14. Science and Spirituality: complementary or contradictory? – 2002

The Concise Oxford dictionary defines spirituality as spiritual quality or what belongs or is due to the church; science as systematic and formulated knowledge. There is a strong connection between religious belief and spirituality and part of my argument is that the former springs from the latter. The result of my deductions is that not only is science complementary to spirituality, but that they both spring from the same source, and that the former will be able to explain the mechanics of the latter, and that this could occur to a substantial degree within the next couple of centuries. This might seem disagreeable to those who have more time for religion than science, but without the leadership of the mystics and avatars of the past, scientific method would never have been fostered to the state where it can assume the role that religious leaders once held with authority in governing morals and ethics.

Beliefs of primitive man were animistic. They assumed that Gods where everywhere, in everything. And there were large numbers of them for all occasions. They were all powerful: everything was caused by their arbitrary decisions, and if something could not be understood, and most things could not, then it was put down to the will of the Gods. The more primitive the culture the more prolix the gods.  The first major advance in the Western civilisation in the form of the Hellenic empire was a world still controlled by a multiplicity of Gods, although their importance diminished with time to be replaced by monotheistic beliefs, Christianity and Judaism in the West, Buddhism, Islam and others further East.  Today there is an appreciable percentage of the Western world that does not believe in the existence of any form of God or afterlife at all, a trend which perhaps first started to make headway in the last nineteenth century.

In the middle ages in Europe, the Catholic Church of Rome controlled and administered all education and governed the behaviour of all from monarchs downwards through its monopoly on the afterlife. The Popes and their acolytes were privy to the secrets of purgatory and/or eternal bliss, and as monarchs or autocrats grew old and became more aware of mortality, they would start to heed and defer to the greater knowledge of their clerical peers. The peasants were poor and illiterate and many of ruling classes were not much better educated: they all came to heed this power of the clergy. This was no more than a claimed knowledge of the hereafter, that the uneducated assumed their spiritual leaders possessed. No doubt it improved the plight of the poor to some extent, by giving them the promise of payback in their afterlife for their suffering on Earth, which in turn had a stabilising effect on society.

In the last two hundred years of scientific progress and the technological achievements of the industrial revolution in the West, our knowledge through physics how forces play on matter to give it its basic nature; through chemistry on how matter combines to make other material; through biology of how compound matter combines to make living tissue operate; through astrophysics on where we stand in the universe, all give us much clearer understanding of our true nature. This has diminished the role of spirituality in the West and which by extrapolation might seem likely to continue.

We might also expect that within another couple of hundred years or so, what we know today will seem more primitive than how the beliefs of the middle ages appear to us today. How then did spirituality and its henchman, religion, gain such a position of dominance? The questions that shed light on this I have limited to three.

  • The first and most general is why does mankind have a need for religion in the first place?
  • The second is that given there is a need for religion, then how do spiritual leaders explain the questions that arise from the need for religious belief?
  • The third is what is it about religious belief that allows so much influence and has caused so much strife throughout all these years that such a concept has continued in existence? And in elucidation of this point, in what way has religion been used by mankind to exercise power over the many by the few?

The First Question

The reason we need a religion seems straightforward enough. Anything of consequence to us and which we cannot explain at all in logical terms traditionally used to fall under the jurisdiction of the religious leaders. We need some purpose to life. From the moment we became self conscious and capable of objective thought, another powerful quality of mankind, curiosity, drove him to start to require a reason for existence. Why was he here?  What was he supposed to be doing with himself other than just surviving? Life was demonstrably nasty and short unless care and strenuous effort was taken, and the latter usually involved the exercise of brutality over others.

Surely there must be some point to existence. Could life on Earth just be a hopeless jumble of arbitrary actions with no pattern or design to them, a chaos of unconnected and unpredictable events? Surely not must be the optimistic answer. But how to work out and justify such an answer? This is purpose for which religious belief was devised in the absence of a convincing explanation.

Such considerations led to problems of the right way to behave. The moment people started to ponder on ethics, the definition of right and wrong, and then inevitably failed to find a satisfactory and logical answer, the door was opened to the concept of religious belief.

