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Science and Spirituality -- not necessarily in opposition Answered

There's a cute little article (blog entry) in New Scientist, about a collaboration between a Buddhist monastery in India and San Francisco's Exploratorium.

Buddhism, especially under the 14th Panchen Dalai Lama, has had a very favorable and welcoming attitude toward science. Traditional Buddhist practice toward enlightment stresses observation, experiment, and reproducibility (all classic hallmarks of "scientific" investigation), and elevates personal questioning above outside authority (unlike traditional Judeo-Christian-Islamist "revelation").


Very interesting, personally i have found my self to understand most of the big questions (and some of the smaller ones) only when taking into consideration religion and science. They work very well together.

Also, i think that many scientists have some sort of spirituality, even if its not a specific religion.

I also like how alot of scientists answer the big questions with a response that relies on the fact that science will 'eventually' discover an answer.

I agree, Jake. I personally have colleagues who span the full range from angry athiests (like Dawkins has become :-( ) right through to flaming fundamentalists.(then there are the literary alliteratives like myself :-)

Especially for those who have developed an intellectual foundation for their faith (I'bles members like yourself, Skunkbait, Adrian, Goodhart, etc.), their spirtuality surely informs and supports their scientific inquiries. But that spiritualily is not necessary for good science (just as it is not intrinsically an impediment). I do my science just fine, thank you very much, without needing religion to help me :-)

Having said that, I think I have made it clear in many of my postings that Science does have an underlying metaphysical set of assumptions, which may be labelled "faith" if you're trying to be provocative.

Science is, essentially by definition, a materialist endeavour. What we observe around us (a) has a real, objective reality that everyone can test and agree upon; and (b) there is nothing else but what we observe around us. That's an assumption. It can't be proven within the context of Science, but without it, you can't engage in the scientific process.

Science also assumes that nature is explicable -- that everything we observe can be explained. That doesn't mean we have the explanations yet, but there is no barrier in principle to finding them. Again, that it an assumption which can't be proven. But without it, the drive to pursue scientific questions can become fairly limited: "oh, we don't know about that, but maybe we just cant know about it, so why try?"

I say things like "We don't know about that yet." And to be honest, I think there are things I suspect we won't know in this lifetime. HOWEVER, the ideology that subscribes to "Why try?"- That one bothers me. I am never afraid of the RIGHT answer. In fact, I kinda feel morally compelled to find out the facts. I don't go to an illiterate doctor. I don't take my car problems to a chef. I don't use the "Magic-8 Ball" for my investment strategies. WHY on earth would I trust spiritual matters to any other human being?! In regard to something as important as the possibility of an afterlife, why wouldn't it be important enough for me to do my own research? Science has it's place. If "science" contradicts faith, two questions must be asked: A)Has the science been done properly? B)Has my faith been misplaced/uninformed/underinformed? I'm quite the conservative when it comes to matters of theology, but part of true conservatism is refusing to "fill in the blanks" with blind dogmatism! When in doubt, (scientific or theological), don't just shout louder! (That's a sure sign of irrational emotionalism.) But rather, re-evaluate your interpretation of the facts. The answer, and a rational explanation/reconciliation might be right under your nose!

Is irrational emotionalism then useless?

It makes for good performance art, but not so good for real-world applications.

Can you think of no other application? What about propaganda? Perhaps it even has uses in the adhesion of culture.

Oh, yeah. It's great for marketing too!

Well, propaganda helps fuel irrational emotionalism. I guess it could be used as a psychological weapon.

Thanks, Skunkbait! As to your two questions, when you're dealing with experimental or observational science, question (A) should always be the first one you ask. That's what the whole peer review process is for. It's very easy, especially if you're the one who designed the experiment, to overlook some systematic uncertainty or bias, or a detector artifact, or some confounding influence in your sample of birds, or whatever. Within science, the analogue to your question (B) is, "is the theory describing my data correct?" When we get an experimental result that contradicts a well-established theory, crackpots go straight to (B), but the right procedure is to ask (A) first. Only if you've got really solid results, preferably with some independent confirmation, do you even start to investigate (B). I think the same applies to a well-grounded faith.

