For most of my life I've been an avid reader of philosophical, spiritual, mystical, religious, and otherwise what's it all about? books.
I've mentally devoured ideas that were way out there.
Well, usually they also were way in here. Meaning, those notions concerned our innermost core being: soul, pure consciousness, Buddha-nature, atman... that thingless thing goes by lots of names.
My evolution into churchlessness has changed my appetite for books that I once found delicously tasty. I'm much more attracted now to readings which accept reality as known to modern science, while delving further into the many mysteries lying beyond the horizon of current human knowledge.
There's a lot of wisdom in ancient writings.
For example, early Buddhists and Taoists were sensitively attuned to both the world outside and inside themselves. A lot of what they said many centuries ago resonates with me today.
Increasingly, though, I get irritated when a modern author writes about spirituality without considering any facts about 21st century neuroscience. None. Zilch. Nada.
(Confession time: I was somewhat guilty of this myself before the light of scientific reality beamed more strongly within my 100 billion or so neurons, connected with several hundred trillion synapses.)
After all, those ancient prophets, sages, gurus, mystics, yogis, meditators, and such were pretty much clueless about how the brain worked. Taking what they said about human consciousness literally would be as absurd as someone accepting the world's flatness in a treatise on geography, just because this was taught by respected seers long ago.
This morning I stopped reading a book about nonduality when I came across this sentence:
In nondual thinking each thought is experienced as arising and passing away by itself, not "determined" by previous thoughts but "springing up" spontaneously.
That, of course, is complete bullshit. There's reams of neuroscientific evidence showing that present awareness and thinking is strongly affected by prior experiences. It may seem otherwise to us, but for most of recorded history it also seemed obvious that the sun revolved around the earth.
I'll keep on reading the book, most likely. I just needed to put it down after noting that nowhere in the table of contents of this book about human perception is there an entry for "brain" or "neuroscience."
Realizing how much I enjoy descriptions of reality that are grounded in, duh, reality, I headed to Amazon and perused titles dealing with the interface of neuroscience and philosophy/spirituality. I've already read quite a few books in this genre, but, hey, there's room in my hundred billion neurons for more.
I discovered "Brain-Wise: Studies in Neurophilosophy" by Patricia Churchland. The book's description enticed me.
Progress in the neurosciences is profoundly changing our conception of ourselves. Contrary to time-honored intuition, the mind turns out to be a complex of brain functions. And contrary to the wishful thinking of some philosophers, there is no stemming the revolutionary impact that brain research will have on our understanding of how the mind works.
Brain-Wise is the sequel to Patricia Smith Churchland's Neurophilosophy, the book that launched a subfield. In a clear, conversational manner, this book examines old questions about the nature of the mind within the new framework of the brain sciences.
What, it asks, is the neurobiological basis of consciousness, the self, and free choice? How does the brain learn about the external world and about its own introspective world? What can neurophilosophy tell us about the basis and significance of religious and moral experiences? Drawing on results from research at the neuronal, neurochemical, system, and whole-brain levels, the book gives an up-to-date perspective on the state of neurophilosophy--what we know, what we do not know, and where things may go from here.
Neurotheology is still very early in its development. Truly combining neuroscience with religious and spiritual phenomena was only possible with the advent of modern brain imaging techniques.
Before the development of these techniques, the rudiments of neurotheology were developed based primarily on animal models and speculation. Today, we have begun to uncover substantial information regarding the relationship between the human brain and religious and spiritual practices and experiences
In the next five years, neurotheology will likely continue to advance our understanding of how the brain is associated with religious and spiritual phenomena. Most likely, the brain imaging studies that have become an important aspect of neurotheology will continue to expand. There are many types of practices and experiences that remain to be evaluated using brain imaging techniques.
Traditions might be compared, as well as the wide variety of practices within each tradition. Imaging studies, along with other clinical studies, will help us better understand not only what happens in the brain at the time of a particular practice, such as meditation or prayer, but also how such practices affect us over time.
There's plenty of mystery left to explore in the cosmos. I just feel that the journey needs to be undertaken with a solid understanding of the vehicle we're traveling on: the human brain.