It was the Roman poet Lucretius, writing around 50 B.C., who famously proclaimed reason as a tool to achieve individual freedom, as a means of breaking free from superstitions that enslave the human mind:
“This dread and darkness of the mind cannot be dispelled by the sunbeams, the shining shafts of the day, but only by an understanding of the outward form and inner workings of nature.”
Even 400 years before Lucretius, his biggest influence, Democritus, celebrated a rational approach to understanding the world as the only path to happiness, to live in a state of “cheerfulness,” to finding grace. For this reason, Democritus was known as the “Laughing Philosopher,” as a Rembrandt self-portrait (in the likeness of Democritus) reminds us.
This is the smile we attribute to saints and the enlightened. Are we fundamentally wrong in placing science and spirituality in a warring field? Can reason lead us to transcendence?
To most people, this is an impossible, even absurd, proposition: Reason is the opposite of grace or spiritual transcendence, given that it operates under strict adherence to rigid rules and to an unshakable skepticism. How can analytical thinking become so malleable as to allow for this emotional and, even more radically, spiritual impact?
To make sense of this, we must, first and foremost, eliminate the connection between spirituality and spirit, in particular, of spirit as a supernatural manifestation. The starting point of my argument is that only matter exists. There is only the natural. In its awesome complexity, from electrons to proteins to butterflies to stars, natural forms express the wealth of interactions between the basic material constituents and the forces that bind and repel them. There is no question that we have learned a lot about these forces and these constituents — and this is what Lucretius had in mind when he wrote that “only by an understanding of the outward form and inner workings of nature” would we dispel “this dread and darkness of the mind.” This is the central goal of the physical sciences, the identification of the “outward form and inner workings of nature.” We abide to it full-heartedly.
However, we must also concede that we know precious little, that we are surrounded by questions of such forbidding complexity that our knowledge will always be limited even if ever growing, as I explored in The Island of Knowledge. The very way in which we acquire new knowledge of the world opens the way to more questions.
But forbidding complexity does not need to mean divine, or supernatural. Unknowns are invitations, challenges to our creativity. Obstacles are triggers, not stoppers. We go after them using the tools of science and reason with a fervor that, as Einstein remarked, has all the dressings of spiritual devotion.
So, we must rid spirituality from its supernatural prison, make it secular. Spirituality is a connection with something bigger than we are, seducing our imagination, creating an urge to know, to embrace the mystery that surrounds us and the mystery that we are.
This natural spirituality is not a form of mysticism. Mysticism presupposes that knowledge that is inaccessible to the intellect can be apprehended by contemplation or by a union with the divine. Science, at least to me, starts with a spiritual — even contemplative — connection with nature. But then it uses the intellect as the bridge between this connection and the pursuit of knowledge. As it brings together this very human spiritual attraction to the unknown (merely calling it “curiosity” sounds very impoverishing to me) and our reasoning powers, science is a unique expression of our wonderment with reality, of our awe with nature’s grandeur.
There is also all the practical stuff that we do with it. But that comes after.