Future Visions: Engaging the Scientific and Spiritual Imagination

Future Visions: Engaging the Scientific and Spiritual Imagination

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On September 4, 2000 close to 70 experts will converge in New York City for a week-long conference entitled “Future Visions: Engaging the Scientific and Spiritual Imagination for the Well-Being of All,” held in conjunction with the State of the World Forum and the United Nations “Millennium 2000” summit meeting.  Each participant brings expertise in some area or areas of science, technology or spirituality.  And each believes that, in some way, the conjunction of these three – the knowledge of science, the wisdom of the spiritual traditions, and the transformative power of appropriately chosen technology – is necessary for responding adequately to the challenges facing humanity and our planet.

In preparation for our meeting on September 4th each of the participants will be formulating a brief position statement that will serve as the starting point for his or her comments at the conference.  The announced topic to which we are responding is “harnessing the scientific and spiritual imaginations to create a life-enhancing future for our world.”  We have been encouraged to draw on our own particular expertise and perspective on these issues and to be as brief or as detailed as our time allows..  Each of us is encouraged to respond to those who have already written, indicating both areas of agreement and areas of divergence.  The hope is that our 70 voices, though distinct, will blend together in expressing what may well be a shared vision for the future of humanity.  As the first author, I have no other position statements to respond to; thus let me say a few words instead about the call for statements itself.

1.  The greatest contribution of science is precisely not its “imagination” but its ability to provide rigorous testable knowledge of the natural world.  It’s not the “scientific imagination” that I expect to transform the future of the world, but rather the results of scientific study.  These results are very concrete.  Among many other things they let us predict with incredible accuracy the movements of the heavenly bodies as well as the acceleration of falling objects on earth; to proceed from the molecular structure of a substance to accurately infer its chemical properties; to comprehend the structural similarities, and thus behavioral differences, in organisms of vastly different appearance, environmental context, and historical location; to understand the correlations between our most intimately human mental characteristics and the neurological processes that underlie them.  To control one’s future, or to transform a world, requires knowing that world; and never before has humanity had the knowledge resources available that we have marshaled since the scientific revolution.  Whatever challenges we may now face as those who have eaten of the fruit of the garden, I would never wish again to abide in the darkness of ignorance.

2.  Above and beyond its specific results, science provides methods for reaching intersubjective agreement that are models for consensus-building in other fields as well.  Science is not sufficient for a global ethic; it lacks the “situatedness” in home, hearth and heart that a truly transformative ethic requires. Nonetheless, there are fundamental values underlying scientific practice that can provide models for ethical thinking in other areas. In his great essay on “Science and Human Values,” Bronowski emphasized the global relevance of the values that underlie scientific practice:  honesty and integrity, community and collaboration, and – above all – the willingness to submit one’s most cherished beliefs and theories to the bar of empirical verification and falsification.  To hold one’s beliefs hypothetically and nondogmatically, to follow the evidence wherever it may lead one, remains a crucial model for guiding human interaction, for evaluating social structures, and for checking one’s approach to her own most deeply held religious beliefs.  Science and the religious life are not identical, but there are things that religion can learn from the uncompromising pursuit of truth in science.

3. As much as science can contribute to the discussion of values, it is not, and should not be, a substitute for the ethical life, which inherently involves the spiritual dimension.  Human religious and spiritual practice is thus an indispensable component of human thriving (eudaimonia) and a crucial motivation for altruistic or non-self-centered behavior.  What you choose to do in the world – how you acquire and relate to possessions, how you communicate with others in the world, how you connect (or fail to connect) with animals and the natural world – reflects your fundamental mode of being in the world.  “By their fruits you will know them”:  the life of each person, and indeed of each society or culture, expresses a basic orientation, a “lived worldview.”  Paul Tillich wrote that whatever is of ultimate concern to a person becomes his or her de facto religion.  The ethical life with its spiritual dimension is not incompatible with science.  But science, with its degree of specialization and limitation to what is empirically testable and replicable, can never provide a framework adequate for answering the question of meaning:  one’s fundamental existential orientation and sense of her place in the world.

By contrast, the religious and spiritual traditions are crucial repositories of wisdom on “the good life.”  They contain some of the deepest reflections on the quality of human life in the world, teaching practices and habits of living that promote an other-oriented mode of existence.  Despite the dark moments in the histories of the various religions, ultimately these traditions tend more to foster and inculcate ethical sensitivity than to divide humans from one another and from their world.  The religious or spiritual impulse is thus a deep ally for the project of human caring, of “loving their neighbor,” of bridging cultural and racial divides, and of living in harmony with the other inhabitants of our planet.

