“Is religion a science?” This may seem an odd question with which to start, but this is the very first question Aquinas asks in his monumental Summa Theologica. “Among the philosophical sciences one is speculative the other practical [natural philosophy], nevertheless sacred doctrine [Roman Catholicism] includes both; as God, by one and the same science, knows both Himself and His works.” For Aquinas, not only is theology both a speculative and natural philosophy but it is also superior to both, in as much as it is guided by divine knowledge, which cannot be misled, and has as its end ultimate bliss, towards which all other sciences strive too.

Admittedly, this was written in the 13th century and what we translate as “science” (scientia) is often synonymous with “knowledge”, but it is nevertheless recognisable that science is defined as a natural philosophy guided by our rational faculty, in contrast to “wisdom” (sapientia), which alleges knowledge of the divine through the light of faith. In the absence of personal wisdom, belief in sacred doctrines (which cannot err) is sufficient to ensure eternal bliss. To Christians who agree with Aquinas a brand of natural theology is thus always superior to mere natural philosophy, even if at times they appear to be the same.

But what if we turn the question around:”Is science a religion?” or “Is science a belief?” The philosophy of science makes no claims to knowledge about the supernatural or metaphysical and, by not so doing, is left with an enterprise that although hugely successful is also permanently on probation. The only thing scientists can agree upon is the empirical nature of science, but the steps from observations to theory are not without philosophical problems. Thomas Kuhn thinks that scientific paradigms are essentially pictures of the world that are consistent with observations and logically coherent. But such pictures are necessarily always incomplete – at least until such time as we know everything – and our minds seem to struggle to accept this; it seems like there is an aesthetic compulsion to create harmonious images, even if that means filling in the spaces with metaphysical constructs. If both the sciences and religions are mental constructs are they both being sustained by human beliefs? Moving away from speculative into natural philosophy, what do we actually mean by having a belief?

Two ground-breaking papers from researchers at UCLA start to shed some light on the nature of belief: “The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief” and “Functional Neuroimaging of Belief, Disbelief and Uncertainty”. The “fMRI of Belief” concentrates on the initial results whereas the “Neural Correlates” paper looks more deeply at the implications for religious beliefs.

The fMRIs of Belief

The researchers “used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the brains of 14 adults while they judged written statements to be “true” (belief), “false” (disbelief), or “undecidable” (uncertainty). To characterize belief, disbelief, and uncertainty in a content-independent manner, we included statements from a wide range of categories: autobiographical, mathematical, geographical, religious, ethical, semantic, and factual.” The full details can be read at the “fMRI of Belief” paper.

There was a significant difference in the response speed for statements that were true compared to those that were false or undecidable. There was no significant difference between the reaction times of these latter two categories. Thus, “Several psychological studies appear to support Spinoza's conjecture that the mere comprehension of a statement entails the tacit acceptance of its being true, whereas disbelief requires a subsequent process of rejection. Understanding a proposition may be analogous to perceiving an object in physical space: We seem to accept appearances as reality until they prove otherwise. Our behavioral data support this hypothesis, insofar as subjects judged statements to be “true” more quickly than they judged them to be “false” or “undecidable”.”

Looking at the brain scans, the images showed a distinct increase in activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) for statements of belief versus disbelief. This VMPFC appears to be involved in reasoning tasks that have a high emotional salience, including modulating behaviour in response to changing rewards, selecting goal-based actions and, it seems, in on-going reality monitoring. Thus if our reality is the sum of true propositions then each manifestation of such propositions gets a positive emotional boost, as if to verify that it still holds true. Damage to the VMPFC has been associated with an inability to feel any moral consequences to planned actions as well as to confabulations, where reality-checking has seriously broken down. What was surprising was that this activity in the VMPFC was independent of the content of the propositions: mathematical propositions that were true showed the same signal as religious propositions that were deemed true by believers, as well as irreligious propositions deemed true by disbelievers. What we seem to be witnessing is part of the brain's truth checking system, and that system is powered by emotions.

In contrast, when the researchers analysed those false statements compared to either true or undecidable ones they found increased activity in the anterior insula (on both sides) and the left frontal operculum. Taken together, these regions are associated with judgements about taste, smell and pain. Statements that are untrue - basically lies - are experienced as unpleasant or downright disgusting. Yet again, what we think of as rational decisions are mediated by emotional responses. Good and bad are thereby associated with pleasure and pain. The lessons of the real world are replicated by the brain so that it simulates such real world responses when reacting to purely mental constructs, even to statements that appear quite abstract and unemotional. What is worrying to a rationalist is that the same emotional weight is given to supernatural statements as to natural statements.

Lastly, a quick look at the fMRI scans for those propositions that were undecidable compared to those that were either true or false. These showed a marked increase in activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and a decreased signal in the caudate. The ACC is thought to be involved in processes of error detection and behavioural responses to cognitive conflicts. It is therefore not surprising that it should also be involved in questions of undecidability, some of which may be the unresolved conflict between truth and falsehood.

