The Questionable Authority

Science and spirituality

New Scienceblogger Rob Knop has written a couple of posts explaining his own religious views and raising one of those questions that usually manages to get people worked up here: are science and spirituality compatible? That’s a question that I’ve found myself thinking about more than usual lately, and with mixed feelings. I’m still not sure exactly where I stand on the whole religion thing, and I don’t think I could describe my own views even at gunpoint. But I am comfortable saying this much: for at least some definitions of “spirituality,” science and spirituality are compatible.

I suppose that this should be something that goes without saying, but I’ve thought that and been wrong before: everything I’m going to say about spirituality reflects my own views only. I am not trying to speak for anyone (much less everyone) else.

For me, the word “spirituality” includes that special sense of wonder and awe that arrives at unpredictable moments. I can’t come within a country mile of an adequate description of the feeling, but I suspect that I’m not the only one who has experienced something like it.

It’s that feeling that you might get watching a new living thing – human or cat, fish or fowl – emerge into the world for the first time.

It’s the sense that might come when you first pick up a fossil, and realize just how much time – what an unimaginable depth of years – separates you from the living thing that lived and died, and left behind only the fragile traces that you are holding.

It’s the wonder that might come when you see your first ruined castle, and look at the land that it commanded, and wonder about the people who lived inside. It’s the emotion that you might feel when you first see a famous work of art outside of a book.

And, yes, it’s a feeling that you might have when you walk into the nave of a cathedral.

The sensation I’m trying to describe might come the first time you look at the insides of a cell, or watch it divide, or the first time that you look through a telescope large enough to let you see Jupiter as a real planet, and not just a light in the sky.

It’s the sense that I think Sam Clemens was trying to capture in Huckleberry Finn, when he wrote this:

We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened.

It’s a feeling that what you are experiencing, what you are feeling, is something special. It’s a sense that there is more to this universe than you imagined, and that you fit into it. It’s a feeling that this is right – that it is good.

It’s something that doesn’t only happen the first time you discover something. It could happen at the most ordinary of times. It could happen the seventy third time that you get DNA sequence data, or the ninety third time you look at a rainbow, or the eight hundred thirty-sixth time you check on your sleeping child.

Or it could happen at none of those times. Or at hundreds of other ones.

This sort of “spiritual” sense does not necessarily correspond to any sort of theism. It certainly is not directly tied to any of the conventional theologies, or to most of the less conventional ones. It’s compatible with theism, deism, atheism, pantheism, agnosticism, and just about any other -isms that you might come up with.

Some might argue that this sort of “spirituality” is really nothing of the sort. It does not, after all, presuppose any sort of belief in the supernatural, or in the great beyond, or in any deity or demiurge. It’s just a vague sort of feeling or emotion, and it might well be nothing more than the result of the particular balance of neurotransmitters in the brain at that particular moment. And all of that might be true.

But still . . .

The feeling does happen – at least to me. The moments when it has happened have, for some reason, stuck with me much more vividly than most of my memories. Some of those moments have changed my goals and have shaped the course of my life. In a strange way, some of those occasions have helped to draw me from the (semi-)conventional Catholicism I was raised with to my current cycling through deism, pantheism, and agnosticism.

The sense of wonder and awe has been very important in my life, and very real. I do not ascribe the sense to something supernatural, but at the same time I cannot dismiss it as an unimportant byproduct of brain chemistry. Perhaps “spiritual” is the wrong word for the feeling that I’ve tried, probably unsuccessfully, to describe, but it’s the only word that I have for it.

In fact, that special feeling is really the first thing that comes to my mind when I hear the word “spiritual.” That may not be what the word means to you, and if so you will not agree with the next sentence, but it is what it means to me.

Spirituality, as I understand and have tried to describe it, is compatible with science.


  1. #1 JS
    March 15, 2007

    Very true. I think that ‘spiritual’ feeling, for lack of a better term, is very central to science. It is, I think, what makes the difference between a dicipline that you merely can do well or learn to do well, and a dicipline that you live and breathe.

    It has often struck me that the jolt of satisfaction and pleasure that I sometimes take from solving a complicated mathematical problem is probably akin to what believers sometimes feel when they pray in their churches,* and I can certainly understand why people with mystical preconceptions might mistake it for the Touch of God or something like that.** It’s a wonderful, and highly addictive, feeling.

