This Is Your Brain On Spirituality

Charles Robert Darwin. A copy made by John Col...

Charles Darwin, via Wikipedia

The evolution of the human brain has produced complex creatures, part rational and part metaphysical. When I think of rational side of humanity I think of scientists, people like Galileo, Newton, Curie, Darwin and Einstein. When I think of the metaphysical side I think of religionists, people like Buddha, John Calvin, Pope Pius XII, Joseph Smith, L. Ron Hubbard and Pat Robertson.

This dichotomy occurred to me when I read a very interesting post by Duane Graham  wherein he discusses a recent religious diatribe against the President in a public setting. The attacker was convinced that Obama is the Antichrist and that his election heralds that Armageddon is coming soon. In Duane’s post is embedded an interesting commentary by MSNBC’s Lawrence Odonnell about it.  I submit that the extremism of religiosity being displayed by the right in politics makes this sort of thing important reading for all of us.

Isn’t it interesting that someone in the twenty-first century, with all that is known about science and history, can still believe in such nonsense? I find it so, although I was not surprised to read about it because of all the other nuttiness that has gone on in the name of spiritualism, things like the 1978 Jonestown mass suicide in which 918 people, including 270 children, perished. Then there was the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide in 1997 in which 39 people allowed themselves to be convinced that a UFO was coming to pick them up and that they needed to destroy their mortal bodies in order to get their souls on board.

How can this human behavior be explained? Personally, I buy the theory put forth by Matthew Alper in his book, The “God” Part of the Brain.  His premise is put forth in part thusly:

How else are we to explain the fact that all human cultures – no matter how isolated – have maintained a belief in some form of a spiritual/transcendental reality, in a god or gods, a soul, as well as an afterlife? How else are we to explain the fact that every human culture has built houses of worship through which to pray to such unseen forces? Or that every known culture has buried (or at least disposed of) its dead with a rite that anticipates sending the deceased person’s “spiritual” component, or what we call a soul, onward to some next plane, or what we call an afterlife? Wouldn’t the universality with which such perceptions and behaviors are exhibited among our species suggest that we might be “hard-wired” this way? How about the fact that every known culture has related undergoing what we refer to as spiritual experiences? Perhaps we are “hard-wired” to experience such sentiments as well. Just as all honeybees are compelled to construct hexagonally shaped hives, perhaps humans are compelled to perceive a spiritual reality…as a reflex, an instinct.


Here lies the origin of humankind’s spiritual function, an evolutionary adaptation that compels our species to believe that though our physical bodies will one day perish, our “spirits” or “souls” will persist for all eternity. Only once our species was instilled with this inherent (mis)perception that there is something more “out there,” that we are immortal beings, were we able to survive our debilitating awareness of death.

If you have trouble buying into Alper’s concept, please check out Wikipedia’s partial list of religions.  I count 40 major categories of them and there are hundreds of subdivisions under those.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said,

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

I think F. Scott got it wrong. I think holding two opposing ideas at once is something most people do every day, or at least every Sunday. It has little to do with first-rate intelligence and everything to do with evolution. I mean, just look at how little time we modern humans have been around. Using 25 years for a generation (that’s what uses), Homo sapiens has been a species for only 7,600 generations, has used written language for only 240 generations, and has had useful powered machines for only 12 generations. (The dinosaurs, in comparison, ruled the earth for 2,400,000 generations – or they would have if there had been humans to have generations then.)

If you still don’t agree with me, try reading up on the Texas Education Board and their selection of textbooks.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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22 Responses to This Is Your Brain On Spirituality

