Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Right Brain, Left Brain, No Brain

Most of us know about the hemispheres of the brain—that is, that the brain is split into two segments, like a walnut, the left and the right—and research has shown that each hemisphere has specialized to perform certain types of skills. The left hemisphere handles language, math, and logical tasks. The right is specialized for spatial abilities, creativity, and imagery. The imagination. Dividing the two sides, running through the middle like a neural traffic cop, is the corpus callosum: a highway of white matter that transmits signals from one side to the other.

It’s a marvel of evolution, and yet not altogether surprising, considering the symmetry of the human animal. Our bodies have left and right sides—two arms and legs here, two arms and legs there. Two eyes, ears, and nostrils. Just about everything about us points to duality. Yin and yang, as the Buddhists might say.

Consider the saying “I’m of two minds about it.” We can sometimes feel that we actually have two minds and that they are talking—even warring—with each other. One side says, “Yes, go for it!” while the other says, “Hmm, no better wait.” Put it into a cartoon, and you can almost see the “angel” on one shoulder and the “devil” on the other.

Such is the endless conflict between opposites. Left and right, night and day, up and down. Our drive for the good and our drive for the bad. (Notice that I don’t say “good and evil” as if these were autonomous entities that exist outside of our volition. They don’t. They ARE us.)

When you start discussing religion versus reason, the dualities become blindingly clear.
Religion draws from the part of the brain that deals with emotion and imagination (the key elements in every Disney movie, perhaps?). It provides a strong reason to feel love (for God), an indisputable reason to feel hate (for sins and those who commit them, Satan and all his representatives), and purported reasons to feel fear (an eternity of punishment).

You probably also know of the “fight or flight” instinct that all animals possess. Expanding this one emotion further, and adding human terminology, we have:

Hate = Fight
Fear = Flight
Love = Embrace

These are our most basic, most primal emotions. They’re what we feel at three hours old and what we feel throughout our lives.

Safe in the community of a religion, people find outlets and havens for these basic emotions, which is all fine and good. I’m all for healthy emotions.

Enter the left hemisphere, the part of the brain that’s specialized for reason. Reason and rational thinking are necessarily divorced from emotion. It is this part of us that allows us to be dispassionate when needed, to analyze rather than panic (as an example, the EMT who must think clearly and stay focused in times of crisis), to negotiate rather than bomb.

The evolution of our frontal lobes and our reasoning abilities has been the backbone of humanity’s progress over the millennia. Our scientific discoveries, our technological advances in math, physics, medicine, and the exploration of the largest (the cosmos) and the smallest (quanta) have been possible, to a large extent, because of our left brains.

When logic butts up against emotion, you have scenarios that are as cliché as Dr. Spock and Captain Kirk. One thinker and one feeler. You see the same dichotomy in many marriages. It’s the age-old “opposites attract” situation.

As well, we have theists and a-theists. Yin and yang.

So in our evolution as a species, this is where we’re at. We’re at the point in the long history of homo sapiens where we are bicameral and dualistic. The two halves of our brains foist us into conflicts that can manifest at every level from two strangers bumping into each other in the street to two nations threatening each other with nuclear annihilation.

At the level that’s completely individual and internal, there is always that voice inside that says “But I do believe … but I don’t believe…”

For now, with our dualistic brains and the opposite-sides-of-the-fence cultures of believers and nonbelievers, we are going to have to learn to coexist peacefully. Like the pot-smoking hippies who live next door to the buttoned-down, Republican couple. We have to acknowledge our differences, our diversity, and our opposite natures, just as we understand the duality of our neural structures.

But as we move into the future—not over decades but millennia—I hope that our reason will take the stronger lead over the emotional impulses and fabula, or theater, of religion.

Creativity cannot and should not be excised from our lives. But the pablum of religion—that is, when it is an infantile clinging to supernatural Mommy and Daddy figures—ultimately thwarts our progress as a species.

Perhaps eventually, day by day, era by era, our species will develop the autonomy that allows us to let go of the fearful part of the brain, the part that seeks reassurance in religion, and find the courage to face our own adulthood.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Just Say No! Boycotting Religious "Debate"

There’s a quote that I love about argument: "Discussion is an exchange of knowledge, argument an exchange of emotion" (Robert Quillen).

