Science and Faith: An Interview with Bill Newsome

By Brie Linkenhoker

Bill Newsome is the Director of the Stanford Neurosciences Institute and the Harman Family Provostial Professor at Stanford University. For more than forty years, he has studied the neurobiology of visual perception and decision making. He is also a lifelong Christian who regularly speaks about the intersection of faith and science. He was interviewed for Journey with Jesus by his wife, Brie Linkenhoker.

Brie: Let’s start with some definitions. What is science? What is faith? What are they to you?

Bill: Science to me is a method for acquiring knowledge about the physical world. It is an interlocking set of theories that span disciplines and that help us make sense of the physical phenomena that we observe in the world. These theories are supported by empirical evidence — measurements, experiments, and observations. When science is working well, any scientist with the proper tools and conceptual background anywhere in the world can replicate this evidence.

Faith to me is broader and more all encompassing. It is the method by which we extract meaning from our individual lives. It gives us a sense of purpose and informs our narratives about what our lives are about. For me, faith provides a coherent picture of the universe and the kind of world that we live in. My faith organizes and puts in proper perspective my experiences as a laboratory scientist, a husband, and a father. It defines the highest values that I want to live by.

When it comes to something like answering what is the age of the earth, science is much better than scriptures that were written down thousands of years ago. Science is best at uncovering the mechanisms underlying perception and cognition, at describing the motions of heavenly bodies in the sky, or why things tend to come to a halt given a force.

But science can’t answer the fundamental questions of human existence that are the most important questions of all — questions like, “Is it better to live or to die?” This is a very real question for many people at some point in their lives, but it’s not a question that can be answered by science as far as I know.

Science works best for phenomena that can be repeated over and over again, like when you can grow cancer cells and watch them become cancerous, and repeat that observation over and over again in tissue culture, and then make hundreds of manipulations to that system to learn how it works. But for our most important decisions in life, we’ve got only one shot at them. We can’t make the decision one way, see how it comes out, and go back and do the control, or perturb a different variable and see how it comes out.

I think science can inform faith, and vice versa. I see them as related, but I think they fundamentally serve different realms of human inquiry and endeavor.

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PET scan of a normal brain.

Why do you think science and faith are so often cast in opposition?

I think there are several reasons — some spurious, and some sound.

Occasionally I hear people say things like, “Science has proven that religion is wrong, and that the scientific world view is the correct one.” To my knowledge there’s no scientific paper that has demonstrated faith in God to be wrong, and a disbelief in God is not a requirement to be an excellent scientist. There are many excellent scientists who do believe. So this is a spurious reason.

Another spurious reason is that the findings of science and religious beliefs are at odds with each other factually. It is true under some very conservative interpretations of traditional religious scriptures that there are conflicts, but most of the world’s major religions have integrated the findings of science, like the big bang and the creation of the universe 14 billion years ago, and evolution by natural selection. In fact, many religious thinkers find broad support for the religious worldview in scientific findings. For example, we know scientifically that our universe had a moment of beginning; it doesn’t go infinitely into the past. That is consistent with the central claims of multiple major religions, including Christianity.

But there are some sound sources of real conflict between science and faith, too. Tension arises when science goes from being a means of discovery about the physical world to an ideology. It becomes an ideology when you come to the conclusion that science is the only or best way to acquire knowledge about the world. That conclusion is not a result of science; it is an assumption. Everyone has a right to their own assumptions about where our purpose and value come from, but we should all be clear that that’s not a result of science.

Science seeks to make all of its knowledge third person, in the sense that it can be repeated by any competent scientist with the proper training and equipment anywhere in the world. But the search for personal meaning and purpose are necessarily first person experiences. In matters of faith, we necessarily rely a lot more on intuition and gut level feelings. But that doesn’t mean you check your brain at the door when you enter into a faith community. We should think critically about the truth claims of a religious community, and about the testimonies of other people and what they have experienced.

