International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

The Sacred Neuron: Extraordinary New Discoveries Linking Science and Religion

by John Bowker

Introductory Essay by Quinton Deeley

This book advances new perspectives derived from cognitive neuroscience on how human beings arrive at judgments about what is true, beautiful, or good – and what is not. It is a work of immense intellectual breadth which demonstrates the value of interdisciplinarity in relating cognitive neuroscience to a cross-civilisational knowledge of religions and philosophies.

In his opening chapter on conflict, Bowker observes that religions “protect so much that is so important and so well tested through time that people would die rather than lose it” [4] – and the identification of what is important involves value judgments. However, confidence that there might be consistent and shareable warrants for value judgments that can be identified as a basis for resolving disagreements between religions (or other cultural systems) has been undermined by ‘cultural relativism’ and related ideas such as ‘subjectivism’. 

The core argument of The Sacred Neuron is that there are consistent and shared constraints on value judgments. Recent research in cognitive neuroscience is cited to show how the separation of reason and emotion that has been so widely posited in Western and other accounts of the person is mistaken. Instead, rational evaluation (‘cognitive appraisal’) of features of the world typically occurs in conjunction with emotional responses in relations of mutual influence. Value judgments cannot be parcelled into rational (factual) and emotional (value) components – they are integrated both in experience and its underlying neurobiology. Further, the psychosomatic responses contributing to value judgments are “tied to properties that do lie within the objects themselves, whether or not they are being perceived by some observer” [41]. Bowker describes these evocative features of the world as “conducive properties”, because they conduce or lead to characteristic responses in observers. Conducive properties evoke responses (and therefore vocabularies) of approval and disapproval in ways that are frequently (if not universally) shared. Aesthetic debate can be informed by the identification of conducive properties and the responses they evoke even in cases of disagreement.

In his examination of ethics, relativism and the ‘fact-value’ distinction are contested. Facts can justify values because ‘facts’ are themselves consistently value laden as a consequence of brain organisation and its interaction with stable features of the world. Hence, while descriptions of states of affairs (‘a child is being struck’), do not strictly entail a specific value judgment (‘this is wrong’), the consistency of evaluative responses to many features of the world justifies a looser form of implication between ‘facts’ and ‘values’.

The Sacred Neuron proposes a qualified objectivism or critical realism. Its proposals can, no doubt, be tested and developed in many ways. A key issue for cognitive neuroscientists is to determine the respective contributions of species-typical, group-, and individual-specific constraints on responses to features of the world as a basis for understanding commonalities and differences in value judgments at the individual, group, and species level. In light of this, ethicists and others who take up Bowker’s proposals will need to extend the examples he provides to demonstrate how improved scientific understanding of the processes underlying these similarities and differences can contribute to the resolution of important cases of disagreement. That the book has provided a framework for this project is a mark of its originality and value.