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Q: Is Spirituality the Opposite of Science? A: Definitely not

Recently I was reading an article on io9 about this question, which to me shows the fundamental lack of understanding many people seem to have these days about what exactly science actually is.  Here’s the text of my comment on the posting (with a few minor edits) as to why science and religion are not opposites, with a TL;DR if you’re in a hurry:

No, spirituality is not the opposite of science. Science, or more specifically the scientific method upon which science is ultimately based, is a technique used to provide objective, rational descriptions for how the natural world works. Whereas spirituality is a philosophy by which a person defines how their inner subjective experiences relates to the world around them – which may or may not include objective events and objects as well as supernatural ones.

So when the two come into conflict, spiritualism generally loses out because it’s not universally true and/or demonstratively false in an objective sense.

And while science’s findings may contradict spirituality’s assertions (or vice versa, depending on your viewpoint), that’s not because they are opposites – it’s because science requires objectivity and repeatability by any given person, while spiritualism does not. (ie) spiritual statements do not have to be grounded in reality, and may (and often do) contradict objectively true assertions.

Materialism (not economic materialism, which is the pursuit of money and possessions) is the opposite of spirituality:

In philosophy, the theory of materialism holds that the only thing that exists is matter or energy; that all things are composed of material and all phenomena (including consciousness) are the result of material interactions. In other words, matter is the only substance, and reality is identical with the actually occurring states of energy and matter.

People tend to conflate materialism (a philosophy) and science (a technique) simply because they both only deal with objective, universally observable phenomena and because many scientists subscribe to a materialist philosophy (such as Richard Dawkins).  Science simply has nothing to say one way or the other about spirituality or religion because it only deals with the natural world, whereas materialism asserts that the only the natural world exists and so any statement dealing with the spiritual (ie, the supernatural world) must be untrue.

Finally, people such as Virginia Heffernan who reject science simply because it doesn’t encompass the subjective (ie, Creationism makes for a “more compelling story”) are displaying an inexcusable lack of understanding the fundamental basics of science. Science doesn’t exclude beauty or other subjective evaluations – such subjective experiences and judgments are simply outside of science’s bounds. That’s why we have philosophy and religion, to take up the slack. Science is completely compatible with a spiritual world view … until you assert that something subjectively true (eg, this thing is beautiful) must also be objectively true even though it doesn’t meet the criteria for an objective observation (eg, there is one God who created the universe in six days in 4004 BC). Again, that doesn’t make it the opposite of science; it just makes it not science.  Similarly, deriding science because it reverses itself on various findings as time goes by – and because it was wrong about that why should we trust science’s statements at all about anything? – again displays a fundamental lack of understanding of what science is about; it’s not about being right, it’s about description.  Science describes the natural world and the mechanisms that underlie it.  And when a better description comes along, or new information about the world contradicts older descriptions, then the old descriptions are tossed out in favour of new ones.  Not because the new ones are “more right” – science is not and never will be about categorically stating ultimate, unassailable truth.  The new descriptions are adopted solely because they are more accurate.  Whether or not those descriptions are beautiful or emotionally appealing is moot – science says nothing about these subjective human value judgements about these descriptions one way or the other.  Rejecting science on the basis that it isn’t as emotionally compelling as deism (“A story with God is the better story”) doesn’t show that a person values beauty and the human perspective and as such must reject “cold, unfeeling science”.  Rather, such a stance shows that the person don’t really understand what they’re talking about by making a category error in comparing the apples of science with the oranges of spirituality / the human condition.

TL;DR: Science is not the opposite of spirituality, as they are fundamentally concerned with different areas of human existence.  Science is a tool for generating descriptions of the objective natural world, and spirituality is a philosophy that people use to govern their actions and to relate their internal subjective experiences to the world they perceive (which may include the supernatural).  To say that science is invalid because it isn’t emotionally compelling or to say that science is in opposition to spirituality is to say that one doesn’t really understand the difference between science and spirituality/philosophy – that one is most likely confusing science with materialist philosophy and so comparing apples and oranges.

An Analogy – Soccer vs American Football

Scoring a goal with a soccer ball during an American football game doesn’t mean it’s not a goal – it’s just not a goal in the context of the football game, because they deal with two conceptually different areas. Insisting that your team should get a point because you scored a goal with a soccer ball during a football match show a fundamental lack of understanding of the two games’ concepts. They simply don’t overlap, even though they are both sports and share some common features like being played on a big lawn with a ball.

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