(Real) Science & (Real) Spirituality: Three Questions To Consider.

Via Julian Walker
on Apr 25, 2012
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Three questions to consider with regard to the relation of science to spirituality:

1) Have you considered that “sacredness” may be a concept that denotes a state of being that is entirely natural and human and has to do with being in meditative absorption or in touch with deep compassion, or in a flow state and feeling really connected to oneself, others and the world around us?

2) Have you considered that sacredness and spirituality have always been part of human experience and have been depicted by mythic symbols and magical concepts since before we learned more about reality via science?

Our sense of the sacred and of spirituality need not depend on belief in the literal truth of any outdated mythic or magical notion from our pre-scientific past.

3) It might be helpful to also contemplate that the progress of science has not even one single time been that of demonstrating anything supernatural, magical or mythical as being literally true.

We are not heading toward some special moment when science reveals that magical thinking, mythic literalism or supernatural beliefs are actually true.

On the contrary, science has progressed (just by following the evidence carefully) in the opposite direction.

Every. Single. Time.

Yes there is an undeniable, valuable, essential sacred and spiritual dimension to human experience—but no, this is not based on anything other than human neurochemistry—which is sometimes ordinary, sometimes numinous and sometimes plain old batshit crazy!

There is a popular meme in our New Age infused yoga spirituality that asserts that science is “finally catching up” with whatever the speaker’s favorite magical idea, ancient prophecy, mythic literalist belief or reality-denying sales pitch might be…

But this is always based in either a willfully dishonest representation of science, or (more commonly) a real philosophical confusion about how various interpretations of quantum physics translate into our everyday lives.

{I give a much more complete treatment to this problematic and confusing idea in my forthcoming book The Embodied Sacred: Spirituality Beyond Superstition.}

This subject also gets into some interesting questions in philosophy regarding epistemology—or how we know what we know. For those interested in digging a little more into this – I find many in our community are invested in what I jokingly call the Diabolical Trinity of Logical Fallacies:

1) The Argument from Ignorance 

Logical fallacies are common ways of thinking/arguing that have been demonstrated to be incorrect by virtue of errors in logical reasoning.

In this one someone argues that their position (say that aliens or the “chupacabra” are responsible for cattle mutilations), is somehow made more likely to be true if the other person does not have a complete explanation (i.e. if we remain ignorant) for how else a phenomenon is possible.

You’ve heard this one a ton I am sure! So in the example at hand it would go like this:

A – I think it must be alien’s experimenting on those cows that mysteriously turn up dead and mutilated  in the field.

B – Well that is far fetched, do you have any evidence of this?

A – How else do you explain it, though!?

B – I am not sure.

A – Well then it must be aliens.

2) God of The Gaps

This one is very related to the Argument From Ignorance in that it inserts a supernatural explanation into any “gap” in our current understanding of any phenomena in the universe.

For example, we don’t know where the Earth came from so surely a God must have created it.

The problem with the God of the Gaps approach to dealing with reality is that as scientific knowledge has progressed we have found natural explanations for many of the things that we used to explain via supernatural ones.

For example, we used to think that the reclusive woman with a black cat who lived on the corner was an evil witch and that it was because she cast a spell on us that we developed this or that illness.

Now we know more about viruses and bacteria and that explanation no longer is useful, valid or puts people on the fringes of society at risk of being burned at the stake!

But this does not stop lovers of the “God of The Gaps” from continuing to insert unlikely supernatural explanations into places where soon enough natural explanations will probably emerge…

3) Shifting The Burden of Proof  

As I suggested, these three fallacies form a “Diabolical Trinity”—so if you are paying attention you will notice much overlap!

Cosmologist and philosopher Carl Sagan made the following  famous statement, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

This nicely sums up the burden of proof. If I tell you I had eggs for breakfast, this is not something you would have reason to doubt as it is a quite ordinary claim, but if I say I had dinosaur eggs for breakfast and they gave me superhuman powers?

Well then it would only be reasonable to not believe this without good evidence.

A common “Shifting The Burden Of Proof” move in the New Age and Religious communities is to make an extraordinary claim, say that a certain miracle has occurred and then follow this pattern:

A – I have heard there is a guru with the power to manifest objects out of thin air.

