SCIENCE and SPIRITUALITY: the Essential Tension (ORICL 471)



meeting at Roane State Community College, Oak Ridge Campus

Science and Spirituality:  The Essential Tension

 Neil Greenberg

Science and Spirituality we will explore evidence for the so-called war between science and religion. We will also consider that spirituality, science, and religion may be extensions of neurobehavioral processes. These processes serve fundamental biological needs, the causes and consequences of which may best be understood from the perspective of natural history. We will consider the necessarily tense relationship between science and spirituality as complementary aspects of understanding. Interestingly, dysfunctions of the underlying substrate of science and religion can be manifest as what neuropsychologists often call “disorders of belief.”

There will be four lectures, followed by spirited discussion:

1)     Science vs. Religion, Religion vs. Spirituality . . . the Real and the Ideal

2)     The Biological Functions of Science, Spirituality, and Religion

3)     The Wars between Truth and Reality, Self and Selflessness

4)     Mindless Power and the Powerless Mind: An Essential Tension and its Dysfunctions

[always under construction]



•        WE NEED TO KNOW!  WE ARE HIGHLY MOTIVATED (experience a more or less urgently felt need) to understand the causes and consequences of phenomena we experience




•        REALITY-CHECKS: CONFIDENCE in a belief about a putative cause or consequence of a phenomenon is established by the actions of highly adaptive biological processes: EXPERIENCE is subjected to two neurobehavioral TESTS. 

•        CORRESPONDENCE (“reality-testing”): determining if a percept really represents the external world with fidelity and by

•        COHERENCE (organizing percepts into a narrative or theory).

•        VALIDITY, Categories: Lumping and Splitting

•        TRUTH,  can it be more than a BELIEF about which we have high CONFIDENCE

•        NEUROMODULARITY:  The processes that test percepts: correspondence and coherence, are significantly independent of each other, emphasized in the RIGHT and LEFT cerebral hemispheres, respectively, but they are ordinarily highly interactive.

•        MODULES and their place in the cerebral symphony

•        DYSFUNCTIONS often reveal the mechanisms of behavior:  Disorders of BELIEF are apparent when key cerebral structures are congenitally, experientially, or experimentally impaired.

•        EXCESSES, DEFICIENCIES, The Golden Mean 

  • CHANGE: always evokes more-or-less of a stress response (to real or perceived inability to meet biological needs) and can at its extreme seem an existential threat.  For example, “In the course of centuries the naïve self-love of men has had to submit to two major blows at the hands of science. The first was when they learnt that our earth was not the centre of the universe but only a tiny fragment of a cosmic system of scarcely imaginable vastness… the second blow fell when biological research destroyed man’s supposedly privileged place in creation and proved his descent from the animal kingdom and his ineradicable animal nature… But human megalomania will have suffered its third and most wounding blow from the psychological research of the present time which seeks to prove to the ego that it is not even master in its own house, but must content itself with scanty information of what is going on unconsciously in its mind.”  — Sigmund Freud (1916)  Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalyis (1916), in James Strachey (ed.), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (1963), Vol. 16, 284-5.

SCIENCE … is neither a philosophy or a belief system.  It is a combination of mental operations that has become increasingly the habit of educated peoples, a culture of illuminations hit upon be a fortunate turn of history that yielded the most effective way of learning about the real world ever conceived. (E.O. Wilson, 1998, Consilience p 45)

 SPIRITUALITY “. . . religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection.”  (Einstein in Ideas and Opinions) “Man is a bubble, and all the world is a storm.” (Jeremy Taylor in  Holy Dying, 1651)Spirituality is discourse about the ineffable: more words about that about which we cannot speak 


The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.  It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.  Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.  It was the experience of mystery–even if mixed with fear– that engendered religion.   (Einstein,

“The feeling of awed  wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable.  It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver.  It is truly one of the things that makes life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living it is finite.” (Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow)

We can also argue that mystery provokes a need to know and that for the purposes of biological fitness, the attempt to understand may be more important than understanding itself more

ESSENTIAL TENSION ... is between TRADITION and INNOVATION.  Scientific progress depends on convergent  thinking of the traditionalist as well as divergent  thinking of the revolutionary    (Th. Kuhn,  The Essential Tension: Tradition and Innovation in Scientific Research, 1959) (notes from A&O) (other tensions)

RELIGION … is an social undertaking that can harness and give direction to the enormous power of spirituality, and provide mutual aid and comfort for those that seek to know spirit more fully.” (Ethology and Sociobiology).  “The religion of the future should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity”(quoted by Dukas & Hoffman, Eds., “Albert Einstein: The Human Side”1954)




 “Man is by his constitution a religious animal;  atheism is against not only our reason, but our instincts.”   (Edmund Burke, “Reflections on the Revolution in France”)

“What we know is servant to what we believe.”  (Grady Bogue 1998 & see St Thomas)


“There are two types of attention: nonvoluntary (bottom-up, exogenous) and voluntary (top-down, endogenous). Nonvoluntary attention occurs when something surprises us. Voluntary attention occurs when we purposely shift our focus to something.” (Goldberg 2007)

“Let anyone try, I will not say to arrest, but to notice or attend to, the present moment of time.  One of the most baffling experiences occurs.  Where is it, this present?  It has melted in our grasp, fled ere we could touch it, gone in the instant of becoming.”  (Wm. James 1890).


