Scientific Spiritualism [January 01 2015]
Over Christmas, I had an enjoyable evening in with my father, brother and my dad’s brother (my uncle). The evening featured a healthy level of debate from four opinionated, and very strong willed guys covering a range of subjects as only meandering family debates can. What was interesting about this evening was how as the debate progressed, it also regressed to a discussion on the same subjects and topics that interested Hume, Kant, Leibniz, Plato and Aristotle (and many more), which , despite all our modernity still fascinate and enthral.
As in Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, or Plato’s work, in the debate, each of us played a specific role, approaching the subject of spiritualism from our own viewpoint. My dad, (let us call him Matthew), has always been highly sceptical of any form of spiritualism beyond the physical word and is, ironically, almost dogmatic in his refusal to accept the possibility of there being a God, Gods or something “beyond”. His brother (Mark, comes in at the opposite end of the spectrum, believing in Chakra’s, Leprechauns (I am not even joking on this point), live after death, the literal existence of a soul and that his “feelings” are sufficient evidence to justify belief in something. My brother (Luke), is leaning towards Marks spiritual view of the world, but hasn’t quite made his mind up, you could say that he is a spiritual agnostic, open to the idea of believing in things bigger or beyond our current comprehension. I however, occupy a perspective that probably straddles all three aspects and it is one that I often enjoy describing to people because, for me, it is what Philosophy is really all about, encouraging as it does enlightened debate, not because you expect to the get a solid answer, but because there is value in the debate itself.
I would call this view Scientific Spiritualism. Where my father see’s the Stonehenge as being great big piles of stone arranged in a clever manner and Mark sees them as druidic totems to help us communicate with the spirit world, I view them as being wonderful examples of the desire of the human species to belong to something bigger. I see both the scientific and spiritual value in both – the science and engineering required for humans to be able to create Stonehenge is incredible, and we’ve still not worked out quite how our ancestors did this. The spiritual aspect, of going and sitting in Stonehenge, thinking about what our ancestors would have thought and felt as they gazed at the nights sky and all the stars in it, wondering about their own (in)significance and the connection to the rest of the universe is one that I can totally ascribe to. That feeling of being both part of nature an detached from achieving a true understanding of it all is one that many people feel at some point in their lives, and it is valuable in and of itself.
The same goes for thinking about our soul. My dad would take the point of view that to believe in a soul is misguided on the basis of there being any physical evidence what so ever. Mark, on the other hand, views the lack of physical evidence almost as evidence in itself of a soul – for him, to expect to see or touch a soul is a redundant question, for the soul is itself an ethereal thing and to look for physical evidence of it is a bit like looking at a mirror and expecting to see another person, you are asking the wrong type of question.
But, what is a soul? To Mark, it could be the collection of ideas, feelings, emotions that sit behind and define his physical being, the soul is the real bit that makes him “him”. I get this – there is more to me than just my body, my ideas are central and important to me. Sure, they can be defined as electrical impulses in my brain, but there is also something bigger than just those impulses. When you combine all my experiences, electrical impulses making up all my ideas, my feelings (however you chose to define and explain them), what makes me “me” is not just neurones firing in a particular sequence, it is bigger than that. It is all the connections I have with people, real and imagined, my emotions and all the consequences of my actions in the world. Even if all this can be explained in physical terms, to do so only describes part of it and misses the connection that I, as a human have with the universe beyond my mere physical presence within it.
I don’t believe in ghosts, god, ethereal souls or spirits, but and I believe in science, reason, empirical evidence and physical explanations of events. But, beyond that, I believe that there is more to the universe than just the physical explanations, the feelings of wonder that can inspire someone to learn about the universe, the connection to nature that I feel when travelling across mountains and the sense of wonder that I have about my place in the Universe. Feeling spiritual is not incompatible with science, and nor does it need to be based on flighty ideas that have no basis in reality. As my brother and I have always thought, being opened minded is generally the best approach, but not so much that your brain falls out.
There is not really a conclusion to this piece beyond saying that the evening ended, unlike the Philosophical greats, there was no resolution to the discussion, no clear conclusions drawn and no promises of greater things to happen. However, I think, perhaps without evidence, that it encouraged Matthew, my dad to be a little more open minded and, Mark, perhaps a little less so. Luke, my brother, carried on still trying to figure out our own place in the universe, perhaps wondering if some of the big questions would ever be answered.
Myself, I thought that even if we, as a species, don’t get all the answers, then there is value in the debate itself, if nothing else, to understand other viewpoints and feel inspired to work out your own worldview.
Scientific Spiritualism is one that I like, even if it raises more questions than it answers.
Disclaimer : some of the names have been changed, but the discussion itself took place and, I promise, Mark really does believe in leprechauns, that was not used as an illustration. He is great guy with some very interesting points of view.