on June 15, 2002
The thesis here is that spiritual and religious experience is essentially something the brain *does*, not something that comes from 'God'/'external being'. The author argues that spirituality and religious impulses have emerged in the evolving brain by default amongst evolving social organisms- in this particular book relatively recently in hominid evolution. Key processes include the growing hominid awareness of death, which, when coupled with an innate anxiety function necessary for survival, ultimately led to spirituality, religious and mystical experience.
The author ties together his own spiritual journey with ideas strung together from the likes of Jung, Kant, Plato, Freud, Darwin and E.Wilson, but unfortunately, in my view, leaves out many ideas concerning group conflict-something with which 'groupish' primates are very much affected. One trouble with emphasising 'awareness of death' in the evolution of religious impulses, is just how relevant the 'fear of death' is to say, teenagers-and yet teenagers can have a quite developed 'spiritual impulse'. (eg The average age of 'religious conversion' quoted in the book is 15.2 years, from a study of 15,000). The association of prayer with healing is discussed, (ie essentially placebo, but also stress reduction), 'near death experiences' (neurochemistry evolved to reduce anxiety), 'speaking in tongues' (glossolalia-not explained here, but possibly, in my view, an infant/childhood mechanism overlapping into adulthood-like crying tears), and others such as guilt, morality, etc are discussed in the light of evolutionary theory as applied to human behaviour.
One major point I think the author misses though, is that like consciouness itself, 'spirituality' is likely a holisitic and/or emergant brain function, there may in many cases therefore be no specific 'part' as such. Another problem I had is that he vastly under-rates 'thinking' in other biological organisms. For example, in describing pantheistic mysticism "one feels that totality of the world is the greatest power and one can see themselves as part of that totality. During this experience a person has a sense that he is part of all that is around him" (p111). Why couldn't this be a kind of territorial instinct?-it could therefore be in other animals. In describing monastic mysticism-"a person experiences a surrendering of personal identity to a singular or central point of consciousness" (p110)-again why can't this be present amongst other social, hirearcheal organisms? Also, theistic mysticism-"seeng or feeling the presence of a personification or a named force which intones a higher power" (p110). There is no discussion of the possiblility of any of these experiences having biological origins more ancient than recent hominid evolution. There may be a difference between the ability to be 'spiritual', and to ability to formulate abstract concepts. (How does a bat really 'think'?). His argument against spirituality in other animals is wholly the lack of religious rites (p84), but 'religious rites' do not necessarily constitute spirituality-as anyone disillusioned with conventional religion will happily tell you (He alludes to this on p149). Another example of his gross under-rating of thinking in other animals is on p117, where chimps are given foot-noted recognition that they can see themselves in the mirror only because they have "evolutionary proximity to our species".
The association of schizophrenia and (some) religious belief is also not mentioned, although the association is obvious and has been pointed out by others (eg Jaynes). In his discussion on 'religious conversion', for example, he suggests "when the ego is so riddled with anxiety that it ruptures, natural selection has installed our species with a physiologically based "religious spare"of "cognitive transformation", which often leads to "rapturous contentment". The cost of carrying this spare (in the gene pool) is "the small price of personal identity". However, there may also be more adaptive 'cost' than this-such a descriptive transformation is surprisingly similar to those who suffer schizophrenic breakdown through stress-there may *possibly* be a relationship, which is important. It is also possible that schizophrenia itself has biological precursors in other organisms-dissociating/splitting under stress may be adaptive.
These points aside, his journey from religious skepticism to scientific explanation is tinged with individual strength and understanding, (notwithstanding what I would call his human arrogance). I liked his distinction between 'spirituality' and 'religion' (p149)-this is not widely recognised. I also think his points about different kinds of spirituality/mysticism are good- it seems our words for 'religion'/spirituality are woefully inadequate-which of course reflects our lack of understanding of the functioning of our own brains.
Sociobiological in outlook-p156 quotes E.Wilson-"scientists and humanists should consider together the possiblity that the time has come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the philosophers and biologized." I happen to agree, but with much caution-frameworks which have stood socially for thousands of years need to be challenged/complimented very carefully, with verifiable science and open discussion.
