(pdf available here)
talk given at King Edward VI Camp Hill School, Birmingham, March
Science and Religion. First, there is no such thing as Science
- but there are many sciences investigating different parts
and aspects of the universe. (I am restricting attention here
to the physical sciences as distinguished from psychology and
the social sciences.) All of these are legitimate, valuable,
fascinating, indispensable, worthy of a lifetime's efforts.
None of them is in itself either pro- or anti-religion.
However there is a philosophy which a large majority of those
working in the physical sciences today take for granted. This
was once called materialism. But that is not a good word for
it because of its association with materialism in the sense
of being materialistic, concerned only with material possessions
rather than moral and cultural values, and there is no reason
why those who hold this philosophy should be any more materialistic
in that sense than anyone else. The accepted terms today are
'naturalism' and 'physicalism', meaning the belief that the
physical universe constitutes the totality of reality. On this
view there is nothing beyond the physical, no trans- or meta-
or supra-physical or suprasensory reality such as the religions
affirm. And so the entirety of reality is, at least in principle,
fully describable and understandable by the empirical sciences.
This is so widely taken for granted today that it is often equated
with Science or with the scientific point of view. But I am
going to argue that on the contrary naturalism is not 'scientific
truth' but a philosophy which most but by no means all scientists
hold; and that it is, when ardently believed, or unquestioningly
taken for granted, a faith position - as much so as religious
To show this in short space I want to concentrate on the fact
that the physical universe includes human bodies, and thus human
brains, these being the particular bits of the physical universe
that I want to focus on. Here naturalism, or physicalism, is
so fully taken for granted today that, for example, the excellent
account of the brain by Rita Carter (advised by Professor Christopher
Frith) is not called Mapping the Brain but Mapping the Mind.
However I shall argue that at this point physicalism becomes
self-contradictory, so that the physicalist has to retreat -
or rather, I would say, has to advance - to a more open position
which accepts that there may possibly be suprasensory realities
such as the religions speak of.
But first let me clarify. Surely, you may say, any physical
scientist would grant that consciousness and thought exist and
that these are not physical objects. Consciousness may be ephemeral,
its contents in constant flux, with thoughts coming and going
all the time, but consciousness does exist. This is of course
not in dispute. But the question is, What is it's status? Different
schools of physicalist thought have given different answers,
which however boil down to two main options.
One is mind/brain identity. This is the view that thought is,
purely and simply, the functioning of the brain. Consciousness
is neural activity, consisting without remainder in the electro-chemical
activity in the brain. Thus a particular episode of conscious
thinking, and the specific electro-chemical processes which
are taking place in the brain at the same time, are not distinguishable
as physical and non-physical but are one and the same physical
However this mind/brain identity theory, also known as central-state
materialism, is not nearly so widely held today as it was a
decade or two ago. It's basic problem is a very obvious one.
Suppose a neuro-surgeon has exposed a patient's brain and, with
the aid of instruments registering its electrical activity,
is tracing the successive co-ordinated firings of the neurons.
The patient is conscious, there being no pain nerves in the
brain, and she reports what is going on in her mind, the contents
of her consciousness. Suppose she is deliberately visualizing
a mountain scene with a blue lake in the foreground and pine
trees beyond it growing in a green swathe up the lower slopes
of a mountain range. Does it really make sense to say that the
electro-chemical activity that the surgeon is monitoring with
his instruments, taking place in the gray matter that he can
see and touch, literally is that visualized mountain scene which
forms the content of the patient's consciousness? It makes sense
- whether or not it is true - to say that the brain activity
causes the conscious experience. It makes sense - again, whether
or not it is true - to say that there could be no conscious
experience without that brain activity. But does it make sense
to say that the brain activity actually is, identically, that
visualized scene occupying the patient's consciousness? That
is strongly counter-intuitive, even to the point of being unintelligible.
