Overcoming the allergies of Science and Spirituality

Fanny Norlin
May 19, 2017 · 7 min read

We are today facing complex problems like climate change, inequality, integration. Are the solutions to these problems found in developing our inner depth (our emotional maturity, ability for compassion and to find hope and meaning etc.) or our scientific knowledge (our cognitive complexity, ability to build more advanced technology and infrastructure etc.)? Many agree that the answer is not either or but rather both and. The challenges we face require both a high level of cognitive complexity and emotional maturity. To find solutions that are powerful enough, we need to merge the wisdom from the leading edge both within the inner depth of personal development and spirituality and the scientific knowledge of research and technology.

The problem is to get these two perspectives in the same room. I don’t claim to be the leading edge in either, but I speak from the experience of having been accepted by both camps. Being a highly sensitive facilitator who also holds an M.Sc in engineering I have experienced these two views clashing in my own system. The deep allergies that are triggered between the two world views often result in one group disregarding the perspective of the other. The solutions to crucial challenges, therefore, are often invented in highly homogenous groups that are overrepresented by either a scientific or spiritual worldview; a kind of silo thinking that, in turn, results in solutions that lack sufficient depth and complexity to be powerful. What is the basis of there allergies? This is the questions I aim to explore, as I believe the answers to be crucial for us to overcome one of the biggest hindrances, as I see it, in finding truly viable solutions to pressing problems.

Of course, I should first note that I understand we all base our truths from both the inner and outer world, and that there are few who would define their world views as purely spiritual or purely scientific. But for the sake of exploring what they trigger in each other, I am going to separate the two.

This world’s life code

Taking a standpoint in biology, we can see that all life on this planet is based on the process of emergence and self-organisation. When a system is successful in reproducing itself, it gives birth to more and more units, or individuals, that belong to it, becoming more and more complex. Eventually it may run into a state of chaos, from which a pattern on a higher level may become visible; out of ‘nothing’ (no structure) becomes ‘something’ (a new structure). A new stable system, at a higher level of the systematic hierarchy has emerged, this is called self-organisation. This process is constant; the opposite of emergence is stagnation and death. Life needs just right conditions to thrive and these conditions are constantly changing. This means that we, in order to thrive, have to become really good at following this flow of life. In other words we need the ability to structure and order our world but we also need the ability to let our structures break down, to invite chaos, and let new more complex structures emerge. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. These two phenomena, inviting order and inviting chaos, are the two functions that the spiritual and scientific world views embody respectively.

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Spirituality’s fear of the nihilistic data-demanding scientist

We have a deep need for spirituality. It is our way of finding meaning, dealing with inner emotions, and collaborating. We make meaning by creating stories of the world; subjective stories that we believe in and that help us sort and cope with the complexity of outer stimuli. Believing in shared stories about something is what enables us to efficiently collaborate around that something. The ability to believe and have faith is simply necessary in order to find meaning and make decisions, allowing us to act on common goals.

My experience is that spirituality’s fear of science is rooted in the fear of reductionism, the fear that science requires a breaking down of your beliefs that leaves you with less meaning in life. Scientists break down truths by “proving them wrong”, through perceived “correct” external observation of the world. As such, the fear of reductionism is valid; it can be devastating on a both personal and collective level to break down helpful belief systems. After all, if there is no larger purpose, why act at all?

Why spirituality must overcome the fear of meaninglessness

Spirituality needs to be updated to work in modern times. Breaking down and reconstituting one’s beliefs, when necessary, is a crucial part of life. Since life is in constant movement, we need the ability to question and expand our beliefs, not simply a constant faith.

Just like most of my Christian friends understand that the Bible was written in its time and should not be read literally, we must all modernise our understanding of spiritual truths to fit the world as it is now. Spirituality works best when it explains phenomena beyond our own cognitive grasp of complexity. If we attempt to explain something within our cognitive grasp of complexity, the spiritual “truth” will not be believable, meaning it will not be able to fill its function of collaboration, meaning and hope. An example of a cognitively out-dated spiritual truth is that our earth lies at the centre of the universe and the universe therefor was created for mankind. Today our universe is not as big of a mystery as it was during the 16th century, so spirituality that holds this kind of truth will attract few people — this truth simply doesn’t give a larger meaning to individuals whom are cognitively aware of all the other galaxies and how the earth rotates around the sun. This does not necessarily have to mean that all elements of this “truth” are wrong; it just means that a deeper meaning needs to be found, a meaning that lies beyond what we already can cognitively grasp.

For this reason, it should be seen as a gift each time your beliefs are questioned due to scientific truths, since it is an invitation to find even deeper meaning in life — to look for deeper answers to deeper questions. The point is not to make faith scientific –it’s not. The point is to continuously deepen and expand one’s faith beyond the leading edge of science.

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Science fear of the new age cult

We also have a need to develop and question our beliefs. This is the foundation of the scientific method; something is only regarded as “true” if sufficient data points support the claim, and as soon as better data is found the truth will be updated. Some of our stories about the external world seem to be more effective than others, more “objective” and “real”. Science has given us a great toolbox for constantly validating these more effective stories. The scientific method enables us to keep developing our cognitive complexity and understanding of how the world works, which helps to evolve our ways of utilizing the outer world to reach our goals.

Science’s fear of spirituality is in my experience two-fold. Firstly, there is a fear that spiritual people will fail to take personal responsibility, rectifying harmful actions with subjective beliefs rooted in their spirituality. Secondly, there is fear of outsourcing control to something larger than ourselves that we cannot cognitively grasp. Both of these fears are related to a loss of control, over others and over ourselves. It is often unwise to outsource control if we do not cognitively understand the reasoning behind the decision maker and when that decision is not sufficiently substantiated — most of us have experiences of harmful peer pressure, and we need to be wary of what and who are influencing our lives.

Why science needs to overcome the fear of outsourcing control

To sometimes outsource control to something beyond us is crucial for growth. We will always be imbedded in a larger, more complex, system than we will ever be able to fully cognitively grasp. If we never let go of control in order to trust in something (even it we can’t understand it), we stagnate in our development. We end up staring at the parts without seeing the whole. Antithesis (breaking down truths) must be followed by synthesis (recreating broader ones), and we can only rationally synthesise what we already cognitively know. The rational world must therefore be subordinated to the intuitive world, because the intuitive world will always be able to hold a bigger picture.

Where is your imbalance?

The two main fears that form the allergic reactions in the meeting between spiritual and scientific world views — the fear of meaninglessness and fear of outsourcing control — are ones we need to pay attention to. Both are valid fears; there is something deeply nihilistic about the scientific paradigm, and there has been lot of destruction carried out in the name of religion. It is because of the fact that these fears are so valid that we need to overcome them. If not, the proposed solutions invented by whichever camp will confirm the fear of the other. Both perspectives are needed to sustain life, which means the solutions to our biggest problems can never stay on just one side. We need to be able to flow in and out of spirituality and science, holism and reductionism, heart and mind, in order to choose which to use depending on context and need. The key is to understand when to use the scientific method and when to rest in spiritual faith. So, ask yourself: where is my imbalance? Every time something triggers us, there is information about ourselves to be harvested. Do I need more faith and trust, or do I need to get better at allowing myself to question my beliefs?

The next time you find yourself threatened or triggered by a new perspective, make sure it is a helpful, constructive fear before you let yourself step away from a possible opportunity for growth. I am convinced that the next level of leadership in finding the most-needed solutions will only come from those who can act using both the spiritual and the scientific perspective, embracing them both fully.


Systems, Souls, and Society.

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