    I think that the reason why many skeptics hesitate to acknowledge that science and spirituality are compatible is that you haven’t seen much of the ‘net if you haven’t run into at least one willfully ignorant fundie who insisted on pouncing on precisely that acknowledgement and abuse it in a fallacy of four terms abusing the ambiguiety of the word ‘spirituality.’

    On the other side of the fence, I can certainly understand why self-proclaimed ‘spiritual’ people get pissed off when they are told that they are a priori handicapped in the world of science. That must stick in their craw the same way it sticks in mine whenever some apologist insinuates that I lack spirituality: Sideways.

    – JS

    *Interestingly, while this would mean that spirituality is indeed compatible with science – indeed is a central part of science – it would also mean that science is actually, in a limited sense, a potential ‘replacement’ for religion. Maybe this is what the fundies find so scary about it. Or maybe they’re just luddites.

    ** I’ll even accept – on a philosophical level – that it might be the Touch of God. That would certainly be a much more worshipsworthy god than the one his fanclub seems to promote.

  2. #2 EvilPoet
    March 15, 2007

    “Now, even though the realms of religion and science in themselves are clearly marked off from each other, nevertheless there exist between the two strong reciprocal relationships and dependencies. Though religion may be that which determines the goal, it has, nevertheless, learned from science, in the broadest sense, what means will contribute to the attainment of the goals it has set up. But science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion. To this there also belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is comprehensible to reason. I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith. The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” -Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions

  3. #3 Pseudonym
    March 15, 2007

    Yeah, Mike, I totally agree with this.

    Going a bit further, I don’t think too much of a stretch to talk about a deep relaxation-like pursuit, be it yoga, hiking in the wilderness or meditation/prayer (I deliberately lump those two in together), as feeding some part of you that isn’t just your stomach. “Spirituality” is as good a word as any.

  4. #4 CCP
    March 15, 2007

    No, it’s not a good word. It explicitly invokes a “spirit” or “spirits.” Nothing like that is involved with that deep feeling of wonder and awe, any more than it is involved with deep feelings of anger, love, ecstasy, or ambivalence.

  5. #5 PZ Myers
    March 15, 2007

    Bleh. “Spirituality” is a word that attempts to tie natural human feelings to the age-old scam called religion. When you endorse the term, you support the cooption of useful aspirations by useless institutions; you make it easier for frauds to swap in cheap, empty substitutes for the real thing.

  6. #6 Rob Knop
    March 15, 2007

    Your definition of spirituality is right in line with mine.

    My wife has also expressed a part of it as “a sense of being part of something bigger than yourself.” This is part of what I really like about playing in an orchestra! But on an even grander scale, as an astronomer, one gets this sense of “spirituality from nature” all the time.


  7. #7 Tyler DiPietro
    March 15, 2007

    I think that the use of “spiritual” here corresponds to what Dawkins’ called “Einsteinian religion”. I guess I am “spiritual” or even “religious” in that sense. But the use of the terms in that fashion is problematic for the same reason the vague “dissent from Darwin” petition statements are. They can be said to be reasonable but are in practice misconstrued, often deliberately.

  8. #8 Roy
    March 15, 2007

    The word ‘spiritual’ long ago was appropriated by religious people. To try to wrangle any other meaning out of it (aside from jocular usage to mean alcohol) is a fool’s errand.

    Give it up. Talk about ‘wonder’, ‘awe’, ‘amazement’, but forgo ‘spiritual’.

    Otherwise you are tacitly allying yourself with people who cast spells.

  9. #9 Rebecca
    March 15, 2007

    But it’s more than wonder, awe, or amazement. Maybe we need a new word. One that doesn’t invoke the supernatural but that still captures the deep feeling this sort of thing evokes. (No doubt, a big part of the problem is the over-use of the words wonder, awe, and amazement. I swear, I may slap the next person who uses the word “awesome” to describe something that’s really pretty mundane.)

    Anyway, a brief aside to Rob Knop. Yes… playing in an orchestra (as I do too) sometimes evokes the very same kind of feeling. It’s a transcendent sense of being connected to other people and to the rest of the universe in a way that’s different from the every-day.

  10. #10 Eamon Knight
    March 15, 2007

    When I was a Christian, I had a reasonably concrete definition of “spiritual”: that which (attempted to) put me in contact with the mind of God (like praying, devotional reading, group worship); Good Works motivated by belief in the love of God. Added to that would be “meaning of (my) life” issues.

