THE BLOG
03/05/2012 08:51 am ET | Updated May 05, 2012

Is God in the Brain?

Two weeks ago in Tel Aviv I attended a gala event of neuroscientists from around the world, including three Nobel Laureates, business leaders, wealthy philanthropists, and politicians, most notably Israeli President Shimon Peres. After his introductory speech on science and education in Israel, the President sat and listened intently from the front row of the theater to three Nobel Laureates on stage answering questions about their brain research. At the end of the program the moderator politely asked Peres if he would like to ask the brain researchers a question. He stood, and grasping the wireless microphone before an audience of perhaps 800, Peres addressed the Nobel Laureates, "Can you see God in the brain?"

There was an awkward moment as the Nobel Laureates scrambled to formulate appropriate comments extemporaneously, struggling and fumbling for words in an effort to regain footing after being knocked off the security of their familiar talking points.

Religion and science are rarely mixed, except in confrontation. Amplifying this tense moment was the location: Israel, the hotbed of religious conflict for centuries, and the Jewish state now on the precipice of launching an attack on nuclear sites in Muslim Iran.

Which God? The Christian? Jewish? Muslim? Hindu? The God gene maybe? There is no God -- at least not in science books. The moment passed slowly like an unwelcome odor.

But two weeks later, after all the questions I heard posed by international scientists in the week-long meeting, this question stands out as the only one I remember. At the time it seemed embarrassingly naive, but in truth it is a broad, profound, and daring question. "Can you see God in the brain?"

Is religion a figment of the human brain? The result of an organ evolved to the point of self-awareness and with that an ability to fabricate satisfying answers given ambiguous data? Many neuroscientists have argued as much. Is religious belief so pervasive among all peoples because it arises from the struggle between our primitive emotional brain and our rational cerebral cortex, or because it springs from the perpetual duel between our analytical left brain and the intuitive and creative right? Brain seizures have been offered as an explanation for religious experiences and many notable figures in religious history seem to have been touched by epilepsy: St. Paul, Muhammad, Joseph Smith, who founded Mormonism and others. Psychotropic drugs, such as psilocybin from mushrooms, create hallucinations by disrupting neurotransmitters in the brain, which primitive people believed allowed them to commune with the spiritual world.

The eternal struggle between religion and science stems from one fundamental difference: religion is based on faith, but science is based on doubt. As scientists we make hypotheses and then try everything possible to shoot them down. If our experiments fail to do so, we are forced to accept the hypothesis, but only tentatively, because the lingering doubt never goes away that another experiment sometime in the future might upend it. The scientific method only works for questions for which we can devise rational experiments to test them against. There are far more questions that no one has imagined how to test experimentally than there are questions that we have figured out a way to test. Scientists must accept that, and they do.

Science and religion are different worlds, but fundamentally they are not antagonistic; they are part of the larger whole that defines all human beings: we are creatures with the profound need to explore and comprehend the world around us, and to understand our place in it. People who live close to nature tend to be the most spiritual, and in modern society scientists, whose job it is to observe and labor to understand nature, live closer to nature on a daily basis than anyone. There are scientists who are religious and scientists who are not. There are believers and non-believers, but in talking with many of my colleagues about this taboo question, I found that all scientists share a profound sense of awe and humility before the unfathomable mysteries of nature, which while not necessarily religious, is deeply spiritual.

No one looking through a microscope at the intricate world of microscopic creatures living in a drop of pond water can help but be awed. For others this sensation wells from an elegant equation predicting with precision the crest and break of a wave on a beach, or in seeing the elaborate molecular mechanism for storage and decoding genetic instructions in the paired helix of DNA at the center of every cell in the body. The paradox is that the more we learn about nature as scientists the more the mystery expands. Every intricate detail we uncover expands and increases the complexity and the intricacy. Somehow it all fits together perfectly -- every detail.

Science and religion are not adversaries; they are two sides of the same coin -- rational thought and belief. Both are means by which man's fascination and quest to understand the universe and our place in it are satisfied. Each world is valid, but separate. As different as land and sea, but together they create the whole.

One would not look to scripture for the secrets of subatomic particles, but having discovered nuclear energy through the scientific method, one would not look to science for answers about how to use it. For that we must turn to belief. And the larger the issue, the more fundamental the belief we must rely upon to guide us -- beliefs that are shared universally by all humanity -- life, personal liberty, family and community. Science can tell us the consequences of our actions, but our decisions about how to act will be based on belief.

So after pondering the question and talking with colleagues the answer to me is clear. Yes, Mr. President, you can see God in the brain; just as you can see it in the hand of a child or in a stunningly beautiful sunset that steals one's breath. Nature is infinitely beautiful, complex, wonderful, and humbling in its awesome intricacy and mystery.