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The 'God' Part of the Brain: A Scientific Interpretation of Human Spirituality and Godby Matthew Alper
From the dawn of our species, every culture - no matter how isolated - has maintained a belief in some form of a spiritual reality. Wouldn’t this imply that human spirituality must represent an inherent characteristic of our species, that is, a genetically inherited trait? Are humans “wired” to believe in such universal concepts as a God, a soul, and an afterlife?
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From the dawn of our species, every culture - no matter how isolated - has maintained a belief in some form of a spiritual reality. Wouldn’t this imply that human spirituality must represent an inherent characteristic of our species, that is, a genetically inherited trait? Are humans “wired” to believe in such universal concepts as a God, a soul, and an afterlife? Are what we call spiritual/transcendental experiences strictly the effects of our brain’s chemistry? Is God something that exists “out there,” beyond and independent of us? Or is God nothing more than the product of an inherited human perception, the manifestation of an evolutionary adaptation, a coping mechanism that emerged in our species to enable us to survive our unique and otherwise debilitating awaresness of death?
About the Author:
Born and raised in NYC, Matthew Alper started his education at Vassar College and went on to complete a degree in Philosophy of Science at North London Polytechnic in England. Since this time, he has travelled the world, documenting a wide range of universal religious beliefs and practices in search of a scientific understanding of Man’s spiritual nature.
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"Man finds himself in the world, or has been thrown into it, and as he stands facing the world he is confronted by it as by a problem which demands to be solved." Nicholas Berdyaev
Knowledge is power, and it is precisely our species' capacity to reason, to deduce knowledge, that has secured us the title of "The Most Powerful Creature On Earth." Human beings reason because we are compelled to do so. Our survival depends on it, for with every new piece of information we accumulate, whether it be as individuals or a species, we become that much better equipped to master our worlds and therefore to survive.
In addition to this purely practical need to acquire information, our species also seeks knowledge in the hope that it might provide us with a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. In this regard, our species is unique from all others in that, complementary to our more vital needs, humans possess what we might call "spiritual" needs as well. No less than our bodies crave food, we long to understand our purpose in the universe, our reason for being.
And so, throughout the centuries, our species has gathered information not just to better master and manipulate our world but also to understand our place in it. We compile information as if each new discovery will contribute yet another piece to some sort of cosmic jigsaw puzzle, which, once complete, we hope will bear us the definitive picture of why we are here.
Every day, under the auspices of science, humankind unravels another of the universe's mysteries, trusting that each new discovery will add yet another piece to this ultimate puzzle. From the innermost particles of matter to the outermost expanses of the cosmos, our ignorance is constantly being replaced with knowledge and understanding.
Yet with all of our knowledge, there still remains that one ever-elusive piece of the puzzle, that one mystery which looms tauntingly over all of the physical sciences, and that is the problem of God's existence. This, more than anything, appears to be humankind's ultimate challenge, that one riddle which – should it ever be resolved – might possibly grant us the definitive picture we've so painstakingly been searching for. Perhaps underlying the question of God's existence is the answer to man's.
But before we broach the question of God's existence, we must first, as Socrates taught us, define our terms. Exactly who or what are we referring to when we speak of God? Are we speaking of the Greek Gods, Egyptian, Norse, Yoruba, Aztec, of Zarathustra, Buddha, Yahweh, Brahma, Krishna, Amen-Re, Allah? How is it possible to address the question of God's existence, when the word means so many different things to so many different people?
As distinct as these numerous gods might appear, if we take a closer look it seems they all share certain common characteristics. Perhaps, if we were to strip all of these various gods of their more extraneous attributes and only retain those that are common to them all, we might establish one entity we could refer to as the "Universal God."
So what might some some of these universal attributes be? What is the Universal God? How shall we define Him? (Though I really mean "It" when I refer to God, for convenience's sake, I will use the masculine form.)
Since the dawn of our species, every single world culture has maintained a dualistic interpretation of reality. In other words, every single world culture - no matter how isolated - has perceived reality as consisting of two distinct substances or realms: the material (physical) and the spiritual.
