Confession of a Catholic Neuroscientist

Above: “Calling of Peter and Andrew” by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255-1319). [See]

As a Catholic neuroscientist, I often find myself defending the compatibility of science and religion --- more often than I would like.  Notwithstanding the importance of this work, and my deep gratitude to all whose ministry it is, it offers only a narrow window into the life of a Catholic scientist.  To stall the discourse at the compatibility of science and religion is to obscure the beauty of a vocation to science, for indeed, scientific work is not merely congruent with Christian belief but a privileged training ground for a life of faith in Jesus Christ.

To understand how this could be, we must go to the origin of the work of every scientist: reason.  Although reason does not belong exclusively to the scientist, it does belong more transparently and perhaps more essentially to her vocation, for the scientist is responsible for using her reason to discover the truth of God’s creation.  But what is reason?  Modernity has impoverished our understanding of reason, reducing it to a process of logical steps taken toward a demonstrable result.  This process is not reason itself, but only an instrument of reason.  In its fulness, reason is the relationship between the human person and reality, the insatiable need of the “I” to understand the truth of things.  Only by recovering this richer conception of reason can the vocation of a Catholic scientist emerge in its totality and show itself to be an effective instrument of salvation.

Toward this end, we have an incomparable ally in the thought of Luigi Giussani, who articulated an expansive view of reason in his work The Religious Sense.1 Namely, Giussani understood reason to consist of three aspects: (1) realism toward the object, (2) a reasonable subject, and (3) an attitude of morality.  Guided by this three-part account of reason, it is possible to unearth the salvific beauty of a vocation to science.  In other words, Giussani allows us to see that the work of scientific research prepares the human soul for faith in God.

1.  Realism toward the object

The first aspect of reason is realism toward the object. Giussani defines realism as “the entire, passionate, insistent ability to observe the real event,” or the fact of inquiry.  This ability necessarily begins in a posture of openness.  In other words, one who possesses realism is ready to set aside any ideas she may have already in mind in order to be wholly open to the object before her.  From this posture, the person will realize at once that her ability to know the object depends on her choice of an appropriate method of knowing.  For instance, the procedure by which one answers a mathematics question differs from that by which one resolves an ethical dilemma, and neither method is suitable for one who must answer a marriage proposal.  Reason operates according to a method particular to the object in question, and realism demands that “this method must not be imagined, thought of, or organized and created by the subject: it must be imposed by the object.”

Every scientist constantly comes up against the need for realism.  As a banal example, we may imagine that a researcher desires to understand the role of cortical interneurons in brain function.  While she may already have some ideas in mind, the only way for her to discover the truth is to set them aside and observe the brain --- and not by sitting in an armchair and gazing at a model of the skull, but through taking images and performing manipulations of the neurons themselves.  Scientific inquiry trains every investigator to accept that the object of inquiry determines the method by which it is known.

Those scientists who study the human nervous system receive a deeper education in realism, for their subject matter more readily approaches truths that cannot be known through reductionist methods.  For instance, the role of the mesolimbic dopamine pathway in addiction raises questions about the existence and nature of human freedom.  But any scientist with the slightest degree of humility and self-awareness will know that an investigation into neural firing cannot resolve such questions on its own.  For the human person is not merely a collection of atoms organized in a pattern but a thoroughgoing continuity of matter and spirit.  While material approaches can identify the neural substrates of human experience, higher levels of reality require higher methods; in this case, the question of human freedom belongs to philosophy and theology.  A realistic neuroscientist, taught by her scientific work that the object determines the method, will respect distinctions between disciplines as she searches for answers to her inexhaustible questions.

