A Dialogue on Science and Spirit
by Guy Dauncey
Submitted to the Resurgence Essay Competition, 2002
It is a hot summer’s afternoon, and the young kale plants in our organic garden are pushing out tender new leaves. A swallowtail butterfly settles on the buddleia bush, and seems to gaze at me. Under the soil, worms are busy carrying mineral nutrients up from the clay subsoil, and fungi are converting them into a form that the kale can absorb.
Some aphids approach the kale plants, which respond by producing salicylic acid, strengthening their resistance to stress and disease. Later, when we eat the kale, our bodies will absorb both the minerals and the salicylic acid, which is a key ingredient in aspirin and helps fight hardening of the arteries.
This is a happy blend of science and the harmony of nature. Soil biology shows that chemical fertilizers kill the fungi which are essential to the kale if it is to absorb the minerals, and that pesticides inhibit the kale from manufacturing salicylic acid. When we spray plants with pesticides, they no longer need to develop good a immune system, so we no longer benefit from their immune system chemicals.
Three weeks ago, I invited my friend Melinda over to share a discussion on the whole vexing issue of science and spirituality. She’s a worm biologist, who has a keen interest in philosophy. We played music to two separate groups of plants – Mozart to one group, Motorhead to the other. After a week, the Mozarts put on more growth and look healthier than the Motorheads. Did the concordant Mozart frequencies nourish the plant cells, while the discordant Motorhead frequencies set them back? It’s a good question, which Melinda wanted to investigate.
Next, we took some leaves from the plants in each group, and made Kirlian photographs of them. Kirlian photography was discovered by the Russian inventors Semyon and Valentina Kirlian, in 1939. It works by introducing a high frequency, high voltage, ultra low current to whatever is being photographed, amplifying its biological and energetic discharge, making it visible as a corona discharge. The Kirlian photographs of the Mozart plants showed an even, harmonic radiance, while that of the Motorhead plants was ragged and disturbed, with dark patches.
This kind of photography is a valid technique, but there was nothing in Melinda’s regular biology degree which suggested that plants emitted biological radiation, or had electromagnetic properties. This kind of research is generally considered to be outside the traditional biological paradigm. Kirlian photography has also been associated with the study of the paranormal. Some people hold that a Kirlian photograph reveals the aura, or etheric body, of the plant or person being photographed, which takes us deep into territory marked "spiritual", where most scientists are unwilling to tread. I could tell that Melinda was uncomfortable, but she agreed to press on.
Curious to explore the tension between science and spirituality a bit further, we invited my friend Eve to join us, who works with a local spiritual healing group. After a cup of tea, we give her a jug of water, and invited her to transmit healing energy into the water. She spent twenty minutes holding her hands an inch away from the jug, and then gave it back to us. We filled a second jug with regular tap water, and asked a neighbour to label the two jars so that only he would know which was which. We measured the plants for height and leaf-growth, and for two weeks, we watered each group from a separate jug. We then measured their growth, discovering that a significant percentage of the Group B plants, which the neighbour told us had been watered with the ‘healed’ water, had put on more growth than the Group A plants.
Melinda was intrigued. She accepted that the data was valid, but as a scientist, she didn’t know of any theory that could explain the difference. Even if the results were replicated under all sorts of different circumstances, she said, science still lacked the means to explain what was happening. If she were to publish a paper on the experiment, she said, she would probably lose status in her colleagues’ eyes for dabbling in mysticism.
In Eve’s world, the whole universe is alive with energy, vitality and love. When she sits with a person who needs healing, she quietens her inner world, and then steps aside, offering her hands as a vehicle for – as she puts it - God’s love. In the minutes that follow, she experiences a deep feeling of compassion, and becomes very peaceful. A psychic friend tells her that he sometimes sees a violet light enter the room and move through her hands into the person being healed, but Eve says she has never seen it, and no scientific instrument has ever recorded such a light.
Melinda says that to a scientist, the universe is equally alive with energy. A vast amount of energy exists within every atom in every galaxy. Data from the Hubble space telescope tells us that there are probably some 500 billion galaxies in the universe, and that each may contain as many as 400 billion stars, giving us 200 trillion stars in the whole universe. The closest that she gets to "God" comes with the deep sense of awe that she feels in the face of such an enormous mystery, and the gratitude that as a worm biologist, she is able to devote her life to exploring one tiny section of it.
Over supper, Melinda reminded me that humans see only within the narrow spectrum of visible light. "If there had been a few different twists or turns in the process of evolution," she says, "we might have been able to see infra-red, or radio waves. We might have retained the ability to scent pheromones, which most insects and some mammals have. The world we observe offers us only the tiniest glimpse of the world that surrounds us – let alone the universe. What’s incredible is that nature has evolved to the point that it can explore it own universe, and find out how it works – through us."
