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Science and spiritual belief

Science and spiritual belief

I wrote the following essay at age 16 as a piece of school homework. Nearly 60 years later I can still subscribe to most of it. It marks a significant stage in the process of apologetics by which I gradually came back to a belief in God in my teenage years.

The essay is a schoolboy’s effort to tackle a difficult topic, and it has its rough edges. In particular it is inconsistent on the question of whether it is part of the scientist’s job to explain. Early in the essay you will read the statement that science abounds in abstractions, which, intangible in themselves, explain a situation. Later in the essay you will read the contrary statement that the scientist’s job is to describe the universe, not to explain it. I would now subscribe to the first of those two statements and not the second. It is an important part of the scientist’s job to explain.

The essay as I wrote it used the word spiritist with the nonstandard meaning of “person who takes a spiritual view of the universe”. In this transcript, for clarity, I have replaced the word spiritist, wherever it occurred, by the phrase “spiritual believer”. I have not made any other edits.

My English teacher, Miss Audrey Hardy, judged the essay to be “the most perfect example yet of the kind of essay you do well.”

7 February 2023

The Importance of Science in the World Today

The study of science is a study in materialism. It has nothing to say to us spiritually. Can one say that it therefore ignores half of life and so its importance is considerably reduced?

An essay on “The Importance of Science” can be written in two ways: listing the achievements and prospects of Science, or considering its place and functions, philosophically, in the world. The sub‐title you provide prompts the second line, and so in this essay I shall be considering the merits and demerits of a scientific conception of the universe.

For centuries there has been a fight for ownership of the universe. It originated at the time of Galileo, when, for the first time ever, the findings of scientists contradicted the teachings of the church. But that conflict, important though it was for those involved, was comparatively easily resolved, for it hinged on phenomena that could be measured, for example the motion of the planets. Research showed the scientists to be right, and that was that; after all, one side had to be proved right, sooner or later. But out of this have sprung other arguments, not so easy to resolve. The main one of these, probably, is whether there exists anything which cannot be expressed adequately by science; for, although no‐one would deny that science is important, it cannot seize dictatorship without a fight.

Before we can examine the rôle of science, there are many popular misconceptions which may seriously prejudice it if they are not cleared up. The first of these is that science deals only with what is tangible, and has undisputed objective existence: that it is afraid of dealing with vague or abstract concepts. In fact, hardly anything could be further from the truth. Science abounds in abstractions, which, intangible in themselves, explain a situation. The electron, for example, has no objective existence; it explains wireless valves, magnetism, TV tubes, even matter itself. That is its function: beyond that, we ask it no questions. Or, to take a simpler example, whole‐number arithmetic. Science does not ask whether the number 3 exists, or whether 3 + 5 = 8, objectively. The job of the statement 3 + 5 = 8 is to explain why three cows added to five cows gives eight cows. Science, while dealing eventually with the tangible, is not afraid of abstract means.

Another, and far worse, criticism of science is that it eliminates the human element as much as it dares, and so gives a biased impression of the universe. People are rather annoyed that science has, as they say, “depersonalised” all situations. I hate the word depersonalised. It is an emotional word. It means, not “having removed the personal element”, but “having removed the personal element, and that’s a bad thing”. In any case, science does not do this. Scientists realise that man, science’s creator, is not merely an unavoidable complication in an experiment, but is right at the heart of it, interpreting results and forming conclusions. Not for centuries have scientists attempted to give any meaning to the concept of an event with no observer. It is of course true that in certain circumstances an experiment is shielded from unnecessary human interference, but when this is done, it is the human as a measuring device which is being replaced by an instrument more suited to the purpose. The human as an observer is still necessary. In short, the properties of humans which science attempts to remove are their inaccuracy, their inconsistency, and their lack of patience. The removing of these qualities from an experiment can hardly be a bad thing.

The third thing which prejudices many people against science is that many scientists are difficult people. This is undoubtedly so, and is probably due to their interest in things, rather than people: why it should be considered that not mixing with other people is a flaw in one’s character does not concern us here. But I feel that it is most unfair that any criticism of scientists should reflect on science itself, or on the scientific methods of working. We must know the men by their fruits, not the fruits by the men.

The scientist, in his fight for ownership of the universe, has the easier job at first. His job is to describe the universe. He starts with a bare minimum – himself. Anything else exists if it is useful. The objects round him help him to live, and so they exist – that is the only argument necessary for justifying our calling them “existent”. The sum total of all that exists, he calls the universe. And he discovers – to his intense satisfaction – that the universe fits into a pattern. The universe may be an illusion: it may exist only in his mind. That does not worry the scientist. If the universe is an illusion, he proceeds to describe that illusion. He finds it still fits into a pattern. To describe it, he needs laws. But note that the laws are made by him: if the universe breaks the law, as, for example, would be the case if this jotter flew out of your hand on to the ceiling, then the law would be wrong, not the universe. The scientist would then change his law, to fit the new experience. But, when this happens, the new law is practically always found to be even more simple and basic than the old one; for example the description of the motion of the planets given by Newton’s laws of gravitation is far simpler than the “crystal spheres” theory of Aristotle, which had been twisted tremendously to fit newly‐discovered facts before it gave way.