B – Well I would want to see proof of this, as would the rest of the world. It will no doubt be the biggest discovery in science for the last 400 years and will change the history of human knowledge—if it is true!

A – Well you can’t prove it is not true.

B – I don’t have to, the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate that such an extraordinary claim is true!

A – You’re just closed minded and bought into old paradigm beliefs. This is your dogmatic scientific fundamentalism speaking.

B – Not at all, I simply think such a highly unusual claim should be substantiated!

A – But a truly open person would just say we don;t really know, everything is a mystery and if it hasn’t been proven either way then it is a matter of religious faith to believe both that it is true or not true. I am just more honest about my faith in believing it is true!

B – Well in that case how about I tell you that I was born of a Unicorn and at night I fly around the world fighting crime with my laser beam shooting horn?

A – That’s ludicrous though–come on!

B – Hmmm…

The point here is that the very popular spiritual idea that we should be open to all possibilities and that really fanciful magical beliefs are true (or even possible) until proven false is not only logically fallacious but completely lacking in pragmatism.

In other words, no-one really lives their lives this way, even if they hold some air-tight compartment of belief separate from reality in which to entertain fanciful beliefs!

The more integrated we become, the less our spiritual philosophy remains separate from our reason, pragmatism and honesty about the nature of the reality we live in every day.

Science is not the enemy of spirituality, rather it is a way of discovering carefully what is actually true. This process of discovery keep unfolding and remains open—but open to something very specific: evidence. When new evidence appears, science changes its mind.

When we are informed by scientific method and standards of evidence, we can reason with more philosophical clarity about what is more or less likely to be true.

This in no way limits or detracts from the power of experiential states of compassion, love, joy, beauty, creativity, meditative absorption, sexual ecstasy, emotional truth, intuitive awareness or anything else that, alongside reason, makes us uniquely human. But it does guide us into being more honest about our lives and the world around us—and if that does not describe one of the central concerns of spirituality, I think we have lost our way!



About Julian Walker

Julian Walker is the founder of http://www.yogateachergradschool.com/ where he supports new and established yoga teachers in living their dreams through business development. He is a writer who has been teaching yoga since 1994, and co-teaches the Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind Yoga Teacher Training in LA with Hala Khouri.Julian's writing is featured in the book 21st Century Yoga available on Amazon.com. www.julianwalkeryoga.com


137 Responses to “(Real) Science & (Real) Spirituality: Three Questions To Consider.”

  1. __MikeG__ says:

    Fantastic article, Julian. I have heard and read so many arguments based on these fallacies that my head sometimes hurts. I wish I had a dollar for every time I have had to remind someone that science is not an enemy.

    The enemy is holding on to magical belief systems.

    Reality is much better and so much more interesting. Maybe I am just a nerd. Ok, not maybe…definitely a nerd. But how could anything be more fascinating than learning about how our real world works. Quantum physics, Relativity, Astronomy, Chemistry and Biology are wondrous in and of themselves.

    I'm looking forward to the publishing date of your book.


  2. I agree with Mike. It gets so frustrating listening to people whose main explanation for their beliefs is that they believe them. Science is not the enemy! I love seeing areas where there is synchronicity between spirituality and science…they are not opposites at all. Thanks for this, Julian.

  3. Padma Kadag says:

    Yogijulian, What I find interesting, having been educated in "real science" and using real science in my career and also that I attempt to practice this thing we call Buddhism, is that "real science" when questioned or doubted is so aggressively defended, I would say even more so than any religion. That the practitioners of science have a hold on 'reality". Yet they themselves utilize "magical" thinking when it suits them, ie. The Big Bang. We are given an explanation for why the universe is the way it is based solely on a theory. The theory of The Big Bang. This requires as blind a faith as any creationist theory from any culture or religion. There are those that experience "realization" or enlightenment and can explain as best they can that non experience experience. Yet not one scientist can say unequivocally that they have experienced the Big Bang.

  4. integralhack says:

    The straw man continues to be beaten.

  5. Thaddeus1 says:

    If we want to have a discussion regarding epistemology and the role that science, "real" or otherwise plays in it, then perhaps we should begin by examining the claim that "real science" is "a way of discovering carefully what is actually true." For as it stands, to merely make this assertion at the end of article which very nicely details the functioning of some of the more popular informal fallacies is to simply fall prey to another, namely, begging the question.

