Search
  • Restorative Readings: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Human Dignity
    Restorative Readings: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Human Dignity
    Pickwick Publications

    Foreword by Walter Brueggemann, my chapter is entitled 'In conversation: The Old Testament, Ethics and Human Dignity'. A superb resource edited by Julie Claassens and Bruce Birch

  • What are we thinking? Reflections on Church and Society from Southern African Methodists.
    What are we thinking? Reflections on Church and Society from Southern African Methodists.
    by Dion A Forster, Wessel Bentley
  • Methodism in Southern Africa: A celebration of Wesleyan Mission
    Methodism in Southern Africa: A celebration of Wesleyan Mission
    by Dion A Forster, Wessel Bentley
  • Christ at the centre - Discovering the Cosmic Christ in the spirituality of Bede Griffiths
    Christ at the centre - Discovering the Cosmic Christ in the spirituality of Bede Griffiths
    by Dion A Forster
  • An uncommon spiritual path - the quest to find Jesus beyond conventional Christianity
    An uncommon spiritual path - the quest to find Jesus beyond conventional Christianity
    by Dion A Forster
Transform your work life: Turn your ordinary day into an extraordinary calling. by Dion Forster and Graham Power.
Download a few chapters of the book here.
Pages
Social networking

Entries in neurotheology (2)

Sunday
May222011

Is faith incompatible with science (and vice versa)?

After speaking at a secular conference recently I was asked a very thoughtful question (via email) by one of the persons in attendance.

In short, the question asked whether with my background in science (neuroscience in particular) I did not find a conflict with my faith as a Christian.

This is a common question.  It is a good question!

I'd love your input and response!

Here is my answer:

It is great to hear from you!  Thanks for taking the time to drop me a line.  The question that you pose below is one that I have heard many times before.

My area of specialization is neuroscience (rather than neurology). Of course the disciplines are linked, but my specialization is much less diagnostic in nature (it deals with understanding rather than pathology).  

I have had a longstanding interested in science, with a particular interest in physics, having done work in that area in my first degree and work in quantum theory (specifically quantum mechanics and quantum physics) in my master's degree.

The basic supposition of many people who ask this question is that there is a dualism (an ontological separation) between science and spirituality. This is a false supposition.  Please see the link below for my reasoning on this.

Even some of the most ardent atheistic scientists don't hold this view (for example of you read Richard Dawkins' 'God delusion') you'll see that he proposes a method of viewing the world from a scientific point of view - this form of spirituality is  known as scientism.  Basically any way of understanding the world in its entirety is a form of faith (in its most basic form).  For some people their meaning and greater value is found in service, some find it  in politics, some find it in spending, sport, sex and others in formal (and non-formal) forms of religious belief.

Sadly, many scientists do pseudotheology and many theologians do pseudoscience.  However, those who do solid epistemological study in both science and belief soon come to realize that there is not a great divide between science and faith.  In fact the opposite is true.

What we soon come to realize is that science depends as much on faith as faith depends on science!  Think about this for a moment.  The central 'proof' that something is scientifically true is based on a process of experimental repeatability.  The scientist has a 'hunch' or 'belief' that something is true and sets about to test that hypothesis.  This is an act of faith.  When the experiment is largely repeatable with the same results it is believed to be true... However, how many times have we discovered that what we believed to be entirely true was only partially true when we discovered another level of complexity in material reality?  However, faith in our results allows us to build bridges and fly in airplanes!  Science relies on a 'kind of faith' - we learn things, we believe they're true, we structure our lives accordingly. However, as times passes we learn new things that contradict old things we believed to be completely true. In the process we discover that not all science is 'absolutely true' - all faith is fluid in some senses.

Faith (in the traditional religious sense), on the other hand, relies a great deal on science!  I was asked to review a wonderful book entitled 'The fall of man and the foundation of science' (Oxford University Press, 2010, Peter Harrison).  It is an exceptional explanation of the relationship between contemporary science and religious belief, and religious belief and scientific methodology. See the book here: <http://www.amazon.com/Fall-Man-Foundations-Science/dp/0521875595>  It is not an easy read!  My review will be published in Studia Historiae Historiae in the next edition.  I'll gladly send you a copy of you're interested.

Whereas science is epistemic, religion tends towards phenomenology (i.e., the interpretation of what we hold to be true).  If a person comes to hold something to be true they will test their belief (consciously or unconsciously).  When they find evidence to support their belief they integrate it into their framework of dealing with joy and tragedy, bliss and suffering in their daily lives.  It is this process that helps us to deal with disappointment, discouragement, fear, opportunity, hope and a myriad of daily realities.  As I point out above some people frame the way in which they deal with these existential realities through relying on science, others (like Christopher Hitchens - a fellow anti-theist with Richard Dawkins) rely on secular humanism, others on religion, others on economics...

Can I suggest that you take a look at one of my posts on belief and the neurobiology of the human brain here:  <http://www.dionforster.com/blog/2010/8/3/the-presence-of-god-and-functioning-of-the-human-brain.html>

My friend Gregory Benvenuti (an atheist from Australia) made some super remarks in the comments.  Please also see my reply to him.

Please feel free to come back to me with your input, thoughts etc. Would you mind if I published my response to your basic question on my blog (no names mentioned of course)?

Grace and peace,

Dion

Tuesday
Aug032010

The presence of God and functioning of the human brain

Some years ago when I was preparing to start my doctoral research I came across a wonderful book by Andrew Newberg and Eugene d'Aquili called "Why God won't go away: Brain science and the biology of belief".

