Building A Foundation For An Integrated Approach To Science & Spirituality

Religion teaches men how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go. – Galileo (1616)

This is the second in an occasional series on “deep science,” a rational way of reconciling scientific method with the human need to find meaning and purpose. Read part one: Finding Meaning In A Meaningless World

Doctor Eben Alexander went to heaven and came back. And he wants to tell you about it. Alexander’s best-selling book, Proof of Heaven, describes the doctor’s experiences during a hospital stay, during which time he was almost entirely unconscious. Alexander had magnificent visions of a beautiful world that he assumed was heaven, with angel-like beings and a ride on the back of something like a huge butterfly.

Alexander states: “A story – a true story – can heal as much as medicine can.” The problem is that Alexander’s story, or at least his interpretation of it, isn’t true. A key part of his story is that he claims he was temporarily brain-dead during his entire time in the hospital, a condition induced by a bad case of meningitis, a bacterial infection of the lining around the brain. Alexander claims that his experiences during temporary brain death constitute proof that consciousness survives the body. This is his key point in his book.

Esquire magazine ran a detailed article by Luke Dittrich on Alexander and his book. The article included a dialogue with Alexander and his associates, including the doctor who treated him for meningitis in the hospital. Alexander’s doctor states that Alexander was in a chemically-induced coma during almost his entire stay in the hospital – a coma induced by the doctor because Alexander couldn’t be physically restrained, in order to even assess his vital signs, without drugs. So Alexander wasn’t brain dead, even temporarily. Rather, he was in a chemically-induced coma. These are major issues with Alexander’s story and they undermine his trustworthiness pretty seriously. The Esquire article includes a number of other anecdotes showing Alexander’s tendency toward “audacious reinvention.”

My point in bringing up this story is that for all we know, despite our healthy skepticism about audacious claims, Alexander could have been in heaven and consciousness could survive the body’s death. So even though I find both of these possibilities very unlikely, I can’t completely rule them out. When a person makes these kinds of assertions, which contradict the current scientific worldview so significantly, reliability and honesty are very important. We also need some means for corroboration, rather than simply accepting such assertions on faith.

Rather than simply denying the validity of claims like Alexander’s, as many “hard-nosed” types would, we should be able to establish a reliable first-person science that relies on third-person corroboration. This is, among other things, what deep science is about. Again, since this is a key point: deep science will not simply throw out first-person testimonials and evidence as hopelessly subjective. Rather, it will seek ways to build a reliable first-person science in addition to the conventional third-person science.

How Do We Build A Reliable First-Person Science?

Many thinkers have offered means for reconciling science and religion. Ian Barbour’s book, When Science Meets Religion, offers many examples and also a taxonomy of different approaches to reconciliation.

tambookStephen Jay Gould, the late Harvard paleontologist and science popularizer, offered one solution that relied on giving religion to religion and science to science. He called this solution “Non-Overlapping Magisteria,” or NOMA. Under Gould’s NOMA approach, religion and science each constitute their own magisterium, a large realm of human activity. These magisteria don’t overlap, so each enjoys its own tools and techniques for assessing truth claims.

I think we can do better than to simply posit a fractured culture and psyche, domains that find it hard to even communicate with each other, let alone respect each other, as Gould does. What follows is my attempt to sketch a better solution.

Counter-intuitively, it is possible to demonstrate how science and spirituality are substantially overlapping human activities. I start with the essential Cartesian insight: the only thing we know with certainty is the reality of our own experience. Descartes stated “I think, therefore I am.” (cogito ergo sum in the Latin). This actually goes a bit too far.

Rather, what we know directly, the only thing we know directly, is that there is experience here now – by “experience” I mean literally anything happening in our consciousness. Our existence as human beings is in fact defined solely by our experience in each moment. Our experience is synonymous with our being because there is nothing more in each moment than the contents of our consciousness. Everything else separate from our direct experience is inferred from the contents of our consciousness.

There Is Experience Here Now

It seems, then, that a more careful statement of Descartes’ “cogito” is “there is experience here now.” This seems to be all we know with certainty. We may argue that a second key feature that we know directly and with certainty is the flow of time, which is how we can describe the succession of experiential moments that occurs in each of us, now, now, now. A third candidate for direct certainty is the feeling of free will, of being active agents in our own lives, but that’s a topic for a later column.

