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.


On Appeals to “God” in American Presidental Politics and Professional Sports

Have you ever noticed how often some reference to “God” or “the Big Man Upstairs” is referred to in American presidential politics and professional sports?

Yesterday after winning the Super Bowl Payton Manning thanked “the Big Man Upstairs” for helping his team to win. Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks believes that “God” cares who wins the Super Bowl. Other athletes have said they are not so sure. And some have said that God either doesn’t exist or has “He” (God is always a single male in sports and politics) has no interest at all in our American past-times and sports teams.

Nearly all political candidates – whether liberal or conservative, communitarian or libertarian – involve the name of “God” as their supreme source of spiritual guidance and moral strength. This obscure gnostic deity is invoked as a cipher that can mean pretty much anything one want’s it to mean. It is a “contentless banner.” The main thing is that this presumed deity — the highest order of reality — is on our side authorizing the legitimacy and ascendency of our team, party, cause, agenda, policies, campaign, crusade.

Of course some purists would insist that the important this is that we are on God’s side rather than that God is on our side, as if there is any real difference when human rhetoric, semantics, preaching and propaganda are concerned. We can find biblical proof-texts for any position on any issue we wish to take.

Throughout the ages man has continued to “re-imagine and re-invent God” as a transcendent, immanent and/or relational spirit, power, essence or entity; a pervasive presence, an eternal being, an emergent process, a universal mind, a righteous will, a compassionate heart, a suffering servant, a strict parent, and beloved friend, a passionate lover, a creative soul, the ineffable Tao, the unnamable Source “in which we live and move and have our being.” Man continually constructs and deconstructs the cipher and chimera we call God. One can appreciate why some religious communities prefer not to write the name of God, but rather to refer to god as “GXD” to emphasis the mysterious and unknowable, the inscrutable and bewildering.

I am not interested in settling for others the question as to whether this mysterious (some would say paradoxically hidden and self-revealing) GXD actually exists in any meaningful sense of the word, but only to notice how we “use” this weasel word in popular culture, especially in presidential politics and in professional sports. The word “God” continues to be a part of our popular American lexicon, however obscure, evasive, polyvalent and protean its meaning. For a majority of Americans it continues to be a touchstone, a talisman, a vague reference to something higher, spiritual, moral uplifting, but what that “something” is and what principles and values it stands for is anybody’s guess. In the American Civil War both the Union and Confederate soldiers believed they were killing their estranged brothers for a righteous cause and that God was on their side. Eisenhower said, “I think Americans should believe in God, and I don’t care which one.”

Some people foolishly think the lesson here is that if people no longer believe in God that all the conflict, cruelty, hatred and killing around the world will stop. But when men stop fighting and killing “for God” they find something else, some other highest value and belief, to take God’s place, whether blood and soul, nation and race. In so far as God is a projection of our plurality of human values and interests, man will always fight for these when they appear to be threatened by competing values and interests. Whether he fights in the name of God or Man, Religion or Science, Aristocracy or Democracy, Tribalism or Nationalism, man will attempt to justify his fear, hatred, arrogance and violence under the name of one abstract reified cipher or another. Today in the secular west when appeals to God are in decline, man will continue to call upon various other ciphers such as honor, courage, freedom and patriotism to make war on the enemies of the homeland. Whether God or no God, man will always find some cipher under which he is more than eager to fight to the death and create more killing fields.

Friends in Part: A Realist Approach to Relationships

There still persists in our popular American culture the rather sentimental notion that “somewhere out there in the great world is your soul-mate or soul-twin who is simply waiting for you to find them,” and when you do you will find that you have “everything in common,” “that you can talk about everything with each other,” that you find the other “endlessly fascinating,” and that “you will find true happiness in the arms of someone who knows, understands and loves you totally.” They and they alone will “complete you.” Without them you are but half a person. This sentimental notion is the theme of many popular romantic movies and adolescent novels.