According to this universal perception, objects that belong to the material realm are tangible, corporeal, that which can be empirically experienced or validated i.e., seen, felt, tasted, smelled, or heard. Those things which belong to this realm are subject to the physical forces of change, birth, death, and decay and are, consequently, perceived as existing in a state of constant flux, temporary, fleeting, ephemeral.
On the other hand, our species equally perceives the existence of a spiritual realm. As this realm transcends the nature of the material universe, things comprised of spirit are immune to the laws of physical nature, that is, to change, death, and decay. That which exists as a part of the spiritual realm is consequently perceived as being fixed, permanent, eternal, and everlasting.
Since every world culture perceives its gods as the embodiment of the spiritual realm, we could say that the Universal God represents the essence of all spirit. As spirit is infinite, indestructible, and everlasting, the Universal God, as the essence of spirit, must therefore possess these attributes as well.
Before the Universal God, there was nothing. He is universally perceived as the first cause of all that exists, the self-created creator. The great pageant of matter, from the atoms, planets, and stars, to the multifarious forms of life, all constitute the various ways the Universal God has chosen to manifest Himself. Because the Universal God permeates all that exists, He is both omnipresent and omniscient.
The Universal God represents the embodiment of existence in all its perfection, the supreme and absolute being. As Euripides said, "If God is truly God, he is perfect, lacking nothing." Anything less than this, just the slightest compromise, would necessitate something other than, something inferior to God. There can be no gray area, no in-between. Either God exists as the definitive force in the universe, or He does not exist at all.
But why should I trouble myself with such ethereal matters? Why should the problem of God's existence be of any concern to me? Well, let's suppose for the moment that God does exist. How might this affect me?
In accordance with my working definition of a Universal God, if everything that exists does so as an extension of God, then I, too, must exist as such. Now if I exist as an extension of God, and God is spirit, then I, too, must be conceived, at least partly, in spirit as well. I, too, must possess some measure of the infinite and the eternal within me. In essence, if God exists, then I am immortal, free from the threat of imminent death.
Furthermore, if God exists, my life is replete with meaning. If God exists, then, as the absolute being, his laws must represent absolute truths. It therefore becomes my life's mission to understand these laws, these truths, so that I might live in accordance with them. Moreover, as an extension of God, only by learning to understand Him can I ever really learn to understand my own self. Gaining knowledge and insight into the nature of my creator thus becomes my life's intrinsic purpose. With God, I am conceived in meaning.
And if God does not exist? Then I am no longer an extension of some great transcendental force or being, no longer one with any exalted spiritual power or realm, no longer infinite or eternal. In short, I am mortal. And if I am mortal? Then death is final, the decisive end of my existence. If I am mortal, then this one short life, these few fleeting and whimsical years will be the only ones I will ever know. And when they're over, "Out, out, brief candle!" This person that I call me, my conscious experience will be snuffed out for all eternity. Without God, there is no spirit, no vital transcendental realm or being. Instead, I am abandoned to the spiritless forces of a coldly indifferent and mechanistic universe, an expendable cog in a soul-less machine - here today, gone tomorrow - a random event in an arbitrary universe, no more or less significant than a speck of cosmic dust. In essence, without God, life has no intrinsic purpose or meaning.
Furthermore, without God, there are no absolutes. All of our laws, our morals, our so-called "eternal truths," become subjective conceptions, man-made devices, as flawed and imperfect as the humans who created them. Good and evil become relative terms, devoid of any true meaning. Without God, there is no absolute moral order in the universe. We become existential orphans, barren of purpose, truth, or soul, lost forever to the vast and meaningless void.
So either God exists, and I'm immortal, or God does not exist, in which case this brief and purposeless stay here on earth is all I will ever know. With God all is saved; without Him, all is lost - including hope. Between His existence and non-existence, there is no gray area; there is no in-between. Nothing lies between the finite and the infinite, between the temporal and the eternal, between fleeting life and immortality. And so, as man finds himself in this world, or has been thrown into it, and as he stands facing the world, it is the problem of God's existence which demands to be solved before all others.
From the moment this whole disquieting notion first occurred to me, sometime during my mid-teens, those years of which Wordsworth wrote, "bring upon the philosophic mind," I realized that my life's primary pursuits would be – if it were at all possible – to acquire clear and distinct knowledge of God. Does He exist or not? But how could I do otherwise? Was this not literally a matter of life and death, even more so, of eternal life versus eternal death? What should concern me more than my own mortality? If there was any one thing I could say I knew with any certainty in life, it was that I was one day going to die. The question now was, would death mark my decisive end or the advent of a new beginning?