    In addition, we should carefully avoid becoming victim to the tendency inherent in the more "general" understanding of science popularized in the mass media and overstepping the empirical boundaries inherent in the process of science which lead one to claim far more than is actually justified by the scientific method and process.

  6. timful says:

    You make a good case that scientific reasoning is generally more scientific than other approaches to life. But, I don't think people are generally seeking scientific results in their spiritual practices.

  7. yogijulian says:

    in short, timful – i am saying that what we should be seeking is a spirituality that is grounded in reality, and spiritual practices that help us to be integrated. this eliminates none of the wonder, beauty, compassion and awe – but all of the bullshit.

    my sense is that critical thinking and interest in all aspects of truth is an essential aspect of spiritual practice. discernment.

    i like ghandi's quote" there is no god but truth."

    and the dalai lama "well if science shows that some belief in buddhism is wrong, buddhism must change!"

    holding on to outdated beliefs from a pre-scientific time ABOUT THE NATURE OF SCIENTIFICALLY TESTABLE REALITY in the name of being spiritual is a set-up for delusional beliefs.

    the good news is we don't have to set ourselves up this way – and we can discover, live and share a spirituality in in the world that is not prey to this particular form of delusion. this not only makes spirituality healthier, it would perhaps give it a better reputation in the eyes of people who have rightly seen it is a bit of a pit of charlatans and nutcases!

    these people can then benefit from the aspects of spirituality that are most useful, sane and beautiful.

  8. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Posted to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
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  9. Charon P. says:

    I find the "who has the burden" to be a curiosity and something of a game- is it the one asserting who has the burden, or the one with the more extraordinary claim? And is there a way to make 'extraordinary' not subjective, without resorting to a showing of hands? Myself, I take the one asserting to have the burden, though I am less concerned with the accuracy of the claim than the "so what" of it- some guy can manifest whatever- "so what" .. the universe is expanding – "so what". I read these genre of blog posts and wonder the same- what is the agenda or end-game?
    I have read many articles favoring of science and logic over religion/magic that use ridicule and other emotional language throughout. This is an effective rhetorical strategy that politicians and rabble rouses use all the time, but this sort of nastiness and enemy-izing shows a disdain for the audience, that the speaker thinks the audience needs to be insulted and manipulated, or perhaps worse that the audience already agrees and just needs a push into the type of action that emotional ridicule inspires. I always wonder what better world they imagine such a strategy will conjure.
    But outside of what I read as bitterness, there is a sense of betterness, and maybe this is related to the disdain, but I think in these articles it comes from studying the sciences and logic. Knowing logic does improve a person, because it shows how structured thought works, but doesn't make for a happier or healthier life, because it has no imperative to discipline, that is, it isn't going to get you doing what you want or need to do, let alone show you what those are.
    Fallacies are meant to improve arguments, not to shut them down. This article doesn't quite go a-shutting, which is nice, but comes close with the emotional language. And of course, appeals to emotion are fallacies too! Really, there is no escaping fallacies, because our language is not the language of logic, nor is our beingness logical- we can embody contradiction and hypocrisy, believe and disbelieve at the same time, unknowingly or intentionally; logic can not. New evidence, new thoughts, are not the exclusive domain of science, and I really don't think winning a philosophy contest changes life a deep substantial way.
    These articles have an undercurrent of an intention to improve human life, and to make humans more equal and less suspicious of each other. But to do this they point to the failings of religion/magic while ignoring the needs these beliefs are fulfilling, and point to the successes of science (though this often means equating technology with science, or shifting terms between colloquial and technical) while ignoring its shortcomings, namely that science is intelligence/education based, and entirely moral- and ethic-free. In this article, a nebulous "pre-science" age is presented to show (without evidence) that we are better knowing (whatever it is that we know now vs wherever "then" is), despite the consequences of creating that knowledge. These sleights of hand, and the slights these articles feature are unnecessary and serves as a proof to those who shun aspects of education and moral "freedom" that science is no less cruel or satisfying than any religion/magic.

  10. ValCarruthers says:

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Spirituality Homepage.

