Michael Graziano, a neuroscientist at Princeton University and avowed atheist, has written a strange piece at the Templeton Big Questions website, “Why we see spirits and souls.“ He makes three claims. First, just because science can explain something—like religious belief or consciousness—as a byproduct of the brain, this doesn’t mean that thing isn’t real. (You can see where he’s going with this.) But few of us deny that the phenomenon of consciousness exists (after all, we do experience pain and other qualia); the problem has been to explain where it comes from and how it may have evolved.
But after arguing that ephenomena are still phenomena, he then backtracks and says that we can’t distinguish between perception and reality, and that anyway it doesn’t matter:
One of the strangest insights to emerge from neuroscience is the distinction between perception and reality. We experience our perceptions, not reality. Ever since the cortical physiology of color was first explored in the 1960s by David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel, physiologists have understood that color does not exist in any absolute sense.
Whenever I hear this kind of sly denigration of our ability to apprehend an external reality (an ability that evolution of course would have favored), I’m reminded of this limerick:
There was a faith-healer of Deal
Who said, ‘Although pain isn’t real,
If I sit on a pin
And it punctures my skin
I dislike what I fancy I feel.’
When a rabbit perceives the approach of wavelengths corresponding to the morphology of a “fox,” he’d better flee, for he wouldn’t care for what he’d perceive as the consequences of staying.
But Graziano’s main point is that even though our brain can conceive of a God, and science might explain this away as an epiphenomenon rather than a real deity outside of ourselves, this doesn’t really matter:
Much of the modern clash between science and religion focuses on questions about whether God exists independently or is a construct of the brain and whether the soul lives on after the body or ends when the brain dies. Are these crucial religious questions? I would argue that they are not. For the vast majority of people, religion is a way of life. It is about community and music, place and food, comfort and emotional support. It is, like all of human culture and experience, a function of our peculiar neurobiology, and we should try to appreciate it as such.
To deny that God’s existence is a question of consequence is a unique strategy in the annals of accommodationism. And, as is so often the case, the words of Orwell apply: “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.” Maybe Graziano appreciates the potted plants, stained glass windows, and evensong of the church, but how many people would still be religious if they knew absolutely that God did not exist? If Graziano thinks that religion for everyone is simply is a supportive community and not a set of beliefs about what exists, he needs to get out of the lab more.