Reviewed by P.P.O. Kane
Science as a Spiritual Practice
By Imants Baruss
In his prologue, the author states that ‘this book is written for those who want to explore the interface between science and spirituality in an open-minded manner’ (page 2). It is in three parts. Part one examines some of the drawbacks to materialism, and in particular the disparity between the world that quantum physics describes and the everyday world that we inhabit. Those familiar with the quantum notions of superposition, entanglement and the like, will know that this reality is weirder than we can even imagine. Part two of the book looks at the possibility of gaining knowledge (of oneself and one’s intentions, of a fuller, more inclusive reality) from ‘within’, through channeling, meditation and altered states of consciousness, including dreams. Finally, part three focuses on the philosophy and practice of Franklin Fowler Wolff, which could be characterized as a Western form of Jnana Yoga. Wolff believed that one could attain transcendent knowledge (and even enlightenment) through directed abstract thinking; and that mathematics could be used for this purpose.
What Baruss is seeking to show is that the skills set of a scientist – the expertise she or he already possesses, as it relates to the testing of hypotheses – can be reoriented and placed in the service of spiritual aspiration. His message is that, as a scientist (or, let’s say, simply a rational and down-to-earth person) with an inchoate spiritual outlook, you need not turn to established religions or indeed New Age mumbo-jumbo to feed your need. Instead, your skills redirected – an aptitude for investigation, experiment and analysis – can be used for spiritual development. Baruss notes that one orientation towards religion and religious belief is ‘quest’, and that this entails ‘an open-ended and self-critical exploration of existential questions’ (page 33). As an approach, this seems to be particularly suited for scientists.
There is a mature outlook to the book, an awareness that spirituality can make your life more difficult, with psychosis as an outside possibility (pages 37-41); indeed, there’s a cliché that a psychotic is, in a sense, a failed mystic. As in a previous work (Authentic Knowing, 1996), Baruss’s emphasis is on authenticity, which he defines as ‘the effort to act on the basis of one’s own understanding’ (page 87), rather than according to habit or in response to an authoritarian voice. There is no programme here, mind, but nor does the book consist of just discussion and chatter.
Altogether, it is rather a focused work, with very clear parameters. So there is little account of the ethical dimensions of a spiritual life, nor of the fact that spiritual yearning can arise out of a dissatisfaction with contemporary modes of living, despair or indeed grief, ‘so often the source of our spirit’s growth’ (Rilke). Rather than, say, through a sense that science’s materialist world-view is inadequate. Also, meditation and dream-work are discussed, because they have a perceived epistemological value, but many other spiritual disciplines (prayer, worship, confession, service, simplicity…) are not. Finally, if a map exists for a particular journey, wouldn’t it be foolhardy not to use it? Can one ignore the spiritual traditions of the established religions completely? If you undertake a spiritual journey on your own, you might find your head disappearing up your arse. Granted, the absurd belief systems of the established religions, highlighted in Bill Maher’s recent movie (Religulous), can be a stumbling block…
One question that the book raised: do certain areas of science (according to what they reveal about the universe) lead one to spirituality, while others (say, evolutionary biology) don’t? Einstein famously said that he thought God didn’t play dice with the universe, whereas Dawkins just isn’t a ‘God’ guy. Has there been any research on this?
Overall, Science as a Spiritual Practice presents a thought-provoking discussion of the possible rewards and costs of a particular kind of spiritual journey. If you’re at an existential crossroads, whatever they look like when they’re at home, it could well be a catalyst for change.
About the reviewer: P.P.O. Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org