Saturday, March 19, 2011

Mind in Motion - In search of God and Soul

The human psyche has always held a childlike fascination for me. From the earliest moments of my memory I began to question why. It seems I’ve always wanted to know why people do the things they do – why does my mother constantly obsess about cleanliness? Why does my father have “itchy feet”? Why do my daughters (or for that matter, my sisters and I) vary so vastly despite our similar genetic make-up? Questions like these plaque me as often today as they did as a child and I still find myself searching for answers. This was the primary reason why I wanted to study the subject over the summer – so I could focus all my academic attention on finding these answers. Answers to human behaviors are what I expected to discover through this course, what I wasn’t prepared for was the study of where the behaviors stem. For some reason I was under the impression that those questions were best answered in the realm of Philosophy and a whole different entity from Psychology. What I’ve discovered is that the two sciences often dance around one another in search of answers.

Recently, I was given the opportunity to do some hard soul searching about not just human psyche, but about myself, my beliefs and my own mortality in this one given reading assignment, and I found it to be an overwhelming demon I wasn’t prepared to address. The assignment was easy enough for the average college student - choose an article from the teacher’s list on human behavior, write a report about it and what you’ve learned in the class thus far. For an overachieving, anal retentive student such as me, it became a challenge that my mind wasn’t prepared to accept; the idea that there is no human soul, no God, and no underlying reason for my existence. That we are nothing more than a series of firing neurons inhabiting the planet and not much different than any other living creature that exists on the earth was a hard pill to swallow. Not only did I read one article, I read everyone I could get my paws on without paying for and some additional astonishing texts on the subjects as well. Each piece of information left me grappling for more answers to my reason of existence than I had before.

Most relevant to my “rude awakening” was the opening statement made by Nobel Laureate Francis Crick in his book The Astonishing Hypothesis;

“The Astonishing Hypothesis is that “You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”

Of course, the cover itself attracts the utmost attention from any “white and nerdy” wanna be such as myself with the words “Nobel Laureate.” Who in their right mind would want to question the opinion of such a highly regarded scholar? Certainly not I, nor anyone else hoping to follow in his footsteps. This alone was an overpowering statement for me.

I grew up Catholic, and although today I can’t promise I fully subscribe to all the beliefs the religion teaches, I can assure you that the basis of the ideas still hold a firm foundation within my psyche – there is a higher power and a higher reason for my being. Suddenly, I’ve been informed by someone I respect that these ideas are nothing more than the dreams of a sleeping animal and its vague attempt to justify its existence. I never thought of God as “the man behind the curtain” - one that watches my every move and judges my every action, but I also never considered him more than a fantasy that stemmed from my neurons. Every emotion, every feeling I have about my beliefs in God can be traced to nothing more than the neurons possibly “tied to a specific place in the brain.” I now find myself caught in the crossroads of understanding and stupidity, wondering if I was better off taking the road well traveled – the one marked “don’t need to know”.

Humans, as a species, tend to be thoughtful creatures, but (assumedly) unlike most animals who simply exist to live, feed, and reproduce, humans actually contain the thought capacity to ask why. Not only do they have the capacity to question these facts, they have the ability to derive theories on why it is. When answers don’t point to logic, human’s turn to higher powers for explanations. Why is the sky blue? Because God wanted it to be blue. These answers are acceptable to children whose narrow vision of the world doesn’t extend beyond their parents comfort, and most adult not caring to explore the idea further. We find ourselves in a quandary for answers when bad things happen to us; why did my dog die? Why did the tornado hit my house? We blame God for these shortcomings and curse him for not protecting us from harm. If God is such a loving, all-powerful being, why did he let these things happen to me? Answers don’t come from hours of quiet prayer or dedicated prayer sessions with your mother of pearl rosary. We convince ourselves that our “higher powers” must have reasons for the tragedies bestowed upon us – perhaps a test of our faith or an opportunity to prove ourselves worthy of an afterlife in heaven. Not only do people subscribe to it, they live their life and die according to it.

Science has a way of answering questions. If one is bold enough to ask why, one must be strong enough to accept the answer and the possibility that it may lead you to a dark corner of the world you’d rather not travel. This is where the dance begins between Psychology and Philosophy. The study of Psychology focuses its interest on human behaviors and the mental process. The questions come from the science of Philosophy. If one begins to wonder why the brain works the way it does, one has to explore its reason for existence. If one begins to wonder why we exist if not for a higher purpose, then we must explore why we think the way we do. Contrary to my previous assumptions, there is little room for splitting hairs in this matter. How do you explain why a person believes in something they’ve never seen or touched? Where do those beliefs originate? These are the questions conceived by the dance.

Technology affords scientist the ability to explore the human brain without destruction of life or invasive surgery. fMRI scans paint the picture of neurons that fire when religious devotes are deep within their trances indicating the possibility that God’s existence lies not within the human soul, but the human mind. Chemical releases between the neurons send signals to those parts of the brain that process emotion and emotional memory explaining away the euphoria these monks experience when they are “close to their higher powers.” Most interesting about the research is that this modern technology failed to find a consistent area in the brain that was stimulated by these practiced faiths; scientist discovered the left prefrontal cortex activation in Buddhists monks during meditation, frontal lobe activity in women while speaking in tongues, and increased activity in the central brain region of nuns recalling communion with God. Is this the proof that God exists only in our minds? Well, the nuns don’t think so, and most people you bump into will profess some sort of religious faith despite this factual information. Why does religion play such a large role in the lives of our society? Should one dare to accept the possibility that God is nothing more than emotional response? If this is a possibility, one must further concur that there is little difference between the reasons of existence of the coyote as compared to the human. Both exist simply because the species was strong enough to survive the evolutionary process of natural selection, rather than to serve a higher purpose. This is a reality that the human superior ego cannot accept.

The thought of retribution becomes a driving factor in morality and religion. Generations of humans have raised their young to believe that good deeds were awarded by salvation at heaven’s gates, while bad deeds were punishable in the pits of hell. These fear factors alone encourage society to do the right thing in accordance to their beliefs of “ultimate consequence”. Rules of humanity are painted within the pages of a religion’s bible – honor thy mother and father, do not take the Lord’s name in vain, thou shall not kill - all ethical guidelines that have shaped our society. This is what justifies our superiority; we are civilized simply because we subscribe to a set of ideas on living within our faiths of what is honorable and just and fear punishment if we deviate from these ideals. Is it morally correct for science to attempt to take this away from society?

More spectacular in the theory that God lies only within the human mind, is the idea that there is no human soul; no afterlife of existence after death, no reunions with lost love ones in a better universe. If faith builds morals through the belief that the immortal soul will be rewarded for good behavior, what is the reward for living without fear of eternal damnation? Would society revert to its primitive behavior without this divine intervention or would the value of human life increase because human’s understood that there would be no “do over’s” in the form of reincarnation, eternal afterlife and God’s final comforting embrace? For now, we can only devise theories on how we as a species would react if science could one day affirm this possibility without doubt. Until then, I remain the hopeful optimist, believing in the idea that there is a higher purpose for my being, a reason I was granted a breath of life, and the possibility an existence beyond the realm of reality I understand today.

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