First of all, I’m not trying to gaslight you. I think, if we are going to take seriously the goal of finding a path forward that makes room for both spirituality (however we individually define it) and science we need to be very clear about the strengths and limitations of both. I say this is primarily a scientific and philosophical discussion masquerading as a spiritual one not to exclude the spiritual experience or to minimize it. I say that because by focusing almost exclusively on the spiritual while simultaneously making demands of science we are avoiding the kind of scientific concerns that must be tackled if we are going to determine to what extent science even has a role to play. I say it is philosophical discussion because to tackle these issues we must be very precise in our choice of language.

You accuse science, or at least many scientists, of “writing off” experiences that “can be explained” by things like “measurable brain activity.” This clearly represents how many people, apparently including yourself, feel about some scientific findings. However, I think these feelings are the product of a misunderstanding.

For example, there has been considerable research done regarding the impacts of meditation on the human body and measurable changes in brain activity is one effect that has been consistently found. I’ve read some of these studies, though by no means all. I’ve read even more articles about this research. However, I’ve yet to read anyone involved in this research claiming that the changes in the brain activity alone “explain” the experiences commonly associated with meditation. Indeed, any experience we have, be it considered spiritual or not by the experiencer, will in some way alter our brain activity, raise or lower our blood pressure, and/or trigger any number of other physiological effects which could be measured relatively easily.

What these studies reveal is which areas of the brain are most impacted by activities like meditation. While it is true that feeling a profound sense of peace or oneness with the universe will necessarily be associated with greater activity within certain portions of the brain, first you have to either do something or have something happen to you to trigger that brain activity. In other words, the brain activity isn’t the cause but the consequence of the spiritual activity or event in question. We humans engage in these activities because they lead to the brain activity which activates the feelings. The causal pattern is as follows: Meditation > brain activity > feelings of peace. No researcher studying the impact of meditation on brain activity would argue that brain activity explains the feelings people experience as a consequence of meditation. Rather, they would say brain activity forms the connection between meditation and those feelings. You can delete the brain activity from the causal chain altogether and have the cause and effect relationship remain intact, if a bit less clear, but delete meditation and the chain no longer makes sense because brain activity correlates with all feelings, not just peaceful ones.

That said, I have no doubt some poorly informed science writers have claimed studies have found that brain activity explains X in a spiritual experiential context, but I doubt very much any scientists working in a relevant related field has. If you know of any peer reviewed studies that claim it’s the brain activity that explains these things I’d love to read it. If it says what you claim, I’ll be the first to join you in criticizing its conclusions.

More to the point, however, is the mistaken impression that science could shed much light on the meaning of what I’ll call transcendent spiritual experiences, to say nothing of the transcendent, even if it wanted to. Before we get too upset at science, particularly the physical sciences, for not tackling the source of spiritual experiences more aggressively we need to be clear that science probably can’t “explain” a spiritual experience in the first place. Sure, the social sciences can provide detailed accounts of what experiences people report having and how many people report having them. Anthropology can describe the various rituals different cultures engage in and tell us what this or that ethnic group finds meaningful about this or that practice. Psychology can tell us whether people on average are happier or not if they have a strong spiritual component to their life and maybe even tell us why they think this is so. But this is largely all descriptive in nature rather than explanatory. The explanations we do have, to the extent they are available, are all very proximate in nature. When I say you seem to be insisting on dragging the transcendent down to earth it’s precisely because of your apparent view that science can and should do much more than merely describe the various spiritual experiences people report having and the outcomes these tend be associated with and get on with dealing with the ultimate source of it all, namely God. You do this on the grounds that your experiences are weighty evidence that God is literally real.

No one in the sciences or anywhere else denies that experiences are evidence. The question is evidence of what? If you think your faith cured your cancer, are you delusional or are you onto something? I would argue these are hardly the only two options and when we start digging into these types of “miraculous” cures and the wide range of feelings and beliefs associated with them it can get pretty complicated pretty quickly. For purposes of this reply let’s try to keep it simple.

