Science and Faith: Episode 5- Neuroscience, Free Will and Faith

Written by on 13/03/2021

Picture of the panel of experts: Prof Alasdair Coles, Dr Sarah Lane Ritchie and Fr Robert Verrill

Radio Maria England Science and Faith

Episode 5: Neuroscience, free will and faith


Broadcasts: Sunday 5pm, Wednesday 2am, Thursday 11am and Friday 9pm

In episode 5 of our Science and Faith series, we were joined by Dr Sarah Lane Ritchie (Lecturer in Theology & Science at the University of Edinburgh), Revd Prof Alasdair Coles (neurologist and ordained priest in the Church of England), and RME Science and Faith’s Catholic Advisor, Fr Robert Verrill. We started this programme with questions aimed at helping us understand the scope of neuroscience, its current big questions, main challenges and future developments.

We were fascinated to hear from Prof Coles about some of the anatomy and mechanisms of the organ central to our conversation, the human brain. It is a vastly complicated structure with different parts, all of them with distinct functions which, at the same time, work together as a whole. Dr Lane Ritchie and Prof Coles walked us through the role that the brain plays in the conscious control of our actions, as well as different conceptualisations of free will, and, indeed, whether such a thing exists. These concepts were foundational for our section on consciousness and artificial intelligence. 

Later on, Prof Coles shared his thoughts and research on near-death experiences. We concluded with Dr Lane Ritchie’s fascinating remarks about the emergence of religion, the nature of religious experiences and why they are interesting from the neural point of view.

Am I really just my brain? Is religion a mere by-product of our mind?

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Revd Prof Alasdair Coles is an academic neurologist, whose main research work is the treatment of multiple sclerosis. He has also done some research on the spirituality of neurological diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease and temporal lobe epilepsy. He is also an ordained priest in the Church of England. His first book, published in 2019, Neurology and Religion examines what can be learnt about the brain mechanisms underlying religious belief and practice from studying people with neurological disorders, such as stroke, epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease. Using a clinical case study approach, the book analyses the interaction of social influences, religious upbringing and neurological disorders on lived religious experience in a number of different religions.

Dr Sarah Lane Ritchie is a Lecturer in Theology & Science at the University of Edinburgh, working at the intersection of the study of Religion and the Natural and Social Sciences. Her main research areas are the varieties of Naturalism, Neurobiology, Evolutionary Psychology, and the Cognitive Science of Religion, with a particular focus on origins and phenomenology of religious beliefs. Her recent book is Divine Action and the Human Mind (Cambridge University Press, 2019).

Fr Robert Verrill is a Dominican friar who is currently acting Catholic Chaplain for the University of Cambridge at Fisher House. Before joining the order he obtained a PhD in Mathematics from the University of Cambridge and worked as a software engineer. He’s now working on his PhD in Philosophy, which is on Quantum Physics and common sense.


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