Science and Spirituality in the light of modern challenges – An essay for orientation
Anyone who studies the natural sciences and its findings finds him- or herself sooner or later confronted with a notion which has its origins in philosophy, whose home discipline however has never been able to determine exactly what it refers to: the notion of „truth“. And spiritual movements and religions equally claim this term for themselves. That science bears a relationship to both and this notionreveals a glance at its history. Its beginnings in the 17th century was as much penetrated by religious truth provisions that one must ascribe those a constituting role in its rise. Already with the antique historical beginnings of the sciences in the Pre-Socratics period came a metaphysics, which in philosophical desire for an absolute and final truth sought after the last reasons and contexts hidden behind the naturalphenomena. Philosophers have their own term for this last, unconditional, of nothing else dependent: “substance”. So in natural philosophy the question of truth is directly linked to the question of the final substance.And regardless of the philosophical difficulties that arose with the idea of an absolute and final knowledge of nature and its “substance”, the intellectual drive underlying it held until late into the modern era. It motivated Kepler in his discovery of planetary motion, provided Newton with the basis for his mathematical system of mechanics and let the physicists even at the beginning of the 20th century still dream of the unity all sciences. The beginning of modern natural philosophy with Descartes and Leibniz was led by the desire and belief in the possibility of absolute certainty – which, as the two philosophers, mathematicians and scientists realized, can find its foundation principles at last only beyond the physical world, in the transcendent. Only with the emergence of modern physics in the 20th century has accelerated a process in which the idea of the Absolute was systematically suppressed in favor of an empiricist-positivist orientation in the natural sciences. We recognize today that the central developmental moment of science’ssuccess over the last 100 years lies in the consistent elimination of the metaphysical dream of universal truth and a radical change of its explanatory claim.
This development possesses a noteworthy dimension in the political sphere as the Austrian-English philosopher Karl Popper pointed out prominently: The detachment from claims for an absolute scientific truth reveals astonishing parallels to the social dynamics of ruling and the legitimation of political power and decision making. Yet every time people thought they had found the perfect form of society they ended up in the solidification of a despotic absolute. Science teaches us the dynamics of a permanent questioning of the status quo of ourown intellectual solidity and the never-ending critical reflection of our current thinking. The political decision-making process is thus in a permanent repair mode, in which its protagonists are being constantly questioned and challenged, such that the path towards real progress runs through the recurring correction of wrong decisions. As science has given up its claim for absolute knowledge and truth,and our views and knowledge about nature get repeatedly corrected and expanded which ultimately defined an historically unprecedented dynamics of progress in our knowledge of nature, so contributedopen, anti-autocratic and democratic societies of the 20th and 21 century in turn to an equally unparalleleddevelopment of social growth and prosperity.
But modern science also opened up entirely new areas of problems. At the latest with the nuclear bomb physics lost its ethical innocence. This had already happened to chemistry thirty years earlier with the development of poison gas weapons in World War I. And when it comes to the issues of genetic engineering, stem cell research,artificial intelligence,or the production of synthetic life, even many non-religious people today see a modern version of Goethe’s sorcerer’s apprentice at work in modern biology and computer science. Nobody can seriously claim that science can escape ethical questions and retire on their claim on an ‘objective knowledge paradigm’.
And we are currently just experiencing just the beginning of some possibly much more dramatic developments. With the prospective scientific progresses and technological developments in the coming years, our image of ourselves as well as our interaction with nature around us is likely to change even more dramatically than it has already happened in the 400 years since the Scientific Revolution. In fact we may already be experiencing the beginnings of an historic upheaval, in the course of which manwill develop not only new, stunning technologies, but could at last fundamentally change his own nature, his identity and his consciousness. In light of these developments, there will probably be a moment in the not too distant future when the rules of game for human life on this planet are changing fundamentally. Are we prepared for that, especially in ethical regards? Given the dramatic nature of these developments we should ask which non-scientific forms of us looking at the world can provide support with these challenges. And what role can spiritual traditions play here? How does a spiritual self-understanding, which accounts for the changing conditions of our knowledge and technological possibilities,look like? My thesis is that in light of the future scientific description and technological knowhow spirituality will have to play a significant role,especially in ethicalregards, if we do not want to see ourselves fail as a social collective at the mental challenges associated with these developments.