However this appeal to ordinary experience is dismissed by some
neuroscientists as 'folk-psychology'. But that is pejorative
spin language. Whilst there is an overwhelming body of evidence
for full consciousness/brain correlation, to suppose that any
accumulation of this evidence, however great, constitutes evidence
for their identity is a simple logical fallacy. Neural activity
in my skull, and my conscious mental act of formulating the
sentence that I am now uttering, are completely correlated with
one another, so that in knowing one it is possible, ideally
and in principle, to infer the other. But it does not follow
that my conscious subjective mental activity literally is an
event in the neurons, synapses and electric charges in my head.
That A and B exist in full correlation with each other does
not mean that they are identical.
We can summarize thus far by saying that there is no pain in
the brain but there is in consciousness. And likewise the range
of colours that we see and sounds that we hear and sensations
that we feel do not exist in the brain but do exist in our consciousness.
So naturalistic neuroscientists have generally moved to the
theory that consciousness is a new emergent feature or aspect
of brain activity, an aspect that develops when the brain reaches
a certain degree of complexity. It is an epiphenomenon of brain
activity, existing only whilst the brain is working. It is totally
dependent upon brain function although not actually identical
with it, and it has no causal power over the brain. As an analogy,
you can think of the way in which an electric current flowing
through a light bulb produces light, but as soon as you switch
off the electricity there ceases to be any light. As the light
in the bulb is not identical with the electricity in the bulb,
but is a temporary product of its operation, so consciousness
is not identical with the brain but is a temporary product of
However the data that we have to go on seem to be more complicated
than either mind/brain identity or consciousness as an epiphenomenon
of brain activity. On the face of it our continuous daily experience
is evidence of a two way causation, states of the brain producing
states of consciousness, and conscious decisions producing states
of the brain which in turn cause bodily behavior.
On the one hand it is a matter of common observation that various
drugs change the chemistry of the brain and nervous system,
thereby affecting mental life. General anaesthesia causes unconsciousness;
alcohol can lower inhibitions and make it unsafe to drive by
impairing judgment and releasing aggression; valium can calm
stress and anxiety; cannabis can produce a temporary sense of
well-being; and the hard drugs can cause hallucinations and
all sorts of other extraordinary and sometimes dangerous effects.
the tremendous and continuing advances in mapping the functions
of the different areas of the brain now go far, far beyond these
common observations, to a mapping of the different functions
of different parts of the brain. But at the same time the neurophysiologists
emphasize that the brain functions as a living whole, although
within its total activity different areas specialize in different
tasks. And they add that far more is still unknown than is known
about the brain.
take a short cut straight to the relevance of all this to religion,
some neuro-scientists claim to have located an area in the temporal
lobe that produces what they describe as religious experiences.
Thus one researcher (Dr Michael Persinger) reports that by stimulating
this area, 'Typically people report a presence. One time we
had a strobe light going and this individual actually saw Christ
in the strobe. [Another] experienced God visiting her. Afterwards
we looked at her EEG and there was this classic spike and slow-wave
seizure over the temporal lobe at the precise time of the experience'
. I'm going to say more about religion later. But let me just
say at this point that neuroscientists often have extremely
naïve ideas about religion and assume that a bright light,
or seeing a vision of a religious figure - whose assumed identity
depends on the patient's cultural background, - or feeling at
one with the environment, is necessarily a religious experience.
When, for example, a certain lesion which disconnects one part
of the brain from another can cause a patient to think that
he is God, invulnerable to human powers, or when other lesions
produce other extraordinary experiences which are structured
by religious concepts, they readily assume that religious experience
is in general hallucinatory. But within the great religious
traditions themselves there is a more sophisticated attitude
to 'mystical' experiences. If you read the great Christian mystics,
for instance, you find that they were acutely aware that not
all religious visions, auditions, photisms, etc are religiously
authentic. Teresa of Avila, for example, as a medieval person,
expressed this suspicion as a belief that the devil can cause
such experiences . And the criterion for authenticity, in addition
to the tradition-specific test of the orthodoxy of the messages
received, was always the fruits of the experience in the life
of the mystic. If it made him or her a manifestly better person,
it was genuine; if not, not. And this is the main criterion
across all the great traditions.
the possibility of inducing by drugs or surgical interventions
in the brain, visions, auditions, etc that are religious in
the sense that they are formed by religious images and concepts,
does not show that mystical awareness in general is delusory.