To rehearse the first question, why does there have to be religion? The answer is because thinking man is curious, and requires answers in order to justify the travail of self-conscious existence. Rational thought demands there be a point to existence. Since no easy answers are readily available, then he just has to take on faith from the self-appointed wise men that there is an answer to these questions. There is a structure to life that will eventually be made manifest, and in the meantime if he cannot decipher a rationale for existence and the form of this structure, he must accept on faith that this is so, because otherwise he might just as will give up and self-destruct.

Second Question: Given there is a need for religion, then how do its leaders answer the questions that rise from the need for religious belief?

The council of elders and shamans would deliberate on such problems, and deeming themselves wiser from experience than the younger generation. They might for instance say, “It is very complex, very hard to understand unless you have pondered many years. Further more you ought to have fasted, eaten the right food, and been through the correct rituals many times to mollify the Gods before enlightenment will slowly manifest itself. You and the many uninitiated others, will just have to take our word for it that we know the answers.  Here they are, and the first being unless you behave and respect your elders, do not kill, do not rob, do not steal other men’s wives, you will suffer purgatory in the after life”.

Thus, the doctrine of faith was evolved. The ignorant must trust the wise, the shamans, the clerics, and take their word as fact that what happens after death is as they describe it. Of course, it was not just the councils of elders seeking to look after themselves through which religious beliefs were developed. There was also the phenomenon of the prophet or mystic.  Every other century or so an avatar will come to prominence: such have a true vision of how things should be. They are rare, often untaught, and are most likely genuine mystic intuitives. They are the Christ figures, the Buddhas, the Mohammeds: the genuine article. By example alone they can induce a level of reverence into their followers that compels the start of a new religious cult.

These mystics understood some of the ways in which nature is structured, and would expound patterns of behaviour that ought to be adopted in response to their appreciation of the way things were. Their understanding was inevitably on an intuitive level, and given the lack of explanation of the mechanics of physical existence that we have today, they had some difficulty in articulating their view of life, and explaining it to others. But their followers would be able to tell from example that here was somebody who had not only developed a new belief system, but whose lifestyle was consistent with those beliefs. The force of example is stronger than words, but once the original source has died, its effect becomes diminished and corrupted, to be eventually replaced by a new belief system more relevant to conditions prevalent some centuries later. Either that or the original has to be considerably updated. 

The Third question: What is it about religious belief that allows so much influence and has caused so much strife throughout all these years that such a concept has been in existence? And in elucidation of this point, in what way has religion been used by mankind to exercise power over the many by the few?

The brief answer to the first half of the statement is fear of the unknown. The one common fact to all life is death, and when the rich and powerful come close to it, unless they are of exceptional mental substance, they can only turn to the advice of the experts, the divines. The priesthood is not going to ignore the chance to increase their own secular influence by scaring the dying man into handing over as much wealth to the church as they dare extract out of him. A dying man will clutch at a straw and the wielder of that proffered straw has great influence. He has to take it as an article of faith that the clergy, who specialise in such matters, know more than he does.

That great modern equivalent of mediaeval religious beliefs, Communism, was a prime example of the need never to be questioned. It is this fear of the unknown that causes all the strife, the monumental destruction of property in the twentieth century, the huge quantities of indiscriminate deaths.

The moment information about the true state of affairs begins to filter through to the masses, the power of the ruling oligarchy starts to diminish. This is the admirable quality of the information revolution that started in the twentieth century so that as people become better informed, they are by definition less credulous, less easily led, and less prone to accepting the articles of faith that the clerics and dictators require. This is all as a direct result of the growth of scientific knowledge and technology.

The rate of growth of knowledge in the Western world has accelerated almost asymptotically over this last century, which indicates the need for religious belief will further diminish. This seems evident enough by the decline in the authority of the Christian Churches in the West. The recent outburst of some Islamic fundamentalism might give cause for thought, although I regard this as a last-ditch attempt by Religious leaders, accustomed to absolute obedience, to hold on to power over those remaining non-technical and uninformed societies.

If we accept that the religious beliefs are fading, then do we accept that they are of no value at all? My response is that we do not.  Religious teaching performs an important part of the development of intelligent existence. It provides a system of ethics, the definition of right and wrong, a code of behaviour, which will become the foundation on which a legal system can then be constructed. But it relies on the fact that there are mysteries that cannot be explained. There is another major point endorsing the importance of religious belief and spirituality. It can instil a sense of sublime sense of awe into an individual when confronted by the wonders and mystery of nature.  An atheist scientist can experience similar feelings, but such emotions have more usually been ascribed to spiritual leaders.  It is this sense of wonder that can inspire the naturally devout with such a spirit of reverence that their peers can see they have something special about them that sets them apart from ordinary men. The latter may experience a twinge of such insight from time to time in moments of serenity, but the genuine holy man lives most of his life in that exalted state.

