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2005 - 2007: University of Pennsylvania

Mind, Religion, and Ethics in Dialogue


Year 3 Theme: Genetics, Spirituality, and Free Will
Year 2 Theme: Ethics, Compassion, and the Mind
Year 1 Theme: Neuropsychology of Spirituality
Project Leader
Interdisciplinary Oversight Committee
Additional Information



The purpose of this research lecture series is to galvanize an existing group of multidisciplinary scholars at the University of Pennsylvania to explore the critical relationship between the mind and spirituality. This relationship includes the study of cognitive neuroscience, behavioral genetics, religious and spiritual experiences and conceptions, issues related to love and compassion, and epistemological problems. Such scholarly pursuits hold critical importance for many fields including cognitive neuroscience, theology, philosophy, anthropology, law, bioethics, and religious studies. However, there are also broader implications for research in the health sciences, psychology, and biology. There are a number of well-known scholars whose research has important implications for how human beings understand religious and spiritual phenomena from the perspective of the human mind. These scholars include those in both the sciences and humanities. By bringing several scholars from different disciplines to the University of Pennsylvania, the scholars at Penn can begin to develop a more formal network that can be utilized to augment interdisciplinary dialogue with the specific goal of exploring these issues from many different perspectives. A primary tenet of this proposal is that the true nature of human reality can never be known when approached only from a single perspective. Science, and in particular the fields associated with cognition, behavior, and emotion, while providing important information about the mechanisms of the world, cannot address many of the most important questions. Philosophy and religion provide another important perspective, but without science, they too have limitations. The purpose of this proposal then will be to foster a multidisciplinary approach to questions related to the mind and soul with the result a substantial development towards understanding human experiences, cognitive processes, and behaviors. The results of this series of lectures will be three major publications, which will include the work of each of the three visiting scholars in synergy with those scholars at the University of Pennsylvania. The University of Pennsylvania Press has a strong interest in this project. Furthermore, interdisciplinary seminars can be funded through the provost office (a related seminar on spirituality and health was funded two years ago). There is tremendous support for this project by the members of the Penn community already engaged in related work. Many of these scholars have substantial funding from Federal and private sources and thus, the seeds of this proposal will hopefully have long standing implications for future research at Penn. The papers and books that will be produced through this program will also allow those outside of Penn to observe how such a dialogue can be developed and sustained so that this overall approach to linking the human mind with religious and spiritual phenomena can be advanced in the future to better humanity as a whole.



Year 3 Theme: Genetics, Spirituality, and Free Will

The concepts of free will, spiritual experience, and behavioral genetics appear to provide an important nexus of topics to conclude this project. The notion of free will, which will be addressed throughout the other two years, is deeply related to the classic "nature vs. nurture" argument. The evaluation of the biogenetic basis of the human brain and hence, human thought, has a great impact into our understanding of human free will. How much of our spirituality, of our compassion, of our experience of the world is determined by our genetic make up that directs the brain to view reality in specified ways? It may be that our genetics specifically allows room for free will and our ability to pursue spiritual paths of our choosing. This discussion also incorporates issues related to consciousness, ethics, and psychology.

The free will question is fundamental to understanding how we as human beings function within the framework of the function of the universe. Whether or not we have free will bears directly on our entire existence, our reasons for existence, and our sense of justice and moral responsibility. However, the free will question goes deeper because it relates directly to our understanding of how the human mind and brain works. After all, if we do have free will, then our ability to choose is based somewhere in the realm of our brain and mind. More specifically, it is usually thought that the part of the mind responsible for generating choice is consciousness. Thus, free will usually refers to conscious choice.

Unfortunately, it has been most difficult to objectively prove that we have free will. This has been the problem that has most perplexed those philosophers, theologians, and scientists who believe in free will. This inability to find free will is perhaps the most compelling argument for those who believe in determinism. Free will is seen only as an illusion. We only have a sense of free will even though it does not really exist.

This raises another aspect of the free will question regarding how we perceive reality. Since the brain is that part of us which gives us all of our perceptions of the world, it is difficult to prove whether those perceptions are accurate. Thus, the functioning of our brain is the only mechanism by which we come to know reality. But if different states of the brain give us the perception of different realities, how do we know which is the true reality. This is the problem of neuroepistemology that is also related to this overall topic integrating genetics, behavior, and the brain.



Year 2 Theme: Ethics, Compassion, and the Mind

The proposed topic and popular book that will result from this year will develop the human capabilities approach toward the conception of an extended human compassion and ethics that is constrained by a norm of respect for the dignity of all human beings. Promoting human capabilities has an institutional side, which is captured by discussing the relationship of the capabilities to fundamental constitutional principles, and a neuropsychological side, involving the education and extension of compassion. The aim of the present book is to explore this complex interaction between institutions and human emotions from perspectives ranging from the global institutional level to the individual neurobiological level.

