Science and Spirituality

A few scattered thoughts on the relationship between science and spirituality.

Historically One

Historically, science and spirituality were not distinct. If one looks at Greek or Medieval knowledge, one sees that the subject matter of science and the subject matter of spirituality are intermixed without distinction. The division between the study of wordly things and the study of spiritual things was recommended by St. Augustine. Science emerged as a uniquely charaterized discipline, similar to its current form, with figures such as Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton.

Science Defined by Tradeoffs

The creation of science in its current form was driven by a motivation to acquire accurate knowledge of the physical world. Prior to modern science, the available texts on the subject matter of science were sketchy, incomplete, and filled with wild inaccuracies. The content of these texts was accepted unquestioningly, because the people who wrote them were considered to be authorities, and people were unlikely to take the time to verify their claims.

Modern science uses several strategies to ensure the solidity of its knowledge, including:

1. The subordination of the personal and subjective to the impersonal and objective.
2. The focus on details and fine distinctions.
3. The tendency for individuals to specialize in a particular narrow topic and devote much time and energy to getting the correct answers on that topic.
4. The use of methods of knowledge discovery which can be replicated by anybody.
5. The questioning of established knowledge.
6. The use of strictly logical bases for knowledge, excluding the reliance on feeling or intuition.

These stragical biases have proven to be very effective in furnishing us with accurate knowledge of the physical world. However, I suggest that they should be regarded as tradeoffs. In focusing on objective details instead of subjective generalities, one is surely likely to miss certain things. Similarly, restricting what is regarded as knowledge to what can be verified is likely to exclude some useful knowledge. These strategical biases help to avoid many falsehoods, but it is likely that some important truths are being thrown out along with the falsehoods.

Science only studies the physical world. It does not study our subjective experience. Therefore scientific knowledge is only of the physical world, and of our subjective experience only insofar as it can be studied indirectly through the physical world.

This leads to one possible interpretation of physicalism. Having studied only the physical world, after discovering that nothing else can be studied rigorously, one then concludes that the world equals the physical world. With the hypothesis that experience equals brain activity, one attempts to extend one’s knowledge of the physical world (the thing that one has been studying) to encompass subjective experience (the thing that one has not been studying, but has been ignoring). Under this interpretation, physicalism amounts to little more than the optimistic belief that what we cannot explain can be explained in terms of what we can explain.

I suspect that:

(H.1) Every phenomenon whatsoever can be given an explanation that is consistent with physicalism.

However, it is also the case that, for instance, every phenomenon whatsoever can be explained within a Biblical framework. (In the worst case, we say that it is God deceiving us.) So (H.1), though probably true, shows mainly that it is easy to give explanations. It does not reasonably follow that:

(H.2) Every phenomenon whatsoever can be given a correct explanation that is consistent with physicalism.

Differently Shaped Brains

One thing preventing the reconciliation of science with spirituality is the fact that they require very differently shaped mental states. To be scientific requires a certain mindset: logical, objective, detail-oriented, etc. To be spiritual requires another mindset, significantly vaguer and more intuitive than the mindset required for science. Furthermore, the ability to assume either of these mindsets is something that is difficult to acquire well, probably requiring years of practice.

Many people involved in spirituality do not understand science, because they lack the ability to enter the required mindset. Many people involved in science do not understand spirituality, because they lack the ability to enter the required mindset. One simply cannot know what either of these fields of human activity is about without reshaping one’s mind to accomodate it. But it is seldom for a single individual to have significant abilities with both of these mindsets. This makes it difficult for common ground to develop between science and spirituality.

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