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Our sense of the sacred and of spirituality need not depend on belief in the literal truth of any outdated mythic or magical notion from our pre-scientific past.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

    let me once again state – as i have done in the article and numerous other places, that i am not arguing for a purely scientific cold emotionless unimaginative rigid worldview – au contraire to the max!!!

    evoking nazi germany is i think incorrect in this regard because this was a society massively heated up on hitler's hysterical over the top religious speeches about the volk, the reich, purity, racial superiority, destiny etc and probably about as far from authentic rationality and respect for evidence as one can imagine.

    while i understand your point, the barbaric nature of nazi rhetoric and behavior has nothing to do with this conversation at all, and needlessly perpetuates a fallacy less level headed people enjoy spreading that i think we should nip in the bud.

    (i think we also just proved godwin's law by the way: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin's_law)

    i would suggest that love and goodness are 100% arguable in both philosophical and scientific terms – and in fact that is where we are headed….

    my through-line here is INTEGRATION – science is just one way of finding out what is true with regard to claims in the empirical domain.

    logic and reason do not rely solely on evidence but should be informed by it.

    psychology and spirituality need not rely on evidence alone – but similarly should be informed by it if they are to be most effective.

    i stand by the philosophical position tat truth, beauty and goodness are interdependent aspects of one whole – and that science, spirituality/psychology, reason and art are likewise different aspects of one whole.

    that whole (and our awareness of/relationship to it) is best served by an intelligent integration of all domains.

    what underlies all of this for me is an intensely passionate curiosity about how to reconcile and integrate these different modes of inquiry in the most elegant, honest and accurate way!

    i found that if i was truly honest with myself maintaining a spiritual metaphysics based in dishonesty was an expression of a deep seated lack of faith that reality was beautiful and meaningful on its own terms without painting the lilly as shakespeare called it.

    because conversations about truth and reality often go the direction of meaningless metaphysical speculation let me be clear about the facts i think really matter and are central to the kind of integrated spirituality i am proposing/discovering:

    1) we are biological organisms that are related genetically to all other life on earth.
    2) we are in a vast universe that began 13.75 B years ago and is expanding and cooling uniformly.
    3) consciousness is a product of biological evolution and gets more complex and more self aware the more brains become more complex.
    4) we do not live in a demon haunted world. there are no disembodied beings, no ghosts no literal deities and there has never been a single case of a mind without a body.
    5) we die at the end of our lives when our bodies break down and take with them everything we think of as "i."
    6) love, passion, creativity, joy, communion, bliss, ecstasy, insight, compassion, healing etc are all expressions of neurochemistry and can be worked with via intentional practices, breath, movement, focus etc..
    7) we can more honestly and effectively integrate the domains of science, spirituality, art, psychology etc by being honest about these facts.
    8) in addition to cultivating more skillful responses to life, and creating more opportunities for authentic love, freedom lies in coming to terms with what we wish were not so, but in fact is the case.
    9) we perpetuate dishonesty about these facts as a way of shielding ourselves form feelings about our biographical and existential reality we find overwhelming. integrated spirituality should help us deal with these feelings in order to be more free, open, grounded and less invested in distorting reality.

  2. integralhack says:

    Dang, that was one long love letter and no response?

  3. yogijulian says:

    one more thing: many a religious/spiritual believer thinks they are being loving and good when for example:

    they don't spare the rod because the bible says it will spoil the child.
    they send their gay child to a jesus camp to try and make them overcome their sinful ways.
    they strap explosives to their body and get on a plane as a way to further the arrival of a blessed islamic caliphate on the planet so that all may know allah.
    they explain to their children that evolution is a lie and that to go to heaven they should be abstinent sexually until they get married and should therefore have no need of sex education about contraception etc….
    they tell their friend who was raped that they created this reality themselves and need to take responsibility for it if they want to learn the lesson.

    i could go on as i am sure you know – but my point here is that underneath all of these painful lies about the nature of being human are powerful beliefs that are irrational and untrue, plain and simple.

    all of the suffering generated by these untrue beliefs would be alleviated if we lived in a country where

    critical thinking
    respect for evidence
    lucid logical reasoning
    psychological awareness and
    substantive spirituality were widespread aspects of education.

    several of these are more highly prized in countries like the scandanavian and western european ones where much of this kind of suffering no longer is anywhere near as prevalent as in religious countries like the USA and middle east.

    the enlightenment was not only a step forward for science and reason, but for compassion and love as well – let's not forget this inextricable set of relationships!

