Monday, August 30, 2010

An idle brain may be the self's workshop

Recent research suggests that mind-wandering may be important and that knowledge of how it works might help treat such conditions as Alzheimer's disease, autism, depression and schizophrenia.
By Melissa Healy, Los Angeles Times
August 30, 2010

The resting brain is anything but idle — that simple proposition would be clear if you could peer into Mike Mrazek's noggin as he putters around his kitchen preparing his daily morning feast of scrambled eggs, oatmeal and fresh fruit.

As he plods through his quotidian ritual of gathering ingredients, cutting, chopping, bringing the pan to the correct temperature and boiling water for tea, Mrazek's thoughts, too, are something of a scrambled feast, as he later recounts.

Childhood memories jostle against thoughts of his girlfriend's progress on a cross-country journey.

Reflections on the tomatoes in his garden give way to a rehearsal of a meeting he's having later on at the university.

A flashback to his sister teasing him about his breakfast routine turns into an observation he could make while leading a meditation session in the evening.

Until recently, scientists would have found little of interest in the purposeless, mind-wandering spaces between Mrazek's conscious breakfast-making tasks — they were just the brain idling between meaningful activity.

But in the span of a few short years, they have instead come to view mental leisure as important, purposeful work — work that relies on a powerful and far-flung network of brain cells firing in unison.

Neuroscientists call it the "default mode network."

Individually, the brain regions that make up that network have long been recognized as active when people recall their pasts, project themselves into future scenarios, impute motives and feelings to other people, and weigh their personal values.

But when these structures hum in unison — and scientists have found that when we daydream, they do just that — they function as our brain's "neutral" setting. Understanding that setting may do more than lend respectability to the universal practice of zoning out: It may one day help diagnose and treat psychiatric conditions as diverse as Alzheimer's disease, autism, depression and schizophrenia — all of which disrupt operations in the default mode network.

Beyond that lies an even loftier promise. As neuroscientists study the idle brain, some believe they are exploring a central mystery in human psychology: where and how our concept of "self" is created, maintained, altered and renewed.

After all, though our minds may wander when in this mode, they rarely wander far from ourselves, as Mrazek's mealtime introspection makes plain.

That's in sharp contrast to the pattern struck by the brain when hard at work: In this mode, introspection is suppressed while we attend to pressing business — we "lose ourselves" in work. As we do so, scientists see the default mode network go quiet and other networks come alive.

Neuroscientists have long resisted discussions of "self" as either hopelessly woolly-headed or just too difficult to tackle, says Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at UC Santa Barbara who studies the wandering mind (with the assistance of Mrazek, a graduate student he advises).

But now, he says, research on the default mode network and mind-wandering has helped focus neuroscientists' attention to our rich inner world and raises the prospect that our sense of self, our existence as a separate being, can be observed, measured and discussed with rigor.

The idea that there may be a physical structure in the brain in which we unconsciously define who we are "would warm Freud's heart," says Dr. Marcus E. Raichle, a neurologist at Washington University in St. Louis who has pioneered work in this fledgling field. Sigmund Freud, the Austrian father of modern psychiatry, spoke exhaustively of the power of the unconscious mind in shaping our behavior and often surmised that the workings of that force would someday be revealed by scientists.

"People talk about the self and ask how it achieves some realization in the brain," Raichle says. The default mode network, he adds, "seems to be a critical element of that organization. It captures many of the features of how we think of ourselves as the self."

Changing thinking

In the last two decades, neuroscientists have identified many regions of the brain that are activated during purposeful tasks — when we count, navigate our environment, process input from our senses or perform complex motor skills.

But until very recently, the ebb and flow of thoughts — the stream of consciousness that makes Mrazek human and whose content is unique to him among humans — was the dead zone. Like geneticists who for years dismissed genetic material with no known function as "junk DNA," neuroscientists spent years dismissing the "idle" brain as just that: idle, its content just so much meaningless filler.

But in 2001, Raichle and his team began publishing neuroimaging studies that suggest different.

