On Science and Spirituality

“….life is all about balance. To know the complete truth we must know both sides of the coin. In today’s world, where Science has a claim on every objective truth, it has become more important to look at Spirituality too, because it’s the other way of seeing things, and another way of reaching more profound truths, because Science has its limits. Science and Spirituality travel on separate paths but eventually meet at one place. It’s all about balance.

So, let’s all pay attention to our great Guru….”

These were the words, not exact but in the same spirit, used by our professor at the beginning of  a ‘spiritual’ session by a guest speaker. The contents of the session are secondary to this discussion, here I want to stress more on the attitude and perception that is predominant in the educated high and middle classes towards Science and Spirituality which is aptly captured in its entirety by the prof’s introductory words.

Science and Spirituality, like Beauty and the Beast, Savage and the Scholar, are some of the pairs that derive their ‘duality’ from a perceived sense of antagonism that is more of a “I-complete-you” rather than “I-am-your-opposite” kind, and of-course from the use of alliteration too. Both S’s are just long lost lovers who don’t know yet that they are in love.

But is it so? I understand the intuitive appeal of it all, of the perceived hardcore materialism of Science and the ‘different’ approach of spirituality with its ‘different’ domain. Where Science stands on the works of the relatively modern, Spirituality is seen as a gift from the ancients, where Science is armed with microscopes and telescopes, Spirituality has its chants and myths and rituals and ashes.

And here, through my words, I seek to vindicate Science from this narrow and distorted view, and to rescue the word Spirituality from being hijacked by religious and ‘New Age’ spiritual leaders, and charlatans.

Hence, at the outset, it becomes imperative to declare what exactly is the definition of Spirituality that I am criticising, for there are many, many definitions. In the blackest of nights and freest of skies, one look up into the starry abyss arouses in us a feeling that is nothing short of Spirituality, to feel one’s soul resonate with the sounds and melodies is also Spiritual, to empathise with the pain and joy of others, and the process of learning new things about ourselves is also that, and this is not the definition that I attack.

As is apparent from the introductory words, the particular brand of Spirituality that I am speaking of is rather quite distinct and easily identifiable. It mocks the methods of Science as condescending and limited, it abhors scepticism and extols unquestioning faith as being “courageous/virtuous”. This is the spirituality of joining charitable organisations and chanting mantras and dancing in groups and getting that distinct feeling that this is what existence is all about, that the feelings of camaraderie and joy felt by the spiritual practices is all the evidence that one needs to validate those extravagant claims made by the spiritual leaders, this spirituality expects you to gulp down its metaphysics (that often trespasses the domain of actual physics) without question, the kind of spirituality where a Rs. 5000/- crash course can make you an expert in the ‘art of living’ (okay that wasn’t so subtle), a spirituality which borrows and misinterprets actual tenets of Science and uses it, miserably, to substantiate its own world-view, may it be the Quantum Consciousness of Amit Goswami or the weekly “scientifically spiritual” articles of Deepak Chopra, the spirituality which robs our ancient mythological stories and scriptures of their artistic, literary and ideological value and makes it cheap, vulgar with the coating of “all this actually happened and all of it is factually true”. This brand of Spirituality has its specific trademarks, for instance, its insistence that it’s working in tandem with Science and merely interpolating its conclusions, its not-so-subtle affiliation with organised religions, its continuous whine that all physical truths have already been written down in 3000 year old texts or can be accessed by listening to the anecdotes of some ascetic, even if their “truths” don’t agree with present findings. In here, the individual is said to be at the pedestal, where he is said to lead his own path. But the individual is merely handed down an instruction manual on what he should do and also, what he should ‘feel’ after he’s done doing that, that money and crazy donations are irrelevant but somehow still needed “reluctantly” by these organisations.

But what is so bad about this ‘New Age’ Spirituality and its sibling ideas?And what is so great about Science?

