God on the Brain

The man who stood before me in the greeting line after the Service was a member of the Unitarian Universalist congregation I served in Princeton, New Jersey. He was Nobel Prize winner Dr. Eugene Wigner–short, round, in his early 80’s, a founder of the Manhattan project, which developed the atom bomb. He received the Nobel Prize for his research into the structure of the atom and its nucleus.

The congregation in Princeton was broadly populated with physicists, mathematicians, and research scientists of all kinds: interesting enough in itself that they were there, that is in church week after week. With my brain so light on the left that my head tilts slightly to the right, I had just had the temerity, in such a place, to deliver a sermon on the relationship between religion and science. What on earth had I been thinking? I was young. I knew more then than I know now.

And there he stood, the true incarnation of a textbook name. Dr. Wigner nodded in slight salute, smiled, and said in thick Hungarian accent, “You were saying that science can tell us only a little bit of what is to be known, yes?” Delighted that I hadn’t been neatly publicly cut off at the knees, I beamed and said, “Yes, Sir.” “Yes,” the great mind said, “But we all know that, don’t we?”

Well, I knew that, but here was a reminder that “they” all knew that. I had thought “they” were the enemy: the scientists, the big heads, and the “beautiful minds,” those whose vision, said I, tunneled down their microscopes or up their telescopes. I was being reminded that it was the non-scientists, mainly, who thought that the scientists thought that they knew it all. I should have remembered that one of our church’s neighbors, that friend of Eugene Wigner, Albert Einstein, had said that our most beautiful experience is that of the mysterious. And, I should have remembered why I was there – brought to serve a congregation of beautiful minds, brought to elbow my way through clouds of numbers, formulae, and theorems to reach some common ground on which science and religion could meet. I was there to remind them of the mysterious, to see to it that they had a home for their spirits, and to occasionally “referee” in the struggle that sometimes erupts in the tyranny of the fact.

During the week that I was a candidate for the ministry in Princeton, I was drawn into conversation one evening by another professor at the university, an aeronautical physicist and engineer. He said that he needed the church and its ministry because he occasionally had conflicts he did not trust he could resolve alone. The example he gave me was his current consulting project for the army. The army had a helicopter that would come down into a clearing, hover, and with its revolving turret gunfire out a 360-degree wall of lead. The “trouble (depending on your point of view)” was, that the ‘copters were not hovering in a perfectly lateral way, so most of the bullets were going into the ground and into the sky. His job was to re-design the machine so that it would stay level and spew a solid line of bullets in a perfect circle. He was torn – as scientists have often been – as Professor Eugene Wigner was, as Oppenheimer was, torn between a problem to be solved and the moral implications of solving it.

Some years later, the scientists and other faculty at Princeton were thrown into moral dilemma when it was revealed that the university was investing heavily in South Africa, using faculty pension funds, effectively supporting the (then) regime of apartheid. Some in my congregation urged me to preach a sermon condemning the investments. Others urged me to mind my own business and leave it alone. If the university withdrew its investments in South Africa, they said, their pension funds would suffer. The sermon was delivered.

In the tension between science and religion, there have been some mighty battles, some uneasy alliances, and (like the deep spirituality of Albert Einstein) some surprises. We all know about the church’s silencing of Galileo for his then heretical suggestion that the earth, God’s creation, was not the center of creation. The primacy of faith in that age was such that the church could say, in effect, “It doesn’t matter what you see plainly before your eyes, the doctrine holds that the sun revolves about the earth.” In our own time, the Roman Church has partially redeemed itself by posthumously apologizing to Galileo and pronouncing that the theory of evolution does not conflict with church doctrine.

