How can a scientist profess faith in God? What kind of a framework allows faith to be compatible with modern science?
A large part of what it is to be human is to seek knowledge, ascertain truth and find meaning in our day-to-day lives. As such, science and religion are common sources of knowledge that provide us with information about the world, ourselves and the human condition overall. Yet a predominant belief in popular culture is that one cannot be a person of faith and a person of science at the same time. In these two interviews, I talk with a man who would adamantly disagree with that premise.
Dr. Randy Dimond has been the Chief Technical Officer of Promega Corporation, a Madison, Wisconsin-based biotechnology company for 30 years. Randy is also a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
In the first interview Randy discusses some of the new technologies he is seeing in the area of genetics and research into the whole human being as combination genes and environmental influences. He poses the question, however, “Does the physical body explain everything about who you are?”
In the second interview Randy and I discuss how, from his faith tradition, the human spirit comprises the essence of who we are and how this interacts with our genes and our bodies. How we “see ourselves” matters he explains as he tells the story of his mother as she progressed through the devastating stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Who are we, really? Where does “self” reside?
All of these are questions that religion and now science in some ways, attempt to answer. For many, including those who love and have dedicated their lives to scientific pursuits, religion provides an additional response that doesn’t contradict, but instead goes beyond, empirically-based science.
(This post is part of the Sinai and Synapses Discussion Forum, a collection of perspectives on specific topics. It is part of our Spring 2015 series Are We More Than Our Genes? For more on our series of videos exploring this question, please look at the post Our Genes, Our Selves).View Transcript
Lisa Ortuno: All right, well I’m here today with Randy Dimond. And Randy is the vice president and chief technical officer of Promega Corporation, which is an international biotech company. And he has been in this position for over thirty years. In addition to that, he is an adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin, and prior to coming to Promega he was an associate professor there, where he taught molecular biology and genetics. And so in addition to that, he is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and today we’re going to be talking about “Are you more than your genes?”.
So I’m very happy to be here today with Randy Dimond, and I guess I would just like to start by saying, first of all, since you’ve been at Promega for over 30 years and you are the chief technical officer, you’ve seen lots of changes in technology, in all sorts of disciplines in the scientific realm. So could you comment on some of the more interesting things that you’re seeing now, particularly in the realm of genetics, and also with respect, perhaps, to what we’re learning about ourselves in the field of genetics?
Randy Dimond: Well, we’ve had a real explosion of knowledge in the area of genetics over the last decade or so, which will continue for the next couple of decades. We now know the sequence of quite a number of human genomes, so we know all the nucleotide sequence, all the genes, what we think of as genes are actually a small part of our genome, but we’re starting to discover what the rest of the genome does. There are a lot of studies right now to understand how different parts of the genome are expressed in different cells at different times of development.
Now with the BRAIN Initiative that we have going in this country, there’s a lot of effort towards understanding how our brains are organized, how they function, and how that genetic “book,” if you will, influences the development of the brain, and the capabilities for thought and for memory and for action and so forth will take place. So it’s an expanding, exploding area that I think will only continue for the foreseeable future.
Lisa Ortuno: Absolutely. So along those lines, in addition to those sort of really amazing studies that involve gathering huge amounts of data, we’re learning more about things around the area of what’s called heritability. And so different researchers in behavioral neurobiology, for example, are looking at different aspects of who we are with respect to happiness, or tendencies toward violent behavior, or pleasure-seeking behavior, and we’re learning that there are genetic components to that, which to some people, they find that surprising, and to some people, they find it a little bit scary in some ways. And so it sort of begs the age old question of, you know, how much of who we are is coming from our genetics, or how much is from the environment? What do you have to say around that question specifically?
Randy Dimond: Well I think those are good questions. I think, yes, they’re difficult questions to answer with the limitations in what we can observe about our physical bodies, and our limitations of what we understand about genetics. And dependent upon the culture that you come from and your background, people ascribe a lot of those behaviors to different things. Clearly some part of our overt behavior is influenced by our genes and the health of the brain that develops in each one of us. Questions of how much of that behavior comes from environmental influences as we develop as individuals is a difficult question to answer right now.
And for many people of faith, there’s the issue of, does the physical body explain everything about what you are, or is there a separate spiritual aspect to the individual, and frankly we’re not at a stage where we can really observe or tell how much of who we think of as who we are comes from this planned genetic “book” that we all carry in our genes, how much comes from the environment in which you grew up, the families, the cultures, the things that happen to us, and how much may come from our spiritual nature that comes to us. And I think different religions have different beliefs around that, that right now, scientifically, we can’t really dissect or determine.
Lisa Ortuno: So what does your faith have to say about that?