We want to believe it. But at the same time our everyday life experience tells us something entirely different. It tells us that it is more healthy, honest and realistic to accept that we can be “friends in part” without having to have “everything in common.” There is always a necessary “distance” in even the best of relationships. Contemplative solitude and even times of profound loneliness are as important to human development as experiences of closeness and intimacy.

As we grow into ever more complex and many-sided individuals, it is likely that we will come to appreciate and enjoy many different kinds of people without expecting that they be only mirrors of ourselves. Freud said “we love ourselves in each other.” Maybe so. But there is more to us than this. We can learn to value otherness as much as sameness, the strange as much as the familiar. And so some of our friends will be introverts and some extroverts, some intuitive types and some sensory types. Some will be feeling oriented and some thinking oriented. Some will be aesthetic perceivers and some ethical judgers. And of course many will be different combination of these four sets of Jungian temperamental tendencies, just as we are. We are likely to find both sameness and difference in our circle of friends.

When we are living with those whose temperamental predisposition, beliefs, values, interests, tastes and concerns are extremely different than our own, it is not surprising that we will feel existentially lonely and out of place, as if we were born to the wrong family or tribe. Naturally we will look for those who are more like us temperamentally, socially, and in other ways. In my experience it was largely during the college and post-graduate years of the ’60s and ’70s that I first found such like-minded friends. I had a strong general interest not only in philosophy, religion and literature, but also in music and the arts, science and technology, psychology and sociology, ethics and politics. I was fascinated by high culture, pop culture and folk culture.  In particular I discovered the joy of learning and the life of the mind within the context of the university world. My “quality life” would never be the same. I eventually recognized myself to be an instinctual “generalist” in a society that rewards its “specialists.” And so it was through broad reading that I eventually stumbled upon “polymaths” — historical and contemporary — who shared a passionate general interest in many fields of human knowledge and life experience. These would be my secret society of “soul friends” and “wisdom community.”

But having found my own “tribe of generalists” I gradually came to appreciate people who were quite different from myself, including specialists of many kinds. These came to include persons who had specialized in the particular realms of the arts, the sciences, human and social services, theological reflection and spiritual guidance, leadership and enterprise, office management and administration, and the various crafts and trades.

I also became aware that I had grown up successively among people of different social, economic, educational and cultural classes, and that I had had to learn to relate to persons across the entire American social class system, whether welfare class, working class, lower-middle-and upper middle class, and upper class. Spending my adult career primary in ministry and education as well as human services and leadership development gave me this opportunity to broaden my range of adaptability to different kinds of people. In retirement I have had the opportunity to expand my range of interests and appreciation for different kinds of persons in many walks of life yet again.

I have also found that those with only an elementary or high school level education naturally tend to think about human and social problems in basically black-or-white dogmatic and confrontational ways, while those with college and post-graduate levels of education tended to value a greater measure of creative tension, dialectic, compromise and dialogue. This has to do with the various “stages” and “processes” of cognitive, emotive, social and moral development. The more highly and generally educated seem to be more at home in the presence of mystery, complexity, ambiguity and paradox rather than needing to be absolutely and exclusively right while insisting that all those who disagree with them are totally wrong. They tend to move toward epistemological and cultural pluralism and away from authoritarian dogmatism. Also, they tend to value thoughtful, reflective, temperate and respectful discourse rather than a slugfest of name-calling, insults, accusations and feuds. They generally get along with other people, and bring out the best in the people they meet.

I am not saying that after we have passed through our adolescent and young adult “rites of passage” that we will attain such broad knowledge and diverse experience that we will be able to relate to all kinds of people equally well. In fact, we will find some people quite distasteful and annoying, rude and vulgar, dull and clueless, tabloid and trite,  brutish and boorish, pedantic and arrogant. Choose your adjectives. But we will also learn to cut others some slack, to make allowances for differences, to understand the divergent temperaments and social conditions under which various persons have lived their lives.

Finally, we will learn that it is “good enough” to be “friends in part.”