During tasks requiring focused attention, regions specialized to the tasks at hand became active in the subjects whose brains were being scanned. But as those men and women mentally relaxed between tasks inside the scanners, Raichle saw that the specialized regions went quiet — and a large and different cluster of brain structures consistently lighted up.

Raichle was particularly interested in a portion of the brain called the medial parietal cortex as a sort of central hub of this activity. He knew the area tended to become active when a person recalled his past.

And his work uncovered another key node in this curious circuit: the medial prefrontal cortex, a uniquely human structure that comes alive when we try to imagine what others are thinking.

Each region, Raichle realized, had a feature in common — it was focused on the self, and on the personal history and relationships by which we define ourselves as individuals.

As studies continued, scientists noticed some interesting facts.

They saw that the brain parts constituting the default mode network are uniquely vulnerable to the tangles, plaques and metabolic disturbances of Alzheimer's disease — an illness that starts by stealing one's memory and eventually robs its victims of their sense of self.

This, Raichle and colleagues would argue, suggests how important the default mode network is in making us who we are.

They saw that when operating, this network guzzles fuel at least as voraciously as do the networks that are at work when we engage in hard mental labor. That, along with other evidence, suggests to Raichle that when the default mode network is engaged, there's more than a mental vacation taking place.

So what is it doing?

Working vacation

Raichle suspects that during these moments of errant thought, the brain is forming a set of mental rules about our world, particularly our social world, that help us navigate human interactions and quickly make sense of and react to information — about a stranger's intentions, a child's next move, a choice before us — without having to run a complex and conscious calculation of all our values, expectations and beliefs.

Raichle says such mental shortcuts are necessary because the brain cannot possibly take in all the detail available to our senses at any given moment. The default mode network, he proposes, keeps a template handy that lets us assume a lot about ourselves and the people and environment we interact with.

Raichle points to another odd distinction of the default mode network — one that suggests it plays a central role in our functioning. Its central hub has two separate sources of blood supply, making it far less vulnerable than most other regions of the brain to damage from a stroke.

"That's an insurance policy: This area is critically important," he says.

Neuroscientists suspect that the default mode network may speak volumes about our mental health, based on studies in the last three years that suggest it is working slightly differently in people with depression, autism and other disorders. (See related story.)

That fact underscores a point: Just as sleep appears to play an important role in learning, memory consolidation and maintaining the body's metabolic function, some scientists wonder whether unstructured mental time — time to zone out and daydream — might also play a key role in our mental well-being. If so, that's a cautionary tale for a society that prizes productivity and takes a dim view of mind-wandering.

Such social pressure, Schooler says, overlooks the lessons from studies on the resting brain — that zoning out and daydreaming, indulged in at appropriate times, might serve a larger purpose in keeping us healthy and happy.

"People have this fear of being inadequately engaged, and as a consequence they overlook how engaging their own minds can be," Schooler says. "Each one of us can be pretty good company to ourselves if we allow our minds to go there."

Saturday, August 28, 2010

You were anesthetized during surgery: Does that mean you forgot everything that happened?

By Alan Fogel
Aug 10 2010

In my book on body sense, I wrote about a middle-aged client I called Rebecca who, during a Rosen Method Bodywork session, "remembered" something that happened to her during an abdominal surgery under general anesthesia, a surgery that occurred a dozen years earlier. She remembered the body sense of having some kind of wedge put into her to hold her open during the procedure. She had no conscious memory of anything that occurred during the surgery to remove nonmalignant uterine fibroids. Since the surgery, for the entire 12-years period, she had continued to experience abdominal pain that should have, but did not, disappear in the months following the surgery.

Medicine is filled with cases of so-called non-diagnosable pain including chest pains with no evidence of heart problems, back pain without tissue damage, and in Rebecca's case, abdominal pain with no evidence of abnormalities consequent to the surgery or due to any other known medical condition.