    It also included those moments of overwhelming wonder that can strike unexpectedly — when you hold your first new-born child; when you see a globular cluster through a really good telescope for the first time; when some intellectual puzzle you’ve been trying to work out suddenly “clicks” and it all comes together and a whole lot of concepts that before were an unconnected chaos arrange themselves in an orderly web of meaning. As a Christian, I tied all those things (in one way or another) into an overarching concept of an Immanent God.

    As an atheist, I simply no longer find the word useful, given the absence of an objective referent. Those moments of wonder are still real — I take them to be a relatively rare confluence of certain emotional and cognitive states. And my life has “meaning” to the extent that I give it one (no one is going to provide one off-the-shelf). But I see no reason to refer to these experiences and concerns by a private (and increasingly attenuated) definition of a word that carries an awful lot of other baggage.

  11. #11 Brad S
    March 15, 2007

    But it’s more than wonder, awe, or amazement.

    Wonder with an emotional response? I guess I’m just not seeing it…

    Yes… playing in an orchestra (as I do too) sometimes evokes the very same kind of feeling. It’s a transcendent sense of being connected to other people and to the rest of the universe in a way that’s different from the every-day.

    Having had this feeling, I always thought it was just a little chills from the good music. I wasn’t aware that I had transcended…

  12. #12 LabCat
    March 15, 2007

    Perhaps we need to reclaim “spiritual”?

    My first reaction to this post, before I read the comments, was yes – seeing Saturn through a telescope, when I stand underneath a beech tree, finding a seed I have sown has germinated.

    These are truly magical moments.

    My choir director calls it “being in the moment” or “in the zone” but now we are getting into Zen!

  13. #13 Mike Dunford
    March 15, 2007

    CCP, PZ, and others:

    If you think “spirituality” is a bad word to use for this, I’d love to hear an alternative. For me, at least, using “wonder,” “awe,” or “amazement” doesn’t do justice to the feeling.

  14. #14 Eamon Knight
    March 15, 2007

    If you think “spirituality” is a bad word to use for this, I’d love to hear an alternative. For me, at least, using “wonder,” “awe,” or “amazement” doesn’t do justice to the feeling.

    As it happens, just this AM, a cow-orker and I were discussing work, and I mentioned wanting to retire early to pursue educational ambitions — something less remunerative but…”more spiritual?” he finished for me. I agreed in polite non-comittal mode. The problem is that when someone talks about “being spiritual”, I have no idea whether they mean entering the priesthood, getting a Ph.D. in something fascinating but useless, or just sitting in the yard watching sparrow courtships. That’s a really good essay you wrote Mike, but if it takes that long to explain what you mean, then the word has been debased beyond all use as a means of interpersonal communication.

    However, I’m afraid I haven’t got an alternative that doesn’t seem just as problematic in its own way (“existential”? Pretentious as well as incomprehensible. “numinous”? Pretentious, incomprehensible AND religious ;-).

  15. #15 John Flexman
    March 16, 2007

    The feelings of awe and amazement that most intelligent persons feel, are provoked by the real world. Spirituality is normally associated with the supernaturel for which there is no sound evidence. The real world has an incredible profusion of wonders, check it out. No need to fabricate anything more.

  16. #16 Chiefley
    March 16, 2007

    A good word might be “numinous”. These awe inspiring moments give us a sense of the presence of the numinous. Although it is a word that usually denotes something that is “other worldly”, specifically God, I think it is also used to refer to a sense of Einstein’s God or even just the majesty of nature.

    Another word is “sublime”, used in the Eighteenth Century sense to describe the awesomeness of nature in its raw, primitive, but relentlessly powerful form.

    Sometimes the notion of the numinous and the sublime seem opposite from each other, and sometimes they greatly overlap.

    One could say that a spiritual person could be defined as someone who has a keen sense of the numinous and the sublime.

  17. #17 Greg
    March 17, 2007

    The only trouble with abandoning the word, “spiritual”, is that as soon as you have yourself a shiny new word, say “tiripsual”, the people who won’t let you be “spiritual”, the people who distorted “spiritual” for their own ends, and all the others, will rush to snatch your new word, and your “tiripsual” experiences, too.

    You cannot own a word. You cannot defend a word.

    You must defend yourself. You must defend your right to experience awe, and to talk about it.

    The fear and intolerance, on both sides, is not about truth and freedom. It is, on both sides, about denying others their own experiences and their own selves.