The overall argument of the book is that while there may be problems with compassion, especially in the face of various historical events and even dating back to the ancient Stoic project, it is critical for human beings to extend and educate compassion, not to remove it. What vision of human dignity should inform our enterprise of educating compassion and ethics? The capabilities approach begins with an intuitive idea of human dignity, and of a life worthy of that dignity. It then asks what the necessary conditions of such a life are, and uses the capabilities so justified as the basis for political principles that are a partial (minimal) conception of social justice. There will also be a discussion of how this approach provides benchmarks for thinking about redistribution from richer to poorer nations.

With regard to compassion, it is also critical to evaluate what can be learned from tragic historical events. It is important to ask what tragedy can teach us, not only about the general capability goal, but about how we should view conflicts between capabilities. Thinking in this way should lead to a strongly critical perspective of standard economic models of public choice, with the central role they assign to cost-benefit analysis.

The education of compassion and ethical behavior has a neuropsychological aspect and an institutional aspect. These two aspects are complementary: we cannot hope to produce perfect people, and thus we need institutions that embody and make compulsory the insights of an educated compassion. At the same time, we cannot hope that these institutions will be realized, or be stable, without at least a robust progress in the direction of educating appropriately compassionate citizens and cultivating the psychological and biological underpinnings of such compassion. Such an analysis will include evaluating how compassion is understood by various psychological models and whether various neurological drivers may contribute or prevent compassion within human beings.
With regard to the institutional side of compassion, it is important to determine what domestic institutions would look like which embody the insights of the capabilities approach. This can be addressed by focusing on the role of the constitution, and basic constitutional entitlements, as well as which other institutions are required to make constitutional entitlements more than words on paper.

Turning to the international domain, this approach argues against the idea of a world state, and in favor of a complex set of interlocking institutions, the goal being to realize the capabilities, up to a suitable threshold level, for all of the world's people. These institutions include: (a) domestic governments, which have both duties of redistribution internally and duties of foreign aid; (b) international treaties and agreements; (c) international agencies and organizations; (d) nongovernmental organizations and political movements; (e) multinational corporations, which have duties to promote education, health, and other human capabilities in the regions in which they do business; (f) the structures of the global economic order, which need to become more ethically attuned to the needs of the world's poorer citizens, and to take the promotion of human capabilities as a central goal.



Year 1 Theme: Neuropsychology of Spirituality

The study of religious and spiritual phenomena from a neuropsychological and developmental perspective presents a number of complex issues. The most important of which is to determine if such an approach may open a window to understanding how religion and spirituality are intimately linked with human biology and psychology throughout the life cycle. Neuropsychologically, religion and spirituality must be experienced by the human brain, which can then help to translate and interpret the experience and eventually modify outward behaviors accordingly. With this in mind, it is important to explore the wide variety of experiences that can be considered to be religious or spiritual and also to try to describe and identify these experiences.

Such an analysis requires reviewing the larger context of the neuropsychology of religious experience by including disciplines such as neuroscience, psychology, cultural anthropology, and human development - disciplines that have matured only over the last 50 years. This integrated synthesis can hopefully create a unifying vision of spirituality. Besides spirituality and neuropsychology, relevant topics would include: hope, faith, love, joy, forgiveness, healing and dying. Such an analysis will help to determine if these simple words are cross culturally valid and are essential ingredients of spirituality. They have a neurobiological basis, and an evolutionary architecture that can be glimpsed, excavated and explored.

Other issues include the following:

1) For many, religion is a red flag. But spirituality is distinct from religion in that it draws a circle that draws people in; in contrast religion draws a circle that draws people out. Too often critics place spirituality in the realm of self-contemplation and wistful metaphysics, which is to miss the visceral hard-wired, socially oriented basis of spirituality. Modern neuroscience and cultural anthropology both suggest - as do the world's great religions - that spirituality is more about human connection than about solitary contemplation. Thus, in spite of a neuropsychological approach, the most potentially revolutionary - and commonsensical - conclusion is that spirituality is based more upon community than upon individual survival. Popular notions notwithstanding, spirituality is not "all about me."

2) Semantics gets in the way of our understanding of spirituality. For example, just as in physics light may be described as made up of either particles or of waves; just so in the human quest for meaning "God" and "love" probably describe the same force. Indeed, the fact that the common denominator of all the world's eight great religions is unselfish life seems more important than any of their differences.