On the Lost Art of Journaling, Poetic Sensibility & Letter Writing

It’s now been slightly over a year since I posted my last blog and this seemed a good time to re-start the process. Whether I’ll have the discipline to stay with it remains to be seen, but I do know there is something both therapeutic and creative about blogging as a reflection of my inner thought life and response to the world in which we live. Those of you who are bloggers and those of you who read these blogs will know what I mean. It is like whispering the depths of our minds and the secrets of our souls to anyone on the planet who cares to be listening. In some ways it occurs to me that blogging may serve some if not all of the functions that journaling, literary reviews and letter writing to close friends once fulfilled in our culture.

I suspect that the age of journaling (diary writing), poetic sensibility and letter writing was not only a time before digital media and social networking when the pace of life was considerable slower than today, but also when the inner world of the “introverted intuitive” (whether feeling or thinking) was given considerably more cultural value than it is in today’s psychologically extroverted and sensation based society of hyper-busyness, pressure, superficiality and distraction. Whenever I turn aside from whatever I’m doing to reflect upon and savor such delightful and illuminating web-sites as Maria Popova’s “Brain Pickings” or listen to Krista Tippett’s sensitive pod cast “On Being” I realize that I am once again among my own tribe of “introverted intuitive feeling and thinking types,” among artists and intellectuals who have raised their journalistic and literary disciplines to secular yet sacramental forms of spiritual practice. I adore these dear women as the great souls that they are, and am not surprised that they are friends. They seem to have much in common with both the German (Goethe) and English Romantics (Wordsworth), and with the American Transcendentalists as led by Emerson and Thoreau. But Povova and Tippett are highly educated, fiercely inquisitive “modern women” living in the digital age, and so their range of exposure to human knowledge and worldview perspectives is wider still.

Such gifted intellectual, artistic, literary and spiritual “savants” are astute observers of our misguided culture, and they are practitioners of a wide spectrum of profound wisdom. They value perception as much as judgment (Carl Jung), the tacit dimension as much as the explicit dimension (Michael Polanyi), the background context as much as the foreground content, the intuitive, symbolic, metaphorical and narrative right-brain hemisphere as much as the rational, empirical, analytical, data-oriented left-brain hemisphere (Iain Mc Gilchrist’s “The Master and His Emissary,”) the musical and poetic as much as the mathematical and scientific (James S. Taylor’s “Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education,” The Platonic visionary as much as the Aristotelian investigative (Arthur Herman’s The Cave and the Light: Plato and Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization,” and meditative inner stillness as much as conversation and talking (Susan Cain’s “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.”

Where can wisdom be found today? It seems to me that it can be found in those places where it has always been found, in the quiet places where the body is relaxed, the mind is awake, the heart is open, the soul is passionate, the will is disciplined and the spirit is receptive to the timely and eternal echoes of immanent transcendence. Journal writing, literary sensibility and letter writing all put us in touch with this ageless wisdom that has been forgotten amidst the superficial and distracting chatter of the 24/7 news cycle, game shows, sports spectacles, reality TV, Facebook, twitter, I-phones, celebrity gossip, political posing, sensational headlines,  mass media saturation, and the rest.

One final point: Those who prefer to live in the noisy, hurried, pressured and combative world that is psychologically and socially “outside” tend to think in black-or-white dichotomies, in reductive quantitative measurements and abstract numbers, in dogmatic certitudes and resolute absolutes — whether they are politically to the left or right, and whether they are theists, atheists, pantheists or polytheist. What unites them is they are zealots for their partisan ideological causes rather than seeking the universal wisdom of integrative pluralism, of “many-sided and partial truths that always seek the  illusive greater whole.” Those who are at home in the quiet, relaxed, contemplative and cooperative world that is “within seekers” and “between friends” are at ease in the presence of “learned ignorance,” “negative capability,” of mystery, wonder, ambiguity and paradox. Perhaps that is why “poetry is the argument we have with ourselves, and politics is the argument we have with everyone else.” Our world today is in danger of identifying so exclusively with the outer ego-centered self in the outer polarized world of endless adversary relationships that it forgets the beauty of the world, the humanity that unites us, the possibilities for transcendence, and the language of the soul.