April 25, 2012

(Real) Science & (Real) Spirituality: 3 Questions To Consider.

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Our sense of the sacred and of spirituality need not depend on belief in the literal truth of any outdated mythic or magical notion from our pre-scientific past.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


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