Here's a follow-up to my "Spirituality without neuroscience is bullshit" post.
Since I wrote it I've been pondering ways to convert religious believers to what seems to me to be an obvious truth: if you don't understand the brain with which you do your understanding, your understandings are going to be shallow.
I'm not saying that everybody has to be expert in the anatomy and functioning of the brain.
But without basic knowledge of what lies within the cranium of each of us, how we look upon the world is going to be skewed by our ignorance.
Let's consider an automotive analogy. It'd be possible for someone to drive a car without knowing what "lies under the hood." (Also, under the chassis, wheels, dashboard, etc.)
They'd probably think that it was magical, how a turn of the key produces a roaring sound, how shifting a lever and pushing on a pedal makes the car move forward or backward; how adjusting the position of a round object causes the car to turn in that direction.
The person behind the wheel, who, remember, knows nothing about the mechanisms which link her actions with the behavior of the car, would find it easy to believe that she is doing it all herself. Wow, a small press of my foot and I zoom ahead! A minute motion of my hands, and this massive object turns in accord with my intention!
This is pretty much how the ancient prophets, sages, gurus, mystics, yogis, meditators, and such mentioned in my previous post viewed human consciousness.
Knowledge of how the brain worked amounted essentially to zero. Ethereal entities like the soul were believed to be the source of awareness and other cognitive functions, not the 100 billion or so neurons in the brain.
Now, we 21st century humans know better. At least, we should.
I'll readily admit that neuroscience is a difficult subject to grasp. I've read quite a few books on the subject, and still feel like I understand little about the brain. But I've learned the most important thing: the human brain is marvelously complex, with most of its goings-on occurring outside of conscious awareness.
Just like a car.
Here's an example from "The Ravenous Brain : How the New Science of Consciousness Explains Our Insatiable Search for Meaning" by Daniel Bor, a neuroscientist. He explains how few objects our attention can be conscious of at one time.
In fact, routinely, attention filters the billions of pieces of information streaming into our senses, or bouncing around our unconscious minds, into a maximum of three or four conscious items. So the filtering process is about as aggressive as one could imagine.
But the boosting process can compensate for this limitation just as aggressively: Each of the mere handful of items can be an immensely complex mental object, and although their number is painfully finite, these conscious objects can be assessed, compared, and manipulated in virtually any way imaginable.
...If our consciousness is really limited to a small handful of highly processed items, then how can we at least appear to see many more objects at once? It certainly seems that if I gaze up at the sky, I can make out more than four objects -- maybe hundreds more in one go, and I can see them all clearly.
But I would argue that in this situation, attention is spread wide and thin, like an overblown balloon. Its thinness means that we are indeed aware of these hundreds of objects, but in a minimal, approximate way. Gazing up at the sky without any knowledge of star charts is akin to seeing the whole collection of stars as one fuzzy, complex object.
It make me think about all those mystics, meditators, masters, and Zen types who come to feel at one with everything.
Perhaps all that is going on with them, and this doesn't discount their feeling of unity, just being an attempt to explain it, is that their "chunking" of reality leads them to view everything as one thing, much as the brain filters the entire night sky into a single entity called "stars."
Bor's words also seemingly provide an insight into the chop wood, carry water sort of mindfulness extolled by Buddhist sorts of practices. If wide and thin attention leads to minimal awareness, then narrow and thick attention leads to maximal awareness.
Again, nothing supernatural or mystical is going on here. Just the brain doing its thing. Which is magical enough.