Science vs. Spirituality

Jeff Carreira Philosophy 16 Comments

My mind is still not up to full speed after being on retreat, but I am thrilled by all of the back and forth on the topic of spirituality. It is, as we can see, a particularly charged area of discussion. And given that part of my purpose is to look at things through the lens of American Philosophy, it is good to mention that the topic of spirituality is particularly charged in this nation. Freedom of religious choice and the separation of church and state have left America much more religiously oriented than other developed nations with many more active religious denominations, sects and experimental spiritual communities of all kind.

In our discussion I would like to look into what spirituality is while remaining as intellectually rigorous and philosophically rooted as possible. So to start I would like to take a look at the nature of philosophy itself. I propose that philosophy in its most general sense can be understood as “The human endeavor to understand the nature and functioning of reality.” Human beings are thinking animals that use ideas to guide action. Philosophy is the human effort to create ideas that accurately describe the way things are so that we can use those ideas as a basis for acting.

In the development of Western philosophy there have been two approaches to the endeavor of philosophy that persist to this very day. These two ways of going about philosophy are sometimes known as Rationalism and Empiricism and in fact these distinctions existed long before the terms were created to describe them.

In short, Rationalistic thinkers put their faith in reason. They mistrust sense experience that is not mitigated by reason because they recognize that our senses can deceive us about reality. For this reason they believe that ultimate truth lies in the realm of ideas and reason. Empiricists, on the other hand, put their faith in our sense experience of the world. They mistrust ideas that are not grounded in sense experience because they see that ideas on there own easily fly into fantasy. Science as we know it today can be seen as a special case of Empiricism and Spirituality as a special case of Rationalism.

Science is an Empirical pursuit that makes use of the scientific method for determining the truth from our sense experience and has as its aim a complete understanding of the material world. The scientific method involves hypothesizing a theory and then testing the theory through experimentation.  Only information that is obtained in this way is truly scientific. If a theory is not testable it is not considered scientific.

Spirituality is a Rationalistic pursuit that maintains the validity of “revealed truth” and that has as its aim the moral transformation of the individual to act in accordance with revealed truth.  In traditional religious terms revealed truth was seen as the word of God – for instance as recorded in the Bible. In our own time revealed truth has come to be interpreted as personal “spiritual” experience which seems to “reveal” something of the ultimate nature of things to the experiencer. These revealed truths are generally seen as being self-evident and therefore no experimental testing is required to “prove” them.

Early in human understanding the distinction between philosophy, science, and spirituality was not clear and all three were intermingled. With the age of Enlightenment these distinctions became clearer. And over the centuries Religion has been largely usurped by Science as the dominant world view in the Western World.

So this question of “Does spirituality have any significance in the modern age?” is one that humanity has been wrestling with for a long time. In Christian philosophy the defense of religion is called apologetics. And you can see the arguments of apologists appearing and reappearing throughout the history of human understanding defending the validity of “revealed Truth” in an increasingly empirically driven world.  So my question to myself and to all of you is “Does Spirituality have any validity and if so, what is it?”

About the Author

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira is a mystical philosopher and spiritual guide. He is the author of eleven books on meditation and philosophy. He teaches online programs and leads retreats throughout the world that teach people how to let go of their current perceptual habits so they are free to participate in the creation of a new paradigm. To put it simply, he supports people to live a spiritually inspired life, free from the constraints of fear, worry and self-doubt, and aligned with their own deepest sense of meaning and purpose.
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Carl
12 years ago

While I have not studied carefully the differences in definitions between rationalism and empiricism, as a scientifically trained person my experience is that science puts its faith in reason (mathematics, logic), grounded in empirically demonstrated fact. In other words, I think thaht science combines the two. While I think one can have rational deductions based on no data (e.g., the musings of the early geometricians who deduced the nature of reality based on geometric theorems) or empirical experience collected without any effort to synthesize understanding from the facts, science combines the two. Science, both hypothetical-deductive science (which you describe) and… Read more »

Lisa
Lisa
12 years ago

—-I propose that philosophy in its most general sense can be understood as “The human endeavor to understand the nature and functioning of reality.” Human beings are thinking animals that use ideas to guide action. Philosophy is the human effort to create ideas that accurately describe the way things are so that we can use those ideas as a basis for acting.—- —“The human endeavor to understand the nature and functioning of reality.” — What we know is that the Universe is mirroring back to us our thoughts. What you think you create. —-Human beings are thinking animals that use… Read more »

