Religion, Neuroscience, and the Human Mind

Semester: 

Spring

Offered: 

2023

David C. Lamberth (Harvard Divinity School)_
Freshman Seminar 63E    4 credits (spring term)     Enrollment:  Limited to 12

More than a 150 years after Darwin’s epochal account of evolution, over 85% of the world’s 7 billion people are still religious, and the percentage is growing. What does religion do for human beings?  What does an evolutionary and biologically informed understanding of the mind and brain lead us to think about where religion fits in human life? Harvard’s first psychologist, William James, engaged these questions in the late 19th century, bringing the cutting edge of empirical psychology to the philosophy of religion.  Today these same questions animate the field of neuroscience, where researchers are showing how affectivity, emotions and our evolutionary past come together to form the “self” philosophers have long thought to be primarily “rational.”  This seminar brings together the thought of James, writing at the turn of the 20th century, with the work of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio writing today to ask what kinds of beings we are, how our minds function, and what religion contributes to human individual and societal experience? The course takes up philosophy of belief, affect, and emotion, and touches on the biology of the brain and homeostasis.  It also does a bit of history of philosophy, by comparing James with Damasio.  We conclude by assessing contemporary views of religion from evolutionary psychology (Boyer, Atran) and cultural anthropology (Geertz, Luhrmann, Asad) in light of James’s and Damasio’s models of the human mind.

 

See also: Spring 2023