  1. John Erickson says:

    In my (again, VERY humble) opinion, I think the attraction to theology, religion, or whatever you want to call it, is twofold. One is the very real fear of death, and the knowledge that we all will fall prey to the “great equaliser”. On the other hand is the need to explain all things in our minds, and when science fails, religion fills the gap.
    BUT. I’ve been involved in a few discussions elsewhere about the “necessity” of religion for morals. While I supported the side that stated morals are possible without a “supreme being”, I also believe that religion serves a purpose of spreading morals throughout society, and providing both a “carrot” and a “stick” to reinforce those morals.
    Does that mean there is or isn’t a God? As I often quote, there’s a line in the movie “Contact” where one character asks another to “prove” that she loved her father. I doubt if we will ever conclusively prove the existence of a Supreme Being, but I think religion does serve (when wielded properly) as a civilising factor and moral guidepost. In that light, I think it has a very definite place in our lives – again, when wielded for good.
    And all this, from a guy who’s spent more time in churches singing and cleaning, then he has “religifying”! 😀


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Thanks for what I can tell is a candid comment, John. As I read it you confirm exactly what I think about the subject, i.e., that religion is useful, not because it’s true but because it fulfills functions that improve society, and hence survivability. Ergo, its evolutionary purpose. Tribal cohesion isn’t just fluff, it helps us survive battle with the neighboring tribes or when attacked by tigers. What kind of a tribe would it be if there were no compassion for others? Pretty weak, I would say.

      All that said, I am no expert either. My thoughts are just the residue of years trying to coalesce. Thanks for the input.


  2. ansonburlingame says:

    To both,

    We have been writing in reference to Einstein in another blog. But his ideas are applicable herein as well, in my view.

    Einstein was fascinated by what he call “intersections”. Before his time science had discovered to “intersection” of gravity, a powerful force causing the apple to fall from a tree. It then found the intersection of electromagnetic energy, Later, with a lot help of the theoretical sort from Einstein, we found the intersection of nuclear energy, E=MC(2).

    Einstein also created the intersection of quantum machinics but he did not believe it at the time. Based on that intersection a man can in fact walk through a wall (if everything lines up correctly at the quantum level). And string theory may, with its 26 or so dimensions, be another intersection.

    But out in front of each one of those intersections over the centuries there lies the realm of the “spirit”. It is the human mind trying to cope with the unknown. That arena is sometimes called the realm of God and when men try to enter that region to really explain it, other men would burn them at the stake in centuries past. Now we have Presidential candidates that try to force us BACK to the older realms of God, realms long since passed and left in the dust of history by science.

    But no matter how far science may take us there will always be the realm of the unknown at any give point in time. That to me is where the spirit lies. But then as I noted earlier, I can “fly to the clouds of space” in an instant in my mind. Talk about hypervelocity!! But to me it is always there, an arena of the unknown but reachable with a spirit within each of us, a human spirit that is indeed unbounded or only bounded by our imagination.

    As for religion, forget it in my view. That is no more than a set of RULES, written by men, that TELL me how to “get there” and how to live my life while there. Well what the hell do THEY know, is my reaction to such religion of the man made sort. But on the other hand I do like going to “church” from time to time. The music that I find therein helps my “spirit”.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      I think I get where you’re coming from, Anson. I too like church music, some of it at least. “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “Amazing Grace” come to mind. Generic, Protestant Christianity was an important part of my youth and will always be with me, even though I dismiss the specifics of religion, even as you do. As far as your sense of “spirituality” goes, to me that fits exactly with the concepts in “The God Part of the Brain”.


  3. hlgaskins says:

    “Einstein was fascinated by what he call “intersections”. Before his time science had discovered to “intersection” of gravity, a powerful force causing the apple to fall from a tree. It then found the intersection of electromagnetic energy, Later, with a lot help of the theoretical sort from Einstein, we found the intersection of nuclear energy, E=MC(2).”

    As brilliant as Einstein was, a large portion of his “Theory of Relativity,” was based on Isaac Newton’s earlier ideas on gravity, and before him Johan Kepler. However, the formula of Energy, equals matter, times, light speed, squared, was revolutionary. Mankind has had a long slow climb to reason, in spite of all impeding superstitions plaguing human endeavor, we’ve manged to slowly crawl our way out of a primordial soup of ignorance. Who would’ve of thought more than 40 years after man walked on the moon, that man would turn back time, and once again crawl back into a primordial soup of ignorance? All knowledge is cumulative!