The book is a strong attempt to understand human nature. Very good, very controversial, with gaps and weaknesses likely to be strengthened in future years through ongoing brain research. Other books recommended in this general genre of 'sociobiology' are "Consilience" (broader philosophy of science, religion, sociobiology), and "Why God won't Go away" (neurological basis of spirituality).
on January 30, 2000
Just as I did, as a teenager Matthew Alper asked the big questions: Who is "God" and what is my relation to him? Which, if any, of the hundreds of religions and sub-religions is correct? Why do religions change so much over time? How come every person's religious view is different from everybody else's? Just as I did, Alper began a personal search for the answers to these questions. He looked everywhere. Like me, he found that the answers to the big questions of "faith" lie not "out there" but within us. He then continued his search far beyond mine, came to many well-reasoned conclusions, then documented and explained his findings in 'The "God" Part of the Brain'. This work draws on many scientific disciplines, including evolution, psychology, anthropology and history, to put into clear perspective the origin of the human need to seek a higher power and, more important, the effect this need has on humanity and its cultures. I found the book to be a "revelation" of sorts in that it finally makes sense out of the din of competing religious views. In this book Matthew Alper shows an enviable commitment to truth, exacting logic and scholarly research as well as a vast intelligence as he explains his search and the answers he found. I did not want the book to end! It explains a very important part of what it means to be human. 'The "God" Part of the Brain' has already made a very great, very positive impact on my life.
on December 17, 2006
The God Part of the Brain is the story of Matthew Alper's search for god. The short version of my review is that I think the author has articulately shared his genuine, open-minded search for an answer to the Big Question. It's a great read. He's smart and well read, and he presents a lot of interesting material. Few people tackle the question of god with as much humility, rigor and seeming lack of agenda as well as he does. Few people attempt to blend science and spirituality with the balance of open-mindedness and rigor that he does. I recommend it highly as a personal account of someone on the search.
However, I do not recommend it as a book with much to say about the answer to the Big Question for someone else. He comes up with a conclusion, and I'm afraid my review is going to be a spoiler. So if you want to enjoy the explorations and follow him as he asks his questions with equally open mind, I would stop reading this review now.
In my opinion his conclusion is a direct result of his process. His result was pre-ordained by his methodology and the decisions he made along the way. He walked himself into a box canyon and then concludes the canyon leads nowhere. I could see the result coming a thousand miles away. I don't think he had an agenda ... the book is personal enough for me to believe he has an open mind ... I just don't think he let his mind far enough out of the box.
To appreciate where I'm coming from as a reviewer, I've signed up for the belief that we all create our own reality. And I believe that in just about every way one can believe it.
So, in chapter 5 the author struggles with what he knows for certain about god, he comes to the conclusion that god is a word. At one level this is brilliant. It is just about the only thing one can say with certainty ... that "g ... o ... d" are 3 letters that form a word and exist as a concept. But this is where he starts to put god in a box. He now believes that god IS a word, and if we create our own reality, we now know that he is doomed to discover that god is only conceptual, which is what he discovers. Once he tried to anchor his search in certainty, all the aspects of god that can be experienced but not "known" by the mind got excluded from the search. I almost put the book down at this point, but the tale of his search was interesting enough.
Once he put god in a box, his mind then jumps to a lot of conclusions to support the box. Although the book is filled with excellent questions and a generally rigorous approach, he takes a few key left turns very quickly and doesn't seem to recognize them.
For example, he devotes a whopping 4 pages to plant medicine (e.g., mescaline, psilocybin) as chapter 10. The end of those 4 pages concludes with, "In essence, the fact that there exists a certain class of drugs - molecular combinations - that can evoke a spiritual experience supports the notion that spiritual consciousness must be physiological in nature. Herein lies the basis for an ethnobotanical argument against the existence of either a spiritual reality or a soul." What? Because a physical thing can cause an experience, the experience must be physical? At this point his argument is circular. It's like saying that because I'm in a physical body, the spiritual body doesn't exist. This sounds like a reasoned argument, but it's just an opinion, obviously one this reader disagrees with. But again ... I don't fault his search or even his conclusion; I just don't think his conclusion encompasses what is possible. For example, he never considers the possibility of viewing the plant itself as spiritual.
If I try to summarize where else I think he put himself and his conclusion in a box, it shows up in chapter 19. He discusses Kant (which I have not read) and agrees with Kant's perspective that humans are "forever bound to our relative human perspectives which are framed by the way our brains process information." So far, so good. But then he "applies the same argument to spirituality" and concludes that all our spiritual beliefs "constitute nothing more than manifestations of the way our species happen to process information and therefore interpret reality." The problem is this: he does not equally apply his conclusions to himself, the I. Yes, we are bound to our perspectives. Yes, spirituality is a fabrication of those perspectives. But there is a paradox he skips over ... I, also, am a fabrication of my perspectives. I don't exist as I think I do. But that doesn't mean I am not real. It also doesn't mean that the spiritual experience is not real. He's willing to accept the physical reality of himself in spite of his limited perception, but he turns the same argument against the existence of the spiritual. Again, the conclusion he arrives at is a simple function of how he applies his arguments.