Think of a time when you and a friend, or your spouse, were in a heated argument and you realized that you weren’t having an exchange of knowledge but rather an exchange of emotion.

You were venting, not persuading. As the emperor in the film Amadeus said, “You are passionate, Mozart, but you do not persuade.”

Logic versus emotion – the differences, and the differences in methods of expression, can become blatantly clear in the realm of religion. Everywhere I turn, I see devout believers trying every conceivable verbal twist and pseudological gymnastics to attempt to present a “logical” argument for religion. Books, articles, speaking engagements, and blogs abound on the “arguments” of religious belief. That is, “arguing” the existence of supernatural, magical, imaginary spooks, er … God.

It makes me think of the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. It's like hearing everyone from academics to the lady in the grocery store crying “I do believe in spooks! I do believe in spooks!” as if their repetition and urgency will make their spooks real.

Would you “argue” – using the processes of formalized debate – the necessary existence of Darth Vader, Hamlet, Paul Bunyan, Shiva, Captain Kirk, Gollum, Oliver Twist, Luke Skywalker, Superman?

If you did, how do you think your listeners would respond? They may simply back away slooooooowly and leave you alone.

Imagine a person who says “Luke Skywalker is real! He’s really real! I see him, I talk to him all the time, and this is what he told me…”

Confronted with this statement, some of us would assume mental illness - schizophrenia or some other type or level of delusion. The delusion may be mild enough to allow the person to function perfectly well in society, hold a job, engage in lucid conversation, and so on.

What is less likely is that you would try to “argue” this person OUT of their delusion. You may likely think, as I would, that the mental illness – or its socially acceptable version, religious belief – is not something that can be eliminated through logical discourse, in the way that you might, for example, convince someone that it was better to fund a new irrigation system rather than to build a dam.

Logical arguments have pros and cons on both sides of the discussion, valid points that are supported by research and evidence and that may persuade others to agreement.

When well-meaning individuals “argue” the existence of the nonexistent, I see this as nothing short of an enormous waste of time and energy that could be devoted to a more tangible and more beneficial cause.

The three hours that you spent “debating” whether God listens to prayer or created the universe could have been spent helping a struggling child with her homework, or building a shelter, or campaigning for equal rights for all citizens. You spent three hours trying to "argue the heart," not the head. The head has reasons, but the heart has none. Just as you can’t talk someone out of the feeling of love, you can’t talk, or "argue," someone out of their religious feeling.

So how are you apportioning your time?

Personally, I boycott religious discussion. I refuse to engage, in exactly the way that I would refuse to engage in a shouting session with a borderline personality disorder (BPD) sufferer, a schizophrenic, a five-year-old throwing a tantrum, or an alcoholic pleading for “just one more” drink. I won’t engage with them.

Wise parents and animal trainers know the value of ignoring behaviors. The same technique is used in both areas: praise the valued behavior and ignore the behavior you do not value. The child or the animal eventually gets it that behavior X results in no reward whatsoever (attention) and discontinues that behavior. There’s no profit from it.

Kids will often bait their parents and teachers to get their attention, because sometimes negative attention is better than no attention at all. But when the parent yells, their attention can actually reinforce the behavior that they are trying to curb.

I believe that engaging in religious “debate” reinforces and enables religious addiction, so I choose not to engage. I won’t give the spook-believer that sort of power.

Religious people won’t get my attention by “arguing religion” (an oxymoron, in my opinion). I make it clear that I won’t engage until they are ready to present a point of view that can be supported by reason and evidence.

So if they have the same learning capacities as dolphins and crows, eventually they’ll get it that an “exchange of emotion” will get exactly zero response from me, and if the loss of my attention causes perturbation, they may start to reconsider their topics or tactics.

It’s highly unlikely that religious debate will end in my lifetime. As a meme, a thought-virus, religion has survived for thousands of years and isn’t going to die out anytime soon. But refusing to engage in its debate is a sort of memetic Lysol. It won’t wipe out the virus but it won’t enable it either.