How important is science to your practice?

The Hubble Deep Field

Some feel something spiritual when gazing at the Hubble Deep Field. Do you?

– by B. T. Newberg

Last time, we asked about myth.  Now let’s talk about science.  Do scientific thoeries play a large part in your spiritual practice?

Surely science plays a role in virtually everything we do today, from watching TV to microwaving lunch, via the technology it has made possible.  But we don’t usually need to think about science or consciously incorporate its theories into our practices unless we choose to do so.  Nor do we necessarily want to have science on the brain in all our activities: it’s hardly romantic in the bedroom, for example.

So, the question is, how much do you consciously choose to integrate science and its discoveries into your spiritual practices?

By science, I mean the systematic pursuit of knowledge of the natural world by the most reliable methods of the day, including such examples as evolutionary theory, physics, biology, psychology, modern cosmology, environmental sciences, and so on.

By spiritual practice, I mean your personal pursuit of inspiration, meaning, and purpose, which may or may not include such activities as contemplation, meditation, ritual, prayer, and the like.

Please take part in the poll, then leave a comment on the issues discussed below.

Along with this issue comes that of the so-called conflict between religion and science.  A recent study found most scientists (70%) believe the two only conflict sometimes, or never conflict (15%).  Furthermore, the same study found nearly all lay folk (i.e. non-scientists) subscribe to some kind of reconciliation model between science and religion.  Which leads me to ask a final question:

  • Does science conflict with religion and/or spirituality for you?  Why or why not?

Please leave a comment with your reply.

19 Comments on “How important is science to your practice?

  1. My answer to the last question is a resounding, NO. Science and spirituality need not conflict as they apply to completely different realms of human experience (in this sense I would also add that they are both ’empirical’). Even the etymology of the term ‘science’ is enlightening. Science comes from the latin word ‘scientia’, which just means knowledge, but latin had a different term for ‘wisdom’, which was ‘sapientia’. Science is about collecting data, i.e. quantifiable and repeatable nuggets of information, and building models based on those nuggets. It does not concern itself about issues of meaning or value (anthropology being an exception as a qualitative science, which does concern itself about meaning while trying to still bracket issues of value). Wisdom, of which spirituality is one approach, does concern itself about issues of ‘the meaning of life’ and how to live well in the world. Wisdom may use data to make meaning and value assessments, but it is not limited by the findings of science or any other method of knowledge acquisition. The limits of science are its strength. Science seeks to make accurate predictions based on models, but it is not in the business of applying those models to meaning or value or purpose or right conduct, such considerations would just mess up the rigorous collection of data. Now, and here is where my stance may get controversial with regard to the modern, mainstream, popular understanding of science, though it is grounded in a solid study of philosophy of science: science is also not in the business of ‘truth’, spirituality is. Science is merely pragmatic. The models it develops are for making the most instrumentally accurate predictions about natural phenomena, but no good scientist actually thinks those models have anything to do with ‘reality’ or that they are even ‘true’ in any robust sense. Even questions of truth are bracketed in science, as they should be. Models, in their limited scope, function well by not being concerned about being true or not, they get the job done either way. For example wave spectrum theory gave us all sorts of cool pieces of technology from microwaves to infrared goggles. The waves of certain frequencies may or may not ‘exist’, the point was to use measurements to make cool toys, and those toys are possible to build by at least pretending that waves do exist. That’s what a hypothesis is, let’s pretend such and such model is the way the world works, and see what happens with experiment, nevermind whether or not it’s true. Then, when the experiments support the hypothesis, often the non-scientific community then makes the jump that the hypothesis was true, most real scientists refrain from making such claims because of science’s potential for being updated, also one of its greatest strengths. Usually when some big discovery comes out, the headlines sound very dramatic, but then when they quote the scientists involved they say things that are very reserved like, ‘well there is still a lot of work to be done and tests to be repeated and revisions to the theory need to be made…’ Good science is based on the accuracy of predictions, that is all, and can always be revised and made better, but better doesn’t mean ‘more true’ it just means ‘more useful’. Every scientist knows, even hopes, that their models will be improved upon. How could such an endeavor ever conflict with wisdom and spirituality which is the search for eternal truths? Put another way, scientific theories will come and go, but the subject matter of the cycles of nature, of ancestry, tradition, of myth, endures and is timeless. Spirituality asks the questions about how the world really is and how that affects our place in it. Science, on the other hand, tries as hard as it can to take the human factor out of the equation (literally!). Spiritual approaches can get it wrong sometimes and be in need of updating as well, but truth and meaningfulness are how such approaches are judged, not so in science, so there really is no conflict. Science will operate in its limited realm and wisdom practice will operate in its much broader realm that may or may not decide to incorporate the findings of science to greater and lesser degrees depending on what the question is that the seeker wishes to explore. The realms of science and wisdom may overlap at times, and this can be a good thing, but it must be kept in mind that they are indeed seperate realms and any apparent conflict that may appear to arise must be settled at the table of true wisdom not in an Excel sheet in a lab.