A mind dominated by the naturalistic assumption automatically
jumps to that conclusion, but it is not a valid inference. In
the light of modern neuroscience we should confidently expect
there to be states of the brain correlated with awareness of
the Transcendent. This is no more surprising than in the case
of our awareness of everything else. And likewise it should
not be surprising that there can be false perceptions in religious-seeming
awareness as there can in ordinary awareness. A blow on the
head may make you see stars which are not physically there,
and various drugs can induce much more complex hallucinations,
but this does not show that there is no physical world that
can also be perceived more or less correctly. Nor does the fact
that some drugs can produce religious-seeming hallucinations
show that there is no transcendent reality of which there may
also be genuine forms of awareness.
in short, there is massive evidence of altered brain states
causing altered states of consciousness. But on the other hand
it is equally a matter of first-hand observation that we can
consciously decide to move our finger or to utter certain words,
and it is prima face evident that this mental volition produces
brain activity which causes the moving of the finger or the
production of the words; and again it is prima facie evident
that we can consciously imagine a certain scene or consider
an argument or a theory and freely make judgments about it -
indeed this is what we are all doing, or at least think that
we are doing, at the present moment. Thus it is prima face evident
that when we exercise our free will in mental or physical action
the state of the brain is correspondingly altered.
brings us to the internal contradiction within the naturalistic
assumption as it shows in the brain/consciousness relationship.
The sciences proceed on the basis that the physical world functions
always and everywhere in accordance with the regularities and
patterns that we call the laws of nature. And universal law
entails universal causation. In other words, events do not occur
at random but are always caused to happen, and the causation
is always law governed.
is however a complication to this picture in the principle of
indeterminacy or uncertainty in the behavior of the most fundamental
particles. According to quantum mechanics, at the minutest subatomic
level it is in principle impossible to measure precisely both
position and velocity at the same time. There is thus an element
of uncertainty or unpredictability at the heart of nature. It
seems clear, however, that this micro indeterminacy so to speak
cancels out at the macro level of objects consisting of trillions
of sub-atomic particles. It does not create an indeterminacy
in the world of humanly observable physical objects and processes.
I am not going to insist on this here because it does not in
the end affect either way the question of human free will, which
is the issue towards which we are moving. For we are no more
free if our thoughts and actions are randomly determined than
if they are rigidly determined. Either way they are not freely
determined by us. Given either strict determinism, or an indeterminacy
due to subatomic unpredictability, human freewill would be excluded.
we come now to the basic issue that has been hovering all the
time in the background, the question of intellectual freedom
and determinism. This is seldom discussed by neuroscientists.
Rita Carter, however, expounding what she takes to be the outcome
of their work, says, 'some illusions are programmed so firmly
into our brains that the mere knowledge that they are false
does not stop us from seeing them. Free will is one such illusion.
. . [But] Future generations will take for granted that we are
programmable machines just as we take for granted the fact that
the earth is round' . What she has not noticed however is that
she is tacitly exempting her own thought processes from the
scope of her dogma. But if we apply her conclusion to her own
thought processes in coming to that conclusion, its status is
point was forcefully made by the great philosopher of science
Karl Popper . But it goes back to Epicurus, who said, 'He who
says that all things happen of necessity cannot criticize another
who says that not all things happen of necessity. For he has
to admit that the assertion also happens of necessity'.
This seems to me to be basically right, although it needs to
be developed a bit further. Let me put it in my own way.