Here I was at a time in my life when I was being asked to make such decisions as what college did I want to go to, and what would I study once I got there. Only how could I concentrate on such trivial concerns as these with the problem of my own mortality left unanswered? How could I justify my interest in tomorrow while ignoring the greater question of where I would stand against all eternity? Without answers to such questions, eternity stood before me like a cosmic brick wall. The universe began to take on the proportions of an unfathomable void that, if not sated with knowledge of God's existence, I was beginning to feel would eventually consume me. I needed answers. I needed to know. Was this a world of magic and miracles, or wasn't it? I needed some tangible, reliable, verifiable data that would either prove or disprove God's existence, once and for all.
And so, like an Arthurian knight in search of his Holy Grail, I said goodbye to the conventional world and, instead, rode off alone into the vast dark forest of existence in search of an answer to that ultimate problem: Is there a God? Does one exist? I spent many years lost in those seemingly impenetrable woods, often depressed and despondent, thinking I would one day die there without ever having ascertained a single thing.
...But at last, I have returned; furthermore, with what I believe may be the answer.
What People are saying about this
(Art Bell; Coast to Coast AM)
(Elena Rusyn, MD, Ph.D.; Gray Laboratory; Harvard Medical School)
(Mark Waldman; Senior Editor, Transpersonal Review; Author of Love Games)
(Edward O. Wilson, Two-Time Pulitzer Prize-Winner)
Meet the Author
Matthew Alper (New York City) graduated from SUNY Stonybrook with a BA in philosophy. He has worked as an electrician in England, a photographer's assistant in New York, a fifth-grade and high school history teacher in Brooklyn, a truck smuggler in Africa, a tutor in the Philippines, and a screenwriter in Germany.
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Anyone with a solid education in science and philosophy will recognize this as a weak attempt by one poorly educated individual to justify his pre-formed conclusions. I forced myself through this book because I do NOT disagree with his conclusion that god is but a manifestation of neurochemical functioning in the brain (as is all consciousness). I was looking for the real, scientific meat of the argument, but he has articulated an inadequate, porous defense. In Alper's view, there is a gene for everything, including a "spiritual function" (a function posited on an a priori basis). As a result, he reaches some stunningly obtuse conclusions, such as his claim that atheists are "spiritually retarded." Unbelievable! He does not understand natural selection or evolution and, frankly, has a simplistic grasp of science that would leave him challenged to pass a rigorous college science exam (in whatever branch). Sorry to be so negative, but this was an absolute disappointment.
While enjoying the personal begining, I was looking forward to a stimulating reading, only to be disappointed. The writing style is pleasant, the author's misuses of scientific trivia, with bold and unsupported statements and without any humility made it rather disapointing. It's the typical journey meant to justify one's choices, but if you are trying to get a sincere understanding of how to reconcile G-d's role in our life, I wouldn't recomend this book.
A great read for the religious and the non-religious. It will enlighten your thinking process and give you hope for the future of man. If you are a believer, you can say God planned it this way. If you are not a believer, you can reflect on the wonderment of nature and how emotions,decision making, and the other mechanisms of the brain came to be. Either way, you will gain a renewed appreciation for who we and what we represent.
I teach "Philosophy of Science" on a college level and have been successfully using this book to teach both graduate and undergraduate students for the past seven years. I can't speak highly enough of this work and would include it as a "classic" in philosophy. It is as bold as it is brilliant. The prose is clear and concise and oftentimes poetic. It is an interdisciplinary gem chock full of information that is as thoughtful as it is accurate. I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in science and/or philosophy.
Woderfull book, very well investigation, pure knoledge. A classic.