    • I certainly agree, Griogar, that science is necessarily limited, with regard to the ability to discern truth from reality. But, I also believe that spirituality and spiritual pursuits are no less limited.

      I think… when wisdom is applied without the benefit of scientific analysis, a vulnerability exists for personal bias to overcome the truth. Thus, in my personal pursuits, I don’t see a separation there.

      Isn’t science merely a methodical way of discerning truth? Isn’t philosophy merely a logical way of discerning truth? Isn’t spirituality merely an experiential way of discerning truth?

      The only difference is in the set of tools that we use.

      • As Fritjof Capra said (and probably the only important thing he said), “Science does not need mysticism and mysticism does not need science but man needs both.” I agree with the sentiment behind this statement. I think we do need rationality to temper our spirituality and help us approach the world as it is beyond personal bias, without a doubt. I would never dispute that, but I don’t think science has a monopoly on rationality either. In fact most of us utilize our rationality in a very non-scientific way most of the time in our daily lives. We can be rational without squiggling mathematical formulae on paper or entering data points on line graphs. So I would agree that we need something besides just spirituality to avoid getting too stuck in our own heads (of course most ‘good’ spiritual approaches I think recognize this fact), but we don’t need science itself, per se. A real and deep understanding and relationship with nature is very important for my spirituality, but I don’t need science at all to mediate that relationship. I can get it quite well directly, but you’d better believe I keep plant identification guides, based on science, with me when I go out for a spiritual nature treck, so I don’t hug the wrong tree or one covered in poisonous vines! Science is great for those kinds of things. Of course I know my ancestors had such knowledge without the aid of the scientific method of quantifying nature. They knew it from direct experience and intuition, and I work on the same as much as possible too. I’ll keep the science references around though until I get better at it.

  2. Interesting comments, Griogar. That all sounds good on paper, but don’t you find in practice that religions tend to derive their meanings and values from perceived “facts” about the physical world, which ought to be the realm of science?

    For example, in many religions the perceived “fact” that a deity created us for a purpose leads to the value-based conclusion that we ought to fulfill that purpose. To me, that seems like a clear instance where spirituality goes beyond the realm of meaning and value (note: Contemporary Pagan views might escape this debacle if the perceived “fact” that deities are willing to interact favorably with us does not necessarily imply that we ought to do so).

    Meanwhile, if there are to be any values or morality at all, it seems to me like they have to reference current situational conditions, i.e. the facts of the situation (which are ostensibly the realm of science). So, it’s hard for me to even imagine how the realms of fact (science) and value/meaning (spirituality) can ever be kept distinct and pristine. It seems to me like they must always be entangled and interdependent.

    As for your intriguing points about truth, you seem to be on the mark with regard to science. What I have trouble seeing is how spirituality (or “wisdom”, if you like) escapes the same paradox. It makes pronouncement about truth, but what justifies these pronouncements if not their utility to predict outcomes, just as with scientific theories? How do we know if a given spiritual insight or wisdom teaching actually tracks “truth”, or is simply fanciful thinking?

