March 15, 2023
Ampersand 11: Science and Faith, An Interview with Bill Newsome
Editors Note: This past November, Anselm House welcomed Dr. William (Bill) Newsome to deliver the 8th Annual Anderson Lecture in Science & Religion. Dr. Newsome is the Harman Family Provostial Professor of Neurobiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine, and the Vincent V.C. Woo Director of the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute.
As a world-renowned neuroscientist and Christian, he is well-positioned to speak into issues of neuroscience and faith. With advances in neuroscience, and the possibility to study the fine-grained details of the living human brain, an increasing awareness has emerged that our cognitive processes are deeply rooted in the physical structure of the brain. So, can we say that our neurons determine who we are and what we do? If neurons are determinative of our identity and behavior, is there still room for traditional notions of human agency, free choice, and personal responsibility? Or is it more complex? Do we need new conceptions of these notions? In his lecture, Dr. Newsome addressed many of these questions (the lecture is available on our website). The interview below touches on some of these pressing issues as well. The interviewer is his wife Brie Linkenhoker (neuroscientist and founder of Worldview Studio). The interview is reproduced with permission from journeywithjesus.net. —Arend J. (AJ) Poelarends, Director of the Center for Faith & Learning
Brie Linkenhoker: Let’s start with some definitions. What is science? What is faith? What are they to you?
Bill Newsome: 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.
[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.
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 represents 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 the time, I tend to think Jesus knew more about these things than I do.
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.
- The relationship between science and faith has been a topic of discussion for a long time. Dr. Newsome suggests that science is a great “method for acquiring knowledge about the physical world,” while faith is “the method by which we extract meaning from our individual lives.” Do you agree with his clear demarcation of the boundaries between the two? In what way could they inform each other?
- Dr. Newsome challenges the notion of a separate soul “that lives out there in the ether and that has found some way to interact with the brain.” Many Christian theologians maintain that you can distinguish between body and soul, while others emphasize the psychosomatic unity of the human being: we are soul-man, in Hebrew nephesh. Do you think neuroscience will eventually decide this debate, or is it more complex?
- Dr. Newsome talks about hope at the end of the interview, finding it in the notion of a meaningful universe, the integrity of his fellow scientists, historical figures, and his church community. Where do you find hope?
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