On Physics and the Soul

A globular star cluster: "If one cannot see gravitation acting here, he has no soul" - Richard Feynman

If one cannot see gravitation acting here, he has no soul.

- Richard Feynman

There is a prevailing attitude that science - and physics in particular - is something removed from, and even incompatible with, spirituality. This in part stems from the historical disagreements between science and religion, and the incongruity of the current body of scientific knowledge with certain traditional religious belief systems. But to believe that science is a soulless discipline represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what "science" is.

Science is nothing more than a method. Observation, reason and experiment make up what we call the scientific method, and we can use this method to discover knowledge about the universe that we inhabit. This knowledge is useful, and has allowed us to do many remarkable things. But science itself is only a method, and it does not place any bounds on what we might apply this method to, nor does it say anything about the nature of what we might discover as a result.

There are some phenomena that lend themselves very well well to analysis with a scientific method: gravitation, or electromagnetism for example, while there are others for which a scientific approach might prove less useful and illuminating: love, or poetry for example (though a quantitative analysis may not be as hopeless as one might at first expect...).

Spirituality is often considered to be in the latter category. It is not immediately obvious how to apply a scientific method to problems of existence, of reality, or of establishing our place and purpose in the universe - how are we to perform the relevant experiments, and what observations are we to take? It is easy at this point to turn to faith and religious doctrine for an answer; but just because scientific analysis has not yielded a direct, obvious answer, does not mean that it can yield no answer.

I would contend that the answers to problems of spirituality can only derive from a study of the world around us. And the rigorous and reliable study of the world around us can only derive from application of the scientific method. This is very Stoic idea, first championed by Greek philosophers: to find our place in the cosmos, and to live harmoniously within it are only possible though first an understanding of the nature of our universe (i.e. physics) - what other source of real knowledge is there?

Science is not soulless. If anything, the opposite is true. It is the only tool by which we can find meaningful answers to problems of spirituality.

These answers are perhaps at present not as satisfying or simple as we would like: this is for two reasons. First, our body of scientific knowledge is incomplete: this is not a fault of the method, but of our ability to apply the method. Over time, and with continued adherence to logic and reason, we will surely improve this body of knowledge, and improve our answers - if we look at the increase of scientific knowledge between the Greeks and the present, we will note a corresponding improvement in our insight into spiritual questions. For example, the revelations of quantum mechanics have shed much light on questions of determinism. We are now further along on a long road of discovery, but we are not nearly at our destination yet.

Second, the answers are perplexing because we are not always asking the right questions, nor expecting the right kind of answers. When we pose the question "What is our purpose in the universe?", we expect answers like "to serve God", or "to advance humanity", or maybe even "42". When science does not give us such an answer, and instead only offers us seemingly tangential insight about the formation of the cosmos and the evolution of our species, we dismiss science as being fundamentally unable to answer the question which we originally posed.

But what science offers is more profound than the simplistic answer we were seeking. Science has helped us re-frame the question - it turns out that the concept of purpose is very ill-defined in a universe that is fundamentally driven by randomness. We may see purpose as a useful and intuitive idea which helps us understand the way in which systems around us operate, and how entities within them interact, but purpose on a macroscopic scale (i.e. on the scale of the universe) is a meaningless concept. And so rather than ask the question "What is our purpose in the universe?", we can ask things like "What drives how humans make decisions?", "What is our relationship with the universe around us?" and "How do our actions change this relationship?". These are questions that science can answer clearly, and these are questions that will give us in time answers more relevant to human spirituality than simply "What is our purpose?".

We see spirituality as a deeply human trait - and deeply personal too. We see it intertwined with emotion, personality and individuality. But these ideas are not necessarily at odds with the apparent objectivity of science. The scientific method does not preclude subjectivity in our understanding of the universe. There are many ways to describe and understand the same phenomena, each as veritable as another: planetary motion can be described correctly using a number of different coordinate systems (Cartesian for example, as opposed to the spherical coordinate system which is normally used), but the equations of motion will be drastically different in each (some much, much more complex than others!). The same is true in the case of a scientific understanding of spirituality - and especially so when dealing with problems like human sociology, psychology and behaviour. It is up to us personally to decide which of a range of different and infinitely nuanced - but equally correct - interpretations to take: this is how we can still arrive at individual and personal answers to questions of spirituality even if we all begin with the same scientific methodology.

Those who do not believe that physics (or the scientific study of the universe) holds the solution to our spiritual problems lack, either the wisdom to see scientific inquiry as the only path to real understanding, or the bravery to apply it unflinchingly in the face of difficult questions and perplexing answers.

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