Cover Story: Science and Faith

Research – A Question of Faith

By Georg Scholl

Researchers may believe in theories, but seldom in miracles. Thus conflicts with religion may seem inevitable, whereby questions of faith already keep researchers occupied amongst themselves.

Some researchers believe in economic models for predicting developments in the world economy and international markets. Some believe that one day someone will manage to prove the string theory, which could be along the lines of general operating instructions for the universe and everything that happens in it. The famous American astronomer, Carl Sagan, believed that sooner or later humanity would receive signals from intelligent extraterrestrial life forms, and spent decades listening to outer space with the help of enormous radio telescopes. And his compatriot, the highly-decorated astrophysicist, Thomas Gold of Cornell University, believed that oil is not actually a fossil fuel based on biomass but a metabolite of bacteria living in the earth’s crust that process hydrocarbon.

Anyone who looks at science as being essentially a business of rationality, hard facts and empiricism underestimates the role of fixed ideas and intuition, not to mention the conviction that you are on the right path even if you cannot prove it. However, in the end, faith is supposed to turn into proven knowledge. It is not enough just to believe in the existence of extraterrestrial life – it all depends on what you are able to prove. This consensus amongst researchers sounds trivial. But it is the root of conflicts with religions that are based on faith without evidence. In the world of religion miracles are certainly possible, in the world of research they are not. Here we are dealing with the maxim of the Scottish philosopher, David Hume: “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish.” The fact that some researchers are prepared to believe in divine miracles nonetheless, does not make the conflict any clearer

“Since Darwin and the triumph of science the claim to universal validity made by religious dogma has diminished constantly.”

Searching for the God module

The urge to plumb the depths of the inexplicable and miraculous leads science almost in passing – and sometimes even intentionally – onto religious territory. Progress in modern brain research, for example, has made the topic of faith even more fascinating to science. Researchers push Tibetan monks or Catholic nuns into a magnetic resonance to mograph to investigate which regions of the brain are active during meditation or prayer. Th e discovery of an in crease in the blood supply to the front tem poral lobe even prompted the American neuropsychologist, V.S. Ramachandran, to declare this region of the brain to be a so-called God module. This region of the brain, which seems to be responsible for religious experience, also works the other way round. If the respective area is stimulated with magnetic waves or affected by an epileptic attack, this can trigger a sense of transcendental enlightenment or religious experience in subjects and patients.

In the last resort, is God perhaps nothing more than a storm of neutrons in the human brain? Ramachandran chooses not to answer this question. Like many neurologists he is not simply prepared to exchange belief in God for belief in the brain. After all, the existence of a God module does not contradict the existence of God. Perhaps creation has specifically earmarked it as the receiver designate of spiritual messages and experiences? Another theory explains mankind’s predisposition to the religious by evolution: Selection has favoured people with the relevant area of the brain because religious experience can strengthen social bonds within a community.

The brain as belief engine

Another explanation as to why human beings both wish to and have to believe in something is provided by the British developmental biologist, Lewis Wolpert. His reasons for the positively compulsive human search for answers not only explain the drive for religion and belief in miracles, but for research as well. Wolpert sees the brain as a belief engine: In the search for understanding it drives human beings at least to believe, even if they do not actually know – be it in God, astrology, extraterrestrials or string theory.

According to Wolpert, the reason for this is the human ability to link cause and effect. In the dim and distant past, it was this that allowed us to invent the first primitive tools. Without this insight, even combining a biface with a simple stick for a handle to invent an axe would not have been possible. This ability set off a cognitive chain reaction. Once you have understood the connection between cause and effect you cannot stop searching for reasons why the world is as it is. Once you have understood that you only have to rub two sticks together vigorously to create fire, you want to know the causes of other things, such as disease and death. But it proved impossible to apply the principle of “no effect without a cause” to strokes of fate of this kind without resorting to the supernatural. When our ancestors reached the limits of their understanding they almost inevitably came to the conclusion that an invisible God must be responsible – a solution that was so compelling, and has remained so for many to this day, that a lot of societies developed it quite independently.

However, with every puzzle that research manages to solve the scope for supernatural explanations is reduced. Since Darwin and the triumph of science the claim to universal validity made by religious dogma has diminished constantly. Eventually people will be asking whether there is a God at all if everything can be explained without him. The defensive reactions of the religious are concomitantly strong. In the spectacular debates between creationism and evolutionary theory in the USA religious adherents of intelligent design, who consider Darwin’s teaching fallacious and the Bible to be the definitive tool for explaining the origins of the world, are pitted against radical atheists like the biologist, Richard Dawkins, who reject any thought of a divine plan of creation as complete rubbish.

Faith without evidence is the aspect of religion that fires on opponents like Dawkins. If being religious means believing in something without evidence, anything is justifiable – no points of argument, no evidence, the only justification being that one simply believes in it, as Dawkins claims in his international bestseller, “The God Delusion”.

Who stands where on the issue of faith?

Dawkins does not only argue with the representatives of religion. One of his adversaries is the geneticist, Francis Collins, for example. The former head of the National Human Genome Research Institute publicly champions the harmony of science and faith and openly declares his belief in God, the virgin birth and the resurrection of Jesus. Other scientists like the palaeontologist and evolutionary biologist, Stephen Jay Gould, preach that science and religion are two completely independent worlds existing next to each other on an equal footing. The adherents of this view argue that the naturalism of evolutionary theory leaves ample room for the idea that God created the universe but then left it to natural history to take its course in the context of the laws he had determined – which did not stop him from interfering here and there.

“In the search for truth it is quite legitimate to start out from a position of disinterested belief. Indeed, it may even be helpful.”

Long before the current debate on science and religion started in the USA, the issue of God and his role in the world view of research was discussed with reference to Albert Einstein and his theory of relativity. But as the chief witness for scientists who believe in God Einstein is not much use. His famous remark about God not playing dice was not so much a profession of faith as an allegory indicating that the universe, too, must be governed by fixed laws. In one of Einstein’s letters written in 1954, which was only discovered recently, he wrote to the philosopher Eric Gutkind, “The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.” Nevertheless, Einstein did not describe himself as an atheist and claimed, “What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility. This is a genuinely religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism.”

Faced with the enormous puzzles of their respective disciplines, many researchers would undoubtedly subscribe to this opinion. Similarly, there is agreement that in the search for truth it is quite legitimate and, indeed, may even be helpful to start out from a position of disinterested belief. However, whether we really have the activities of bacteria to thank for oil, whether it is possible to predict the u-turns in the economy, or whether the answer to the mysteries of the universe is a mathematical world formula or the existence of a higher being – in the end, for most researchers this is bound to be a question of evidence rather than faith.

Comment on article

If you are an Humboldtian and have logged in, you have the option of commenting on this article or other Humboldtians' comments. (Please read the comment guidelines first)

Comment guidelines

After logging in, Humboldtians have the option of participating in discussion of articles in Humboldt Kosmos and contributing comments of up to 1,000 characters for publication in German or English. If the comment is published it will appear under your name.

Every comment will be checked by the editors and published as soon as possible unless there are objections on legal or content grounds. The editors reserve the right to abridge and revise comments where necessary. Please bear in mind that published comments can be accessed by anyone on the Internet and may be located by search engines.