It’s hard to admit we’ve made a mistake. It’s even harder for us to completely rethink our worldview. But if we can approach our level of knowledge with humility and openness, we can discover more about ourselves and our world.

As part of Sinai and Synapses’ series “More Light, Less Heat,” Sara Gottlieb and Daniel Wilkenfeld talk about how new findings and new approaches to religion — from both emotional and rational perspectives — can cause us to rethink our assumptions.

Sara Gottlieb is a graduate student in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. She holds a BA in psychology and philosophy from Macalester College, and previously served as the lab manager for the Moral Cognition Lab at Harvard University. Sara’s core research interests fall at the intersection of psychology and philosophy, and include moral judgment, the competing explanatory power of science and religion, and moral disgust. One current project aims to understand how secular experiences – and especially encounters with science – can provoke a deep and meaningful sense of awe.

In this video, she talks about how the feeling of awe permeates her scientific work, and how that helps her approach questions of religion.

Daniel Wilkenfeld is a post-doctoral scholar at UC Berkeley. He got his PhD in philosophy from The Ohio State University in 2013, and now works at the intersection of philosophy and psychology. He grew up religious, and has gone on to study and teach the philosophy of religion as well.

Here, he describes how he has had to change his approach to God as new scientific findings arose, especially as his Judaism evolved throughout his life.


Sara Gottlieb

Hi, my name is Sara Gottlieb, and I am a graduate student in the Department of Psychology at the University of California Berkeley, where I study topics at the intersection of psychology and philosophy.

And as a researcher, I’m particularly interested in scientific and religious explanations. So my work tries to better understand what are the individual differences and personality characteristics that will lead certain people to become very religious, and other people to become very scientifically-minded. Or, what are the circumstances under which people are led to value scientific explanations versus religious explanations.

So through this research, I feel like I’ve actually gained a deep appreciation for some of the ways in which religious people and scientifically-minded people are actually quite similar. And this is something that I feel is overlooked in the current science and religion debate.

So for me, the unifying theme between science and religion is awe. And awe is a really just a profound, deeply transformative, moving, emotional experience. And most of us can probably recall some very important awe experience that we have had.

But what psychology tells us is that awe actually has two central characteristics. The first is called “vastness,” and this is just being in the presence of something large or something great, either metaphorically or physically. So in the physical sense, you can feel awe standing at the Grand Canyon and looking at the vastness of the landscape, but one can also feel awe in response to somebody in great power or somebody you admire deeply.

But the other characteristic of awe, and the one that I find most interesting in the current context is called “accommodation.” So imagine that you’re looking out into space and space is just so large and you can’t understand the limits of our universe. Then we have to revise what we know of the world to make sense of something new. And that accomomdation, that revision, of our existing mental schemas, this response to what we don’t know, is a very important aspect of awe.

And what I think is important about this is that even though awe has traditionally been thought of and studied in a religious or spiritual context, that feeling of connectedness to the world around us, that just feeling of there being something more, that’s often felt in response to science, as well.

And this is something that has been confirmed for me by everyday practice. As a scientist, I’m trained to ask questions. I go to work every day and I ask, “Why?” I look at the data we have, and I look at what it can explain, and I look at what it can’t explain, and I think about the limits of my knowledge, I think about how amazing and profound the human mind is, and other aspects of science are, as well.

And to me, awe is often felt in response to those things. There’s a lot that science can’t explain. There are a lot of things I don’t understand. And asking questions on a daily basis has led me to confront those inexplicable things on a quite daily basis.

So for me as a scientist, I often feel that deeply moving sense of awe, just in response to my work. And I think when we consider science and religion, it’s important to consider that there are some important emotional experiences — awe being one of them — that is central to both science and religion.

Daniel Wilkenfeld

Hi, my name is Daniel Wilkenfeld and I’m a post-doc in psychology and philosophy at UC Berkeley. I mainly do philsophy, that’s what my Ph.D. was in. I actually grew up relatively religious — I’m Jewish — but one aspect of Judaism that’s shared with a lot of other religions I’ve studied, but obviously not all, is that there is an emphasis on actually understanding things, and questioning things, rather than just blindly accepting what you’re told. So that’s what I did when I grew up.

And at first, I didn’t find this too challenging. I was able to accommodate seeming differences between the Bible and science without too much trouble. For any particular instance, I would say, “This is just metaphorical, this is just an allegory that makes another point, so evolution is no problem.”

But over the years I started to notice a disconcerting trend, which was that whenever there was any possibility of religion making an empirical claim, I immediately in my head tried to come up with a way that religion wasn’t committed to that claim. So if it seemed like the Bible doesn’t support the existence of other intelligent life forms, like dolphins, I tried to downplay that as a real claim.

And I noticed that as someone who now does some work in science, it’s a very disconcerting pattern, because it makes God — as they say about string theory, sometimes — not even wrong. That I was just immediately eliminating any possibility that it could say something false.

And it was worse than “not even wrong,” because I wasn’t just altering the theory when something proved wrong. but I was afraid that it could ever come into contact with reality, that would be bad.

So it’s possible, I readily acknowledge the possibility that God exists, and just for whatever reason remains hidden, but that seems kind of weird to me. And it seems oddly defensive, it’s not what I would have predicted. So lately I’ve started to think that belief in God really should be treated as on a par with other kinds of beliefs, for the most part. And you really have to examine the evidence for it.

Now, as it happens, I don’t know if the evidence is all that persuasive one way or the other. I actually find what’s called the “fine-tuning” argument pretty persuasive, that if you just look at the universe, the more wonder we see, it turns out the more incredibly unlikely it was to look that way. And every time we try explain something by going to an earlier stage, it turns out to have been even more unlikely, which does suggest to me that perhaps Someone was tinkering with it.

But I do think those are legitimate questions to ask, and I do think you have to be open to the possibility. You don’t have to, but I think for me, I like to be open to the possibility that if the data come out wrong, I’m going to have revisit some of my beliefs.

Thank you.