Science and Spirituality: A False Dichotomy?

Published on 29-07-2016

When we speak of things scientific, we feel a sense of sureness, a feeling of security in our knowledge or conviction. We talk about proof and replicability. “That’s not scientifically sound” we’ll often say, or even more commonly heard is “science has proven that…” But equally often we’ll hear statements such as ”we used to think that (fill in the ailment) was incurable, but then we found a way to beat it.”

So what actually is proof other than something that reinforces our current levels of understanding? By demonstrating that our previously held notions were indeed erroneous, we see that they had been taken on faith that our methods of scientific inquiry were adequate and complete but were actually just that - notion held in high regard. 

Speak privately with large numbers of physicians for example, and they’ll admit that all too often their approach to treating disease is akin to throwing spaghetti on the wall and seeing what sticks. How often have you heard your friends report that they were being treated for some ailment or disease, but had an adverse reaction, or no reaction at all, and so another tack was chosen. What is a bit of a trial and error process could be called the “art” of medicine as opposed to the “science” of the practice, suggesting that a portion of the process, at least, is a blend of intuition, hunch and experience.  And even more to the point, when all else fails, many doctors and patients alike will resort to prayer as a last resort.

Right now, some of the fundamental tenets of physics are being re-examined and re-defined as we speak in the hallowed halls of great institutions and world-renown laboratories. Basic assumptions such as the second law of thermo-dynamics (Did a state of low entropy at the time of the Big Bang really exist? What is the true function of gravity?) are being called into question by such well-respected physicists as Sir Roger Penrose. We must ask not only: where are the true distinctions between science and spirituality, but also wherein lie the intersections and overlaps?  Could it be no more than a matter of habitual thought that causes us to distinguish between the two domains, thoughts that are founded and supported by culturally shared beliefs? Do the communities to which we belong, whether they be religious, geographic, academic or trade, contribute to the perpetuation of unexamined group think?  Nobel laureate and quantum physicist Neils Bohr once said of note: “The opposite of a false statement is one that is correct, but the opposite of a profound truth might well be another profound truth.”

Could it be that science and spirituality are just two sides of the same coin dressed up in different clothes? Maybe they are dissimilar paths up the same mountain, destined to meet at the summit? What if we one day realize that both scientists and spiritual seekers have been driven by the same profound desire to understand and solve the same Great Mysteries? That really they were cousins all along, “brothers from another mother,” sisters across the great divide, which itself was found to be mere illusion, a simple lack of understanding. 

By opening our minds to possibilities beyond our current sight lines, we demonstrate curiosity, faith in an idea, intention, intuition, creativity and commitment to walking into the unknown. Can’t each one of these qualities be said to describe both a life of scientific inquiry as well as one of spiritual devotion?  There is merit in thinking collaboratively rather than discreetly, holistically rather than fractured. The goal is not to homogenize the beautiful complexity of our Universe, but rather to better understand, appreciate and even interact with the multi-faceted, mind-numbingly complex yet marvelously coherent nature of the Whole. Weaving the two domains together creates synergistic potentialities that just might take our development further as a human race more quickly and efficiently, while simultaneously creating more harmony and joy.