Making room for science & religion

Science and religion often seem mutually exclusive. But researchers say both provide valid paths to knowledge and neural imaging is shedding light on the divide. This was reported by journalist Jeff St Clair, who reflected on science and spirituality  with two scientists on WKSU, an award winning radio programme  of Kent State University, Ohia, USA.   

Tony Jack, Director, Brain, Mind and Consciousness Lab,  Case Western Reserve University, says our difficulty reconciling science and spirituality stems from our wiring. “The brain evolved so that we have different ways of thinking suited to different sorts of tasks,” says Jack.  Jack hooked people up to MRI machines to see what parts of their brain lit up.  It turns out we have two distinct neural pathways, an analytical mode and an empathetic mode that are activated in each scenario. They lead to competing modes of reasoning. The analytical mode begins to function when we need to solve the task at hand.

The empathetic mode helps us understand other people’s emotions and identify with their feelings, like, ‘Why did you scowl when I took that wrong turn?’  According to Jack, they’re mutually exclusive. When one is activated, the other shuts down. “Evolution took care to make sure they didn’t get in the way of each other.”

Jack thinks that this may account for the rivalry between science and religion; our brains are using two different types of reasoning. Modern culture focusses on the analytic perspective. “Our model of truth is a scientific model of truth, and so we’ve come to dismiss anything else as mystical and foolish.”.  Jack recalls the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s quote, and “deny knowledge to make room for faith.”

Case Western psychology professor Julie Exline agrees. “There needs to be this relational openness along with this thoughtful, analytical reasoning,” she says. She holds that empathy provides emotional understanding when analytical tools fall short. “So there’s an openness that’s implied in it to something else that might be out there that’s more than just our current set of resources that you have access to in your own mind.” Exline thinks that  by engaging the empathetic neural network, we break through the limits of strictly rational reasoning.

“I think it can also open up people to the idea of a greater reality that’s maybe beyond what we can understand because there’s that fundamental aspect of listening and appreciating things about the other.”

Jack says it’s OK that our brains are hardwired to hold competing, and often irreconcilable views of what’s happening around us. That is “Incommensurability,”  a way of thinking and speaking that just can’t ever be fully translated into another way of thinking.”

Science and spiritual inquiry, says Jack, are like breathing in, and breathing out. “You can’t do both at the same time, but you need both to stay healthy and well.” In other words, we can hold some truths to be self-evident without published data. Exline’s research supports it, when she studies how people deal with spiritual struggles, and found that when we avoid tackling the big, existential questions, our mental health suffers.

We are confronted with something fundamentally beyond us, which we may never understand. “And that sense of smallness can either bring a sense of mystery and hope, or it could bring a sense of inferiority, meaninglessness humiliation.” 

This takes us beyond our analytical mind. “If the goal in the approach to science is to nail everything down with a mechanistic ultimate aim of prediction and control, then we’re really missing the boat.”

Thus these scientists urge us to embrace the scaring uncertainty. “We don’t want to close ourselves off to the mystery.” Thus ironically science invites us to be open to the mysterious and be spiritual.

 (The writer is professor of science and religion and author of Death: Live it!)