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God’s Love and the Meaning-Making Brain

April 11, 2014

What is the meaning of life? In The Brain and the Meaning of Life (Princeton Univ. Press, 2012), Paul Thagard, a philosophy professor who directs the cognitive science program at the University of Waterloo, Canada, explores how the human quest for existential meaning is related to the functioning of the brain. Thagard contends that existential meaning is a goal-directed function of the brain: life is meaningful ‘to the extent that [a person possesses] coherent and valuable goals that they can strive for and at least partially accomplish, yielding [the reward of] satisfaction and happiness’. To be meaningful, goals must be coherent, valuable, and at least partially accomplishable. Thagard identifies love, work, and play as three realms of life which are particularly significant for providing coherent, valuable, and at least partially-accomplishable goals for a meaningful life. He describes how all this happens at a neurological level.

I find Thagard’s proposal helpful; however, I wish to add a number of points from a theistic perspective. First, it needs to be said that meaningful and satisfying goals are not necessarily moral goals. A criminal might highly value, and successfully accomplish, the effort to pull off a string of untraceable bank frauds. The criteria for what counts as a moral goal are separate from the criteria for what counts as a meaningful goal.

Second, in addition to work, love, and play as particularly significant for meaningful lives, I would add three equally-significant meaning-giving goals: engaging in personal interests (creating and engaging in meaningful activities for one’s life); discovering one’s origins (creating meaning from the past, at four possible levels – biological, familial, ethnocultural, and as a species); and, the converse of one’s origins, leaving a personal legacy (making meaning from the future). In each of these ways we construct meaning for ourselves.

Third, Thagard’s account is missing a fundamental element (in addition to goals) for life to feel meaningful, namely self-value or self-worth—a sense that my life, my existence, is valued by me and by others. In other words, life is most meaningful when we possess not just goals that are coherent, valued, and at least partially achievable, but when we possess such goals within a sense of positive self-value—when I feel valued, cared for, affirmed, included, and befriended by others, including God, family, friends, colleagues, and the wider community. The less these are present, the less life feels meaningful.

From a neurological perspective, making existential meaning for one’s life is a constant neural activity. I propose that we have two ‘existential meaning’-making (EMM) circuits in our brain—the goal-directed circuits and the self-worth circuits, both of which run through the pre-frontal cortex. Like so many of our neural operations, meaning-making operations are grinding away all the time, sometimes consciously but mostly sub-consciously, continually shaping the objectives, choices, and activities we find meaningful. In effect, Homo sapiens have evolved to be inveterate meaning-makers. I suggest this constitutes a fundamental part of what it is to be human. I would also suggest that this is not sufficiently appreciated in our anthropologies, whether theistic or materialist.

I propose that God intentionally launched the creative processes of the universe(s) such that meaning-seeking and meaning-making beings would come about. In part this means that God intends us to construct meaning for our lives. Yet, contrary to what constructivists (such as Thagard) claim, the fact that we are able to construct meaning for our lives does not remove God from the picture. For God has also provided an ultimate meaning for our lives, a source of existential meaning that fulfills our EMM and neural-reward circuits more profoundly than any other form of meaning—namely agapao-love (that is, self-giving for the benefit of others). Galatians 5:13 is my favorite statement of this in scripture.

The greatest challenge to human meaning is nihilism, typically represented by Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. The problem with constructivism is that it merely keeps nihilism at bay; in contrast, it is only God’s agapao-love, historically manifested in Jesus, that destroys nihilism. Here I will invoke these words from Hugo, the mechanically-gifted boy in Martin Scorsese’s film Hugo, set in 1930s Paris: “Maybe that’s why a broken machine always makes me a little sad, because it isn’t able to do what it was meant to do…Maybe it’s the same with people. If you lose your purpose…it’s like you’re broken.” When we lose God’s agapao-love purpose for us, then we are broken, despite the many other worthwhile meanings we may construct for our lives. Which always makes me more than just a little sad.

Atheism as a Spiritual Commissurotomy

April 11, 2014

Some people who are former theists say they don’t miss their old faith, and so they don’t miss God. And certainly those who have never had faith do not miss what they never had, although some Materialists (atheists) wistfully wish they could believe.

In response, I will draw an analogy from neuroscience, specifically with split-brain research. In his work trying to identify the nature of consciousness, Michael Gazzaniga (Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain, HarperCollins, 2011) describes his research with severe epileptics (with frequent grand mal seizures) who had been subject to a surgical procedure called a ‘commissurotomy’, in which their corpus callosum and anterior commissure were surgically severed. This is done in order to prevent the electrical signals of a seizure in one half of the brain spreading to the other half of the brain. As a result of this procedure, each half of the brain can no longer communicate with the other half, although both halves still receive input from the senses, including receiving the same information from the brain stem to which they both remain attached. Following their commisurotomy, patients always reply that they feel no cognitive change, no change in their mental processes – they feel completely normal. Medically speaking, one could not ask for a better outcome: significant reduction in seizures, with no apparent change in cognitive processes, and happy patients!

Gazzaniga’s research, however, has revealed a fascinating phenomenon below the conscious awareness of such patients. A feature of our highly lateralized neocortical functions is that ‘any visual, tactile, proprioceptive, auditory, or olfactory information that [is] presented to one hemisphere [is] processed in that half alone, without any awareness on the part of the other half. The left half [does] not know what the right half [is] processing, and vice versa’ (Gazzaniga, 57). Consequently, when patients are asked after their commissurotomy, ‘How are you feeling? Do you feel any changes?’, they answer ‘I don’t feel any changes, I feel normal, just as I was before the surgery’. Yet in fact they are completely disconnected from all that is happening in the right half of their brain. In other words, because the left hemisphere controls language, it is their left hemisphere that is answering the doctor’s question (“I feel fine, no difference at all”), yet, while saying this, the left hemisphere is completely unaware that it has lost almost all connection with what is going on in the right hemisphere. Of course, all that is happening in the right half of the patient’s brain is hugely important for their well-being and proper functioning as a person, yet the left hemisphere is completely unaware of this and feels quite happy being out of touch with the right hemisphere, even believing nothing has changed.