  4. 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

  5. Thanks, Julian. I truly enjoy reading and pondering your deep and thorough responses.


  6. @Suri_k8 says:

    I definitely cant , i am not an astrophysicist ( and im guessing you arnt either) , but i definitely wouldnt argue against a Nobel prize winner in physics (actually two Mather & Smoot) and i definitely trust them more ( when it comes to explaining the universe) than i would trust some pastor or guru …. In fact for me pastor/guru = charlatans.

    Also here is the definition of magical thinking , if you think the bb theory fits here, well , like i said you are entitled to your opinion.
    Magical Thinking
    The erroneous belief, similar to a normal stage of childhood development—Piaget’s pre-operational phase—that thoughts assume a magical power capable of influencing events without a physical action actually occurring; a conviction that thinking equates with doing, accompanied by an unrealistic understanding of cause and effect
    Examples Dreams in children, in primitive peoples, and in patients under various conditions
    Segen's Medical Dictionary. © 2011 Farlex, Inc. All rights reserved.

  7. 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
    facebook, twitter, linkedIn
    Yoga Demystified, Gita in a Nutshell

  8. Charon P. says:

    It seems a strange measure to sum tales of ancient battles (and their contexts, and the unknowable kindnesses they leave out) against the very different variables of modern life (drones, bigboxes, nuclear weapons/waste, factory farms, an empty ocean…), as it seems Pinker does, but I'll have to check it out, thank you.
    I am still curious as to how rationalism particularly had a significant effect on animal rights.

  9. yogijulian says:

    the kind of pseudoscience that inspired this article:

  10. yogijulian says:

    chopra is dug deep into the postmodern relativist dual strategy of critiquing so-called "scientific materialism" as if it is this outdated and failed narrow perspective on reality while simultaneously touting a "new paradigm" that is more pseudoscience than anything else and tries to use scientific means to justify unlikely beliefs.

    he is stuck in the place so many intellectual spiritual folks get stuck i, namely:

    they very much want to hold onto some concept of god (and of course the related longing to be themselves immortal), but have moved beyond conventional religion. rather than crafting a spirituality that has moved beyond belief in god, they try to find a way to make contemporary knowledge, science, etc fit around a contorted, convoluted notion of god as either:

    1) a pantheistic/idealist consciousness that is in all things as the animating presence and/or
    2) as a related dualist concept of consciousness as the true self that is somehow transcendent of the body and not rooted in biology

    this is then given support by appeals to quantum physics anomalies as somehow proving or suggesting that there are in fact other dimensions in which god may exist hidden from us, or that time and causality are illusions, or that the experience of being here and now is just a reduction in consciousness form being everywhere and always, prior to the big bang, transcendent of matter etc…

    unfortunately big thinkers like ken wilber have given chopra a lot of ammunition because they too are caught in this quandry of trying to integrate science and spirituality but not yet being ready to give up on supernaturalism/pantheism/dualist concepts of consciousness.

    my experience is that either spiritual folks:

    a) just get immediately sarcastic about how you can't prove love or beethoven or ethics scientifically and then draw a false equivalency with supernatural beliefs therefore being immune to scientific examination – or
    b) they go right to the relativist who are we to say what is true or false game, or
    c) they start talking about nazi germany being an example of a culture based in reason and science – which is mind-blowingly bizarre and perhaps indicative of the level of fear around having to accept reality, or
    d) they enact this chopra-esque, wilber-inspired, pseudo-intellectual trip about the limits of so-called scientific materialism, the supposed possibilities of a mangled understanding of quantum physics, it being reductive and narrow to claim that consciousness is a biological phenomenon etc

    it is a very tough thicket to clear in order to start to find a way forward.

    the fire that cuts through it all is a simple one though – we are biological creatures who die at the end of our lives. accept it, celebrate it and live fully in the fleeting and therefore even more precious poetry, love, beauty and reason of what it is to be the unique creatures we are!