Do you see a biblical basis for the kind of critical thinking you’re talking about?

That’s an interesting question. In the Jewish tradition, of course, you have this extraordinary centuries-long tradition of commentary on the Torah — and commentaries on the commentaries about every little jot and tittle you can imagine in the Jewish scriptures. And we certainly have traditions of critical thinking in the Christian faith as well, though they are stronger in some areas of faith than in others.

I’ve always been impressed with Paul’s testimony of the resurrection of Jesus in Corinthians. Paul is clearly preaching to people who are in doubt. He talks about his experience on the road to Damascus, and about the experiences that other people had of Jesus’s presence after his death. He says to his listeners, “If you don’t believe me, go talk to these people. Many of them are still with us.” He’s encouraging people to do some empirical checking on what he’s saying.

It seems like some of the toughest issues that we face as a society right now are issues that science can inform, but can’t really decide for us. Science might be able to tell us something about the fetal experience, but it can’t tell us whether abortion is right or wrong. It can tell us something about what people experience when they’re executed under the death penalty, but they can’t tell us whether the death penalty is just or right. Science can tell us something about what is causing climate change, and what’s likely to happen if we don’t do anything about it, but it can’t tell us what the call to be stewards of the earth really means. Do you see a pattern there?

I do. In each of those situations, I go back to this phrase that gets repeated a lot, that it’s difficult, and may even be impossible, to get an ought out of an is. The fact that something is the way it is right now doesn’t translate easily into how something ought to be in the future. You have to introduce assumptions in addition to scientific observations in order to get the ought we seek.

And just to follow up on your list of examples…science can tell us how to make atomic weapons but it can’t tell us whether they should be made or used. And biology may be on the verge of transformation by technologies that give us the ability to finely edit genomes in human sperm and eggs. But those technologies can’t tell us when it might be good or right to use them, or to what ends. Those answers must be informed by our values and by non-scientific forms of inquiry, including those rooted in faith.

What should the role of Christianity or another religious faith be in helping us grapple with these questions? Why shouldn’t each of us just come to our own judgment, however we get there? What can faith bring to the table?

I wouldn’t question anyone’s ability or privilege to develop their value system outside of theistic faith, although honestly I think that any development of a system of values requires some leap of faith. It certainly demands a leap of faith beyond science. It demands some assumptions about what’s right, and what’s good, and what’s worth fighting for. These assumptions are not rooted in science. For me, faith gives us that. Faith provides a community basis and a structure for caring in the world, and for trying to reach out to promote a universal vision of humanity, and to recognize both its goodness and its brokenness.

Faith also provides an important starting point, which is that at the very heart of the universe, there is an intelligence, a spirit, a loving principle that we call God, who cares about each of us as individuals. That understanding can be a beacon of guidance and it offers a source of strength to carry on in a very positive way even when situations seem hopeless.

You study the brain, which at some times, in some cultures, has been considered the seat of the soul. Presumably you feel pretty comfortable studying what the brain is doing without worrying about an immaterial soul throwing off your data. So how is it that you think about the soul?

I’m not a theologian, of course, but the theologians that I read actually say that the notion of an immaterial soul is a fairly late construct in the Judeo-Christian heritage. The Jewish tradition in particular has a greater sense of psychosomatic unity of human nature rather than having a psyche or soul that is distinct from the body. It’s not until the high medieval period that we see the concept of an immaterial soul developed in its fullest form. I think the psychosomatic unity that is characteristic in the Jewish tradition fits very comfortably with my views as a neuroscientist.

When we talk about soul in a religious context, we’re usually talking about things that we sense to be part of the highest and most precious aspects of the human experience: the sense of self, the sense of an overriding purpose, our values and ethics, a sense of continuous identity. As a neuroscientist I think all those things and more are inextricably linked to the biology of the brain. I interpret them as higher states of organization of the brain.