As we pass the kale, tenderly steamed and served with butter from our neighbour’s cows, I suggest that with a few different evolutionary turns, we might also have retained a sense of telepathy, which animals appear to exhibit. Most dog owners feel that their dogs have a sixth sense, and Rupert Sheldrake’s work has demonstrated scientifically that a dog knows when its owner is coming home long before there is any physical indication. "Perhaps we lost our sense of telepathy when we started to develop speech, since we no longer needed it to survive," I suggest.
And open-minded as Melinda is, I can feel her discomfort. Telepathy is off-limits as serious science. "No-one has ever come up with a testable hypothesis which could explain how telepathy might work," she said, "which could be potentially falsified by means of a null hypothesis, following the correct scientific method."
"This is true," I admit. "But does that prove that telepathy doesn’t exist? Did gravity not exist before Newton developed his theory to explain it? Did the moons of Jupiter not exist before Galileo viewed them? Is it not possible, I asked, that science simply hasn’t got there yet, and that in time, it will find a way not only to explain telepathy, but to enable humans to receive and transmit thoughts and feelings?"
"Yes," Melinda agreed, "but only a few very open-minded scientists think this way. Most of my colleagues spend no time wondering about phenomena that might exist outside the realm of the physical. Even to postulate the existence of a non-physical realm is taboo. It’s OK to propose umpteen parallel universes, so long as they’re physical. But to propose a spiritual universe – we are taught to close our minds to this possibility."
"It worries me," I said, "when scientists use the lack of a theory that could explain spiritual realities to justify the belief that a spiritual realm could not exist. It is not this kind of thinking which leads to the arrogance with which scientists to meddle with nature, assuming the power to take the genes of fish and them into tomatoes, and release them into nature?"
"I agree, and I disagree," she replied. "I agree, because science’s understanding of ecology is tragically lagging fifty years behind our ability to manufacture new chemicals, and to mess around with genes, or clone a human. This makes it scary – we don’t understand nearly enough about the ecology of the environment that we’re putting these things into. But on the other hand, humans have always been a risk-happy species. If we hadn’t taken risks, we would never have left Africa, or developed agriculture. We would never have sailed to the New World (for better or worse), or gone into space. It is not science that you should blame for risky endeavours that go wrong. It is human nature."
"But in every culture," I reply, "wherever humans have lived, they have always developed a spiritual philosophy of some kind. There have always been people who knew that we were part of a larger spiritual order, who used prayers or rituals to communicate with that order. There are things that we would speak of as miraculous, which to them were part of the natural order of the universe, even though they needed a shaman or a psychedelic trance to reach them. Does it not concern you that if scientists turn the lack of physical evidence for a spiritual realm into a firm belief that such a realm does not exist, that they are turning their backs on the very openness of mind which is the hallmark of science?"
"We are a proud people," Melinda said. "We bathe in the glory of our founders, from Copernicus to Einstein. We allow ourselves to wonder, but we are timid. We don’t like to wander too far outside the box. We must follow our scientific method. To abandon that is to fall into a swamp where every kind of myth, superstition and crazy Internet theory is given equal validity, where creationism and evolutionary theory are viewed as valid alternatives, and where the theory of Aryan superiority sits alongside the belief that the Jews are God’s chosen people as two comparable truths. We know where that leads."
"If we are unable to embrace this realm that you call spiritual," she continued, "it is not because we don’t want to. It is because science can only move at the pace of knowledge, as it develops. If there are scientists who confuse the present state of knowledge for its final resting place, this is not the fault of science, but of human weakness. We all yearn for certainty. That there are scientists who have turned science into a religion, instead of a method of enquiry, I admit. But this, too, is not the fault of science. For all I know, science and spirituality are like two identical twins who were separated at birth and went their own ways, each unconsciously seeking the wholeness that only the other could bring, while being ignorant of the other’s existence."
Later that night, as we sat outside watching the sun go down, I told Melinda about a friend I knew some years ago. As a baby, she had been born with cerebral palsy, an awful debilitating disease which twists your limbs into horrible positions. Her parents were active spiritualists, and when she was a few days old they took her to the renowned healer Harry Edwards, who laid his hands on her. The healing that he transmitted took away almost all of her symptoms, leaving her with only a slight limp. As an adult, she became a powerful healer, who works with children.
"From my personal experience," I said to Melinda, "I know that healing energy works. I know that prayer works. I know that miracles are possible. My evidence comes from experience, not belief. This means that I accept that there are realities beyond the physical level, which intervene in our lives in meaningful ways."
"Are you talking about angels?" she asked.