We can, with these insights, conceive of our universe of experience as a single domain rather than a fractured domain of different “magisteria.” In practical terms, this simply means that everything we know about the universe is actually “in our heads,” that is, in our single domain of experience. Note that I wrote that everything we “know” is in our heads – not that there is nothing outside of our heads. There is very likely a real world independent of our experience of it, but we also know, particularly with many insights from modern psychology and neuroscience, that what we think of as the “real world” is entirely fabricated in our heads. That is, we don’t know reality directly. External reality is mediated by our rather limited senses and a movie of the world is created for each of us by the impressive movie-making equipment we call our body and brain.

Life As A Movie

This single domain of our experience is non-spatial. Instead, our experience is given to us, all at once, in each moment on the virtual “movie screen” of our inner awareness. It is only as we process this experience through our evolutionarily-constructed minds, that a world of three spatial dimensions and one time dimension is constructed. What we think of as the world out there is only known indirectly through this constructed world. We can, however, test the validity of our constructed world in various ways and this is what science is all about.

Again, we infer, based on our ongoing experience, the independent reality of the world that is presented to us. But we can never know with certainty that the “real world” out there does contain three dimensions of space and one of time, as it seems to, based on our common experience.

Conceiving of our entire existence as a single domain of experience is very helpful in thinking about the union of science and spirituality. A commonly held position in this perennial debate is that science is the process by which we try to figure out how the world works, using the scientific method of hypothesis, experimentation and refinement. Spirituality, it is thought, is a different endeavor that tries to explore topics such as the soul, God, morality and meaning. Science is descriptive and religion is prescriptive, it is thought.

But if we start with the realization that our entire existence, for each of us, is a single and unified domain of experience in each moment, then we realize also that science and spirituality are just different ways of examining that same single domain of experience. Science, in this formulation, attempts to determine the regularities of the real world that we infer is “out there.” But that world “out there” is just, for each of us, one part (albeit a large part) of the single domain of our experience, which also includes the world “in here,” our thoughts and feelings. Through inter-subjective confirmation – a fancy way of saying “by communicating with other people” – of facets of our individual experience, we construct together a mutually agreed world “out there.” This is what we call reality.

Let me sum up my points so far in order to avoid confusion.

  1. All we know with certainty is the existence of our experience in each moment.
  2. Literally everything other than our experience in each moment is inferred, including the entire external world.
  3. Even though we cannot know the external world directly, we can make many reasonable inferences about its nature
  4. Because science and spirituality are attempting to probe the nature of our universe and ourselves, and because both the world “out there” and our own inner worlds are for each of us a single and unified domain of experience, we can see that science and spirituality are part of the same set of inquiries.

This is the second in an occasional series on “deep science,” a rational way of reconciling scientific method with the human need to find meaning and purpose. Read part one: Finding Meaning In A Meaningless World

My next installment will look at how we can take these insights further in building a reliable first-person science that is a key component of the broader “deep science” I’m fleshing out on our way to an integrated view of the world.


Tam Hunt is a philosopher and lawyer based in Santa Barbara, CA, and Hilo, HI, and a visiting scholar at UC Santa Barbara.

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  1. Thanks again to Tam for his thoughtful remarks. In regard to the world of experience, I’m reminded of a passage from Einstein:

    “I believe that the first step in the setting of a “real external world” is the formation of the concept of bodily objects and of bodily objects of various kinds. Out of the multitude of our sense experiences we take, mentally and arbitrarily, certain repeatedly occurring complexes of sense impression (partly in conjunction with sense impressions which are interpreted as signs for sense experiences of others), and we attribute to them a meaning—the meaning of the bodily object. Considered logically this concept is not identical with the totality of sense impressions referred to; but it is an arbitrary creation of the human (or animal) mind. On the other hand, the concept owes its meaning and its justification exclusively to the totality of the sense impressions which we associate with it.”

    This brings to mind in turn an observation from Mach:

    “A color is a physical object as soon as we consider its dependence, for instance, upon its luminous source, upon temperatures, upon spaces, and so forth. When we consider, however, its dependence upon the retina … it is a psychological object, a sensation. Not the subject matter, but the direction of our investigation, is different in the two domains.”

    I think this business comports nicely with a mind/brain identity theory, such as we find in Feigl:

    “I can here only briefly indicate the lines along which I think the ‘world knot’ to use Schopenhauer’s striking designation for the mind-body puzzles may be disentangled. The indispensable step consists in a critical reflection upon the meanings of the terms ‘mental’ and ‘physical’, and along with this a thorough clarification of such traditional philosophical terms as ‘private’ and ‘public,’ ‘subjective’ and ‘objective,’ ‘psychological space(s)’ and ‘physical space,’ ‘intentionality,’ ‘purposiveness,’ etc. The solution that appears most plausible to me, and that is consistent with a thoroughgoing naturalism, is an identity theory of the mental and the physical, as follows: Certain neurophysiological terms denote (refer to) the very same events that are also denoted (referred to) by certain phenomenal terms … I take these referents to be the immediately experienced qualities, or their configurations in the various phenomenal fields.”