    Looking forward to your responses. 🙂

    • I kind of avoided using the language of ‘facts’ on purpose because it’s such a touchy area in relation to science. The answer to your first point, B.T., is that it kind of depends on how you define ‘fact’, and on one of those definitions, I do not think science is in the business of fact finding at all, ostensibly or otherwise. To keep it simple, I will only address two definitions of the term, there are others, but I think these two are the most widespread and important, namely the definition internal to science and the epistemological definition. My old physics text book from an undergrad general physics class defines a ‘fact’ as, “a close agreement by competent observers of a series of observations of the same phenomena.” Put another way, whatever the scientific community agrees is a fact is a fact and then it goes about developing theories to explain the fact. On this definition, science is in the business of collecting facts to be explained. Defined internally, science is most certainly in the business of fact finding. But I don’t like the relativism that creeps into this definition at all. I tend to think of facts as not having to be agreed upon by any community or individual, so I would be more apt to define ‘fact’ as ‘what is the case’ or more epistemologically speaking ‘states of the real world that make propositions true’. So for example, if it is a fact that snow is white, then that makes the statement ‘snow is white’ true (on a correspondence theory of truth anyway, but we’ll get to that in a second). As you may have already thought from my initial comment, I hold to an instrumentalist, i.e. anti realist, position about the claims of science. That is certainly a debatable position, but I have considered the issue quite intently as have many scientists and philosophers as well. If you think that I’ve got it pretty much right that science is not really in the truth business, then on a definition of ‘fact’ as ‘states of the real world that make propositions true’, then it isn’t in the business of establishing facts either. So I simply disagree that issues about ‘facts’ should be in the realm of science for it is the realm of useful model making.

      So that’s enough about science, I’m more interested in spirituality anyway. Your second point, ‘how is spirituality any different than what I just said about science?’ is a doosey. I must admit that that point was kind of in the back of my head as I was typing my initial comment, and out of an attempt at brevity, at best, or simple intellectual laziness or con artistry, at worst, I was kind of hoping no one would notice that point. But really I’m glad you did because that’s what we’re doing here, to actually figure this stuff out and share ideas, right? My short answer is not very interesting. I merely said that the proposed goal of spirituality, religion, or wisdom was the seeking of eternal truths as the ground for meaning and value and that that was not the proposed goal of good science according to most scientists, so thus there should never be a conflict between the two. I never said religion or spirituality ever successfully did achieve finding eternal truths or meaning or value, so maybe you’re right, I didn’t really demonstrate that religion did anything other than just makes seemingly useful claims that at the end of the day are just flights of fancy. That answer should satisfy no one here because as anyone would have guessed I am very spiritul and take such matters quite seriously as probably many readers of this forum do as well. I don’t really hold to a correspondence theory of truth mentioned earlier, but what I might call an objective pragmatist theory (quite unlike the subjectivist pragmatism of William James, though I respect him greatly as a thinker). I believe that truth is ultimately found and judged on utility, but there are real world facts about levels of usefulness. For example, here is a fact we can all probably agree on, it is much more efficient to pound a nail with a hammer than with a rolled up newspaper. Put another way, a hammer is more useful in pounding nails than rolled up newspapers are. Could you pound a nail successfully with a rolled up newspaper? Probably, but you’re better off getting a hammer, which I think is an objective fact. The truths of spirituality work this way too. The extent to which a spiritual approach or practice contributes to effective living in the world and provides authentic meaning and value, determines its truth, and this will have to do with facts about the world and our place in it as to how effective such approaches and practices will be. What I consider one of the most important examples of this is that the use of myth in application to our everyday lives has less to do with truths of whether or not they actually happened, and almost nothing to do with making predictions, but what we can apply from their teachings to living well. Again, the truth in a myth is based in its applicability, and its applicability will be based on facts how the world works. Since I already said science is neither in the business of finding facts or even relying on them, I still see spirituality and science as working very differently in this regard. Science is simply in the business of being useful in a sort of mundane way so that it can make cool ovens and flying machines and whatnot or simply collecting pieces of data (not meaning to dismiss science’s value in its limited scope, I love my microwave, getting my injuries fixed is pretty important, and I would like to know if a meteor is going to hit the earth!). Spirituality is about finding the most useful and effective way to live our lives to their utmost, wholly and completely and authentically, which may be informed by science sometimes, but goes way beyond it.