"Well, maybe – I don’t know. We like to put names to things we don’t understand, to help us imagine them. Then we start believing in the image we have created, rather than the mystery which gave birth to it."
"But you have an inquiring mind. How do you reconcile your understanding of a spiritual realm with your knowledge of science, and evolution?"
I paused. How many years had I spent pondering this question?
"Well firstly, it’s clear from history and from the state of our world today that whenever people try to interpret the world through spiritual philosophies alone, without tempering from science and reason, we get into the most awful mess. Every religion started out as a spiritual impulse, whose founders wanted to articulate the over-riding experience of the love, harmony and spiritual wholeness which they knew could be a gift to all humanity, if only we would open our hearts to it. As soon as we did so, however, we locked it up in a box and declared it to be the whole and only truth, and then went to war to slaughter the non-believers. From this perspective, it is science which is religion’s healing grace. Without science, religion becomes a raging monster."
As the sun set, I told Melinda how much I admired Charles Darwin, and his theory of evolution. This is science at its most eloquent, that shows us all to be part of one amazing tree of creation. My dilemma was how to connect these two universes. That they interacted was clear – it happened right here inside me, in the stuff we call consciousness.
"So what is this thing called consciousness? I am forced to ask myself. Do animals have consciousness? Clearly, yes. Do plants have consciousness? Yes, in a plantish kind of way."
"Are you suggesting that all matter has consciousness?" Melinda asked.
"Maybe I am. Maybe it does, though we cannot prove it yet. It seems more logical that matter would have a primitive form of consciousness, than that it wouldn’t. If it doesn’t, where did consciousness begin? Did it spring out of nowhere, as the early chemicals merged to form life? Theorizing that all matter possesses a form of consciousness makes it easier to speculate that telepathy and prayer can form connections between parts of the world that we perceive to be separate. What if we really knew that the whole world, the whole universe, was one connected realm, and that our thoughts really did carry influence? Would that not change everything? If we really knew that this was a reality, could we not stop war? Could we not heal Earth’s wounded environment?"
"But that could work both ways," Melinda replied. "What is to stop people from using the power of thought to do yet more evil things?"
It was at this point that my friend Joshua walked in, fresh from the synagogue, where he had been celebrating the end of the Sabbath. Joshua has opinions on everything – and they are usually well informed. After pouring him some spiced tea, we filled him in on our discussions.
"Does matter have consciousness? Do the stars have light?" he asked, in the rabbinical style of speaking that he had learnt as a child. "What kind of a question is that? Of course matter has consciousness. Of course spirituality can co-exist with science – just ask Einstein. The realm of the spirit falls wide open when we allow ourselves to perceive the incredible mystery and beauty of the world. It doesn’t matter if you are a scientist, a Rabbi, or a prostitute. We can experience the spiritual realm as soon as we show gratitude for the wonder of life, whatever our beliefs."
"Now there’s a man after my own heart," Melinda said.
Frustrated, I felt as if my dilemmas had been shoved into a box called ‘wisdom’, and tidily packed away.
"But Joshua," I ventured, "do you not accept that there is a conflict between a science that insists on acknowledging only the material level, and a spirituality that insists that the material level is only a shell, which hides the spiritual level?"
"Not if you delve into the work of people like Jean Charon, the French nuclear physicist who explored the relationship between sub-atomic particles and the realm of spirit, or Harold Saxton Burr, the neuro-anatomist who taught at Yale for 43 years, who showed that all living things have a measurable electromagnetic field which enables them to inter-relate with the universe around them. Not if you dig into the work of Irwin Schroedinger, or the Hungarian Nobel-prize winning scientist Albert Szent Györgi, who both suggested in different ways that negentropy might be an organizational principle within evolution."
"I refuse to accept that there are two separate levels,", he continued, "the material and the physical, which inhabit two separate worlds of truth. How can science, which is seeking truth, find contradiction with spirituality, which is also seeking truth? How many truths can there be, for Moses’ sake? Would two oppositional truths not either destroy each other, like matter and antimatter, or merge into an even more perfect synthesis? Is this not what life is about – seeking constantly greater wholeness and peace in our personal lives, in our political and economic lives, with Nature, and with the universe as a whole? Isn’t this why we get excited when we perceive there to be a resurgence of interest in the values of peace, sustainability, and planetary wellbeing?"
Joshua has an enthusiastic way of speaking that is so full of uplifting insights that it is hard to engage with him on the picky, mental level. But Melinda was never one to decline a challenge.
"Joshua, you’re not suggesting that evolution has a sense of purpose, are you – that there is some guiding spirit within it which drives it towards increased order?"