There is a natural thirst in us humans for wonder, reverence and awe, we all have a hole in our hearts that will only be filled with these emotions and nothing else. Curiosity is hard-wired in us. We yearn for more knowledge, we are always opinionated on anything that merits an opinion, we need the assurance of truths. This is the common basis and the fuel for our actions and motivations, and the basis of Science, Spirituality and Religion. These are extremely powerful and potent drives and almost all that is good about us and around us comes from these drives. We know now how life came into being, we landed on the moon and sent ambassadors across the Solar System, eliminated diseases and reduced hunger, came up with art, literature and music, all because of the power of those drives and human characteristics.

But if we are not very careful, these very same drives and characteristics just might end up destroying civilisations, or prohibit progress for Millennia, cause wars and massacres and make us monsters, and history bears testimony to the fact that this has often been the case.

And hence my cautious and critical stance on that brand of Spirituality, and needless to say, Religion too.

People like Deepak Chopra who vociferously advocate stuff like Quantum mechanics tells a lot about healing and “souls”,  ISKCON folks, the Zakir Naik fan-club or even highly educated and intelligent students from prestigious institutes saying with overbearing confidence that the Theory of Evolution is false or unimportant, the uncountable number of babas and yogis and swamis and magic-healers springing out of every pothole in the country, all of them have a large number of followers that even includes leading actors, sportsmen and political leaders and it’s all growing at an alarming rate. All these are not independent events and ideologies but rather symptoms of some few common attitudes and perceptions. These people, their ideas and these attitudes need to be criticised. They need to be held by their throats and brought out of the den of critical immunity and thrown in the arena of scientific scrutiny. Or else the clock of progress slowly rewinds, the cult of fanatics become organised and gain political power and social domination, truth and facts will be made to follow the norms of political correctness, and all that we have accomplished so far and could accomplish would crumble. It has happened before too.

And hence, I repeat, my cautious and critical stance on Spirituality and Religion.

But what is so great about Science that we should accept its monopoly over truth? Haven’t scientists too caused mass destruction with their automatic weapons and atomic bombs? Who are we to comment on other’s beliefs and their practices? Isn’t everything subjective? And how can any lab tool, no matter how advanced and expensive, ever resolve all our existential dilemmas? If Science says scepticism is so needed, then why not be sceptical about even all the established theories of Science itself? Isn’t it pure condescension to ridicule other alleged ways of attaining truth? And should all anecdotal evidence of people who say that they’ve seen ghosts and spirits, who have spoken with the dead or with the Gods themselves be neglected or rejected outright? Isn’t it just even slightly possible that the religious scriptures are completely right? And why should we deprive someone of their consolations and their faith? Aren’t there some things that Science just can’t explain? And for supernatural things like these, will we not need methods and tools that are not the “traditional” tools of Science?


These and many such questions arise, not so much as from the predominant inclination of masses towards fields of the ‘supernatural’ or stuff that has ‘fantastic’ themes or religious overtones, as it does from a gross misunderstanding of what Science really is.

And just like almost any other vice gripping our society today, a lot of these misconceptions about Science too can be safely attributed to our education system. Just like history is made to look like a succession of events and statistics with no reference to human greed, obedience to authority and our incompetence, Science too has been robbed off of its true essence. It is made to look as if it’s all about learning laws from textbooks, applying them in practicals or numericals and leaving it at that. And no reference is made to the manner in which these discoveries were made, how well were they received or criticised or what little light they gave to extend our vision in the darkness of our ignorance. And if people are not acquainted with Science, it’s easy for them to dismiss Science as highly fallible and difficult to separate it from pseudo-science.

Science is not a collection of facts or a repository of data, it is not a sceptical and doubting disorder that discourages anyone’s creativity and imagination. Science is more about the method than the findings. On our journey towards knowledge and truth, Science is a way of avoiding the assaults of our greatest enemy- ourselves. It is a method of protecting us from our personal inclinations, our biasses, our faulty sensory systems, our fetish for authority, the imprints of our cultural and traditional teachings, our stubborn beliefs on how the world ‘ought’ to be and many more.

Its most distinguishing feature (as compared to other “modes/methods” of validating claims) is that it cherishes, celebrates and rewards those who prove currently believed truths to be false. It won’t accept anything that doesn’t stand the test of sceptical scrutiny.  It welcomes debate, questions all authority, and the very fact that a clerk working in a patent office is happily allowed to demolish and rebuild almost all of Modern Physics shows that hierarchy or authority have very little to do with who might be right or wrong here.