It is the conservative to fundamentalist Christians who now cannot reconcile religion (at least their religion) and science and insist that such measurements as carbon dating be ignored and what they think it says in the Bible be taught in the public schools. Darwin becomes the anti-Christ and science the tool of Satan. Why this centuries-old religious vilification of science? Some of you may remember the songs of Tom Lehrer from the 60’s. “Be prepared,” “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park,” and “Who knows where what goes up will come down” “That’s not my department,” says Werner Von Braun.” It is the very objectivity, neutrality, of science that not merely angers many people of conservative faith but, I believe, actually frightens them.

True science has no commitment except to truth. Science follows the clues wherever they lead. True science makes discoveries, picks up clues, pursues those clues rigorously and lets the chips fall where they may. What, then, if science were to discover that there is no God? Of course, many believe science discovered that long ago. Copernicus shifted the position of the earth to a planet among planets. Freud declared religion to be a mass illusion. Carbon dating threw Biblical dating off by a couple of billion years. Religion’s only answers can either be to reconsider its notions of God and the divine, condemn science as falsehood and chicanery, or relegate it to a separate realm of reality.

Years ago I took a graduate course in religion and political theory. One of the professors was a nun – a nun with two PhD’s, one in social psychology the other in sociology. After a lecture one evening, I asked her how she was able to justify her academic knowledge and scientific method with her belief in such dogma as the virgin birth and the resurrection. She replied simply (but with no invitation for argument) that the knowledge of science and the knowledge of faith were in two different realms, which do not, and need not meet. In short, from that point of view, faith is beyond the reach of the tools of science.

Millions of people want to believe what faith proclaims, that God’s in his heaven, that there is some eternal meaning to whatever happens (the awful death of a child, starving millions, the bombing of buildings), and, of course, people want to believe that death is not the end.

Science is perceived by those people of faith as the satanic force, which would tear that faith from their hearts. Or that would make faith itself unnecessary. Science is often seen as threatening to ?explain away” the faith by which billions of people have lived. Shortly after my family and I settled in Princeton, a psychologist on the University faculty, Julian Jaynes, wrote a book called “The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bi-Cameral Mind.” Jaynes thesis (and I greatly oversimplify here) was that the hemispheres of the brain were at one time bi-cameral, physically separate to the extent that one side could and actually did occasionally communicate independently with the other. The “origin of consciousness” then, according to Jaynes, was when evolution finally joined the two hemispheres and the brain functioned with integrity – at least, in some of us.

But, what was important to people of faith and totally unacceptable to people of faith, was Jaynes’ conclusion that one side of the brain was actually heard by the other side. This would explain, Jaynes claimed, those instances of ancient people, such as the prophets of Israel, “hearing” the voice of God. The prophets did hear voices, Jaynes said, but the voice they heard was not God’s voice but the voice of the other side of their brain. In these cases, then, people were not only talking to themselves, but also talking to themselves with divine authority!

Here we have the danger that science presents to some and the danger that science can itself fall into – the danger of reductionism. The intransigent humanist is likely to insist that all religion and religious experience can be explained scientifically and what cannot be explained scientifically now is not “mysterious” or “spiritual” but simply on science’s list for future explanation. In his book, “The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the soul,” Francis Crick, one of the two discoverers of the double-helix structure of DNA, wrote, “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.” Whatever Jaynes may actually have said about the bicameral mind (and I confess I did not re-read his book for this sermon) he was understood to have been declaring that the voice that commanded the prophets was nothing but the voice of one side of the human brain. That voice that scripture says Moses heard in the burning bush, “Moses, Moses, put off the shoes from thy feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.” Not the voice of God but “nothing but” half his brain talking to the other half?

Here’s another scientific threat to faith – brain research. Thanks to the development of PET scanners and MRI’s, scientists can now “map” the brain, tell where in the brain certain events are experienced and even produce those experiences by stimulating those parts of the brain. That “brain mapping” has revealed those areas of the brain that are activated during what is believed to be “religious experience.” Inevitably, perhaps, one researcher has isolated what he calls “The God Module,” a neural tract between the amygdala and the temporal lobe. Stimulating that area with an electric probe actually reproduces those responses experienced as “religious.”

