Spiritual science

Can science and spirituality be reconciled? Is there a way of looking at things that brings them into alignment? Of course, the answer is ‘yes’. In his book Spiritual Science, published 2018, Steve Taylor gives a convincing answer. His subtitle is ‘why science needs spirituality to make sense of the world’. Steve gives the reasons and, from my perspective, comprehensively demolishes the arguments for the recently dominant paradigms of materialism and scientism.

Steve looks at the origins of materialism. Science originally developed alongside religion through pioneers such as Descartes, Kepler and Newton. They were not seen as incompatible. it was around the second half of the 19C that Darwin’s theory of evolution came to put into question whether the biblical stories could actually be true; there came a theory that religion was not necessary to explain the world. TH Huxley was a leading proponent of what became the materialistic viewpoint. The inner content of experience and consciousness itself were mysterious elided. After the world wars further discredited religions, materialism gradually took hold, and there came about a new faith that materialism could explain everything. As Steve points out this has denigrated the experience of the spiritual/religious life, and indeed has become a new religion. The result has become increasingly clear as humanity in the large degrades the natural world, and even imperils its own existence.

Steve then goes on to ask the simple question ‘What if the primary reality of the universe is not matter? What if there is another quality, which is so fundamental that it actually pervades matter, and matter is actually a manifestation of it? What if this othe quality also pervades living beings, and all non-living things, so that they are always interconnected?’ Of course, this sort of idea has been adopted by many cultures in history, and is similar to the perspective of the ageless wisdom propagated by Helena Blavatsky. Steve refers back to the ancient Greek philosophy, to the world’s religions, to indigenous cultures, all of whihc had similar viewpoints. It is the modern materialism that is the aberration.

Steve’s panspiritism, and the similar panpsychism, have much greater explanatory power than materialism, which tends to reject the numerous phenomena that it cannot explain, not least the question of consciousness itself, which tends to be ‘explained away’ from the materialist viewpoint (the ‘hard problem’). In the panspiritist vew, consciousness exists everywhere and in everything, and the brain acts as some sort of receiver which channels it. And of course this view allows for the possibility of ‘spiritual experiences’, which are well understood and documented.

Steve goes on to explore the correlates between mind, brain and body, near-death and awakening (spiritual) experiences, psychic phenomena, an alternative view of evolution, the puzzle of altruism, and the problems of quantum physics, which has long been known to be inconsistent with simple materialism. Finally he outlines key tenets of panspiritism and the significance of the expansion of consciousness in the evolution of our universe. This is what it’s all about!

Steve’s book is a genuine tour de force, expressed in language that is not deeply technical. Well worth reading.

28 thoughts on “Spiritual science

  1. Hi Barry. I would agree that there’s nothing necessarily incongruous about science and spirituality. I think Fritjof Capra argued for this in “The Tao of Physics” and “The Turning Point” both before 1983. I guess his theories have been criticized, but I’m pretty sure some of them hold true.

    I think I’ve said this to you before, but I find that if people haven’t come to grips with what consciousness is, a lot of understanding is just not going to happen. You can’t discuss free will without understanding consciousness, for example.

    For me, the universe itself is so unfathomably complex that it need not be anything else for spiritual experiences in relation to it to be fully warranted. To not be in awe of reality is simply to not get it. Which is not to say that one is in a perpetual state of awe at all. We have so many distractions, and much of the time just need to function. But even a materialist take on the universe could get so complex when it comes to the universe, and the subatomic universe, than one should be humbled before it. But, yes, I agree that materialism is reductionist, and will even go so far as to deny consciousness exists, which is an absolute faceplant: it is the complete rejection of the subjective in favor of the objective to the point of denying the subjective.

    I personally don’t think consciousness pervades the universe. It seems to me to be a produce of a highly evolved brain, in conjunction with a nervous system and sensory awareness. It is the awareness of being aware. Well, something needs to be aware, which may require that it exist in an embodied state, and be perishable. What use does a rock have for consciousness, or even awareness?

    But is the universe itself conscious? Or are organisms like ourselves the consciousness of the universe? Even small animals and insects seem conscious, or at least undeniably aware of their environments which they act in.

    There’s the conclusions of spirituality, which are understood in linguistics, and then there is the spiritual experience, which is outside of thoughts and conclusions. There’s consciousness, and then what it is conscious of.

    In “The Doors of Perception” Aldous Huxley, after imbibing mescaline, became completely enthralled with a piece of fabric. The fabric was not more interesting than any other time, but he saw it in a new light. That light is the realm of the spiritual, but there only need be a piece of fabric for it to have enough to marvel at.