These cases are indeed mysterious. First, why would pain continue for so long without apparent cause? And even more disconcerting is the possibility that the body could "remember" what the surgery may have felt like even though there was no ordinary, waking state of consciousness. Could these two mysteries be related? Could the fact that the body remembers even when the conscious mind does not account for the otherwise inexplicable persistence of pain? If so, it presents yet another unsolved puzzle: Why doesn't this happen to everyone who has surgery? Let's take a closer look at Rebecca's case.

I had been giving her Rosen Method treatments for over 3 months as her body sense deepened and she was better able to tolerate feeling the painful sensations in her belly as well as noticing more about her other sensations and feelings.

About mid-way through the session I reported in the book (Chapter 7), Rebecca said, "I feel like there's a division between the right and left side of my belly down there" (where my hand was gently touching her lower abdomen).

In a request to deepen her body sense, I asked, "Does one side of your belly feel different than the other side."

"I don't know," was the reply.

After a few minutes, she said, "You know that vertical split in my belly . . . (a long pause followed) . . . that's where they made the incision."

Her voice was a bit shaky with this so I could tell there was some emotion behind it. As I waited to see if there was a response in her body, I wondered about this statement. Surely, I thought, she knew the location of the scar. Then I began to feel her internal organs beginning to soften and her breathing slowing down, becoming less fretful. I said, "Your body remembers the surgery even if you were anesthetized, even if you thought you were asleep." As I talked, I was actually thinking of her complex history including the invasion of her reproductive anatomy and emotions by an alcoholic and abusive ex-husband and father of her only daughter, whose childbirth was no-doubt complicated by the marital troubles. I imagined that this new body sense of the surgery felt like yet another assault - another invasion of her uterus and vulnerably soft belly -- that was working through her in deep and unknown ways.

After a while she said, "I bet they put a wedge into me, to hold me open." Noting the relaxation response and the confidence in her voice when she said this, I replied, "Yes, that's probably what happened." As the session came to an end, Rebecca reported that she felt warmth and energy flowing through her whole body and a complete absence of the pain in her abdomen that had been there since the surgery.

This return of warmth and feeling in a previously tight part of the body is generally a consequence of bringing one's awareness fully into the present moment of felt, embodied experience. It is like the natural and effortless flow of tears and relief when one finally allows a previously suppressed emotion to surface. This is the "truth" of body sensing. More often than not, these spontaneous body releases (the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system) occur in the company of a listening and supportive loved one or therapist when one feels safe enough to allow the emotions to arise in the moment.

Why did Rebecca's abdominal pain continue for so long when other patients recover more quickly? It may be that when a physical injury or wound occurs in the same region of the body where some other trauma has previously lodged itself, the trauma from the surgical wound becomes linked to the earlier trauma in a way that amplifies the effect. The earlier trauma may predispose one to be more vulnerable to disease in that same region of the body, possibly explaining why some people may have persistent symptoms even though the tissues have completely healed.

The body sense of lasting effects of the surgery could also come from the trauma of the surgical procedure itself. Some of this can be prevented with appropriate pre- and post-operative relaxation and mindfulness meditation. One study found that women who listened to a recording of "positive therapeutic suggestions" while anesthetized for abdominal hysterectomy needed 24% less pain medication even though the patients claimed to not remember anything that was on the tape. Although people do not remember the specific suggestions, it is as if their body remembers the surgery as being less traumatic.

Rebecca did not have a visual image of the wedge, only a sensation in her belly which, when she was able to tune into it during the Rosen session, felt like having a wedge inserted. I call this participatory memory, not an armchair recollection of events but a déjà-vu style reliving of the feelings and sensations in the present moment. To have a therapeutic effect, this type of memory does not have to accurately reflect what the surgeon actually did. A clamp or other device may have been used. It doesn't really matter.

Rebecca's abdominal pain did not completely disappear following that session. As we worked together over the next few months, she discovered that her pain returned whenever she faced conflicts in her romantic encounters and in relation to her daughter's leaving for college. As a result, the link between the recurrent abdominal pain, her surgery, and her attachment difficulties and reproductive history could be felt, named and thus brought into the orbit of self-regulation and re-engagement with self and others. Eventually, she came to let go of her worries about the pain, accepting that it would come and go, realizing that it was informative of her emotional state, and that it didn't last long once she was able to just let herself feel it and its linkages to her interpersonal situations.