Further still, it is no longer possible for the two halves to operate in tandem, losing those cognitive functions that require cooperative, tandem operations between the two hemispheres. A simple example is the ability to recognise composites, for instance that ‘toadstool’ is something different from a ‘toad’ and a ‘stool’. The commissurotomized patient is not even aware they have lost these tandem abilities, and happily carries on without them.

This provides a helpful analogy by which to explain the phenomenon of cutting oneself off from both belief in God and the life of faith – it amounts to a ‘spiritual commissurotomy’. The person who cuts these off and then says ‘There is nothing missing from my life’, is like the person whose right hemisphere has been cut off from their left, then answers the doctor by saying they do not feel they are missing anything by no longer being connected to their right hemisphere. In both cases, though, their conscious perception of no loss, and their continuing personal satisfaction with this situation, leads to a profoundly wrong conclusion, that nothing has been lost. With both types of commissurotomy, physical and spiritual, things are not the way they should be, even if the new situation subjectively feels fine.

Importantly, some people do reverse their spiritual commissurotomy. One example is Chris Wiman, former editor of Poetry, the world’s foremost poetry magazine, who abandoned the faith of his childhood while in college. As he puts it, in college he found that his earlier faith ‘couldn’t stand up to the challenge of modernity and secularism’. In the journal The American Scholar (Summer, 2007) Wiman describes his return to faith after a couple decades away, and, in interviews since the appearance of that article, has described what he has recovered by his return to faith. Similar stories are told by both T.S. Elliot and W.H. Auden, often considered the greatest poets in the English language. Such figures were satisfied with life during their time away from God, yet for various reasons returned to God and, in doing so, found themselves reconnected to important aspects of what it meant for them to experience the fullness of human existence. Unlike a physical commissurotomy, a spiritual commissurotomy can be reversed.


God and Probability

April 9, 2014

A phrase like “God and probability” likely conjures up thoughts of Pascal’s wager — what is the probability of God’s existence? But what I actually mean here is quite different — How does probability, as a fundamental component of physical reality, fit into God’s work of creation?

At the moment I am writing a chapter titled “Randomness, Order, and Probability”. The issue I’m addressing is how God could predict (or ‘foreknow’, in more traditional theological language) that loving beings would emerge in the universe. (For those not familiar with my argument, I argue that love is the purpose of the universe: God created the universe(s) to provide the space and conditions for the eventual and inevitable emergence of loving beings, in habitable bio-niches throughout the universe, to live in loving relations with God and with others; Earth is such a bio-niche, and Homo sapiens are an instance of such beings.) If the universe is deterministic — that is, if the laws of physics make every last little detail of the universe, including our actions, inevitable — then we are nothing more than biological robots (and, by implication, God is ultimately responsible for each act of evil). However, if we do have free will, at least to some extent, then existence is not predetermined, which means there is randomness and chance in the universe (see Peter Ulric Tse, The Neurological Basis of Free Will, MIT Press, 2013). Physics confirms this indeterminism by its probabilistic interpretation of reality — that physical reality, particularly at the quantum level, is not deterministic but probabilistic.

I propose then that God built the universe to be probabilistic rather than deterministic so that loving beings, with free will,  would emerge predictably but not predeterminedly. In other words, God’s foreknowledge of events in the universe(s), including the emergence of life and loving beings, amounts to prediction-without-predetermination.

Nonetheless, a universe built on probability is also a universe in which there is randomness, disorder, and chance. This is due to the second law of thermodynamics. So the question arises: in a universe built on randomness, disorder, and chance, how could God predict that loving beings would inevitably emerge in such a universe? 

Both randomness/disorder and necessity/order exist in physical reality. Peter’ Hoffmann, in Life’s Ratchet (Basic Books, 2013), shows how order emerges not despite the second law but because of the second law. (If this sounds counter-intuitive, read the book! Henry Morris is the victim here.) Hoffmann makes it clear that he is no theist, but his case for the crucial role of the second law in bringing about life and order sure fits well with theism (an implication which eludes him). How, then, is predictability possible with the existence of both disorder and order in the universe? Predictable outcomes without predetermination are possible:

a) through disorder by building into Creation processes that produce overwhelmingly large numbers (such as gazillions of galaxies and planets, and gazillions of evolutionary possibilities). This enables events with low probability (due to disorder and randomness) to probably come about nonetheless (such as highly unstable chemical bonds becoming stable and reproducible) by virtue of the vastly greater opportunities associated with overwhelmingly large numbers;

b) through order by means of the normal distribution (more commonly known as the bell curve). The normal distribution is found at every level of ordered existence.

In other words, the initial conditions of the universe(s) as created by God included such probability-related features as overwhelmingly large numbers and the normal distribution in order to ensure that the physical conditions of the universe would bring about beings with free will and the capacity for love in a manner that would be predictable but non-deterministic. Thus the probabilistic nature of physics is a fundamental component of God’s ultimate, loving creational purposes.

Of course, in this post I have glossed over many issues related to this proposal, and I am presently working on these. In the midst of wrestling with these matters, I have concluded that theologians and philosophers who seek to provide an account of creation that is meaningful for today’s scientific context need to understand the probabilistic nature of God’s creation much better than is usually the case.