Let us suppose that the physical world is completely determined,
at least at the macro level which includes our bodies and of
course our brains. And suppose that, as will then be the case,
some of us are causally determined in such a way that we believe
that complete determinism obtains whilst others are causally
determined in such a way that we believe the contrary. The question
is whether those who are right in believing that they are totally
determined can properly be said to know that they are right,
or whether on the contrary if they are right they can never
properly be said to know or rationally believe this, or indeed
get at this question, suppose there is a non-determined observer
watching our totally determined world from outside it. This
observer is able to think freely, to direct her attention at
will, to weigh up evidence and consider reasons, and out of
all this to form her own judgments. She can see that our world
is a completely determined system and that everyone in it is
completely determined in all their actions, thoughts, imaginings,
feelings, emotions, day dreamings, visualizings, and all their
reasoning, judging and believing. But whilst this undetermined
observer knows that we earthlings are all completely determined
she knows it in a sense of 'know' in which even those earthlings
who correctly believe it nevertheless do not know it. I am not
here invoking an ideal sense of 'know' in which it turns out
that we can only be said to know tautologies, but am using the
term in the everyday sense of knowledge as well-based rational
belief. Thus if there is or could be free will including, crucially,
non-determined intellectual volitions, a free being can come
rationally to hold beliefs in a sense in which a totally determined
being never can. Let us for convenience call the free being's
knowledge knowledge A and the determined being's knowledge B,
and speak of them as functioning respectively in mode A and
this terminology, I suggest that those who believe that a total
determinism obtains, and who of course believe that they are
right in so believing, are in the impossible position of implicitly
professing to function in mode A when, if they are right, they
must in fact be functioning in mode B, the determined mode.
This, I suggest, is a self-refuting position in the existential
sense incurred, for example, by someone who says, 'I do not
exist'; for in order for anyone to assert that he does not exist,
what he asserts must be false. Likewise, to assert in mode A
- that is, as an evidence and reason based judgment, - that
all judgments including this one can only be made in the physically
determined mode B, is to be in a state of existential self-contradiction.
other words, the argument between the determinist and the non-determinist
can only take place in what both assume to be mode A. But whereas
the non-determinist believes that what they are both assuming
is true, the determinist believes that it is false, and is thus
claiming to know in mode A that there is no mode A.
is the self-contradiction at the heart of physicalism.
an escape route from this intellectually intolerable position
has been suggested. A computer can be programmed to go through
an accurate deductive process and reach the correct conclusion.
And what could be more rational than the logical process pursued
by a computer? May not our brains be biological computers able
to function in this way? This is in effect what the determinist
believes to be going on in the discussions about determinism.
We are totally determined, but the determinist may nevertheless
be determined in such a way that he arrives at a true conclusion,
just as a computer may.
right response to this is, I think, that Yes we may be totally
determined, in which case the determinist is determined in such
a way that what he believes is true. But if so, none of us can
ever know or rationally believe that this is the case. Two people
debating the question would be like two computers purring away
in accordance with their different programs, with only an outside
observer operating in mode A being able to tell which is and
which is not programmed to arrive at the truth. In the case
of computers, the mode A outside observer is the programmer,
who has to know what sound reasoning is in order to program
a computer to reach it. Or of course if the computer is built
and programmed by a prior computer, the mode A observer is the
non-determined programmer of that computer; and so on in as
long a regress as you like. And likewise with ourselves considered
as fully determined computers. If anyone is to know what is
true and what is false among the conclusions which differently
programmed human computers reach, that cannot be any of us in
mode B but could only be a non-determined mode A programmer.
now another suggestion offers itself. Perhaps the ultimate programmer
is nature itself. For true beliefs aid survival. May not the
evolutionary pressures of the environment gradually eliminate
poorly programmed brains whilst rewarding correctly programmed
ones, thus moving the whole development in a truth finding direction?
On this theory there is no mode A consciousness, but nevertheless
the whole process whereby our brains have become as efficient
as they are is a purely natural phenomenon.
problems at once arise. The most fundamental one is that if
this theory is true we could never know or believe this in mode
A, since all believing would be in mode B. But further, why
would a truth-seeking machine arrive at the species-wide delusion
that it is not determined? Presumably because the delusion has
survival value. But how could a deluded consciousness possibly
have survival value if we are simply totally determined bio-computers?