  18. #18 Rob Plop
    March 18, 2007

    Rob Knop Rob Knop Rob Knop Rob Knop. Okay got that out of my system… People who agree with Shelly Bats and Rob Knop that religion is OKAY, this is for you, so you can better understand why religion must be stamped out…

    Deuteronomy 22: 28 If a man is caught in the act of raping a young woman who is not engaged, he must pay fifty pieces of silver to her father. 29 Then he must marry the young woman because he violated her, and he will never be allowed to divorce her

    Deuteronomy 7:1 When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations … then you must destroy them totally. 2 Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.

    Leviticus 21: 9 And the daughter of any priest, if she profane herself by playing the whore, she profaneth her father; she shall be burnt with fire.

    Shelly, I would like to buy into this Bible stuff like you do, but it seems too violent for modern society. Here is how a moderate Christian defends abortion…

    “The Book of Exodus clearly indicates that the fetus does not have the same legal status as a person (Chapter 21:22-23). That verse indicates that if a man pushes a pregnant woman and she then miscarries, he is required only to pay a fine. If the fetus were considered a full person, he would be punished more severely as though he had taken a life.”

    That is the kind of stuff that Christians like Shelley are fine letting others believe. Here is another example…

    “By our deepest convictions about Christian standards and teaching, the war in Iraq was not just a well-intended mistake or only mismanaged. THIS WAR, FROM A CHRISTIAN POINT OF VIEW, IS MORALLY WRONG – AND WAS FROM THE VERY START. It cannot be justified with either the teachings of Jesus Christ OR the criteria of St. Augustine’s just war. It simply doesn’t pass either test and did not from its beginning. This war is not just an offense against the young Americans who have made the ultimate sacrifice or to the Iraqis who have paid such a horrible price. This war is not only an offense to the poor at home and around the world who have paid the price of misdirected resources and priorities. This war is also an offense against God.”

    Seems like that Christian has actually arrived at the right destination (one of the few who has), AMAZING! I guess the only problem remaining here is the compass (RELIGION), which can be unreliable and is easily misinterpreted.

    Leviticus 20: 27 A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones; their blood shall be upon them.

    Cheers to PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris (and myself), who can see the danger in sadistic “fairy tales”.

  19. #19 Rev. Keith R. Wright United Deist Church President
    March 23, 2007

    Mike has almost perfectly described the beliefs of a Deist (it is a religion and thus a proper noun) and Deism.

    Any non-human creature in this world is an Atheist and is incapable of experiencing the divine.

    Since the experience of the divine is a particular human experience which is seen in every culture of the world, then I agree with Richard Dawkins that we are predisposed to being religious through a “religious gene”.

    I am capable of sight, hearing, tasting, touching and smelling. As, literally, I am loam with consciousness I will experience each of these senses, of which I am biologically endowed, to their utmost. As loam I sat in a decaying pile waiting for flora and fauna to ingest me and convert my molecules into foods which, through my parents, became me. Prior to that, I, along with the rest of you, were present inside of a star as it went supernova. That is where our carbon came from. Further back in time, we were present as one in the Singularity. From Singularity, where all of the Laws of Nature were present in their Beautiful state sprang forth, we came as potential based upon those laws of nature. Based upon those Laws and Chaos we appeared.

    Christians speak of Intelligent Design as an old guy gathering up clay and forming it into a man and blowing air into it. I find this close to truth as the material aspects of our existance but not in the process. Remove the God coming to Earth part and I’m right there. Add the forming part and the bible and I’m high-tailing it in the other direction.

    I believe that at the moment of Creation that all elements of Creation were present in the Laws of Physics and that I consider them perfect as I see the Universe. Atheists see the same thing but deny the possibility of a Creator. It is this assertation that I am not capable of stating. I do not have the information necessary to deny the possibility so I am going to do something that is uniquely human. I will, no matter how illogical it may seem to Richard Dawkins and his contemporaries, choose to experience the possibility of the Divine.

    In our church we celebrate community, Thanksgiving (we do not pray for anything) as our most “sacred” of holidays as we take a census of all that we are and all that we have and all whom we know and consciously offer thanks in symbolism. We acknoweledge our existance in relation to the Universe and celebrate this life as our only one. We hug each other because we can, for this unfathomingly brief period of time, experience the most precious experience in the Universe. Life. This is a religious experience for us. We sadly look at the revealed religions and the pain and suffering that they have inflicted upon life on Earth and hope for the day when there are nothing but Deists and Atheists living in harmony.