He buys into the standard argument that belief in an afterlife is a result of humanity being conscious of, and afraid of, death. This argument always ignores the fact that many of the people who have come as close as humanly possible to the experience of death, but not died, are often the people who have the least fear and hang-ups around death. Talk to someone who has survived a terminal cancer diagnosis. By and large they are not the ones locked up at home afraid to live. It's the people who keep death at arms distance who are afraid of it. This argument never holds water with me.
So, as you can tell by my review, the spoiler is that he concludes we are physical beings and nothing more. I would say that this is the reality he has created for himself and he has done a magnificent job showing just how to create that reality. But if you are looking for a more expanded sense of self, there are other approaches that can lead to a different conclusion that are also completely consistent with rigor and the scientific method.
on November 26, 2003
I first came across this new science being coined "neurotheology" or what the author more aptly refers to as "bio-theology" when I read Newsweek's cover story several years ago titled "God and the Brain: Are we 'wired' for spirituality?" Finding this subject fascinating, I did a search on all books related to this field and worked my way through a great deal of them. From the works of Newberg, Albright and several others, I found their writings bland and incomplete. They were all apparently onto something, but they didn't seem to know what this was. Then I found Matthew Alper's The God Part of the Brain and found what I was looking for. Here, the author in a relatively small (though amazingly dense) work has pulled together every aspect of the scientific study of religion. Not only that, but he advances the most convincing explanation I've yet to come across as to why we evolved such a trait as spiritual consciousness. The book is then capped with a philosophical commentary as to how we, as a species, need to address this new research in order to advance mankind. Bio-theology, the evolutionary science of spirituality and religion, I predict will be the most relevant sociological and philosophical study of this coming century. While the world is engaged in religious war, this author provides answers and explanations that may be pivotal in resolving our modern conflict, something I agree with the author that if we don't come to terms with, we may very well destroy ourselves. Let me also note that those who might feel intimidated by the topics of cognitive and evolutionary science will find the book easy to read and brilliant in its lucidity and logic.
on August 30, 2000
Evolution invests every organism with the physiology, drives and strategies for survival. Every child born possesses strong motivation to achieve clarity, resolution and understanding of the world in order that it may prosper. If nothing else, man is a learner and problem solver, pitting his highly evolved intellect against a dangerous and confusing reality. The ability to understand and thereby control his environment is the hallmark of man's evolutionary niche. This recently published work theorizes, however, that man's brain also contains a region hardwired not for understanding or rationality but self-delusion. While "surviving" consumes man's impressive physical and mental energy, survival is, as we know, impossible in the long term. Every man and woman is guaranteed to lose his genetically motivated quest to survive among the fittest. According to Matthew Alper's, "The `God' Part of the Brain," this existential dilemma faced by sapient man alone, spurred the evolution of structures in the human brain which generate a cross-cultural predisposition for the metaphysical. This brain structure gave man the capacity to believe certain things existed even though none of his senses could confirm their reality. Why? Because belief in an alternate "spiritual reality" gave humans hope and consequently enabled our species to survive its unique and otherwise debilitating awareness of death. Religion provides a way to die, without actually dying. It creates "Death-Lite." Alper theorizes that as man's intellectual evolution crossed the threshold of self-awareness, with it came the paralyzing knowledge of his own certain death. He was faced, as no animal before, with the problem of reconciling his innate arsenal of survival strategies and drives, with the debilitating insight that life was not survivable. The situation was dire. Life was like a fixed casino game. Why would anyone put his money on the table with no chance of winning? How could you play seriously? What was the motivation? Similar to cross-cultural drives as unlikely as those for music, humor, sport, dance, math, and language, Alper speculates that normal mutations formed rudimentary brain structures which allowed man to believe in an invisible world. Life for individuals with more highly developed "God Parts" in their brains was a lot easier. Unlike the others, they did not live life like cornered animals, constantly facing the withering finality of their own demise. Constantly hopeless. Constantly in a nerve-racking, exhausting, fight or flight mode. Religion, the ultimate survival strategy, allowed man once again to focus his formidable intellectual capacity with purpose, toward prospering and with this, continued evolution. With