the known and the presumed

an essay in the series views from the mountains

first: September 21, 2019, last: November 16, 2019 leave a comment

A seemingly unlikely even contradictory pair, science and spirituality are complementary tools that allow us to dwell and prosper in a complicated, often dangerous world. Science gains understanding of an objectively existing reality, while spirituality aims to look far ahead into realms that may exist.


Science gains knowledge and understanding of an objectively existing reality, a reality that is, irrespective of an observer, and that is accepted as such by all who are able and attempt to know and understand it.

Science has different branches and twigs, with the sciences of nature and those of culture traditionally recognized as the main ones. These bifurcate further into a multitude of disciplines, from physics all the way to theology, which in turn split into their respective sub-disciplines.

Material and Immaterial Realities

Objective realities may be material, that which can be touched – rocks, trees, cows, and people around us – but also planet Earth and the Universe at large even though nobody ever touched them. Realities may also be immaterial, like the history and current state of social, cultural, or religious systems. Such immaterial realities may or may not lead to material manifestations, which in turn may or may not be the objects for science to operate on. For instance, art history studies religious paintings per se, i.e., as material objects, while theology uses the same paintings as reflections of mystical experiences.

The focus of sciences of immaterial realities – take theology as an example – is the current or past system of concepts, believes, interpretations, traditions, and practices of the respective field. It is not about what these attempt to capture. It is not about the existence of God or of higher beings, for instance.

In apparent contrast, sciences of material realities, physics for instance, aim for these very realities, for that which is. Invariably, however, there is no direct link between the presumed reality and its perception or even understanding. Instead, we perceive through layers of intermediate material realities and understand through networks of such layers that cover wide fields and are internally consistent, hence objective. For instance, a stream of photons, e.g., a beam of light from the Sun, is measured, traced back to some object that consists of parts, that consist of atoms, which in turn consist of electrons and nucleons, and it is the electrons’ energy transitions that lead to the emission of light.
The sciences of material realities – the natural sciences – are thus no different structurally from those of immaterial realities. There is a quantitative difference, of course, in that material realities are accessible to direct experimentation and manipulation. Hence, the correspondence between the underlying reality, which is fundamentally unobservable, and the scientific understanding is much closer for the material than for the immaterial world.

All sciences, be this physics or theology, yield but representations of reality. They are not that reality.

Accumulation and Transmission

Sciences accumulate their knowledge culturally, not just within individuals. This allows them to grasp an understanding that is far larger than any individual, any contemporary group could ever grasp. This understanding can then be purified from its historic particularities, concentrated along specific lines, weaved into larger fabrics, taught through textbooks, and cast into operational procedures. It is that cumulative nature of scientific understanding that allows us to build cars and smartphones, operate Facebook and Twitter, and recognize the structural similarities between religions.


Spirituality gains knowledge, experiences, and understanding about realms that may exist, within myself or outside, understanding that becomes manifest in my being.

Spirituality emerges from the eternal questions to which there are no answers from science: Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going to? Is there a higher existence, beyond my sensory perceptions, beyond the view of science? Is there a part in me that belongs to that higher existence, that longs to unfold, to be reunited?

Innumerable accounts testify to the existence of the spiritual realm: the holy scriptures of the various religions, the writings of the many mystics, and a wealth of literary works. And there is a wide range of practices, handed down along cultural lines and in schools, aiming at facilitating the contact with the spiritual realm, opening the mind for deep visions, enabling immediate understanding.

There probably is no single person who has never been touched by some spiritual moment, maybe during a religious practice, in a magical moment with another person, or in that cold winter night, watching the Milky Way’s band glimmer overhead, marveling, thinking.

What are all those inklings? Objective reality that is just too subtle, too sublime also, to be captured by my coarse senses? Or illusions created by my machinery. Illusions that are largely consistent within humankind because we all have the essentially same machinery? How could we ever know, given our very limitations? And then, does it matter?

How could we ever know… and then again, does it matter?

Does it matter whether I am striving and longing for a unification with the Greater Existence beyond, or just working to construct my own greater Self, to embody my most noble aspirations?

Accumulation and Transmission

In contrast to science, the understanding gained by spirituality mainly accumulates within individuals, becomes manifest in their being, and essentially vanishes with them. Its evolution so far has indeed been dominated by singular individuals who reached unimaginable heights and managed to distribute their achievements to respective schools that transmitted it as best as possible, given the limitations of the being of their members.