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      “All knowledge is cumulative!” I completely agree, HL. As for Einstein’s originality, my sense of it would also include the relationship between time and space, a relationship which is also involved with the speed of light, a profound relationship that was confirmed in a classic measurement of the bending of light by the sun’s gravity.

      I too marvel at how ignorance and superstition can exist in a modern society when science has confirmed truth on so many levels. The only answer I have been able to come up with is spirituality. Is it not ironic that underlying all that abstract knowledge is the facility of reading and writing, skills which now appear to be in decline in the general population?


  4. ansonburlingame says:


    The advancement of knowledge is HARD WORK either at the individual level or collectively as a species. The general decline about which you speak and I agree is directly related to the effort put into the problem. Today it is all about instant gratification. I am visiting my son in Oregon right now along with my 4 year old granddaughter. She can already log on to a computer and watch cartoons anytime she likes. Remember long ago our thrill of maybe once a month going to a theater and watching cartoons. A rare event. My cartoons at an early age were comic BOOKS. I was quickly forced to READ the words and phrases, not just sit a watch/listen.

    Technology at the “popular” level, mass technology if you will makes life easier and more accessible. The hard work to use such technology to LEARN is still there however. It is called thinking, analysis, considering a variety of views, etc and then putting it all together to “advance” in our individual level of knowledge.

    Witch doctors will always be present in so forms in any society. They protect that which they “know” and do not share with others. What is the difference between a witch doctor in a tribe of long ago and a “politician” or “business” (protecting its own technology) of today. Cross the line of their set of “beliefs” and watch what happens.

    I wonder if the IQ curve is a constant over history? Were some cavemen smarter than others? In the human experience (maybe 100,000 years or so) is “smart” or “dumb” a constant or a variable, always increasing over millinia? Did “Einstein” exist while men were in caves??

    Someone “invented” a wheel. Then someone put a platform on an axel and connected a domesticated animal to the “device” called a wagon. Later one we started driving cars.

    Today technology for computers changes about once a year of so, major changes. Is that because we as humans are now “smarter”? Or is it something else. Gravity to electromagnetism to nuclear forces to quantum mechanics to now maybe string theory is an exponential curve for sure in terms of acceleration of knowledge. Where does it “go” in the future and how fast does it “get there”?

    Remember Buck Rogers and lasers? Comic book stuff back then but now……?

    I have no idea where I am “going” with these comments. But I am fascinated where we are going as a species as well. My Grandmother never flew on an airplane. I wonder what my grandkids will “fly” upon and where they might go when they do so.

    I also wonder how long and hard it is for our politics to “catch up”.



  5. Jim Wheeler says:

    Anson, you said,

    I wonder if the IQ curve is a constant over history? Were some cavemen smarter than others? In the human experience (maybe 100,000 years or so) is “smart” or “dumb” a constant or a variable, always increasing over millinia? Did “Einstein” exist while men were in caves??

    I too have always been interested in the brain, and of course evolution. Scientific American has had numerous articles on both. As best I can recall nobody has been successful in actually measuring any evolutionary changes, probably because old data simply doesn’t exist. We are faced with simply guessing at that from the few artifacts we found. The bulk of evolutionary data indicate that such change is likely to take a long time. There is no reason to think that raw intelligence was any different in the year 0 than it is now. Also, consider the Greek philosophers, Leonardo Da Vinci and Isaac Newton.

    However, I have to think that the profound changes in humanity in the last two millennia must be putting some significant pressure on evolution, changes which include a population explosion (world: 8 billion), racial mixing (unprecedentedly high now), and vastly improved nutrition in the First World. Nutrition alone is a proven brain-booster, and some Americans have that, thanks to government guidelines that emphasize things like a minimum of folic acid for pregnant women. (By the way, I’ll bet you that Canadians and Scandinavian women have a much better record on the latter than the U.S. because their single-payer systems would provide prenatal care for women that ours misses. Betcha too, even without researching, that the ACA, which you and yours hate, provides for that too.)

    But, I think the bottom line is that raw intelligence is much different from an efficiently creative brain. You implied this too. Mental productivity is for sure a synergistic product of intelligence, past knowledge, communication skills (reading and writing), and schooling on systems and processes.