We need such leaders to inspire us to progress towards a state of intuitive awareness of the true nature of the universe, and how we should not be diverted by the primitive pursuits of basic existence: power, money, security, and procreation. But it is not only the prerogative of prophets and religious leaders. It is a quality that has been demonstrated by great natural philosophers and poets, and visionary artists.  Is it possible that science will turn out to be an edifice of deception, and be subverted to destructive ends?  Sectors of scientific progress that have made possible cataclysms through misapplication, and this will continue, but logic and a degree of subjective conviction suggest to me that increase of scientific knowledge can ultimately only lead to increased understanding about ourselves, which must be beneficial.

I believe that the two subjects of this essay have the same end in view. They both seek to increase knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. They do this through separate approaches, which are so different that they might initially be regarded as mutually exclusive. But as we discover more of the operation of the mind, and in particular intuition, we shall be able ultimately to consider them as different versions of the same thing.

Science progresses piece meal in a multiple series of tiny intuitive break throughs which can be explained relatively easily to others. A religion lays down codes of behaviour drawn from the large intuitive leap forward in understanding by the originating founding father.  The clerics make some attempt at an explanation of why this will be beneficial, and will increase wisdom, but it is generally insisted that lack of understanding should be no bar to belief. The word of the spiritual leaders should be accepted as articles of faith. This is where science differs, but this can be justified by the difference in scale of the respective leaps forward in understanding.

Scientific knowledge progresses by specialisation. Research concentrates on one small sector of phenomena and analyses everything about it in the smallest detail possible. The scientist faced with a problem, once he has all the possible facts lodged in his mind, then has to sort them out into an order, which has a rational structure, as opposed to a jumble of apparently unconnected facts and events. He has to come up with an explanation for this process, which can then be seen to be repeated time and time again in nature, demonstrated either by physical experimental evidence, or else described in mathematical formulae or words. Thus, others can share the same mental structure or thought process.  It often happens that such a break through is made, when everything suddenly falls into place, in a moment of quiet reflection, when he might have been thinking of very little, with his mind at rest. In other words, he makes a small intuitive leap in a moment of illumination which at a stroke precipitates out the chaos of disconnected information into an ordered pattern.

The mystic or avatar has a vision of nature, which he might have conceived after years of meditation, when suddenly in a moment of insight the universe takes on structure and order, so that existence is justified, or at least a major part of it. He might then see that in order to convince others of this vision, they will first have behave according to a code which he has devised, and which will render them more likely to eventually share his vision.  This mystic will then start to disseminate his views, and if they are valid and a radical enough departure from other current beliefs, they will take hold on disciples. The word spreads, and maybe survives persecution to become a new establishment religion, but it was the quest for understanding driven by curiosity and dissatisfaction with current orthodoxies on which it was founded.

This is neither more nor less than the role of science. They both spring from the same fountain head. The mystic makes a huge intuitive leap in his understanding of how nature operates, and how people should behave in response to awareness that prevalent beliefs are inadequate.  It is so large a leap forward that he probably cannot articulate it very easily to others, other than by parable. He cannot analyse the whole concept down into many tiny separate elements as does the scientist, which enables the latter to convey to others, his detailed understanding of one small sector of phenomena. But, from the evidence of the avatar’s life style consistent with his own teaching, his followers are convinced of the veracity of his vision, and by imitating his example are perhaps eventually able to share in that same insight.

The poet, artist and musician work in much the same way as the mystic, although on a lesser scale. They develop their own individual way of looking at the universe. They might have had this insight since birth, being genetically programmed somewhat differently from their peers. The problem is how to disseminate and explain this new way of seeing things to others. After a period of withdrawal and intense self-scrutiny, this leads to an intuitive break through, which presents them with an entirely new method of representing their insights to the rest of the world. They then attempt to transmit to others this new perception, and if it is a genuine breakthrough and original, it should catch the attention of the world at large if its proponents last the course.