    Now, we immediately run into a difficulty I’ve mentioned before—colors, along with the other secondary qualities, have no place in our science as traditionally formulated. This brings us around to a familiar notion which Tam expressed just now as follows:

    “It is only as we process this experience through our evolutionarily-constructed minds, that a world of three spatial dimensions and one time dimension is constructed.”

    One of my mild heresies consists in pointing out that the world as we experience it is not limited to three spatial dimensions. If it were so, the world would be invisible and silent.

    “A speck in the visual field, though it need not be red must have some color; it is, so to speak, surrounded by color-space. Notes must have some pitch, objects of the sense of touch some degree of hardness, and so on.”

    This is to assert that colors and sounds have the character of spatial dimensions. Let’s revisit Riemann briefly:

    “[So] few and far between are the occasions for forming notions whose specializations make up a continuous manifold, that the only simple notions whose specializations form a multiply extended manifold are the positions of perceived objects and colors.”

    What sort of manifold? A projective vector manifold; here’s Weyl again:

    “Thus the colors with their various qualities and intensities fulfill the axioms of vector geometry if addition is interpreted as mixing; consequently, projective geometry applies to the color qualities.”

    Now, one of the curious things about vectors is that they are mathematically dual to ‘differential forms,’ which, in a simple case, have the dimensions of ‘area,’ and this is crucial, because what we see are colored areas.

    Well, OK, but areas are 2D entities, familiar from plane geometry, where we can move up & down or back & forth. Colors don’t seem to be like that, though. How to coordinate the manifold of colors with the 4D spacetime of relativity?

    Happily, the solution already exists in ‘fiber-bundle’ theory, which just happens to be the usual mathematical setting for elementary particle theory. How does that work? Atiyah helps us out here:

    “We shall now recall the data of a classical theory as understood by physicists and then reinterpret them in geometrical form.

    Geometrically or mechanically we can interpret this data as follows. Imagine a structured particle, that is a particle which has a location at a point x of R_4 and an internal structure, or set of states, labeled by elements g of G.”

    Now let’s compare Atiyah’s remarks with a passage from Lockwood’s wonderful book on ‘Mind, Brain & the Quantum’:

    “Take some range of phenomenal qualities. Assume that these qualities can be arranged according to some abstract n-dimensional space, in a way that is faithful to their perceived similarities and degrees of similarity — just as, according to Land, it is possible to arrange the phenomenal colors in his three-dimensional color solid. Then my Russellian proposal is that there exists, within the brain, some physical system, the states of which can be arranged in some n-dimensional state space […] And the two states are to be equated with each other: the phenomenal qualities are identical with the states of the corresponding physical system. ”

    Now, chances are, you already know what a fiber-bundle space looks like, because it’s familiar from discussions of string/M-theory:

    Should the reader wish to pursue this line of thought, she is encouraged to google “fiber bundle projective vector m-theory” without quotes. As will be evident, this brings us to a rich and lively field of endeavor—one that holds out the promise of fusing mind & matter in a precise and scientifically pleasing manner.

    1. Thanks Brian for the interesting comment. I’m not seeing, however, why spatializing/geometrizing what seem to fundamentally non-spatial properties is a step forward. This seems to me akin to spatializing time in physics (which is what Einstein/Minkowski relativity did), which I think has been a big step backwards for a hundred years.

  2. 1. All we know with certainty is the existence of our experience in each moment.

    The existence of our experience? The reality of our experience? Our experience of realness?

    My initial and, perhaps, instinctual objection to this would be that existence and experience are virtually synonymous and thus this statement is somewhat redundant. Can one exist without experiencing anything at all? Can one experience without existing?

    In each moment?

    I neither see nor understand the necessity of framing that statement with temporal terminology. Time is ultimately an abstraction of change and or difference. We don’t experience time or the passage thereof. Rather, we notice and or experience change or transformation (which is simply translocation at another scale) and difference.

    All of that which we know with certainty is merely experience/existence.

    In my opinion, it seems that the function of science and spirituality and, for that matter, many other disciplines is to explain experience/existence, so that we can understand experience/existence in order to deliberately modify experience/existence.

