In my posting of July 12th, Step to the Music, I mentioned how pursuing a spiritual path is a lonely business. Part of the isolation we feel comes from the inability to properly verbalize our direct experiences, let alone be able to prove them.
Ever since I was little I had an intense curiosity about the world around me, wanting to know everything about everything, which is probably the reason I made science my major course of study in school. I figured that science would have all the answers to the questions I had. Problem was it didn’t.
Scientific inquiry follows a set of ‘rules’ we call the scientific method. The process usually takes place in a laboratory where data is collected and analyzed to determine whether or not the hypothesis has been proven.
Spiritual inquiry, obviously, does not follow those parameters, simply because there is nothing that can be measured. And if science can’t measure it then it must not exist – right?
Science debunks anything it can’t prove, but does that mean it isn’t so? Over two thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher Democritus, coined the term “atom” to name the particles that comprise matter. He had no way to prove his claim so his ideas were mostly ignored. It wasn’t until the 19th century that science began to learn more about the atom and the structure of matter. And although the atomic model has undergone much revision over the years, its existence did not depend on its discovery.
This debate is a major thread in the movie “Contact,” a credible telling of how making contact with other beings in the universe just might play out on our world stage. The relationship between the two main characters, the scientist (played by Jodie Foster) and the man of faith (played by Matthew McConaughey) is tested by their clashing belief systems. The scientist doesn’t believe in God (actually, you can say that science is her God) because there is no empirical data (proof) to support the idea. When McConaughey relates to her a spiritual experience he had she basically tells him that anyone believing in spiritual experiences does so because they are deluded and have a need to believe in such things.
Her worldview changes when she is given the opportunity to travel through space into the deep reaches of our galaxy, where she experiences contact with those alien beings. Her journey and contact cannot be proven, though in the deepest part of herself she believes in everything she experienced. Members of a congressional committee grill her and try to get her to admit that her experiences constitute “a self-reinforcing delusion.” Bottom line: she admits that she has no proof of her experience, but she cannot admit that it never happened.
Science provides a comfort level for us. It helps us make sense of the world in which we live. And that’s fine, but just as a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, we should not be blind to the limitations of science. It does a fabulous job using finite tools and techniques to describe the finite world. No question. Describing the infinite, well, that’s another story. Progress is being made, though, as physicists continue to delve into the secrets of our physical (not so physical?) world.
Scientific inquiry gives us knowledge. Spiritual inquiry also gives us knowledge, but of a different type. The Dalai Lama says in his book, The Universe in a Single Atom, “ I have argued for the need for and the possibility of a worldview grounded in science, yet one that does not deny the richness of human nature and the validity of modes of knowing other than the scientific.”