"It can't be proven within the context of Science, but without it, you can't engage in the scientific process." That assumes, quite logically, that one's actions and beliefs are necessarily in accordance, but is it always the case? Your statement, "But without it, the drive to pursue scientific questions can become fairly limited: 'oh, we don't know about that, but maybe we just cant know about it, so why try?'" does not take in to account the uncertainty of life in general. There is very little we can know with absoluteness, if we can even know anything with certainty. Living beings have adapted so that certainty is not nescessary for action. So, we are curious and will feed our curiosity even if we don't know if something is even possible to know.

Science is a cumulative enterprise. You are addressing your argument to the individual, and for any one of us it is true. Science, however, grows by accretion in small steps.

The fact is that my Ph.D. thesis, measuring the rate at which Ds mesons decay to a muon and a neutrino, has little or no direct relevance to the real world. Nonetheless, it is one more small piece in the accumulating puzzle of understanding the fundamental forces of nature.

Human beings are also very manipulative and can form very strong memes by playing with other people. I didn't specify the individual, but you make a good point still. Nevertheless, I wonder if cumulative multiple-person science would or does happen without the assurance of results. Could you recommend a good introduction to quantum physics?

What's your scientific background. A good graduate text would be Griffiths. For undergrads, Halliday and Resnick volume 3 is what I used at UCLA. If you have no background at all, you really ought to learn basic physics first. Feynman's QED is a nice popular account.

and (b) there is nothing else but what we observe around us.

This assumes there are no one shot occurrences, that is, that nothing that happens can not be reproduced again given the same circumstances. The problem comes in when we can't produce the same scenario either because of the amount of energy required, or because we have no idea what the circumstances are/were.

This is where a slightly less then scientific methodology can come into play. A sort of "lateral thinking" or, as some would have it, legalistic logic. Comprised of putting together "what we know" to form a whole, despite the huge number of pieces missing from the jigsaw puzzle still. But we do this all the time in real life. It is often used to "find your keys" when you have misplaced them, so you don't waste time looking where they could never be. The downside to this is, if you DID place them somewhere you wouldn't have normally, you may not see them there, even though you look right at them again, something most of us have done numerous times.

And I am not really talking about assumptions nor intuition, but rather what is sometimes referred to as inductive thinking.

I disagree. Historical analysis doesn't require reproducibility. The assumption of materialism is sufficient. Any given supernova only happens once, and generally we only get to survey the results, not the progenitor or process. The assumption of materialism (and constancy of physical law) allows us to use our observations to infer the processes at work. What you describe is a perfectly fine scientific methodology, suitable for the observational sciences (astronomy, history, ecology, archaeology, etc.) as opposed to the experimental sciences.

I have heard some scientists say history is far from scientific, even though some scientific methods are used there.

I only meant that, in the real world, we do see, know, believe, in things that are either not reproducible, or would be rather difficult to do so. That observation is sometimes unavoidably singular, and not always as neat and pretty as we would like.

I must not have been very clear with my last post :-) The science of quantums, as you have pointed out elsewhere, illustrate your point perfectly.

You last paragraph phrases what my last sentence was trying to explain, and i agree completely with all you say.

I guess another attribute is people whom completely ignore science, eg, flatworld and hollow earth based religions. And personally, i think that any one whose faith blinds them from what the outside world has to offer. A good example of what i mean would be along the lines of someone saying something that makes me 'rethink' my faith, any thing that challenges what i believe, can only make my faith stronger.

Personally, i think we can thank God for this website, and the great community in it, i know it is one of those things on my pray list, and even though people might not believe in prayer, at the end of the day, it is not causing any damage.

I understand alot about how dynamic faith and science are, for the first 17 years of my life i was a die hard atheist. Now, im a hardcore christian.

can one be a hardcore christian? or are we all hardcore?

In my opinion, Christians that are sincere about their faith (with actions to back it up), would all be considered pretty-well hardcore. But in the loosest sense, we can be "cultural Christians", without an iota of faith.

well what one might call 'cultural christians' i would refer to as people with standard human morality, e.g. people who prefer to give then recieve, try adn help people, genrally put themselves last. '(with actions to back it up)' does dealing with 15-20 crazy young people count??

Those who genuinely put themrselves last, definitely qualify in my books as hardcore. Jesus' priorities were "Love the Lord Your God with all of your heart, soul, mind (and strength)". And, "Love your neighbor as yourself." 15-20 crazy young people is a start. I'm definitely not an authority, but I'm pretty sure that patience and genuine concern for others are virtues!