It is, then, conceivable for the brain researcher to reproduce the experience of Francis of Assisi that led him to forsake his wealth and position and become the founder of a monastic order. Could it be that the reason some people are atheists and others of profound faith with deeply held beliefs is simply due to the arrangement of neurons in their brains? One of the first brain research scientists to venture into this territory, Neurologist Michael A. Persinger, wrote fifteen years ago that his research created tremendous ambivalence in him. He apparently felt that he had discovered the “source” of “God,” because he said, “I never had the heart to tell that first person about the electrical recordings. In fact, the realization that the experience of God could be an artifact of the human brain was intellectually paralyzing.” Like a doctor bringing the terrible news to the waiting room, Tom Wolfe wrote in Forbes magazine about brain research, “Sorry, but your soul just died.”

There are, then, quarters of the scientific world that would use science to reduce religion to “nothing but” brain activity, neuron activity, perhaps delusion, or, as Scrooge said of the ghost of Marley, “Nothing but a piece of undigested beef.” And there are quarters of the communities of religion who so fear the methods of science and the possible discoveries of science (such as the God module) that they must fly their faith in the face of reason and embarrass their religion in a world of, at least, common sense.

By its very use of the word creation implying a creator, the term “creation science” is an oxymoron. “Creation” is an open question beyond the realm of science – the “God module” notwithstanding. Those comparatively few scientists who stand behind the creationist arguments have simply prostituted science to their faith. Where do we stand, then, in this centuries-old struggle? If we could be absolutely honest and objective about it, would we have to say that science has reduced the experience of God to a stimulation of neurons? Is science coming to prove itself the enemy of faith and religion after all? The true enemies are any science that sets out to destroy religion and any faith that sets out to negate science. Science and religion work together in the world when science is committed only to truth and when religion is open to the same truth.

Albert Einstein said, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” Einstein once wrote to explain his personal creed: “A religious person is devout in the sense that he has no doubt of the significance of those super-personal objects and goals which neither require nor are capable of rational foundation.”

I happen to be someone who is given to what I consider to be religious experience. When I sit on a mountain boulder and gaze out over miles of desert beneath a sky filled with gliding hawks, neurons in my brain are firing like mad, the God Module is wild with activity, and my thalamo-amygdala pathway has, well, just gone completely foolish. And, on occasion, I have heard a voice – said to be a failure of the bicameral hemispheres, though I heard it coming once from an eagle and, on another occasion, from a rattlesnake. It could be, I suppose, that, out in that desert heat, I was beginning to go a little nuts. “Mad dogs and Englishmen, out in the noon-day sun.” As for me, I was having another religious experience. And it could be that all those other explanations are true. But the explanations would not mean that the experiences were not religious.

A scientist may offer this definition of osculation, “The point at which two surfaces touch, particularly the point at which two curves have a common tangent.” This would not mean that the scientist does not enjoy a good kiss. The scientist who suggests that “our two surfaces touch at the point at which our two curves have a common tangent” is going to live a very lonely life. And one who, passing by an open church door hears the choir within in boisterous “Alleluia!” and notes that his neuro-amygdala pathway is active, must live a life on a cold, hard plain. Emerson said, “One will see no gods who harbor none.”

Much of what our liberal faith has to offer the world is what might be called a “rational faith,” not a contradiction in terms but an affirmation that the faith to move mountains and hearts need not be blanketed in superstition and medieval creeds. Albert Einstein defined religion in this way – which has a familiar ring to it: “Religion is concerned with [humankind’s] attitude toward nature at large, with the establishing of ideals for the individual and communal life, and with mutual human relationship.” And we say, in our first and seventh Principles, “We gather to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person and the interdependent web of all being of which we are a part.”

By William Wordsworth:

My heart leaps up when I behold

A rainbow in the sky:

So was it when my life began,

So is it now I am a man,

So be it when I shall grow old

Or let me die!