It is not uncommon to find in the media grandiose headlines about neuroscience — among them the claim that brain researchers have proven free will is an illusion, that consciousness does not exist, or that the spiritual soul is unnecessary.
If those headlines paint an accurate picture of what neuroscientists actually do, how can a person be both a faithful Catholic and a neuroscientist?
Furthermore, if those findings are true, do they render obsolete Catholic philosophy, and the way the Church has understood morality — and reality — for two millennia?
Neuroscience — in short — poses big questions for Catholicism.
To explore them, The Pillar spoke with Sofia Carozza, a renowned Catholic neuroscientist (and Pillar reader, in a good way), who aims to help unpack the potential for conversation between the Catholic intellectual tradition and contemporary neuroscience.
Carozza studied theology and neuroscience at the University of Notre Dame and is completing a doctorate in cognition and brain sciences at the University of Cambridge in England.
She is set to start postdoctoral research at the Harvard Medical School, focusing on the impact of early adversity on the development of brain structure in children. Carozza is also the co-host of The Pilgrim Soul, a podcast exploring the presence of God in the Church, culture, and daily experience.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
It's very common to read in the media these days that neuroscience has made religious ideas or even philosophical ideas such as consciousness and free will obsolete.
Is there any truth to that notion?
No, there's no truth to that, and I think most neuroscientists would agree.
The idea that all neuroscientists are atheists and materialists is a bit of a trope. Some certainly are, just as there are atheists elsewhere, but neuroscience has very narrow disciplinary limits, and the concepts we borrow from other fields depend on those higher-level realities.
[For example], Freedom is not something that we can localize and quantify in the brain. Therefore, it's not something that we can disprove by looking at patterns of brain activity, and it’s the same with so many of these concepts that we care about.
There are things that cannot be reduced to the biological plane. So, while the study of these phenomena in neuroscience can be (and is) enriching, exciting, and beautiful, it cannot adjudicate the nature of those realities.
[Neuroscience] is something that adds a layer of explanation and characterization but is not a superior discipline by any stretch of the imagination.
You mention the different layers by which we can talk about human activity.
Let’s talk about what some philosophers of neuroscience call the “translation problem,” which is the idea that our common-use concepts about cognition are not easily translatable.
In sum, the translation problem can be understood this way:
You have a) a common use-concept, such as working memory or free will, etc., that is related to b) a scientific version of that concept which is more specific, and to study it, you c) get a subject to execute a specific task related to that concept (for example, memorizing images and then describing them afterward) that d) leads to a specific brain reaction tested through fMRI, EEG or any other tool.
But there’s no straightforward translation or interpretation between each of these steps. There might not be a fixed neuroscientific definition of terms like memory or consciousness, or the scientific definition might be quite different than the common definition.
Then you have issues on the task level — the question of whether a task accurately represents how our brain executed the concept; and then also issues at the brain-mapping level because the task is not necessarily limited to the brain region or neurochemical reaction you’re testing.
Of course, I’m just a philosopher [laughter] but when I see these issues, neuroscience looks a bit like alchemy to me — and neuroscientific findings seem like they’re not directly applicable to our everyday life.
I think there's a great deal of confusion within neuroscience about reductionism, specifically about the difference between methodological reductionism and ontological reductionism.
Methodological reductionism entails breaking something down into its component parts in order to try to understand how it works better. However, ontological reductionism would be reducing something to a lower level of explanation in order to say what it is, what its being and its substance is, thereby claiming that this reality is reduced merely to certain parts of the brain interacting with each other. This is what happens, for example, when you reduce freedom to brain chemistry.
The former is invaluable but the latter is false, as revealed by properties that only emerge on higher levels of reality.
Importantly, ontological reduction is a philosophical claim, not a scientific one. I think the reason that neuroscientists' results often get used in the media and in the popular imagination against realities such as freedom and consciousness is that we have a tendency to talk about our results as if there were no distinction between methodological and ontological reductionism.
So, we have a responsibility to better understand the presuppositions upon which our research is based.
But I think if you pressed neuroscientists, many of them wouldn't profess ontological reductionism.
Still, how can a faithful Catholic approach the tendencies toward an ontologically reductionist approach in neuroscience?
How can we discern what’s good and valuable in neuroscience, and what goes against the faith or is simply a caricature of neuroscience?
A lot of the popularization of neuroscience is junk. I wouldn't recommend that people go out and read popular books on the subject because they’re not neuroscience. Much of it is philosophy, and it's bad philosophy.
Instead, I recommend engaging with scientists who are trying to communicate their own results. I realize that this can be hard if one doesn't have a scientific background.
