Science and Religion: Reality’s Toolkit

Science and religion are often regarded as opposites; even today, many people may believe that they must compromise one to accept the other. Dr. Nihal de Lanerolle, a neurobiologist at the Yale School of Medicine who also serves as chaplain of the Episcopal Church at Yale, believes otherwise. De Lanerolle recalls a story about Niels Bohr — the father of quantum mechanics — and his first inklings about the nature of the universe. As a child, Bohr would spend hours gazing into a fishpond, contemplating the unawareness of the fish that they were being watched and that any reality, such as the source of sunlight or rain that penetrated the surface, existed outside the pond. Bohr wondered if humans were like these fish, being acted upon by multiple dimensions of reality, but aware of only a limited frame of reference. Following this reasoning, de Lanerolle expands that “Religion and philosophy are tools for acquiring knowledge of the other dimensions of reality that cannot yet be explored with the tools of science.”

The Religious Scientist

In every area of his life, de Lanerolle exhibits a passion for solving problems, whether the problem happens to be the decline of brain function or the decline of a church congregation. This mentality allows him to see his religion and his scientific career as equal and intertwined parts of his life: “It’s all one to me; I don’t really consciously think of myself in these separate dimensions.”

De Lanerolle has been working in the Neurosurgery Department at the Yale School of Medicine, where he researches epilepsy and brain trauma, since 1979. Motivated by the death of a friend from an epileptic seizure, he began researching the causes and effects of temporal lobe epilepsy in 1985 and has since linked the condition to the hippocampus and to helper cells in the brain called astrocytes. Three years ago, his research took on a second focus: brain trauma induced by proximity to bomb explosions. Beginning with animal subjects and expanding to studies on humans, he and his colleagues have confirmed that there is some biological basis to the damage in memory, cognitive function, and emotional response exhibited by soldiers returning from war.

Dr. de Lanerolle’s research suggests that astrocytes, glial cells that support neurons, may play a role in temporal lobe epilepsy. In this image, astrocytes (red and yellow) surround neurons (green). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Expanding his problem-solving skills beyond the medical realm, de Lanerolle also “provide[s] spiritual resources” as a chaplain. He has been involved at the Episcopal Church since first coming to Yale, serving on the Board of Governors for many years and eventually becoming the vice president, which involved running the church’s ministry for nine years. After leaving briefly to serve as College Chaplain at Trinity College in Hartford, he returned to Yale in 2002 to find the Episcopal Church struggling with membership and finances. It was then that he took up his post as chaplain of the Episcopal Church at Yale, determined to “put the house back in order.” Since then, he has recruited an organist and choir singers, reached out to increase membership, and arranged for regular dinners to follow services. As much time and effort as it requires, de Lanerolle does not consider his religious work his profession: “I do it as a sort of avocation, rather than a vocation.”

A Rational Faith

De Lanerolle describes the typical dialogue between science and religion as having two sides: scientists who have a “simplistic understanding of theological thinking” and theologians who “haven’t taken the trouble to understand the entire breadth of a scientific field.” While he does not claim expertise in both, de Lanerolle submits these as the major shortcomings of each side.

These shortcomings are particularly evident, de Lanerolle says, when he acts as a counselor to Yale students who have questions about their faith. He comments that when students come into Yale with “fundamentalist” beliefs that take every word of the Bible literally, they begin to see contradictions between their faith and academics, particularly in the sciences. Students often come to Yale with the notion that faith and reason must be treated separately. As a result, when they are forced to confront conflicts such as “creation versus evolution” and “randomness versus divine intervention” at the university level, some students become distraught and may give up their faith entirely. To prevent this distress, he encourages them to see the Bible not as a rulebook, but as an exemplary story about people in the past interacting with God. True to his tradition, this view allows him to integrate faith and reason in his own daily life.

De Lanerolle describes his faith as rational: “Some think I am a heretic, but I challenge them to think in ways that are truthful.” In other words, he asks others to question what is generally accepted. He does not see religion and science as dead-end contradictions, but as more of a “two-way street,” with scientific discovery sometimes causing him to “rethink [his] religious understanding.” He adds, “A lot of our religious understanding has been passed down, and they didn’t have the scientific information I have.” De Lanerolle believes that just as science consists of both verified laws and theories that are continually proposed, tested, and adjusted, religion should maintain its basic framework over time while still being open to new developments.

Revising the Blueprints

When asked about the debate over evolution and creation, de Lanerolle answers that the writers of the Old Testament formulated an explanation for how the world came about using the limited knowledge that was available to them. He suggests that the creation story at its core implies the same general theme as evolution, with order and complexity developing from formless chaos. Holding this theme as the central significance of the story, rather than the detail of creation in seven days, he describes the Old Testament as a collection of “stories told in a simplified form so we can grapple with the big questions of life.” He also explains that while scripture and tradition provide a strong foundation for faith, natural reason and experience play an integral role as well — without them, “God would cease to exist for each individual.”

According to Dr. de Lanerolle’s doctrine, Old Testament stories such as the fall of Adam and Eve (as depicted in this illustration from 1728) are simplified, symbolic versions of great truths. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Evolution aside, one of the most common questions people tend to ask is, “How do you know there is a God?” De Lanerolle’s first answer is simply “I don’t know” — but he goes on to explain that exploring the character of God is not unlike exploring a scientific question; both call upon the scientific method. “So, let’s assume God is like my big daddy,” he poses as an example. “If I pray in a certain way, such-and-such should happen, right? If I ask my daddy for something I really want desperately, then maybe I should get that. And so, I might pray that way. Then I probably don’t get what I want, right? So does that mean God doesn’t exist? Well, it could mean God doesn’t exist; that’s one possibility. Or it could be that my notion of God is not what it should be. Or it could be my experiment was wrong…I constantly keep evolving my understanding about God.” De Lanerolle would investigate a neuroscience question, such as how thoughts are formed, in the same manner: hypothesizing, experimenting, analyzing, revising, and concluding. The scientific method is universal in that “every time, even in science, an experiment fails, you learn something from it. You grow from it. The same thing happens with religion — you grow from grappling with this notion of God.”

Even more pressing than the debate over God’s existence, is the search for a purpose in life. Whether you tackle this quest from a scientific perspective or from a religious one, it is evident that each individual must discover the answer for him or herself. De Lanerolle encourages seeking an answer through both perspectives, using faith as a starting point and science as a guide, so as to evaluate life’s purpose not just through a single dimension of reality — the world of our senses and conscious experience — but also through other dimensions of reality of which we are less aware. While many people see science and religion as tools of different trades, he sees them as tools of the same kit for constructing reality. “Whether that reality is true or not, we don’t know,” he concludes. “But it’s the impact [it] has on your life that I think matters.”

Though many people consider evolution to be contradictory to Christianity, Dr. de Lanerolle suggests that individuals can believe in both. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

About the Author
Jessica Hahne is a freshman English major in Silliman College. She works as a copy editor for the Yale Scientific Magazine.

The author would like to thank Dr. Nihal de Lanerolle for taking the time to explain his work and share his perspective.

Further Reading
de Lanerolle, N.C., Lee, T.S. and Spencer, D.D. (2010) Astrocytes and Epilepsy. Neurotherapeutics 7: 424 – 438. PMID: 20880506.