“The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”
~ Carl Sagan
Carl Sagan, cosmic sage and indomitable futurist, firmly believed that science and spirituality belong together.
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“Science, Sagan argues, isn’t diametrically opposed to spirituality. He echoes Ptolemy’s timeless awe at the cosmos and reflects on what Richard Dawkins has called the magic of reality.” 1
Considering the relationship between science and spirit, here is a sensible perspective from Carl Sagan: “Plainly there is no way back. Like it or not, we are stuck with science. We had better make the best of it. When we finally come to terms with it and fully recognize its beauty and its power, we will find, in spiritual as well as in practical matters, that we have made a bargain strongly in our favor.”
“But superstition and pseudoscience keep getting in the way, distracting us, providing easy answers, dodging skeptical scrutiny, casually pressing our awe buttons and cheapening the experience, making us routine and comfortable practitioners as well as victims of credulity.” 2
Superstition can be something as benign as always tying your right shoelace first before playing a competitive game. Pseudoscience can be as serious as denying that human activity is having any impact on global climate patterns. Both undermine common sense.
In his 1996 book, Sagan continues, “Spirit” comes from the Latin word “to breathe.” What we breathe is air, which is certainly matter, however thin. Despite usage to the contrary, there is no necessary implication in the word “spiritual” that we are talking of anything other than matter (including the matter of which the brain is made), or anything outside the realm of science. On occasion, I will feel free to use the word. Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or of acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.” 2
The sense of awe that is experienced is spirit. “Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.” That sentiment could be echoed by thousands of scientists who have been overwhelmed with emotion as they study some aspect of the material world, sometimes at incredible levels of magnification. Venturing into both the tiny and the huge reveals the same thing: life!
Most of us can remember this: “Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” 4 Imagine translating that into personal terms: “Life: the final frontier. These are the voyages of me. My X-year mission: to explore this world, to seek out meaning in each moment, to boldly go where I have not gone before.”
Next time you sit down to meditate, conceive of yourself as a scientist, an adventurer, boldly exploring new worlds, going where you have never gone before, and finding new meaning and purpose, not to a theoretical universe out there but to your personal experience right now.
Most of us wonder what the future holds. Now we know. Our lifetimes stretch ahead of us, and just as the starry heavens beckoned the starship Enterprise, each new day invites our participation in an unfolding drama of novel discovery.
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2. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan
3. Cosmic Apprentice: Dispatches from the Edges of Science by Dorian Sagan