    So, in a sense, the universe may be all pervasive consciousness, but I don’t think it needs to be. Either way everything has to be interrelated, and in ways we may only have scratched the surface of.

    Consciousness itself is immaterial, and the “hard problem” as I understand it is how an immaterial consciousness interacts with a material body. Materialists then conclude that’s impossible, therefore all conscious experience is dictated by the unconscious and prior events, somehow missing that they still have the same hard problem of how a material body interacts with an immaterial consciousness. However you slice it, science can’t find consciousness because it is indeed immaterial, while it is also the core of our being. In essence, while we are embodied, we are also much more importantly immaterial beings. We are spirits first, bodies second. Our mere existence as spirits is spiritual.

    Thanks for the tip, by the way. Much appreciated!

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  2. This is a great post, I’ve been exploring and discussing the connection between science and spirituality and the significance of the alignment between the two. Years ago I was introduced to the concept through author Gregg Braden, he has written many books on bridging the two. My life changed significantly when I opened my mind to all of the possibilities of mind and heart and spiritual consciousness with science, I’ve lived differently and felt that as we learn, we offer ideas to others, they in turn offer those to others and while slow there is a shift in consciousness. A concept that is taking hold for many is minimalism, as people realize the hold of materialism on their lives, they see the benefits and turn to living a simple, soulful life.

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    • Thanks for commenting, Laura. I’m not familiar with Gregg Bradon’s books, but they sound to be on similar lines to Steve’s. I’m still sufficiently in the thrall of technology and modern life to feel that we need to find a balanced position rather than moving to extreme simplicity/minimalism. But it is a balance we each need to find.

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  3. Can science and spirituality be reconciled? (snip) Of course, the answer is ‘yes’.

    No, not ‘of course’. This is a slippery word game going on here.

    This notion that science and religious belief aka ‘spirituality’ are compatible because science developed during a time when religious belief was the de facto norm reminds me of a rather simple analogy: just because some priests diddle children does not mean religion/spirituality is therefore (and “of course”) compatible with pedophilia. There’s something wrong with the thinking here.

    Science is a method of inquiry that relies on reality to arbitrate and adjudicate scientific claims made about it. When you say, “there came about a new faith that materialism could explain everything (snip) and indeed has become a new religion,” you are intentionally misrepresenting this method of inquiry we call ‘science’ using what’s available from reality and changing it by declaration into a belief by substituting all of reality that is available to adjudicate to be ‘materialism’. This tactic of altering language to fit into the meaning of the newly warped terms of a narrative should be a reed flag. Compounding this linguistic trick by advancing your own imported misunderstanding to claim without evidence that ‘materialistic science’ is therefore a kind of religious belief is another red flag because it’s simply not true. And wee know it’s not true by the fact that scientific inquiry works to produce new knowledge about reality and how it seems to operate independent of our beliefs about it.

    The scientific method itself (drawing tentative and changeable conclusions of explanatory likelihood from what’s available in reality to arbitrate the potential accuracy of these modelled explanations) is absolutely incompatible with the method of belief that empowers religion (softened these days with the elusive term ‘spirituality’). In a nutshell, explanatory religious beliefs are IMPOSED on reality as if the final word form some deity; by stark contrast, scientific confidence is ADDUCED from how reality arbitrates our modelled explanations about how it works. You cannot do science by importing a set of concrete explanatory beliefs, the bedrock of religious belief. These are incompatible methods.

    So to paint the scientific method this way as another kind of religious belief is just that: a paint job by playing with words. And it should raise a red flag that what is to follow is not accurate in fact, not adduced from reality, but something that wishes to avoid the rigor of inquiry that allows reality to adjudicate whatever claims are to follow. Panpsychism is a perfect example because absolutely nothing from reality can arbitrate the claim because the claim is that all of reality is evidence for it. How convenient. Sound familiar? It should. This is the same tactic used to justify any and all religious/spiritual explanations about how reality operates! Just believe!

    The real difference between religious belief and the scientific method is that religious belief produces zero new knowledge. This is inconvenient I know and disturbing to believers but true, nevertheless. As an equivalent method of inquiry into reality, religion/spirituality is a demonstrable failure. In contrast, the scientific method over time does produce applications, therapies, and technologies that seem to work for everyone everywhere all the time regardless of all other influences and beliefs. To wave all this accumulated and applied knowledge away to make room for something like panspiritualism as if equivalent and compatible to the scientific method seems to me to be at the very least badly confused. If nothing else, this kind of deep confusion should indicate that the ‘of course’ answer given in the OP is an inaccurate premise that cannot help but raise legitimate questions about the conclusion to follow.