Overall, what the research has uncovered, is that the brain seems to treat propositions and thoughts about propositions in very similar ways to other sensory inputs. Decisions taken about the truth of statements seem mediated by emotional responses, with truth and falsehood eliciting respective feelings of pleasure and pain. This appears to be independent of the content of the statements and applies equally to natural and supernatural claims. This is an important step forward in understanding the neurology of belief. It also suggests that our lexical distinction between knowledge and belief may be much finer than we expected. To the believer, the belief is knowledge, and the brain reinforces this through its pleasure circuits. The mutual incomprehension between religious believers and non-believers starts to make sense. But it also means that an individual's supposed rational internal dialogue is also subject to the same processes. A person's mental map of the universe may thus be deeply flawed and yet trying to change it is a painful process that few are willing to undergo – in some ways we are all addicted to our prejudices.

It is worth taking a short detour here into Eastern religions. Sam Harris has been vociferously criticised by both theists and atheists for his support of Eastern esoteric practices and especially Dzogchen, which he merely hints at in the last chapter of “The End of Faith”. One aspect of Buddhist, and Dzogchen, philosophy relevant here is that the mind is considered a sixth organ, equivalent to the other five sensory organs. The mind here is taken to be those thoughts and images that are made conscious – our internal chatter. This isn't the place to discuss this in depth but the perceiver is our base awareness and our experiences are everything that is made conscious to our awareness. We have no access to the unconscious processes that create conscious thoughts. By this token such thoughts are as external as any other sensory input. The research findings here suggest that the brain responds to thoughts using the same mechanisms as if it was responding to inputs from the other senses. Conscious thoughts are equivalent to sensory inputs, somewhat verifying Buddhist philosophy of mind.

Neural Correlates

The second paper, “Neural Correlates”, looks more closely at the religious statements in the experiment and at the brain scans of religious and non-religious subjects. When comparing religious statements with non-religious ones, across all the research subjects, we again find increased activity in those areas associated with either pleasure or pain. The data as presented in the paper does not distinguish between the theist and atheist camps so we are left to assume that the pleasure and pain responses were correlated with the individual's beliefs. Here, the research cites a paper in which the ACC is negatively correlated with strong religious beliefs thereby suggesting that a religious faith paints the world in black and white and hence reduces conflicts between shades of grey. It may also be that the “God of the gaps” is a psychological mechanism to avoid mental conflicts.

When comparing the brain activity when a subject was confronted with non-religious statements compared with religious ones we find a distinct increase in many areas of the left hemisphere - including the hippocampus - that are involved in memory and language retrieval. Not a great surprise here, but interesting finding is that the believers and non-believers showed increase brain activity in exactly the same areas when responding to negative, or blasphemous, statements about Christianity. Thus although the Christians responded negatively to such statements, and the non-believers positively, the same areas were involved. It is not clear if this is purely down to the non-believers being largely former Christians.

Thoughts on Spinoza's Conjecture

The 17th century philosopher, Benedict Spinoza, conjectured that the mere comprehension of a statement was tantamount to a tacit acceptance of it being true, whereas disbelief requires a further process of rejection. On reflection, this would seem to make sense in terms of pure processing speed. Somehow, a false statement needs retesting and opening up to a wider search to verify its falseness. This is most obvious in mathematical statements; “62 is perfectly divisible by 9” takes longer to process than “62 is perfectly divisible by 2.” The number of values of x for which the proposition “62 is perfectly divisible by x” is true is very small compared to those for which it is false. Whether the brain actually attempts a global search in the hope of finding each statement as true may well be worth further research.

However, the current research shows that it isn't just a matter of processing power but also an emotional reaction to questions of truth and falsehood. Truth is beautiful, whereas falsehood is painful. This negative emotional reaction to false propositions may be the cue for a further search to see if one's original judgement is wrong – there seems to be an emotional prize in this extra mental effort in that discovering a new truth brings with it a sense of satisfaction and joy. However, what we seem to be left with is a form of mental hedonism. Is that the end of the trail?

Belief and Faith

This research implies that the truth of a statement is intimately linked to our emotional reaction to it.  That 'Aha!' sensation, when we understand something new for the first time, is part of our pleasure circuits. Our reaction appears to be independent of the subject matter of the proposition; whether scientific, religious, moral, political, it doesn't matter, our reactions purely depend on a recognition of what we think is true. But what is the process by which we acquire new truths? That 'Aha!' sensation happens just the once when something new has been discovered. Repeating the same statement is a lesser emotional experience. I think that research into these new revelations will be difficult as they are so transient and probably difficult to manufacture, but worth thinking about the possibility.

If discovering new truths for the first time is a brief and transient experience, our general state of belief has the opposite difficulty in being a permanent background state. The religious believer has faith all the time, whether he or she is expressing it or not. I think that this too is an emotional background state and, again, I'm not sure how this can be measured but worth looking at by researchers in the field. A start can be made by looking at those people who have experienced a change of state, whether from believer to non-believer or in the other direction.