This is not a "cure" in the usual sense because the pain was not completely gone. Pain, as I've written in previous posts, has a large psychological component. The tissue damage from layers of prior trauma may never completely heal. What does change is the expansion of our body sense into a restoration of our sense of becoming, once again, a whole self, wounds and all. Even terminally ill people can be "healthy" in this broader sense of well-being.

I have worked with people who had undiagnosed chest pains consequent to open heart surgery or pacemaker implantation. In these cases, there was also a related attachment trauma, as if the disease and the surgical wound continued to fester in an unresolved emotional wound of a broken heart. I have seen the same patterns regardless of the sources of the compounding traumas: medical or non-medical, adult or childhood onset, automobile accidents or emotional abuse. It is not always the case that pain around the heart relates to protection against failed love, or that pelvic pain relates to sexual or reproductive trauma. Yet everyone's body has certain neuromuscular modes of expressing and protecting itself which become part of who we are, how we feel, and how we relate to ourselves and to others. Our body tissues carry a history that only the body sense, and not mental reflection, can reveal.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Self-Serve Brains

Personal identity veers to the right hemisphere
Bruce Bower

The concept of identity theft assumes an entirely new meaning for people with brain injuries that rob them of their sense of self—the unspoken certainty that one exists as a person in a flesh—bounded body with a unique set of life experiences and relationships. Consider the man who, after sustaining serious brain damage, insisted that his parents, siblings, and friends had been replaced by look-alikes whom he had never met. Everyone close to him had become a familiar-looking stranger. Another brain-injured patient asserted that his physicians, nurses, and physical therapists were actually his sons, daughters-in-law, and coworkers. He identified himself as an ice skater whom he had seen on a television program.

The sense of "I" can also go partially awry. After a stroke had left one of her arms paralyzed, a woman reported that the limb was no longer part of her body. She told a physician that she thought of the arm as "my pet rock."

Other patients bequeath their physical infirmities to phantom children. For instance, a woman blinded by a brain tumor became convinced that it was her child who was sick and blind, although the woman had no children.

These strange transformations and extensions of personal identity are beginning to yield insights into how the brain contributes to a sense of self, says neuroscientist Todd E. Feinberg of Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. Thanks to technology that literally gets inside people's heads, researchers now are probing how the brain contributes to a sense of self and to perceptions of one's body and its control. Scientists expect that their efforts to shed light on the vexing nature of consciousness, as well as on the roots of mental disorders, such as schizophrenia, characterized by disturbed self-perception.

I spy
Scholars have argued for more than 300 years about whether a unified sense of self exists at all. A century ago, Sigmund Freud developed his concept of ego, a mental mechanism for distinguishing one's body and thoughts from those of other people. Around the same time, psychologist William James disagreed, writing that each person's "passing states of consciousness" create a false sense that an "I" or an ego runs the mental show.

Researchers still debate whether the self is the internal engine of willful behavior or simply a useful fiction that makes a person feel responsible for his or her actions. Some investigators argue that each person harbors many selves capable of emerging in different situations and contexts.

Regardless of philosophical differences, Feinberg notes, evidence suggests that the brain's right hemisphere often orchestrates basic knowledge about one's self, just as the left hemisphere usually assumes primary responsibility for language.

Disorders of the self caused by brain damage fall into two main categories, Feinberg proposes. Some patients lose their personal connection to significant individuals or entities, such as the man who thought everyone he knew was a familiar stranger and the woman who regarded her lifeless arm as a pet rock. Other patients perceive personal connections where they don't exist, such as the man who saw his medical caretakers as family and coworkers and the woman who mentally conceived a phantom daughter.

In both categories, Feinberg says, "right brain damage is much more likely than left brain damage to cause lasting disturbances of the normal relationship between individuals and their environments."

