Science and Spirituality

I wrote this letter in correspondence with a friend whose favorite authors include “the New Atheists” — Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, and of an earlier generation, Carl Sagan. Below is a quote by Richard Dawkins that my friend shared with me, and my rather lengthy response which is part of a larger conversation we have been having for many years:

“Spirituality can mean something that I’m very sympathetic to, which is, a sort of sense of wonder at the beauty of the universe, the complexity of life, the magnitude of space, the magnitude of geological time. All those things create a sort of frisson in the breast, which you could call spirituality. But, I would be very concerned that it shouldn’t be confused with supernaturalism. — Richard Dawkins

The following is my response. It will be apparent that I think “spirituality” is a very slippery word with multiple possible subjective meanings; that I am a friend of science and a lover of nature; that I am a multi-disciplinary humanist with an appreciation for all the vital domains of liberal knowledge; that I am an epistemological pluralist in the pragmatic spirit of William James; that I regard something like “mind-body” (neutral monism) as possibly pervasive in the universe and human consciousness as probably irreducible, non-local and resistant to reductive neuroscience; and I am a harsh critic of reductive scientism that reduces the universe, life, consciousness and culture to mere illusionary epiphenomena that materialistic science can explain away:

It seems to me that “spirituality” is popular a “weasel word” that can mean just about anything wants it to mean, a kind of cipher where one fills in the blank. When I taught a course at SOU in the philosophy departments some years ago on “spirituality in higher education,” that is what I observed as I asked students to right their definitions of “spirituality.” Their definitions went everywhere and no where. I’m not saying we can’t use the word, but it has become unhinged and unhitched from its root word “spirit” as some higher, transcendent, numinous or meta-physical source of life, meaning and purpose. We still speak of “school spirit” as an enthusiasm for a team we like and cheer for, or even of certain persons being “spirited,” by which we mean they have enthusiasm for life.

I wonder if you may be confusing and conflating “science” with “nature.” One can a sense of wonder at the beauty of the universe, the complexity of life, the magnitude of space, the magnitude of geological time, and much else besides, and yet not necessarily be either an amateur scientist or a professionally paid scientist. These are given or tacit “human”, “emotional” and “aesthetic” responses to the grandeur and delicacy of the natural world. Millions of humans across the ages and in all cultures, scientists or not, have felt a sense of wonder before the wonder and splendor, and we might also add terror and horror of the natural world, whether they could assign astronomically huge numbers to the size of the universe or the age of the earth or not.

When scientists materialists who have just praised the wonders of the universe, of life, of human beings, of human consciousness, moral awareness, aesthetic appreciation, philosophical inquiry, literary narrative, relational empathy, etc. go on to reductively “explain away” our innate or tacit sense of wonder in the presence of nature and human nature as mere illusions or epiphenomenon of an essentially meaningless, mindless, soulless and unconscious universe, are they not taking away with the right hand (rational explicit reductive left brain) what they have just appeared to grant with their left hand (intuitive tacit holistic right brain)? Why do you suppose so many people around the world have the strong impression that scientists are just number counters who like to measure and count everything, to notice quantities but to overlook qualities? This all traces back to Descartes’ disastrous distinction between what he called quantifiable primary properties and non-quantifiable (or qualitative) secondary properties. That itself is an arbitrary and misleading distinction. In time it gave birth to the philosophical error of scientific reductionism. We are still suffering from Descartes’ error which he adopted from Galileo. But that’s a longer conversation that authors have taken books to unravel.

Further, to suggest that “spirituality” – defined as a sense of wonder in the midst of grandeur of nature and life – is the special domain of science and of scientists, is to overlook the importance of the sense of wonder and grandeur in the domains of philosophy, history, poetry, literature, music and the arts, and especially in every day life for billions of human beings have no special interest in raising up the totem of “science” as a kind of secular god. It is another example of some scientists, certainly not all, indulging in self-important overreaching. I’m always happy when I read scientists, science writers and nature writers who are also poets, artists, literati and philosophers with an acute sense of beauty and wonder, writers like Loren Eiseley whose books I love. And I appreciate science writers who love nature, life, and the marvels of consciousness and culture, who celebrate the achievements and gains of scientific work, and at the same time respect the limits of science in the search for meaning (The Island of Knowledge, by Marcelo Gleiser).

I think some people became scientists artists, poets, literati, historians or philosophers in the first place because of their primal and prior sense of wonder, whether expressed through the languages of artistic performance, poetic diction, imaginative narratives, philosophical ideas or scientific investigations. “spirituality” as a sense of wonder in the presence of nature, life and human intelligence and creativity is a given or tacit capacity of all human beings who have not been damaged, traumatized or stunted in some serious way. It is hardly the private reserve or unique domain of scientists who want to be “first among equals,” or more, the universal authoritative arbiters of the broad and pluralistic life of the mind. I don’t hear our great writers and creators in the humanities and the arts needing to defend their hospitality toward “spirituality.” Science is a special case precisely because many reductive scientists have such a bad reputation to science as a breeding ground for presumptive cynics, skeptics and debunkers of everything that gives sanctity, value, nobility and transcendence to the universe and human life. Science has many friends throughout the world but scientism will always be a party of few.


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