Bill Newsome | Neuroscience, Faith & Free Will

In this conversation with acclaimed Stanford neuroscientist Dr. Bill Newsome, we hear about his journey to becoming a neuroscientist, how hundreds of millions of neurons enable the fantastic emergence of a unified visual world, and how free will might operate in relation to the seemingly infinite causal chains which bring us all to this moment. Along the way, Dr. Newsome shares his own experiences with science and faith and why biological explanations should not be seen as weapons beating back the claims of Christianity.


do the second part of the podcast with Newsome, please

Do…what? Another episode?

I would like to see another episode with William Newsome

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Good to know! We are glad you enjoyed it. Any topic you would like to see in the future (with him or another neuroscience-type person?)

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I would like to know more about the problem of consciousness. At what stage is brain science now? in more detail about free will of course. How Do Neuroscience Discoveries Affect Christianity? thank you so much! i like your job


I often say that I think religious belief is about a third cognitive assent and about a third intuition, and about a third sheer unadulterated hope. And I’m comfortable with that characterization. Just because I think it’s where we are as humans, it’s just the nature of things. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a theist or a non-theist, you’ve got to come to grips with that central nature of what it is to be human.

I completely agree. The usual non theist nonsense about science, logic and common sense being enough misses that point by choosing to ignore it.

So neuroscience is a big sprawling area that goes all the way from the study of the molecules that give neurons, that is nerve cells, their unique electrochemical signaling properties, and moves up to how groups of neurons work together in circuits to compute various things, and moves on up to how circuits of circuits interact with each other to produce processing of information and output to a motor system that comprises adaptive behavior.

I wonder sometimes about how consciousness puts all our sensory input together and cognitively stitches it together into the world as we experience it. It is easy to take that for granted but it definitely seems like something more than is needed for mere survival. The same can be said for our ‘selves’; with no deliberate effort of our own we come to know our selves as a constant entity much as we take others to be. These seem like something extra happening in consciousness beyond what I take to be my intention.

As a non theist, when I read a creation story, this is what I think of. How something there is along side of what I take to be my self in consciousness which creates and holds together the world and myself for me. A gift and miraculous in terms of what I can explain.

I don’t think the third planet from the sun requires a creation story. Though I can’t rule it out, it simply strikes me as unlikely and unnecessary that some earlier, more powerful intentional being would have been needed to bring it about. The account which science can give is more than enough for my needs when it comes to the origins of the cosmos, and for all I know it will eventually be enough to account for the origins of life as well.

I think that’s the core religious question right there. It’s that sense of what kind of world we live in. Do we live in a world ultimately, that’s pointless and meaningless and it just brute force is? Or do we live in a world that has meaning, and that has purpose and that has an end goal for creatures like us?

The world we live in is the world consciousness holds together for us and it is a wondrous gift that fills me with gratitude and curiosity. Since I think what it is that gives rise to God believe is something ‘onboard’ here in the consciousness which supports me and the world I experience, I’m inclined to think there are depths within consciousness which can give insight to big questions. It makes sense to remain open to its wisdom and hope some of it will rub off on me.

I believe it’s the latter and I believe that the religious sense in us evolved to be in touch with that reality. Can I prove that? I cannot prove that. That is one of these things like, you know, that’s that religious faith statement. It’s about a third cognitive, it’s about a third intuition, it’s about a third sheer hope.


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I would also like to see a second episode, one specifically dedicated to the human eye. I think Newsome has much to offer to Christians. I think such a discussion could be especially poignant because the eye is one of Dawkins’ key discussions in The God Delusion*. Not that Newsome would undermine Dawkins’ science but that he could offer a Christian interpretation on the same points.


@Wesley and @Altair, I agree that another episode with Bill would be great. We talked off-air about his further involvement with BioLogos, and it looks promising! And I too think the eye and how it does its magic is fascinating. Thanks for your interest.


But in the end, it does not amount to scientific proof, which means you should jump or not jump and in the end, it takes some knowledge and, and belief in a cognitive sense. And it takes some intuition. And it takes some sheer hope and faith and you have to jump and make a commitment and live out the life in the absence of certainty about the answer. And I think that sums up in a nutshell what the human condition is in the most important decisions we face in our lives. And I would point out that that’s exactly what the religious quest is like. I often say that I think religious belief is about a third cognitive assent and about a third intuition, and about a third sheer unadulterated hope. And I’m comfortable with that characterization. Just because I think it’s where we are as humans, it’s just the nature of things. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a theist or a non-theist, you’ve got to come to grips with that central nature of what it is to be human.