Other neuroscientists take a similar view. According to brain-imaging studies conducted by researchers including Jean Decety and Jessica A. Sommerville, both of the University of Washington in Seattle, during the past 3 years, a right brain network located mainly in the frontal lobe organizes neural efforts aimed at discerning one's body and thoughts. That network overlaps a brain circuit that plays a role in identifying others, perhaps contributing to the two-sided nature of the self as "special and social, unique and shared," Decety and Sommerville said in a seminal 2003 article.

The right me
In order to coordinate the relationship between the self and the world, the brain takes sides, according to work by Feinberg and Julian Paul Keenan of Montclair State University in New Jersey. They analyzed patterns of brain damage in 29 previously published cases of disordered selves. Injury to the frontal region of the right hemisphere occurred in 28 people, compared with left-frontal damage in 14.

Ten of the patients had also incurred injuries to other parts of the right brain, compared with three individuals who displayed damage in other left brain areas, Feinberg and Keenan report in the December 2005 Consciousness and Cognition. Research in the past decade on the recognition of one's face reached similar conclusions. In a study directed by Keenan, adults with no known brain impairment viewed images that gradually transformed from their own faces into the face of a famous person such as Marilyn Monroe or Bill Clinton. Participants alternated using their left or right hands to hit keys that indicated whether they saw themselves or a famous person in each composite image.

When responding with their left hands, volunteers identified themselves in composite images more often than when they used their right hands. Since each side of the brain controls movement on the opposite side of the body, the left-handed results implicated the right brain in self-recognition.

Similar findings came from epileptic patients who underwent a medical procedure in which one brain hemisphere at a time was anesthetized. Keenan and his colleagues showed each patient an image that blended features of his or her own face with facial features of a famous person and later asked whose face the patient had seen. When tested with only the right brain awake, most patients reported that they had seen their own faces. When only the left brain was active, they usually recalled having seen the famous face.

A brain-scan investigation of 10 healthy adults, published in the April 15, 2005 NeuroImage, also implicates the right hemisphere in self-recognition. A team led by Lucina Uddin of the University of California, Los Angeles showed volunteers a series of images that, to varying degrees, blended their own faces with those of same-sex coworkers. Participants pressed keys indicating whether they saw themselves or a coworker in each image.

Pronounced blood flow, a sign of heightened neural activity, appeared in certain parts of the right hemisphere only when the participants recognized themselves, Uddin's group reports. Previous studies in monkeys indicated that these areas of the brain contain so-called mirror neurons, which respond similarly when an animal executes an action or observes another animal perform the same action

A right brain network of these mirror neurons maintains an internal self-image for comparison with faces that one sees, Uddin and her colleagues propose.

Still, not everyone regards the right brain as central to the self. Todd F. Heatherton of Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., and his coworkers reported in 2003 on a patient who had had surgery to disconnect the bundle of nerve fibers that connects the neural hemispheres. That split-brain patient recognized himself in images that blended his features with those of one of the researchers only when the images appeared in his right visual field and were thus handled by his left brain.

"Recognition of the self is one of the most basic, yet poorly understood, cognitive operations," Uddin says.

Losing control
Chris Frith, a neuroscientist at University College London, has long wondered why people diagnosed with schizophrenia often experience their own actions as being controlled by others. A person with this severe mental disorder may report, for example, that space aliens ordered him to behave destructively.

Fifteen years ago, Frith thought that schizophrenia robbed people of the ability to monitor their intentions to act. If their behavior came as a complete surprise, they might attribute it to external forces.

Frith abandoned that idea after reading neurologists' reports of a strange condition called anarchic-hand syndrome. Damage to motor areas on one side of the brain leaves these patients unable to control the actions of the hand on the opposite side of the body. For example, when one patient tried to soap a washcloth with his right hand, his left hand, much to his chagrin, kept putting the soap back in its dish. Another patient used one hand to remove the other from doorknobs, which it repeatedly grabbed as he walked by doors.

Despite being unaware of any intention to use a hand in these ways, anarchic-hand patients don't experience their behavior as controlled by space aliens or another outside entity—they just try to correct their wayward hands.

