Being an engineer all my life, I have always been interested in matters of the science, and I’ve always had a somewhat conflicted relationship to religion. On the one hand, for anyone interested in humanity’s further evolution, it’s hard not to be excited by the latest findings of a discipline that, in a single 20th century, has managed to cure polio, crack the genetic code, send a probe to Saturn’s largest moon, and invent the Internet. But on the other hand, there is something about science’s tendency to reduce even life’s greatest mysteries to the movements of matter alone that has always left me a little chilled. In the face of this unfolding world of meaning, purpose, and mystery, the notion that science held the keys to ultimate truth began to seem increasingly hard to accept. One result of this split personality is that whenever I’m confronted with the battle between science and religion, I always find it hard to take sides and end up in a sort of internal battle of my own.

The thriving field of neuroscience promises to fill that void and then some. Employing powerful new methods for studying the intimate workings of the brain, the pioneers of this increasingly self-assured discipline aspire to demonstrate once and for all that the mind, emotions, and even consciousness itself are entirely generated by the three-pound lump of gray matter in our skulls. For a generation of researchers in this field, the prime directive is to prove what Nobel laureate Francis Crick, who turned to neuroscience after co-discovering the DNA helix, called “the astonishing hypothesis”:

That “you, your joys and sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and freewill are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. You are nothing but a pack of neurons.”

Despite the insistence of neuroscientists that our brains are the sole source of our experience and behavior, there are very strong reasons why most of us don’t want to believe that this is the case. For most of us with religious or spiritual inclinations, accepting such a premise would eradicate, in one fell swoop, one of our most basic convictions—the belief in an immaterial SOUL or (if we’re Buddhists) “mind essence” that transcends the physical body. Even for those of us who do not count themselves among the religious people, the notion that we are entirely reducible to brain stuff still seems to take away something essential—our humanity, our dignity, our sense of meaning.

There is something about the experience of consciousness itself, some kind of mystery inherent in the fact that we are conscious at all, that seems irreducible to the mere firing of our neurons. As convinced as the neuroscientists are of their case, I can’t help feeling there must be more to the story.

I would have to dive into the unknown waters of brain science and find out for myself what the fuss is all about. What does it actually mean to say that our brains are the sole source of our experience? What evidence is there to prove it? And assuming it was true, would that mean that all of our spirituality is a trick?