Science should take your experience into account, but it also should take everybody else’s experiences into account as well. That’s why we have sample sizes and the bigger the better. So, hypothetically, let’s assume we have a sample size of 1,000 people all of whom consider themselves spiritual and all of whom profess to believe in the power of prayer, meditation, or some other spiritual practice to heal. In our control group we have another 1,000 people with the same cancer who don’t believe it at all or are highly skeptical. Let’s say 10% of the spiritual folks survive more than three years after diagnosis and only 7% of the non-spiritual folks do. Everyone else in both groups saw statistically identical outcomes. Was it God that accounts for the 3% difference? The study shed absolutely no light on that question. Maybe, maybe not. Was it the peace of mind their spiritual practice brought to them that made the difference? The study didn’t answer that question either, but at least now, unlike with the existence of God, we’re in the territory of a question science could potentially answer.

Regardless, at least we can say spirituality (assuming we’ve controlled for other possible relevant explanations) has some potential positive effect whether God exists or not. But science also needs to be clear that in 90% and 93% of the cases respectively spirituality had no measurable impact at all. Why not? If you’re one of the 10% who got better is your experience evidence spirituality works? What if you’re one of the 90% for whom it had no impact? Is your individual experience evidence it doesn’t in that case? What if you’re one of the 7% for whom spirituality is bunk but you got better anyway? What’s your experience evidence of then? Do you see why your individual experience gets pretty steeply discounted by scientists no matter what it is? In any given study your personal experience could be the exception or it could be the rule. You and I and everyone else amount to one data point, and one data point is way too little to rely upon when reaching conclusions about society, to say nothing of things like gods, demons, angels, after lives, etc. etc. If I’ve never experienced God that isn’t enough data to conclude He doesn’t exist. Unfortunately, if you have had such a personal experience the opposite is also true. The weightier the question we are trying to answer the less meaningful our personal experiences will be in finding an answer, assuming an answer is even available to us.

Finally, (and I’ll let this be all I say on the matter) if we are going to ask science to consider personal experiences as evidence for what we classify as “non-physical”, “supernatural”, “pure spirit”, “soul”, “spirit” or the existence of some variety of personal god then we absolutely owe the scientists we are asking to do this research as precise a definition as possible of these terms. I classify them as metaphors that are ultimately referring to the transcendent so I don’t expect science to do anything with them, but you and others clearly don’t share my view. Therefore, if you want science to look for something that is “non-physical” and you want the rest of us to agree it’s worth looking into you have to give science and the rest of us something to go on. What qualities does a non-physical thing possess that we should be looking for? What sort of device could we build that would measure (directly or indirectly) something that had no physical presence in the world? If we wanted to show a personal spiritual experience was the result of an encounter with a personal god how would we go about gathering evidence to support our claim(s)? If you can’t answer those questions or aren’t even willing to try, you have no grounds criticizing the scientists who can’t/won’t either.

To the best of my knowledge virtually all scientists, including the religious ones, agree what you’re asking can’t be done. Furthermore, many believers, scientists and non-scientists alike, will argue that there’s no point to faith if there’s strong evidence or proof available. Some might even argue that to seek evidence for the transcendent in the first place is to commit the same sin the builders of the Tower of Babel were guilty of in the Old Testament when they tried to construct a tower that could reach God. I don’t mind that you differ with Richard Dawkins or that you reject the notion that our rituals and spiritual language are metaphors for something that goes beyond real/unreal and evidence for or against. Viva la difference. But I do mind that you and many others consistently use loaded words like “supernatural”, “non-physical”, “pure spirit” and “miracle” in the context of a discussion about reality, argue that these are measurable/provable by science yet steadfastly refuse to tell us how precisely you define these terms so we can even know what it is we’re supposed to be looking for. What is a pure-spirit (the stuff of God)? It’s not energy and it’s not matter, that much is clear. Nor is it a force like gravity or a field like magnetism, apparently. How can I agree with you that science should investigate such a “thing” if not even those who insist it is real can tell me what it is, or even suggest a hypothesis of what it might be? At least if you tell me there’s a needle in a haystack the size of the cosmos I can build a really big and really sensitive metal detector.

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US citizen residing in British Columbia, Canada. Degrees include anthropology and environmental studies. Activism, politics, science, nature.

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