  11. yogijulian says:

    this is so good – i highly recommend it and think it adds a lot to this discussion:

  12. \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!

  13. 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

  14. yogijulian says:

    thanks for asking mb – yes absolutely i think it is outdated indian idealist (in the philosophical sense http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hindu_idealism) – and i would go so far as to say total bunk.

    i would also say that anyone who is interested in an honest, integrated, contemporary spirituality should take neuroscience and evolutionary biology more seriously and realize how massively improbable it is that consciousness in any meaningful sense is possible without an embodied brain.

    for a long time i too was taken in by the mistaken claim that because this is an ancient philosophy and because it comes from the east, and because supposedly its veracity can be discovered directly via mediation it must the be the ultimate truth about the nature of reality.

    a few yeas ago i realized this was not particularly different from claiming that god the father was waiting for us in heaven but only if we gave our hearts to jesus in deep and fervent prayer.

    don't get me wrong – i think meditation is one of the most powerful tools we have for transforming our inner lives, but it should in my opinion never be used in the service of an a priori supernatural metaphysics.

    advaita is so sophisticated and such a ind fuck that it keeps a lot of us more intellectual and radical spiritual seekers entranced, often for a long time….. but at the end of the day i think the brain state it is inviting us into is more valuable and meaningful than the metaphysical baggage it is asked to carry.

    i also think advaita is usually used in a way that both butchers psychology and encourages a very unhealthy dissociation, and also gives people permission to enact the tricky task of being anti-intellectual while being smugly superior.

  15. yogijulian says:

    i believe in god by none of those definitions and have no use for the concept whatsoever. i think that in every case better, more specific and more accurate words are preferable!

    personifying an unknowable force that is somehow the agency behind our shared desire to love and be good seems mildly poetic, but frankly unnecessary. i think we find better explanations for what drives us to love and goodness (as well as what makes some people sociopaths) in evolutionary biology, neuroscience and psychology!

    i also would suggest that the essential message of religious symbols changes a great deal when we make the shift from thinking they are literally true (evangelical christians, islamic jihadis, christian scientists) to thinking of them metaphorically (unitarianism, joseph campbell )

    i think it actually matters a great deal whether or not one thinks there is a conscious intentional being, a plan, a disembodied force for good in the universe or not.

    the reasons i think it matters are:
    a) i think what is true is kinda important
    b) i think it is a foundational belief about the nature of reality and so affects everything else we think and feel
    c) i think it makes a huge difference in terms of our ability to grow up psychologically and deal with our emotional core in a way that either does or doesn't make us integrated, liberated existentially honest human beings.

    so far, since we developed the scientific method, 400 years of searching has not found any such thing…

    we can however talk about human empathy, reason and ethics, and the drive toward greater fairness, kindness and love, but of course not in a vacuum that separates it from man's inhumanity to man and our ability to enact great cruelty, often in the name of delusional beliefs that are an attempt to deny reality.

    we can talk about the challenge of moving beyond egocentric values to ethnocentric values to recognizing the human race as one tribe, to ultimately taking responsibility for our place on the planet in the larger family of living organisms.

    if we are going to get into universals, we can talk about the place that religion has held in all societies at a certain stage of their development:

    1) as a way of explaining things that could not be explained
    2) a way of creating social cohesion
    3) as a way of supporting law and order
    4) as a psychological defense against facing the unfortunate realities of death, suffering, injustice and randomness

    and we can talk about how the enlightenment began the process of setting human beings free from both the need for superstitious beliefs and the power it gave priests and monarchs over the poor and low caste masses.

    but once we can explain things better using science and reason, then old religious explanations must be relinquished, once we have moved beyond stone age societies we can find social cohesion and legal/ethical standards in ways that do not require supernatural threats, and once we have enough self-awareness to do inner work and face our existential fears we can free ourselves of consoling lies and face reality…… in fact i think it is a spiritual imperative that we do so!

    we can also talk about spiritual experience is universal and actually transcends religious belief systems or superstitious supernaturalism, because it is a product of brain function. further, that spiritual experiences exist on a spectrum that runs on one extreme from schizophrenic hallucinations, temporal lobe epileptic seizures and OCD or manic ritual preoccupations to on the other extreme states of sublime, integrated, compassionate and grounded embrace of our existential situation as it is.

