[Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a series in which New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantees reflect on their interdisciplinary conversations about the study of prayer. The series began with Charles Hirschkind’s “Cognition and Culture, at it Again!“.]

Charles Hirschkind has given us an insightful and entertaining take on the anthropologist/cognitivist polemics we have experienced in some of our discussions, while asking the serious question of whether the study of prayer allows us “to say anything interesting about universal human attributes or faculties.” Contributors to the conversation have pointed to the ways this question begs at least a couple of others: what counts as interesting? And what do we mean by “universal human attributes or faculties?” On the latter point, respondents have drawn attention to the ways the argument reveals new features of the universalism/particularism dilemma. The former pertains, among other things, to the role of disciplinary divisions in the dispute, a discussion taken up in different ways by various contributors: clearly, what counts as “interesting” depends on what your discipline is interested in. Charles’ tone is playful and provocative, and the fictional Mr. Cognitivist and Ms. Socio-Cultural seem less intended to reflect the variety of possible positions than to draw attention, in a tactful way, to what is a profound dispute between natural scientists and humanists. However important they are, invoking our disciplinary differences as an explanation of disagreement begs Charles’ question; or at least could be seen as a sort of relativist avoidance of the very serious challenge the question poses to everybody—cognitivists, anthropologists, historians, critical theorists, sociologists, journalists and even poets alike. 

I want to take up the challenge cognitive neuroscience poses to those of us in the humanities and “soft” social sciences (which I am short-handing to “humanists”), especially for the study of prayer. I think it fair to say there is a tendency to adopt a “live and let live” attitude as long as cognitive scientists “do their thing” in their labs. What poses a problem is when this research is deployed as a ground for generalizing human behavior, motivation, meaning, and experience.  This is evidenced by the intense polemics directed at humanist work that deploys the universalist and objectivist pretentions of natural science to shore up claims about the meaning of experiences and practices (such as anthropologists using cognitive science). The fear is clearly that the dizzying diversity of human history and experience, the infinitely complex relations between material causes and normative effects, indeed, the entire structure of human subjectivity and the possibility of freedom are being reduced, or even destroyed, by the materialist reductionism of neurobiology.

Grounded as these fears may be, they nonetheless rely on a caricature of much of the work being done in cognitive science today. I can’t get into the richness and complexity of work in this very broad field here. All I can say is that I was immensely stimulated by my brief foray, this summer, into some of its philosophers of mind: ChalmersDamasioDennett, and Metzinger. Beyond the problem of relying on a largely unexamined ‘folk’ understanding of what much cognitive science is about, the arguments proffered by Charles’ fictional anthropologist avoid the bigger questions, which I take to be the following: firstly, can, and should, we control the implications of advances in neuroscience and biogenetics for our understandings of human experience and cognition, as well as ethics and politics? Secondly, what would it mean to take the materialism of cognitive neuroscience seriously for the study of a human activity and experience such as prayer? To phrase it more precisely, can we develop a materialist response to the naturalist and materialist reductionism of some neuroscience, which so many of us find objectionable? Anderson and Shira have been working on ways to address this question, and I think its importance cannot be understated. The so-called materialist turn in socio-cultural anthropology and religious studies is not materialist enough to address the neuroscientific challenge, since it leaves unexamined—is, indeed completely unconcerned with—the theoretical implications of the new relationships being proposed between material, biological processes (neurochemistry, synaptic function, neuronal pathways etc.) and affect, cognition, consciousness and experience. This matters a great deal for the study of religion, and I would argue that we have yet to fully explore what is at stake when Marcel Mauss claims, in his seminal article on techniques of the body: “I think there are necessarily biological means of entering into communion with God.” 

As we ask ourselves if there is any way of, or value in, trying to ground claims that prayer is revelatory of universal human attributes and experience, we have to take this science and its implications for human subjectivity, indeed a humanist ethics and politics, extremely seriously. Paul Broks brutally summarizes Thomas Metzinger’s claim in Being No One that the subject is pure illusion: “The illusion is irresistible. Behind every face there is a self. We see the signal of consciousness in a gleaming eye and imagine some ethereal space beneath the vault of the skull, lit by shifting patterns of feeling and thought, charged with intention. An essence. But what do we find in that space behind the face, when we look? The brute fact is there is nothing but material substance: flesh and blood and bone and brain. . . .You look down into an open head, watching the brain pulsate, watching the surgeon tug and probe, and you understand with absolute conviction that there is nothing more to it. There’s no one there.” In your face, Levinas!

