The Crow's Dream

Philosophy, geekery, and the meaning if life, and what I read this week…

The Spirituality of Science

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It seems as if science is taking our spirituality away. Beliefts are more than a simple source of confront, but a pace to stand on and contemplate the Universe. Understanding god means having the ability to assign a motivation to the world. However, the mode of communication permitted by religion is limiting and only goes one way. If a prayer goes unanswered, it makes no difference if it was ignored by God or by an uncaring universe.

We do not communicate with the world in the same way we communicate with people. If we wish to get a point across to a person, we open our mouth and make a sound, or scribble on paper. We give hints with our body or create art. We evolved this ability because it was the only way in which relatively weak animals could survive. While our communicative talents and our ability to assign meaning to other people’s utterances have made us relatively powerful in this world, they do not work the further we step away from our evolutionary ancestors. We can’t talk to rocks and the weather.

Communication through speech and gesture took millions of years to develop. One of the major characteristics of communication is the ability to assign meaning and intent to things , whether they have it or not. For example, a storm does not have a motivation, rather it is the result of many variables. Yet, religious leaders throughout the centuries have claimed that storms have human motivations, especially thunderstorms. Thunderstorms are given names like Thor, Zeus, and Yahveh.

It took someone like Benjamin Franklin to stop killing goats to appease thunder, and to open the lines of communication between the sky and the human mind by using a key and a kite as a translation kit. This conversation had the immediate result of the lightning rod.

The idea that natural phenomena and that every event in the Universe has a human centered reason to happen, and the idea that these reasons can be influenced in the same way we can influence other humans is what we call religion.

Communicating with the Universe, however, requires that we learn its language, which, as far as we can tell is based on a very complicated chain of causes and effects. Our interaction with the world is not based on speech or symbol, but on the results obtained by actions. If you were to jump off an imaginary cliff, and if you were to ask the universe to save you from being smashed and scattered about the bottom you would non be able to avoid the tragic end to your action. A better way to communicate to the universe your desire not to get hurt would be to not jump off a cliff.

Not too long ago, I listened to a lecture where the presenter argued that there was no way to account for those amazing moments of clarity human beings experience. He claimed that these moments of sacred awe were problematic because they showed us that there was more to life than simple chemical reactions and scientific observations. In his view, science could not account for these moments of connection to everything. I have heard this argument from religious people many times. I have experienced these feelings myself. It is almost as if the Universe was talking to me, and it is, but not in the way the lecturer presupposed.

Feelings of transcendence are a part of the human experience, and can be obtained with drugs or by an appropriate and clearly delineated set of actions. These moments–when obtained though actions– inspire us and make our life worth living, but like the thunderstorm, they are an effect to a cause.

Psychologists are beginning to unravel the conditions under which these experiences can take place. Understanding them does not rob them of their value. They, like love, hunger, anger, and anxiety, serve a function in our survival, and have a lot to do with our interaction with the universe. Emotion, for instance, aids learning, and psychological flow makes it possible for us to interact with things and to figure them out.

We do not interact with the Universe by talking to it, we interact with ourselves. The Universe talks back to us only because we’ve adapted to the food it provides, and to the gases our planet tenuously contains. We have evolved to be a part of it, and evolution is a long conversation between causes and effects. Life holds on to the world because life is willing to have this conversation. As humans we have attempted many ways of having the conversation, and if we are flexible enough, we might realize that the scientific method is the only language to which the universe has responded. Whenever we formulate a hypothesis, we ask a series of questions, and we answer them not by thinking about them or by basking in great revelations, but by setting up experiments that will allow us to see connections between causes and effects. Cause and effect is the language of the universe, not prayer and prostration, though they too have causes and effects.

Science does not rob us of our ability to be spiritual. The feelings of connection and meaning that we have talked about earlier are not dependent on our explanations of them. Like storms, they do not have to be caused by supernatural elements to be real and valid. Although we try to avoid subjectivity when it comes to outside phenomena, internal feelings, emotions, and reactions, are real. Consider the case of someone who suffers from anxiety, or depression. These feelings are subjectively experienced, and they also cause effects that are averse to the person in pain, similarly, peace and satisfaction have a positive effect on people. There are causes for both states, and spirituality is a bridge away from pain to bliss.

Every religion in the world is a hypothesis to explain why humans suffer, and how they can end their suffering. Christianity, for example, explains that humans made a mistake early on during their history, that got them kicked out of an ideal state, and that accepting Jesus is the only way to bridge the gap between the way things should be and the way they are. Most world religions act towards our inner states in the same way we used to act against thunderstorms. We pray and offer sacrifice. Isn’t it time that we connected with ourselves in the same way we connect to the lightning bolt? By hypothesis and observation? Can this interaction be positive? I think the answer is yes, psychologists and neurologists are beginning to gather increasing evidence for the causes and effects that determine the state of the human mind. We know, for example, that exercise improves cognition, brings satisfaction, and in some cases provides us with the spiritual connection we hunger for. We know that stories not only help us to learn, but can make us more creative. This gap isn’t real. There is no way things should be, they are what they are.

Many supernatural experiences are now explainable as glitches in our brain, and others, as positive ways to alter and cement our consciousness. Take dreams, for instance They seem to have a lot to do with learning. Some psychologists even have gone to the trouble to uncover the possibility of exercising a measure of control over our dreamscape–which the ancients confused with the language of the universe.

The marriage of psychology, biology, and neuroscience are just starting to provide us with causes and effects to our humanity. They are not taking away our spirituality, but rather, strengthening it by giving us reliable roadmaps that do not depend on conjecture and superstition. In the end we still have to walk the road of spirit by ourselves, but I rather do so with a reliable guide, rather than with a fake one.

These are some of the books that inspired my thinking:

Medina, John. Brain Rules : 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. New York: Pear P, 2008.

About assigning meaning to things.

Lyubomirsky, Sonja. The How of Happiness : A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin P HC, The, 2007.

About happiness being accessible.

Campbell, Joseph. Primitive Mythology. New York: Penguin (Non-Classics), 1991.

About making up thunder gods

Written by Hector

September 26, 2008 at 9:19 pm

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