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.