Take something as simple as that I believe the earth is round, or that Barack Obama is the 44th President of the United States. There’s not a single cell or even a single circuit of cells that reliably represent that information. There’s not a single chain of neural events that happens every time one of these thoughts comes to mind. I may think of the earth being round in very different contexts. When did I first learn that the earth is round? What do I see when I visualize a round earth? What do I know about the concept of a round earth in history? Thinking about a round earth in those different contexts will be associated with different patterns of activity in widely distributed networks across the brain.

The thoughts that guide our lives — our purpose, sense of self, values, etc., are also products of organized patterns of activity in the brain. I don’t see the soul as something separate that lives out there in the ether and that has found some way to interact with the brain. Dualistic thinking is very common and easy to slip into without even being aware of it. But I’ve studied neuroscience for several decades now and I’ve become more and more convinced that all human behavior, cognition, and feeling is deeply rooted in brain activity, and this includes religious faith. The evidence for that seems at least moderately good at this point in time.

An obvious next question is whether you believe in life after death.

I don’t think it’s crazy to think about life after death. Whatever life after death might comprise, it’s not in my opinion going to be linked to the particular organic molecules that make up the neurons in our head. Because we can see what happens to those after we die: they rot, they decompose. If our identity is wrapped up in higher-level states of organization in the nervous system, then what’s essential to any continued existence apart from those organic molecules is some kind of reproduction of that organization. And that is not crazy to think about.

There are many smart people who believe that human-like intelligence will one day be instantiated not in organic molecules but in silicon or some other material that’s yet to be invented. They believe that this instantiation will have many of the organizational aspects of the human brain and include some or even all of the higher functions we’ve been talking about. If our intelligence can be instantiated in other ways — if you can in some sense download your mind into another form — then it’s not crazy to think about a continued sense of existence after death.

Life after death is a central part of my religious tradition. But exactly what form that may take and what meaning it might have, I don’t know. I don’t know whether it would involve another physical instantiation, or whether it would contribute to the growth of spirituality and awareness and good in the universe in some other way.

I do know as a Christian through reading the New Testament that Jesus seemed to firmly believe in a life after a physical death. Most of time, I tend to think Jesus knew more about these things than I do.

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Bill Newsome and Brie Linkenhoker.

You’re a fairly skeptical person, sometimes even pretty pessimistic. Maybe that’s been informed by the scientific endeavor, but maybe it’s just who you are. Where do you find hope?

We all seek sources of wisdom and guidance in answering questions about what kind of universe it is that we’ve landed in. It’s a big sprawling mess, and there’s a lot we don’t know about it. In some ways, the core of the religious quest is located in your answer to the question about whether we live in a pointless, meaningless universe, or a universe that has intrinsic meaning and purpose. I believe in the latter, and I find hope in that belief.

I find hope in my colleagues in science. There are scientists and staff who assist in our scientific enterprise who are among the most principled and self-giving people I’ve ever known. Students and their idealism, their desire to make a difference in the world and do something meaningful with their lives give me a lot of hope.

I find hope in the historical figures I read about, people who lived through extremely turbulent times. People like Lyndon Johnson, who was deeply flawed in many ways but yet took political actions that we are still wrestling with, but which changed our system for the better. People like Martin Luther King, Jr., who was also flawed but who acted with incredible courage. These are people whose values, beliefs and aspirations — many of which were rooted in faith — really made a difference.

My church community also gives me hope. Sometimes when people find out that I go to church, they look at me like I’m from Mars. But I can’t imagine not being a part of the church community. I’m a better person when I attend church regularly. Hearing thoughtful reflection based on scripture, listening to the testimony of others, and taking time for private introspection all give me a regular reminder every week of who I really am, what my highest values are, and what the calls of greatest allegiance to me are in the long run. If I didn’t get that at church, I don’t know where I would get it.

Image credits: (1) and (2) Bill Newsome and Brie Linkenhoker.

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