Metzinger’s position is not shared by all cognitive scientists. On the contrary: on the knotty question of the emergence of human (self) consciousness and its evolutionary significance, cognitive science is decidedly speculative—anything seems to go. But if humanists want to have a rigorous conversation with cognitivists about the (im)possibility of universalist claims, or the need to engage in a reflection on the social origins of science, the cultural bias of premises, or the serious ethical and political consequences of reducing or destroying the necessary gap between the world of positive materiality and the world of norms, subjective experience and meaning, then they need to take the full measure of the revolution that has occurred in biogenetics and neurobiology, and of the philosophical consequences of what we now know about our brains. When rats (and by extension, humans) can have their actions remotely controlled by a joystick-wielding researcher, and mental states can be regulated by neurobiological interventions, the relation between belief, affect, will and intention, indeed, the very conception of the Real, have to be fundamentally reconsidered. Slavoj Zizek argues in The Parallax View that this latest scientific revolution has shattered “the basic presuppositions of our everyday life-world notion of reality,” seeing in “the cognitivist naturalization of the human mind” the apogee of a series of modern humiliations (Copernicus, Darwin, Freud) of the humanist project. He does not simply lament this, but in his inimitable fashion decries the excessive and often reactionary responses to this revolution by philosophers, ethicists, psychoanalysts, and humanists of all stripes. 

In the field of political philosophy, Zizek polemicizes on the “sad spectacle” of Jürgen Habermas trying to contain the philosophical consequences of biogenetics by recourse to a sort of “state philosophy” that both condones scientific research, and attempts to limit its threat to the existing “theologico-ethical constellation.” For Zizek, this attempt betrays a “fear that something will actually happen, that a new dimension of the ‘human’ will emerge, that the old image of human dignity and autonomy will not survive unscathed.” I wonder if this is not precisely the attitude of many humanists today. If, as Zizek argues, obscurantism is “an attempt to keep meaning and truth harnessed together” in a specific constellation, then it can be used to describe this effort to contain the purview and effects of scientific truth—like Kant, deliberately constraining knowledge to leave space for morality, if not faith. This understanding of obscurantism also applies, as Peter Sloterdijk argues, to the very definition of religion: “the simplest definition of God and of religion lies in the idea that truth and meaning are one and the same thing.” The death of God is the end of this idea. In this sense, neuroscience re-performs the “death of God’” announced by the philosophers. So while it’s not surprising that many religious voices react against the new scientific threat to the creator God, it is curious to see supposedly secular progressives, such as Habermas, trying stay the hand of His executioner, or disserting on the “dialectics of secularization” with a certain Joseph Ratzinger. The logic of cognitive naturalism can, at its limit, result in the collapse of meaning and truth into the physical workings of the brain. But humanist obscurantism in the form of a state philosophy, relayed or not by religion, is hardly an antidote to such scientific obscurantism. Rethinking ethics means developing a new mediation, or dialectic, between the old horizon of human meaning and the new scientific truth, a re-conceptualization of the relationship between what is and what can or ought to be. How can the study of prayer, traditionally linked to metaphysics or onto-theology, engage with the materialist ontology of neuroscience?

I believe there are fascinating possibilities for a non-reductionist materialism, coming from within neuroscience itself, that open up exciting possibilities for rethinking freedom and the subject, without placing limits on knowledge, or forcing science into a circumscribed place in the name of an outdated ethics. But first, it’s important to think about the ways in which neuroscience falls into its own obscurantist trap. If the neuroscientific Real is the ensemble of the biological matter and chemical reactions of our brains, we still have to address the problem of the possibility of access to it. In philosophy and psychoanalysis, the Real is precisely that which cannot be directly experienced, accessed, or appropriated, and it is this impossibility that inaugurates meaning, language, and the entire order of the symbolic. The neuroscientific Real is just as inaccessible to experience as the psychoanalytical or the philosophical—I cannot have an immediate experience or knowledge of my hormones “acting up”; I can only know that I’m feeling irritable and bloated. Neuroscience cannot explain on its own terms how we go from the biological Real to the (illusory) self, the “me” that feels sad or irritable, but can only speculate on the nature of this relationship. Nor can it resolve the question, say, of whether Joan of Arc was schizophrenic or really in communication with God, regardless of whether or not the schizophrenic brain behaves differently at a purely neurobiological level than the brain that “hears God’s voice.” The reason for this is quite banal: neither schizophrenia nor religious conviction exist at the level of the ontic—they are semantic, symbolic figurations (re-presentations) of what can never be directly known or experienced. They correspond, or relate to, the neurobiological Real, but are not, and cannot be, identical to it. They stand in the gap between the Real and experience. The question about Joan of Arc’s experience isn’t simply a question about what “is,” but also an inquiry into the meaning of what is. It only makes sense to ask it if a difference between schizophrenia and religious ecstasy has already been posited; such positing always proceeds at the level of the symbolic and semantic, never at the level of the “thing itself.” This is what is so absurd about the reductionism of the Chalmers, who after a bad day at the lab deal with their feelings by describing to each other the chemical processes going on in their brains. The constitutive gap between the ontic and the ontological—between physical entities and the order of Being as such—can’t be closed by simply expressing human existence in terms of neurons, synapses, and chemical reactions. These are themselves symbolic terms belonging to the order of representation, and as such they stand in this gap and keep it open. And this is why a critical reflection on the universalist claims of neuroscience and the situatedness of its premises imposes itself. Any position that denies there is a gap, or tries to close it, is purely ideological– indeed, obscurantist – insofar as it entails controlling the relation between truth and meaning, and at the limit, reducing one to the other. 