"If you go along with the Jesuit priest and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, or the Indian sage Sri Aurobindo, then yes, that is exactly what I am suggesting. They placed spirit right at the centre of evolutionary theory. They proposed that there is a co-evolution of spirit and matter – that the more complex matter becomes, like the brain of a whale, or a human, with its 100,000 million cells, the more consciousness it can hold. And consciousness gives us access to an awareness of spirit. Spirit is in everything, from here to the birthplace of the universe, but we have to be open to perceive it. That’s what I think the world religions were meant to be – manuals, to help us let spirit in. Teilhard and Aurobindo proposed that spirit is the driving principle within all evolution, as it is seeks ever greater union with the universe from which it sprang - a universe which is simultaneously spiritual and material."
Melinda jumped in. "You know that this flies against all accepted evolutionary theory, and that it has shades of the discredited Ukrainian biologist Lysenko, who proposed that species could evolve genetically through environmental change?"
Joshua was quick to respond. "So are you saying that Richard Dawkins’ theories in his book The Selfish Gene will be the last word on the topic of evolution? That all we have to do is dot the i’s and cross the t’s of the genetic code? His selfish gene theory of evolutionary makes the whole of the past 100,000 years of human history, ever since we left Africa, an evolutionary irrelevance. Since that time, there has been no genetic change of any significance among humans, so there has been no evolution, and no meaning – except for the artificial meanings, cults and creeds that we fabricate to prevent ourselves from committing suicide once we have exhausted the pleasures of sex, beer, and mountain bikes. It’s no wonder the creationists seek something more uplifting, in their archaic Biblical way."
"Just as long as you accept that you are treading far outside orthodox evolutionary theory."
"That’s fine by me. As long as you accept that almost every scientific theory has eventually turned out to be partially or totally wrong, with the exception of relatively recent theories that are still awaiting redemption. I’m not saying genes don’t seek to replicate themselves. I’m saying this may be only one small part of the picture. If biology were to open itself to the mysteries of consciousness, and start exploring the ways in which mind and matter interact, even across a distance, all sorts of new perspectives would begin to interpose themselves."
Now it was my turn to jump in. "But Joshua, how can you suggest that evolution is moving towards ever greater harmony and wholeness, when down here on Earth, humans are destroying their own ecosystems, and wiping out more species than at any time since the Cretaceous extinction, 65 million years ago?"
"I struggle with these tragedies and stupidities too," Joshua replied. "But here’s how it looks to me. We don’t evolve tidily. We do so by trial and error. We make mistakes. Of all the species that have ever lived, over 99% are now extinct. There’s no contradiction between tragedy, stupidity, and evolutionary progress: it just seems like it when you’re in the middle of it. But when you look at the big picture, going back to the origin of the Universe, and follow the whole story of evolution, it sure looks like some kind of progress. The amazing thing is how in spite of all this confusion, greed and selfishness, we still persist with a dream of better things. It is as if we have been programmed to seek a better world, where love, compassion and beauty are honoured, where nature is respected for the stunning creation that it is, and where hope is eternally reborn, however dark things are. I can’t believe that evolution is just a matter of genes pursuing each other selfishly, to mate."
"So you’re saying that in spite of the famines, the empire building, the war-mongering and greed, in spite of our ability to be so cruel to one another, in spite of the way we are poisoning and destroying nature, that there is still hope, and meaning?"
"Of course I am. I’m not Jewish for nothing. Science and spirituality just have to be complementary. I love them both, and I love this world that I live in. How can they contradict each other? That’s just an illusion that comes from trying to stand within one perspective or the other."
And so it was, as Melinda, Joshua and I folded our chairs under the midnight summer sky, and headed off to bed. Overhead, a million stars shone down with the light of their ancient past, filling the universe with the promise of incredible futures, yet to come.
I was left with this thought, that had locked itself into my mind. Could it be true, as Joshua thought, that all matter is permeated with spirit, and that spirit has programmed a sense of purpose into the whole evolutionary story, right back to the Big Bang? If this were true, and if humans knew it to be true, both scientifically and spiritually, would this not change everything? Would it not mean that our quest for a better world, instead of being an irritating side-event at the McWorld & Partners GeoStrategic Corporate Ball, became instead the main event?
About the author
Guy Dauncey is an author, organizer and sustainable communities consultant who specializes in developing a positive vision of an environmentally sustainable future, and translating that vision into action. He is the author of Stormy Weather : 101 Solutions to Global Climate Change (New Society Publishers, July 2001), and ‘A Sustainable Energy Plan for the US’ (Earth Island Journal, August 2003). He is also the publisher of EcoNews (a monthly newsletter), co-founder of the Victoria Car-Share Cooperative, and a consultant in ecovillage and green building development. He lives in Victoria, on the west coast of Canada.
His website is www.earthfuture.com.