A word of warning ... this is not a scientific text. It is a story told in first person of one man's spiritual journey - an autobiography. For someone who is only beginning to search for truth in the subject, this book holds potential to be groundbreaking. Be forewarned, however, that you will learn nothing new here - assuming you paid attention in high school. The case studies and research that the educated reader will expect are largely absent. For some, the conclusions presented in this book may seem like incredible eye-openers. For others, this text will closely resemble the many conversations you've already had on the subject. 'The God Part' seems to have a tunnel vision. It follows one dangerously long path of educated assumptions and never stops to see if anything was missed. It tends to be repetitive - stressing points over and over with little solid backing - a lecturer who enjoys his own voice. The writing often seems course and/or careless. Again, if you are new to this subject, I highly recommend. If mediocre writing style doesn¿t bother you, this would make for an interesting read. But for veterans or discriminating readers, I encourage you to look elsewhere for new answers.
The book would more properly be titled, "Stuff I've Thought About Without Actually Having Any Knowledge of What I'm Talking About." I don't know how any self respecting publisher could have allowed him to call his book "scientific," but it is certainly far from it. If there's anyone you have a particular hatred for and want to fill their heads with absolute nonsense I recommend you buy this book for them, otherwise let it sit and rot on the shelf.
Matthew Alper is high maintenance. Not only is his intellect superior to most Ph.D. candidates that I know, but his intensity in displaying that intellect and arguing his world view is more compelling than many of my grad school courses. So, here I am, fiercely advocating this unconventional, first time author who, with one slim book, has thrown hundreds of years of human religious beliefs out the window and replaced them with a concise scientific view of spirituality that is impossible to argue with...The brain is the secret. In our brains lie nature's survival mechanisms in which God is nothing but a protective lens through which humanity is programmed to view the world. Matthew Alper has the chutzpah to remove that lens, to crush it under his heel, and then, as we cringe in the unfiltered light, he dares us to look up and stare into the pure scientific truth he has discovered. The God Part of the Brain is a challenge at first, but once you open your mind to the potentials of its theories, there is nothing to do but follow its arguments to their logical conclusions. And although he rips away our old stiff crutches, this audacious philosopher is kind enough to spoon-feed us a new and positive way to approaching our existences.
While I agree in most part with Mr. Alper and his premise, I found the book to be a bit repeative in the beginning. The constant repeating of a position or examples well after the point has been made was tiresome. I found the beginning chapters where the foundations are being set down to be light in hard science and heavy on assumptions, albiet assumptions I lean towards. The book would be a good starting point for someone who is beginning to explore the subject, but the more advanced or indepth reader I believe would find it lacking.
This is one of the better books that I have read dealing with Religious Studies and the study of the religious drive in humans. If you are a believer you had best be sure you have some thick skin and expect a further bifurcation of your 'religious' and 'scientific' mind. Matthew Alper has written a fascinating book that explores the idea of looking at homo sapiens proclivity for belief in god as something that can be traced to a physical cause (our brain structure) and compares that proclivity to other traits and characteristics such as hair color, smiling, organ development, etc. that are unique to all those who are of the species homo sapiens. All of the above are determined by our genetic makeup which determines the development and structure of our brain which is the organ that brings forth these behaviours, according to the paradigm presented by Mr. Alper. I especially enjoyed his treatment of language. The faculty of language has been quite often pointed at as a unique trait of our species and many religious have used our ability to speak as proof-positive of the paradigm that asserts our 'divine' origin'. As Mr. Alper convincingly shows, there is a better paradigm that both explains the origin and location of the ability to speak and understand language. I won't steal Mr. Alper's thunder but I will say that one would do well to read and reread this one chapter and let the implications of what Mr. Alper is saying sink in. He is looking at language through the paradigm of science and he produces a very power explanatory model with this paradigm. It is incumbent on those who disagree with the effectiveness of this paradigm to prove him wrong. This paradigm (the scientific paradigm) is the operative one in most of our thinking process, except in those areas which some humans have reserved as off-limits to scientific investigation because of various factors (I will let the reader be their own judge of other's motivations in these areas). For me, it seems apparent that these are the last areas where the biblical ideas of homo sapiens intrinsic specialness still are the operative view. The resistance that is put forth by believers who refuse to allow these areas to be studied by the scientific method and dismiss the conclusions that scientific studies produce as false because the inevitable result will be the closing of a few more gaps where their god currently resides. I have often wondered how religious folks who firmly believed that the earth was flat, or that it was really at the 'center' of the universe adapted when the facts of the matter became real to them. We may be able to study this psychological phenomenon when the thesis of the book becomes the working hypothesis of cognitive researchers which, I anticipate, it should in the very near future judging from some of the luminaries that wrote little blurbs for the inside covers. As Mr. Alper's thesis is acted upon by researchers in various fields that look to substantiate his proposals and develop working hypothesis regarding genetic structure and the location in the brain of belief structures and attempt to test them, we will begin to see that color blindedness, musical and language ability and the willingness or unwillingness to believe whatever myth the culture you happen to be born in holds as being the 'true' revelation from god are all determined by the genetic sequencing in each individuals DNA. Perhaps one day, we may be able to engineer scourges out of human existance such as breast cancer, cystic fibrosis, cancer, etc., and, if Mr. Alper is correct and I believe he is, there will be no more Jonestowns, Holy Inquisistions, World Trade Centers, Wacos and scores of other examples as this psychotic behaviour known as belief in the supernatural can be eliminated by some fortuitous genetic engineering.
