It is a common notion that science and spirituality are mutually opposed – either we rely on science to provide all the answers to the nature of things, or on spiritual or religious beliefs.
But can these two paths work together? Can we be spiritual and scientific, or are the two paths mutually exclusive? Before going deeper into that, let’s first define what we mean by these terms.
The word science comes from the Latin scientia, meaning ‘knowledge’. Science is the activity of building and organising knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe. It involves the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment, in order to come to a complete understanding of the fundamental principles underlying the physical universe.
Spirituality is perhaps a little harder to define, but it generally implies a focus not on the material level, but on the subtle or transcendent dimension within human experience. It includes the recognition of a supernatural or transcendent reality, i.e. one that exists beyond the perceivable or knowable realm. Spirituality also implies a certain focus on our emotional and inner subjective experience, how we relate to each other and to the world. While there are many spiritual traditions, they all seem to point to the same universal truth, and each religion provides its own interpretation of the universal truth based on its historical and cultural context. This is a perspective on spirituality known as perennial wisdom – that each of the world’s religious traditions share a single, metaphysical truth or origin from which all their doctrine has emerged, and following each tradition will lead the aspirant to that same universal truth.
Both science and spirituality share the same goal – seeking truth and understanding the essential nature of reality. At this fundamental level they complement each other. So why the apparent conflict between science and spirituality? Firstly, this has to do with dogma. Dogma is an attachment to a fixed set of beliefs or core assumptions that go unchallenged.
Within spirituality, this has led to more conflict between different traditions, religions and sects than within all of science.
Dogma is when a person follows a certain law that is an expression of a universal truth without fully understanding the truth on which that law is based. We find this happening a great deal in religion. For example, the Catholic Church believes that artificial contraception is sinful and immoral and so it’s a rule that in order to be faithful to the church one must not use contraception; a rule, along with others, that governs sexual behaviour. But what is the real reason for that? What could be the more essential truth behind that stance? In the yogic tradition we also find guidelines to using our sexual energy in a concept known as brahmacharya. Brahmacharya actually translates as ‘behaviour which leads to Brahman’ Brahman is the creator or ultimate reality, the understanding here is that our sexual energy is our most fundamental creative power, and as such it is considered sacred, and when preserved can be used as a force to empower our spiritual growth, to bring us closer to the creator or ultimate reality. This understanding could be put into various rules – no sex, no sex before marriage, sex but without ejaculation, etc. but what’s important is to understand the principle behind these indications of behaviour. If we don’t then we end up following them blindly, rigidly, dogmatically, and we become intolerant of other views, simply because we don’t understand the reason behind them.
This phenomenon might historically be more connected to religion, but science too has its dogmas. One of the biggest misunderstandings about science is that it provides us with proof. Contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as a scientific proof. Proofs exist only in mathematics and logic, not in science. What science does provide us with evidence – evidence based on observation, to support theories. A theory is an attempt to explain the observations, and to predict further phenomena. Theories are models of reality, not reality itself, and all science is merely the current best model and therefore must always be considered essentially provisional – ready to be replaced by the next more accurate model.
Perhaps the biggest mistake made here is the confusion between scientific inquiry, which consists of hypotheses, evidence and verification, and the prevailing scientific worldview, which is mechanistic and materialistic. This world view of scientific materialism, is the most simplistic explanation of reality: the belief that the only reality that exists is physical. Everything that is not physical, not measurable, or deducible from observation, is considered unreal. Life is explained in purely mechanical terms, and phenomena such as mind and consciousness are considered nothing but epiphenomena – by-products of the workings of the physical brain. No higher realities or spiritual truths independent from the physical world exist.
So to be clear, although this is the predominant scientific paradigm we find today, and it does an excellent job of explaining physical reality, it is not correct to say that this is the proven reality; it is a world-view, a belief system like all others. Scientific Materialism is the belief that only that which can be observed and measured through the method of scientific inquiry is real, and everything else is unreal. This is basically the same dogmatic attitude as that taken by the religious fundamentalist, who claims that only their interpretation of the truth is real and all others are false.
