Science and materialism…
One is awesome; the other is a pile of centuries old shit that isn’t doing anyone any favors.
Do you know the difference?
Most people don’t.
Here’s a hint:
If you’re struggling to find a balance between spirituality and science?
Then you’re going to need a shovel…
Science and the Contemplative Agnostic
We live in the midst of a holy war—and science is caught in the middle of it.
On one side stands the hardcore atheists; the ones who don’t believe in anything but physical matter.
On the other, the hardcore religious zealots; the ones who don’t even believe in dinosaurs.
The rest of us live somewhere in the middle.
In general, we’re happy to be there, because we find both extremes repugnant.
But living in the middle comes with questions and uncertainty that the faithful (on both sides) never need to face…
How do you take spirituality seriously, in a world that’s enlightened by science?
How can you believe in something more, when every day, we gather more and more evidence that this is all there is?
In a way, science has become a great source of doubt in our lives.
It seems like every discovery makes our world a little bigger… yet somehow smaller at the same time.
Of course, most of us don’t sit around and worry about it.
But we’re never quite sure where we fit.
And that quiet uncertainty holds us back far more than we realize.
My goal here isn’t to sway the extremists.
Instead, I want to inspire the rest of us—the contemplative agnostics—to move forward without hesitation.
The thing is, we really don’t give a shit what the religious zealots have to say…
That we care about.
And that’s where the problem creeps in…
Atheists love to claim that science is on their side.
That they are rational and objective.
That they have evidence to back their beliefs.
It’s such a popular refrain that it has seeped into every crevice of our culture…
Spirituality is just psychology. Psychology is just biology. Biology is just chemistry. Chemistry is just physics. And that’s that.
And so we all feel the nagging pull towards the material end of the spectrum…
And that’s unfortunate.
Because the truth is: that’s not science.
That sequence of reduction?
From psychology down to physics?
That’s not that.
Physics isn’t at the bottom…
We really are in the midst of a holy war… but it isn’t a battle between science and religion.
It’s just another squabble over competing ideologies.
In fact, most of what people call “science” isn’t actually science at all.
It’s an ancient brand of metaphysics called materialism.
And the atheists? The ones who use science as a weapon?
They are just as much a product of faith and fury as the fundamentalists are…
The rest of us are just caught in the middle.
Sadly, it’s not a fight that we can end.
But we can get out of the crossfire—and out of the squabble—and on to more important things.
Science and spirituality get along just fine.
We just have to look past the materialism…
So what is materialism?
When most people hear that word, they think about shopping and acquisition and the pursuit of material possessions.
But that’s a separate definition (which I’ll refer to as consumerism for clarity).
Spiritual folks love to bitch about consumerism…
But we’re concerned with materialism as a worldview or philosophy:
Materialism is the belief that reality is made of matter and energy; that little particles of stuff drift and collide in space and time, and give rise to you and me and everything.
But wait… Isn’t that science? Isn’t that physics?
Nope. Sorry. That’s metaphysics.
And that’s the issue…
Most people think that metaphysics are all about crystals and fortune tellers and little shops that reek of incense.
But metaphysics are just the way that we look at reality.
They’re what we believe exists.
So, yes, that includes all the New Agey stuff…
But it also includes “physical” ideas like matter and energy (and strings and fields and so on).
The sciency metaphysics are a better brand than the New Agey ones. (We’ll get into why in a separate post.)
But it’s all still metaphysics.
Physics sit on top of metaphysics, like a house on a foundation.
Here’s the nerdy breakdown:
- We start by looking at the world, and making careful assumptions about what we think exists. (For example: the elements of earth, air, fire and water; or vibrations of pure love and light; or subatomic particles and spacetime manifolds.)
- We then use those metaphysics as a mental framework to build on—to ground an approach to physics. (e.g. “Subatomic particles have intrinsic properties that can be modeled, and used to predict how the particles behave.”)
- Next comes a theory about how that world works; about how things interact. (e.g. “What we call gravity is really a curvature of spacetime, which bends in response to certain properties, and makes things move in a particular way.”)
- We turn our ideas into math, to pin them down so we can test them. (e.g. E=mc2, , O.o …)
- Then we perform experiments to see if the world behaves in the way that we expect—and adjust our theories accordingly. (i.e. the scientific method.)
The science (steps 3-5) can’t even get off the ground without the philosophy (steps 1-2).
Now, sometimes a shift in philosophy doesn’t make that big a difference.
(Changing our interpretation of quantum physics probably doesn’t have much impact on the way we build semiconductors.)
But in other areas—like cosmology—a shift in our philosophical assumptions can completely change the way that we interpret our scientific experiments!
So… not so objective after all!
But that’s not a dig on science.
It has to be that way.
The metaphysics are an integral part of the process.
Unfortunately, that’s also where the problem starts…
If an experiment is a success, it’s dangerously tempting to say that our metaphysics are correct.
That our worldview is the right one.
But that’s not how science works…
A successful experiment just means that the math was accurate.
That the new theory took a step beyond the last one.
And that the metaphysics were functional enough to get us there.
That’s all metaphysics ever are: functional or not; elegant or kludgy; inspiring or restrictive.
But they are never true or false.
They are never objective.
They’re either good enough to grow on, or crappy enough to hold you back.
And that’s the shameful issue with materialism.
It holds everyone back.
Not just the contemplative agnostics who want to explore a deeper perspective.
Physics has been stuck on a handful of paradoxes for the better part of a century.
Do you really suppose that’s because a hundred years of theorists have been too stupid to work it out?
Because they’re not good enough at math?
It’s our habits that hold us back.
It’s our cherished assumptions that limit us.
In an ideal world, we’d hold our beliefs gently.
We’d look at them, and question them—we’d know their limits—and set them aside when something better comes along.
And science would do the same.
But scientists are people. And people like to prove their beliefs.
Because the truth is scary…
The truth is that we build our lives—our entire existence—on top of ideas and assumptions that can never be proven.
We can claim we have evidence and pretend that we’re right…
We can declare that God created the world in seven days—because, just look at all His glory!
Or that the universe is made of little lumps of matter and energy—because, just look at all the stuff!
But all we’re doing is rationalizing our assumptions.
There’s always another perspective.
There’s always another way to think.
Learn to think different.
Strive to see where the science ends.
Where the physics meet the metaphysics.
And question all of it.
How do you take spirituality seriously, in a world that’s enlightened by science?
It’s actually not hard at all.
We’ve learned some amazing things over the last hundred years.
Some of it I’ll be sharing as we go forward…
Einstein, quantum field theory, spacetime, symmetry, cosmology—all things you should know at least a little bit about.
And not one of them clashes with spirituality.
Your sacred cows may not survive…
(Full disclosure: they’re hamburger.)
But your spirituality will thrive.
Your world will get bigger—your options richer—and your universe a lot more magical.
And you’ll never struggle with “science” again.
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In any case, thanks so much for stopping by! – \m/ – Z
About Zach Herbert
I teach people to do cool things with their consciousness, and break their brains with beautiful ideas.
Professional heretic. Unlikely mystic. Host to rebels, misfits and independent thinkers.
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