Mar 05, 2011 | By

Integrating Science and Spirituality – Why Is This Important?

Over the past four hundred years, the scientific mode of understanding the world has achieved remarkable success.  The technologies that have grown from scientific inquiry have propelled the human race into a prosperity and superfluity that would have been unimaginable to anyone living in a pre-industrial society.  The resulting credibility gave science an authoritative claim to being the truth about the world.

One might wonder why any alternative claim to truth, such as through religious experience or revelation, could survive.  Yet religion has survived, and in many ways has flourished.  One reason is that science has generally not claimed to be able to answer all questions about human life – including the questions of where the world came from and why we are here.  Another reason is that science has been inadequate in dealing with our conscious, emotional and creative experience.   However, religious ideas have, with few exceptions, ceded considerable territory to scientific ones in these four centuries.

In the past few decades, the uneasy truce between science and religion, if there was one, seems to have broken.  Pre-eminent scientists such as E.O. Wilson, Stephen Hawking and others, have felt compelled to attack all religion as irrational superstition.  Many religious adherents have raised strident voices supporting biblical literalism and demeaning scientists’ claim to truth – enough of them serve on local school boards to significantly influence the teaching of science in public schools.

The stridency and bitterness of these exchanges are of significant concern and undermine critically needed civil discourse on the ideas and changes that are shaping our lives.  In contrast to the public squabbling, the common sense view of most people is that scientific and spiritual modes of understanding the world are both valid and do not contradict each other.  And fortunately, this topic has been getting increasing attention by writers, thinkers, scientists, theologians and the media in recent years.  In fact, the literature on efforts to understand and explore the interface of science and spirituality has been exploding.

As someone who is steeped in mathematics, science and philosophy, I do believe that science is valid and that the scientific endeavor has brought incredible benefits to human life and transformed our understanding of and relationship to the natural world.  However, the history of science also shows that scientific knowledge evolves over time.  Time and again, scientists over-reach the actual results they have observed – and their conclusions are reversed or amended by the next generation using better tools and more refined theories.

At the same time, my experience in life has reinforced my belief that there are spiritual truths that transcend the limitations of the natural world.  This spiritual knowledge is critical to our choices about how to live and how, ultimately, to be happy.   We engage in the process of understanding spiritual truth in very different ways than we do scientific truth.  This does not mean that either mode of knowing is invalid.

So how do we integrate our scientific and spiritual understanding of the world and our life in the world?  Are they dealing in totally separate realms of knowledge and, as a result, they do not and should not intersect?  Or are there possibilities for integrating the two modes of understanding – can they be complementary?  And if so, what can we gain in our spiritual inquiry from an understanding of science – and, correspondingly, what can we learn about science from our understanding of spiritual truth?

That is the purpose of the ISAS Forum.  I invite you to help me find answers to these questions.  Please post your thoughts and reactions to what I and others have to offer.  Together, perhaps, we can hope to influence the course of the ongoing debates and make a positive contribution to human understanding.

Thank you for your interest. George Gantz

3 Responses to “Integrating Science and Spirituality – Why Is This Important?”

  1. Edward C. Mendler says:

    Mr. Gantz speaks of “spiritual truths,” but does not define them or their origin. He refers to a “prevailing view” that “scientific and spiritual modes of understanding” are “both valid,” but the meaning of validity is not presented, except perhaps by the comment that “science has been inadequate in dealing with our conscious, emotional and creative experience.” Our conscious, emotional and creative experience is of course a subject of study by psychologists and neuroscientists, who have in recent years made great advances in understanding of how the brain actually works. There is now available a fairly detailed analysis of “spiritual modes of understanding” in the human brain. Does any of that have anything whatsoever to do with a belief in God, an incorporeal mind?

    • George Gantz says:

      In general I am not using technical language but relying on common usage for words like spirituality and validity. I agree this leaves a broad latitude for interpretation. I hope this will help promote discussion rather than symantic distraction, but we will see.
      I am most interested in your last question. Indeed, I wonder what the neuro-, physio- and bio- logical explanations of brain states and their correlation to emotional and spiritual experiences actually tell us about the reality we experience as humans. To use an analogy, if we can explain all the materials responsible for making a movie – the film, projector and screen – does that really tell us much about the content of the movie? These questions are part of what we hope to explore in the Mind, Brain and Consciousness discussion thread.

  2. Tom says:

    Your choice of the word “important” in the title was fortuitious. If we decide that something is important – growing enough food to feed the world, for instance, or going to the moon, or improving dental hygiene – science can tell us a great deal about the processes by which that might be done. It can tell us what aspects of those processes are important. For getting to the moon, the details of the chemistry of rocket fuel are quite important. For improved dental hygiene, the chemistry of toothpaste is important. But that uses the word “important” in a way that means “having a strong effect on whether the process generates the intended outcome”.

    But when we call an issue “important” in a philosophical sense, it has little to do with the material success of our lives. Why do we care whether the world has enough food, or whether the people in our town have healthy teeth? Those things don’t affect my life – certainly not today and probably not in the future. And why in the world do we care enough to write, or read, a blog about whether science and spirituality conflict? We do, though. In a materialistic worldview it’s very hard to justify calling anything more than food, clothing and shelter “important”. Yet we constantly decide that other things are important – that they are worth our time, our energy, our money, our thought and consideration. That, I think, is why the strict materialistic point of view has so little appeal. It leaves out most of what we all feel to be important – what is necessary to live a life that’s about more than satisfying animal needs.

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