But an education in realism serves a far more important purpose than scholarly integrity: the salvation of the scientist’s soul.  To understand this claim, let us remember that we have defined reason as the relationship between the human person and all of reality. Therefore, reason not only allows knowledge of intellectual truths, but the discovery of Truth itself.  If that is the case, then the path to faith in God must begin with a posture of realism.  And so it is, for faith is born in openness to the mystery; the human person must set aside her images and preconceptions in order to receive Him (cf. 1 Kings 19:11-13, Luke 1:26-38).  God continually invites the human soul to encounter Him through the Incarnation, through Christ’s coming into the world 2,000 years ago and the continual event of His coming again each day.  The presence of God is thus an “object” of human reason. And how can one come to know such an object?  What method does Christ impose?  Giussani writes that religious experience occurs within the human heart, understood in the Biblical sense as the seat of the intellect and will rather than merely the center of emotions.  In other words, God’s invitation has to do with “my “I” as a person,” and for this reason, “it is on myself that I must reflect; I must inquire into myself, engage in an existential inquiry” in order to answer it.  The method of faith is not theological debate or abstract analysis, but inquiry into oneself and one’s life.  This is the method that Christ used during his time on earth (See Matthew 14:22-32, Luke 19:1-9, John 4:5-42, 9:1-38) and continues to use today.  One who has received an education in realism, such as a scientist, is better prepared to humbly accept the method through which God desires to reveal Himself and better able to observe His coming into her life.

Realism, however, does not merely consist in observation.  The gathering of evidence is certainly a condition for the search for truth in both science and faith; as Alexis Carrel succinctly declared in Reflections on Life, “few observations and much discussion are conducive to error: much observation and little discussion to truth.”  But the mere accumulation of data does not generate certainty.  Let us turn to an example from neuroscience: while a scientist may observe that the degeneration of dopaminergic neurons in the substantia nigra is regularly accompanied by the motor impairments of Parkinson’s disease, these facts do not automatically generate the conviction that neural degeneration causes the disease.  So, too, in the domain of faith: while a soul may experience a new joy and a deeper freedom upon adopting a Christian way of life, these facts alone do not generate faith in the divinity of Jesus Christ.  In both cases, the person must interpret the contextual meaning, the plausibility, and the importance of her observations. In a word, realism demands the use of her judgment, her capacity to form a conclusion about the meaning of things beyond mere observation of their existence.

Science is a training ground for human judgment.  In the course of her investigation, the scientist must constantly evaluate the data that she collects in her laboratory in light of her prior knowledge and her working hypotheses.  If she finds the evidence for a theory to be consistent and compelling, she will judge that it reveals the truth.  Thus, a scientist learns the habit of interpreting facts and observations, the habit of exercising her judgment.  This prepares her soul for the journey of faith, for one can only reach certainty about God’s existence and his love through a work of personal judgment.  Every Christian must judge the observations he makes in the “laboratory” of daily life according to the “hypothesis” of the Gospel, evaluating whether or not a life of discipleship to Jesus Christ brings about the hundredfold that He promised (Matthew 19:29).  A well-formed capacity for judgment --- like that honed through a lifetime of scientific inquiry --- enables the human person to discover the truth of what Giussani calls “the fundamental question for the human person… ever since the message that God became man entered the world, the greatest question of life: Christ, yes or no?”

2. The reasonable subject

Realism, which we have defined as the ability to observe an event, demands an openness to the object of inquiry and the method that it imposes. But as we have noted, observation is not enough to reach knowledge: the person must form a judgment about what she observes. How can one ensure that this judgment is correct?

This question leads us to the second aspect of Giussani’s account of reason.  Namely, he claims that if a person is to reach certainty of the truth, she must be reasonable.  Lest my reader turn aside out of frustration with Giussani’s redundant terminology, allow me to supply his definition: “reasonableness means having adequate motives in every step we take toward the object of our knowledge.” This is not to say that every step must be logical or demonstrable; while logic and empirical analysis are great tools of reason, they do not exhaust the human person’s methods of knowing.  To understand this, it is enough to consider the certainty a child has that his mother loves him.  The child’s certainty rests on a form of moral intuition or existential conviction rather than empirical proof, but would anyone claim his certainty is unreasonable?  Likewise, the reasonable subject makes use of all of reason’s tools in her search for the truth.  She does not set aside or ignore anything, but considers the whole of reality as she takes one step at a time toward certainty.