      • I am aware that I am inserting myself into your conversation 🙂

        Griogar, you said “For example, here is a fact we can all probably agree on, it is much more efficient to pound a nail with a hammer than with a rolled up newspaper. Put another way, a hammer is more useful in pounding nails than rolled up newspapers are. Could you pound a nail successfully with a rolled up newspaper? Probably, but you’re better off getting a hammer, which I think is an objective fact. The truths of spirituality work this way too.”

        This summation doesn’t provide, though, an explanation of how spirituality discerns truth. Instead, it provides an ASSUMPTION of fact, because the truth, to you, seems self-evident.

        A scientist, within the context of this simple example, would avoid making the assumption and conduct an experiment to determine which method was more efficient at driving a nail.

        I think this distinction is critical. Both scientists and spiritualists (if that’s the correct word) are uncovering truth; the only difference lies in their methodology.

  3. Doesn’t the nature of religion and science in the West naturally create this tension,,even if you personally have found ways to resolve it? I don’t know about the rest of you, but I do a lot of research across the board,that I’ve found valuable, even if don’t share some of its assumptions about conflict.

    As a naturalist as well a somewhat of a humanist, the scientific method has a prime influence on my perspective. I’m not so sure they’re so easily divide into different ‘realms’ as Griogor is suggesting. I believe science has limits based on its methods, but how that influences knowledge or wisdom in general is debatable to me (this gets into notions of metaphysics that I’m just not sure we can ever say much about.).

  4. I think part of a spiritual practice should be trying them and seeing through experience whether they are effective in producing flourishing (analogous to the experiment). To help prioritize and order these pursuits, we must make guesses as to which these might be, based on the available information from others and the reasoning of our current impressions. This is analogous in science to the early hypothesizing that goes into deciding which scientific theories will be pursued and studied further. The difference is that spiritual practice is about the subjective, and it’s aim is a subjective one (happiness, meaning-relevant only to the first-person inner experience of the practitioner). Therefore the means of pursuing knowledge of the path is also a subjectively-oriented method.

  5. Sean, no a scientist would not merely try a hammer and then try a newspaper to see which one worked better. He or she would try a hammer many times over recording the time it took to pound in the nail and perhaps use various instruments to meassure pressure exerted, heat from friction, etc. Then do the same with the rolled up newspaper, then he or she would run all of that data through various computer programs to compare field results with simulations. Then he or she would have a grad student write up the results into a paper, but take credit for it, then present the paper to a journal and perhaps at some conferences just to have someone critique the paper by pointing out that they didn’t do the experiment in a vacuum and thus could not have accounted for all the variables. Then they would redo the whole process in a vacuum and present a paper on how a hammer and rolled up newspaper are equally useful in a vacuum, and they would be praised. Meanwhile, I’m just trying to get my house built and I had a rolled up newspaper next to me, tried it once, didn’t like it and got myself a hammer in less than a minute and my house built before Mr. or Mrs. Scientist got Windows to boot up on their lab computer.

    • Lol! But, now you are criticizing the Academic Establishment, instead of science.

      I don’t disagree with you. Academia, including it’s dogmatic approach to science, is stifling and lumbering.

      But, their reality doesn’t stop me from seeing a beautifully spiritual reality through a scientific eye 🙂

      • Is there a difference between ‘science’ and the ‘Academic Establishment’ the ‘scientific community’ the ‘world of science’ the ‘scientific institution’? Because of the requirement of being repeatable by other scientists, isn’t the institution of professional science required for science to occur at all? I don’t think science is something you can do at home by yourself. You can do science like experiments and find stuff out, but it must be presented to the scientific community for it to count as science and not everybody gets to be in that club. Science = the academic establishment, for better or for worse.

        • Science certainly does not equate to the scientific establishment, nor the academic establishment. Those institutions exist for various reasons: governance, hierarchy, money, credentialing, authentication, etc. Science, in of itself, is a discipline and a methodology. There is no need for me to supplicate before a priestly class in order to “do science”.

          However, if I want everyone to be aware of my findings, and if I want everyone to believe that I was rigorous, then it is certainly helpful to do the supplication bit. Not required, though.

