Did God ‘Create’ Science? Christianity and the uniqueness of the human brain
by William H. Church
I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. However, when He, the Spirit of truth has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come, He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you.
Let creation reveal its secrets by and by, by and by...
~Jackson Brown "Before the Deluge"
Science is a product of a highly functioning cerebral cortex. The scientific method requires that a question be asked, a prediction made, experimental data collected, and the question answered based on the data; if need be, another prediction is made in a refining of the question. But why is it that only humans have the capability to carry out this process? Why don’t we see antelopes running around in white lab coats? It is a direct result of the sophistication of the human brain.
The Uniqueness of the Human Brain
It can be said that the purpose of the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) is to allow an organism to sense and respond to external cues from the environment such that the chance for survival and reproduction is maximized. As a result, the faster an organism can process input from the environment, the quicker decisions and responses can be produced to allow for a successful interaction and response.
The anatomy of the human cortex is unique among other living creatures. Identified as being the centers of advanced cognitive processes, it allows man to render all manner of good—and evil—to our planet and to each other. Humans, as a result of the advanced cellular construction of the cerebral cortex, can ask the questions “Why?”, “What if…?”, “How?” and then devise a strategy of thought and action to answer those questions. No other creature on Earth has the capacity to ask these types of questions because no other creature on Earth has this kind of cortex. In a recent review paper, Michel A. Hofman of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience writes that, “Human brains, in particular, are distinguished not only by their size, but also by a greater proportion of their cortical surface allocated to higher-order association cortex rather than primary sensory and motor areas." (1)
This observation suggests that relatively more of the human cerebral cortex is dedicated to conceptual as opposed to perceptual and motor processing. In other words, we have more than enough brain cells to successfully sense and respond to our environmental challenges. The remaining cells allow us to ask questions of how and why we exist. A major percentage of our brain is dedicated to asking questions, contemplating the future and the past, imagining “what if…” scenarios – exactly the kind of activity required to do science.
Scott Kaufman, in his article “Gorillas Agree: Human Frontal Cortex is Nothing Special”, points out that scientific studies suggest that it is more than just size that produces the unique intelligence seen in humans. He writes, “A more likely explanation is that separate areas of our brain increased their communication with each other…the key to our uniquely human intelligence is not a single kind of mind, but mental flexibility.” (2)
Anyone who has ever broken a bone, or has had a child who has broken a bone, has seen first-hand the end result of the phrase “use it or lose it.” After several weeks of immobility in a hard plaster cast, the muscles of the arm (or leg) have noticeably shrunk in size and have gotten significantly weaker. The same goes for the neuronal circuits in your brain. If you don’t use your brain cells, you lose them. This physiologic phenomenon is particularly important during two very important stages of brain development during which the circuits in your brain are “pruned.”
The first pruning occurs between the ages of 2 and 6 when excess brain cells that are not used are eliminated through a process called “apoptosis” or “programmed cell death.” A form of cellular suicide, this pruning occurs again during adolescence between the ages of 14 and 22. This second pruning stage is thankfully responsible for the development of executive functioning – a fancy name for the ability to make good decisions – that begins to eliminate the “stupid decisions” that every parent will tell you is a hallmark of a teenager’s maturation process. The organization and efficient use of the pre-frontal cortex and other high-order thinking areas of the brain are most affected during this second pruning stage. Many of the world's greatest scientists were exposed to religious practices during this critical period of brain re-organization. Nicolaus Copernicus was 21 years old when he became a canon in Fromburg Cathedral. Gregor Mendel was in his mid-to-late 20's when he became an Augustinian monk. Charles Darwin was approximately 18 years old when he entered theology school.
Multiple peer-reviewed scientific papers have documented the changes that take place in the human brain as a result of religious practices and spirituality (see below). Had humans not engaged in contemplating the existence of a spiritual being or developed ritualistic practices (religion) thousands of years ago, would our brains have evolved enough to have codified science? Early humans’ ability to engage in abstract thinking allowed him to begin to ask the questions on which religions are founded: Where did I come from? How did I get here? What is the purpose of my existence? If humans had not begun to contemplate their own existence, would we have developed the advanced cognitive skills to begin to establish the foundational thinking required for experimental science?
So the question becomes, “Would the human cortex have evolved the penultimate neurological structure that allows us – exclusive of all other creatures on this planet – to engage in scientific enquiry if they did not consistently contemplate a higher, more intelligent being?” Current research into brain development suggest that the answer is a resounding: “NO”—well, let’s make that, “Maybe not.”