Neuroscience offers abundant opportunities to practice reasonableness.  Take, for instance, the process of designing an fMRI experiment to measure brain activity.  Each part of experimental design, from formulating research questions to drawing theoretical conclusions from the findings, requires innumerable decisions; even the comparably straightforward procedural steps of pre-processing neuroimaging data require that the researcher specify a number of parameters.  Indeed, the range of possible analyses is so great that researchers have begun calling it “the garden of forking paths” 2 The choice of the right path is essential, for any arbitrary or biased decision distances the results of the analysis from the true activity of the brain.  Thus, every neuroscientist is acutely aware of the need for reasonableness, the need for adequate reasons for each step she takes toward certainty of the truth.

Such an education in reasonableness prepares the soul for the journey of faith --- for faith, too, demands reasonableness.  Though it is obedience to what another affirms, faith is far from unthinking submission.  Rather, every step of assent to belief in God-made-man, from the first acknowledgement of the existence of the transcendent to the total surrender to everything Christ taught, requires adequate reasons.  Again, this is not to say that logic and demonstration constitute the path to faith.  Rather, faith begins in existential inquiry, in a search for the truth of Christ’s claims in oneself and one’s life.  Setting nothing aside but considering all of reality, the Christian tests His claims against her objective experiences of the Sacraments, the Scriptures, moments of goodness and beauty, and the companionship of the Church.  A reasonable faith is born when, with all these reasons in mind, the human person makes a personal judgment to adhere to what Christ affirms.  Thus, a scientist’s education in reasonableness gives her a roadmap toward attaining faith in God.

One may object that there is an essential difference between “adequate reasons” for certainty in the life of faith and those that pertain to science.  It is commonly supposed that statistically significant empirical evidence is the sole path to scientific truth, and indeed, scientists often proceed according to logical and demonstrable steps.  But even a cursory examination of the history of science --- or of the life of an individual scientist --- soon reveals that scientific inquiry is inseparable from human intuition and imagination.  Indeed, some of the greatest scientific discoveries of history (such as Einstein’s theory of relativity) have come about through flashes of insight and preceded empirical evidence of their truth by decades or even centuries.  But modernity presupposes a positivist conception of truth and divorces scientific inquiry from its protagonist, the inquiring subject, in the name of securing its ‘objectivity.’  Separated from the reasonable subject, science is set adrift with no anchor in reality.  The consequences are severe. For without the reasonable subject, the only remaining criterion for adjudicating the truth of a claim is the statistical “p value” of its attendant empirical evidence, and in a fallen world marred by self-interest the exploitation of statistics is bound to follow.  In fact, neuroscience --- among other disciplines --= is traversing a “crisis of replicability” that has shaken researchers and the general public alike.  The field is in need of the reasonable subject, in need of scientists who consider the whole of reality as they take one step at a time toward certainty.

The absurdity of a positivist approach to science reveals a more hopeful truth: that science is inseparable from the reasonable subject.  For a historical example, we may turn to the 17th-century scientist Niels Stensen (also known by the Latinized form of his name, Nicolas Steno), who was not only the founder of modern geology but an early pioneer of neuroscience.  Frustrated by Descartes’ misguided ideas about the brain, which he condemned as mere speculation, Stensen decided to write a dissertation on neuroanatomy, which he began by pronouncing the field’s general ignorance about this “most beautiful masterpiece of nature.”  Animated by his awe at the beauty of the brain, Stensen set about producing precise illustrations of the structure of the central nervous system.  By uniting his observations with insights from other disciplines, including embryology and pathology, Stensen was able to discover a number of key features of the brain, such as its functional continuity with the spinal cord.  Stensen is a model of reasonableness, for he allowed every factor of reality to guide his progress toward truth.  He questioned prevailing assumptions, but also acknowledged his own ignorance; he paid minute attention to the details of the object, but only because he was captivated by the beauty of the whole; he humbly accepted the tradition that preceded him, but also built on it. It is no accident that Stensen’s well-formed reason also guided him to enter the Catholic Church, in which he was eventually made a bishop and is now venerated as a blessed.

The example of Stensen’s life highlights another way in which the work of science prepares a soul for the life of faith.  Namely, it teaches the scientist that reliance on tradition enhances, rather than inhibits, human freedom and reason.  No neuroscientist can personally verify every aspect of the structure and function of the nervous system.  If she is to advance in knowledge at all, she must have faith in the work of those who have gone before her and learn from their insights, for without trust in tradition, the scientist could neither generate appropriate hypotheses nor learn the methods to test them.  Importantly, adherence to a tradition does not imply blind or uncritical adherence to the ideas of others, but an acceptance of one’s personal limitations and a glad dependence on a trustworthy authority.  Thus, scientific work cultivates humble receptivity, the attitude of a child, an attitude that prepares the soul to accept of the truth of Revelation and the authority of the Church as God’s continued presence on earth.  And indeed, Our Savior tells us that only the childlike can enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

3. The attitude of morality

In our discussion of the second aspect of reason, we have concluded that a reasonable subject depends on others, which demands that she trust them.  As soon as we speak of “trust,” however, we have introduced something new into our account of reasoning: morality.  According to Giussani, the third and final aspect of reason is an attitude of morality.

In order to understand how the act of knowing can be moral, let us turn to another formulation he offers: morality is the ability to “love the truth of an object more than [one’s] attachment to the opinions [one has] already formed about it.” For while a certain degree of loyalty to one’s existing opinions is reasonable, an inordinate loyalty --- or attachment --- dulls the mind and clouds the heart.  Only morality, a love of truth, liberates reason from ideological adherence to its preconceptions.

The history of the science is rife with examples of the importance of the attitude of morality. Scientific authorities have rejected many a new discovery, particularly those that were most revolutionary, out of an attachment to their own ideas and status.  Here, we may recall the life of Louis Pasteur, the 19th century scientist and father of microbiology.  The medical establishment ridiculed his proposal that food spoiled because of microbes that travelled through the air, for this idea contradicted beliefs that had been common since Aristotle.  But Pasteur persevered, eventually setting the foundation for modern medicine by proving the germ theory of disease. Pasteur succeeded because of his attitude of morality: he wanted to find an answer to his questions more than he desired the advancement of his own career and loved the truth more than his existing opinions.  This tension between ideology and morality lies at the heart of the scientific project.  Each new discovery offers scientists the opportunity to freely choose the sacrifice of loving the truth more than their existing attachments.

Scientists who assent to this education are prepared for the Christian life, for faith is born through an attitude of morality.  Faith is nothing other than adherence to Truth itself and the one whom He has sent; human reason reaches faith when it loves God more than its own ideas and preconceptions.  In the Gospels, Christ calls this attitude “poverty of spirit” (Matthew 5:3).  Only a soul who is poor, who receives His message with open arms because it has nothing to defend, will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.  But such poverty of spirit comes at the price of detachment from all the good that the world can offer.  As Christ himself proclaimed: “Anyone who comes to me without hating father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, yes and his own life too, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Just as love of scientific truth demands sacrifice, love of Christ leads to the Cross.

It is important to note, here, a possible distortion of the third aspect of reason.  Namely, reason does not require the elimination of everything --- every impression and emotion --- that lies between the “subject” of knowing (the knower) and the “object” of knowing (the known).  Such an endeavor would in fact be impossible, for knowledge cannot arise without the judgment of a subject in time and space.  As Michael Polanyi concisely stated, “any attempt rigorously to eliminate our human perspective from our picture of the world must lead to absurdity.”  Even scientific accounts of the act of reasoning consistently implicate the subjectivity of the one who reasons.  For instance, experimental studies conducted by neurologist Antonio Damasio3 reveal that as an individual makes a decision, her brain evaluates the emotional valence of contingencies, thereby helping her assess the favorability of each outcome.  To accept the place of impressions and emotions in knowing does not reduce rationality to sentimentality or enslave reason to bias. Rather, it points to the need for the discipline and ordering of these emotions --- in other words, the need for morality.

When properly ordered to love of truth, subjective impressions are incomparably helpful tools of reason.  One emotion in particular lies close to the heart of the act of knowing: awe.  The human person is moved to inquire after truth when something within reality arouses her heart and mind.  The vocation of many a neuroscientist was born in this way; the cognitive scientist may study child development because she was struck by the delightful enigma of her own infant’s behavior, while the neurobiologist may investigate the function of astroglia because he was taken by their delicate beauty.  Perhaps most famous is the example of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, a founder of the field of neuroscience.  An artist at heart, Cajal was captivated by the intricate structure of neurons and produced painstaking illustrations of their connections --- a practice that let him to discover the foundational doctrine of synaptic communication long before the invention of electron microscopy.  Awe directs reason to the truth and animates its search. The work of science teaches researchers to follow this awe, rather than censoring it.

So, too, does awe animate reason in the realm of faith.  Struck by the beauty of creation, the human heart instinctively seeks to know its Creator.  Or moved by the worth and dignity of the human person, the heart cries out, “Lord, what is man that You care for him, mortal man, that You keep him in mind?” (Psalm 8).  The supreme example of this dynamic is the life of Christ Himself, whose presence inspired such awe that his first disciples left everything at once to follow him, knowing that He was the answer to their deepest desires (John 1:35-50).  Throughout history and to this day, that same form of encounter leads Christians to adhere to Him, even to the point of giving their lives for Him in martyrdom.  In order to embark on this journey of discipleship, one must be attuned to the signs of His presence, and available to follow Him. I n other words, the Christian must learn to love the truth more than his existing attachments.

Under the light of a more expansive account of reason, then, the work of scientists emerges as a privileged training ground for the life of faith.  Scientific inquiry teaches us to approach all of life with realism, gathering observations and forming judgments according to the specific methods that our objects of inquiry dictate.  It trains us to be reasonable, to take one step at a time toward certainty of the truth while keeping the whole of reality in mind.  And it forms an attitude of morality within us, an ability to love the truth even when it comes at a cost.  Each of these three aspects of reason prepares us for faith in God, who is Truth itself.  Through realism, we will know that we must conduct an existential inquiry to find Him, and that we must interpret the facts of our lives to know that He is present.  Our reasonableness will show us the path to certainty in a God who is Mystery, and the need to adhere to Him with the simplicity of a child.   And finally, our attitude of morality will help us follow the signs of His presence, and move beyond our comfort into a life of sacrificial love.

Of course, a vocation to science does not automatically lead scientists to a life of faith.  Rather, its power to do so depends on human freedom.  Just as scientists must choose to perform the arduous work of inquiry in the laboratory, so must we accept the work of existential inquiry in our own lives, and while our reason may be ready to undertake this inquiry, we can choose to turn aside. This is the drama of life: the fact of the human person’s responsibility before his or her own destiny.  But the dizzying reality of human freedom is not the end of the story, for that very freedom is given by One who loved each of us into being and gives us the grace to know and love Him in return.  Each human person may be responsible for discovering his or her ultimate destiny in God, but God takes the initiative to lead him or her to that destiny. In the end, only a “yes” to His initiative can bring out the fullness of the beauty of a vocation to science – and bring the scientist himself or herself to salvation.

[Sofia Carozza is a Marshall Scholar at the University of Cambridge. She is doing research on the neurobiological pathways through which early adversity affects the developing brain, and seeking to identify sources of resilience.  She blogs at Synapses of the Soul, is translating an Italian biography of St. Benedict into English, and is writing a book on pregnancy and infant development for Catholic mothers.]


1.. The Religious Sense, Luigi Giussani, tr. John Zucchi (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997).


3.. Damasio, A. R. (1994). Descartes' error: emotion, reason, and the human brain (New York: G.P. Putnam).