The individual scientist is less ambitious. His task is less romantic. He has to labour on trivial detail so that over centuries of research by many individuals all working on different sectors, an understanding of how they all work together to form an interconnected whole might emerge. Technology is developed from the application of this new information and the rate of scientific progress accelerates.  It could be argued his task is not only less ambitious but also easier.  In compensation, it is more likely to produce a result than that of the aspirant avatar or artist. It will no doubt take years of tedious research, for a result that might not appear of Earth-shattering consequence to others, assuming they can understand it in the first place. But if many work together in the same direction and are prepared to put up with the tedium and lack of romance in their work, then palpable progress will be made, which will not rely on the hit and miss approach of the mystic.

Reverting back to the original discussion of the current schism between science and religion/spirituality, there is a commonly held argument that science will never be able to provide an answer to the fundamental problems of existence. If so, is it any better than the present religious systems we have to address such problems? What was there before the big bang?  Why and how was a universe created in the first place, and who or what was responsible for its creation?  Why did any such force or supernatural power, if there is such a thing, bother to devise a cosmos full of sentient beings and rules of nature? What was the purpose of it all: perhaps just to keep that supernatural intelligence amused?

These may today seem questions of such impossible complexity that they might never be answered by science. If so, I consider that demonstrates a remarkable lack of imagination and ability to anticipate.  It is not impossible to come up with answers to some of the above questions. They may not be correct –they will inevitably be well adrift– but it is possible to speculate and come up with reasoned solutions. 

What we have achieved in science today would have seemed quite beyond belief only two hundred years ago. If our knowledge continues to escalate at its current rate, enhanced by the information explosion of technology, then my belief is that we have seen nothing yet in the way of progress, the like of which we might see over the next century.  Indeed, we have one particular chasm of ignorance in front of us waiting to be conquered.

That is the mechanism behind the operation of memory. Once this is mastered then I anticipate that it will but a short step to expose and comprehend many of the functions of the operation of the mind, intuition and intelligence generally. I also am convinced that this will be an organisational principle, which will be capable of application to a great number of other phenomena on which our knowledge is currently limited: the way in which life develops for instance.

Today we have no more than an inkling of the way in which memory and the brain operate. Our ignorance on the subject is staggering compared to the detail we know about the mechanisms behind the behaviour inanimate objects and forces on the micro scale: quantum theory and its off shoots. In the nineteen twenties and thirties, physicists of huge talent developed quantum theory which is able to predict the behaviour of large quantities of incredibly small particles with enormous accuracy.  But something was out of kilter here. As Erwin Schrodinger noted with great prescience in his essay “What is Life”:

“The orderliness encountered in the unfolding of life springs from a different source. It appeared that there are two different ‘mechanisms’ by which orderly events can be produced: the ‘statistical mechanism’ which produces ‘order from disorder’ and the new one, producing ‘order from order’. To the unprejudiced mind the second principle seems much more plausible. No doubt it is. That is why physicists were so proud to have fallen in with the other one: the ‘order-from-disorder’ principle, which is actually followed in Nature and which alone conveys an understanding of the great line of natural events, in the first place of their irreversibility…………..”

We must be prepared to find a new type of physical law prevailing in it. Or are we to term it a non-physical, not to say a super physical, law? No, I do not think that. For the new principle that is involved is a genuinely physical one: it is, in my opinion, nothing else than the principle of quantum theory over again.”

The need for religion will not die until we know the answer to everything. As long as there is an element of mystery about the universe, there will be necessity to trust that there is some purpose and structure behind the mystery. But this need will diminish as knowledge is expanded. Even then it is not impossible that if our own individual intelligences could be networked together, then such a huge embodiment of knowledge and wisdom might be capable of doing without the need for a corporeal and physical support system. Disembodied intelligence may be the stuff of science fiction, but why not? I can imagine no better definition of heaven whereby all individual intelligence is combined to effectively become all seeing and all knowing.

There would then be no more mysteries, which might be thought so dull that perhaps the whole shooting match would need to be brought to a satisfyingly symmetrical conclusion (the heat death of an entropic universe reversed back into the big crunch?). Then what to do?  Repeat the whole thing all over again but this time with a different set of ground rules perhaps, to avoid tedium.

Commenced Sunday, 24/10/02
Completed Tuesday 17/12/02
Nick Greaves