But how can“spirituality” come into play here,not only scientists may be wondering. In order to answer this question, we should first rid this term of any religious ballast of God-centeredness and transcendence orientation.With modern scientific knowledge, especially that if the last decades, we have meanwhile reached a point at which we aspire to consider not only our external experiences, but also the inner ones in our mind, i.e. our cognitive and mental properties, as results of purely natural processes. This obviously confronts traditional notions of spirituality with great challenges. But in such a framework spirituality rather being than a desire for the transcendent can be seen as an inner (spiritual) quality of ours, a state of consciousness, which affects and guides us in thought and action and which we align to something, e.g. a desire of wanting to know something or to act in a certain way, an inner quality, though, which is bodily anchored (“embodied” as the philosophical term goes today). Such a „naturalistic attitude“ allows us to develop a new perspective: With it we move from a rigid and dogmatic belief system to something like an inner attitude when it comes to knowledge – or, as the masters of the terminology, the philosophers, would say, to an “epistemic orientation”. In a nutshell: It is about desire to know rather than about faith. Spirituality thus describes a deeper motivation for gaining knowledge, in which in search for truth we avoid rotten compromises. Thereby spirituality become san attitude towards life which orients itself in both epistemic-theoretical as well as practical-sense seeking respectsalong truths. In this context we generally speak of “secular spirituality”.
We can now answer our question what role spirituality can play: By defining a sincere commitment to honesty towards ourselves. We can thus not avoid considering in more detailthe background in personality, motivation and faith of the protagonists of scientific research. And it would be very surprising if this did not include a closer look into the spiritual, often non-rational mechanismsdrivingthe individuals involved. Motivations, attitudes, personalities, and much more of our ‘spiritual characteristics’ determine our search for knowledge as well as ourwilling ness to act at various levels. Here, motivations such as greed, vainglory, consume desire, aversions, pride, etc. act rather restrictively on our ethical reflectivity. Spirituality thus includes things like honesty and distance to our own drives and motivations. The philosopher Thomas Metzinger speaks in this context of „intellectual integrity“, or the commitment not „to not kid ourselves“.
Once we consider spirituality as the uncompromising will to distinguish ourselves from our egocentric sensory or materialistic instincts, our desires for good feelings, for needs of emotional security, self-deceptions, fears and many other things, the mechanisms of which almost certainly originate in our evolutionary heritage, once we recognize therein the uncompromising will to an unconditional sincerity of really wanting to know and then act appropriately, the practical ethical relationship between spirituality and scientific research becomes rather concrete and most relevant for us today: In many aspects of scientific endeavors we today face challenges of enormous, partly even existential importance, with respect to which at the same time we perceive the beginnings of an intellectual and ethical failure of mankind as a whole to react reasonably rational. Whether it comes to climate change, nuclear power, genetic engineering, data protection, health care or many other things, as a collective we act, to put it mildly, carelessly and negligently, or to put it rather more clearly, against better judgment. We seem to simply not be able to collectively develop a rational attitude and act according to common principles of reason – such as the sustainability of our production and consumption would be such. It is here we can take a spiritual attitude: In honestly capturing of ‚what is‘, in a relentlessly reflexive attitude to what we think and believe, in an unconditional intellectual recognition of expected impacts of our thoughts and actions, without lapsing into self-deception that „all is okay and will turn out well“, in an unconditional and conflict of interest free incorruptibility, with which we think and act. Spirituality allows us as a conscious, honest, and mind fuldealing of issues, our environment, and ourselves.
