When Science becomes “Spirituality”

Face-on spiral galaxy NGC 3982

You can be the most brilliant philosopher or scientist in the world, but it’s still easy to fall into childlike thinking.  We default to “spiritual” or religious language because it’s the only language we’ve ever been taught to describe these feelings.

This physicist had an experience of. . .well, I’ll let him tell it:

“And then, one summer night, I was out in the ocean in a small boat. It was a dark, clear night, and the sky vibrated with stars. I laid down in the boat and looked up. After a few minutes, I found myself falling into infinity.

I lost all track of myself, and the vast expanse of time extending from the far distant past to the far distant future seemed compressed to a dot. I felt connected to something eternal and ethereal, something beyond the material world.”

He goes on to say you can’t prove or disprove this is a God-experience.  He’s right.

“[You] can’t use scientific arguments to analyze or understand the feeling I had that summer night when I lay down in the boat and looked up and felt part of something far larger than myself.

I’m still a scientist. I still believe that the world is made of atoms and molecules and nothing more. But I also believe in the power and validity of the spiritual experience.”

He says we may think the universe is only physical, material, yet

“We also long for the permanent, some grand and eternal unity.”

I wonder why he can’t simply say, “I had a feeling.  It was a wonderful feeling,” and leave it at that?

DID he “fall into infinity”?  Was he “connected”?  Was he “a part of something larger”?

This is what happens when we have a feeling and we HAVE to describe it as more than a feeling.  It HAS to be “spiritual”; it HAS to be about “God.”

I understand the feeling.  I just wonder why we choose one default, one language we feel we have to use to talk about our feelings.

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11 thoughts on “When Science becomes “Spirituality”

  1. Chris, It is of course true that it is not possible to prove that something does not exist. Even Niel deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist, prefers to be called an agnostic, because he thinks there is still a chance that God might exist. A more relevant question to my mind is not about God, it is about the delusion of resurrection. There have been billions of people die and so sign of resurrection. This is the childish dream you refer to in your first sentence: “… it is easy to fall into childlike thinking.” Monotheists have been fooling themselves for some 2000 years. Without resurrection there is no need for God. GROG

  2. I think he had a moment of feeling profound connection with the natural universe (which, compared to extremely infinitesimal and extremely finite creatures such as ourselves might as well be godlike and eternal), but centuries of Western Christian culture haven’t given us many options for describing such moments other than in religious sounding words. We need to find new ways of describing such experiences. The problem is putting such moments into words is hard no matter what descriptive options you have. Perhaps sinking into contemplative silence is the best way to go.

  3. You ask, why not simply say it is a “wonderful feeling”? For one thing, that would take all the poetry out of his description! For another, perhaps the scientist’s agenda was to imply that science and religion are not necessarily adversarial or contradictory.

    1. You’re certainly right, Karen. He could have written a wonderful poem. And I wouldn’t imply science and religion are “necessarily adversarial.” Poetry is poetry and imagination is imagination, across disciplines of human life. Thanks!

  4. His longing “for the permanent, some grand and eternal unity” sounded way too whimsical and non-objective for someone who claims to be a scientist who only believes in atoms and molecules.

  5. I think you hit the nail on the head in your introduction:
    “ ‘spiritual’ or religious language” is “the only language we’ve ever been taught to describe these feelings”

    Just contemplate the millions of descriptions of what’s meant by “God” through the millennia — everything from a capricious record-keeping monster thru the distant watchmaker to the process theologians’ “symbol for truth, goodness, and beauty.”

    I’m looking forward to poets experimenting with new ways of talking about all this — like you! Thanks for your writing!

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