Tag: Spirituality

Are Spirituality and Science in Conflict?

This is in response to tit’s question on kiwi.qa, “For religious/spiritual folks: How compatible are scientific principles/theories with your beliefs? How have you struggled with any conflicts between the two?”

Good question, and the answer is there’s no contradiction, and I’ve never struggled with a conflict. Unfortunately, most people who care about science buy into science’s (ultimately unfounded) scientistic and physicalist precepts and their implications, such as the idea that there is no such thing as a soul, but none of that is proven or even provable by science. There is no experiment to show that there’s no soul, afterlife or reincarnation, there’s no such thing as an aura, the universe isn’t a living thing, there is no God, astrology is nonsense, chakras aren’t real, magic doesn’t exist, we’re not all fundamentally connected in some profound way, or many other such ideas. (Re magic and astrology, see also, respectively, this and this part of one of my essays.)

The underpinnings of the scientific view of the world that that are valid are what we think of as the laws of physics or the laws of nature. Physical laws, inferred from physical observation and experimentation and modeling, carve out specific relationships between cause and effect within the physical universe, but they don’t show or imply that those relationships are all that exist. They’re limited in their means of inference, and hence in their reach, to what’s observable by scientific instruments and is within the realm of testability and theorization. This implies they’re limited in a few other or more specific ways, such as (a) to very simple relationships between cause and effect, (b) to proximity in time and space (usually) between causes and effects (with some exceptions for exceedingly simple and obvious relationships, such as the effects of gravity), (c) to predictability based on mechanistic control rather than psychological principles, (d) to causes and effects that can be definitively, quantitatively measured, (e) to repeatable observations or events, etc.

Because of the immense efficacy of science in predicting and controlling the world, people eventually assumed that nature must be wholly mechanistic. But without being able to predict or control absolutely everything that happens, there’s no reason to assume this.

You could assert that the laws of physics leave no room for any other type of influence on events, but I’d say this is false. Again, the domains and contexts in which we surmise and verify physical theories are limited. Then there’s quantum mechanics to think about with its inherent unpredictability, which is where the mechanistic worldview of science bumps up against the open-endedness inherent in reality. If spirituality really means much, it should have some kind of influence in some way on our physical lives, and quantum “randomness” is probably an avenue for that influence.

It may sound like attributing spiritual influence on physical reality to the unpredictability inherent in quantum mechanics is a “god of the gaps” theory, but you have to remember that the idea that the world is made entirely of mechanical, non-living stuff was gratuitous in the first place. There never was a time when science predicted everything; it just assumed everything was inherently predictable and hence mechanistic and essentially lifeless as an extrapolation from the limited scope of phenomena it was able to predict and control. When quantum physics came around this inertia scientific thinking had gained lingered, and hence people assumed that either the inherent randomness of quantum mechanics either (a) just arises from mechanisms-as-such that we don’t understand yet, or (b) is “absolutely random” and meaningless. But instead, it should have caused us to retract a little the entirely mechanistic and lifeless view of reality we’ve developed in the first place.

“How gibbering man becomes, when he is really clever, and thinks he is giving the ultimate and final description of the universe! Can’t he see that he is merely describing himself, and that the self he is describing is merely one of the more dead and dreary states that man can exist in?” —D. H. Lawrence

To be fair, after writing this post I was reminded by a particular conversation that it’s not entirely true that I’ve never struggled with a conflict. There is one thing in neuroscience that bugs me, and it’s that so many of the faculties or properties of what we consider to be “just us,” or natural abilities of consciousness, are actually shown by experiment to be associated with specific regions of the brain and can be acutely affected by damage to those regions.

We already knew, of course, that the function of the brain is closely tied to the mind or consciousness, though it’s not proven that this means that consciousness is produced by the brain, any more than a TV produces the television shows you watch on it.  (If one didn’t know better, one could be tempted to think that it does because if you damage the TV in certain ways the observed television show will also be affected or even blacked out, in the same manner that damaging the brain can impair or even appear to annihilate consciousness.)

But when you get into just how specifically myriad functions of our mind are associated with specific areas of the brain and potentially impairable this way, it’s somewhat hard to reconcile this with a belief that our minds survive pretty much the way they are in life after we die and are hence completely independent of our brains. I have no problem thinking of possible ways this can be reconciled, but the issue still irks me a little because those ways seem a bit reaching without having some other compelling reason to believe their attendant assumptions are true.

But I still believe what I believe, because I’ve had compelling enough reason to, so unless and until I understand the issue better I’ll have to chalk up the apparent conflict to the fact that our puny analytical minds are largely ill-equipped to fathom the mysteries of the cosmos that lie beyond the aspects of it we’re able to experience as corporeal, sensorial humans and the modality we experience them in.