Filling-in is a perceptual phenomenon in which a visual attribute such as colour, brightness, texture or motion is perceived in a region of the visual field even though such an attribute exists only in the surround. Filling-in dramatically reveals the dissociation between the retinal input and the percept, and raises fundamental questions about how these two relate to each other. Filling-in is observed in various situations, and is an essential part of our normal surface perception (from Komatsu 2006)

•        “In visual science the term “filling-in” is used in different ways, often leading to confusion. [Pessoa et al] present a taxonomy of perceptual completion phenomena to organize and clarify theoretical and empirical discussion. Examples of boundary completion (illusory contours) and featural completion (color, brightness, motion, texture, and depth) are examined, and single-cell studies relevant to filling-in are reviewed and assessed. (from BBS draft by Pessoa et al.)

•        Wikipedia on filling-in


Evolution is about “fitness” — success in the transmission of biologically relevant information to the next generation. Arguably, the mechanisms are genetic (genes) and cultural (memes)

IF much our personal feelings of conflict or anomie are rooted in congenital or acquired dissonances between specialized subsystems that usually work in harmony, THEN understanding how to synchronize them should help us cope with the relentless changes in our environments and in our selves.

  • more about the great dichotomies in human nature Validated experiences of the world (and/or of ourselves) are separated by a space that must be bridged in order to perceive ongoing experience as a seamless continuum.  These experiences are validated in different ways which are dominated by different neurological structures: easily thrown out of synch with each other by a multitude of collateral experiences, memories, or physiological happenstance.  The space WILL be bridged with the most “plausible” explanation available, but failing plausibility, the mind will use whatever approximates it.   This might be  a powerful source of creativity and imagination.   Is the imagination what that holds isolated ideas together?  the “god of the gaps?”    “Silly girl,” the inquisitor said, “that isn’t God speaking to you, it is your imagination!”  “Of course,” said Joan, “how else does God communicate with us.”  Creativity is often regarded as “inspired.”

IF intuition is based in the interaction of implicit and explicit knowledge; conscious and nonconscious cognition . . . THEN their access to each other should be adaptive.

IF creativity (perhaps all adaptive problem solving) is a function of the intercourse between conscious and subconscious components of mind, AND mind is significantly sculpted by experience of the world and others (social construction), THEN we might fruitfully examine the connections within and between brains!  (e.g., mirror neurons)

IF connectedness involves the orchestration of many distinct functional components, each of which can which can operate at varying levels of activation and in varying combinations, THEN we might more fully understand the diverse “STATES” of consciousness (e.g., sleep, classroom attentiveness, and epiphany) and when they are most adaptively deployed.  Or can several states of consciousness be active simultaneously? multi-layered?  multi-tasked?  EEG evidence suggests so

IF insight about the causes and consequences of creative intuition (or any other behavioral pattern) is enhanced by the converging of multiple points of view, THEN the integrative and interdisciplinary perspectives of DEEP ETHOLOGY has value as a paradigm as well as a source of specific insight.



on the “Neurobiology of Truth, ” and “TRUTH versus REALITY”

.”What is a scientist? … We give the name scientist to the type of man who has felt experiment to be a means guiding him to search out the deep truth of life, to lift a veil from its fascinating secrets, and who, in this pursuit, has felt arising within him a love for the mysteries of nature, so passionate as to annihilate the thought of himself.”  (Maria Montessori,1964)

… and why is this love a hallmark of true science?  ” Man lernt nichts kennen als was man Liebt” (“A man doesn’t learn to understand anything unless he loves it”—Goethe, 1812)

“If a man shall begin in certainties, he shall end in doubts;  but if he will be content to begin with doubts he shall end in certainties.” (Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, Bk 1,i,3)8989.

“When you start on a long journey, trees are trees, water is water, an mountains are mountains. After you have gone some distance,  trees are no longer  trees, water is no longer water, and mountains are no longer mountains.  But after you have traveled a great distance,  trees are once again trees, water is once again water, an mountains are once again mountains.  (Zen teaching quoted by David Bayles and Ted Orlan in Art and Fear Capra Press, Santa Barbara, 1993.)

[Goethe (as cited by Freud (1930) sees this from another perspective:  “He who possesses science and art also has religion…”].


2007 / 2017