Matthew Alper

The God Part of the Brain

Review by Mark C. H. Shan, 2008

Alper, Matthew. The God Part of the Brain—A Scientific Interpretation of Human Spirituality and God (Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2008).

Does God exist or not? There appears to be no gray area for an answer. The question entangled the author since his mid-teens and became his life’s primary pursuit—“to acquire clear and certain knowledge of God.” At the age of 21, he suffered severe clinical depression and anxiety disorder, and then with the aid of pharmacological drugs, he was healed satisfactorily. At this point enlightenment occurred to him: science saved him, thus it seemed to him that no spiritual reality exists. He therefore started a strong willed journey of investigating spirituality through scientific interpretation.

The first ten years stage of the pilgrim: “God said, 'Let Science be!' -- And all was light." With a claim that no one can know reality with certainty but one can only perceive, Alper convinced himself that natural science represents the most accurate and reliable information and supplies the most accurate methodology (22). Thus he initially decided to place his faith in physical science (24). He was impressed with “the big bang” birth of the universe and by life generated by chance and evolved in blindness. But he felt dismay at finding no knowledge about God. At this point he suddenly turned to an examination, inspired by Kantian epistemology, that moved from nature to the inward human heart. He concluded with with the illuminating proposition that God is the word that exists in the human mind (chapters 4-5). He further concluded that language is a universal feature of human life that must be inherited in genes according to a scientific epistemology (62).

The Bio-Neuro-Physi-Theology of Spirituality and God. (1) The origin of the inherited spiritual function in the human brain. Since religiousness or spirituality are crossculturally universal features of human behavior, there must exist a specialized gene to pass the instinct in a “God” part of brain (81). Disagreeing with Freud that religion is the product of the human consciousness of helplessness when facing overwhelming danger in nature, Alper emphasizes Jung’s collective unconscious of “natural religious function”, and further biologizes and reduces it to be pure neuro-chemical activity (85). Through the long process of the evolution of the human brain, mortal consciousness emerged from the perception of self existence, inducing confusing fear (page 129 shows a step back on the track of Freud), the pain function from physical experience, the anxiety function from psychological discomfort, and finally the cognitive spiritual function to overcome the anxiety of ultimate death (106-123). Therefore, God may not be a reality beyond normal reality but a mere manifestation of an inherited human perception.

(2)The brain constructed neurophysiological-mechanical spiritual experience. After the inherited belief in supernatural reality is established, a human being can experience euphoric sensations that make us feel good and fortify religious belief. Other functions such as the ego, transcendental awareness, the religious, prayers, religious conversion, speaking in tongues, near death experience, and the moral sense of guilt, are all part of human brain, and inherited through the spiritual gene (141-224).

At the end of his quest for knowledge of God through the scientific interpretation, Alper has faith in his collated proof and logics, yet he claims that he will always remain open to the possibility that a spiritual/transcendental realm might still exist. After being a scientific pilgrim motivated by his single experience of psychological illness being healed by medicine, and after his quest for God in which he resonated with Tillich's idea of God as the production of reason, Alper convinced himself that “God” is a function of the brain, evolved through the requirements of survival and aimed at overcoming ultimate human anxiety. However, St. Augustine could read the book with no less excitement than an atheist reader: “Yes, indeed," Augustine would say, "this spiritual function of human brain according to neurophysiology is exactly what I meant when I wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” This is a fascinating “how” interpretation book rather than a “why” book.