What Science Tells Us About Spirituality

May 14, 2018

Science and religion often seem mutually exclusive. But researchers say both provide valid paths to knowledge. 

On this week’s Exploradio, WKSU’s Jeff St.Clair sits down with two scientists studying the mysteries of the spiritual mind.

The conflict between science and religion has been around since science began. Now neural imaging is shedding light on the divide.  

Tony Jack, director of the Brain, Mind and Consciousness lab at Case Western Reserve University, says our difficulty reconciling science and spirituality stems from our wiring.

“The brain evolved so that we have different ways of thinking suited to different sorts of tasks,” says Jack.

In his research, Jack hooked people up to MRI machines to see what parts of their brain lit up when, for example they were asked to solve a physics problem vs. understanding a social situation.

Competing modes of reasoning
It turns out we have two distinct neural pathways, an analytical mode and an empathetic mode that are activated in each senario.

The analytical mode, known as the task positive network, kicks in when we need to solve the task at hand, auch as getting directions to that restaurant.

The empathetic mode, or default mode network, helps us understand other people’s emotions and identify with their feelings, like, ‘Why did you scowl when I took that wrong turn?’  

According to Jack, they’re mutually exclusive. When one is activated, the other shuts down.

“Evolution took care to make sure they didn’t get in the way of each other.”

And Jack says this may account for the rivalry between science and religion; our brains are using two different types of reasoning. And, he says, modern culture has a prefered perspective.

“Our model of truth is a scientific model of truth, and so we’ve come to dismiss anything else as mystical and foolish,” says Jack.

Jack suggests we instead remember philosopher Immanuel Kant’s quote, and “deny knowledge to make room for faith.”

The case for empathy
Case Western psychology professor Julie Exline agrees.

“There needs to be this relational openness along with this thoughtful, analytical reasoning,” she says.

Exline says, empathy -- being open to another person’s point of view --provides emotional understanding when analytical tools fall short.

“So there’s an openness that’s implied in it to something else that might be out there that’s more than just our current set of resources that you have access to in your own mind.”

Exline says, by engaging the empathetic neural network, we break through the limits of strictly rational reasoning.

“I think it can also open up people to the idea of a greater reality that’s maybe beyond what we can understand because there’s that fundamental aspect of listening and appreciating things about the other.”

Empathy is more like a journey of relating my experience to your experience, says Tony Jack, "and it's one where you never get the final definitive answer.”

Credit JEFF ST.CLAIR / WKSU

Embracing the unknowable
He says it’s OK that our brains are hardwired to hold competing, and often irreconcilable views of what’s happening around us.

And, he says, there’s a word for it: “Incommensurability, a way of thinking and speaking that just can’t ever be fully translated into another way of thinking.”

Science and spiritual inquiry, says Jack, are like breathing in, and breathing out. “You can’t do both at the same time, but you need both to stay healthy and well.”

In other words, we can hold some truths to be self-evident without published data.

Julie Exline’s research backs that up.  She studies how people deal with spiritual struggles, and has found that when we avoid tackling the big, existential questions, our mental health suffers.

“And what we find is that in relation to these spiritual struggles, as with a lot of other troubling things in their lives, that to the extent that people make use of this avoidance, it makes it more difficult to cope.”

Stepping beyond the limits of science
All of us, she says, at some point confront the idea that there’s something fundamentally beyond us that we may never be able to understand.

“And that sense of smallness can either bring a sense of mystery and hope, or it could bring a sense of inferiority, meaninglessness humiliation.”  

And Exline says our analytical mind sometimes comes up short of answers.

“If the goal in the approach to science is to nail everything down with a mechanistic ultimate aim of prediction and control, then we’re really missing the boat.”

So, she says, it’s healthy to embrace the uncertainty, even if it scares us.

“We don’t want to close ourselves off to the mystery.”

The irony is, that it’s science telling us to be more spiritual.