Being determined, we do what we are caused to do, and consciousness,
whether deluded or not, adds nothing. Against this, it could
be said that biological evolution, in its continual experimentation,
has sometimes produced non-functional by-products, and perhaps
consciousness, with its sense of mental freedom, is one of these.
But this 'perhaps' is dwarfed by a massive 'perhaps not', for
generally the evolutionary process has aided efficient function,
and unless there are positive reasons to the contrary the presumption
must lie with this.
so it seems to me that in affirming the freedom of his or her
own reasoning faculty the naturalist must move to a more open
point of view. If our mental life is not purely electro-chemical
neural activity, it follows that there is non-physical as well
as physical reality. It further follows that this non-physical
reality is not a mere epiphenomenon of matter but is able to
exert causal power upon one part of the material universe, namely
the human brain. A door has thus opened to the possibility that
the human person is more than a purely physical organism, and
also that there may be a suprasensory reality such as the religions
point to, and a non-determined capacity of our own nature to
respond to it. A door of possibility has opened. The naturalist
may resolutely refuse to go through that door, or may simply
turn her back on it and ignore it, but nevertheless the door
what I have been arguing - and this is my main contribution
today to your science/religion discussions - is that the naturalistic
assumption that the totality of reality consists of physical
matter and that there is therefore no suprasensory reality is
not a defensible position.
may lie on the other side of that open door? Both religious
believers and non-believers usually think of religion only in
terms of the religious tradition with which they are familiar,
which is the one into which we were born and by which we have
been formed. But this is too narrow a focus. The central feature
of religion in virtually all its forms, both theistic and non-theistic,
is the belief in a reality that transcends the physical universe
but is accessible to the spiritual aspect of our own human nature,
the aspect that is spoken about in various ways, such as the
image of God within us, or the atman, or the universal Buddha
nature. For our present purpose I am going to call that reality
simply the Transcendent or the Real. I am using this because
our more familiar word 'God' can so easily bring with it connotations
which I want to avoid. It is often taken to mean an infinitely
powerful Being who sometimes intervenes miraculously on earth
in response to human prayers, as is of course described at many
points in the Bible - as one obvious example, making the sun
stand still for twenty-four hours so that the Israelites could
have longer to slay their opponents. But if there were an all-powerful
intervening Being like that, I wouldn't think him (or her) worthy
of worship. That's for a very simple reason. Suppose there's
a car crash in the road outside and three of the people in it
are killed but one survives more or less unhurt. If that one,
believing in a miraculously intervening deity, then thanks God
for saving her life, she's forgetting that if God decided to
save her, he must have decided at the same time not to save
the other three. But if he could if he wanted equally easily
save everyone from all harm, why is there so much pain and suffering
in the world? This would be a cruelly arbitrary God, and the
only people who could reasonably worship him would be the chosen
few whom he protects.
then, not on God in that sense but upon what I shall call the
ultimate transcendent reality, or the Transcendent for short,
to which the religions are our range of human responses, why
believe that there is any such reality?
we have to distinguish between what we can call first-hand and
second-hand religion. Believers at second-hand include the multitudes
within each tradition who simply believe what they have been
brought up to believe, so that if they had happened to have
been born in another part of the world they would instead have
believed what people there are brought up to believe - though
the believer at second-hand may sometimes nevertheless have
a genuine and lively faith derived from the much greater spiritual
figures whose religion is first-hand, based on their own experience.