Frith now suspects that anarchic-hand syndrome and schizophrenia's delusions of being controlled by others share a neural defect that makes it seem like one's movements occur passively. However, people with schizophrenia mistakenly perceive the passive movements as having been intentional.

In support of this possibility, Frith and his colleagues find that when shown scenes of abstract shapes moving across a computer screen, patients with schizophrenia, but not mentally healthy volunteers, attribute good and bad intentions to these shapes. Patients with schizophrenia may monitor their own actions in excruciating detail for signs of external control, Frith suggests.

In general, people rarely think about their selves but act as if such entities must exist. "The normal mark of the self in action is that we have very little experience of it," Frith says.

Harvard University psychologist Daniel Wegner goes further. Expanding the view of William James, Wegner argues that the average person's sense of having a self that consciously controls his or her actions is an illusion. This controversial proposal builds on an experiment conducted more than 20 years ago by neurophysiologist Benjamin Libet of the University of California, San Francisco.

Libet found that although volunteers' conscious decisions to perform a simple action preceded the action itself, they occurred just after a distinctive burst of electrical activity in the brain signaled the person's readiness to move. In other words, people decided to act only after their brains had unconsciously prepared them to do so.

Wegner has since performed experiments demonstrating the ease with which people claim personal responsibility for actions that they have not performed. In one study, participants looked in a mirror at the movements of an experimenter's arms situated where their own arms would be. When the arms moved according to another researcher's instructions, volunteers reported that they had willed the movements.

Feinberg says that these findings offer no reason to write off the self as a mental mirage.

Waist not
A young woman stands in neuroscientist J. Henrik Ehrsson's laboratory at London's University College and places her palms on her waist. Cuffs placed over her wrists begin to vibrate tendons just under the skin, creating the sensation that her hands are bending inward. At the same time, the woman feels her waist and hips shrink by several inches to accommodate the imagined hand movements. Dr. Ehrsson's illusory instant-waist-loss program lasts only about 30 seconds.

Ehrsson and his coworkers used a brain-imaging machine to measure blood flow in the brains of 24 people as they experienced this illusion. Parts of the left parietal cortex, located near the brain's midpoint, displayed especially intense activity as volunteers felt their waists contract, the scientists report in the December 2005 PloS Biology.

The greater the parietal response, the more waist shrinkage the individual reported.

The scientists suspect that the activated parietal areas integrate sensory information from different body parts, a key step in constructing an internal image of one's body size and shape. When the brain receives a message that the hands are bending into the waist, it adjusts the internal body image accordingly, Ehrsson's team hypothesizes.

The brain can adjust its internal body map in a matter of minutes, the experiment demonstrates. Researchers who similarly induced illusions of expanding fingers came to that same conclusion.

The possibility that the brain can redraw body image in dramatic ways resonates with neuroscientist Miguel A.L. Nicolelis of Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., and his colleagues. They've found that after monkeys learn to alter their brain activity to control a robotic arm, the animals' brains show the same activity pattern as when they move their own limbs.

Nicolelis' team reported in 2003 that the researchers had implanted electrodes in the frontal and parietal lobes of the brains of two female rhesus monkeys that used a joystick to control a cursor on a computer screen. That action maneuvered a robotic arm in another room. The animals gradually learned to modulate their brain signals to reposition the cursor, without moving a muscle.

Electrode data show that, after training, many neurons that formerly emitted synchronized signals as the monkeys manually manipulated the joystick to control the robotic arm also did so when the animals performed the same task mentally. Those results appeared in the May 11, 2005 Journal of Neuroscience.

The monkeys assimilated into their neural self-images a tool that they had learned to use proficiently, Nicolelis suggests. Apes and people possess an even stronger capacity for integrating tools into the brain's definition of self, in his view. This process may underlie the acquisition of expertise.

. "Our brains' representations of our bodies are adaptable enough to incorporate any tools that we create to interact with the environment, from a robot appendage to a computer keyboard or a tennis racket," Nicolelis says.