    Being a Deist is about experiencing the Divine. To have faith in something that can’t be known and to experience fully what being a human is. To be an Atheist is a personal choice and one I deeply respect but to me would remove part of what makes me uniquely human. It doesn’t hurt anyone to be a Deist. We do not make you feel guilty, tell you that you are going to hell, are a sinner, that you need to have your head cut off or your penis circumsized. We have no Dogma but what Mike wrote speaks to the true sense of awe that we experience every day.

    Thank you for your post.

    Rev. Keith R. Wright
    The United Deist Church

  20. #20 Scott
    March 27, 2007

    Your conflict is one of your own creation by assuming that the feeling you get from a “byproduct of brain chemistry” is “unimportant”. Of course it’s important. The feeling you describe is one of the most important in the human experience besides sex, pain, and hunger. The fact that it comes from brain chemistry doesn’t demean it at all. In fact, it’s just as cool to think about brain chemistry as it is to think about all of the things you listed as “spiritual”.

    But to describe it using the word “spiritual” confuses the matter. The word “spiritual” has definitions that include a supernatural element, and has other definitions that do not include a supernatural element. However, the supernatural definitions are regularly assumed by most readers, regardless of the context. Therefore, for clarity purposes, it is better NOT to use it unless you are trying to describe something that is supernatural (or are making clear every time you use it that you’re using the non-supernatural definition, which can get awkward).

  21. #21 Tom
    May 26, 2008

    The Confluence of Science and Spirituality
    The question: “Is Science compatible with Spirituality” is dead on arrival! The more relevant question is where would the confluence of science and spirituality carry us next? Am I willing to jump in and be carried by the enormity of these tributaries coming together? Whoa! Mozart did, Einstein did!

  22. #22 Tom
    May 26, 2008

    Without spirituality as a context, there will be no science or art or any inspiring outcome. Not even religion!

    The more relevant question is where would the confluence of science and spirituality carry us next? Am I willing to jump in and be carried by the enormity of these tributaries coming together? Whoa! Mozart did, Einstein did! Not being neither, I noticed I was tempted to hang on to whatever I can grab, after mustering enough “courage” to jump in. The invitation is simply let go, and go for the wildest ride in the universe!
    Spirituality is not THEORY, it is PRACTISE!

  23. #23 Rob Whelan
    June 9, 2008

    @Scott — exactly! I’m glad I read all the way through the comments, or I’d basically have been echoing you.

    Mike D, you speak as if you carry none of this same awe for the incredible things that go on in “just” brain chemistry. It’s not just a vague wash of chemicals that we swim through at random — we’ve evolved this profoundly complicated and fascinating system that we experience from the inside. Why in the world would that be limited to a “vague sort of feeling or emotion”, while more powerful, transformative and unusual aspects of our experience must somehow come from elsewhere?

    More dangerously, discrediting emotional experiences as just vague chemistry (and you oppose the brain chemistry concept with “But the feeling does happen!”) simply because it involves chemicals in the brain is the same thing people do when they tell profoundly depressed people to just shake it off, or that their suffering isn’t “real”. It’s just chemicals! What’s their problem, right?

    There’s a huge difference between a passing notion of “hey, that’s neat”, and a moment of overwhelming awe that leads you to transform your life. I agree absolutely with that. But jumping into supernatural explanations? It’s like understanding the evolutionary reasons why we’re so adept are recognizing faces, understanding how we react emotionally to the context of death… then looking at those photos showing “satan’s face” in smoke curling from the twin towers and converting to Christianity because the feeling is just so strong. It must be something supernatural… it just feels that way.

    I’d say there’s simply a hole in our shared language — “spirituality” is actively counterproductive to explaining this experience… because a word means what most people *think* it means, so spirituality = spirits. That’s not going to change, particularly as the majority of the people have no reason or intention of changing the way they use the word. And some of them have a lot invested in actively quoting (or misquoting) scientist types who are “spiritual” — they don’t care if *you* mean something else; you’re misusing the word, and they benefit.

    As for replacements — yes, tricky. Languages changes only slowly, and a phrase or word will only come into currency as the *concept* of a spirituality with no spirits involved does…. Ecstasy is, uh, taken. I came up with “transcendent awe” above, but that’s also somewhat tainted by religious concepts.

    What about just finding some good adjectives?
    Staggering awe? Overwhelming wonder?

  24. #24 cole
    October 6, 2008

    How do you feel about the Hadron Collider?

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