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.
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.
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.
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.
There’s so much focus on STEM subjects and everyday life is so dominated by technology, that our ability to engage in in-depth interpersonal narratives suffers and there’s data to back this up. There’s been a frightening and precipitous drop in empathy and perspective-taking in college undergraduates over the last few decades. And that’s a concern.
It’s a concern in part, because the science is absolutely clear about what matters most for not only your mental, but also your physical health. And that’s your sense of social connection that’s more important than most of the risk factors you would think of as the most important, like how much you exercise, how heavy you are, whether you smoke.
We know that the coherence of brain areas within that empathetic network are similarly very important for mental and physical health. And in fact, when these networks aren’t kept separate, when the seesaw is broken, that turns out to be one of the most consistent markers of mental disorder. And it’s also associated with low IQ.
SO HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO RELIGION?
Well, the defining mark of religion of all different types is spirituality, that is moving away from thinking about material things which activates the cold network and focusing on the spiritual. And we know that prayer and religion engage the empathetic network.
In terms of what’s going on in the brain, we can think of asking people to have faith in the supernatural as asking them to push aside activity, to turn down activity in that cold network, and that’s important because the way the brain to engineered means that that frees up the empathetic network, to allow people to gain social, emotional and moral insights.
Now the most famous moral philosopher to have ever lived three hundred years ago had a similar insight. When he was talking about his own spiritual journey, he said ‘I had to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.’
Now let me be clear what [Immanuel] Kant meant here. He did not mean that he was willing to contradict scientific evidence in favor of religious doctrine or dogma as some creationists do today. What he did mean was that he recognized the limits of science, he accepted that some truths are not justified by evidence; they’re justified by something else, by morality.
Now that may seem a little crazy to some of you, can a belief, can a truth be justified by morality? Well it wasn’t crazy to the founders of this country who said: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’. Now this is not a claim that is justified by scientific evidence.
In fact, neuroscience and psychology shows us very clearly that people are not equal, they differ in their intellectual ability, they differ in their emotional stability, they differ in how empathetic and ethical they are. This is not a scientific truth; it’s a moral truth. And I think a very important moral truth, as long as we accept that this applies to men and women.
Science shows that religion is really beneficial for personal well-being. Decades of research have shown so many positive effects of being religious. People who are religious lives 7 to 10 years longer than people who are not. They have higher emotional intelligence; they’re better at emotional self-regulation. And we know that this isn’t just due to church attendance, because people who attend church just for social reasons don’t show these effects as strongly as people who actually express belief in God.
We even know that religious imagery improves emotional self-regulation in the non-religious. So there’s lots of evidence that would suggest it’s a good idea for your sake to be religious.
But my work was also pushing me towards something more than that. That spirituality is good not just for you, but for those around you, for society at large.
My theory predicts that if you have spiritual or religious faith, that will make you care more about others. So a few years ago we set up to try and test this and we ended up doing nine different experiments involving thousands of participants from all over the world, people of different religions, although largely the major monotheistic religions.
And we measured not only their belief in God or a universal spirit but we also measured their analytic thinking ability and we measured how empathetic they are, how much they care about other people.
And we found something just like I showed you at the start that the higher your analytic ability, the less you tend to believe in God. But we also found something twice as strong which is that the more you care about other people, the more you do believe in God.
So to put this a little crudely, if we compare the dumbest and nastiest people with the smartest and kindest, in fact, the smartest and kindest believe more in God. Small effect.
We also did a number of other tests that contradict some of the things that the new atheists have claimed. We found that religious belief isn’t driven by loneliness or depression; it isn’t driven by a desire for comfort, and it doesn’t drive people to identify or sympathize less with people very different from them.
In fact, we found exactly the reverse that people who are religious identify more with all of humanity. Even the friends of more religious people thought they were kinder, more tolerant, and better listeners. And that was an effect we found in addition to the person themselves expressing more concern for others.
Perhaps the most surprising effect, certainly surprising to me, was that we found this relationship between empathy and religion holds even for the most dogmatic believers, that’s a personality characteristic that we found to correlate highly with fundamentalism within the religious.
More dogmatic religious people are actually slightly more pro-social than less dogmatic religious people. But here’s what’s really curious is that the reverse holds for those who don’t believe in God.
If you don’t believe in God, the more dogmatic you are in your beliefs, the more your personality resembles that of a psychopath.
Now this doesn’t look great for the Brights and the New Atheists but I’m really not here to poke fun at them, because they raise a really interesting and really important intellectual point. What I’ve told you is that spiritual or religious faith asks us to push aside scientific thinking.
So does that mean that science and religion are fundamentally opposed? Well I think if you look at the neuroscience carefully, it actually tells you exactly the reverse: the healthy brain is constructed so we don’t confuse these two types of thinking, we don’t allow them to interfere with each other.
And that pushes to a philosophical conclusion: that scientific truth and social narrative truth are fundamentally distinct. The brain is structured so that they can’t and should happily live apart.
Ok so let’s get back to the starting question: can a scientist be religious? Well obviously they can be. Many of the greatest and most influential scientists throughout history have been or are religious. But that’s not really the interesting question.
The interesting question is: Does it make sense to believe in science and religion? And I think the neuroscience tells us that it can make sense.
What the science tells us is that our brains are remarkable but they’re not perfect, they don’t quite live up to the rationalist ideal. Instead our brain like every other part of our body has limitations. As a result, we have two quite different ways of understanding the world and our neural architecture has evolved to keep these two very different types of understanding distinct, so they don’t interfere with each other.
So what am I really trying to tell you here? Am I trying to tell you that you should be religious? No. Religion and spirituality are one way to help balance your brain in a way that corrects a troubling imbalance in our current culture. But I don’t think they’re the only way.
Becoming a student of history, of anthropology, of great art, of great literature… those are other ways to correct the balance. I only suggest that you are open to spiritual and religious thought, and what insights it can offer you.
The two points I really want you to take home from this are this: First, I want you to realize there is a fundamental difference between scientific understanding on the one hand, and understanding what it means to be human and in particular what it means to be an ethical human, on the other.
You shouldn’t confuse them, realize they’re distinct, they can be of course related to each other but we need to start with the recognition they’re distinct.
And second I want to suggest you it’s a good idea to try to develop and use every part of your brain, as Kant discovered in his own personal journey. It’s a good idea to leave a little room for the alternative perspective to flourish.
Beyond that, I think you should figure out what you do and don’t believe for yourself.