  6. ansonburlingame says:

    If folic acid improves the ability to produce healthy babies, I wonder what might be induced to improve the intelligence of babies. By that I mean stimulating the “growth” or developement in the brain of a fetus that “makes” higer IQs.

    Of course we first have to figure out which part of the brain produces IQ, then we must figure out what makes it “grow”, etc., etc. Sounds like a challenge for the brain “hardware” side of medical science, the neuologists. God forbide that HLG and his ilk would tinker withe such!!!

    Or maybe not. Is IQ a function of hardware or software?



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      @Anson and others,

      I am not a biochemist of course, but my sense as a science bibliophile is that raw intelligence is strictly a function of evolution and of course that includes genetic mutation. Obviously I think, smart parents have a better chance of having smart offspring. I will let HLG answer for himself, but I see nothing sinister in scientific socialism wanting to optimize nutrition for all pregnant women, and I believe there is considerable room for improvement in that area. Please consider this link:


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  8. hlgaskins says:

    “In the human experience (maybe 100,000 years or so) is “smart” or “dumb” a constant or a variable”

    “I am not a biochemist of course, but my sense as a science bibliophile is that raw intelligence is strictly a function of evolution and of course that includes genetic mutation.”
    Jim, Completely right.

    Evolution of intelligence is obviously a variable since evolution isn’t a process that incrementally occurs over time like the “hands of a clock” moving forward inch by inch. It’s a process of the deselection of undesirable biological survivability traits in a species, which in turn limits its rate of reproduction. It’s believed that those traits first occur as biological mutations. The Theory of Evolution is still a work in progress, but in time it will be referred to as the Law of Evolution. Consider Gause’s law “Law of Competitive Exclusion,” where the existence of two similar but different species compete for essentially the same resources, where according to Gause, one species will ultimately out-compete the other.

    Survival differences can be as simple as more fat to resist the cold during the ice-age, or a camel’s hump to resist drought, but in the end those traits resulted in overspecialization such as the outcome of the Saber toothed tigers. Humans however, evolved a unique survival trait which allowed them to avoid overspecialization. A trait that allowed humans to actually manipulate their environment itself such as fire, habitats, and tools. The only like species that we’re aware of such as the Neanderthal, were believed to have been absorbed into the human gene pool, which in turn is believed to have increased our resistance to viral infection. That is of course except for those of recent African ancestry. HLG


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Thanks, HL. I had not heard of Gause’s competitive exclusion principle. Judging from its Wikipedia page it explains the dominance of some species while subtleties permit other almost identical species to co-exist, further proof of the nature’s amazing complexity.

      Personally, it is my conjecture that Homo Sapiens’ capacities for abstract thought and spirituality were both major factors in the extermination of the Neanderthal species. If we can be as violent and destructive as we are based on merely skin color, think of the passions deriving from those additional differences!


  9. ansonburlingame says:

    OK, now we have something to discuss, reasonably,

    The question is how much should government do to “enhance” the evolutionary process. Let’s take babies. What role should government undertake to produce healthy babies as opposed to leaving the welfare of fetal development to “nature”. Said another way what must government do for “dumb” parents that don’t take care of the fetus???.

    Evolution over long spans of time takes care of such development, does it not. “Dumb parents” producing “dumb babies” eventually “wither on the vine” of evolution. But, but you say that is “inhuman”. Well it was not for Neanderthals or even our more recent ancestors, like the framers of the Constituion, where fetal development as a government responsibility was never mentioned, anywhere,

    Don’t like the misstep by the Framers? Great. Change the constituion and define the federal role in fetal development, or early childhood development, or adult development in terms of “thinkiing”. You can also get your own State to take such initiatives as well and not go up against Constitutional restrictions on the scope of the federal government.

    I am all for advancing human development. It is who exactly should do the advancing however. Yes there is a role for government, like public education that really achieves such a goal of “advancement” in the human intelligence, which does advance over time in my view. I do believe “Einstein” was a helluva lot “smarter” than his ancient equivalent during the Ice Age. Relativeity takes a lot more “thought” that inventing a wheel for example.