You wrote, "You last paragraph phrases what my last sentence was trying to explain." Yes, indeed. I'm glad that I got it right :-) You should participate in some of the discussions with Skunkbait. I think you'd find them stimulating and productive.

93% of scientists in the National Academy of Sciences consider themselves Atheist or Agnostic.

83% of all statistics are either made up on the spot, or orchestrated to prove a biased point.

That statistic I gave is part of the 17% not made up...

Please provide a source, then. Thanks!

...That's what Sacramento atheists Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell set out to do a few years ago. They were looking for a word, like gay, which they could steal from common English, an adjective they could transform into a noun with its original meaning changed -- but not too much. Like gay, it needed to be catchy, positive, warm, cheerful. It needed to be ... bright. And so "bright" it was.

Bright is the new noun many atheists have chosen for themselves. Brights are coming out of the closet and standing up. Brights are tired of being the target of cheap shots by politicians and religious demagogues.

Are you a bright and don't know it? How many readers of City Paper are brights? How many school teachers, doctors, politicians, police officers, businesspeople? Do you know any brights? You surely do, whether you recognize them or not. The website www.celebatheists.com suggests numerous intellectuals and other famous people are brights.

According to Dawkins, brights constitute 60 percent of American scientists; a stunning 93 percent of scientists elected to the elite National Academy of Sciences are brights....
I've seen that statistic in many places, including the Religulous (Bill Maher) movie recently made.

Ah....so Richard Dawkins is the source. Hmmm....you're not wrong to quote it, but now I question even more its accuracy, given the extreme bias of its promulgator. I'll have to do some research myself to find out where he got it from.

Well, it may be biased, but yeah Dawkins was my source. However, there were other studies that showed about 72%; even then it's a majority.

Statistically speaking, Skate is correct.

my point still stands, statistics are made to form a biased view, in your case, that very few scientists are religeous.

But only 47% of readers actually recognize that statistics are made up!

haha! statistics, its like painting by numbers, but for lies.

I only agree with 32% of your statement.

32% of the words, or 32% of the letters?

32% of your statement.

So, yes, neither.

Ooh, that sounds like a real stat! Is it true?

Wiki formatting fail *only when taking into consideration religion and science. They work very well together.

One more reason to be a Buddhist...

unlike traditional Judeo-Christian-Islamist revelation
Honestly most of the closed mindedness of religion was in old Europe

You're right. I didn't do sufficient research/thinking before writing that. The fundamentalist/literalist streak in Islamist thought is a quite recent phenomenon; I don't know whether it's a reaction to, or inspired by, Christian literalism, but they're suspiciously similar.

As a Muslim myself, I think that the fundamentalism is more of an arab and Afghani and Pakistani culture thing. Don't quote me on this, but there is a verse in the quran that says something along the lines of "we sent you (referring to the prophet) among the worst people on earth and even they believed our message" or something like that meaning that arabs where some of the worst people there where. Look at them before islam. These people buried their daughters alive. They were in constant tribal warfare. In the quran the time before Islam (in that region at least) was referred to as "Jahl" or ignorance.

You may be right about the rise of fundamentalism being a cultural thing, rather than intrinsic to the religion. That is certainly the case with the American style of Christian fundamentalism. It grew out of some of the more extreme Protestant sects of the 19th Century, and was strongly fueled by rural populism in the early 20th Century. Interestingly, though, your other discussion reinforces what I was saying about "revelation." The idea of "bringing the truth" to the ignorant runs through Christian evangelism as well as Islam, and I think it derives from the basis of both religions as having the "direct Word of God" as their supporting document.

I wasn't directly referring to closed-mindedness, although I see how it can be read that way; my apologies.

I was referring to the tradition that teachings in the Abrahamist religions are based on authoritative writings, which were inspired by God and therefore unquestionable (I don't mean necessarily literalist, see below).

In most branches of Buddhism, the "authoritative" writings are seen as guidelines; the individual must follow their own path, with reproducible techniques, to enlightenment/revelation. My use of "revelation" above was meant (but unclearly!) as a counterpoint to the "investigative" nature of Buddhism.

Thanks to Adrian Monk for catching my mispelling in the title!