further evolution and the advent of society, however, came language, science and greater understanding of the physical forces governing the world as well as the psychological and social dynamics governing life and society. This knowledge, running leaps and bounds faster than evolution ever could, made religious beliefs much less plausible, much harder to maintain. Alper posits that this dissonance causes modern humans to be at odds with themselves, caught between their inherent quest for reason and their impulse to believe in the supernatural. In no uncertain terms, Alper veiws religion now as an often troubling appendage with largely outlived usefulness. It inserts irrational and fantastic elements into the lives of adherents, distancing them from the possibility of living more fulfilling, healthy and reality-based lives. It hamstrings man's original strong suit: rational thinking. He also speculates on the future of religion and its role in the lives and society of the animal possessing a "God Part" or capacity for "spiritual cognitive function." He believes that man must come to understand the origins of his inherited, biologically-based religious inclinations and become aware he is born into a "neurological web of deceit." Only then will he have a chance of offsetting his far-too-often destructive spititual impulse. The 185-page book delineates Alper's lifelong quest to understand religion and the religious drives which pervade all cultures, as well as his personal struggle to arrive at the role religion should play, if any, in his own life. He supports his theories citing the work of numerous philosophers, scholars and scientists as well as religious texts. His ideas rest most centrally on the writings and inquires of Philosopher Emanuel Kant, Psychologists Carl Jung and Jean Piaget, Evolutionary Biologist Edward O.Wilson, and Neurologist Dr. V.S. Ramachandran. The book depicts the author's intent to make rational inquiry into the fact that every human culture regardless how isolated, invariably maintains a belief in some form of a spiritual reality and the implication that this has a universal biological foundation. A screenplay writer by profession, Alper lives in Brooklyn, New York. "The `God' Part of the Brain" is his first book. His future projects include "The Infinity Gene: The Evolution of Mathematical Consciousness and our Belief in Immortality." -30-
on January 10, 2000
The thesis of this book starts with the observation that complex animal behavior (the building of a birds nest, a moth's flight towards a light source, or the weaving of a spider's web) can be explained in one of three ways:
1. Learned behavior - (but mother spiders aren't seen teaching baby spiders how to weave a web) 2. Free will - but stereotyped animal behavior is so uniform as to make this unlikely. Why would ALL moths choose to fly to a light? 3. Built-in genetic behavior - the accepted explanation.
Moving on to humans, there are many examples of wide-spread, cross-cultural human behaviors. Who teaches children to cry when sad, or smile when happy? And always the smile is the up-turned lip. Of the three possible explanations, built in genetically programmed behavior is the most believable.
Alper notes that virtually all humans have interpreted the Universe in a dualistic manner. All human cultures "see" both a physical and a spiritual world. All human cultures have invented gods to explain their world, have directed prayers to them, erected places of worship, invented complex mythologies, sought comfort in belief in life after death, etc. Could it not be that this complex behavior, common to all humans, so similar and stereotyped, is also best explained as the result of built-in, genetically programmed behaviors? Alper calls this the "god part" of the human brain and details evidence for its existence.
The book is well researched, with sources documented. I recommend it to thoughtful people everywhere.
on February 13, 2005
As a staunch atheist and a person who is very interested in the psychological/scientific implications of religion...believe me when i say that I really wanted to like this book. The editorial aspect is the usual regurgitated jargun, and I have to say that I was very disappointed by the lack of cold, hard scientific research. If the concept of this book interests you then you should pick of any number of books from Richard Dawkins, who is a much better writer and backs up every sentence that he types with scientific findings.
on May 6, 2011
This is not science. There are logical fallacies and quantum leaps throughout the book - interspersed with perhaps, maybe, possibly, apparently, probably, most likely and "I believe." The author has a B.A. in philosophy and can't even seem to get that part right. For him to talk about neuroscience the way he does is insulting to me as a graduate student in neuroscience. I am convinced that he wrote this book first and then did a google search for quotes and articles that vaguely support it. Simply quoting scientific studies does not constitute science. He quotes Dawkins (an actual evolutionary biologist) and represents that he read "The Selfish Gene" but it is conspicuously missing from his bibliography - it is instead listed in the endnotes as a quote from a single page. The entire book reads this way. And, of course, there are at least a dozen E.O. Wilson quotes ("Excellent Reading" endorsement on the front cover) peppered in for good measure.
