The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2012 Daniel Harper.
Reading — This morning’s reading comes Samuel Johnson’s Rambler, issue number 32:
The cure for the greater part of human miseries is not radical, but palliative. Infelicity is involved in corporeal nature and interwoven with our being. All attempts, therefore, to decline it wholly are useless and vain:
The armies of pain send their arrows against us on every side, the choice is only between those which are more or less sharp, or tinged with poison of greater or less malignity; and the strongest armor which reason can supply will only blunt their points, but cannot repel them.
Sermon — “Neuroscience and Liberal Religion”
In his reflection, Roy King talked about the wonders of science, and mentioned the Higgs Boson. Well, one Sunday morning the Higgs Boson walked into a Catholic mass. The service is about to start, and the Higgs boson shouts “Stop!” The priest turns to look at him, and says, “Why should I stop?” The Higgs boson says, “Because you can’t have mass without me.” (1)
We religious liberals like to talk about the wonders revealed by science. We find religious inspiration in what science reveals to us about the world. It may be less than correct to call the Higgs boson the “God particle,” as some journalists have taken to doing; nevertheless, what I have read about the discovery of the Higgs boson fills me with awe and wonder.
The wonder of science arises from observations of the world around us to which we apply our reasoning abilities in community with others. This combination of reason applied to shared observation reveals a wondrous world that can delight and astonish us. And this combination of observation and reason can be applied to the problems of living: we develop drugs to fight disease, we breed new varieties of crops to alleviate food shortages and hunger, we apply materials science and physics to develop photovoltaic panels. It can feel as though we should rely exclusively on reason as we determine how to live our lives.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve been particularly aware of the wonders of a specific branch of science — the wonder that results from contemplating the recent advances in “brain science,” a loose term which roughly encompasses neuroscience, cognitive science, and portions of allied disciplines such as developmental psychology. If you’re like me, you are accustomed to thinking that you know pretty well how your mind works. For example, we all know perfectly well that if we want to carry out some action, first we decide what we’re going to do, and then we do it: I decide that I’m going to take a bite out of a bagel, and after I make that decision, I reach down and pick up the bagel to take a bit. That’s generally how we think our minds think: first we decide to do something, then we do it.
But this is not the way our brains work much of the time. The neuroscientist David Eagleman puts it this way: “Our brains run mostly on autopilot, and the conscious mind has little access to the giant and mysterious factory that runs below it. You see evidence of this when your foot gets halfway to the brake before you consciously realize that a red Toyota is backing out of a driveway on the road ahead of you.” (2)
Another neuroscientist, Michael Gazzaniga, did research in the 1970s on people who had had the neurons between the left and right brain hemispheres severed. In one experiment, researchers showed a different scene to each of the eyes of one of these people: the eye controlled by one hemisphere saw a snow scene, while the eye controlled by the other hemisphere saw a chicken. The researchers then asked the person to asked to choose another image that was related to the image they had just seen. When the eye controlled by the right hemisphere of the brain had seen the snow scene, the hand controlled by that same hemisphere chose as its related image a shovel — to shovel the snow, obviously. But the centers of speech and logic are controlled by the left hemisphere of the brain, which meant that when the asked the person to say why s/he had chosen the shovel, the left hemisphere was unable to respond (because the neural connections between the two hemispheres had been severed). So the person said they had chosen the shovel in order to shovel — the chicken manure. (3)
Our brains are extremely adept at coming up with reasons for our actions after the fact. You step on the brake pedal and you avoid hitting that red Toyota that’s backing out of the driveway in front of you; your brain makes up a story that you decided to step on the brake, but in reality your foot was stepping on the brake before you made a conscious decision to do so. Reason is a product of the conscious mind, and consciousness is a small part of our brain’s activity. Powerful though reason may be, we are not entirely reasonable beings.
Yet for us religious liberals, reason sometimes serves as a central tenet of our religious life. We have not affirmed traditional conceptions of a Christian God in the eighteenth century, when the Unitarians declared that Jesus was not God, and when the Universalists declared that God would not send anyone to hell. Today, half of all Unitarian Universalists call themselves humanists or atheists, and say that there is no deity, or deities, at all. The absence of God in our shared religious life appears to have left a kind of God-shaped hole, and I have seen people try to fill that God-shaped hole with reason. I don’t mean to imply that we try to turn reason into a god, but we do ascribe powers to reason that are not confirmed by science. We have developed a myth that would have us believe in supernatural powers of reason.