4. I thus envision a close partnership between the best of our scientific knowledge of the world and the best of religious thought and spiritual practices.   Gone are the days when being the serious scientist required that one treat with distain all interest in spiritual questions, not to mention belief in religious propositions. But gone also are the days when the religious person needed to define herself in opposition to the scientific quest for knowledge, as in Tertullian’s proclamation in the 2nd century, “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens, the Church with the Academy?”  The second half of the 20th century has witnessed the tearing down of one wall after another, until the old warfare metaphor no longer applies.  We stand at the threshold of an era that could well be remembered as the first century in which the human scientific quest and the human spiritual quest became partners in addressing the humanity’s deepest challenges.  Indeed, if it is not so remembered, there may be no humans on the planet in 100 years to do the remembering!

It has been my pleasure to be associated with the “Science and the Spiritual Quest” (SSQ) project, funded by the Templeton Foundation and run under the auspices of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences at the GTU in Berkeley.  This project was conceived and developed by Mark Richardson, who reported on the difficulty he had at first in obtaining top-level scientists who were willing to speak in public about their religious faith.  I also recall the comments of amazement and pleasure of the participating scientists some four years ago, many of whom said they were now speaking in public of science and religion for the first time in their careers.  Mark and I have noticed an enormous contrast between scientists’ responses at the beginning of SSQ and now, as we head into a second, worldwide phase of the project.  Scientists at the very highest level of scientific practice are expressing enthusiasm about being involved, are making time in impossibly busy schedules to travel to workshops in New York and Paris, and are recommending other top-ranked scientists who also wish to participate.  The interest of the media, of other scientists, and of scholars of religion in science and religion dialogue has increased an order of magnitude since this project was conceived some six years ago.  And SSQ is but one small barometer marking a climate change that may be as important as any we are witnessing in this new period of globalization.

What might follow concretely from these four guiding theses?  And what kind of projects might be funded and carried out that reflect this new partnership between the best of science and the best of the spiritual traditions?

* The partnership means decisions about using available technologies that are scientifically well informed (no “fleeing from the facts”) but that also draw on the deeper wisdom of the religious traditions. Note, for example, how decisions about the use of life-sustaining technologies are affected when religious resources are brought to bear on the value of the human person and the quality of life of the patient.  Or consider how discussions of the use of nuclear power are transformed when the discussion partners are informed about the precise nature of the technologies involves and also take the sort of long-term, whole-earth perspective afforded by the religious vantage point.

* It means decisions about funding research projects that draw on two different sets of goals:  the advance of the frontiers of scientific knowledge, and the concern for the well-being and quality of life of humans and other living things on this planet.

* It means explicit and direct collaboration in specific research programs.  In such collaborations, both physical and metaphysical perspectives are brought to bear on the question of ultimate reality and the complementary ways of knowing it.  The collaboration might mean, for example, considering human altruistic values in conjunction with the evolutionary logic of survival, leading to an account of human existence that is both descriptively correct and reflects shared values – if you will, combining “the survival of the fittest” with “for the well-being of all.”  It might also suggest broad research programs on the nature and treatment of the human person, programs that draw from religious narratives and treatments of the human person as well as from the neurosciences, cognitive psychology, primatology and clinic psychology.

* It means an approach to the social sciences that utilizes the most sophisticated instruments for data acquisition and techniques of data analysis alongside theological anthropology (that is, religious views on the nature of the human person) and the values that guide our treatment of others in the world.

It seemed helpful at the start of this month-long conversation to offer an opening statement that tried to paint the science/technology/spirituality partnership in broad brush strokes. We know that a fruitful marriage includes both a strong “theoretical” commitment by both partners to the importance of the relationship and that host of concrete decisions and behaviors that characterize day-to-day living together.  The wedding – or at least partnership – that I am proposing is no different.  Some of the thesis statements that follow will, I presume, be quite concrete, offering proposals on conservation and community-building, on astronomy and agriculture, on evolutionary biology and economic development, on treating AIDS in Africa and finding life in the galaxy, and on the many modes of the science/religion dialogue.  Others will seek to express the theoretical vision in broader terms.

Few if any of us work at the level of the partnership as a whole; most of us specialize in some area of science, technological development, social transformation or spiritual thought and practice. This is as it should be, since having specialized knowledge is the condition for effective change.  Nevertheless, there is particular importance in the attitude that we hold toward the other partners in these multifarious projects.  If we dismiss their contributions as less valuable, as peripheral or even damaging, then we side with our particular piece to the detriment of the whole.  But if we proclaim – at this conference, in our reports to the State of the World Forum, and in our careers and life as a whole – our equal respect for the workers in neighboring fields, and our vision for a partnership that draws on the input of each for the benefit of all, then we optimalize collaboration and maximize impact.  With that vision in mind it is not unreasonable to imagine that this conference, taking place within the context of the State of the World Forum and with the United Nations summit meeting in the background, could have a not insignificant role in impacting both scientific and spiritual communities and, ultimately, the world as a whole.

Philip Clayton California State University, Sonoma