So I think we as a Church have a responsibility and an opportunity here to help the faithful come to understand what neuroscience actually says about the human person.
But I would say that, in general, the most important criterion that anyone can use is their own personal experience. I’m not recommending that we default to subjectivity, but rather that the unreasonableness of the ontological reductionism present in some neuroscience is immediately manifest if you look at your own life.
For example, you might read a neuroscience study about the neural correlates of love, and see the claim that love simply is the firing of certain neurons in your nucleus accumbens when you look at pictures of your partner.
Do you imagine that any man thinks about his wife in these terms? I just hope he’d burst out laughing after reading that.
This doesn’t mean that the neurons in your nucleus accumbens don’t fire when you look at your wife, but the idea that love is reducible to these reactions is immediately ridiculous to someone with a little self-awareness of their personal experience.
Thus, I think that learning to trust our experience to guide us in the interpretation of science can guard us against ideology. The spirals of ideology that I see unfolding usually happen when an individual follows a few reductive ideas to their logical extremes.
But should we reject those ideas as Catholics? Should we take them as trivial, or should we actually engage with the findings of contemporary neuroscientists?
I think engagement would be enriching for not just Catholic intellectuals, but for all people of the faith.
As embodied souls, as beings that are essentially a thoroughgoing continuity of mind and matter, our self-understanding is incomplete if it doesn't include an understanding of our physiology. And because our psychological life is manifest in the brain, the nervous system has a privileged place in this.
While there are ways in which the faulty philosophical assumptions behind neuroscience studies can shape their results, that doesn't mean we have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It just takes some prudence to identify the truth being revealed through neuroscience research, and to integrate that with other things we know to be true from [divine]revelation, from philosophy, and from our own personal experience — but that process can be enormously fruitful.
For example, I study children’s development. We see that the most fundamental factor that drives a child's brain development is relationship, and specifically, the relationship with his or her parents, with supportive, loving caregivers.
That is not a truth that is exclusively shown to us by neuroscience. But seeing the way that interactions between mothers and their infants shape the scaffold upon which the rest of neurodevelopment proceeds is something that ennobles the vocation to marriage and family life and can put flesh and bones on the task of those in the domestic Church to participate in God's ongoing act of creation.
It's something that fills me with wonder and esteem for my loved ones who are parents. So this is one place with a deep personal relevance, but it’s not the only one. Because both neuroscience and theology are intensely and inescapably self-implicating. They involve you necessarily. There's something really beautiful about that, because self-knowledge is the beginning of the path to knowledge of God.
You’ve explained that neuroscience can help us better understand moral, philosophical, and religious truths.
You have also written in the past that the Catholic view of the human person can help neuroscience. How can the Catholic intellectual tradition enrich the findings of neuroscience?
Neuroscience depends on other disciplines to make good assumptions about the concepts that we study, whether that's health, development, cognition, freedom, or any other.
I think there are few intellectual traditions out there, like the Catholic one, which have such a rich and long history of engaging deeply with rigorous philosophy, but in dialogue with personal experience. So, there's a reasonable view of the human person within the Catholic tradition that I think corrects most of the biases of modernity which hamper our scientific investigations.
Without drawing on such a view of the person, our scientific investigations are limited. We can't interpret our results well if we don't account for human realities such as freedom, for example, because we get heterogeneous results that don't make sense if the human person is fully determined by her biology.
Or if we neglect the central role of desire in human life, we can’t understand the decisions that our research participants make.
I think drawing on Catholic anthropology could not only help scientists interpret their results coherently but provide abundant inspiration for studies that truly drive forward our understanding of the brain. So, I think that the possibilities of mutual enrichment are very great and something that I would like to see grow.
While you say that Catholicism can enrich neuroscience, there seems to be little engagement in the Catholic intellectual tradition with contemporary neuroscience and philosophy of neuroscience, especially when you compare it with the level of engagement with biology, physics, or psychology.
Why is that the case?
First, it's an accident of history because neuroscience is a very new discipline. Only recently have we had the technological capability to look inside the human skull without killing a person. Neuroscience is a novel synthesis of other disciplines, namely biology and psychology, but also chemistry, medicine, and even anthropology.
So, there’s still some time for Catholic philosophers and theologians to catch up, and to become acquainted with the discipline.
But I think the second reason is because of a misconception about neuroscience. It is not a discipline that is fundamentally opposed to the truths of our faith. Not at all, even if it's commonly understood that way, and popularized that way by a few outspoken neuroscientists — That gives rise to fear within some Catholics.