Here is one version of the myth of reason:
Some hundreds of thousands of years ago, hominids began to evolve brains that could reason. These hominids eventually evolved into the species Homo sapiens, beings who could think and reason. As time went by, humans became more and more reasonable, and we became able to penetrate the mysteries of the cosmos. As we gradually came into full use of reason, with its help we were able to develop science and technology, and at last we have come to the point where we can solve all problems facing us (that’s supposed to be a punch line, in case you want to laugh). The power of reason gives us the power to order human life so that as many people as possible — and eventually all people — can live out their lives in grace and beauty, and in freedom from want. And as our reason has grown, we have learned to dismiss old, unreasonable myths about the universe. We have evolved beyond the idea that we are not in control of our own destiny: we no longer believe, for instance, we have to sacrifice living beings to propitiate the gods. Some of us would say we have evolved beyond the need for belief in a supernatural being, for our reason shows us that there is no supernatural world.
This is a wonderful myth. This myth sustains much of our social justice work, for we believe that we can consciously reason out ways to reduce human suffering, and that reason will ultimately prevail over the forces of ignorance and stupidity that cause human suffering. And this myth sustains much of our ontological speculation, for we believe that we can consciously reason out the underlying structure of being and existence. But neuroscience and cognitive science have undermined a central belief set forth by this myth, that we can consciously reason our ways through life. We have far less conscious control over our lives than this myth would have us believe.
Since this myth of all-powerful reason is not supported by brain science, I’d like to tell you that brain science has come up with a useful alternative for the practical living of our day-to-day lives. But to the best of my knowledge it has not. Nor should we really expect it to: science is a powerful way of making careful observations, revealing the wonders of the world around us. It has not proven so useful as a way to structure ordinary life.
In particular, I am not aware that brain science has offered much in the way of useful research on organized religion. I have read about a study where scientists studied the brains of Buddhist monks meditating, and Christian nuns praying, and found that there were similarities between the two in terms of the parts of the brains which were activated by meditation in the one, and prayer in the other. (4) Not being a Buddhist monk nor a Christian nun, this is not of much use to me. I’m not part of an insulated group engaged in esoteric practices, I’m part of an ordinary congregation; and the problems I face, and that I see others around me facing, are problems for which brain science seems to offer no real guidance.
Let me give you an example of one such problem, taken from the life of Samuel Johnson.
Johnson was perhaps one of the most reasonable of all writers in the English language, a thinker who epitomizes the link in Enlightenment thought between reason and morality. He was also aware of the limits of reason. In this morning’s reading, we heard Johnson tell us that reason can perhaps blunt the miseries and calamities of human life, but reason cannot do away with those miseries and calamities. He did not think that we could end all human suffering through the use of reason. For Johnson had directly experienced the limits of his own reason at least twice in his life. In his twenties and again in his fifties, he suffered some kind of breakdown. After each of these breakdowns, both he and his close friends felt that there had been times when he could be called “mad,” what we today would call mentally ill.
Arthur Murphy, in a brief biography, described one time when Johnson felt he was losing his reason: “In 1766 [Johnson’s] constitution seemed to be in a rapid decline, and that morbid melancholy, which often clouded his understanding, came upon him with a deeper gloom than ever. [His good friends] Mr. and Mrs. Thrale paid him a visit in this situation, and found him on his knees, with Dr. Delap, the rector of Lewes, in Sussex, beseeching God to continue to him the use of his understanding.” (5)
Mr. and Mrs. Thrale were deeply affected by this scene. Mrs. Thrale later wrote: “I felt excessively affected with grief, and well remember my husband involuntarily lifted up one hand to shut [Johnson’s] mouth, from provocation at hearing a man so wildly proclaim what he could at last persuade no one to believe, and what, if true, would have been so very unfit to reveal.” (6) The Thrales immediately took Johnson to their country home, where they nursed him back to some semblance of health over the next three months.