Randy Dimond: So the Mormon faith is somewhat unique among Christian faiths in that they have a very definitive, we have a very definitive, belief about the nature of who we are as individuals. And that belief is that we are a duality, that we have the physical body run by the genes and components that we’ve been talking about, and we also have a spiritual being or spirit, and in the Mormon faith, we believe that that combination of the physical body and the spirit, as we refer to as the soul of man. So both parts are integral parts of who we are as individuals. With regard to the spiritual side, in Mormon theology, the spirit existed before the body did. So we believe we all have a spiritual existence before we were born into this mortal existence. We also believe that when we leave this mortal existence, when the body dies, that the spirit does not die, but that the spirit goes on to to a next life. So there’s a pretty firm belief in the duality of who we are as individuals within our environment.
Lisa Ortuno: Oh that’s fascinating, that’s really interesting. Thank you for explaining that. So with that in mind, given that obviously, you know, in the United States we can talk about “we’re all created equal,” which isn’t exactly true that in the context that we’re talking about, we’re all created with different challenges, right. And so if you’re talking about this interaction between our genetics, and we know that some people are born, for example, with certain diseases that are very challenging to them, and some of us are fortunate not to have those kinds of diseases. So when you have this spectrum of conditions under which people are born, how does that work with the spiritual component of who we are in your faith? How do those things – how can you explain that?
Randy Dimond: So I think within our faith, but I think actually within people, a variety of things. There’s always the aspect of of having to assess “who is the person really?” in the situation where the person may be limited by mutations or accidents or damage and other things that were done. So I have some friends that I respect greatly who are at one end of that spectrum and say, “you know, whatever happens to generate who we are as a person,” they think it all comes from either the genes that they have or the interaction of those genes with the environment in that environment who they are. They have a tendency to see people that may be genetically mentally impaired as significantly different than other humans would be.
And on the other side you have people who think that who you really are is who you are spiritually, and the limitations that may come from the physical body are simply limitations placed upon that spirit. A lot of people face this issue. For example, a number of years ago, my mother died of Alzheimer’s disease. And she lived with us for the last five years of her life with that disease, and so we saw her capabilities, and we saw her expression of her personality change dramatically over those years and as she lost her short term memory, lost some of the disciplines that she had developed throughout her life in terms of how she did things, ultimately to the point where she didn’t recognize any of us, and so forth.
And so, when faced with that, I think each individual has to think, who is this person? Has the person changed and become a different person? Certainly my feeling at the time was not that my mother had become a different person, but that her disease limited the ability of her expression of who she was, and she lost contact with who she was, and the mother that I had known through my life.
So I think a lot of expert people experience things like that, and they have to decide, you know, what are their core beliefs, who do they think that person was, or is, and you know, how do they look at those things? From a Mormon perspective, we tend to look at that and say, no, the spirit has stayed the same, the brain has developed problems, and so the ability of that person to interact in the mortal world is limited. But that the person hasn’t changed.
Lisa Ortuno: The underlying soul is still there.
Randy Dimond: Is still there, and is still the same, so that’s the way that we would look at that situation. And we tend to look at that situation for people who may be born with, you know, inadequacies or shortcomings of that come from the genetics. We don’t believe that beyond this life, that those limitations are necessarily there for that person, just like, for example I have a knuckle that doesn’t work on one hand. When I go beyond this life, I won’t believe that I will have that same limitation, you know, and so we tend to look at all the things that that perspective. I guess it’s fair to say that we focus more on the spiritual self than we do upon the physical.
Lisa Ortuno: But clearly acknowledging that we’re physical beings and we have to live in a physical reality with other physical realities.
Randy Dimond: That’s right, that’s right, and certainly your genes and your brain and so forth play a big influence in terms of your ability to express who you are and interact with other people so forth.
Lisa Ortuno: I have one more question. So like you said, we’re just going to learn more and more and more. And I’ve read that there really is no disharmony in your faith between science and religion, that you don’t see them as two competing ways of gaining knowledge about the world. So as we continue to gain more information and learn more about even why we behave in certain ways, given that, I’m assuming you believe we have free will, right?
Randy Dimond: Yes.
Lisa Ortuno: So as we learn more, how will that impact your faith at all, in any way?
Randy Dimond: So I think at the heart of the Mormon faith, you’ve expressed it correctly, that there has always been an optimism of learning truth and of feeling that how you get that truth doesn’t matter. We would say that you can learn truths through revealed information from God, and we believe you can learn truth through scientific endeavor, and so forth – now it’s not to say that all Mormons are the same, you will find many Mormons who do find a conflict between the science and the religion, but you also see many Mormons who are, that are, and have been very active in the church, who believe that there is no conflict between the two, they’re just as happy to learn truth from whichever source or the other from there. And a belief that if there’s a conflict that appears to exist, it probably means that either we don’t understand the science correctly, or we don’t understand the religion correctly.
Lisa Ortuno: Oh, OK. So you’re landing on both sides there.
Randy Dimond: For sure. So I know in that you know there are there certainly have been a lot of Mormon scientists who are very comfortable with all discussions of science and truths that are that are learned from there, and don’t have any difficulty melding that with their religious beliefs that they have as well.
Lisa Ortuno: Well great, thank you so much. I’ve really enjoyed this conversation.
Randy Dimond: You’re welcome, thank you.