    Let me pose the issue another way for our resident psychologist. On average is the middle class in America “smarter” (based on IQ) than the “poor”? Another way of viewing the issue is how many real millionaries have IQs less than say 100? By the same token, how many homeless people have IQs over say 120? Is there some “natural selection” going on there and what can government do to prevent such from happening?

    And if you think IQ measurement is too “environmentally affected” then pick a better way to distinguish between “smart and dumb”. PUt someone in front of me for a job interview and I can tell the difference on my own for sure, in about 15 minutes. But of course I am too “biased” even conducting such interviews, right?



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  11. Jim says:

    Jim One, Now you’ve gone and awakened me from my slumber. You have actually made me blog: ‘This Is Your Brain On Rationalality‘.

    I.Q. is not an absolute measure over time. It is a normalized score, so the group average is 100, with a defined standard deviation. The tests (many, not identical) cannot be considered constant. Even if they are ‘unchanged’, their content is perceived differently as language, knowledge, and culture evolve.

    As to hardware and software, there is neither (or – there is both) in a biology. Everything is interconnected. Everything is, for better or for worse, a whole – an organism.

    Jim too


  12. Jim Wheeler says:

    @ Jim Too,

    You are of course absolutely right about “I.Q.” If you will note, I only spoke of intelligence, or raw intelligence. It was Anson who introduced the I.Q. term above, but the discussion proceeded, I believe, in the context of raw intelligence. The distinction is surely worth noting and I appreciate the comment.

    I will check out your post. Nice to hear from you again. 🙂


  13. ansonburlingame says:

    Jim Two (and one as well),

    First I too welcome Jim Two back. We all need fresh thinkging from time to time.

    I also agree that IQ as we measure it today is not an “exact science”. But it is the best we have today in such an attempt to measure human intelligence or “smartness”. Some people are very “smart” and some are “dumber than a door bell”, like it or not. So we should figure out a way to distinguish between the two and see what CAN be done, not what we just “want” to be done, to “raise” the smartness of the dumb. That is progress in human development I would suggest.

    But face it guys, we don’t really know much about how to achieve that goal, making the dumb, smart. We WANT to do that, but again, CAN WE??? I honestly don’t know that answer and I distrust “educators” that think they know how to do so.

    I have had (to me) a very interesting dialogue with “Moe” on the EC blog of late talking about her brother. He is a political black sheep in her family, a Tea Party advocate. But he is also “rich”, very rich according to “Moe”. But she also says he is not off the charts in IQ. Rather, she and I seem to agree that his financial success is that he is DRIVEN to succeed. Head down, ass up kind of driven and anyone getting in his way gets trampled it seems, at least to a degree.

    Now how in the world does our resident psycholoigist of the liberal sort named HLG MEASURE “driven” and how once measured would he instill it into a “non-driven” human being?

    The best example that I know of to do such is “Paris Island” boot camp in the Marine Corps (or maybe plebe year at West Point or USNA). It is not “pretty” for sure, but some “non-driven” become very “driven” in such environments and go on to great success in the military, where “drive to succeed” means a helluva lot, a life saving “helluva lot”.



  14. Jim says:

    Hi again – a follow-up regarding the intelligence, including tool use and planning, of other species. Octopus Smarts. – Jim Too


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Very interesting, Jim. I wonder if anyone has tried to determine whether octopuses are self-aware? So far as I know, that has been shown among animals only for the great apes, elephants and porpoises.


  15. ansonburlingame says:

    To all,

    Perhaps what we need is an Octopus at some rallies, Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, or in the shark tanks in DC.

    I wonder how elephants and donkeys would bear up under the eyes of an Octopus. Might that become a third party??? Count me in. Now where are the elephant and donkey tanks around her? Upps, I guess I already know that answer!!



    • Jim says:

      What a tempting idea for a mascot – would that 3rd party endeavor to ‘have its tentacles everywhere’? Would it, ala Wisconsin, snatch careless Donkeys & Elephants from public view? a n d s o f o r t h . . .


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