Spirituality and the Practice of Science

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Spirituality and the Practice of Science

The notion of spirituality pertains to the practice of science in two ways. First, the spiritual character of scientists sometimes informs the ways in which they conduct scientific research. Indeed, some scientists like the astronomer Johannes Kepler (15711630) regarded their scientific research as a type of spiritual discipline. Second, for practitioners of the human sciences the recognition of a spiritual dimension in the people they study can have implications for how they work. It is also plausible to posit a relationship between these two points. Scientists who acknowledge a spiritual dimension in their own experience are probably more inclined to regard spirituality as a relevant feature of the people they study. Likewise, scientists with no spiritual inclinations are probably less attentive to what others call the spiritual aspects of life.

The psychologists William James (18421910) and Sigmund Freud (18561958) respectively illustrate these tendencies. Religious experience figured prominently in James's corpus of psychological writings as it did in his own personal life. Freud professed no religious commitments himself and sought to explain religion in others with reductive appeals to ideas such as wish fulfillment and obsessional neurosis. The Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel (18221884) is an exception to the pattern of religious scientists attending to spiritual aspects of their subject matter because he formulated general principles of inheritance without speculation about applications to spiritual traits in human beings. Charles Darwin (18091882) is a partial exception to the pattern of nonreligious scientists having little sense for the spiritual dimensions of what they study. Even though he eventually lost his religious faith, he retained until his death a sense of wonder at the complexity and beauty of nature's ways, including evolution by natural selection.

In contemporary Western culture spirituality is an ambiguous and vague notion. Part of its ambiguity arises because many people using the term insist upon defining it in their own way for their own purposes. Part of its vagueness occurs because it is often defined by what it is not (e.g., religion) and in relation to terms in well-known dichotomies (e.g., spirit versus matter). Given the focus here on the practice of science, spirituality will be identified with reference not to the ontological dualism of classical Greek philosophy (e.g., spirit versus matter), but to the phenomenological differentiation of whole and part. Most scientists think that spirituality loses relevance to the practice of science insofar as it presupposes aspects of archaic worldviews.

The spirituality of human experience is conceived as having outer and inner aspects. Facing outward, human existence is spiritual insofar as one engages reality as a maximally inclusive whole and makes the cosmos an intentional object of thought and feeling. Facing inward, life has a spiritual dimension to the extent that it is apprehended as a project of a person's most enduring and vital self and is structured by experiences of sudden self-transformation and subsequent gradual development. These two formulations need not be rigidly separated. Their integration is well expressed in first-century c.e. Roman writer Seneca's dramatic ideal: Toti se inserens mundo ("Plunging oneself into the whole world"; Epistulae ad Lucilius, 66.6). Considered as a whole, the spiritual dimension of human life is the embodied task of realizing one's truest self in the context of reality apprehended as a cosmic whole, of attaining an optimal relationship between what one truly is and everything that is.

The human relationship to the whole of reality has been variously expressed. In The Republic (532b) Plato (c. 427347 b.c.e.) attributed to philosophers a supramental apprehension (dialektos or dialectic) of goodness itself. In 1984, the biologist Edward O. Wilson coined the word biophilia to mean "an innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes" (p. 1). In mystic and naturalistic idioms respectively these phrases identify a relationship with the world that is facilitated by scientific knowledge but that is rife with wider meanings. These two thinkers hold that whether people attain this relationship has momentous consequences: Wise government is at stake for Plato and biological diversity for Wilson.

The Spirituality of scientists

The practical implications of the spirituality of scientists are consequent to characteristic metaphysical and methodological principles. Three are of special importance: holism, realism, and determinism. The Greek notion of kosmos (cosmos) as a limited, ordered whole provides the basic concept that Pythagorean and Platonic philosophy elaborated into a doctrine of metaphysical holism. Noting that diverse phenomena such as the movements of heavenly bodies, the harmonies of musical octaves, and the shapes of physical objects can be described with mathematical concepts, the Pythagoreans posited an underlying unitary numerical principal (arithmos or number). According to Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.), some Pythagoreans gave such great priority to one numerical archetypethe decad that they posited the "counter-earth" in order to instantiate it (Metaphysics 985b 22). When added to sun, moon, and the seven planets observable to the naked eye, the counter-earth became the tenth heavenly body. Practices like this have discredited naïvely metaphysical versions of holism, but the viewpoint survives in more modest methodological forms such as an aversion to descriptive forms of reductionism. Freud's reduction of religious phenomena to psychological factors is a prominent form of such reductionism.

