Spirituality and the practice of science

The notion of spirituality pertains to the practice of science in two ways. First, the spiritual character of scientists sometimes informs the ways in which they conduct scientific research. Indeed, some scientists like the astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) regarded their scientific research as a type of spiritual discipline. Second, for practitioners of the human sciences the recognition of a spiritual dimension in the people they study can have implications for how they work. It is also plausible to posit a relationship between these two points.

Scientists who acknowledge a spiritual dimension in their own experience are probably more inclined to regard spirituality as a relevant feature of the people they study. Likewise, scientists with no spiritual inclinations are probably less attentive to what others call the spiritual aspects of life. The psychologists William James (1842–1910) and Sigmund Freud (1856–1958) respectively illustrate these tendencies. Religious experience figured prominently in James’s corpus of psychological writings as it did in his own personal life. Freud professed no religious commitments himself and sought to explain religion in others with reductive appeals to ideas such as wish fulfillment and obsessional neurosis. The Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel (1822–1884) is an exception to the pattern of religious scientists attending to spiritual aspects of their subject matter because he formulated general principles of inheritance without speculation about applications to spiritual traits in human beings.

Charles Darwin (1809–1882) is a partial exception to the pattern of non-religious scientists having little sense for the spiritual dimensions of what they study. Even though he eventually lost his religious faith, he retained until his death a sense of wonder at the complexity and beauty of nature’s ways, including evolution by natural selection.

In contemporary Western culture spirituality is an ambiguous and vague notion. Part of its ambiguity arises because many people using the term insist upon defining it in their own way for their own purposes. Part of its vagueness occurs because it is often defined by what it is not (e.g., religion) and in relation to terms in well-known dichotomies (e.g., spirit versus matter). Given the focus here on the practice of science, spirituality will be identified with reference not to the ontological dualism of classical Greek philosophy (e.g., spirit versus matter), but to the phenomenological differentiation of whole and part. Most scientists think that spirituality loses relevance to the practice of science insofar as it presupposes aspects of archaic worldviews.

The spirituality of human experience is conceived as having outer and inner aspects. Facing outward, human existence is spiritual insofar as one engages reality as a maximally inclusive whole and makes the cosmos an intentional object of thought and feeling. Facing inward, life has a spiritual dimension to the extent that it is apprehended as a project of a person’s most enduring and vital self and is structured by experiences of sudden self-transformation and subsequent gradual development.

These two formulations need not be rigidly separated. Their integration is well expressed in first-century C.E. Roman writer Seneca’s dramatic ideal: Toti se inserens mundo (“Plunging oneself into the whole world”; Epistulae ad Lucilius, 66.6).

Considered as a whole, the spiritual dimension of human life is the embodied task of realizing one’s truest self in the context of reality apprehended as a cosmic whole, of attaining an optimal relationship between what one truly is and everything that is.

The human relationship to the whole of reality has been variously expressed. In The Republic (532b) Plato (c. 427–347 B.C.E.) attributed to philosophers a supramental apprehension (dialektos or dialectic) of goodness itself. In 1984, the biologist Edward O. Wilson coined the word biophilia to mean “an innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes” (p. 1). In mystic and naturalistic idioms respectively these phrases identify a relationship with the world that is facilitated by scientific knowledge but that is rife with wider meanings. These two thinkers hold that whether people attain this relationship has momentous consequences: Wise government is at stake for Plato and biological diversity for Wilson.

The Spirituality of scientists

The practical implications of the spirituality of scientists are consequent to characteristic metaphysical and methodological principles. Three are of special importance: holism, realism, and determinism.

The Greek notion of kosmos (cosmos) as a limited, ordered whole provides the basic concept that Pythagorean and Platonic philosophy elaborated into a doctrine of metaphysical holism. Noting that diverse phenomena such as the movements of heavenly bodies, the harmonies of musical octaves, and the shapes of physical objects can be described with mathematical concepts, the Pythagoreans posited an underlying unitary numerical principal (arithmos or number). According to Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.), some Pythagoreans gave such great priority to one numerical archetype—the decad—that they posited the “counter-earth” in order to instantiate it (Metaphysics 985b 22). When added to sun, moon, and the seven planets observable to the naked eye, the counter-earth became the tenth heavenly body. Practices like this have discredited naïvely metaphysical versions of holism, but the viewpoint survives in more modest methodological forms such as an aversion to descriptive forms of reductionism. Freud’s reduction of religious phenomena to psychological factors is a prominent form of such reductionism.

Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical principles of natural philosophy) of 1687 proposed mathematical principles that govern “the system of the world.” In a famous scholium in this work Newton set forth the absolute framework of space and time that is the precondition for the system. Although renowned for his aversion to speculative hypotheses (hypotheses non fingo) Newton offered no inductive argument for this absolute framework but, as in the case of the universal law of gravitation, he appealed informally to the will of God as an ultimate cause. Newton is typical of seventeenth-century scientists whose dual inheritance of Greek rationalism and biblical theism combined to give them great confidence that the world is real and orderly and that its order is knowable by human beings.

Scientists whose spirituality posits reality as God’s creation tend to find social constructionism uncongenial. For instance, ways of understanding religion similar to Peter Berger’s and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality (1966) allow religion parity with other socially constructed phenomena but diminish its capacity to evoke awe and devotion. Sociological studies report higher levels of communal worship and private prayer among persons who identify themselves as traditionally religious than among more liberal religious persons and more diffusely spiritual respondents.

Many Western scientists have seen God’s presence in providential care as well as in aboriginal creativity. Albert Einstein (1879–1955) is preeminent among such scientists in the twentieth century. Physicist Niels Bohr (1885–1951) said that Einstein once expressed reservations about a probabilistic interpretation of quantum mechanics by declining to consider “whether God plays dice with the universe.” Einstein’s commitment to deterministic explanations motivated him to seek an interpretation of quantum mechanics more compatible with his way of thinking than Bohr’s idea of complementarity and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. In a like fashion Einstein’s good friend Kurt Gödel (1906– 1978)—a mathematical Platonist—was not ready to allow his own limitative theorems to be the final word in mathematical logic; he preferred to think that more powerful axioms would one day be forthcoming. Spirituality sometimes motivates scientists to seek systems of thought more synthetic than those with which their colleagues are satisfied.

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