    Just my two cents.

    1. Hi Silhouette, the distinction I’m making between experience and existence is existence as inferred independent of our experience of whatever is at issue. For example, I may perceive a glint of light in the night and a cool breeze as a ghost, but if in fact it’s just a glint of light and a cool breeze there is then no actual ghost in the external world. It’s just a mistaken interpretation of external reality.

      You ask “can one experience without existing?” and I would say “no.” Experience requires existence.

      You state that “time is ultimately an abstraction of change and or difference” and I agree entirely. This is my preferred definition of time. What I’m suggesting is that the contents of our consciousness are constantly changing and thus we can be very certain indeed of the reality of time and our experience of time as change from moment to moment in the contents of our consciousness.

      1. Hola Tam,

        Still, if one were to experience a glint of light and a cool breeze simultaneously, and then interpret this as a brushlike encounter with a phantom, if you will, the mistaken interpretation of that phenomena isn’t at all independent from the existence, nor the experience of that phenomena. Our mistaken interpretation is part and parcel of our experience. In other words, if one is certain that a glint of light and a cool breeze is a ghost, then, in spite of whether or not the interpretation is mistaken, wouldn’t this very experience be all that one certainly knows?

        That is beside the point, however.

        The initial context was: “All we know with certainty is the existence of our experience in each moment.” I’m interpreting this as “All we know with certainty is the [reality or realness] of our experience in each moment.” But are you suggesting, instead, that we can never be certain of our interpretations, that the phenomena that we experience from moment to moment is all that is certain, all that is real?

        I’m terribly misconstruing your statement, perhaps.

        I guess where I was going with that–my later comment concerning our experience of change–is that it might be absurd to frame our experience and especially our experience of change in temporal terminology, since temporal terminology naturally elicits a sensation of fragmentation and or discontinuity–i.e. “in ‘each’ moment”; centuries are broken down into decades, which in turn are broken down into years, to months, to weeks, to days, and so on–when change and reality itself is seemingly never-ending and or continuous.

        [And the tangent begins… lol]

        I mean, what is a moment? How many actual moments are there, in a second, in a minute, in an hour or a day?

        How is this moment any different from that moment a moment ago? THINGS change in relation to other things and or a THING changes in relation to itself!

        The only purpose of that which we call time–as independent from change–is the achievement of coordination. The only purpose of keeping or “measuring” or demonstrating with clocks or watches that which we call time, is that, by doing so, it allows us to socially coordinate ourselves collectively.

        Clocks and watches and time–just as measuring sticks, rulers, spatial dimensions, distance, and location, to name only a few–don’t tell us anything about the nature of existence or the quality of phenomena. They’re merely tools–material, conceptual, or otherwise–that we’ve created, replicated, and disseminated, in order to discover or generate information that ultimately allows us to modify our very behaviour. We construct clocks and measuring tapes by repurposing stuff, so that we can compare this modified stuff to other apparently distinct phenomena, to even more stuff.

        Time doesn’t actually exist. Spatial dimensions, distance, location, none of these things exist–well–as anything other than concepts, conceptual tools, or information; Clocks and measuring tapes do exist, however, specifically to generate information on which, notably, much of the status quo, much of our activity depends.

        [Tangent over]

        Long story short: Change is a given, whereas this entire notion of time might be misleading us to believe that our experience and or existence itself is inherently fragmented. However, it seems a lot more likely at least to me that that which a lot of us are trying to understand–our experience, our existence, or the reason(s) therefor–cannot be understood because it is by its very nature fundamentally continuous. It seems to me that, in order to understand anything, in order to fathom the unfathomable, we are forced to consider or experience reality itself as things, as discontinuous. This is why, if we wanted to, we could spend the rest of our lives discussing this and be none the wiser for it, even if the entire time we were sitting on all of the answers or explanations that we desire.

        [Another tangent]

        Every personal or collective ill, issue, or disagreement, is a matter of communication, miscommunication, or lack thereof. Language and or communication is key!

        [And yet another tangent]

        It is my belief that we are god, or a holographic piece of god, but have for whatever reason relinquished our almighty status; a status that, upon agreement, we can reclaim at any time. Collectively, if somehow agreement or understanding is achieved, there shall be no bounds and everything shall reveal itself for what it truly is.

        P.S. I hope I haven’t totally misconstrued your comments. And please excuse my propensity to often go off on tangents… lol

        1. THINGS have changed in relation to other things or a THING has changed in relation to itself***

        2. It’s actually so goddamn fascinating that the simple act of comparing a stick with notches on it to other stuff has the potential to drastically alter our relationship to or with that other stuff. Oh, the empowerment that we take for granted on a daily basis!