However, it’s an unfounded fear that compounds the problem. If Catholics don’t go near neuroscience to explore it on its own terms, then they can’t discover the beauty and the truth that's present there: that the Lord wants to use this discipline to advance our understanding of ourselves and of the Church and to better evangelize.
But if we stay away from it, then we cannot displace our misunderstanding of the field.
This is why I'm so grateful that the Lord asked me to do a Ph.D. in neuroscience. I'm someone who's deeply attracted to both philosophy and theology, and was considering doing graduate studies in those areas, in part because of misconceptions I had about neuroscience.
So, if I hadn't been asked to devote years of my life to what sometimes feels like oppressively narrow neuroscience research, I wouldn't have discovered the immense promise and the enriching and beautiful insights that are present within this field.
You have written that “neuroscience has the potential to make theology truly reasonable.” What do you mean by this?
I’m defining reason more expansively than we tend to in modernity. Luigi Giussani, a mid-20th-century Catholic theologian, calls it the “capacity to be aware of the reality in the totality of its factors.” Reason is the ability of the human person to come to know reality without leaving anything out.
So, I think a Catholic theology that's reasonable will seek to understand creation and [divine] revelation in the totality of its factors, which means including the physiological dimension of the human person— the most important feature of which, arguably, is the brain.
I see this, first, at a very high level: in our understanding of what it means to be created in the image and likeness of God, that is, created in and through a relationship of self-giving love. I think the study of the brain can put flesh and bones on how this unfolds in our lives.
And also in our understanding of the human person as a self-determining agent, as John Paul II said.
I think neuroplasticity is an essential factor to consider when answering the question of how it's possible that someone can, without creating themselves, participate in the determination of who they truly are. As Edith Stein says, we’re beings in the state of becoming. Through neuroplasticity, we see that every time we make an action, it’s moral in the sense that it's turning us more or less into who we're made to be.
But then, below that higher level of theological anthropology, neuroscience has something to say about pastoral matters that are pressing needs for the Church, whether it’s the sound accompaniment of LGBTQ people or the understanding of the impact of early sexual abuse. And also more beautiful matters like the physiological dimension of our communion as one body, and the kind of neural mechanisms that mediate our participation in the sacraments.
Neuroscience tells you a part of the reality that God has given us in these places.
To be truly reasonable is to be open to what neuroscience has to say, keeping in mind that truth can't contradict itself. So, nothing that we're going to discover could refute the truths that have been revealed to us by God.
How did you become a Catholic neuroscientist?
Catholicism came first.
I was raised by exceptional parents in the faith and, after a time of straying in my adolescence, discovered and embraced it for myself in high school. Around that time I also became attracted to neuroscience because I have a passionate desire to understand the person, both myself and others.
So I studied neuroscience at the University of Notre Dame. But it became very clear to me after my first year of studies that studying neuroscience alone would give me an incomplete picture of the person and couldn't resolve the questions I was interested in. So I chose to add a major in theology, also to nourish my faith which was further blossoming at that point.
I discerned a call to graduate studies and am now completing my Ph.D. in cognition and brain sciences at the University of Cambridge. I'm going to be submitting my thesis in about two weeks' time and moving on to work at Harvard Medical School.
My research focuses on the impact of early adversity on child development on the development of brain structure. So, I look at children who have been exposed to things like abuse and neglect, serious poverty, or domestic violence, and try to identify neural changes. Then I test whether or not these changes account for some of the behavioral differences that we often see in these kids.
In these years, it's been beautiful to see how, while this is not a vocation I ever would have chosen for myself, the deep and narrow work of studying the brain is something that only ever enriches my faith, my understanding of who I am as a child of God and what we are as a Church. So, I'm very grateful for the chance to bring neuroscience and Catholicism together not just in my personal life, but also in speaking and writing about their integration.
Many neuroscientists are not profoundly religious and some of them hold grudges against religion, or have anti-religious views, and even anti-philosophical views. Because of that, ideas like the spiritual soul or even consciousness or free will are seen as almost fairy tales.
What is your experience of working as a Catholic in a sometimes hostile environment?
I'm very grateful for it.
I have had many profound encounters with people who have either never been exposed to the Gospel or have been catechized in a way that does not show them the beauty of the Gospel. So it's such a privilege to be able to bear witness simply through sharing my friendship with them to the light, the truth, and the strength that I found in Jesus Christ.
It's such a gift.
I expected to encounter more hostility than I do. There are a few individuals who are hostile but this simply makes me aware that there may be personal wounds in their story and to be more sensitive with them.
More than anything, though, I encounter curiosity. Sometimes a bemused curiosity, like “oh, I thought that was just for children or not really a part of our modern society anymore.”