There has been a lot of talk recently about the simple nature of scientific laws, and the allied concept of economy of hypothesis. Why are phenomena capable of being explained simply, and why is the simplest hypothesis or smallest number of hypotheses the best? I think that these questions can be answered simply. To the first question, I reply that it is irrelevant: the scientist’s job is to describe the universe, not to explain it. And the simplest hypothesis is the best because it is the easiest for the scientist to work with. As an example of this, take the motion of the earth. The earth is at rest, if you want to consider it that way. But if the earth is at rest, the motions of the other planets are epicycloids: if the earth is moving, the motions of the other planets are ellipses. An ellipse is easier for the scientist to work with. And therefore the earth moves. Eppur si muove.

Science, then, is a study – a description – of the universe. But the universe is described as the sum total of all that is useful to us. Not just tangible things. It is the study of everything that can possibly affect us. If you study love, that is science. Now we see the tremendous claims made by science. It owns the universe. Religion is a scientific activity, for it is the study of something that is of use to us, something in the universe. Anyone claiming science to be of secondary importance, and placing something above it, is himself making a study of the universe, and in doing so putting science first. He contradicts himself. Science owns the universe.

That is all right. It is very convincing. But it is not as easy as that. There are people who claim that the universe is spiritual in nature. Oh of course science has quelled spirituality. What a pity spirituality can quell science.

The spiritual view of life tags on, I think, to the one aspect of the universe which the scientist cannot describe, namely, the bit of him which is doing the describing at that moment. He can, of course, describe his foot or his brain, or even his soul or his existence. He can, moreover, describe the bit of him doing the describing a few seconds before. But not the bit doing the describing now: his consciousness, if you mean the same thing by consciousness as I do. And this, many people have said, is the most important aspect of a person: the aspect of a person which responds to what happens. And where is science if it can deal with everything except the most important? Religion has been defined as the total response of man to all his environment. Science is a part of that response. Science, therefore, is a religious activity.

Here we have two theories of the universe, each claiming to take responsibility for the whole of life, and in particular for the other. We cannot get out of it by saying that each is half right, for each has arguments to claim that it is wholly right. Were this an ordinary problem, we could sit back in the hope that the answer would come in another field, as, for example, was the atom, originally a problem in chemistry, explained by means of physics. But as science and spirituality claim to deal with the whole universe, there is no other field in which an answer may crop up. The position is as if one holder of each belief was in one corner of a room, each looking for aircraft on a radar screen. The first calls, “I see a plane.” The second scans his screen, and says, “Rubbish. There isn’t one.” The argument continues for some minutes, until the first says in exasperation: “Come over and look at my screen.”

Come over and look at my screen. My screen. This is the tragedy of our universe: you see it through your senses, and I through mine. We can never compare experiences. One person says that the universe is essentially – in its origin – scientific. Another person says it is spiritual. Are they both right? Not half right, but wholly: does each deal with the universe completely, ignoring nothing? Is such a thing possible?

There is absolutely no reason why not. Any argument to prove that one of these views is right and the other wrong is forgetful of what we mean by an object existing, or a law being true, or an explanation being valid. These things are so if they are useful. And it is possible that it may be useful to have two conceptions of something; just as it is useful to consider the electron sometimes as a wave, and sometimes as a particle, or as it is useful to deal with electrolysis under chemistry, or physics, according to circumstances. If this is so, then each of the conceptions is as “true” as the other one.

It is because of this possible duality that scientists and spiritual believers have in recent years become more tolerant of each other’s beliefs and methods. Each realises that although all phenomena can be expressed by either doctrine, some are better and more easily expressed by one. The scientist would become rather annoyed if the spiritual believer tried to explain the working of television or spaceships by his “laws”. Similarly, the spiritual believer can (and does) become annoyed when science attempts to explain genius in terms of brain cells or love in terms of adrenaline in the bloodstream. Certainly, these descriptions would be correct and even complete, but to describe them in that way would not be useful, any more than it would be useful to describe the reaction between hydrogen and chlorine in terms of electron probability clouds, although the latter could theoretically be done. The scientist and the spiritual believer each considers, of course, that his own way is more important. This is simply because he finds it more interesting. In this essay, for example, I have talked from a scientific point of view – the concept of duality is a scientific one. It would be interesting to know whether a non‐scientific minister of religion, writing on the same subject in spiritual terms, would reach the same conclusions. I trust he would; otherwise the two methods would not be dual at all.

By saying our universe is scientific, then, I mean we can understand it better by assigning scientific properties to it. By saying our universe is spiritual, I mean we can understand it better by giving it spiritual properties. Each of these sets of properties is true, for they are both useful. But it would be wrong to say that the universe is, objectively, both scientific and spiritual. What we have done is to devise models to act as analogies for the universe, and we have discovered the need for two models. Science is not half‐right. It does not ignore half of life. It is wholly right. So is the spiritual standpoint. They are not explanations: they are descriptions. And they are equally valid descriptions of the same thing.

Eric P Smith
March 1966