Faith and Neuroscience: Wisdom, Training, and the Numinous

B0010280 Healthy human brain from a young adult, tractography
Healthy human brain from a young adult © Alfred Anwander, MPI-CBS, Wellcome Images, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

What help can people of faith receive from neuroscience? This was the question that Revd Dr Alasdair Coles asked in his lecture at the Faraday Institute last week. Alasdair works in Addenbrookes hospital, Cambridge, both as a neurologist and as a hospital chaplain. He brought both these perspectives to his talk, which I will summarise here in my own words. Continue reading

Echoes of a Voice

cathedral Cologne 1216095_23168992 Rudy Tiben copy
Cologne Cathedral. © Rudy Tiben, freeimages.com

What is the difference between a cathedral and a physics lab? Are they not both saying: Hello?

The Christian writer J.W. Sire quoted this line from Annie Dillard[1] in Echoes of a Voice, a new book that explores the phenomenon of spiritual or ‘transcendent’ experiences. What are they, why do they happen, and do they mean anything?

I have written about the more numinous side of science many times on this blog (see Transcendence and Transcendent Science). Scientists often speak of a reality beyond the objects they are studying, and for some this is encountered in powerful – if rare – experiences of wonder and awe. Perhaps my experience in the Smithsonian Museum that I described last week also comes into that category?

I found Sire’s analysis of these experiences helpful. He describes moments that are Continue reading

The Theologian and the Telescope

Jasmaine Mathews, www.sxc.hu
© Jasmaine Mathews, http://www.sxc.hu

The main purpose of this blog can be illustrated by a single story: that of the theologian and the telescope. The theologian is a colleague from another department in Cambridge, and the telescope belonged to some friends of his. As we talked over lunch one day he mentioned that he and his family had visited these friends the previous evening. It had been a clear night, so they spent part of the evening looking at the stars. My colleague was an avid amateur astronomer as a teenager, but over the years he had lost his love for science. He had been involved in abstract discussions about science and religion for so long that he had forgotten that the experience of science itself can foster awe, wonder and – for people of faith – worship. His recent experience with the telescope reminded him how beautiful and fascinating the universe is. He rediscovered his love for science.

The joy of science is the freedom to wonder and ask questions – to exercise imagination and curiosity. It is also the joy of discovering new things, the shock of awe at what is found, and an enjoyment of its beauty. The theologian Austin Farrer said that Continue reading

Transcendent Science

microscope
Image courtesy of http://www.sxc.hu

There is great beauty in science, whether in the experiments themselves, the data produced, or the presentation of that data. There is also great wonder, and that is what drives science forward. How does a seed grow into a plant? What is a star made of? Can we describe the movement of a cell using mathematical equations? At times wonder gives way to open-mouthed awe as we see something vast, incredibly complex or highly ordered.

Awe is enjoyed and cultivated by all scientists, despite their different personalities, and popular science writing is invariably full of awe and wonder – whatever the beliefs of the author. Continue reading

Antony Hewish: A Life in Science and Religion

The Crab Nebula, with a pulsar at its core. NASA
The Crab Nebula, with a pulsar at its core. NASA

Last month, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Antony Hewish spoke at the Faraday Institute on ‘My Life in Science and Religion – A Personal Story’. Professor Hewish described himself as more of a practical experimentalist than a philosopher or mathematician, and his life story certainly reflects that – though I think he understates his own intellect in a very Cambridge way. He clearly enjoyed his work in radio astronomy very much, and his insights into the compatibility of science and faith are very interesting.

Antony Hewish was the youngest of three boys, and thanks to their parents’ open-mindedness, they created a workshop in the family home – over the bank that their father managed. Hewish’s early experiments with electricity fused the lights of not only the whole house but those of the bank below! Continue reading

Awe in Science, Part 3: Spirituality in Science

stained_glass_06_07
Window at St Crispin’s Church, Braunstone. © St Crispin’s

At the beginning of this piece I mentioned my growing realisation of the size of the scientist’s task. The seeming inexhaustibility of the created order can be overwhelming, but many see this as something positive. There is so much more to explore. As the Jesuit philosopher Enrico Cantore has said, the mystery of the universe lies not in ignorance, but in dazzling intelligibility. Where do these thoughts of transcendence, reality and mystery lead? For Einstein, they were a religion. A Mind other than our own was somehow responsible for this world that we can make sense of using the language of mathematics. For others, the reality we see in the world leads to ideals that transcend differences of language, culture and religion. Continue reading

Transcendence

© Ruth Bancewicz

I am becoming more and more convinced that the vast majority of scientists value what one could call transcendent realities. I’m not talking about ‘religion’, which for some has negative connotations*. By ‘transcendent’ I mean experiences and ideals that are consonant with but go beyond scientific evidence: that feeling of pure joy when you find yourself discovering something for the first time; delight in the beauty of nature or scientific data; the standards we set for ourselves; or the importance we place on certain relationships.

I think nearly everything that’s fun in life has the potential to get a scientist talking like a mystic. For example, a cell biologist wins a new grant to study a tiny protein involved in signalling pathways, and she starts speaking about getting closer to the truth. A neurologist studying a particular sensory experience understands the neural mechanism but not how the individual perceives it, and he becomes interested in the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness. Or a developmental biologist is expecting her first child, and suddenly embryology takes on a whole new meaning. Continue reading