As time proceeds, originally gained essence gets ever more diluted. At least this has been the case so far. Thus, despite the innumerable efforts over many centuries to transmit understanding through writings, paintings, and rituals, cultural accumulation is slow. This is manifest in the fact that adepts continue their attempts to apprehend the thoughts of spiritual giants from various traditions like Taoism, Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam, by pondering their original writings from hundreds and thousands of years ago. In contrast, no active researcher would ever read the works of past science giants like Newton, Darwin, or Einstein. This is left to historians because, while the original thoughts were essential, today’s front has moved far beyond them.

Transmission is so hard because spirituality’s concepts and experiences, by their very nature, are far away from our physical perceptions and representations, much farther than the concept of an atom, for instance. This is manifest in the fact that each of us has some spiritual experiences. To communicate them, however, we use very approximate images from our physical reality, of persons, light, magical figures and the like. Indeed, these very images are also what we use to grasp a spiritual experience itself, at least during the first stages, and they are a major challenge on the way to deeper understanding. Purification – releasing our automatic tagging of perceptions and accessing them at a more fundamental and immediate level – is thus an essential first step on the spiritual way.

release the automatic tagging of spiritual perceptions and access them at a more fundamental, more immediate level

Lacking accurate physical realizations of spiritual understanding makes a transmission across a gap in time or space very hard. One way is direct transmissioni shin den shin, from soul to soul – by provoking and aiding immediate understanding in the encounter of adepts. Another way is to scatter and collect seeds of an apparently innocuous nature. Seeds that may lay dormant in tales, books, paintings, and rituals, that may get dispersed without being recognized until they can sprout and bloom. Such immediate understanding often comes unexpectedly and abruptly, triggered by some inconspicuous event like that small bird that just hoped into my view and that, in a sudden change of my reference frame, led to the connection of some so far unrelated information.

Spirituality, so ephemeral?

Despite its slow accumulation and apparently ephemeral nature, spirituality is a major forming agent in humankind’s culture, for the time being probably the single most important agent. Indeed, recent science indicates that moralizing Gods, and before them the believe in supernatural punishment, preceded the emergence of political complexity, which in turn is the single distinctive property of human culture with respect to all other cultures. It is this characteristic that allows tens of thousands of humans to cooperate on a single common goal over many decades, while our closest cousins, chimpanzees, reach group size of just a few dozens that remain stable for just days to weeks.

Complementarity of Science and Spirituality

Science explores the objectively existing, be it material or immaterial, our natural environment as well as our socio-cultural fabric. It thereby pushes the limits of our understanding into the currently unknown, asking for instance for the elementary constituents and forces of our material world, for the future climate, or for the origin of life on Earth. It also pushes into the unformed, creating new forms and, eventually, new existences. These include new economic or political systems and processes, a deeply networked technology that incorporates sensory, processing, and robotic systems, and synthetic life. All this, pushing into the unknown and into the unformed, is invariably on solid grounds, step by step, even though the state after many such steps may be quite unexpected.

Spirituality, in contrast, reaches out much farther into the unknown and into the unformed, and, compared to science, it operates on much more subtle grounds. While these may well exist objectively, at least the finer ones are not perceptible to everyone. And there certainly are severe misrepresentations and complete illusions.

Science is our tactile sense, spirituality is our vision.

Thus, spirituality is much more speculative than science, its effects are much less immediate albeit by no means smaller. We may relate the two to our senses, with science analogous to our tactile sense and spirituality to our vision. Indeed, we trust a tactile input very much more, and rightly so, than a visual input that may be blurred, foggy, or a complete fata morgana. Still, fast motion with no vision is calamitous.

On the other end, spirituality is often promised, expected, or hoped to change material facts, to move the proverbial mountain. It can not do this. Spirituality can move my mental mountains and veils, and it can gaze wide and far. It can initiate and guide activities that lead to material facts, to the construction of pyramids and cathedrals, to the removal of that mountain. Still, to change the existing material world, I eventually have to do the physical work with my material body.

Is there then a spiritual world in which I can act? Yes, certainly, with respect to my inner being. With respect to the outer spiritual world, it is all speculation and betting as we do not even know if such a world exists, and if so, what form it has. It may exist though: We know that planet Earth originated some 4.5 billion years ago, which apparently sufficed to have life emerge, including our culture. We also know, with much less certainty, however, that the first rocky planets could have been forming some 11 billion years ago. We do not know what has happened on those other planets somewhere in the Universe during those 11 billion years. We just suspect that the emergence of life is not that extraordinary to have happened just once during all that time in all that space.

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