Sunday, April 08, 2007

Book Review: The "God" Part of the Brain

Matthew Alper's The "God" Part of the Brain puts forth a hypothesis that I want to believe, but for various reasons, I cannot. Alper asserts that belief in God is an evolutionary function, a genetically inherited trait which grants humans an evolutionary advantage. If effect, Alper asserts that we "make it all up" because we are wired to do so. As an atheist and skeptic, I understand that what Alper puts forth is not the result of scientific rigor, but his generous interpretation of various scientific disciplines, a layman's theory if you will. Having said that, I would describe Alper's work as thought provoking, insightful, and a valuable read. I do not agree with Alper's central thesis, however his book promotes a valuable discussion on the nature of belief and why we seem to choose to believe in the supernatural.

Alper's work first came to my attention in the late 90's when it was originally published. My first read sent me down the road of examining why I had at one time believed in God. I had never considered the reasons why I had believed in God in my previous life as a Christian, I was focused on defending my position as an Atheist. The"God" Part of the Brain guided my mental efforts towards looking to why people tend to believe. For a few years at least, Alper’s work was an important part of my development as an Atheist. It was gradually replaced by other more complex works. Reading it again has been a pleasure.

The central thesis, that humanity is pre-programmed to believe in God, is worthy of further study. Alper suggests that genetic predisposition towards belief in God is a universal human trait. Alper tends to use words like "all" to describe arguments in his thesis. For example, his assertion that all cultures have a supernatural component does not ring true when large segments of humanity fall outside his all-inclusive net. Buddhists for example, do not hold a supernatural view of the world, spiritual maybe, but not supernatural. This might seem like a small thing, but to someone who automatically rejects universal arguments as poor logical constructions, it can cause discomfort.

Alper also asserts that consciousness is a physical entity, which is tied to a physical process in our brain. He reaches this conclusion in much the same way I did, by analyzing a physical process that changed the essence of who we are. In his case, a bad LSD trip prompted a significant change in his personality, in my case, a bad knock on the head caused a change in the way I look at the world. Consciousness as a physical process is a reoccurring theme in Alper’s writing. It is used to support his thesis that belief in God is a physical process as well. While I do not agree with Alper's central thesis, I find his ideas refreshing and worthy of further consideration. Of course, physical evidence of the “God” part of the brain would have made his argument much more compelling.

A discussion of other reasons for the belief in God are superficial, and in most cases missing altogether. For example, learning spirituality as part of our socialization process is a significant area of study with a large body of work supporting it, yet it receives little or no attention. A critical analysis would have been helpful if for no other reason than to show the differences between his theory and the works of others.

Alper's work falls into the category of thought provoking rather than groundbreaking. I view The "God" Part of the Brain as a glimpse into the mind of a man who is coming to terms with his own lack of faith. I find Alper's work comforting and familiar. His journey could be my journey. He attempts to provide an explanation I need to confront the faithful when they ask why I do not believe in the supernatural. For this alone I can recommend the book. Add expanding my understanding of the transient nature of consciousness, the fact that a stroke or bad LSD trip can change who we are to such an extent that we are no longer who we were, and Alper’s book a worthwhile read. Essentially - The "God" Part of the Brain prompts the reader to think, which is a rare thing in books these days. Despite my problems with the central thesis, I find it easy to recommend. Just don't expect the answer to any big questions. Enjoy.

(Authors note: This review was solicited by the publisher. I found other solicited reviews here, here, here and here)


Dan Marvin said...

I have one for you to review Case for a Creator by Lee Strobel. You can either get the book or here is a clip from the DVD. I am here to help with the truth. The evidence is compelling if you have an open mind and are truly searching for truth, if not we will see in your review.

Just a concerned family man,


Mojoey said...

Dan - you first. Read and post a review of The God part of the brain.

btw - screening comments on your piss poor excuse for a blog is bad form.

Elaine Frankonis said...

When I attended a Catholic high school, I had to take a whole year of "Apologetics," in which I learned three proofs of the existence of "God." At the naive age of 16, I was easily convinced.

Now a 67 year old atheist, I long ago figured out the circular logic and other fallacies of those "proofs."

From what I've read about Alper's book, it seems very possible that SOME humans have evolved to have that "god part" of their brain. That sure would explain why they are so intent on converting everyone else. Of course, their definition of "god" is dependent on what their cultures teach about spirituality.

ghall5 said...

I would read Alper's book, rather than just the comments on his book. I too have been raised Catholic and do enjoy my faith. I do agree also that Alper presents a very good point concerning the evolution of the God part of the brain, but he unfortunately reveals a strong bias in his opinion. At the end of the book he goes on to explain that religion is pointless and explains that we need to learn how to live without religion.
I found this statement ironic considering earlier in the book he stated that this gene was essential for our survival because we are always conscious of our inevitable deaths. The gene was our coping mechanism. My question is: If we learned to repress the gene wouldn't death become more strenuous, thus losing hope, and ultimately lead to our extinctions?

Geoff, Elon University, NC