The personal testimonies I have read have largely been from former believers who turned atheist, or at least non-theist. Their stories are revealing in that they follow a very similar pattern. They felt a huge sense of relief, like a weight had been taken off their hearts, a sense of new-found mental freedom and clarity, the fog had lifted, but they also felt betrayed by their religion, an emotional loss in spite of the freedom, a sense of having wasted one's time and a sense of futility at all those rituals and gestures. What struck me was that there is another state of mind that feels just like this when lost: love. Being in love – in love with another human being – has all the same emotions as being “in belief”, and falling out of love also has the same profile as “falling out of religion”. I think it is no accident that Christianity focusses so much on love and, in the extreme, there are those who sincerely commit their lives to loving Jesus or God – the brides of Christ really are emotionally married. So here is another area that I would like to see studied: is belief the same as love? The above research points to a correlation between truth and emotional well-being so why should this not also be the case in the background state of individuals. This also raises the question as to which is the default state: religious belief or disbelief? Is our default state to be in love or out of love? Does a state of “scientific belief” exist at all?

A Thought Experiment

Here is a thought experiment I designed (if it already exists elsewhere in the literature please let me know). Can a person hold two religious faiths simultaneously? Can, for example, a devout Christian also be at the same time a devout Hindu? You can replace those two religions with any other two you may choose and do the same thought experiment. Syncretistic beliefs count as new faiths so that the intersections of all sets of religious faiths is empty. This is not the same as the intersection of propositions of beliefs as there are obviously some beliefs that overlap. This experiment is not about the statements people make about their faith but their state of mind and emotional state associated with their faith. My proposition is that it is not possible to be a devout believer in two different religious systems.

Now let's add science into the mix. Many religious apologists like to state that science is just another belief system and that therefore their religious system is on a par with science. This means, to them, that religious claims to truth are equivalent to scientific claims to truth. If this is true then we would expect that if we added science into our religious mix above that it would also create a new set with no intersections with other religions. But this is obviously false. Can, for example, a devout Christian also be a scientist? Absolutely! There seems to me to be no emotional reason as to why religious individuals cannot also be scientists. To return to Aquinas, his sacred doctrine is both a religion and a science but the two remain distinct. But Aquinas does not have equal faith in both realms; in a conflict situation religious faith wins. It is unfortunate that we have one word – belief – that seems to describe two different states. These two research papers, however, suggest that both science and religion are mediated by beliefs that are reinforced by emotional circuitry. Essentially, both atheists and Christians believe they are right because it makes them feel good. But these experiments were conducted on discrete propositions – there is still a difference between their default states.

Inference Machine

So where do we go from here? The “Neural Correlates” paper discusses some problems with the current thinking on the human propensity to believe supernatural propositions and cites Pascal Boyer's thoughts on the matter. One theory is that religious people seem unable to expose their religious beliefs to the same kind of reality testing as they would other propositions about the world. But as this research shows, this has nothing to do with their intelligence or ability to be rational in other spheres.

“The failure of reality testing cannot explain the specific character of religious beliefs. According to Boyer, religious beliefs and concepts must arise from mental categories and cognitive propensities that predate religion — and these underlying structures might determine the stereotypical form that religious beliefs and practices take. These categories relate to things like intentional agents, animacy, social exchange, moral intuitions, natural hazards, and ways of understanding human misfortune. On Boyer’s account, people do not accept implausible religious doctrines because they have relaxed their standards of rationality; they relax their standards of rationality because certain doctrines fit their ‘‘inference machinery’’ in such a way as to seem credible. And what most religious propositions may lack in plausibility they make up for in the degree to which they are memorable, emotionally salient, and socially consequential; all of these properties are a product of our underlying cognitive architecture, and most of this architecture is not consciously accessible. Boyer argues, therefore, that explicit theologies and consciously held beliefs are not a reliable indicator of the contents or causes of a person’s religious outlook.”

Does this make these papers completely useless? The researchers counter that although they agree somewhat with Boyer, they also claim that beliefs are transmitted from one generation to the next largely by language and that people's reactions to propositions are therefore valid indications of their beliefs, even if their rationalisations of their beliefs may be mere excuses for processes that are deeply unconscious.

I also tend to agree with Boyer but wish to take the focus back to the individual's own mental landscape rather than adding layers of social influences. As the preliminary survey showed, social factors are very influential in how religious and non-religious people see themselves in society but not in how they experience their own psychology. Social rituals are important but they must ultimately serve a personal need, even if that need is completely hidden from the individual's own mental landscape.

I feel I have written enough here and so will hold fire on my own theory for the existence of religions – I will publish that next. I think the above research is an important step in the science of belief and hope they will soon publish more. It is vitally important that scientists ask the right questions, even if that means putting science itself in the firing line.