    Valerie Carruthers
    Please go and "Like" Elephant Spirituality on Facebook

  11. Uma Simon says:

    I really enjoyed the lucidity of your writing. Thank you. Uma

  12. __MikeG__ says:

    I see that the anti-science crew is hard at work. I still find it amazing how people misunderstand science and are so unwilling to move past magical thinking. I find it amazing that many people still do not understand that the word "theory" when used in science does not have the same meaning as "theory" when used in casual conversation. That some people do not seem to understand the difference between scientific theory and hypothesis.

  13. ValCarruthers says:

    Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Spirituality Homepage.

    Valerie Carruthers
    Please go and "Like" Elephant Spirituality on Facebook

  14. I agree with much of what Julian writes, here and elsewhere. It's very close to my view of science and spirituality.

    But I also think the whole picture is more complicated than that, and I don't feel at all comfortable prescribing it for everyone.

    What if it were scientifically proven that people who seriously believe in some sort of magical thinking are happier, live longer and reproduce more reliably than those who don't.

    See what I mean? Now it gets tricky.

    Adherence to strict scientific thinking wold be proven by science to be counter-evolutionary.

    That's an extreme example, of course, just for illustration. But possible everyday cases of this logic abound.

    My parents would not have necessarily been better off, or I a better person, if they were not devout Catholics, for example. (My aeronautical engineer father was obviously no science slouch, by the way.)

    Unscientific belief itself is probably critical for many people's well-being, in ways that may eventually be scientifically proven itself someday.

    That doesn't lead to any particular conclusion except that, even if Julian is absolutely right about the science, it's not necessarily best for everyone to be just like Julian.

    Bob W. Associate Publisher
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    Yoga Demystified, Gita in a Nutshell

  15. yogijulian says:

    it makes me a little nutty (and sadly disappointed) that anytime i point out the problems with pseudoscience or the necessity of accepting science as the best way we have found for evaluating empirical claims it is an almost knee jerk assumption of most people that i am lobbying for science to the exclusion of philosophy, art, psychology and spiritual practice! i am most certainly not.

    i am saying when the question is an empirical one we should use science to evaluate it – and that a contemporary integrated spirituality cannot be at odds with science if it is to remain sane.

    MOST spirituality falls into the trap of being unintegrated and frankly a bit insane in its assertions about the nature of reality.

    i put this down to a few causes:

    1) idealization and romanticizing of ancient cultures
    2) fear that if one were to be scientifically honest and rational all spirituality would be killed (not true!)
    3) the blight of postmodern relativism and political correctness creating a soup of confused waffling in which it is not possible to make distinctions regarding truth and falsity

  16. Let's try a different tack, Julian.

    My idea of the relationship between science and spirituality is identical to Albert Einstein's.

    And yes, I explicitly relate this to the most ancient yoga philosophy, to the extent that I boldly titled my blog on this Albert Einstein As Yoga Sage. You can see it at http://bit.ly/dABrNG.

    If you agree with Einstein, then we are in complete sync. If not, then we can agree to disagree.

    On the surface, what I see missing in your analysis is any sense of the wondrous, mystical, and unfathomable that is at the core of Einstein's still very science based spirituality.

    But if I have misunderstood you, I apologize, and your agreement with Einstein's words here will clear that up in a jiffy.

    Actually, the text of my blog is not so long that I can't just copy it here:

    Albert Einstein as Yoga Sage

    Did you know that Albert Einstein had a very Yogic point of view?

    Actually, this is true of many advanced physicists and other scientists, even if they don’t actually practice or study Yoga. They are simply overwhelmed with what they have seen with their own eyes and minds, and come to the same conclusions as the early Yoga sages.

    Here’s a typical Einstein quote:

    A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.

    This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty

    Does that sound like the Yoga of the Upanishads or what?

    By the same token, the ancient Yoga sages saw themselves as early scientists. They openly rebelled against the overly elaborate, ritualistic, and irrational religious thinking of the time in favor of direct experience and experimenting with states of mind.

    They defined spirituality in the same way Einstein did – absolute wonder in face of the unfathomable universe. Yoga is, in many ways, a scientist’s vision of spirituality.

    The most beautiful and most profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the source of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.

    To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.

    (Albert Einstein – The Merging of Spirit and Science)

    Thanks for the great discussion.