That we are still far from such collective honesty and “intellectual integrity” illustrates our response to the likely first truly global crisis, in which we as mankindact and react in one single physical and meteorological (and equally medial) space: the emerging climate change. The complexity of the underlying relationships still forbids unambiguous forecasts or formulations of clear causal links by those who understand the most about the issue. It is therefore simply part of the professional ethics of the research protagonists to still declare their statements and models unfinished, when open questions remain, even if political opinion and decision makers expect clear and simple answers – and in view of a lack of those create their own. But meanwhile, a strong and clear picture of evidence has emerged: Our climate is changing dramatically quickly, and all reasonably plausible causal relationships indicate that this change is man-made. Now it may be that some scientists, as often claimed by „climate skeptics“,are driven in their work by their own agendas, i.e.by motives such as personal ambition, greed for power of interpretation, or career desires. It would even be insincere to exclude just them from the possibility of such motives. But the scientific community as a whole surely possesses a powerful and intact mechanism of self-correction, which will not let such motives become dominant influences. There are simply too many scientifically reputable as well as honestly working critical voices, who are willing to get to the bottom of even the smallest irregularities in the published data and inconsistencies in the designed models. Critics of mainstream theories of man-made climate change and researchers posing alternative models are an integral and essential part of academic life. Anyone who thinks these views are suppressed, simply does not know the mechanisms of the scientific community Rather we must ask ourselves inversely, whether those act in good faith who use any of these disagreements and alternative explanations immediately as argumentative evidence against an established and in itself coherent consensus, whether those have not their own agenda in order to not having to admit to what,even if inconvenient, is true with high probability: Ourunsustainable consumption of energy resources causes changes in the ecosystem of our planet, which locally as well as globally intervene massively with (or even potentiallydestroy)the ecological basis for life on Earth. Trying to come up with alternative models to the one of human-induced climate change with the help of complex causal chains is legitimate and even complies with the very spirit of good science. Only should we not consider those in the public and political debate as more than what they are: Models that with a certain, however mostly very low, probability describe the climate dynamics correctly, but which by no means allow aproposition as daunting as the one that there simply exists no man-made climate change. In this context, it makes sense to recall (even beyond simple considerationson the ethics of risk) an old methodological principle of science: According to „Ockham’s Razor”, should there be two explanations which describe a given observation or phenomenon equally well, we should select the one which is simpler(connection between CO2 emission and global warming) and not the one that is complicated for whatever reason seems more pleasant to us (external factors that act along a long causal chain). The former one is more likely to be the more accurate one.
But do the results of climate research not only indicate the danger of a massive shift in the global ecological balance. They equally attack a human self-understanding, which has started to evolve about 250 years ago, according to which we can ruthlessly and boundlessly exploit the natural resources of this planet in order to satisfy our desire for consumption and joie de vivre. As patron of this attitude often serves a notion which next to the above mentioned „truth“probably constitutes the second most abused concept of public discourse: „Freedom“. For those 250 years freedom and science indeed have been running a powerful alliance against the domination of man in pre-modern authoritarian social structures. But at the same time it is necessary to extend the anthropocentric provision of freedom by equally granting“rights“ to nature and thus develop corresponding conscious self-constraintson human endeavors and actions which translates the freedom of the human species into the conservation not only of interpersonal, but also of non-human nature. Is it thus intellectually and ethically acceptable, to close our eyes in front of the very probable reality that we do not live up to these demands, and even worse, accuse scientists themselves of acting out of self-interest, because they confront us with unpleasant statements about the effects of our consume-oriented lifestyle ?
In summary, in discussing the interplay of science and spirituality our aim must be to understand the importance of both and their reciprocity for our life and to thus demonstrate the traits of a humane and ethically coherent worldview. This involves both spiritual motivation (inner clarity in the ethical orientation and pursuit of truth) and rational (scientific) thought. Contrary to widely held believes, which bring spirituality in connection with obscurantism, spirituality as described herein leads us to better rationality and honesty in our thoughts and actions. Itis something like an inner compass that gives our mind an internal order and orientation, a guide that lead us to autonomy allowing us to focus on the essential.So, no matter how we turn it, scientific creativity and spiritual thought find a shared dimension of theirsin ethics, which is of enormous importancefor our future. For as we saw: The future technological advances could transform humans and human civilization in ways which are today still unimaginable. We therefore ask again: Are we prepared for this development, and what are possible guiding principles for manon this path? It is those that could determine our faith.