The Effects of Spiritual and Meditative Practice on the Brain
At the beginning of the 21st century, Andrew Newberg published a series of papers reporting on changes in brain metabolism and activity as a result of meditative behavior in both Buddhist Monks and Franciscan nuns. Since these landmark studies, the changes in brain structure as a result of meditation have been well documented. In 2005 Sara Lazar reported that individuals engaged in long-term meditation had thicker cerebral cortex than non-meditators. (3) More recently, it was reported that the anterior parts of the brain showed greater cortical thickness in experienced meditation practitioners when compared to control subjects. (4). In addition to anatomical changes, meditative practices alter the connections between different parts of the brain, thereby enhancing cognition, or “how we think.” From a study that measured the brain activity of eight Theravada Buddhist monks, Antonietta Manna concluded that “meditation-related neuroplasticity is crucially associated to a functional reorganization of activity patterns in prefrontal cortex.” (5)
So, as a result of meditative practices, your brain changes both in size and in how different parts communicate with each other. Individuals engaged in meditation and ritualistic practices found in virtually all religions could be expected to have larger, better-working brains. In his book, How God Changes Your Brain, Andrew Newberg summarizes this idea: “Overall, the evidence clearly demonstrates that most forms of contemplative meditation…will exercise your brain in ways that maintain and promote cognitive health and vitality.” (6) As a result, over time, individuals engaged in spiritual/religious activities develop more highly connected brains.
The Theological Training of Early Scientists
Priests and monks were among the first to investigate the origins of humanity and creation using natural philosophy and scientific reasoning. John Freely, in his book, Aladdin’s Lamp: How Greek Science Came to Europe through the Islamic World identifies the first three philosophers of nature, or physikoi (to differentiate them from theologians): Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes. (7) Between 700-500 BC, these individuals distinguished themselves from other philsophers of that period by pursuing explanations of the world based on natural causes, not supernatural ones.
Religious practices have been an important part of the lives of many influential scientists ever since. Pythagoras founded a society on Croton which was both a scientific school and a religious sect. Albertus Magnus was a Dominican bishop that re-introduced Aristotelian natural philosophy to Western Christians in the 13th century. Roger Bacon, author of multiple works on natural philosophy and an early advocate of the scientific method, was a practicing Franciscan monk. It was at this point in the 13th century that meditation began to become a major component of monastic daily life. In the late 17th and early 18th century, some of the greatest contributors to the infant field of science were men trained in theology.Roger Boscovich was a Croatian Jesuit mathematician who described the first plausible explanation of atomic theory in his work Theoria Philosophiae Naturalis. The Belgian priest Georges Lemitre, who also held a Ph.D. in physics, in the second half of the 1920’s rocked the world of cosmology by using Einstein’s general relativity theorems to show that the universe was either expanding or shrinking (yikes!!). The universe was no longer eternal and unchanging, but dynamic—as is human understanding of our place in it. Even today, the Vatican supports one of the oldest astronomical research institutions in the world, The Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo, Italy. In the U.S., the Vatican Observatory Research Group is engaged in cutting edge cosmological research at the Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona.
Powered by science, technological and theoretical advances have allowed us to begin to contemplate the vastness of space and hence, the expansiveness of God’s creation and power. Rene Descartes, a key player in the formulation of today’s theoretical and deductive tenets of science, wrote in The Principles of Philosophy concerning the idea that everything in nature can be reduced to the movement of matter that, “In the beginning, in his omnipotence, he created matter, along with its motion and rest, and now, merely by his regular concurrence, he preserves the same amount of motion and rest in the material universe as he put there in the beginning.” (8)
So is God using science to allow us to gradually comprehend the grandness of creation, as if slowly lifting a cloth that is covering, say, a painting by Rembrandt? If so, would we finally be able to conclude that religion and science are not antagonistic, but actually two complementary forms of human endeavor whose purpose is the same? Sure?... Maybe?... Probably not? I would like to think so... The glory is in the guessing!
1. Hofman MA, Evolution of the human brain: when bigger is better, Frontiers in Neuroanataomy 8 (2014) 1-12.
2. Kaufman, SB, Gorillas Agree: Human Frontal Cortex is Nothing Special, Scientific American May 16 blog entry (2013)
3. Lazar, SW, et al., Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness, Neurorep 16 (2005) 1893-1897.
4. Kang, D-H et al. The effect of meditation on brain structure: cortical thickness mapping and diffusion tensor imaging, SCAN 8 (2013) 27-33.
5. Manna A., et al. Neuroal correlates of focused attention and cognitive monitoring in meditation, Brain Res Bull 82 (2010) 46-56.
6. Newberg A, Waldman, MR, How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist, Ballantine Books Trade Paperbacks, New York (2010).
7. Freely J, Alladin's Lamp: How Greek Science Came to Europe Through the Islamic World, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Random House, New York (2009)
8. Descartes R, Principia philosophiae, 1644.
William H. (Bill) Church grew up in Virginia and received a B.S. in Chemistry at James Madison University and a Ph.D. in Analytical Chemistry at Emory University in Atlanta GA. It was here that he was able to form a happy marriage between his two favorite science interests: analytical instrumentation and neuroscience.
Bill initially came to Trinity College in Hartford CT in 1988 as a Visiting Professor of Chemistry and, following a short stint back down South, returned to Trinity in 1995 in a joint appointment in the Chemistry Department and the Neuroscience Program. He teaches courses as varied as “Chemistry: The Science for All Seasons”, “God and Science: Friends or Foes?”, and “Neurochemistry”.
Bill also serves as the Chair of the Health Professions Advising Committee and is the faculty liaison for both the Women's Soccer team and the Softball team.