And we all use scientific reasoning on so many occasions, its basic idea is not alien to any of us. When we are buying a second-hand bike, we never really trust the claim “perfect condition and hardly used”. We kick the tyres, look for scratches and dents that might suggest accidents in the past, or consult a mechanic. And if we can’t take others’ claims at face value for something as trivial as buying a bike, then why listen to the spiritual and religious figures who claim to know why you were born and what is the meaning of your life?

This raises the immediate valid question that why should anyone accept the scientific claims and theories without going over all of its tedious details? Why should I accept the Theory of Evolution or that of Relativity when I’m not a biology or physics graduate?

The most obvious reason for this would be the very nature of the scientific method followed by the scientists and researchers, but also, because it’s much safer to believe those who are trying to find out the truth than those who say that they’ve already found it. People who have “truths” in their mind already will always deny any opposing claims and will not be so happy to accept mistakes, but people only in search of truth fuelled by sheer intellectual curiosity, are only prone to unintentional fallacies, which are not many and readily corrected.

And now we come to the most important part, where, as I said earlier, we rescue true Spirituality from its “copy-cat and fake” brands. The basis for spirituality, no matter what kind, will always be our thirst for wonder, reverence and awe, and a need to feel belonged, to feel connected and important. And the very simple and basic truths if known and appreciated, offer all of these and more. To quote the most standard examples- The Theory of Evolution, the massive scales of objects and phenomena that occur in Astronomy, the absurd and counter-intuitive world of Quantum physics,  and many more have the potential of changing the very way with which we face the world. Moreover, the very method of science not only offers us access to these unlimited reserves of knowledge and wonder, it also protects us against those false institutions that, to use Carl Sagan’s words, “casually press our awe buttons and cheapen the experience”.

Science definitely does not offer all the answers, but it helps us to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity and teaches how to handle our ignorance. But people might find more contentment in believing in the words of the religious leaders, those who talk for hours on how our soul is immortal, how karma will solve everything or how heaven is assured if we do this or that, and all these might give someone temporary consolations too. But if the reason for this is only contentment and a denial of reality then doesn’t it all tend to inoculate the society from any sort of revolution? Who’ll fight for the hungry (not just by mere charities and some free meals) when they’re assured feasts in the after-life or next-life? There is always loss in denying truth or even abandoning the quest for it.

But the recourse to spiritual/religious institutions is far easier than the assimilation of Science in everyday life. It requires conscientious effort and courage. It requires you to be in your senses because the pursuit of science appeals to one’s sense of empathy, curiosity and wonder instead of one’s insecurity, fear and prejudices. To go on hating the Monday morning sun for the mundane work that follows for the week ahead and yet never failing to appreciate the beauty of stars is quite a big battle that many of us lose without a fight. And if we are becoming inured to all the wrong and ugly things around us, it is mostly because we don’t let the beauty of Nature affect us enough to ignite in us the spark to change things. In a world torn apart by religious differences, where military budgets are hitting outrageous levels, where short-term profit is upheld at the price of environmental degradation, a little reminder of our place in the Universe of being the only known entities capable of unravelling and appreciating its mysteries would certainly do some good.


In the end, I’d like to borrow Daniel Dennett’s words from Breaking The Spell (2006) :-

“If you can approach the world’s complexities, both its glories and its horrors, with an attitude of humble curiosity, acknowledging that however deeply you have seen, you have only scratched the surface, you will find worlds within worlds, beauties you could not heretofore imagine, and your own mundane preoccupations will shrink to proper size, not all that important in the greater scheme of things. Keeping that awestruck vision of the world ready to hand while dealing with the demands of daily living is no easy exercise, but it is definitely worth the effort, for if you can stay centred, and engaged, you will find the hard choices easier, the right words will come to you when you need them, and you will be a better person. That, I propose, is the secret to spirituality, and it has nothing at all to do with believing in an immortal soul, or in anything supernatural.”

Gaurav Somwanshi


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