Self doubts
Despite the proliferation of such studies, the self's special status in the brain is far from assured. After reviewing relevant brain imaging and psychology studies, neuroscientists Seth J. Gillihan and Martha J. Farah, both of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, found little compelling evidence for brain networks devoted solely to physical or psychological aspects of the self.

At most, work such as Feinberg's with brain-damaged patients indicates that singular brain networks distinguish between one's limbs and those of other people, the researchers say. There are also suggestions that other brain areas foster a sense of control over one's limb movements, Gillihan and Farah reported in the January 2005 Psychological Bulletin.

Still, much of what we typically think of as "the self" may not be assignable to brain states or structures, in their view.

Feinberg argues that each of the increasingly complex levels of the brain—including the brain stem, the limbic system, and the cortex—contributes to intentional actions and to perceiving meaning in the world, the main ingredients of an "inner I."

Brain-damaged patients vividly illustrate the self's resiliency, Feinberg adds. While injury to the right frontal brain transforms some patients' identities in odd ways, other comparably injured patients somehow maintain their old selves.

A person's coping style and emotional resources usually influence responses to right brain damage, according to Feinberg's clinical observations. For example, one patient, a young man living half a world away from his family, referred to his paralyzed left arm as his brother's arm.

Feinberg asked the man what it meant to him to possess his sibling's arm rather than his own. "It makes me feel good," the man responded, in a voice choked with emotion. "Having my brother's arm makes me feel closer to my family."

Monday, August 2, 2010

Philosophy and Faith

By Gary Gutting

One of my jobs as a teacher of bright, mostly Catholic undergraduates is to get them thinking about why they hold their religious beliefs. It’s easy enough to spark discussion about the problem of evil (“Can you really read the newspaper everyday and continue to believe in an all-perfect God?”) or about the diversity of religious beliefs (“If you’d been born in Saudi Arabia, don’t you think you’d be a Muslim?”).

Inevitably, however, the discussion starts to fizzle when someone raises a hand and says
(sometimes ardently, sometimes smugly) “But aren’t you forgetting about faith?”

That seems to be enough for most students. The trump card has been played, and they — or at least the many who find religion more a comfort than a burden — happily remember that believing means never having to explain why.

I myself, the product of a dozen years of intellectually self-confident Jesuit education, have little sympathy with the “it’s just faith” response. “How can you say that?” I reply. “You wouldn’t buy a used car just because you had faith in what the salesperson told you. Why would you take on faith far more important claims about your eternal salvation?” And, in fact, most of my students do see their faith not as an intellectually blind leap but as grounded in evidence and argument.

The popular formulations to which theists and atheists appeal do not prove what they claim to prove.

“Well, if there’s no God,” they say, “how can you explain why anything at all exists or why the world is governed by such precise laws of nature?”

At this point, the class perks up again as I lay out versions of the famous arguments for the existence of God, and my students begin to think that they’re about to get what their parents have paid for at a great Catholic university: some rigorous intellectual support for their faith.

Soon enough, however, things again fall apart, since our best efforts to construct arguments along the traditional lines face successive difficulties. The students realize that I’m not going to be able to give them a convincing proof, and I let them in on the dirty secret: philosophers have never been able to find arguments that settle the question of God’s existence or any of the other “big questions” we’ve been discussing for 2500 years.

This seems to bring us back to where we started: “It’s all faith.” I, with my Jesuit-inspired confidence in reason and evidence, have always resisted this. But I have also felt the tug of my students’ conclusion that philosophy, although a good intellectual exercise and the source of tantalizing puzzles and paradoxes, has no real significance for religious faith.

Recently, however, I’ve realized a mistake in the way that I — and most of my professional colleagues — tend to think about philosophy and faith. (One of the great benefits of getting to teach philosophy to bright undergraduates is that it makes it easier to think outside the constraints of current professional assumptions.) The standard view is that philosophers’ disagreements over arguments about God make their views irrelevant to the faith of ordinary believers and non-believers. The claim seems obvious: if we professionals can’t agree among ourselves, what can we have to offer to non-professionals? An appeal to experts requires consensus among those experts, which philosophers don’t have.

