Of two minds

A neuroscientist balances science and faith

Ethan Hill

Bill Newsome, PHD, professor of neurobiology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, is an international leader in the fields of sensory and cognitive neuroscience. He has made fundamental contributions to our understanding of how the primate brain mediates visual perception, and is currently attempting to unravel the neural mechanisms underlying simple forms of decision-making.


When I discuss religion with my fellow scientists — which is not often — I find that many perceive religious faith as a uniquely irrational aspect of human life andtherefore highly suspect. I realize I am an oddity — a serious Christian and a respected scientist.

In my view, however, no serious conflict exists between the specific findings of natural science and the religious insights of the major monotheistic traditions; I find them remarkably consonant. Certainly the big bang bears more than a passing similarity to the essence of the creation stories of Genesis — a singular moment of creation that brought even time itself into existence. Even Darwin’s theory of evolution — the scientific discovery that has proven most contentious in certain religious and scientific circles during the past century — is consistent with my faith.

How can a process that depends on chance be an intentional, creative act of God to create human life in his/her image? Easily. Scientists regularly harness random events in the service of purposeful ends (genetic programming, experimental psychology, quantum computing). Randomness is so valued in science that the design of computer algorithms for generating random numbers has become a high art. God is certainly up to that challenge.

In contrast to the findings of science, its assumptions can cause genuine tension with religion. The core assumption underlying natural science is that the universe is orderly and that physical events occur according to immutable laws that can be discovered and described by humans. From a religious point of view, this assumption is fine as far as it goes. Conflict arises when the scientific process is seen as the only reliable method of evaluation that is meaningful and universal.

This assumption, which I believe to be misguided, is illustrated well by a couple of conversations, which capture the essence of many I have had with fellow scientists. I recently shared an airport taxi with a prominent neuroscience colleague after a scientific conference. At one point during a discussion about my religious commitment, he peered intently at me with a very puzzled expression on his face and said, “I just don’t see how you get there; you must use a different part of your brain when you do that.” A similar sentiment was expressed by a postdoctoral fellow in my laboratory following a discussion of religious matters over lunch. He said: “But Bill, this way of thinking is so different from your normal way.”

Both friends were contrasting the modes of thought and belief that underlie my religious commitments to the modes that prevail in my science. In science I am relentlessly critical, demanding high standards of evidence before accepting any scientific “result” into the canon of what I believe to be true about the world. My adoption of religious beliefs without similarly rigorous standards of proof seemed inconsistent.

My reply is that yes, the modes of thought can be quite different in the two domains. This is one of the genuine points of tension between science and religion. However, in my opinion, the mode that predominates in religious life is the normal mode of evaluation and decision-making in the overall context of human experience. The scientific mode, in contrast, is quite peculiar. It is applicable to a rather narrow range of experience and is generally practiced by a small subset of the population — professional scientists.

My central argument here is simple: The most important questions people face in their own lives are not susceptible to solution by the scientific method.

In fact, I tend to believe that the importance of a question is inversely proportional to the certainty with which it can be answered. How, for example, does one design an experiment to answer the question, Is it better to live or to die? Or, Should I uproot my family in pursuit of a new job far from home?

These kinds of questions simply do not admit of scientific solutions. We cannot make one choice and see how the experiment comes out, then rewind the tape and make the other choice to determine the outcome in the alternative scenario. Rather, we have a one-time shot at our most important decisions. We are forced to rely on intuition, past experience, the advice of friends, precarious projections into the future and, in the end, our gut feelings about what is likely to prove “right.”

Simply put, this is the human condition. It is life, and our most consequential decisions in life have little or nothing to do with science. This does not mean that we cannot bring rational analysis to bear on the issues. Thoughtful people reflect carefully about important decisions and try to take into account as much evidence as is available. Nevertheless, rational analysis rarely compels a particular choice and certainly does not guarantee an end result.

I believe that the religious quest involves exactly the same mode of thought ( “part of the brain”) that is involved in making life-altering decisions such as marriage. It hinges on a gut-level judgment about what sort of universe we inhabit. Our actions, our hopes and our aspirations hang on the answer to this single question. Sources of evidence are available to guide my judgments: my own primary experience in relationship with God (worship, prayer and at least something like halting obedience), my experience in my religious community, the testimony of scriptural writers and other authentic seekers through the ages, and the critical reflections of fellow pilgrims I meet along the journey.

Nevertheless, the evidence falls short in a scientific sense. As in marriage, faith accompanied by commitment must play a foundational role in the religious quest; considerable risk is involved and the stakes are high. I might make a complete fool of myself, or I might, as crazy as it sometimes seems, come into contact with the central reality of our universe, which I believe is more wonderful than we usually dare dream.

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