular Buddhism:
In their arguments with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the faithful have been defending the existence of God. That was the easy debate. The real challenge is going to come from people who feel the existence of the sacred, but who think that particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits. It's going to come from scientists whose beliefs overlap a bit with Buddhism.
First, the bad science. Brooks's article is all about how "science" has discovered that brains are made of meat, and meat grows, and therefore the dynamic growth of our brains is dependent upon feedback to reach the current state. Our brains are not crystalline entities of purity, the way a computer's hardware might be described; instead, they develop over time, with behaviors and perceptual filters emerging out of our interaction with the environment. Brooks pats his audience on the head condescendingly and tells them "Genes are not merely selfish, it appears. People seem to have deep instincts for fairness, empathy and attachment... Those squishy things called emotions play a gigantic role in all forms of thinking. Love is vital to brain development."

Where the hell has Brooks been for the past thirty years? Every single thing Brooks wrote was apparent in the 1970s when E.O. Wilson's Sociobiology first came out. We've known since then that the premises of thought required both initiative and tie-breaking, both of which require an arbitrary but non-random decision-maker, the emotions. "High AI" research into making "human-like thinking" appear in computers has always added in an element arbitrary decision-making, and the best mimic for that is analogous to emotion.

Daniel Dennett once pointed out that the most successful strategy to adopt when playing a computer game was to play it honestly and immediately: You don't cogitate that somewhere out there a computer programmer wanted you to have a certain experience; instead you experience the jolt of a monster striking out of the darkness to claw your face and react accordingly. You don't care about the hardware, the software, or the game company's stockholder's intent: you play as if the monster wants to kill you. As if it had desire. You can flip it around: the computer is playing as if you wanted to survive. Both we and (now) our machines are displaying arbitrary (but stochastic) behaviors that are (or are like) emotions. For Brooks to treat this discovery as miraculous either shows a complete lack of attention to the literature of the past thirty years, or a very shallow off-the-cuff article meant to fulfill the deadline. (I suspect both.)

A little bit later Brooks tells us that science has made the marvelous discovery that "The self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships." Good heavens, I think Brooks has finally read David Hume. (1711-1776).

And the whole "genes are not merely selfish" is a comparison of apples and bowling balls. The bounty of positive emotions such as fairness, empathy, attachment are manifestations of the "selfishness-analogy" (because genes aren't really selfish, or even conscious; they're merely biology) down at the genetic level: these are manifest forms of human behavior that evolution has tooled into us to make us successful gene replicators (along with all of the negative emotions like jealousy, selfishness, and callousness-- funny how those aren't part of Brooks's recipe). If they weren't, after all, we wouldn't be here to discuss these matters.

No mysticism is needed to explain any of this. It's just us ordinary, non-mystical human beings making better materialist models of the universe, understanding the subtleties of both evolution and neurophysiology. I suspect Brooks has this need to conflate supernaturalism and the sense of the numinous because he doesn't want to scare too many people, and maybe most of his audience won't know what "numinous" means.

Brooks's discussion of Buddhism is just as wishy-washy. He writes, "People are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love. God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is." A warning for anyone who reads Brooks and who might not know better: That isn't Buddhism. Ineffability, deism, and "overflowing with love" aren't part of the Buddhist program, the Dalai Lama's marketing campaign notwithstanding. The ultimate outcome of the Buddhist program is the annhilation of the persistent sense of "self", which Buddhism describes as an illusion, and it requires a life-long discipline that, ultimately, must be broken by death. Success (in the mystical form of Buddism) is measured by not returning to the mired existence of flesh. (In the non-mystical form, there is no "success"; you just do because it's the right way to live.) Brooks is mis-labeling the Sixties hippie religion of "tune in, turn on, drop out," and he does his readers a disservice.

As an aside, Brooks's comment that the God debate was "the easy part" is just a little too snide. The essential challenges of the New Atheists have not been answered: where is a god described that is "universal, moral, evidentiary, and historical?" Where is the evidence that humanity needs an outside force, anthropomorphized or not, to impose upon us high moral standards?

Brooks is one of those men who fancies himself a deep thinker, and sometimes he is. But this article is simply bad punditry, meant to reassure theists that "God is alive," and then scare them into thinking that neuroscience might have a challenge more successful than two millenia of Biblical criticism, and offers no cure other than to keep reading David Brooks.
Tags: shrill, wowcwhabpc

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