Science and Spirituality

Recently I got into a conversation online with one of the many people who are convinced that at some point in the future, either something specific like December 21, 2012, or a more vague “When the Veils between the worlds fall”, “magic” will overcome “science”, and instead of having technology to guide us and lengthen our lifespans, we’ll all be able to shoot fireballs, heal instantly by touch, and ride dragons. Or similar things that are impossible in the current state of physics.

I’ve seen this entirely too many times in my decade and change in the pagan and Otherkin communities. Not only does it show an escapist form of wishful thinking that completely ignores the wonders and miracles inherent in the material world (I mean, come on–photosynthesis? Is totally cool.), but the argument also shows an ignorance of what science actually is.

Science does not dictate the nature of reality. No matter how much we know about, say, how physics works, we cannot change the laws of physics (as Scotty liked to remind us). We can change what we are able to do within the parameters of material reality through the understanding of that reality that science gives us. But science does not change the basic parameters of material reality.

Of course, when these people I speak of try to contrast magic and science, their general understanding of what “pure magic” is would violate the laws of physics, biology, chemistry, and just about every other science out there–if it could actually do what they claim it can do. They point to situations where magical practice has apparently done the impossible, by creating changes in physical reality that aren’t supposed to happen. Confirmation bias aside, I’m guessing that all of these can be explained ultimately through science. The explanations may not be to the satisfaction of the imaginations (and wishful thinking) of some folks, but IMO, that doesn’t make those explanations any less important for being explained through “boring” science. After all, if you get the result you wanted, what does it matter?

I know the argument would then go that belief shapes reality, and the more people believe in science, the more science changes and shapes reality. Yet that’s a fallacious argument that again shows a complete ignorance of what science is. Science is compiling information about material reality based on controlled, empirical observations of that reality. In short, it is not manipulating reality, but merely observing it and recording what is observed. If that observation changed reality every time it happened, then the observations recorded would be nowhere near as consistent as they are, even after making allowances for human error. Yes, we change things within objective reality though our technology, but the technology does not change the nature of the objective reality itself.

And this is why I think that spirituality should not be placed in opposition to science. Spirituality that defines itself as completely unattached to science is in denial of the parameters we realistically work within every moment of our lives–to include the parameters in which we practice spirituality and magic. The splitting of science and spirit into two completely separate camps has done nothing beneficial for spirituality; all it has done is turned it into a tool for denialism and ignorance. Most of the observable effects are less drastic than the tragic cases of, say, children who die because their parents think prayer is a better cure for chronic illnesses than western medicine. But when we take science entirely out of our spirituality, we are in grave danger of imperiling ourselves on multiple levels–physical, psychological, and otherwise.

This is not to say that there is no room for suspension of disbelief. Science, for example, has not been able to prove the existence of souls, or an Otherworld, other than as psychological constructs. But when I journey, I journey with the mindset that I am going to an objectively real place where there are spirits, and where I am a temporarily disembodied spirit myself wandering through talking to animals. I realize that this is empirically unprovable, and you’re going to just have to trust me when I say I experienced it. But for me, in that moment, it is every bit as real as the physical world we all share.

However, when I come back out of the spirit world and regain my body, I become consciously aware again that there is a decided psychological angle to what I just did. It doesn’t in the least bit diminish my experience. Instead, it adds an additional layer of understanding to it, and enriches it by giving me even more language to communicate what I did. (While psychology is a soft science at best, it still contains more empirical evidence than most spiritual practices.)

And that’s the thing: science augments my spirituality. Knowing how photosynthesis works just makes knowing plant spirits that much better. Being aware of how stress affects physiological processes of the body adds value to meditation. Understanding the natural history of physical animals helps me know their totems even better.

I have more to say, but I am tired, and my words aren’t working as well as when I started this essay. Expect more in the future.

7 thoughts on “Science and Spirituality

  1. I think some of this attitude can be laid at the doorstep of the RPG “Shadowrun”. When it first came out back in the late 80’s, I heard the idea that there would be something happening Dec 21, 2012. I didn’t know about it, never heard of it, but then the game talked about the Aztec callendar and a change in the threshold of magic. When I started reading up on this, there was a “world change” predicted on that callendar, but it was the ending of one world and the start of another, nothing catastrophic. But ever since then I’ve been seeing the same as you with the levels of magic and science changing….

  2. Brilliant!!!!

    I would argue that often what people designate as ‘successful magic’ or “creating changes in physical reality” isn’t outside of possible (like shooting fireballs) but selection of outcome— of numerous possible outcomes, the one they magically enhanced occurred. So it’s not ‘I defeated physics’ but ‘I am the Master of Coincidences’.

    I freely admit to myself and others that my perception of the OtherWorld, the Gods, augury, et al is perceptual reality and necessarily flawed. I’m good with that.

    More, please.

  3. Wait. You’re saying I’m NOT going to be able to ride a dragon soon?


    My comment aside a great, intelligent post. Interesting stuff.

  4. I have to admit that I was taken aback slightly by finding this very well grounded argument on a blog entitled “Therioshamanism”

    I do differ on some points however, and felt that I would just share some of my thoughts.

    I have heard many times the people trying to reconcile science and spirituality, and have even had to do so my self. I come from a background of fundamentalist christians who often ignored or simply discounted science in most respects. These people showed me the dangers of ignoring reality, in that once you allow yourself to be convinced of something that flies in the face of science, you will have a hard time filtering the truth from the lies. I am now an atheist if that gives you any perspective on the matter.

    It is for this reason that I have a hard time indulging in “suspension of disbelief”. If there is an experience that seems out side of the realms of science, I would try to reconcile it as best I could.

    It is true that we do not know every thing there is to know, nor have we begun to tap the deep wells of the human experience. But simply put I would rather observe something that cannot be known than know something that cannot be observed.

    • I see suspension of disbelief in the same way I see “being in love”. Sure, there’s value in knowing that there are certain hormones and other chemicals coursing through my brain and other portions of my anatomy, but that’s no replacement for romance. In the same way, suspension of disbelief serves as a form of play and a break from the usual reality. There are psychological health benefits to play and variety, and so even if there’s no concrete purpose to a ritual, there’s still the less tangible but still effective purpose of taking a break from the everyday for a little while.

      • I’ll be quite honest, this interests me. That you should liken you experience to being in love, or to play. I know of no one that would speak of their spirituality in such a way. For all the people I have known and talked to, be they christians or therians, have ardently held their beliefs to be of equal if not of greater importance than reality. I do not mean to say that you value your spirituality less, rather to say that you seem to put a perspective on it that I find refreshing.

        I am not a therian I’m fairly certain. However I became interested in the therian community and phenomenon a while back because it fell so close to what I can only describe as my personal mantra.

        I do not feel, as many claim, that I have any tangible connection with an animal of sorts. But despite this I have developed an intricate world of behavior changes and likes and dislikes all spurred from a feeling of connection to certain animals.

        This all coming from one who would fane argue about the importance of reality. It is laughable is it not?

  5. IMO, there’s a certain sort of seriousness that one can apply to spirituality, but it’s not the type of literal truth, defend-to-your-death type, at least not when it comes to the details rather than the general attitude of one’s spirituality. It’s serious in its importance on an individual level, and even on a collective level of similarly-minded people, but once you try to push its seriousness past that point, things get murky.

    Beyond that, play is a good way to keep things in perspective. It helps deflate the ego in a good way.

Leave a Reply to Judith Cancel reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s