…“You're so nice. I would have never thought you were Catholic”…
[Laughter] I actually had a colleague tell me the other day when she discovered I was religious, “Oh, wow. You must be a very good person.” So, even there, there's heterogeneity in people's responses that disrupt our expectations of what witnessing to Christ is going to be like.
People are hungering for truth, for answers to questions that science can't provide and this is true of every neuroscientist as well. The needs of the human heart are universal.
Keeping this in mind when I encounter my colleagues or other scientists at a conference is an invaluable help because it means I'm not afraid of their assumptions or afraid of sharing my life with them. Instead I have a thirst for them to discover the answers that their heart is seeking.
So, again, it’s not a vocation I would have ever chosen for myself, but one that is so beautiful and that I'm very grateful for.
In the “Metaphysics,” Aristotle mentions that men by nature desire to know. Kant says that reason tends to think metaphysically, and Kierkegaard talks about the paradox of reason, where reason always seeks to go beyond its limits.
But the recognition of those limits is not immediately a denial of what’s beyond those limits. So that’s part of the hunger you mentioned.
What is the meaning of life? How can I endure suffering? What's really going to make me happy? Where is my value actually located? These questions are urgent because, in academia, you’re typically immersed in an ideology that doesn't provide a satisfying answer to them–or even eliminates the questions themselves.
And in science, you can intuit objective value because there’s a strong sense of philosophical realism, but you don’t find the ultimate source of that objective value there.
And that leads me to my last question, now that we're talking about realism. It seems that some neuroscientists have — perhaps unwittingly — opened pathways to dialogue with Catholicism.
The new mechanists, such as Carl Craver, explain neural mechanisms (and please explain what a neural mechanism is) in a way similar to how Aquinas explains the hylomorphic structure of being — the fact that beings are made of matter and form, including our mind.
Some scientists seem also to have a strong sense of teleology (the idea that objects have a natural finality inscribed in them) embedded in their work.
And more philosophically, many neuroscientists are inclined to philosophical realism, which is quite different from the modern philosophical approach.
Why do you think this has happened?
Is it an opportunity to engage with neuroscience?
A neural mechanism is a biological process that unfolds in the brain, which enables some kind of higher-level capacity.
So there is a neural mechanism by which you are receiving the visual stimulus of my face on Zoom, and that is enabling your brain to process what you're perceiving.
For your mind to perceive me, you need this neural mechanism to happen.
This makes absolutely perfect sense within the Catholic view of the human person, as an ensouled body or embodied soul, because while we accept there are capacities that don’t depend upon matter and aren’t related to matter, the majority of capacities are continuous with our biology.
So it makes sense that we would find activities within our neural networks that support or mediate realities which aren't reducible to neural firing.
To go back to the example before, your experience of seeing me is not reducible to your visual processing mechanism, but it needs your visual processing mechanism.
So there's a prevalent realism within neuroscience that is a foundation upon which science must be based upon at a basic level. You have to believe that reality exists and that it's intelligible in order to study it. You're not going to get very far if you don’t believe this.
Catholic theology and philosophy very much agree with the scientific approach to reality. And in fact, if you trace the history of science it originated in that Catholic understanding of the intelligibility of creation: many of the fathers and mothers of our scientific disciplines, including neuroscience, were Catholics.
Now, what opportunities does this common ground afford? I’d say the most fruitful place that I see for dialogue is the experience of wonder. Because this is something that brings down our defenses. We let our walls down. Wonder is an essential way that the human capacity to come to know reality is moved, educated, and enlivened.
This is how any of us come to know anything about reality, as is particularly evident in children. Only through wonder can we know. And this is true also of our encounter with Jesus Christ. Two thousand years ago John and Andrew followed him because they were full of wonder at the exceptional presence of Christ.
And the same is true of the faith today. You recently reported about these young people in the Netherlands who have encountered Christ. If you read their stories, they're full of wonder.
However, this is also true of science. If you ask a scientist “Why did you begin to study the brain?” or “Why did you begin to study physics or virology?”, they'll tell you a story that more often than not involves wonder.
And it does not go away.
We continually rediscover it: it characterizes our scientific breakthroughs and moments with our colleagues and even just the weeks that we spend looking through a microscope—wonder is essential in the dynamic of knowing reality and it's something that our Catholic faith can account for.
God gave us a sense of wonder to direct our hearts to recognize his presence both in the flesh, in the person of Jesus in the Word and Sacraments, but also in the book of creation. So, an anthropology of beauty is an essential path toward dialogue between science and faith.