I had come to the discipline of neuro-theology through my interest in quantum theory and the new science (which I covered in some earlier graduate work - my book 'Christ at the centre' has a chapter that seeks to rephrase the doctrine of Christ in more contemporary language, so instead of the traditional Greek philisophical concepts of ousia and hypostasis I sought to rephrase the unity of the divinity and humanity of Christ using quantum physics, theoretical microbiology and transpersonal psychology (later I discovered integrative philosophy to be more apt). It was a wonderful journey of discovery and rediscovery). 

At more or less that time there was a popular movement that focussed on the 'God spot' in the brain - the theory was that religion and belief can be disregarded because some neuroscientists had discovered the place(s) and functions of the brain that caused belief.  It was popularly dubbed as 'the God spot' in the brain. This line of argumentation is fundamentally flawed since it presuposes an dualism between spirit and matter (i.e., that the body and the spirit are somehow seperated).  It is what Ken Wilber calls a 'flatland' perspective that tries to collapse the complexity of reality into an objective system.  These scientists had fallen into the same trap as religious fundamentalists - they had closed the possibility of other points of view by suggesting that their perspective was the only valid option.  In this instance they suggested that because you could show the bioligical functioning of a part of the brain, the experiences that result from that function were not valid.

Can you see the logical inconsistency in that argument?  If we acccept that line of argumentation we would have to say that the human heart does not truly 'work' because we understand its biological functioning.  Just because we understand something does not mean that it is not true!  In fact it may be MORE true because we understand it.

It was this line of argumentation that I employed to present the exact opposite of their conclusion - simply because there is physical proof of the existence of a place in the brain that shapes religious experience does not mean that faith is not valid or true!

In fact the converse is more likely - we are created with a capacity to experience God and God's divine presence.  This is a gift, and in fact validates the truth that humans are created to be religious beings! Years later when I wrote up my Doctoral thesis I showed how these 'a-priori' (pre-existent) neurological pathways are the foundations of our identity as human persons.  We are integrated physical, psychological and spiritual beings.  Our identity depends on the development of all of these aspects of our being (see p.215 of the thesis forward).

In short, God has wired God's presence into our being!  We are hard-wired to experience and know God who is in all and above all.

My research went on to discuss the concept that the truest form of 'knowledge' (what is knowing in the Hebrew scriptures as yadah') is discovery through relationship.  Simply stated, a fact is useful (to know that my wife Megan exists is a fact which I can prove objectively - that is quite useful), however, to experience her love which is mediated through our relationship is transformative (this is known as subjective knowledge or experience, or more precisley, intersubjective knowledge that changes my life). 

Jesus is the essence of truth (the logos, the primordial person who is known through love). In my relationship with God in Christ I come to discover transformative truth, not just doctrinal certainty.  My friend Kevin Light wrote a wonderful chapter that discusses this relationship between experienced truth and rational truth in his chapter entitled 'What about an affirmative action for theological application' (see Forster, D and Bentley, W 'What are we thinking? Reflections on Church and Society from Southern African Methodists' (Methodist Publishing House: Cape Town, 2009:107-116).

Thus, I have concluded that the most transformative knowledge of God is that knowledge that comes through a relationship with God in Christ.  We are transformed, renewed, recreated and reshaped as we grow in love (and knowledge) of Christ.

This little Latin saying has been living within me for the last while:  "Vocatus Atque Non Vocatus Deus Aderit" [bidden or not bidden, God is present / invoked or not invoked, God is present].

It is variously attributed to Erasmus (a Enlightenment scholar and humanist) and Carl Jung (the Swiss psychiatrist).

There is a great truth contained within these simple words.  Indeed, God pre-exists our thoughts, our actions, our intentions, and even our will.

This is not only a theological statement (the Bible is filled with reminders that before we are, God is!)  God is the source from which all life comes.  God is creator (and so we are creation).  However, it is also a neuro-scientific reality.

If you ever have the inclination to understand the neurobiology of belief there is a wonderful book, written by Andrew Newberg and Eugene d'Aquili entitled "Why God won't go away: Brain science and the biology of belief"

Here is an endorsement for the book:

 

"Why God Won’t Go Away is a thrilling exploration of the intersection of modern brain science and religious experience by one of the leading researchers in this field. Theologians and religionists, don’t worry; this is no exercise in God bashing. For, unlike most books exploring the connection between science and religion, Dr. Andrew Newberg is exceedingly mindful of the limits of science- what it can and cannot say, where it can and cannot go. He realizes that for every question science answers about religious experience, a dozen more arise to take its place. The respect this book displays toward the great mysteries, such as the nature of God and the origin and destiny of consciousness, is one of its most appealing qualities. Newberg’s reverential attitude toward the great unknowns is reminiscent of Einstein." Larry Dossey, MD Author: Reinventing Medicine, Healing Words

I have, however, progressed beyond the dualism that separates belief into physical and spiritual categories.  For me the dividing wall between spirit and mind, between my body and my faith, has been broken down.  In Christ the Spirit of God is present fully in a human person.  And, through His saving grace my life is being transformed into that state of 'being present' to God.

So, no matter what you face today I would like to encourage you with the knowledge that whether God is invited, or not invited, God is always lovingly present.  Amazingly God has even given us the biological capacity for this truth to be discovered within the depths and complexity of the brain!