The author talks about doing fMRI studies as if you can just pop someone into a machine and draw broad sweeping generalizations about the entire human population based on the results. The book ends with an addendum titled "Experiments That Might Help Prove The Existence Of A Spiritual Function" wherein he suggests an extremely ambitious longitudinal study consisting of fMRI's taken of one year olds followed up every year until they reach twenty years old - as if there is nothing to it. If the author is so interested in this field of study (he calls this book his life's work), why doesn't he use the profits from the book to finance a degree in neuroscience so he can do his own research? Most likely (if you're not satisfied with most likely don't read this book) he is not concerned with the science and is only interested in the money. His lack of actual scientific experience is painfully obvious and invalidates the entire book. I might have been able to put some of it aside if the author had conviction and stood behind his unsubstantiated claims, but he waffles the whole way through.
The biggest problem is that the fundamental premise of the book is completely unfounded and the author does nothing to back it up. He claims that early humans, the only animals conscious of their own death, had to evolve some mechanism to deal with the utterly crippling anxiety this causes: "Living with certain knowledge of our imminent death leaves us in a perpetual state of anxiety. At every moment, we stand metaphorically face-to-face with a mountain lion from which there is no escape, staring straight into the jaws of death. Consequently, we are forced to live out our existences in a state of unrelenting mortal terror and dread." Really? I do not believe in an afterlife, or anything spiritual, and I have no anxiety whatsoever about death. I used to have a lot of anxiety when I was younger and I was still inclined to believe in a spiritual realm. I would argue that this can actually cause more anxiety. Regardless, the author claims that this anxiety is so crippling that "nature" (he talks about nature throughout the book as if it were a conscious being guiding evolution toward its own end goal) had two choices - weed out the more intelligent, self-aware members of the species or select for spirituality, which would ease this anxiety. One of the first logical fallacies you learn about in an informal logic class (perhaps that wasn't a requirement for the author's B.A.) is a false dichotomy. Are these really the only two mechanisms by which humans could have survived the crippling, paralyzing, debilitating, suffocating anxiety caused by our awareness of death? If you are satisfied with this explanation then you don't need to read the book because all the author does is make this claim. If you can think of other possible explanations and believe that this is a gross oversimplification then you don't need to read the book because you will be as annoyed as I was.
Should science have something to say about religion? Absolutely. This, however, is anything but science. If you have never read anything on the subject start with Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris or anyone else for that matter. If you're still looking for more you won't find it here. I'm glad I got this from the library and didn't waste any money on it. I just can't believe they carry this book while Buckman's "Can We Be Good Without God" is unavailable. I also can't believe that this book received some of the reviews and endorsements it did from seemingly intelligent and respectable scientists. Perhaps they were compensated for reading the book and didn't have time to actually dig in and find out there was nothing at the bottom.
I read a few books on physics recently and I'm inclined to write a book myself on how quantum mechanics will eventually disprove God's existence. I think I could make a pretty convincing argument. Fortunately, I have too much respect for science - and the scientific community - to make unfounded claims based on my own intuition and sell it as science.
on November 26, 2003
I am a grad student in the evolutionary sciences and for years have been trudging along trying to find some comprehensible connection between the natural sciences and humankind's quest for spiritual certainty. After reading vast tomes of science as well as many of the world's religious texts, I was convinced that these two fields of study were utterly irreconciliable, that it until I read this book. Finally, I feel that I now have a tangible solution to the problem of spirit and God that makes perfect logical sense. And though I am sure that the author's [atheistic] conclusion will probably upset many readers (and based on some of the reviews I've read, this apparently seems to be the case), I think that anyone from skeptics to the religious can benefit from reading this book. I found it both challenging, logical, thought provoking and inspirational and recommend it whole heartedly to everyone with an open and curious mind.
on August 18, 2015
A very thoughtful, reasoned argument.
It did not, however, change my believe in GOD.
Laying aside all descriptions of GOD (religious texts, the Bible, Torah, etc.) the assertion that GOD, or the concept of GOD, is basically a function of evolution is logical and easily acceptable to me.
If a belief in GOD is a part of the placebo effect, that's fine, too, because the placebo effect is real.
If it (a faith, personal to the believer) works (according to each individual's understanding of "works") then what does it matter if it's a placebo or an actual, physical reality?
For example, one might say "I was in a hopeless situation and GOD helped me recover." The scientist will say, "The fact you recovered proves the situation was not hopeless."
Does it matter, as long as the recovery occurred?