Science and Spirituality –On differences and similarities

When it comes to deeper knowledge or insights, a successful life, or even wisdom, the natural sciences find themselves in a rather difficult spot in broad public perception. Whoever is looking for vitaljoy, seeks to explore the mysteries of the world,or seeks erudition and understanding is more likely to browse through books on Eastern wisdom than read a textbook on physics or biology. Many people rather read „The Tao of Physics“ than „Physics“, read rather about quantum-philosophically founded spirituality or quantum healing than inform themselves on the tenets of quantum physics itself. Thus many intellectuals applaud – with good reason – when Buddhist teachers articulate that the goal of a spiritual life is to reduce suffering, to find joy and to understand the nature of the mind. However, at the same time the remark that since its founding science has been targeting exactly those things (and has thereby achieved most significant progress), makes most contemporary at best shrug their shoulders, but more often vehemently objector even accuse the claimant of ignorance given the global problem, which science has caused. Or he or she is being named ‘a despicable materialist’ who wants to expose the sphere of high spiritual insights to cold scientific rationality.

In fact, science has reduced human suffering probably more than any other intellectual tradition before – even though many people require the severe pain of a tooth root infection with the simultaneous imagination of living  in a 13th century monastery to entirely grasp that. Let us imagine a time traveler from 1916 being transferred into our days. He would see airplanes, high-speed trains, sophisticated global transportation systems, televisions, computers, mobile phones, portable radio and other electronic consumer staples, plastics, nuclear power, lasers, the internet, synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, antibiotics, organ transplants, medical imaging technology, genetic engineering, and much more, what is part of part of everyday life today and determine sour modern living conditions. The time traveler however would in all these things see wonders and magic at work.

At the same time hardly anywhere else is the joy of understanding the my steries of reality and grasping knowledge on the reasons of our and the world’s existence as great as in the natural sciences. In a deeply exhilarating way it satisfies our all too human curiosity. Scientific findings allow us deep (though not final) insights into the nature of things or of our mind, and not least into the deepest of all questions which the English naturalist Henry Huxley in 1863 formulated as follows: „The question of questions for mankind the problem which underlies all others, and is more deeply interesting than any other is the ascertainment of the place which Man occupies in nature and of his relations to the universe of things.“

Nevertheless, today science and spirituality seem to face each other as irreconcilable opposites. The disintegration of traditional ways of thinking, living and believing leads to an increasing uncertainty and disorientation in a modern society, which on the one hand preaches individualism, on the other hand loses its grip without a sense of community. And with the increasing and in the next few years most surely further accelerating development in digitization, nano-,quantum-, neuro- and bio-, and others technologies we are witnessing an historic shift, which could massively change our very idea of humanity as well as our sensual perception and way of thinking. And this naturally affects our spiritual self. At the same time modern science creates a bunch of new problems. At the latest with the atomic bomb did physics lose its ethical innocence, which had befallen chemistry already thirty years before with the development of poison gas weapons during the World War I. And in modern biology and information sciences, when it comes to issues of genetic engineering, stem cell research, artificial intelligence, or manufacturing synthetic life, even many non-religious people see a modern versions of Goethe’s sorcerer at work. We thus perceive the challenges of our modern world more and more in the form of crises and are desperate for coherent global ethical reactions to things such as environmental degradation, climate change, overpopulation, food shortages, economic crises, and nuclear threat, all challenges which can hardly be treated in an exclusively scientific discourse but require a larger, also spiritual frames of references.

In a book just published (in German: Lars Jaeger, Wissenschaft und Spiritualität, Universum, Leben, Geist – Zwei Wege zu den großen Geheimnissen, Springer-Spektrum Verlag, 2017) I illuminate the different dimensions of the relationship between science and spirituality. In a deliberate simplification I refer to them as „meaning“, „history“ and „intention“. The dimension of meaning refers to the great existential questions of life, the secrets, for which there are both spiritual scientific approaches. Here, one quickly observes that the relationship between scientific and spiritual thought possesses many common past references, which defines a historic assessment of this relationship as natural and most comprehensive. The importance of spiritual dimensions in a world increasingly shaped by science takes us, so we must hope, to a modern understanding of spirituality that „is not sticky or tacky and which makes one not lose his dignity as a critical, rational subject“ (Thomas Metzinger). It should thus possibly lead us to some valuable conclusions concerning a possible policy framework to deal with future technologies.

A thesis of the book is that with the further future scientific and technological developments spirituality obtains a significant weight and importance especially in ethically respects, if we do not want to see us fail as a social collective in light of the intellectual challenges associated with these developments. Thus many people expect spiritual thinking to play an important role in dealing with future question and the discussion about how to shape upcoming technologies, in the sense of demonstrating true responsibility for intellectual as well as ethical integrity.

In fact we are already experiencing the beginnings of an historic upheaval, in the course of which man will 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 not too distant in the future when the rules of game for human life on this planet are changing fundamentally. Are we prepared for that?

In discussing the interplay of science and spirituality our aim must be to understand the importance and the reciprocity of both 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 an autonomy which allows us to focus on the essential.So, no matter how we turn it, scientific creativity and spiritual thought find a shared dimension of their sin ethics, which is of enormous importance for our future. Thus once again: The future technological advances could transform humans and human civilization in ways which are today still unimaginable. What are possible guiding principles for man on this path? It is those that could determine human faith.

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