Part I: Science and Spirituality Both Seek to Understand Reality (So Why the Supposed Incompatibility?)
I love having real, deep conversations about the interplay between spirituality and science. My hope is that this series of articles can open more of these spaces via the comments section and via the in-person conversations I hope it will inspire.
As long as you can engage respectfully, your thoughts and perspectives on these shares are very much welcomed and encouraged.
Attempting to balance my spirituality with my (what I believe to be) healthy skepticism is a big part of my life.
Simply put, I am looking to develop a way of understanding the world and of being in it that harmoniously blends both a spiritual and a scientific approach to life.
But what does it even mean to have a spiritual, respectively a scientific approach to life?
"When I say I'm meditating, I'm just trying to figure out what the fork is happening. I think we might be in an alien zoo, or on a prank show." – The Good Place, s01e04
At this moment in time, I see spirituality as a sense that there’s fundamentally more to who we are and what reality is – a “more” I can’t quite put my finger on, but that feels important – paired with a longing for understanding this “more”.
As for science, I see it as a social activity (and as such shaped by human psychology, both for better and worse) which aims to gather accurate knowledge of reality and of ourselves, via the use of the scientific method. If you’re unfamiliar with the scientific method, here is a great explanation of it.
So far, so good: acknowledging that there is always “more” to be known, more unknown left to be explored, is compatible with both a spiritual and a scientific attitude to life.
So where does the supposed incompatibility between science and spirituality come from?
I believe it partly stems from disagreement over which ways of understanding this “more” – which methods – actually lead to an accurate understanding of reality.
Some people believe that science can explain everything; in other words, that we can explain everything about our reality through the scientific method.
This guy would probably agree.
Other people claim that there are truths beyond what the human mind can understand. Hence science has its limits, and this knowledge should be sought via different methods. For instance, take the following definitions of mystics:
“A person who seeks by contemplation and self-surrender to obtain unity with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or who believes in the spiritual apprehension of truths that are beyond the intellect.” (source)
“A person who claims to attain, or believes in the possibility of attaining, insight into mysteries transcending ordinary human knowledge, as by direct communication with the divine or immediate intuition in a state of spiritual ecstasy.” (source)
Reading these definitions, I can’t help but see a parallel between how scientists use the scientific method, and how mystics use the methods of contemplation and self-surrender, all in an attempt to gain accurate knowledge about reality.
What if scientists were to use contemplation as a research method? There are scientists who believe that science could be expanded via such introspective approaches, and who propose developing systematic methods to investigate reality via introspection. If you’re curious to learn more, the Galileo Commission Report details this proposal and the reasoning behind it.
Personally, I believe the scientific method is a brilliant way to learn about our reality. It enables us to step into the unknown aspects of our world and advance our knowledge in a systematic way – it is slow, but reliable.
While I think there could potentially be some limits to the knowledge we can acquire through science, I believe we still have a long way to go before we reach them.
And while I could see systematic introspection filling up quite a lot of that gap, there’s something even more fundamental that science has been missing.
Something that’s been staring us in the face all along.
Sometimes, the Pragmatic Choice Is Living With the Mystery – A personal share about balancing science and spirituality in my own life.
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