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    • Thanks for your comment. Clearly we have differing views on the terminology and on what is evidently true.
      I never intended to denigrate science, which operates well within its own sphere of ‘objective knowledge’. Its proponents just need to recognise its limitations, which go back to the time of Descartes, when it intentionally excluded the subjective and values, as they cannot be encompassed in that objective domain. To deny it does not mean it does not exist.
      As far as religious belief is concerned, this was not a major point of my post, but I did try to draw parallel between faith in a religion and the modern faith in materialism.

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      • Yeah, it was this use of the term ‘faith’ that is at issue because the term does not cross the boundary between religious confidence and scientific confidence. But it is often used this way as if it does. That’s why I claim a word game is going on to make the two seem compatible, seem conciliatory, when in fact they are diametrically opposed. This becomes clear when a religious and scientific claim about reality (say creationism vs evolution) overlap but are in conflict. And the knowledge direction is only one way: from science to religion and never, ever the other way around. This matters when people claim these two are very different but equivalent ‘ways of knowing’. In fact, regarding claims about reality, it is always unidirectional – from science to religion – and that’s a clue about which ‘way of knowing’ is worthy of where and how much we should invest our confidence when the two make conflicting claims.

        In religious parlance, faith means belief in a set of premises and assumes they are true (there are several ways to describe this, not least of which is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen). It involves more of a sense of trust granted than likelihood earned. In scientific parlance, there is no similar term; there is only confidence based on likelihood not by fiat, not by some word game, but by demonstration and application. The ‘likelihood’ part is not imported like a religious faith but adduced and then shown, whereas in religious meaning there is no similar notion of uncertainty and shifting likelihood based on gathered evidence but a set of ideas that are imposed on reality as if true and then authorized as ‘legitimate’ by some divine stamp of approval. That’s why the two methods are in fact, in reality, and demonstrably so, incompatible as methods of inquiry.

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      • I’d say complementary modes of enquiry – of object and subject – rather than incompatible. But yes they are completely different.
        But why lose the wisdom of the ages just because we have this wonderful modern objective science?

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  4. Opining about value and meaning has nothing to do with science. Science as a method of inquiry is about trying to figure out how reality operates and by what means. Inserting any notion about Oogity Boogity and poof! ism that cannot be connected to the mechanisms and forces and fields and interactions by and between stuff leaves the realm of scientific inquiry and enters the realm of untestable speculation. An accurate synonym for these kind of speculations is, “I don’t know and you don’t either and we have no means to find out.”

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      • Sure. Value and meaning are very important elements I think to anyone’s life and are quite often tailored to each individual. I wish more of the world’s population had both the means and freedom to pursue their interests in these matters. But I’m sure you’re aware that one of the most significant impediments to this personal journey is hindered and even outlawed for a significant portion of the world’s population by theocracies and states closely aligned with one. I hope the irony of this fact isn’t lost on you.

        But this importance of value and meaning does not give license to anyone to promote the idea that science is a faith similar to some religious belief (when it’s not) and is therefore complimentary or compatible with religion (when it’s not), nor does it excuse or justify the attempt to pretend it is. Again, the typical assumption behind this rationalization is that value and meaning are somehow connected to religion/spirituality. I think this claim, too, is a faith-based premise that reality does not support because there is no compelling evidence that causally links religious belief to either. The claim once again is just an empty assertion made as if to justify or defend the hypothetical value of holding religious/spiritual beliefs.

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      • Well, you did say, “there came about a new faith that materialism could explain everything. As Steve points out this has denigrated the experience of the spiritual/religious life, and indeed has become a new religion.” You predicate this with claiming Steve, “comprehensively demolishes the arguments for the recently dominant paradigms of materialism and scientism.” Straw men are always easy to demolish.

        I think what Steve relies on using this kind of language are typical anti-scientific tropes that are used to denigrate those of us who recognize the role that science plays in advancing and deepening and opening avenues of inquiry that produce explanatory models about reality and how it seems to operate. It tries to undermine a method of inquiry that has, does, and continues to yield tremendous gains in applicable understanding that clearly leaves all other ‘ways of knowing’ dead in the water by comparison. Sure enough and right on cue, the criticizer using these tropes will insist that he or she has the ‘highest’ respect for science but not quite so much as to re-examine and question claims that one prefers. What’s a woo-meister to do?

