A scientist’s guide to spirituality

By Keyur Doolabh

Imagine you’re visiting an art gallery with a friend, and your wanderings eventually find you both in front of a portrait by Rembrandt.

an_old_man_with_beard_by_rembrandt_van_rijn-1

‘Old Man with Beard,’ Rembrandt van Rijn, c. 1630

After losing yourself in the painting for a couple of minutes, you turn to your friend and ask her what she sees.

‘Pigment on canvas.’

Now she’s correct, factually speaking, but I think it’s safe to say that she’s completely missed the point. What about the man’s eyes? What about his thoughts, his past, his story?

Now I like to think of myself as a scientist. That’s not just because I’m a medical student, either. Science is a way of approaching life, using evidence and reason to find answers. But as we saw in our visit to the art gallery, cold hard facts aren’t always useful in discovering the truth.

Back in the gallery, some people join you, looking at the same painting. One sees a perfect use of light and shadow. One glimpses the dark corners of the artist’s mind. Another sees a face that reminds him of his uncle. All their different perspectives can be right – moreover, you could argue that to truly understand the painting, you need to be able to look at it from many different perspectives.

Although there’s a perception that there’s only one right answer in science, science itself has taken up the idea that having many different perspectives on the world can be incredibly useful. For example, if someone is feeling anxiety, we can see that as a chemical imbalance in the brain, or a result of insecurity in childhood, or an incompatibility of our evolutionary roots with modern life. All these views can be correct at the same time, and more importantly they can all be useful ­­­– because they point to different ways to solve the problem.

But science tends to only see perspectives as valid if we can prove them, either through evidence or reasoning. That’s often a good thing, since we want to avoid perspectives that are truly senseless (say, that the person’s anxiety is brought on by the evil-eye). But this can be limiting – how can you prove the rich character of the man in the painting?

This is where spirituality comes into the picture. Now of course there are all kinds of spirituality, so I’ll only talk about one kind of it. This kind of spirituality doesn’t involve claims that things exist which can’t be perceived, like heaven or a god. It doesn’t have to involve scripture, authority or ritual, though it sometimes can. Instead, the spirituality I’m talking about is characterised by two aims that run in parallel: the first is living life according to fundamental truths about reality, and the second is gaining new perspectives on the world. These are the same aims science has in its search for truth, and have the same aim of improving our lives. But spirituality differs from science in that its conclusions are often not easy to prove to others – much like the evocativeness of Rembrandt’s painting.

What might some of these conclusions look like? One fundamental truth is that everything is impermanent. Really understanding this fact could change how we see the world in many ways – for one, we might accept more fully the inevitability death. Medical students are better placed than most to understand how important this is for patients and their families. It might seem a tad bleak, but accepting impermanence doesn’t have to make us nihilists; it could help us endure hard times until they pass, and enjoy the good times to the full while they last.

The second aim of spirituality is gaining new, useful perspectives on the world. If our friend in the gallery sees not just the painting as pigment and canvas, but herself as blood and bones,’ she might see that in a way we’re all the same, and all of us have our virtues and our vices. She could use this perspective to develop more empathy and compassion. She might also see that her birth was just a fortunate swirling together of atoms, and that when she dies those atoms will drift apart and form part of the whirlpools and waves that are the lives of others.

Moreover, if she sees her identity as the collection of her thoughts, qualities and experiences, then as she approaches death she could remember a lifetime of sharing her views, memories and virtues, so that even though her brain will die, fragments of herself will continue echoing throughout humanity. Seeing death as less of an end and more of a diffusion of her body and mind, she could be forgiven for believing in a kind of afterlife; one without reward, punishment, or even consciousness, but perhaps a meaningful one all the same.

These perspectives might not always be useful, but at times they can be very worthwhile having. Sometimes it’s useful to see the man, and sometimes it’s useful to see pigment daubed on canvas.

This kind of spirituality – living in line with truths about life and gaining new perspectives on the world – is not the enemy of science, encouraging belief in irrational things. Rather, it’s an extension of science, using similar means to achieve the same end – giving us a deeper understanding of the truth so that we can live better lives.


Featured image is Blanchs konstsalong (Blanch’s Art Gallery) by Gustaf Carleman (circa 1890-1900)

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