This line of thought ignores the fact that when philosophers’ disagree it is only about specific aspects of the most subtle and sophisticated versions of arguments for and against God’s existence (for example, my colleague Alvin Plantinga’s modal-logic formulation of St. Anselm’s ontological argument or William Rowe’s complex version of a probabilistic argument from evil). There is no disagreement among philosophers about the more popular arguments to which theists and atheists typically appeal: as formulated, they do not prove (that is, logically derive from uncontroversial premises) what they claim to prove. They are clearly inadequate in the judgment of qualified professionals. Further, there are no more sophisticated formulations that theists or atheists can accept — the way we do scientific claims — on the authority of expert consensus.

In these popular debates about God’s existence, the winners are neither theists nor atheists, but agnostics — the neglected step-children of religious controversy, who rightly point out that neither side in the debate has made its case. This is the position supported by the consensus of expert philosophical opinion.

This conclusion should particularly discomfit popular proponents of atheism, such as Richard Dawkins, whose position is entirely based on demonstrably faulty arguments. Believers, of course, can fall back on the logically less rigorous support that they characterize as faith. But then they need to reflect on just what sort of support faith can give to religious belief. How are my students’ warm feelings of certainty as they hug one another at Sunday Mass in their dorm really any different from the trust they might experience while under the spell of a really plausible salesperson?
What sort of religious experience could support the claim that Jesus Christ was God incarnate and not just a great moral teacher?

An answer may lie in work by philosophers as different as David Hume, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Alvin Plantinga. In various ways, they have shown that everyday life is based on “basic” beliefs for which we have no good arguments. There are, for example, no more basic truths from which we can prove that the past is often a good guide to the future, that our memories are reliable, or that other people have a conscious inner life. Such beliefs simply — and quite properly — arise from our experience in the world. Plantinga in particular has argued that core religious beliefs can have a status similar to these basic but unproven beliefs. His argument has clear plausibility for some sorts of religious beliefs. Through experiences of, for example, natural beauty, moral obligation, or loving and being loved, we may develop an abiding sense of the reality of an extraordinarily good and powerful being who cares about us. Who is to say that such experiences do not give reason for belief in God as much as parallel (though different) experiences give reason for belief in reliable knowledge of the past and future and of other human minds? There is still room for philosophical disputes about this line of thought, but it remains the most plausible starting point of a philosophical case for religious belief.

But this defense of faith faces a steep hurdle. Although it may support generic religious claims about a good and powerful being who cares for us, it is very hard to see it sustaining the specific and robust claims of Judaism, Christianity and Islam about how God is concretely and continually involved in our existence. God is said to be not just good and powerful but morally perfect and omnipotent, a sure ultimate safeguard against any evil that might threaten us. He not only cares about us but has set up precise moral norms and liturgical practices that we must follow to ensure our eternal salvation. Without such specificity, religion lacks the exhilarating and terrifying possibilities that have made it such a powerful force in human history.

But how can religious experience sustain faith in a specific salvation narrative, particularly given the stark differences among the accounts of the great religious traditions? What sort of religious experience could support the claim that Jesus Christ was God incarnate and not just a great moral teacher? Or that the Bible rather than the Koran is the revelation of God’s own words? Believers may have strong feelings of certainty, but each religion rejects the certainty of all the others, which leaves us asking why they privilege their own faith.

I am not saying that religious believers are in principle incapable of finding satisfactory answers to such questions. I am saying that philosophy and religion can and must speak to each other, and that those who take their beliefs seriously need to reflect on these questions, and that contemporary philosophical discussions (following on Hume and Wittgenstein) about knowledge, belief, certainty and disagreement are highly relevant to such reflection — and potentially, to an individual’s belief. This is what I will try to convey to my students the next time I teach introductory philosophy of religion.

Gary Gutting teaches philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and co-edits Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, an on-line book review journal. His most recent book is “What Philosophers Know: Case Studies in Recent Analytic Philosophy.”