Science vs. Spirit: Elegantly Resolving the Double Bind?
Here is one of the great debates of the present age, the result of which will define much of our ability to thrive (and maybe even just survive) in the coming era – do we harness science and alternative wisdoms to guide us through the inevitable turbulence? Or remain wedded to just the former, attempting to use a tool that forces as mechanistic, subject-object duality on an inherently connected, self-organising and intelligent universe / humanity?
I believe it is the epitome of elegance and the mark of a lover of wisdom (literally a ‘philosopher’) when we avoid the temptation to merely ‘discuss’ (attempting to persuade others of our beliefs) and we engage in what physicist Bohm called dialogue – the seeking to co-create truth and meaning within and between us.
I studied hard science at a most august university, a place where the whole ‘scientific project’ has in-part been forged from the 1500s. Unlike many of my peers though, I was also fortunate enough to study the history and philosophy of science too – something I believe should be mandatory for all scientists (and those that use science to further their political aims, whatever they may be). It is now fairly well understood by most academics that science is as much ‘created’ as it is ‘discovered’. Just last month, in the New Yorker, was a fascinating article on The Decline Effect – why even double-blind study results seem to diminish over time in so many domains of science. Ie Replicability – one of the key markers of what people call ‘science’ and the ultimate support of their truth claims – is not quite what it seems. And of course many of the smartest and greatest brains within the scientific project itself – Einstein, Plank, Heisenberg to name a few – have also clearly stated that science is simply one way (of many) to know the world. ie that it does not have absolute privilege over other ways of penetrating to the hidden order of things. It is a great shame (and dangerous) that so many non-scientists do not realise much of this and continue to bandy around truth claims that have been old-fashioned and misguided (at best) for 50 years or more.
Two quotes from Frenchmen that neatly carve our the terrain of the debate, and that shine clear light on the distinctions drawn between science and non-science – ‘non-sense’ – and why this continues to be done in both the popular and intellectual space.
One from positivist Laplace, illuminating much of the scientific project’s goals – to predict and control nature (and, by extension of course, us humans which are part of it)
We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at any given moment knew all of the forces that animate nature and the mutual positions of the beings that compose it, if this intellect were vast enough to submit the data to analysis, could condense into a single formula the movement of the greatest bodies of the universe and that of the lightest atom; for such an intellect nothing could be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.
Heady stuff! And not surprising it has been so appealing to so many (and so many men). And now one from the historian of science and enfant terrible Michel Foucault – who did so much to uncover the political nature of so much science
What types of knowledge do you want to disqualify in the very instant of your demand: ‘Is it a science’? Which speaking, discoursing subjects – which subjects of experience and knowledge – do you then want to ‘diminish’ when you say: ‘I who conduct this discourse am conducting a scientific discourse, and I am a scientist’?
I love science. ‘Proof’. RCTs. Evidence-based solutions. Logic. Reason. Brilliant! And I also adore Wisdom. Insight. Intuition. Interconnected thinking. Systems thinking. Collaboration and co-creation. Do we really have to keep fighting about them?
Here is the double bind – a deep attachment to science conflicting with an even deeper intuition of something inherently meaningful and interconnected about the universe. This damaging and, as we will see, false double bind is perhaps the defining feature of the post-9/11, post-’Credit Crunch’ world. Without a contemporary and non-religious reconciliation of these two spheres I doubt that any individual, and the societies they are part of, can truly thrive.
Many people today believe that either God or science should dictate our lives. The majority of those in positions of power within the global system are members of the latter camp. Many of us have been brought up in a fiercely secular society, told consistently to rely on a cold and impersonal rationality to understand the world. It’s not all been bad. Dogma, superstition, religious oppression and guilt are waning. Where once our societies were held hostage to the whims of priests and tyrants, now we are free to think as we like. In the place of such repression, meritocratic science and capitalism do seem better able to liberate us. What’s more, they are there even when other human beings (and their Gods) let us down. Prayers to the Lord may not help us with our sense of exhaustion and a splitting headache – but Facebook, Ibuprofen and a vacation to the Florida Keys on a jumbo jet never let us down. Science and its flourishing off-shoots (such as the technology that we use 24/7 to empower our lives) seem tangible and trustworthy guides to life. So it is easy to develop a sense of intellectual guilt if we even entertain thoughts of our ‘spiritual’ interconnectivity. This is the classic double bind.
Now it is essential to realize that science cannot be science unless the thinking subject, that means ‘I’, studies, observes, measures and experiments with an object, say a rock, brain cell or atom that is outside of me. Science teaches us to see the world ‘objectively’, to study nature with a dispassionate eye. Philosopher Rene Descartes famously asserted in the 17th Century that ‘I think, therefore I am’. He suggested to all that, in a bewildering world where we cannot know what is true and what is false, one thing we can know for sure is that we think, and therefore we are, we exist. On this separation between Me and It the entire edifice of modern life – and in particularly the science and technology that help us live such long, fruitful yet unfortunately often unhappy and alienated lives – has been built…. For most, science remains an unassailable source of absolute truth, and its progeny (capitalism, economic theory, psychology et. al..) run the world. And they attempt to rule it with the same cold logic of classical physics.
Powerful atheists in the intellectual and political elite, as well as many top scientists who inform so much of public opinion, together shape our society in the image of a mechanism or clock. This was the original metaphor that the followers of Newton (though not Newton himself, who was as committed to mysticism as he was science) used to describe the world. In this view, we become distinct, disconnected, and usually selfish cogs within the machine. Health, education, defense and, above all, economic programs are all designed with this idea at their core. Businesses and brands, and the entire capitalist system they fit within, rely on it, otherwise we wouldn’t need so many of the products they sell. If we realised we were one with everything and everybody else, fear and need, the defining emotions of modernity, would be redundant.
Yet even those with the greatest commitment to science – such as my father, whose life is saved each day by shots of insulin made possible by genius scientists – have gazed out to sea on a deserted beach in Thailand; reached the top of a mountain trail in the Rockies; or connected momentarily with the sparkling eyes of a newborn baby and known for certain that they are an inherent part of the Universe they see around them. This sensibility may be deep down, intuitive and perhaps even imperceptible… but it is there. It is the organism grasping its true nature. We all sense that there is something more (much more) to life than Facebook pages and ATM cards. We all sense that, although it can’t be seen by a microscope, there seems to be something ineffable that connects us. As soon as we stop needing this to be a personal God – the kind that one prays to and that can be angry with us – our reason no longer stands in the way of our intuition, and the double bind can be dissolved. A talking, thinking, human-sounding God will always lead us towards dogmatism, arrogance and above all fanaticism, none of which are attractive to a free-thinker and child of reason. However, if we see ourselves simply as interconnected beings, fully plugged into the universe and an intrinsic part of it, the conflict is transcended. This then can complete the circle. As Einstein himself said: “The most beautiful and most profound religious emotion that we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. And this mysticality is the power of all true science.”
I hope this is food for thought.