Johnson was not able to reason his way out of his state of mind. Nor does brain science tell us what Johnson should have done for himself. But what Johnson did to recover from his breakdown is supported by brain science; and for those of us looking for practical guidance in how to live our own ordinary lives, it’s worth hearing what Johnson did:
First, for all his genius and power of reason, Johnson realized that he did not have as much conscious control over himself as he would have liked to have had. Therefore, he realized that he had to rely on other people. When Mr. and Mrs. Thrale found him having a breakdown, he was able to let them take him to their country house and nurse him back to health.
Nothing about a willingness to rely on others contradicts the insights of brain science. Once we realize that our conscious minds aren’t in as much control as we’d like to think, it would be logical and practical to rely on the help and insights of those around us. Indeed, the field of cognitive science, particularly as applied to education, has shown that thinking and learning sometimes takes place, not within our individual brains, but in a shared social setting: that is, cognition may be distributed among several persons, rather than limited to the insides of one person’s brain. Thus it makes complete sense to get in the habit of relying on other people in our day-to-day lives. This is, in fact, one of the primary functions of a religious congregation like ours: to get us in the habit of relying on others.
Second point: As we heard in this morning’s reading, Johnson said in the face of life’s miseries and calamities, reason is of limited usefulness. And in the passage immediately following this morning’s reading, he went on to say what does help at times of misery and calamity: “The great remedy which heaven has put in our hands is patience, by which, though we cannot lessen the torments of the body, we can in a great measure preserve the peace of the mind, and shall suffer only the natural and genuine force of an evil without heightening its acrimony or prolonging its effects.” (7)
Think about Johnson’s breakdown, and the way Mr. and Mrs. Thrale took him off to the country for three months to recover. I’m sure Johnson could have found better things to do with those the three months than to be nursed back to health. But he had cultivated the habit of patience, and for those three months he was able to put aside his eagerness to work on his writing, and take the time to recover his mental health.
We don’t place much value on patience in twenty-first century America. But think of patience as a habit of mind that can be cultivated to get us through those times when reason isn’t going to help. It’s like the habits you form when you learn how to drive: you don’t have time to think about stepping on the brake when you see that red Toyota backing out in front of you, you just do it. In a similar way, we can cultivate the habit of patience.
Third, and finally, Johnson used religion as a mental discipline that helped him to reflect on himself, his morals, his failings, his strengths, his place in society and his effect on others. His written prayers often reveal great depths of personal insight into his character; and he went to Sunday services for much the same purpose: to engage in reflection and introspection.
From a practical standpoint, organized religion helps develop habits that not only give us insight into our emotions and motivations, and allow us to set up patterns in our lives to change our behavior for the better. Some brain scientists like to say, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” (8) Johnson coupled his habit of deep personal introspection with reflection on the highest moral values. Thus when he prayed or went to Sunday services, his neurons were wired to do some introspection and reflection; he was automatically drawn into remembering his highest values.
So we have seen that brain science is helping us religious liberals understand the limits of reason. We don’t have as much conscious control over life as we’d maybe like to think, and we may have to rethink liberal religion’s strong insistence of self-reliance. And as it turns out, maybe we should be looking at another aspect of liberal religion. We can find great value, not just in the speculative hyper-rational side of liberal religion, but also in the power of common religious habits that help us structure our lives so that we can get through the problems that face us in ordinary living. After all, that’s why we come here each Sunday morning: to renew the habits that help us get through another week of ordinary life.
(1) Original joke appears to have been written by science comedian Brian Malow; see e.g. this 2009 video of Malow speaking in Berkeley, California.
(2) Eagleman, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, Pantheon, 2011.
(3) Information about Gazzaniga research taken from a lecture by David Hogue.
(4) See, e.g., this Reuters interview of neurologist Andrew Newberg.
(5) Arthur Murphy, “An Essay on the Life and Genius of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.,” c. 1792. In Johnsonian Miscellanies, 1835.
(6) Hester [Thrale] Piozzi, Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson, 1786.
(7) Samuel Johnson, Rambler, no. 32.
(8) Phrase based on a theory developed by Donald Hebb in 1949. Neurobiologist Carla Schatz appears to have popularized this form of Hebb’s theory.
For background information about Samuel Johnson’s life, I also consulted Samuel Johnson: A Biography (1977) by W. Jackson Bate, and James Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1791).