        I mean, seriously, try to come up with a single insight into how reality operates and by what mechanisms that can be applied using any of these ‘other ways of knowing’ and I suspect you will draw a blank. There’s a good reason for this: the method of inquiry used by these other ways of knowing do not produce what can be known independent of the knower, so to speak. That’s why the conversation changes gears away from reality and towards that which WE bring to the discussion… terms like ‘morality’ and ‘meaning’ and ‘values’ and so on. There’s a clue in that and it’s not a indication that science is lacking; it’s an indication that we’re not talking about justified true belief anymore. We’
        re probably talking about metaphysics.

        So these are tropes because there is no competition between these so-called ‘ways of knowing’; what needs to happen to create a (false) equivalency is to use and abuse words to try to make room for these other ways of ‘knowing’. And, sure enough, not one of them is applicable to be tested independently of the imported beliefs, biases, assumptions, preferences, and so on, used to ‘inform’ them. We should not be surprised. The utility from these other ‘ways of knowing’ must be entirely subjective to survive, to be useful to the practitioner, to avoid having to meet the rigors of reality’s arbitration. Science as an alternative method is then ‘blamed’ to have… what… too high a standard to be met? So we’ll call ‘science’ something similar to a religious belief, one that relies similarly on a misplaced ‘faith’ in ‘materialism’, sort of a different but equivalent kind of ‘religious’ trust. Poof! Equivalency. That’s how these tropes are used to make room for woo.

        Of course, none of these tropes is accurate (or we wouldn’t need the word game) but a kind of straw man intended to make room for woo, make room for that which does not have any independent verification, independent existence that can be captured, measured, predicted, or cause effect. Hmm… and that doesn’t raise any red flags by claiming these ‘ways of knowing’ can still be ‘known’?

        And I use the term ‘woo’ on purpose because one of the hallmarks of trying to pass off belief in woo as if legitimate and reasonable in today’s environment is to insert some claim about quantum mechanics, as if to say QM is weird and so this weirdness indicates room for woo. Of course, it indicates no such thing but that’s not why the trope is used. It is used because it’s difficult for most people to grasp many of the key concepts of physics of very large and very small quantities of stuff to describe the mechanics of how they operate. These are significantly different at this scale from what might be expected using classical physics. Most people, for example, don’t even know QM is all about calculating probabilities and not about describing some exterior material, force, or field. So QM is a very handy tool to obfuscate and confuse and muddy the waters of ‘knowing’ but it doesn’t do the job of indicating that any woo offers us any additional insight into anything beyond our beliefs. Again, so much for claiming this as ‘another way of knowing’. There’s no ‘knowing’ involved or demonstrable beyond what one imports to the belief. That makes such belief equivalent in most ways to the kind of faith necessary for empowering religious belief. Only belief empowers it! This is not true of of science and absolutely, unequivocally in conflict with it.

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      • I suspect we would never agree on this. Yes I am talking metaphysics when I see inner and outer as two fundamental aspects of reality. The objective outer is well amenable to understanding through science and its mathematical models. The inner subject is not so amenable and needs its own disciplines which as you say cannot be objective and provable.
        You mention QM. It is no accident that most of its originators were also of mystical inclination.
        It is also notable that most scientific expansion is first inspired by intuition – which is of course a mystical/spiritual inner faculty…
        Anyway, interesting to discuss these ideas…

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      • Just to be clear, this notion that the physicists who developed quantum theory were of ‘mystical inclination’ is very much similar to the notion that many of those who developed the scientific method were of ‘Christian inclination’. The inclusion of this typical tactic is to suggest (without actually claiming it) that the motivation and remarkable insight into areas mined for knowledge about how reality operates kindof/sortof/maybe came about FROM religion, FROM mysticism, FROM spirituality as if these were the source of the insights not quite realized yet.

        This is absolutely untrue. But it is a global refrain hinting at some connection to various religions by those trying to suggest that THEIR believed-in religion/mysticism/spirituality played a central instigating role. It would be like claiming the modeling of DNA and the field of genetics actually came from mythology (nudge, nudge, wink, wink, know what I mean?) because of the dream that Watson reported to have had about a snake eating its own tail, a common mythological symbol. Oh look: genetics came from mythology. That is not true.

        It’s a way of stretching the truth to the point of allowing religion/mysticism/spirituality to appear to play some instigating role. Again, that simply is not true. At best, these typical tropes that insinuate possible influence that gets the order exactly backwards is similar to relating that water has exerted a significant causal influence on science because all scientists have been known to partake of drinking it.

        The long string of physicists who brought quantum theory into being has no causal and directional link from mysticism for the field, although some of the physicists have been known to make references of QM back to mysticism, most especially Bohr whom Einstein accused of doing this and to which Bohr vehemently denied in spite of many written references. Yet the trope linking QM (and not quantum theory) to mysticism lives on and continues to pay dividends to those who wish to hide
        a lack of supporting knowledge behind claims of mystical insights thanks in no small measure to those who presume it must be true because so many people continue to say it is true and so have no problem passing it along as if true. Who cares if it’s false?

