What Spiritual People Don’t Know About Science – Part 7: “Science doesn’t know everything”

March 5, 2019

(This series has lain idle for a few years. Earlier posts can be found by scrolling through the ‘science’ category on the right sidebar.)

One of the most common and most pointless criticisms of modern science is the accusation that “Science doesn’t know everything.” It is popular both among fans of modern esoteric spirituality as well as among spirituality oriented academics. The latter especially should know better – the mere idea is entirely alien to science and scientific method.

Scientists are usually baffled as to why this banal statement of the obvious is being so triumphantly hurled in their direction. They are equally miffed as to how best to respond. Agreeing with it appears to the accusers like a meek back down, and any talk of provisional truths or falsifiability is interpreted as a capitulation.

A classic exchange runs something like this:
Scientist: Humans evolved from earlier life forms; we are African apes.
Spiritual person: Who are you to tell me what I am? Explain to me then how life began.
Scientist: We don’t know how life began, but we’re working on it and have found some fascina-
Spiritual person: Ha! You see? Science doesn’t know everything.

There are several threads to follow when seeking the origins of this accusation. One is an incident around 1894 when physicist Albert Michelson apparently stated that we were on the verge of knowing everything about matter. Shortly afterwards, x-rays were unexpectedly discovered, surprising physicists and ruining any illusion of being on the verge of completing the science of physics.

Three things are to be noted here:
1. This merely shows that in the 1890s some small number of scientists thought they might soon solve all mysteries;
2. the discovery which overturned this belief was made by other scientists; and
3. this discovery was immediately accepted by scientists.

Furthermore, 1894 is rather a long time ago. Why then, are people still criticising scientists for it? But this is the nature of spiritual culture: once an idea has taken root – that is, become a hit with the fans — it never gets discarded regardless of how out of date it has become or how often it has been disproven. The selfish meme simply keeps reproducing.

Another source of confusion is the fact that science does indeed do something which can look a lot like some kind of absolutism or finality: it disproves ideas. Once an idea has been conclusively disproven it is discarded with the kind of certainty that to many spiritual folk appears positively fundamentalist. But this too is a misunderstanding. It is just the nature of reality that a single fact inherently excludes an infinite number of hypotheses.

When I was still harbouring spiritual beliefs a decade or two ago, I thought that evolution might be driven by some kind of ‘transgenerational will’ by which an entire species somehow responds creatively to its habitat in order to survive. I thought that scientists would never discover this, as their commitment to seeking only material causes like genetic mutation and natural selection precludes them from even looking for such a force.

Unfortunately for my theory, scientists suddenly developed the ability to read entire genomes. Such a ‘transgenerational will’ would have left its fingerprints all over the genome of every individual. But instead of revealing the kind of genetic superhighways that would appear if my theory were true, all that was revealed was the usual crooked paths of mutation, in accordance with the known mutation rate. So my theory was sunk. It took me a moment or two to digest this when I realised it, but I survived without sustaining any serious injuries.

(Anyone wondering what on earth ‘transgenerational will’ actually means, join the club. Or ask Rupert Sheldrake to come up with something.)

Another great source of indignation among spiritual folk is the way scientists dismiss vitalist (life force) theories without even taking a second glance. This looks, of course, like biologists thinking they already know everything. But what spiritual folk don’t realise is that scientists have already spent at least 300 years searching for such a life force. Every conceivable avenue of research was explored, and nothing was found.

Ultimately the concept wasn’t so much discarded as exhausted. It just didn’t bear fruit. Spiritual folk, especially the academics among them, would realise this if they took the time to explore that great repository of modern pseudo-science and popular spirituality, the history of science.

They would also discover that throughout history these supposedly materialistic dogmatic scientists have also discarded an even higher number of entirely materialistic theories and ideas, not just spiritual ones – all for the same reason: the ideas didn’t lead anywhere, didn’t work, and didn’t provide any useful framework for understanding natural processes.

Another origin of the idea that scientists “think they know everything” is probably the fact that at their core, most spiritual traditions effectively make exactly this claim for themselves: that they effectively know everything, or at least possess the golden key that unlocks the secrets. Thus, any encroachment on their territory by unexpected disproofs is inevitably interpreted as someone else trying to “know everything” instead of them.

Here we encounter the great divide: between, on the one hand, those who think the world was created and revelation is the key to understanding, and on the other, those who want to try to understand nature without recourse to such appeals to divine authority.

This broadly recapitulates the historical argument between Plato and Aristotle. Spiritual people usually prefer to link their ideas to Buddha or ‘eastern’ traditions, but they don’t realise how much they in fact derive their ideas from Plato.
And while Plato himself wasn’t as dismissive of the natural sciences as many spiritual folk today are, he did invent a philosophy that says that the ultimate knowledge can only be gained through revelation. And as always, revelation presupposes a creator whose divine laws can be revealed.

Through Christian theologians (borrowing extensively from Plato), and the occasional Christian mystic, and to a degree through sufism – itself profoundly influenced by Neoplatonism – modern spiritual folk have taken on board two grand ideas: (a) that scientific knowledge is merely non-essential ‘lower’ knowledge; and (b) the idea that their own intuition is an inside track to understanding those laws by which the demiurge created the things of the world.

Scientists therefore have merely turned their backs on their own inner path that would have led them to higher knowledge were it not for their materialism. They are unimaginative, narrowminded plodders, following Aristotle into the mud of the earth to study earthworms and innards of reptiles.

Thus the apparent snootiness of many spiritual folk when encountering science: they have the golden key to the laws of creation, whereas all scientists have is a blunt tool for second-guessing our shadowy three dimensional world.
Enticing and convincing as this accusation may appear, it should be noted that scientists are the ones flying about in space ships, sequencing Neanderthal DNA, and curing polio.

Spiritual people could learn a little humility and realise that they haven’t progressed a single step since the time of Buddha. But they could also learn a little pride too, and realise that spirituality in fact cannot progress. Meditation can’t be passed on the way scientific ideas and tools can be. The meditative path is a narrow one, as Basho said. Each person has to start from the start, and no one else can even take you that far.

And simply living and staying awake and aware is already more than enough to go on with, without trying to outdo science as well.

Posted by Yakaru


  1. Great post. I think many don’t see science as methods to narrow our search for the facts as well designed and controlled testing discards ideas and theories which seem to result in no advance of our knowledge. Often the way some people talk about ‘science’ makes it seem as if they see that very word as representing a small exclusive group of dark-robed or suited figures who reside in lofty arrogance at the top of some impenetrable tower, well guarded against prying curiosity, lest others discover their closed-minded monopoly on published truth. Whereas I see them as a huge group open to ideas and theories which have not already failed miserably to produce results, as you note, for centuries.
    I see the darkness and secrecy aspect as the psuedo sciences and popular but unfounded theories who will not subject their assertions to good scientific scrutiny, knowing that they cannot gain from doing so, that their favourite fairy-tale explanations will not survive much critical investigation.

  2. Thanks Woody… Yeh, I think a lot of these fellows tend to see science as just technology with a few fanatical materialists taking the liberty of pontificating about life. –Why can’t they just give us the nice computers and fancy cars without spouting off about things best left to spiritual people?

    The way we’re headed, we will end up with a small elite with scientific knowledge, and the rest of the people worshiping some dear leader and waiting for the next miracle.

Comments welcome, but please try to address the issues raised in the article!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: