Virtually all religious believers think the mind cannot be reduced to the
physical mechanics of the brain. Of course, many believe the mind is what communicates with God. Would you agree that the mind-brain question is one of the key issues in the “science and religion” debate?
PINKER: I think so. It’s a very deep intuition that people are more than their bodies and their brains, that when someone dies, their consciousness doesn’t go out of existence, that some part of us can be up and about in the world while our body stays in one place, that we can’t just be a bunch of molecules in motion. It’s one that naturally taps into religious beliefs. And the challenge to that deep-seated belief from neuroscience, evolutionary biology and cognitive science has put religion and science on the public stage. I think it’s one of the reasons you have a renewed assault on religious beliefs from people like Dawkins and Daniel Dennett.
The neuroscientific worldview — the idea that the mind is what the brain does — has kicked away one of the intuitive supports of religion. So even if you accepted all of the previous scientific challenges to religion — the earth revolving around the sun, animals evolving and so on — the immaterial soul was always one last thing that you could keep as being in the province of religion. With the advance of neuroscience, that idea has been challenged.
This question has always been fascinating to me, partly because I know a lot of progressive people who see the hypocrisy of religion, and the brilliance of scientific thinking, and yet have such a hard time with the idea that everything you think and feel can be reduced down to material mechanisms in the brain. Some are even offended by the notion that feelings such as love don’t have some sort of extra-physical existence.
To me, complexity does not mean that we need to step out of the realm of the physical to attempt to explain something. The brain is truly a remarkable organ, and every day we learn more and more how remarkable it is. People have always turned to religion, to spirituality, to explain what they could not understand - and the workings of the brain are perhaps the last refuge for these people. It’s the last pillar of religious belief to fall.