The greatest of these are the founding figures of the various
religious traditions - in historical order, the Upanishadic
sages, the Buddha, Lao-Tze (or whoever wrote the Tao Te Ching),
Moses and the other great Hebrew prophets, Jesus, St Paul, Muhammad,
Guru Nanak, and so on, and then the saints or mahatmas ('great
souls') who have renewed or reformed the traditions, and also
in varying degrees innumerable more ordinary believers who participate
at least sometimes and to some extent in first-hand religious
thinkers often assume that religious belief arises as an attempt
to explain the world - thunder storms are due to the anger of
the gods, for example, - or by an inference from the world to
God, the order of the world or the 'fine-tuning' of cosmic evolution,
for example, being taken as proof of a creator. But none of
this is the real basis of religious faith. The most basic way
in which we know that anything exists is not as an inference
from evidence but by that which exists impacting us, in other
words by our experiencing it. When I hold up my hand and look
at it I don't infer that there is a hand there, I see the hand.
As David Hume showed long ago, we don't believe in the world
around us on the basis of an argument from there seeming to
be a world to the conclusion that there is a world. And this
is just as well, because no such argument would be valid. You
can't in fact prove that anything exists outside your own consciousness.
What we all do is simply trust our experience. We are all first-hand
believers in the existence of a world beyond our own minds.
If we didn't trust our experience of seeing a brick wall, or
an oncoming bus that will run us over if we don't jump out of
its way, the world would soon eliminate us. It is the nature
of rationality to trust our experience, except when we have
a specific reason to think that an apparent perception is really
an hallucination. So our material environment forces itself
upon our attention. We trust our experience on pain of death.
the material world, in itself, is value-free. It is just 'brute
fact', and whilst it determines our range of possible actions,
to be forced to be aware of it does not undermine our inner
moral and spiritual freedom within the given physical world.
But suppose that as well as living in this physical environment
we also at the same time live within a non-physical supranatural
environment which does not force itself upon us, but awareness
of which is a free response made possible by the spiritual aspect
of our nature. It does not force itself upon us because to become
aware of it involves a shift from natural self-centeredness
to a new centring in the Transcendent, beginning to liberate
within us our capacity for unrestricted love and compassion,
and this is a shift or a transformation which can only be entered
upon freely. By its very nature it cannot be forced, as can
awareness of the value-free material world.
there is another obvious difference between sense experience
and religious experience, namely that whereas all human beings
perceive the physical world, and perceive it in (almost) the
same way, religious experience is not universal and when it
occurs it takes a wide variety of different forms within the
different traditions that have developed. How can this be? The
answer lies in a principle, known to today as critical realism,
the view that there is a reality outside us but that we can
only know it in the ways that our own cognitive equipment and
conceptual systems make possible. It is the principle that Thomas
Aquinas stated long ago when he said that 'Things known are
in the knower according to the mode of the knower' . And in
religion the mode of the knower differs among the different
ways of being human that are the great cultures of the earth
- hence the fact of a number of different religions. They are
different because of their different historical origins and
because they involve different ways of conceiving, and therefore
different ways of experiencing, and therefore different ways
of responding in life to the Transcendent. And not everyone
participates in any of them, for a response to them is not compelled.
This is of course a huge topic of which I have only been able
to sketch the outline for our present purpose. There is a great
deal more that can be said but there is no time to say it now.
kinds of experience I am talking about are not primarily the
seeing of visions and hearing of voices or the dramatically
altered states of consciousness reported by the mystics, but
quite common experiences such as being conscious in prayer,
whether in church or elsewhere, of being in the presence of
God, or the experience, in say Buddhist meditation, of being
in a universe which is fundamentally benign and such that there
can ultimately be nothing to fear or to worry about.
to summarize, we cannot prove that there is an ultimate transcendent
reality to which the religions are human, all-too-human responses.
But the inner contradiction of physicalism shows that this cannot
be ruled out. And whilst those who do not participate at all
in the field of religious experience can properly be agnostic
about the Transcendent, those of us who do in some degree experience
religiously are fully entitled as rational beings to trust that
experience and to build our beliefs and our lives on that basis.
Religious belief and naturalistic belief are equally faith positions,
and each involves risk - in the one case the risk that we are
deceiving ourselves, and in the other case the risk that we
are being blind to the most important reality of all.
John Hick, 2002.