Another of the base assumptions of science is that all truths can be comprehended by reason alone. I recently viewed the first episode of the scientific television series Cosmos, in which the story of Giordano Bruno was told. Bruno was an Italian friar who was burned at the stake in 1600 by the Roman Inquisition for heresy. Bruno was presented as a martyr to the cause of modern astronomy. In a fantastic vision he saw that our Sun is a star and the stars are other suns with their own planets. This idea was completely new at that time and contradicted the current accepted view of reality, which was that the Earth was the centre of the universe and the Sun and all other planets revolved around it. In the episode, Bruno was somehow painted in the light of a true scientist – one who dares to challenge the currently accepted world-view in the search for a deeper understanding of reality.
What struck me as interesting, was the little attention given to how this knowledge was obtained, described by the presenter as just a ‘lucky guess’. Here we have arguably the greatest idea in the history of astronomy which came through a mystical vision, a revelation, and that process of acquiring knowledge was dismissed and not given any value because it does not fit into the scientific paradigm.
Interestingly, many great scientific discoveries have come through dreams and visions, and science itself is deeply rooted in ancient western mystical traditions, such as Alchemy and Kabbalah. In spiritual traditions, in addition to knowledge through reason, we find the idea of knowledge through revelation or direct experience. Indeed, this notion is somehow central, especially to the mystical traditions, that reality requires more than reason to be understood; it requires intuition and higher mental or spiritual faculties. The ultimate reality is not something that can be known or observed through the senses, only by direct experience, by becoming one with that reality.
So how do we reconcile these apparent differences between science and spirituality? One perspective is to view the whole process of understanding reality as undergoing its own evolution. That is to say that our world-views, our models of reality, evolve over time, reflecting the current cultural, social and intellectual level of our societies. This is the kind of notion explored in evolutionary psychology – that human development follows a set course of stages of development. This is a complex approach, and there are several systems, each with their own terminology and descriptions of the various stages, but put very simply, this is the idea that we will move from a more primitive and literal view of the world, to a more rational one, and eventually to a more integral, holistic one.
In the primitive stage, our world-view would rely on myths, imagination, symbols, stories, relying on the literal appearance of things. At this stage the world was literally created by God in seven days and the Earth is 6000 years old. The next stage of development is a move to a more rational approach, where the faculty of reason is given utmost importance. The world is understood by extracting laws from physical observation, and a firm and rational distinction is made between the inner world of feeling and the external world. At this stage the Earth must be older than 6000 years according to the physical laws we know. An evolution from there would be what we can call an integral or holistic worldview, in that it integrates the previous levels and transcends them. An integral or holistic vision would not dismiss reason but include reason as a valid way of acquiring correct knowledge of the world. However, this vision would also not dismiss the value of the inner, subjective experience. In this way the contemplative, mystical or meditative, transpersonal perspective would be included.
One of the benefits of this approach is that it provides us with a way to be less hasty in judging a certain perspective, labelling it as wrong, but rather seeing it as a stage of development that is necessary – in the way that we don’t say that a baby crawling is ‘wrong’, it is simply a stage of development leading to one that is higher and more complex. And this could be seen as one of the conflicts today between these different perspectives – each is trying to prove the other wrong rather than seeing them all as stages of development in a much bigger picture. Often these days, we hear the expression, “I’m spiritual, but not religious”, this is actually a recognition of moving from the primitive, mythic and literal view of spirituality to a more rational one.
In conclusion, it seems that indeed, science and spirituality can work harmoniously together, when neither are taken dogmatically, but rather both used as ways of exploring the nature of reality. The scientific method can even be used to explore supernatural phenomenon and mystical experience. While the cause of such experiences might be beyond the natural world and therefore outside the realm of science, the effects are in the natural world and therefore can be measured and observed. And much has already been investigated, including the efficacy of prayer, the phenomenon of telepathy, near-death experiences and precognition.
In scientific and mystical literature, we can also find amazing parallels between science and mysticism in their descriptions of the most fundamental nature of reality, more evidence to hint that they are uncovering the same fundamental truths. It’s clear that a more integrated approach of science and spirituality is needed in our world, where they can work together to deepen our understanding of the world and our place in it, and support the peaceful evolution of humanity. So let’s use all the methods at our disposal, and keep our minds and hearts open to explore this magnificent creation of which we are a part.