In praise of soft rationality and rational spirituality

I cultivate the excellent habit of rationality and consider it as a very useful tool. But rationality is indeed a tool (a useful means to achieve a desired result), and not an end in itself. Far from being the enemies of science, religion and spirituality otfen drive scientific advances. Open-minded soft rationality is a much better approach to science than dull, fundamentalist rationalism.

The endless debate on science and religion has been re-ignited by a Science article on “Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief,” commented in a good (and open access) Nature article on “Is rationality the enemy of religion?

The authors of the Science article state that they “focused primarily on belief in and commitment to religiously endorsed supernatural agents.” This is a too narrow definition of religion, which not necessarily and not always includes supernatural agents.

For example, I am a believer (I say this very clearly at the end of my recent talk at the MTA 2012 Conference) without believing in the supernatural, which I consider as a contradiction in terms: if we define nature as all that exists, then the supernatural cannot exist by definition. I believe in Shakespeare’s “more things in heaven and earth” though.

It’s highly plausible that in the universe there are God-like creatures,” thinks Richard Dawkins. “Whether we ever get to know them or not, there are very probably alien civilizations that are superhuman, to the point of being god-like in ways that exceed anything a theologian could possibly imagine.” These are the Gods I believe in, and I believe that our descendants may also become Gods when the time is right. I am also open to the possibility that some weird time physics may permit future Gods to influence events in (their) past times, before they are born, or that “we [may] live in a computer simulation, set up by some vastly superior civilization” (Dawkins again).

In history, there are countless examples of rational scientists who demonstrate the impossibility of doing something… and irrational engineers who do it anyway. Scientists worship rationality and the current scientific paradigm, but engineers want to realize their dreams, the current scientific paradigm be damned if it stands in the way. Often, facts prove that the irrational engineers are right, and soon the rational scientists realize that they had just made one or two little mistakes here and there in their papers.

Science is about what reality is, and engineering is about what reality must become: reality imitates art, or at least it should. We need both attitudes of course, but I have little patience for fundamentalist rationalism, and I am an engineer at heart. If the laws of nature stand in our way, let’s just try to rewrite them. This does not mean that reality should be ignored (always a dangerous thing to do), but it does mean that unpleasant aspects of reality can often be engineered away, someday if not now.

Nature writer Philip Ball tries to keep a balanced position, and acknowledges that ” it seems to be extreme views of any sort, whether religious or the opposite, that are the real enemy of analytical thinking,” and ” there are plenty of devout believers […] who perhaps have no need of a belief in God in a traditional or Christian sense (Max Planck was one such example).”

Religious believers and spiritually oriented New Age seekers often have powerful intuitions, beyond what current science can analyze. Their visions form an aesthetic layer that colors their (and then our) perception of the universe and, even when they are not entirely correct, inspire scientists and engineers to turn visionary dreams into actual reality.

For example many mystics, and some scientists, believe in  telepathy and extras-sensory perception (ESP), and many scientists think that it is all crap. I am open to the possibility that some yet undiscovered science may provide solid theoretical foundations and experimental evidence for ESP, and I am also open to the possibility that ESP may not exist. In science, we let experiment decide.

But ESP will exist. Soon we will have brain implants linked to our thoughts and to the Internet. These implants will give us instant telepathic communication with others, and the ability to access the Internet in our minds and see what happens elsewhere. Brain implants will also permit influencing, by thought alone, physical objects in remote places via appropriate actuators. So, regardless of whether or not we possess native ESP abilities for telepathy, remote vision and psychokinesis, the mystics are right anyway. If we have no native ESP, we will engineer ESP someday soon.

Engineered ESP will be a joint achievement of the visionaries who have given us powerful dreams, and the scientists and engineers who have made them true. Soft rationality and rational spirituality join the advantages of both mindsets in a whole bigger than the sum of its parts.

In an article on “Combining Extreme Distrust and Spastic Bursts of Blind Faith… What New Edge Culture has to say about Today’s Schizophrenic Information Society,” appeared in 2011 on RU Sirius’ acceler8or, Dorien Zandbergen remembers how “Intellectuals at Esalen were inspired by Eastern spirituality as much as by cutting edge science and technology. As Esalen historian Walter Truett Anderson writes, they even turned ‘the flowing together of East and West, the ancient and the modern, science and religion, scholarship and art’ as a guiding principle. […] Both the use of psychedelics and high tech endorsed the experience among these early pioneers that they were godlike in their potential for comprehending reality. ‘We are as gods and might as well get good at it,’ as Stewart Brand famously stated in the pages of the Whole Earth Catalog.”

The story of Esalen is also told by the excellent book How the Hippies Saved Physics, mostly dedicated to the “Fundamental Fysiks Group.” The book shows that modern physics, and especially quantum information science, has a surprisingly psychedelic past.

Zandbergen notes that “[Mondo 2000] conjure[d] up worldviews very similar to what was being proposed in New Age circles, while also including distant, skeptical, rationalistic stances,” which is exactly the soft rationality, rational spirituality attitude that I am recommending here.