A Genuine Integration of Science and Spirit

Posted on 4 November 2006

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The conflict between science and religion in Western culture has its historical roots a few hundred years ago in the division of reality into material and spiritual halves. Science was given authority over the material world while religion retained authority over spiritual and moral issues. Since reality is a single whole, this artificial division of reality has inevitably resulted in various conflicts. In response, there have been numerous attempts at reconciliation and integration. Most of these attempts, however, are inadequate because they do not heal the fundamental schism at a sufficiently deep level. They are not truly integral because they merely present the scientific and spiritual perspectives as complementary or somehow correlated without providing a deeper integral vision from which both are seen as aspects of a single whole. One sign of the incompleteness of such partial integrations is the continued presence of various misconceptions and false dichotomies that are artifacts of the original presupposed division.

One such misconception is the fact/value distinction: science deals with physical facts, while religion deals with spiritual values. Science, we are told, tells us which facts are true, while religion tells us which values are good. This distinction, however, is a false dichotomy. When science makes a statement of fact, this necessarily impacts what is valuable, since we value what is true and genuine and not what is false or fake. Conversely, what we value has an impact on what we determine to be the facts, because there is freedom in how we interpret the facts, and our values color our interpretive choices. And in religion, facts are no less essential than values. God, Buddha nature, Brahman or the Tao are not just the supreme value but also the ultimate fact, reality and truth. And knowledge of this truth brings salvation or liberation. So, there is no real separation of facts and values in either religion or science. Any integration of science and religion is incomplete if it maintains this false dichotomy between the two.

Another misconception of partial integrations of science and religion is that they maintain the false dichotomy that science deals with the outer, material world, while religion deals with the inner, spiritual world. This dichotomy ignores the fact that scientific theories are shaped not only by perceptions of the outer world but also by aesthetic values (e.g., beauty, elegance, simplicity and coherence) that are not objective or outer facts of the world. The ultimate object of scientific knowledge is not just any theory of the external world but an elegant and beautiful theory of the world’s order and harmony. And for the religious contemplative, their concern is not limited to insights into the inner world. The scope of contemplative inquiry includes both inner and outer objects. In fact, the ultimate goal of the spiritual seeker is to recognize that there is no real distinction between inner and outer, self and other. It is thus a distortion of the true nature of both religion and science to maintain that one deals with the internal world of insights and the other with the external world of sensory phenomena.

Once these false dichotomies are clearly seen, a deeper harmony between science and religion is revealed. The Good and True are not genuinely integrated by pasting together pieces of reality that have been segregated into different quadrants of reality. True integration must see them as aspects of the One. At the deepest level of reality, both outer and inner, fact and value, are a single whole. Genuine integration takes place at this deep level, by seeing the true unity prior to division, not by taking false dichotomies for granted then piecing together the fragments.

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Posted in: Philosophy, Science