  16. Jack says:

    One problem with believing superstitions–even if they make us "happier" (happiness as it is commonly pursued is itself a mythological disease of our modern times) or improve our immune systems or reproductivity (wait, isn't the world's overpopulation attributed to the possible soon demise of our species?)–is that it is superficial, and while it may have benefits, magical thinking and religious superstition (the invisible spiritual "happy pills") are also at the root of delusional thinking that perpetuates horrible crimes against humanity and nature.

    And yes, science must be ethical and moral, which is why we need, beauty, compassion, art, and both unconditional and conditional love.

  17. Ah, but in my judgment you do believe in God, Julian, as expressed in your own words.

    Your God is "human empathy, reason and ethics, and the drive toward greater fairness, kindness and love".

    That's exactly the way my more religiously minded friends and even my Orthodox Jewish son and my Roman Catholic sisters define God. Exactly that!

    There's no particularly provable scientific reason to believe in these things. But you do.

    They are your God.


  18. yogijulian says:

    i think perhaps my entire attempt to discuss the relation of the domains of science, philosophy and spirituality then is lost.

    as i explained above: human empathy, reason and ethics, and the drive toward greater fairness, kindness and love are all understandable (in fact understood better) without recourse to any supernatural concept or belief.

    because i value and appreciate and even hold them as the most important principles in life does not make them my "god."

    i would suggest there is a difference between the having no values and having values on the one hand versus having a god or having no god on the other.

    i have no god, nor any need for the concept or belief – but of course i do have values. do those values have something in common with the values come people associate with belief in god? sure – does that mean they are my god? absolutely not!

    i fact my values explicitly hold that belief in god is more often than not a actually a drawback with regard to actualizing those principles!

    as i have tried to gesture towards: it is not that there is hard scientific evidence and then *everything else* is just stuff we believe on faith – so that if i don't have hard science behind something i believe it is the SAME as believing something supernatural!

    this is a REALLY common fallacy…..

    there are multiple domains of reality – but reality does not include anything supernatural, and love, ethics or reason are not the same as superstition simply because they are outside of the domain of pure empiricism.

    reasoned can be informed by science but often makes no mention of it, relying instead on rational thought and logic. BUT when an argument asserts something that is at odds with established scientific evidence it should be obvious how this is resolved. period. i fail to see how anyone could disagree with this…

    interpretation of art or philosophy or mythology can have even less recourse to scientific evidence – but we can nonetheless agree that there are better and worse, deeper and more superficial, more and less accurate interpretations. AND when an interpretation asserts something that is at odds with established scientific evidence it should be obvious how this is resolved. period. i fail to see how anyone could disagree with this…

    being able to feel love, adore music , enjoy dance, practice meditation, do yoga, value reason, truth, beauty and compassion as i do in no way means that i am therefore religious – as if someone with no religious belief or need for god would not be able to celebrate these aspects of life, or as if someone who values evidence as a way of settling empirical questions therefore is now not allowed to weep when listening to beethoven!

  19. Hi, Julian.

    The problem I see is that your definition of how religious people think is narrow in the extreme.

    The fact is that many highly religious people think just like you do. They just choose to define it in different terms than you do.

    Many highly religious people are also highly rational and scientific in their thinking, as much as you yourself are. Einstein thought of himself as highly religious. (Still waiting for your thoughts on the Einstein quote, which will tell us whether we really agree or disagree.)

    So defining all religious belief and all talk of God as supernatural is very far off the mark, at least in my experience with highly intelligent, highly religious people, including the ones on my own family.

    So in my opinion it would be more useful for you to critique the varieties of religious experience and practice, and talk about which ones lead to your values and which ones don't, rather than inaccurately force all religion into the same narrow box and declare it all to be off track.

    It's not really a God vs. no God argument. It's a what leads to the values you hold and what doesn't argument. You'll find there are religious practices that do and scientific practices that don't.


