God on the Brain: What Cognitive Science Does (and Does Not) Tell Us about Faith, Human Nature, and the Divine

God on the Brain: What Cognitive Science Does (and Does Not) Tell Us about Faith, Human Nature, and the Divine
ET staff writer
ET staff writer
29 September, 2020 1 min read

The title of this book, and its associated subtitle referring to cognitive science, are misleading. A title like ‘Philosophical Reflections on the Mind-Brain Relationship’ would have been more accurate. Parts of it do have some engagement with neuroscience, but these are the weakest parts.

In chapter 4 Sickler engages with something called ‘Cognitive Science of Religion’ (CSR). This is based on the fallacious idea that we should be able to identify religious parts of the brain. So if I am learning about the Hundred Years War then I would be using different memory circuits from when I learn about the confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh in Exodus; and when I think about the Trinity I would activate different brain areas from when I think about the pathophysiology of visual hallucinations. Unsurprisingly the CSR studies identify all the circuits and brain areas I’d expect; there are no special religious ones.

Here and elsewhere many of the errors (factual and inferential) are not from the author, but he hasn’t a background in neuroscience and it shows. His background is in philosophy and consequently the later chapters dealing with philosophical issues are much better and worth reading.

Also, though, some sentences raise concerns about his view of the Bible: ‘That there were no humans on earth a billion years ago is not something we can directly view because we cannot go back a billion years in time to observe it’ (p.48); and ‘Granted one can distinguish between claims that are generally agreed upon – for instance, that there are material objects – and those that are more controversial – for instance that Moses led the Israelites through the Red Sea’ (p.52). I’ve re-read these in context and while I hope the author doesn’t mean what they seem to mean, they are unqualified and at best concerning.

Overall not a book I can commend, I’m afraid, nor am I sure who the target readership is.

Alan Thomas

Newcastle

ET staff writer
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