Thank you, @jstump for a series of podcasts which I think really takes us back to the scientific, philosophical, theological foundation of BioLogos.

Dr. Newsome makes a very good point. "You’ve got to come to grips with that central nature of what it is to be human." Many scientists seem to define science very narrowly as physics. This is in line with their assumption that everything is material or physical, but it results in the conclusion that to be human is to be purely physical. This circular thinking is false.

I agree with Dr. Newsome’s approach. We start with the central question of “What does it mean to be human?” We agree that to be human means to be physical, but we also see that to be human means also to be rational, or able to understand and be understood.

Of course since neuroscience is Dr. Newsome’s field, there is no question that humans can think, but are we natural? It seems to me that Darwin erased once and for all time the barrier between humans and nature, which is why we are still debating his theory.

We do not want to think of ourselves as part of Nature, God’s Creation. We prefer to think of ourselves as an uncreated Soul.

But humans are more than just a body and a mind. We are a body, mind, and spirit. Dr. Newsome says human life in its fullest is, `1) one third cognitive assent, that is rational, 2) one third intuition, which I take to be our faith understanding of God through relationship of the Spirit. or spiritual, and 3) one third sheer hope, which is our physical desire of eternal life. This is what it means to be human. It means to be natural as God made us along with the rest of Creation, but it also means to be able to relate to God and to be able to live eternally with God as God choses.

What do you imagine are necessary to bring about the third rock from the sun, the sun, conscientiousness and higher forms of intelligence? Does science address how matter and space and temperature and life come into existence from nothing, using any known principles?

I think it is brought about by prior states of the cosmos. It certainly is convenient as well as wonderful that conditions were ripe to bring about the singularity which has led to where we are now. For all I know consciousness may have been at work even then, but if so I cannot imagine what it could have been. I really don’t know but I don’t believe anyone else does either.


And if there were universes before this one, from what/where/how did they appear?
You can’t imagine literally a Force of some kind was/is behind it all? Why is it virtually impossible that others can tell/decide/understand how creation occurred? Are they special or naïve, foolish or highly intuitive? I think whether or not GOD is, is testable. In fact, allegedly GOD said this: “And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart.”
Let’s say I know someone personally who made that promise to me. Say along with finding him, I would be entitled to and would receive riches beyond what I could imagine, again all through seeking and finding him? Say he would provide me with as many real friends as I could want, wisdom galore, love for everyone, his companionship as long as I wanted it and more. For the sake of this discussion only, would you be interested in finding out if these claims were true?

No thank you. I’m not a blank slate. I already have faith commitments and have no insatiable hunger to answer all the origins questions.


Just for the sake of this discussion, that offer holds nothing of particular value to you? That is interesting.
Now, if I said that by calling a certain telephone number (quite a long one–36 digits–) you would receive $12,000,000 million dollars instantly, tax free, would you be interested or would you believe that you are not a tabula rasa and reject it outright?

This is not an interesting conversation.

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Sounds like one of those cons targeted at vulnerable people in order to cheat them out of their life savings

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If you said I wouldn’t get the reward until after I died I would certainly be skeptical.


I find it fascinating. Thanks for joining in. Take care. Nice talking with you, Mark.

It does. It sounds too good to be true. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields–along with persecutions–and in the age to come eternal life.”
What if He’s telling the truth? How could it be? What’s the catch Jesus? No one in a responsible position like you seem to be should walk around making absurd promises like that. Some might be suckered and get taken for everything. Jesus doesn’t seem to be the kind of person looking for a way to con people out of their money. Not from what I’ve learned about him over the years. So, what’s the deal? I give up everything for you and you in return pour out blessings on me one hundred fold in proportion to what I gave you? How do I give everything? To you? What are you talking about? BTW, I’ve got 2 mites.
And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury, and He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites. So He said, “Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had.”
Giving someone a cup of cold water out of devotion to you qualifies? And eternal life?