Spiritual Information

Recent criticism of the Templeton Organization by science writer John Horgan in his blog on Scientific American, “Cross Check” asked the question,

Is there such a thing as a spiritual fact? This question is brought to mind by the Templeton Prize, which was given last week to the British astrophysicist Martin Rees.

Horgan states his objections in this way:

What bothers me most about the Templeton Foundation is that it promotes a view of science and religion—or “spirituality,” to use the term it favors—as roughly equivalent.

Moreover, the claim that ‘progress in spiritual information is just as feasible as progress in the sciences’ is absurd, because there is no such thing as ‘spiritual information’.

http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=prize-in-the-sky-the-templeton-foun-2011-04-08

The Templeton Foundation’s goal is “…the stimulation of progress in humanity’s spiritual journey and quest… (and) to bring together the dynamism of the sciences and that of the spiritual quests…

Whether or not an individual is primarily an advocate of either science or spirituality, the effort to enhance both by advocating a broader understanding of how the two support each other in important ways is a noble endeavor. In any contentious or controversial subject area, there is much benefit in considering the merits of alternative viewpoints when seeking a greater understanding generally.

In an article by David Pratt in Sunrise magazine, June/July 1995 entitled, “John Eccles on Mind and Brain,” he quotes the distinguished neuroscientist and Nobel Prize winner Sir John Eccles, who won the 1963 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on the synapse:

I maintain that the human mystery is incredibly demeaned by scientific reductionism, with its claim in promissory materialism to account eventually for all of the spiritual world in terms of patterns of neuronal activity. This belief must be classed as a superstition. . . . we have to recognize that we are spiritual beings with souls existing in a spiritual world as well as material beings with bodies and brains existing in a material world. “–Evolution of the Brain, Creation of the Self, p. 241

Pratt also reminds us of Eccles view of the problem in reconciling the scientific and spiritual views:

…materialists believe that the problems will be resolved when we have a more complete scientific understanding of the brain, perhaps in hundreds of years, a belief which Eccles ironically terms “promissory materialism.” Eccles feels that this “impoverished and empty” theory fails to account for “the wonder and mystery of the human self with its spiritual values, with its creativity, and with its uniqueness for each of us.” (How the Self Controls Its Brain, pp. 33, 176.)

Examination of specific data and employing empirical methodology is central to the nature of scientific inquiry. The methods and process of discovery in science have produced results enormously beneficial to humanity, many times incidentally to the intended aim of a particular scientific study. At the same time, less empirically rigorous approaches to complex problems, like intuition and speculation, do sometimes serve as a means to open pathways to discovery that would not otherwise be considered.

B. Alan Wallace, in “The Taboo of Subjectivity: Toward a New Science of Consciousness,” writes that:

While consciousness lies in the no man’s land between religion and science, claimed by both yet understood by neither, it may also hold a key to the apparent conflict between these two great human institutions.

Even as 21st century humans, we can still experience a sense of awe when we turn our gaze to the panorama of stars on a crisp, clear winter night, but unlike our ancient ancestors, most of us are fully aware of what we see when we observe the night sky. In spite of our more comprehensive awareness of the world, and our place in the expanding universe, we still have a sense of something beyond what we can discern with our senses.

In many ways, it is precisely because we have a greater comprehension of our temporal existence that the persistent sense of “something more” behind it all continues to engage us. A strictly materialist view of existence may be as comforting to the empiricist as this sense of “something more” can be to those who embrace the idea of the “human spirit,” but to deny its existence completely in the face of the extraordinary history and literature of humanity through the millennia, and in consideration of every possible avenue of exploration we currently possess seems, at best, short-sighted.

John H.

Image is the center third of “Education” (1890), a stained glass window by Charles Louis Tiffany and Tiffany Studios, located in Linsley-Chittenden Hall at Yale University. It depicts Science (personified by Devotion, Labor, Truth, Research and Intuition)

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2 comments

  1. betterlivingthroughscience

    I have to say, I’m pretty much in agreement with the quote from Horgan about the Templeton Foundation, its aims are highly suspect, and likewise, I’m not convinced that the term ‘spiritual progress’ is meaningful in any substantive way.

    • jjhiii24

      The term “spiritual progress” will only be meaningful in a “substantive way” to someone who is engaged in some sort of spiritual journey, or for whom the pursuit of personal growth requires attending to the spiritual or non-corporeal aspects of their existence. The expression of this term does not necessarily advocate a religious point of view. Instead, it acknowledges the idea that human beings have, in addition to a temporal existence, some sort of spiritual or non-physical context to their existence.

      Like all progress in every area of thought, no one begins with a comprehensive understanding of the broad range of ideas contained within it. It requires persistence of effort to gain a broad understanding of any complex area of thought.

      The pursuit of the many diverse areas of science have progressed through this same persistence of effort, and the accumulation of knowledge and experience in the various branches is a direct result of continually attending to the questions which arise as one pursues the subject.

      The diverse paths of spiritual knowledge, i.e., the ways of understanding and coming to terms with our spiritual nature, suggested by the growth of the many religious and deeply spiritual movements in human history, whether you personally find them to be credible or not, continue to expand and evolve in the same way that any other pursuit of knowledge does.

      There have been some notable efforts by individuals in the scientific community to include a variety of speculative ideas in the context of their profession, and some equally notable efforts by those motivated by spiritual beliefs to express a compatibility with scientific progress in our modern world, and perhaps a blog entry on this very subject might be an interesting challenge for me.

      Thanks for expressing your thoughts on the subject…..more to come…John H.

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