Isaac Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematic (Mathematical principles of natural philosophy) of 1687 proposed mathematical principles that govern "the system of the world." In a famous scholium in this work Newton set forth the absolute framework of space and time that is the precondition for the system. Although renowned for his aversion to speculative hypotheses (hypotheses non fingo ) Newton offered no inductive argument for this absolute framework but, as in the case of the universal law of gravitation, he appealed informally to the will of God as an ultimate cause. Newton is typical of seventeenth-century scientists whose dual inheritance of Greek rationalism and biblical theism combined to give them great confidence that the world is real and orderly and that its order is knowable by human beings. Scientists whose spirituality posits reality as God's creation tend to find social constructionism uncongenial. For instance, ways of understanding religion similar to Peter Berger's and Thomas Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality (1966) allow religion parity with other socially constructed phenomena but diminish its capacity to evoke awe and devotion. Sociological studies report higher levels of communal worship and private prayer among persons who identify themselves as traditionally religious than among more liberal religious persons and more diffusely spiritual respondents.

Many Western scientists have seen God's presence in providential care as well as in aboriginal creativity. Albert Einstein (18791955) is preeminent among such scientists in the twentieth century. Physicist Niels Bohr (18851951) said that Einstein once expressed reservations about a probabilistic interpretation of quantum mechanics by declining to consider "whether God plays dice with the universe." Einstein's commitment to deterministic explanations motivated him to seek an interpretation of quantum mechanics more compatible with his way of thinking than Bohr's idea of complementarity and Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. In a like fashion Einstein's good friend Kurt Gödel (19061978)a mathematical Platonistwas not ready to allow his own limitative theorems to be the final word in mathematical logic; he preferred to think that more powerful axioms would one day be forthcoming. Spirituality sometimes motivates scientists to seek systems of thought more synthetic than those with which their colleagues are satisfied.

As the spirituality of contemporary scientists becomes less closely tied to classical philosophy and biblical theism, the commitment to traditional varieties of realism and determinism has waned. Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics (1975) is an example of this new sensibility and is notable for its embrace of both a metaphysical and methodological holism. Capra finds resources in Asian mystical traditions for a nonmaterialistic sort of realism and a nondeterministic conception of causality. Feminist thinkers have also offered alternatives to scientific worldviews emphasizing the domination and control of nature and the divorce of intellect from emotion and other noncognitive traits. Some feminist reinterpretations of scientific practice draw upon the experience of women scientists. For instance, Evelyn Fox Keller has clearly been influenced by the mystical elements in the character and practice of the biologist Barbara McClintock. Many contemporary ecofeminists are inspired by the spiritual approach to nature evident in the life and work of Rachel Carson (19071964).

The practice of science in understanding spirituality

Efforts of social scientists to attain scientific standing for their disciplines have proceeded along two different trajectories. The French positivist tradition of Auguste Comte (17981857) and Emile Durkheim (18581917) de-emphasized individual experience in favor of scientifically accessible features of human groups, and Durkheim pioneered the development of quantitative techniques for identifying regularities in social phenomena. In this context religion and spirituality are treated as epiphenomena that can be accounted for by more readily observable social, economic, and psychological factors. The German hermeneutic tradition of Max Weber (18641920) and Wilhelm Dilthey (18331911) gave more prominence to the scientist's intuitive understanding (Verstehen ) of subjects who presumably share basic attributes and habits of valuations with their interpreters. For Weber a sociological law is "a statistical regularity that corresponds to an intelligible intended meaning" (quoted in Winch, p. 113). Efforts to understand religion and spirituality are paradigmatic of the challenge facing the social sciences (Geistwissenshaften ) as Weber and Dilthey understand them. Religious phenomena such as God and salvation are not publicly observable and so must be apprehended by intuitive understanding.