        3. That is to say–and keeping with the example–temporality and spatiality or temporal and spatial dimensionality, distance, and subsequently speed, locality, and even quality and quantity are themselves “the ghosts of our ‘mistaken’ interpretations”.

  3. Thanks Brian for the interesting comment. I’m not seeing, however, why spatializing/geometrizing what seem to fundamentally non-spatial properties is a step forward. This seems to me akin to spatializing time in physics (which is what Einstein/Minkowski relativity did), which I think has been a big step backwards for a hundred years.

    1. >why spatializing/geometrizing what seem to by fundamentally non-spatial properties is a step forward

      Well, we know what a red square or a blue sphere is; to paraphrase Wittgenstein, every speck on the surface of an object is intersected by the manifold of colors.

      We can make this precise by exploiting the duality of vectors and differential forms—more parallel photons (state vectors) of a given color flowing thru an area at a given time means more parallel color vectors, which means a broader area is colored red, say.

      So we have a precise, quantitative relationship between the “physical” state vectors and the “mental” patch of color.

      In the case of sound, we know what it means to fill an auditorium with music or what have you. In parallel with color, every point in that space has one or more sounds associated with it.

      It is well worth noting that we already have a proof-of-principle of the foregoing in our “physical” TV screens and stereo equipment which let us manipulate color & sound in a precise, quantitative manner—and yet colors and sounds are not represented in the formalisms of our physics.

      The situation is odd, but not without precedent. In ancient times, the Greeks had many geometric rules of thumb before Euclid came along and made logical sense of them.

      I know that Descartes famously regarded the secondary qualities as non-spatial, but he didn’t have the benefit of fiber-bundle theory, which allows us to assign “internal” spaces to each point of a manifold, as Atiyah tells us.

      Moreover, once we consider the well-known phase relations of color & sound, we are on our way to gauge theory, which really ought to be called ‘phase theory,’ but Weyl didn’t get it quite right the first time out the gate.

      Here’s Atiyah again:

      “As far as gravity is concerned, Einstein’s General Relativity is a beautiful and complete theory. But as Einstein realized it has to be extended to account for other physical forces, the most notable being electromagnetism. It is perhaps no accident that the first and most significant step in this direction was taken by a mathematician – Hermann Weyl. He showed that, by adding a fifth dimension, electromagnetism could also be interpreted as curvature.

      His idea was that the size of a particle could alter as it passed through an electromagnetic field. In analogy with railways it was called a gauge theory, and this name has stuck through subsequent evolutions of the theory.

      Unfortunately for Weyl, Einstein immediately objected on physical grounds that this would have meant different atoms of, say hydrogen, would have different sizes depending on their past history, in contradiction with observation. Given this devastating critique, it is remarkable but fortunate that Weyl’s paper was still published, with Einstein’s objection as an appendix. Clearly the beauty of the idea attracted the editor, despite the fatal flaw. In fact, beauty often wins such contests, because with the advent of quantum mechanics, with its complex wave functions, it was pointed out by Kaluza and Klein that Weyl’s gauge theory could be salvaged if one interpreted the variable as a phase rather than a length. A pure phase shift by itself is not physically observable and so Weyl’s theory avoids the Einstein objection.”

      As to “spatializing time in physics,” the proof would seem to be in the remarkably successful pudding. The math works out beautifully and GR has withstood many stringent tests. And then, it all flows from a basic symmetry or invariance – i.e., the laws of physics are the same for all observers. Einstein’s teacher, Minkowski, who put space and time on an equal footing, said that “relativity” is a misnomer, that it is really a theory of invariants – or, as we more commonly say today, symmetries.

      In his famous essay about all this, he wrote:

      “We will try to visualize the state of things by the graphic method. Let x, y, z be rectangular co-ordinates for space, and let t denote time. The objects of our perception invariably include places and times in combination. Nobody has ever noticed a place except at a time, or a time except at a place. […] The multiplicity of all thinkable x, y, z, t systems of values we will christen the world.”

      Consider the bit about the “objects of our perception.”

      To paraphrase Wittgenstein and Minkowski, nobody ever sees a place unless it’s colored – it need not be red, but it must be some color.

      Finally, every speck in the visual field may be a different color from any other speck. How do we model this mechanically? It is quite as though a copy of color space “sits over” (fibers over) every point in visual space.

      Does this help?

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