    Bob W. Associate Publisher
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    Yoga Demystified, Gita in a Nutshell

  17. yogijulian says:

    the kind of pseudoscience that inspired this article:

  18. \mb says:

    OK. Aside from Chopra, aside from Wilber, aside from bad gurus, aside from the 2012 hoopla, aside from the misappropriation of quantum theory to pseudo-scientific ends, aside from spiritual materialism and scientific materialism, aside from magical thinking of all stripes, aside from our cultural taboo on considering mortality, aside from the all the pitfalls of western folks adopting eastern philosophies, aside from Oprah, you state this:

    "2) as a related dualist concept of consciousness as the true self that is somehow transcendent of the body and not rooted in biology"

    Does that mean your opinion of Advaita (real Advaita, e.g. Nisargadatta, not westerners sitting around endlessly talking about nonduality) is in your opinion, pure bunk then?

    Because certainly that view holds that consciousness (maybe not "little" individual consciousness, but a "big" consciousness that all us little individuals are part and parcel of) is existent prior to body, prior to world, prior to thought.

    Just thought I'd ask – I'm sure you'll have strong opinion!

  19. Here's another relevant blog I wrote on this subject. There is really nothing new about this whole God vs. no God debate. It goes back to ancient times itself.

    “God” or “Reason” — Is There Really Any Difference?

    Some of the ancient Yoga sages believed in a very personal God and others believed in an impersonal God, or God as simply the life-force of the universe.

    Many religious thinkers define God as “that which is unknowable, but which drives us towards love and goodness”.

    Given this definition, almost everyone believes in God. In the end what matters most is that we all agree there IS some universal drive toward making the world a better place, not where that drive comes from.

    The result is the same, whether one believes it comes from an unfathomable life-force or a personal divine being, or even just highly developed molecules. All are equally mysterious, all can legitimately be called “God”, and all lead us to love, goodness and morality.

    The sages who wrote the ancient Yoga texts were themselves in disagreement about God. Their debates are evident in the three major Yoga texts, the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutra, and the Upanishads.

    In the end the texts themselves allow for the entire spectrum from secularism to traditional religion. That’s one of the things that makes them so amazing and enduring.

    In the time of the Yoga Sutra (about 2400 years ago) the sages couldn’t agree on whether or not there was a God, and if there was a God, was it a personal God or an impersonal God. So Patanjali cleverly wrote the Yoga Sutra to appeal to all these sides.

    Yoga was itself a comparatively rational attempt to deal with all the irrational Gods and rituals of the Indian religious culture of the time. It was quite rebellious in that it wanted to learn about consciousness from direct experience rather than the ancient Vedic hymns and priests.

    The more scientifically-minded sages simply made everything they couldn’t accept as reality into a metaphor and moved on accordingly. That’s what they did with the entire pantheon of ancient Gods — they made them into powerful metaphors of our inner struggles.

    And that’s what each of us individually should do today when the texts challenge us with concepts we can’t accept as literally true — turn them into powerful metaphors. The essential message will remain the same.

    Bob W. Associate Publisher
    facebook, twitter, linkedIn
    Yoga Demystified, Gita in a Nutshell

  20. […] light of this event I have put together a list of profound scientific ideas that have had a tremendous impact on the way I view the […]

  21. […] the time, I was like many other seekers. I had concepts about what real spirituality was—the techniques, the real truth, the asanas, breath, tapas—the work. No gurus needed, thank you […]

  22. @karlerbsf says:

    Interesting and compelling topic well handled. I too explore the unnecessary conflict between spiritual understanding and science. I think in these times of polarized cultural and political tensions and conflicts in the US, this topic is even more important to have often and openly. I just wrote a piece here in Elephant Journal on Belief and Knowledge and getting beyond the divisive power of belief. I look forward to more dialog with your insights.

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  24. Auki says:

    In my experience, spiritual realities may be sensed & discerned only within an open human heart. One may never convince someone who swears by "science" & rational thought alone that God, Angels or other transcendant realities exist.

    The above comments are the same old polarized "atheists vs. believers" argument that happens all over the web. I'm on board with science of all kinds, global warming science in particular…. right up until they try to tell me that God does not exist…. then they lose me completely!

    Julian strikes me as the kind of guy with whom it would be impossible to win any kind of argument. The fact that he does not believe in God or any kind of disembodied spiritual entity tells me he is basically a secular humanist who calls himself "spiritual." Needless to say, I won't be buying his book.

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