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July 31, 2014 / compassioninpolitics

Critique of materialist reductivism–Sensing God and the Limits of Neuroscience

Whether we are talking about the music of Beethoven and Mozart, the paintings of Rembrandt and Van Gogh, or the poetry of John Donne and William Butler Yeats, we are encountering the works of geniuses who thought they were answering a call to express the transcendent. Interestingly, even some of the greatest scientists, including Newton and Einstein, seem to have thought much the same. In each case, it would be apt to say that these men understood their works as affording them, and to some extent us as well, a glimpse of the mind of God. They believed that it was not only possible but necessary for human beings to meditate on certain transcendent themes, such as death and love, in order to understand our true position in the larger scheme of creation.

Of course, not every composer is a Mahler, nor every painter a Van Gogh, every poet a Yeats, or every scientist an Einstein. Great music is real, but so is bad music, and the same can be said regarding art, poetry, and science. Sometimes people simply get it wrong. But getting it wrong, no less than getting it right, is associated with certain neurochemical changes in the brain. In other words, the mere fact that neurochemical changes are taking place does nothing to help us distinguish between good and bad, the great and the merely insipid. The truth or falsehood of such expressions is not simply a matter of correspondence with some verifiable material state. It is also a matter of elegance, rhythm, balance, and above all, beauty, qualities that are to some degree transcendent.

Ultimately, we cannot define the beautiful in strictly material terms. We cannot prove on solely material grounds that Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is one of the greatest works of world literature, no matter how many copies it sells or how long it remains in print. When our child or grandchild asks us why anyone should read a Dostoyevsky novel, or visit a Van Gogh exhibit, or attend a performance of Mahler, we can offer no material proof. We can only try to describe the difference such works have made in our own lives, and offer up the hope that they will discover something similar.


RICHARD GUNDERMAN, MD, PhD, is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is a professor of radiology, pediatrics, medical education, philosophy, liberal arts, and philanthropy, and vice-chair of the Radiology Department, at Indiana University.

* I’m pretty sure Gunderman is a humanist vs. a Christian

** Also, the article seems to make an argument for ther experience and evidence of the transcendant

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