Carl
12 years ago

Jeff, that’s a helpful clarification. You suggest degrees along a continuum, and some of my reading after posting my comment seemed to suggest the same thing (e.g., on Wikipedia, not necessarily authoritative but convenient). I often appreciate Andrew Cohen’s use of the term “scientific” which seems to suggest with respect to certain topics, such as meditation, that there are principles or rules that govern spiritual phenomena and practice, that they are verifiable through experience and results, and that they are discoverable, as in scientific laws. Seems like a combination of experience and reason in that the logical description of a… Read more »

Brian
Brian
12 years ago

In addition to all this talk of science, reason, rationality, empiricism, truth, and reality (integral-right); seems to me spirituality is also in league with emotions, imagination, culture, art, beauty, and goodness (integral-left).

So now that we’ve narrowed it down…

Lisa
Lisa
12 years ago

I read a story a few years back about NASA spending billions of dollars trying to connect to the Zero Point Field that creates our reality.

Why would NASA spend so much money to find the key ingredient that would unlock the “supernatural law?” Are they not all about the Sciences? And, what do you believe they would do with that knowledge?

Shizuka
Shizuka
12 years ago

Thy will be done.

Mette Mollerhoj
Mette Mollerhoj
12 years ago

Its exciting to imagine how things might fit altogether. I think it is possible that science one day will know all the answers to this kind of discussion. Lets fantasize! Could it be that all kinds of dualism is lack of understanding? Lets take something like “the seen” and “the unseen”. We already know a lot about things that once upon a time where “the unseen”: cells, molecules, electrons, and so on. In spirituality there is a paradox between the experience of oneness in meditation and the duality in dayly life of good/bad, ego/spirit, interior/ exterior. Can we imagine that… Read more »

Shizuka
Shizuka
12 years ago

I convinced it’s the demand and predilection that spirituality and science must be united in our life time(to make it or not is the different matter) and one live life to put fundamental trust that which can be seen and can not be seen. (learn forward into life).
Same time the survival (the fear of can I able to survive?pararised about life) is real as well.

Carl
12 years ago

I think science tries to uncover what is not seen, to account for it by figuring out what’s missing from the seen (e.g., to explain the measured behavior of sub-atomic particles by postulating additional particles or forces that have not yet been detected). So science sometimes uses what is “not seen” to explain what is seen, and then tries harder to “see” it, or to provide some other plausible explanation for the data. In my own spiritual life, I can say without a doubt that the experiences in which I have “seen” (not always visually, but through direct experience) the… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
12 years ago

Thanks Jeff for this very nice blog. I found myself agreeing fully with Carl’s comments after reading this blog. In Science, both Theory and Experiment go hand in hand. An experiment without a logical understanding ( or interpretation of it) is as useless as a Theory with no Experimental verification. I believe this is the same for Spirituality. Namely if a Master theorizes on something that nobody can test, then why would any one bother; it is just meaningless. Likewise, if we have Spiritual experiences that we don’t understand, it is not very useful because we will be unable to… Read more »

Brian
Brian
12 years ago

Catherine’s words on theory and experiment remind me of a quote by Charles Darwin:

“About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorize; and I well remember someone saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!”

Lisa
Lisa
12 years ago

For several years, I taught a meditation that gave a person their self-realization. I had nothing to sell. I gave an experience to someone who had to decide for themselves if they experienced any differences within. This meditation wakes you up from a deep dark sleep, and you can fully become aware of yourself. This was the rub. The meditation in itself is life transforming, but if the person practicing this meditation did not have the courage to see their faults to release them, they would continue down that deep dark road. What I had notice, from those I taught… Read more »

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
11 years ago

Can we say that science is the investigation and discovery of how the material mundane dimension operates and that spirituality is the exploration of the metaphysical dimension of humanity. Science insists on proof with instrumentation and duplication of that proof whereas with spirituality, humans haven’t developed yet devised ways of proving it’s findings other than miracles, anecdotes and faith. We have long mystical metaphysical traditions which are usually given short shrift by those not inclined to believe in such. Faith is that isn’t it, a matter of believing and suspending disbelief. I submit that living without spiritual belief and not… Read more »