So how should we think about the relationship between the subject and the material Real? And what does this mean for the study of prayer? Humanists often still talk about freedom and agency as if the unitary Subject capable of autonomous decision based on reason hadn’t taken a single hit from many of their own—Freud, Lacan, Derrida, Foucault—even if the latter affirm what the neurosciences have known for some time: there is no unique site of decision or action in the brain, no unified process and nobody who “decides” but rather dissemination. The neuroscientific “subject”, in decidedly poststructuralist fashion, appears as a multiplicity of fluid processes and relations, networks, pathways, and feedback loops. It seems, at best, naïve and, at worst, ideologically dangerous to think “the old image of human dignity and autonomy” can survive unscathed. Prayer strikes me as a particularly fruitful way to reflect on this problem. Even in its most ritualized and routinized forms, prayer always entails a gesture to the “other,” to heteronomy, to the uncertainty of the line between the self and the world. It is, in a certain sense, nothing but mediation. Perhaps we might even say that prayer is a way of expressing or addressing the necessary gap between the subject and the Real. Saying this does not mean prayer has to exist in the order of transcendence – it’s possible, and I would argue necessary for a future ethics and politics, to develop a purely immanent account of the gap between truth and meaning. Jean-Luc Nancy’s account of a “de-mythologized” prayer attempts just that: for Nancy, the sense of the world comes not from a transcendent God, a world beyond this world, but from within the very heart of the world itself, from an immanent gap or space opened up within the world. Prayer, for Nancy, is the action of this opening. 

That is all very well, I hear Mr. Cognitivist say, but all this philosophy is very obscure, and I don’t see how this helps you in developing a less reductive materialism. The best argument I’ve read for a philosophical materialism that takes the neuroscience seriously without sacrificing ethics, human freedom and difference, comes from neuroscience itself. This is the concept of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity argues that rather than a rigid structure determined by genetics, our brains, indeed our whole central nervous system, are inherently plastic. This plasticity exists not only during the important developmental phase where most neuronal connections are established, but also includes their modification throughout our lives via changes in synaptic efficiency, and a reparative capacity through either neuronal renewal or an ability to compensate for damage. As political philosopher Catherine Malabou argues, beyond a “program” of neuronal and synaptic development, this means that there is a form of “neuronal creativity” that depends on nothing but one’s experience, one’s individual life and environment. Neuroplasticity doesn’t mean that our brains are “flexible” —which implies a range of deviations from an original form that still remains as a substrate —but plastic, in the full sense of the term as that which can receive, create, or even destroy, form. (A substance that can be molded; a creative act, as in plastic arts; and a destructive force, as in plastic explosives.). As Malabou argues, neuroscience reveals that the capacity of each of us to receive and create form does not depend on a pre-established configuration; plasticity means that the original model of neuronal pathways and synaptic functions effaces itself, becomes something different.

Neuroplasticity is materialist neuroscience through and through. And yet it implies there is no reliable material, biological ground that could enable us to generalize about universal human attributes or behavior, because the brain, in its sheer materiality, is not a thing, an object that endures, a universal substrate, but rather a plastic process of becoming. We “create” our brains by what we do with them – certain activities open new neuronal pathways, while others pathways fall into disuse or become redirected to other functions. Neurological accidents befall our brains and ‘’we’’ no longer “are” ourselves —like Oliver Sacks’ “man who mistook his wife for a hat.” Who we materially “are” thus corresponds to an “ontology of the accident”—what happens to our brains and what we chose to do with them along the aleatory road of each human existence. It means that each brain, each self, is simultaneously “flesh and blood and bone and brain” and truly historical; an exquisitely unique and constitutively unfinished project. It also means that the question asked by Malabou, “What should we do with our brain?”, while being rigorously materialist, is, above all, an ethico-political question. We can then argue not only that prayer happens IN the brain—that chemicals are released, synapses fire, neuronal pathways are created, messages are transmitted— but that prayer also happens TO the brain: there is every reason to suppose that it changes us at the most material level of neuronal pathways and synaptic functions, opens possibilities that did not previously exist, contributes to our becoming other. I know several members of our group are working on this sort of premise, and I find it extremely exciting. Prayer changes us —not just ethically, but materially. This is a fully materialist claim that has nothing scandalous about it. There is strictly no way of inferring from this that God is mere biochemistry. Prayer must still be understood to stand in the gap, as one among a myriad of creative acts of giving form to ourselves. Reconsidering our freedom, ethics, and politics also implies taking into account what we do with our brains, what we make of them.

So does prayer reveal something universal? Yes. It shows us that the one thing we have in common is that we are potentiality, that at our most material level we are a process of becoming, and that our most human attribute is still our freedom to be different than each other and ourselves.



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