In The "God" Part of the Brain, Matthew Alper seeks to explain why our species ever began to believe in God in the first place. It’s a lofty goal, but one Alper seeks to answer by combining research from a variety of fields.
He opens the book by explaining why science has taken away the need for a God in recent history and yet many people still believe in Him. He also gives us “a very brief history of time,” tying together ideas from biology, physics, chemistry, and several other fields. I actually enjoyed that section– it would be great for a textbook– though it wasn’t so useful in answering his ultimate question.
The reason he does this is to give us his personal background in exploring science to explain how he came to view God as a scientific hypothesis.
There are further chapters about Kantian philosophy, universal behavior patterns (explaining how so many cultures could have come to believe in a Supreme Being), and a strange section on what we know about God:
“What, if anything, can I say that I know with near certainty about God?” As I pondered my own question, shaking my head in the usual frustration, suddenly, in one radiant and Archimedic moment, it dawned on me. As plain as the nose on my face lay the one small but certain fact for which I had been searching. There it was, spelled out on the computer screen before me; simply, God was a word!
There are more paragraphs after that to… um… elaborate on that idea. The point is to show God is just generated from our own brains. So there must be a specific place where that originated.
Finally, we get into the topic of Biotheology (a.k.a. Neurotheology).
This is where the book picks up steam. There’s quite a bit about how our consciousness evolved to the point that we could finally think about our own mortality and these were some of my favorite sections in the book. Once we evolved this consciousness, the notion of struggling to survive seemed futile, since we were going to die anyway. In one of his better passages, Alper elaborates:
How was our species to justify its continued existence in light of such a hopeless and desperate circumstance? Why struggle today when tomorrow we won’t even be here? Under such conditions, the motivating principle of self-preservation that had sustained life for all these billions of years no longer applied to our species. This was a whole new set of rules our animal was now playing by, and unless something could be done to ameliorate our species’ pained and desperate circumstance, it might not have been long before our newly evolved animal would have succumbed to the forces of extinction.
This sets up the explanation for why we created God.
In fact, Alper states that God is “a coping mechanism that compels us to believe in an illusory reality so as to help us survive our unique awareness of death.”
With the emergence of spiritual consciousness, our cognitive functioning had been stabilized to the extent that we could now go on living in a state of relative calm, even amid our awareness of our inevitable demise. This, I contend, is the purpose of a spiritual/religious function. This is its rationale, its reason for being. If all this is true, however, it suggests that God isn’t a transcendental force or entity that actually exists “out there,” beyond and independent of us, but rather represents the manifestation of an inherited human perception, a coping mechanism that compels us to believe in an illusory reality so as to help us survive our unique awareness of death.
Overall, this book sheds a much needed light on the subject of the evolution of religion. While the chapters dealing with science background are well-written, especially for those with little knowledge about the fundamentals of scientific subjects, I presume they’re not necessary for most adults reading the book. As stated earlier, they are in the book simply to provide background on how Alper became interested in the subject of Neurotheology. But the reasons why he is researching this subject are less important to me than what he actually found.
Some of the most interesting chapters in the book deal with the consequences of Alper’s conclusion that there is a “God” part of the brain. Among them: Alper explains why atheists exist (he is one himself), what is happening in a “near-death experience,” and what is going on with those people who supposedly speak in tongues. I would have loved to read more about those topics and less about Alper’s personal journey leading up to the God question.
The proposed solutions for how to deal with this new knowledge are too unrealistic (for example, having the world’s religious leaders work together to write up “some sort of spiritual constitution… by which each religion would agree to abide”) but they go beyond the scope of the book.
Atheists will enjoy The "God" Part of the Brain, as it gives an in-depth answer to the question of why God is so pervasive among different cultures. Readers of faith may be turned off by Alper’s descriptions of the wastefulness of religion, but then again, they’re not the intended audience.
While I would have liked to skip some sections, there weren’t many. And most were limited to the first parts of the book. The meat of the book was well worth reading.
Another review of the book can be found on Salon.
(This review was solicited by a publisher; however, the opinions expressed are my own.)
[tags]atheist, atheism, The “God” Part of the Brain, Matthew Alper, biology, physics, chemistry, Kant, Supreme Being, Archimedes, Biotheology, Neurotheology, evolution, near-death experience, glossolalia[/tags]