  6. A helpful discussion. Moving science and spirituality around a bit like jigsaw pieces to find the fit and the incompatibilities is so central and is probably what many people are doing these days.

    For me the knowledge that science provides is indispensable because I trust it, and I do so knowing that it is always tentative, being challenged, limited by its paradigms, etc. My spiritual questions about finding meaning, preparing for death, sorting right from wrong all require a reality larger than myself that I can contemplate with a sense that “this is, to the best of our knowledge, what’s really going on out there and in here.” Theism doesn’t provide that, science does. The aspect of that reality where I find the most compelling spiritual meaning is in the long history of living things on the planet, and others find their meaning in other aspects of science’s “given.”

    It is key to me to draw a distinction between scientific method on the one hand and the knowledge produced by science, the description that science builds and that non-scientists like me can understand in broad terms and accept, on the other. One can point to many complications in taking science at its word, some of which are discussed above. Scientists themselves are not comfortable with some of the uses to which their results are put. But to the spiritual seeker, the scientist is, in a sense, not important. What is important is to have access to a knowledge of what-is-out-there that is credible, that can be considered, contemplated, “read.”

    A similarity is the relationship between a painting, the artist who painted it, and the viewer who responds to it. The artist may believe that the process and intentions behind the painting should be important to the viewer. While some viewers may be interested in them, other viewers may value only the painting in and of itself. For such viewers, the painting is important because it in itself is the ground-work for finding meanings that the viewer is seeking.

  7. Oh, science! How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

    I’m sure you can guess, based on the writing I do, that scientific knowledge is a major guiding principle of my spirituality, and that integrating the two is a primary goal of my personal practice. If I acknowledge any Divine Beings, they are the Cosmos and Earth Itself, and I feel it incumbent upon me to study and honor those beings as surely as I would a named deity.

    I read scientific journals and articles with the same fervor that another Pagan might read fairy tales. I invoke the element of water with a song about hydrogen bonding, call in Lucy with the Ancestors, include xylem and phloem in my “generic Pagan be-a-tree” groundings.

    I admit I have more enthusiasm than acumen; my scientific knowledge is broad but shallow. I don’t feel a need to be an expert in any field of inquiry: I know enough to hold my own in a broad-based conversation and fuel my wonder of the world. I am honored and humbled, reverent and awed to be part of it all.

  8. “Does science conflict with religion and/or spirituality for you? Why or why not?”

    I see no conflict with my personal practice. I aspire to let my personal practice be informed as fully as possible by science. Every day I see headlines bearing (purportedly) scientific news and I am only bolstered by them. Meditation has benefits? Great, that’s why I do it. Babbling sounds of monkeys share rhythms with human speech? Awesome, those are my cousins. Space station testing “spooky” quantum entanglement? Cool, I love weird stuff I don’t understand. Climate change is threatening wine production? Yikes, highly uncool, but that’s exactly why we need religion that holds ecological wisdom as a deep value. These are all based on actual headlines I plucked just now from my news feed.

  9. In spiritual practice, I’m an ecstatic mystic, as befits a devotee of Dionysos. It’s about changing the way I experience my life and the world around me, to create a broader and deeper understanding. The study of the brain and how it experiences experience is invaluable to me in this.

    What was a little surprising to me was that I rated science as more central to my practice than myth, when I would have guessed that I’d value them equally. Thinking about it, it comes down to valuing the experience more than the interpretation, and science provides very nice tools for facilitating experience.

    • >Thinking about it, it comes down to valuing the experience more than the interpretation, and science provides very nice tools for facilitating experience.

      I never looked at it quite like that. Thank you. 🙂

      • I prefer to remain agnostic about the objective reality of gods, spirits and so on. Whether or not they exist apart from the human imagination, the fact remains that the experience of encounters with them (or what seem to be encounters with them) is still a real experience with real effects in the lives of those who have them. I find focusing on the experience and leaving the interpretation for later gets around a lot of doctrinal and my-trad-is-more-real-than-your-trad argument.

        Interpretation is a valuable tool for facilitating group experience, but it’s a layer we put on our experiences after the fact.

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