Saturday, March 29, 2014

Nature, Science and Spirituality (29 March 2014)

"Does a scientific explanation of the world diminish its spiritual beauty?  I think not. Science and spirituality are complementary, not conflicting; additive, not detractive. Anything that generates a sense of awe may be a source of spirituality. Science does this in spades."
-        Michael Shermer Why Darwin Matters (2006)

“I’ve found that you can come to know the universe not only by resolving its mysteries, but also by immersing yourself in them.” (21)
-      Brian Greene The Fabric of the Cosmos (2004)

I have always been enamoured of Nature.  Engagement with Nature has been, for me – from as long ago as I can remember – first and foremost an aesthetic adventure.  However else I have related to Nature; whether via imaginative scenarios, religious beliefs or myth-based mysticism—at base, I was always struck (down) by the beauty of the natural world.  Over the last decade and a half, I have sought to re-ground myself; my being-in-becoming—in science.  Along the way I have found – in the revelations of everything from biological evolution to the Standard Model of physics to cosmology – wonders beyond any of my earlier imaginings.  This does not invalidate my earlier imaginings; rather—it transforms them.

I have sometimes been asked if – in switching over to a scientifically grounded outlook – my aesthetic and imaginative experience has been diminished.  I am always startled by the question, as it seems to miss the mark of my experience so completely.  There is nothing about the scientific explanation of the world that has diminished my experience of it.  Nor does an ‘empirical,’ ‘physicalist’ understanding of Nature undermine a spiritual, mystical enthusiasm for life.  What I experience as the aesthetic dimension of nature carries even more profound implications and deep resonances, now that I understand so much more of Earth & Cosmos through the lens of science.

This is not to say that science is the only thing that unlocks the beauty of Nature.  It is not to say that spirituality cannot have tap-roots in_ and elements informed by_ art, literature and philosophy, even myths and sacred stories.  Rather, all of these other elements shift to a more colorful ‘hue’ once the world is understood in scientific terms.  I still love western literature, Celtic mythology, the Bible and Homer, horror and science fiction.  The difference that a scientific worldview makes is that I no longer confuse the fictional worlds constructed in these texts with the objective world revealed by science, as I sometimes did when I was less concerned with the ‘Given’ – i.e., the objective world – being overly immersed in my own subjective worlds.

The truth of literature and the truth of science are two strands of a larger, heftier rope of truth, and the more strands we are familiar with; i.e., the more we can understand and integrate into our lives—the closer we may come to what might be called ‘Truth’ with a capital ‘T;’ not an ‘absolute’ or ‘perfect’ or ‘final’ truth—but rather, the closest approximation we can render-out to the What-Is in the short space of our mortal existence.

Science and spirituality are complementary.  Science and the aesthetic engagement-with and appreciation-of Nature go hand in hand.  The bridge between science and spirituality is one that has not often been approached, much less crossed—at least not intentionally, and as we explore the universe and the world around us in ever greater depth and particularity via the sciences, this question of the relationship between science and spirituality is going to become more and more important.  'More important,' that is, if we are ever going to grow out of superstition and supernaturalism, and get existentially grounded in the world as it is, and not as we would simply like to believe it to be.

The idea that science somehow diminishes our existence; that it 'robs' us of what is most important to us, seems to me to be the whining of those who are still enamoured of the closeted aesthetic and experiential existence that so often characterizes a religious or ideological worldview.  Of course, science wrecks any claim to truth that stands against or is inconsistent with what we are actually able to say about the universe, ourselves and our world based on empirical evidence and the extrapolations from evidence that ground the theories that the sciences have been able to construct through decades of research, observation and experimentation.  So the whining is understandable.  Yet, spirituality requires courage in the face of truth_ and the transition from misunderstanding to understanding is constantly calling on us; we must give up our illusions and come out into the light of truth.

Certainly, for those who have lived within the ghettos of supernaturalist belief systems, it is quite a shock to realize that the world is not the way you once thought it was (I experienced this 'shock' myself, when I first turned from religious constructions to a scientifically grounded worldview).  There can be a 'come down' off of imagined aesthetic, emotional and intellectual heights, as you leave the narrow confines of religious and ideological worldviews behind; yet this is a temporary condition, at least for those who push on into the wondrous depths that the sciences offer up for meditation and reflection.

If spirituality is an affirmation of life and a search for ways to better live; to develop practices, rituals and stories that engender wonder and lead on to self-realization, then science is certainly, as Shermer and others have said, a boon to spirituality; science and spirituality feed into one another, each inspiring the other—ideally if not always actually.  The quest to understand ourselves through what science is revealing to us about our biology and our place in the natural environment deepens the earthen seeker, and leads to wisdom (i.e., that kind of knowledge that enables us to best live life as the kind of beings that we are).  Spirituality grounded in science leads to awe and wonder and to the discovery of the nature of what-is, and results in new 'highs' – emotional, aesthetic and intellectual – that embellish our worlding and inspire us to genuine epiphanies.

The world as revealed by science is a beautiful, awe-inspiring place; and it takes a lifetime to learn to appreciate it.  _For this reason, and many others, science is a boon to spirituality.