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

  20. yogijulian says:

    i totally hear you bob, but i think if we are honest being religious without having supernatural belief is a bit like being married while sleeping with whomever you like. i mean, fine, call that religion if you want to, but it represents a tiny, tiny minority of people who identify that way.

    those who maintain a kind of abstract philosophical sense of spirituality without the supernaturalist faith are most likely just calling themselves religious for cultural reasons and are too polite to acknowledge that they actually find religion a bit silly.

    as for the narrow box: well, religion by definition is literal belief in a supernatural deity. that is off track, and i don't find there to be anything narrow about saying so.

    and while i deeply value ethical principles and guidelines i don't think the fact that some religion leads people to discover and embody these means that the question of whether or not there is a god is rendered unimportant!

    one can live the examined and indeed spiritual life via ethical philosophy, appreciation of art, meditation and intimate relationships without believing anything improbable if not basically impossible about reality. in fact i think it becomes more possible to so in the absence of ludicrous metaphysics!

    while i appreciate your ecumenical pragmatism, i still think it matters what is true because truth, beauty and goodness are inextricably intertwined.

  21. yogijulian says:

    hey bob – just so you know i find you to be an eminently pragmatic, brilliant and warm human being. i think i get where you are coming from on an interpersonal level – and appreciate how you are conveying it…

    in some ways wish it was in my nature to follow your philosophy, as it is very inclusive and generous, and focuses more on the practical details of how we treat one another, putting contentious topics aside in order to all get along and find commonalities…

    however i am looking at this through a very particular lens: i am fascinated with how it is possible to express and live a spirituality that is not at odds with science, because such an integration would evolve us to a next level of depth and honesty.

    i think the psychological piece is HUGE here and facing our existential fears (ie accepting death) is in many ways the key.

    that's just what i am turned on by right now…

  22. Julian, to the most truly religious people I know of, like Einstein, the definition of God includes the words "unknowable and unfathomable", which obvious means unprovable, and is pretty similar to your a priori belief in ""human empathy, reason and ethics, and the drive toward greater fairness, kindness and love".

    It also includes an abundance of "awe", "wonder", and "amazement" which I don't see much of in your concept, but perhaps you feel that and just aren't expressing it. To Einstein, as you can see from his own words, these are the inexorable result of being a true scientist.

    I find myself wanting to suggest you get out and talk to a wider variety of religious people and ask them to describe their idea of God to you, but that would probably be overly snide, and probably wrong in that I must assume you have already done that in any case.

    Religion is not by definition a literal belief in a supernatural deity, unless one defines supernatural deity as broadly and unfathomably as Einstein does, in which case it would be correct. But then, that broad a definition of supernatural would render most of what you have written about supernatural wrong, too.

    Please just tell me whether you agree with Einstein or not. He's not sacrosanct if you don't. No problem. But it's not complicated to me. What I quoted in my previous comment pretty much says it all. It's what I believe, too.

    And none of this denies anything you said about the terrible effects of SOME religious and supernatural beliefs.

    Enjoying this discussion. If you like what Einstein wrote, then we're just talking the semantics of whether he should be calling what he believes "God" or "religion", but we agree deeply in substance.

    If you don't agree with Einstein, then like I said, we can just agree to disagree, and both be better off for our discussion, I'm sure.


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

  23. I was quoting the article. I have found in the alternative health community (I am a massage therapist) there seems to be quite a split between those who choose a scientific, logically-oriented outlook and those who choose a spiritual outlook. Einstein said, "Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind." Personally, I would substitute spirituality for religion in this context, but the principle is the same. They enrich each other.

  24. yogijulian says:

    bob – i find that einstein's position on religion and god is often misrepresented, and at the very least is controversial… so i am not sure what to agree or disagree with in that regard, though i find you bringing this down to whether or not i *agree with einstein* almost as problematic a tactic as your indirectly aligning scientific mindedness with nazism earlier in the thread!

    from this page on einstein <a href="http://(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_views_of_Albert_Einstein):” target=”_blank”>(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_views_of_Albert_Einstein):

    "The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still purely primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. … For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstition. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong … have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are also no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything “chosen” about them."


