Neuroscience and Religion

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19 Jan 2006


As an Orthodox Jew and a science writer, I have the unhappy task of breaking some bad news to my fellow-believers of all religions. If you thought evolution was a threat to God, wait until you hear the latest. Brain scientists are getting close to being able to explain our moral choices by charting chemicals in our heads.

In a recent research paper published in early 2005 in the journal Neuron, two British neuroscientists, Angela J. Yu and Peter Dayan, use a clever experiment and lots of equations to show that people’s decisions about whether or not to continue to hold a belief depends on how two molecules, acetylcholine and noradrenalin, interact in the human brain. Being British, Ms. Yu and Mr. Dayan give the example of whether or not to believe the weather forecast when deciding to leave home with an umbrella in the morning. But it could just as easily apply to a person’s decision to believe in intelligent design or evolution, in the rights or wrongs of abortion, or in the existence or non-existence of God.

It’s hardly news that chemicals affect our behavior. Give a hyperactive boy Ritalin and he’s able to focus in school and stay out of fights during recess. Give a person crippled by depression Prozac or a similar drug, and the world may suddenly look less bleak to her. All of us who drink a cup of coffee in the morning are adjusting the balance of substances in our brains.

But are our choices about what to believe also determined by the physical states of our brain cells? My religion’s moral system makes no sense if a person can’t make his or her own choices about what is right and what is wrong. If it’s all just chemicals, then both my belief in God and my deeds towards my fellow human beings are not under my control. I’m not responsible for my own behavior, and I can’t hold other people responsible for theirs.

If that’s the case, neuroscience is the worst thing to happen to God since the French mathematician Pierre de Laplace told Napoleon that he had no place for a divine being in his equations. What should God-fearing people do?

Clearly, we must forbid our universities to teach neuroscience. At the very least, we should require professors to tell students that acetylcholine and noradrenalin are “only theories” and to teach the Ten Commandments alongside journals like Neuron.

The absurdity of that last paragraph shows just how ridiculous the intelligent design debate has become. Of course we don’t want to eliminate an entire field of knowledge, especially not one as useful and as interesting as neuroscience. And when Ms. Yu and Mr. Dayan analyze how the brain makes decisions, they are not offering moral teachings, any more than Moses on Mt. Sinai was telling the Children of Israel which neurons to fire or what substances to swallow when they encountered a widow or an orphan.

The cause of the conflict between science and religion is the mistaken belief that there is only one explanation for every given phenomenon. But that’s obviously an error. Take the words on this page. They can be subject to a chemical and physical analysis that will describe what atoms make up the ink and paper and how they are connected. Such a description would be precise and true, and no doubt useful to a curator who wants to preserve a piece of newsprint from decay, but would provide no information about the meaning of the words formed by the interaction of the ink and the paper. Similarly, a linguist could analyze the syntax of this sentence and perhaps reach interesting conclusions about how language is structured and used—but that would be useless in understanding the emotional and intellectual impact that my words may have on any given reader.

When a person chooses to give charity, or alternatively to steal someone’s wallet, the model proposed by Ms. Yu and Mr. Dayan can tell us what’s going on in their brain cells. It might even lead eventually to a pill that could help compulsive spendthrifts and kleptomaniacs control their obsessive behavior. But it hardly means that we no longer need teach our children to handle money wisely and respect other people’s property. Children learn to help the weak and not to steal because they come to understand that such principles are essential to our relationships with other people, and with God.

So let’s be careful. If we insist on putting God in the science classroom, we shouldn’t be surprised if scientists demand equal time in Sunday schools. Yes, science and Torah often seem to be in conflict. But it’s a conflict in the name of heaven, for it forces us to think deeply about our beliefs and duties. Both these and those are the words of the living God.

Haim Watzman writes from Israel about science and scholarship. He is the author of Company C: An American’s Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).


The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.