        Please note that such religious/mystical/spiritual claims have breathing room only where we don’t know stuff, where we have a deficit of knowledge. That’s should be an important clue.

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  5. And to be clear, holding various religious/spiritual beliefs is fine and dandy… right up until it is used as if equivalent to a knowledge claim about reality. Once that happens, the claim has crossed a border it has no business crossing.

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  6. I guess it depends what you mean by knowledge. Spiritual or subjective knowledge or insight is not amenable to the scientific method, because science metaphysically excludes them!

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    • Justified true belief, using my philosophical education. It’s the ‘justified’ portion that matters, in that the scientific method tries very hard to eliminate subjective framing, which is why reality rather than our wishes, desires, and preferences is the final arbiter. And reality is granted this role by applying the modelled explanation to see if it works. Notice there is no such requirement of religious or spiritual claims, which is why praying or sacrificing or making offerings over your cell phone neither improves nor harms your reception. The modelled explanation has to be demonstrated by means of therapies, technologies, and applications that work independently of the person using them. In contrast religious and spiritual practices are entirely self-reporting… the central element of what is called ‘placebo’. I always think of Feynman’s advice about seeking knowledge, that ‘we must not fool ourselves… and we are the easiest people in the world to fool.’ He and I share the same inclusion in being vulnerable to the same. That’s why the justification is and must remain tentative even with the highest levels of confidence; it’s possible there are other and better models to describe how reality operates. But it will take reality to expose those models to us if and only if we trust reality to contain them. Once you leave that requirement behind for ‘knowledge and enter the world of believing in assumption and assertion to be equivalent ‘ways of knowing’ without any need or even means to verify, then ‘knowledge simply becomes synonymous with belief. I think there’s a difference. And we know historically how belief imposed on reality does not produce knowledge worth knowing; it produces nothing but dysfunction when trying to operate inside reality.

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      • The spiritual writings of many of the the quantum pioneers including Einstein, Pauli, Heisenberg, Schrodinger… are well documented in Ken Wilber’s book ‘Quantum Questions’.
        I presume you may be aware of Wilber’s framework in books such as ‘A Theory of Everything’, which provide a comprehensive framework for an integral scientific/spiritual viewpoint.

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    • Well, for example, suggesting panpsychism or panspiritualism as if some kind of equivalent and reasonable ‘explanation’ about consciousness – versus the ‘materialistic’ angle often smeared by the term ‘scientism’ (as if a kind of faith-based imported belief) – moves any inquiry entirely outside the realm of ‘knowledge’. This claim is demonstrably true by comparing and contrasting this grandiose model (that answers nothing about anything and provides zero practical applications) with the painstaking work going on in neuroscience today.

      Because ‘consciousness’ as a term that is itself very slippery to fully define, much work is accomplished by figuring out what activity is going on in the brain when it is deemed ‘not conscious’. This much maligned ‘materialistic’ approach it turns out is the only approach in any fair and reasonable comparison that yields any applicable benefit and practical use for everyone everywhere all the time. It’s not just an equivalent approach as the bill of goods we are being sold suggests; it is a completely different approach in that it is demonstrably the only approach that produces justified true belief ie. knowledge.
      For anyone interested, Patricia Churchland (philosopher and neuroscientist) talks about exactly this and shows us why in the 30 minute video here.

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      • As I said, we are not going to agree. Practical work on the inner man has been going on and proven for many millennia before modern science came along. The value of a spiritual life is well attested over the ages.
        That we try to put everything into mathematical models is one of the great problems of recent years. Life is more than that.

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  7. As I said, we are not going to agree. Practical work on the inner man has been going on and proven for many millennia before modern science came along. The value of a spiritual life is well attested over the ages.
    That we try to put everything into mathematical models is one of the great problems of recent years. Life is more than that.

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    • I’m not looking for agreement; I am questioning for cause the claim that religion/spirituality and science are somehow compatible and equivalent. I think they are entirely different. Only one produces knowledge – science – no matter how much knowledge-free ‘value’ and ‘meaning’ the other claims to offer. I think both value and meaning come from individuals and extend to these subjects and do not derive from them. That’s why there are literally tens of thousands of ‘kinds’ of religions and the significant impediment ‘spirituality’ very often plays when exported and imposed on scientific understanding under the guise of being ‘equivalent’ and ‘compatible’.

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      • Yes both modes of knowing are entirely different, yet both tell us things of value about the world. Our understanding is partial without them both.

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