The hermeneutic principle stating that any cultural artifact, such as a literary text or an architectural structure, should be interpreted in the context of the whole to which it belongs invokes the whole/part differentiation constitutive of the idea of spirituality described above. The most inclusive whole in which such understanding takes is often given spiritual meaning. The American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (18391914) did this with his novel ideas of abduction and musement. Abduction is a variety of inference (complementing induction and deduction) that consists of engendering and adopting a good explanatory hypothesis for a given phenomenon. It involves discovery more than justification. Musement occurs when people allow the powers of observation and reflection the liberty of "pure play." Peirce claimed that when musement is genuinely experienced it spontaneously gives rise to the "God-hypothesis" as the most basic hypothesis of human thought and the widest horizon in which human understanding occurs. Peirce was also a logician who advocated the view that scientific laws in both the natural and social sciences are ineluctably social and probabilistic. As with Capra's appeal to Asian mysticism, Peirce illustrates a spiritual sensibility that is scientific in a way that departs from classical realism and determinism.

Spirituality plays a role in the practice of science not only with regard to how statistical regularities are interpreted, but also with regard to how and why data is collected and analyzed. Efforts of epidemiologists, sociologists, and psychologists to understand the impact of various aspects of religiousness and spirituality on health outcomes illustrate the way in which studying spiritual subject matter influences scientific practice. For most of the twentieth century, epidemiologists were so disinclined to study the relationship between religion and health that one researcher, David Larson, described religion as the "forgotten variable." This same epidemiologist documented the high frequency with which religious phenomena illustrated psychopathologies in a recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM ). Through the efforts of epidemiologists like Larson who acknowledge a spiritual dimension in both themselves and the people they study, epidemiological research into the relationships between religiousness and health is now funded and reviewed by agencies of the National Institutes of Health. Newer editions of the DSM have sought to provide a more empirical treatment of religion as factor related to mental health. In these specific ways the practice of epidemiology as a research activity has changed.

The results reported by epidemiologists about relationships between religion and health have also begun to inform clinical medicine and public health. Efforts toward "holistic medicine" predate the research of epidemiologists. For instance, the introduction of chiropractic techniques by Daniel David Palmer in the late nineteenth century were motivated by a conviction that health was dependent upon a free flow of "an intelligent force . . . usually known as spirit." Misplaced vertebrae impede the flow of spirit and so should be realigned. Chiropractic techniques are exemplary of spiritually motivated but demonstrably effective practices that have gradually been acknowledged by medical professionals, even when they reject the causal explanations underlying them. Meditation practicesoften described more neutrally as relaxation or biofeedback techniqueshave gained similar acceptance and for them epidemiological studies have provided empirical evaluations.

Public health practitioners have found that interventions addressed to communities, such as regular cancer screening and increased physical activity, are sometimes more effective at promoting healthy lifestyles than similar ones addressed to individuals. Results from epidemiological studies also show that religious people tend to have healthier lifestyles, with, for example, less use of tobacco and alcohol and more social support. Noting these points public health practitioners have started to work with religious communities, and especially with urban African-American churches, in order to implement disease prevention programs of various sorts. Seeing religious communities as potential partners rather than as ideological opponents is a major shift in public health policy and portends a productive change in public health practice.


In an influential 1948 World Health Organization document, health was defined as "a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely as the absence of disease or infirmity." Some epidemiologists now advocate that spiritual well-being should be included in such comprehensive definitions. People, they contend, are never entirely free of disease or infirmity and so part of good health is the ability to cope with adversity. Religiousness has been shown to be associated with quicker recoveries from conditions like acute cardiovascular disease. It has also been shown to be associated with higher levels of life satisfaction and lower levels of pain in conditions like cancer, for which religion and psychosocial factors generally are less associated with quicker recoveries or longer survival. In conclusion, the impact of spirituality on the practice of science is most positive when it helps scientists be agents for achieving and understanding human well-being in its fullest sense and amidst the widest range of circumstances.

See also Aristotle; Darwin, Charles; Ecofeminism; Einstein, Albert; Feminisms and Science; Newton, Isaac


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peter van ness