3) Scientific truths and spiritual "truths" are not as different as we are led to believe. They exist in two separate and sometimes conflicted parts of the brain. While government and religion must be kept scrupulously separate, there is still important values in integrating science and spirituality. It appears that spirituality derives more from the evolution of the limbic system than it does from the evolution of the neocortex. The limbic system, unique to mammals, permits them to become securely and lovingly attached. In contrast, theology derives from the neocortical development that renders Homo sapiens distinct from other primates. The point is not, like Freud, to suggest that religious ideation is an illusion, but rather my intent is to suggest that mammalian evolution has hard-wired the human brain for spiritual experience.

4) Karl Marx quipped that religion was the opiate of the masses. Modern neuroscience, however, suggests that Marx got it wrong. Opiates highjack neural tracts designed to promote love, attachment and spirituality. However, this analysis can evaluate how various neurotransmitters systems, such as the opiate, dopamine, and serotonin systems, play a role in religious and spiritual phenomena.

5) From a neuropsychological perspective, spiritual joy is distinct from "Hollywood happiness." Happiness allows us to run from pain; while joy allows us to acknowledge suffering. Sometimes joy can even let human beings run towards pain. The joy associated with Easter weekend provides a dramatic example. Happiness is a cognitive and a thoughtful appraisal, but unless paired with excitement, happiness is not a basic emotion. In contrast, joy is a fundamental emotion. Spiritual joy is evoked by a loving connection.



Project Leader

Andrew B. Newberg, M.D.
Assistant Professor, Departments of Radiology and Psychiatry, Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania

Andrew B. Newberg, M.D., will serve as Chairman of the Interdisciplinary Committee, and is currently an Assistant Professor in the Departments of Radiology and Psychiatry at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. He received his M.D. from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in 1993 and is Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Nuclear Medicine. Dr. Newberg has been particularly involved in the study of mystical and religious experiences as well as the more general mind/body relationship in both the clinical and research aspects of his career. He has also co-authored two books entitled, Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief and The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Belief that explore the relationship between neuroscience and spiritual experience. The latter book received the 2000 award for Outstanding Books in Theology and the Natural Sciences presented by the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences. He currently teaches a course on Science and the Sacred in the Department of Religious Studies.



Interdisciplinary Oversight Committee

Click on the name of a committee member for biographical information.
  • Ralph C. Ciampa, STM, Director of the Department of Pastoral Care and Education, University of Pennsylvania
  • Ram A. Cnaan, PhD, Professor and Chair of the Doctoral Program in Social Welfare, University of Pennsylvania
  • Paul Crits-Christoph, PhD, Professor of Psychology in Psychiatry and Director of the Center for Psychotherapy Research, University of Pennsylvania
  • Stephen Dunning, PhD, Professor of Modern Western Religious Thought, former Chairman of the Department of Religious Studies, University of Pennsylvania
  • Martha J. Farah, PhD, Director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, University of Pennsylvania
  • John T. Farrar, MD, PhD, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Epidemiology and Anesthesia, Clinical Associate of Neurology, and Senior Scholar at the Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, University of Pennsylvania
  • Steven Gross, PhD, Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Affiliate Faculty, Institute for Cognitive Science, University of Pennsylvania
  • Ruben Gur, PhD, Professor of Psychology in Psychiatry and Director of the Brain Behavior Laboratory, University of Pennsylvania
  • David Hufford, PhD, is Professor of Medical Humanities, Behavioral Science, and Family medicine, Penn State College of Medicine
  • Solomon Katz, PhD, Director, Krogman Center for Childhood Growth and Development, University of Pennsylvania
  • Ann Matter, PhD, Professor and current Chair of the Department of Religious Studies, University of Pennsylvania
  • Robert M. Nelson, MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Anesthesia and Pediatrics, The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine
  • Martin Seligman, PhD, Fox Leadership Professor of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania
  • Albert Stunkard, MD, Professor of Psychiatry, and Emeritus Director and Founder of the Weight and Eating Disorders Program, University of Pennsylvania
  • Guy Welbon, PhD, Associate Professor of Religious Studies and South Asia Studies and Chairman of the Graduate Group in Religious Studies, University of Pennsylvania
  • Paul Root Wolpe, PhD, Senior Fellow of the Center of Bioethics, University of Pennsylvania



Additional Information


Andrew Newberg , MD
University of Pennsylvania Hospital
Radiology Department
110 Donner Building
3400 Spruce Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6304


1616 Walnut Street, Suite 1112, Philadelphia, PA 19103 USA
Voice: + 1 484.592.0304 Fax: +1 484.592.0313