    "It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it"


    " I am fascinated by Spinoza's pantheism, but admire even more his contribution to modern thought because he is the first philosopher to deal with the soul and body as one, and not two separate things"


    "I am convinced that a vivid consciousness of the primary importance of moral principles for the betterment and ennoblement of life does not need the idea of a law-giver, especially a law-giver who works on the basis of reward and punishment"

    like most scientists in the late 1800's and earlier 1990's god was still very much on the table and so they used a lot of god language, as even hawking did in his earlier work – this is no longer the case now, as the cultural climate has changed.

    what's more i do feel free to disagree with einstein on the matter of religion in other places, even if he was a genius in physics. i disagree with francis collins on the matter of religion, as he is a born again christian – in spite of him leading the team that cracked the human genome!

    we can agree to disagree on whether or not it is a key aspect of religion to believe in a supernatural deity. i think it most definitely is, and someone who does not believe in a supernatural deity is not religious by any commonly accepted definition of that word.

    i am very familiar with the mystical position that god is defined as the unknown or unknowable, i just don't find it necessary or appealing to me anymore.

    i am also bummed that you perpetuate the fallacy i pointed out earlier of equating reasonable positions on empathy, ethics, beauty etc with supernatural belief because both are supposedly "unprovable" – makes me think you haven't actually read or taken in the very specific and nuanced ways i have tried to address this …

    i fear we may have come to the impasse.

  25. P.S. Even the nuns in habits who were my teachers for the first eight years of my education, and who, in general would be perfect examples of all bad things you attribute to religion, and whom I grew to hate for that when I grew old enough to think for myself…even these nuns, when pressed as to what God really was, because he's not really some guy sitting up on a cloud, right…even these nuns would eventually simply and plainly answer:

    "God is Love."


  26. Yes, an impasse for sure, Julian. But I've enjoyed the ride, nonetheless.

    I withdraw the Nazi sentence as being useless through what I see as your gross misrepresentation of what I said. Just delete that sentence so it doesn't get in our way.

    I am actually aware of all the Einstein quotes above. This is the way a great many religious people see their religion, not a tiny minority as you have stated, to the extent that you can't stereotype and pigeon-hole religious people as you like to do.

    I think the question of whether his words in my previous comment resonate with you, or not, is a useful one. But if you don't choose to deal with that, no problem.

    Thanks again for the discussion.

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

  27. I actually understand that, Jullian. And personally, like I have said, I agree with the vast majority of what you write about the nature of rational spirituality.

    My trouble is not with that, but rather that I can't so roundly dismiss the many highly religious people I know, who, in substance, have a similar spirituality to yours, but choose to couch it in highly metaphorical religious terms.

    I don't see these types as a tiny minority at all, like you do. In fact, in the Jewish tradition I'm most familiar with, even though I'm not Jewish myself (but was for awhile by conversion and raised three Jewish kids) it is most certainly the vast majority.

    The Jewish tradition is, I would say not at all based on a literal God. Metaphysical discussions about the nature of God are considered useless, almost like in early Buddhism. It's more like "we all know what we must do to be good people. Let's just declare that to be God and go from there." God is all about values, not anything the slightest bit supernatural.


    P.S. I refer you to Heschel, whose view are mainstream Judaism, and very similar to Einstein's. His book of excerpts is even called "I Asked for Wonder".

  28. integralhack says:

    Thanks for the clarification, Kate. I agree completely.

  29. […] 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 […]

  30. yogijulian says:

    actually just saw this comment and its great detail bob!

    i actually do agree with the general tone of einstein's statements here – but feel (as do many) that his use of terms like god has been confusing and that he later clarified what he did and din't mean….

    i also think he was a pantheist of sorts and pantheism doesn't add up to me – though i understand its allure and the states of mind in which it appears to be intuitively correct.

    i think too that there is a lot of pantheist/idealist metaphysics in indian mysticism and i think it is largely incorrect, though makes for a good poetic description of certain powerful subjective meditative states!

  31. […] 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 […]

  32. @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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  34. 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.