Home » A Scientific Defense of Spiritual & Religious Faith: Tony Jack (Transcript)

A Scientific Defense of Spiritual & Religious Faith: Tony Jack (Transcript)

Full text of Tony Jack’s talk: A Scientific Defense of Spiritual & Religious Faith at TEDxCLE conference.


Tony Jack – Associate Professor in the Dept of Philosophy, Case Western Reserve University

I want to start by asking you a question: Can a scientist be religious? What do you think?

On the face of it, it seems absurd. Why would someone wed to an naturalistic worldview who carefully collects and interprets empirical evidence, believe in an invisible supernatural agent in the sky?

It seems like belief in God contradicts reason, and contradicts scientific principles? And there are two very vocal groups of academics called The Brights and the New Atheists who have been arguing exactly that recently.

Famous scientists like Richard Dawkins, and philosophers like Daniel Dennett argue that religion is not only intellectually absurd, but also a moral danger. Some data supports the view that belief in God contradicts reason.

Countries and communities with higher IQ have lower church attendance, and scientists tend to believe in God much less than the general population.

Well, this is all very well, and I’m going to come back to it. But the story I’m going to tell you is very different; it’s a story that was surprising to me.

My research caused me to rethink what drives people to believe, or to have religious and spiritual faith, also caused me to rethink the value of spirituality.

So what I’m going to tell you is a story that’s driven by science which ends in philosophy. But before we get started with that, I want you to make you aware of a basic assumption. It’s an assumption that many scientists and philosophers hold to without even really being aware of it.

And it may well be an assumption that you hold to, although there’s really no reason to believe it. That assumption is that all truths are comprehended by one single faculty of reason.

In physics, there used to be a lot of talk about a Grand Unified Theory, one force that would explain every physical phenomena, and there are still some physicists who work on this.

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But many have seen how complicated these theories are, they’ve seen the difficulties: the failed attempts and have given up. I don’t know if there’s going to be a grand unified theory in physics.

But what I do know is that the evidence is much stronger that we should give up on the idea that human understanding is unified.

Since the 1970s, psychologists have talked about different ways of thinking that tend to compete with each other. This is called Dual Process Theory. And psychologists often talk about intuition versus reason, about thinking fast and thinking slow.

Here is a classic example: The Linda Problem.

Linda is 31 years old single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.

So let me ask you, which do you think is more likely? Do you think Linda is a bank teller or do you think Linda is a bank teller and active in the feminist movement?

If you’re like the vast majority of people… 85%… you’ll go with the second option. However, according to probability theory, you would be wrong.

Feminist bank tellers are a small subset of all bank tellers. There are far fewer of them than of all bank tellers, so there’s really no way it could be more probable that Linda is a feminist bank teller than just about bank teller.

Now traditionally psychology has thought of this problem as reflecting a fight between dumb intuition which quickly pulls us to the second option and true careful reason, which slowly but inexorably brings us to the first option, at least if you study probability theory.

However there’s other ways to look at this problem, and Stephen Jay Gould, the noted evolutionary biologist and author puts it this way: “I’m particularly fond of this example, because I know that the second statement is least probable, yet a little homunculus in my head continues to jump up and down, shouting at me, “But she just can’t be a bank teller; read the description”.

We now know the psychologist got it at least slightly wrong. And Gould basically got it right.

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Neuroscience shows us that there’s a fight between two types of reason, not between dumb intuition and true reason. But a fight between two types of reasons that are aimed different types of truth… on the one hand this cold, detached logical analytic reason, on the other hand, there’s a warmer fuzzier type of social and emotional reason that leads to insight.

Or to put it another way, there’s a tension between scientific truth and social narrative truth. Neuroscience shows us that these two types of thinking aren’t just different, aren’t just distinct, they fight with each other all the time, even when we’re daydreaming, even when we’re sleeping.

The brain is actually organized in such a way to keep these two types of thinking separate, and we naturally oscillate between them, just like a seesaw.

So in my lab when we gave people scientific puzzles, we saw that they gradually ramped up activity in these cool colored analytic brain areas. But at the same time we saw that they rapidly suppress activity in the warm colored empathetic brain areas.

And when we gave them social narratives, again they gradually ramped up activity but now in the warm empathetic areas, but at the same time they immediately suppressed activity in the cold analytic brain areas.

The way the brain handles these two types of thinking is rather like the way the brain handles a bistable image. You can see either the duck or the rabbit, but we can’t see both at the same time. And so it is with analytic and empathetic thinking. You can think analytically, you can think empathetically, but you can’t think both ways at the same time.

We know that both of these networks comprise large parts of human neocortex. In fact, we found that the social narratives area was a little bit larger than the brain areas that we use for science, mathematics, and logic; both of them are highly evolved, much larger than in other animals, even controlling for brain size.

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Both of them — and this contradicts the older psychological view — are involved in slow deliberate, or if you like, in-depth thinking. And this is important: both are highly plastic, highly modifiable, meaning both can be educated.

In 1959, the chemist and novelist who was British, Charles Percy Snow gave a very influential lecture, and in that lecture, he talked about how academic and intellectual life was split into two cultures: the Sciences and the Humanities.

Now at that time, Snow was worried that in Britain, in the 50s, the Humanities were treated as too important. Well, I’m an academic in the United States of America who holds appointments in both humanities and science departments, and I can tell you that’s not the problem today.

When I talk to the parents of students who are worried about which major they should take and what the outcome may be for them later in life, that’s not the concern they express. In fact, I really believe that we need to think seriously about rebalancing our educational priorities.

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