I began skeptically reading Matthew Alper's book, as the subject is contradictory to everything I was taught throughout my childhood. For the first 15 years of my life, I never questioned the religious beliefs my family and church imposed on me. After that age, I began to have my own thoughts, and to wonder if what had been 'programmed' into me really existed. I began to doubt that I would experience eternal life, and began to be more inclined to believe that when I die, I will totally cease to exist. However, I never explored these possibilities, and chose rather to try to ignore my concerns and fears. I have been reasonably successful in subscribing to the 'ignorance is bliss' theory until I unexpectedly happened upon Matthew Alper's thought provoking, stimulating, and well written book. I read it in its' entirety today, and I feel that in some ways I may have opened Pandora's Box. But I also feel that thanks to Mr. Alper, I can now begin to form a solid foundation to explore these issues more thoro
This book has Nobel written all over it!
From cover to cover, this book is the best piece of writing that I have ever read.
I thoroughly enjoyed digesting Mr Alper's thesis. The only thing missing is my testimonial. I have one relative who had several months of obsessive compulsive prayer episodes in conjunction with a head injury. The episodes cleared up on their own with the added twist that the victim has no memory of them. And, I have another relative who died on an operating table who will tell you how much one should believe in NDE's and how it changed her outlook on life...how she can be at peace with herself and how she doesn't fear death anymore...yet her day to day actions and attitudes not only do not reflect this but are often downright unpleasent. As for the style in which the book is written,use of multiple examples of such things as various religions, gods, or practices is helpful to those who may not be aware of their existence, their correct context or to those in need of exact references. Of all the other books on this subject that I have read by more erudite authors, none have been this forthright with their ideas and that is what makes 'The God Part' an interesting read. Mr. Alper stakes his claim without apology or disrespect to others.
All 6 billion plus inhabitants of Earth should be in possession of this book. Matthew Alper's tome should be placed next to the sacred writings section in the libraries, bookstores and dwellings throughout the world. Matthew Alper is the new Galileo. (Watch your back Matthew!) Immensely important. Defines in a clear and concise manner what each of us already knew but were afraid to admit and exclaim. The cat's out of the bag....
Just as did I, as a teenager Matthew Alper asked the big questions: Who is 'God' and what is my relation to him? Which, if any, of the hundreds of religions and sub-religions is correct? Why do religions change so much over time? How come every person's religious view is different from everybody else's? Just as I did, Alper began a personal search for the answers to these questions. He looked everywhere. Like me, he found that the answers to the big questions of 'faith' lie not 'out there' but within us. He then continued his search far beyond mine, came to many well-reasoned conclusions, then documented and explained his findings in 'The 'God' Part of the Brain'. This work draws on many scientific disciplines, including evolution, psychology, anthropology and history, to put into clear perspective the origin of the human need to seek a higher power and, more important, the effect this need has on humanity and its cultures. I found the book to be a 'revelation' of sorts in that it finally makes sense out of the din of competing religious views. In this book Matthew Alper shows an enviable commitment to truth, exacting logic and scholarly research as well as a vast intelligence as he explains his search and the answers he found. I did not want the book to end! It explains a very important part of what it means to be human. 'The 'God' Part of the Brain' has already made a very great, very positive impact on my life.