EO Wilson on Salon

The EO Wilson interview on Salon is worth watching a commercial for; he’s an interesting and smart fellow, even where I disagree with him. I’ve put a few excerpts below the fold just in case you really detest jumping through those capitalist hoops.

I’ve talked with some atheists who’ve suggested what they really need is a spiritual atheism. They need the sense of awe. They’re competing with religious traditions, with very powerful stories, that have been passed down through the ages.

Yeah, that’s true.

Does the scientist, does the non-believer, need that as well? Can the non-believer have that?

The answer to the second question is yes. The answer to the first question — do they have it? — is usually no. The problem with secular humanism is that it does lack it. I think it was Camille Paglia who talked about Foucault and the almost religious awe that the French post-structuralist philosophers once had in France. She compared it to the power of the Judeo-Christian tradition and said 3,000 years of Yahweh beats one generation of Foucault.

Would you be comfortable saying that science can have a sacred dimension?

Sacred, yes, in the sense of spirituality. This would be based upon a deeper understanding of just how intricate and surprising the universe is. The story of the origin of life on this planet — the time scale, the magnitude of it, the complexity of how it has been put together — all of that engenders in me even more awe than I ever felt as a devout Southern Baptist growing up.

What does “spirituality” even mean? Honestly, to me, when people say “sacred” and “spiritual”, they might as well be mumbling “bloyble” and “plimptyplop”—the words are just nonsense referents to stuff they’ve been told is crucially important all of their lives, but actually has no substance at all. I think the problem with secular humanism isn’t an absence of a non-existent “spiritual” side (which is nonsensical on the face of it—don’t tell atheists they need to believe in ghosts in order to persuade people), but a general lack of ferocity, since it is hard to fight for disbelief, and an opposition that consists of dedicated, experienced zealots who have had many generations of training in the art of lying. What we need are more people who are as fervent about telling the truth and embracing reality as the other side is in parroting wishful thinking.

Awe is good. Appreciating the majesty of the universe is good. Demeaning it by coupling it to false and non-existent concepts like gods and spirits is bad.

I think Wilson already knows this, though.

You’re saying scientists, for the most part, don’t have existential crises?

That’s correct. Most are not religious. They’re quite happy with what they have. Therefore, scientism — or science as an alternative religion — is not in my opinion a valid comparison. I don’t see it as having the qualities of a religion, in terms of obeisance to a supreme being or of an urge to proselytize.

Suppose, miraculously, there was proof of a transcendental plane out there. Would you find that comforting?

Sure. Let me take this opportunity to dispel the notion, the canard, that scientists are against transcendentalism, that they want to block any talk of it, particularly intelligent design. If any positive evidence could be found of a supernatural guiding force, there would be a land rush of scientists into it. What scientist would not want to participate in what would be one of the greatest discoveries of all time? Scientists are simply saying — particularly in reference to intelligent design — that it’s not science and it’s garbage until some evidence or working theory is produced. And they are suspicious because they see it coming from people who have a religious agenda.

Exactly. Anyone who talks about “scientism” or calls evolution a religion is already on the other side, and is apparently entirely clueless about how most scientists actually think.

And he’s exactly right about that primacy of evidence. I’m a fairly hardcore atheist (No, really…it’s true. Maybe it doesn’t show through very well here (if you’re blind), but I’m an unbeliever) but if there were actually some solid, testable evidence of a Designer, I’d be very interested. Waving a bible at me isn’t evidence, though, nor are the ignorant whinings of the incompetents at the Discovery Institute, nor the Trilemma, nor Pascal’s Wager; the godly have a long way to go to persuade me, and largely it’s because the pathetic standards of evidence they find convincing is indisputable evidence only for the fact that they’re not thinking very well.


  1. says

    I’m an atheist, scientist type myself (http://positivesharing.com/2005/12/quote-6/ )- but I do acknowledge the spiritual experience. It’s hard for me not to; many people have this type of experience. I have it myself.

    Spirituality need not be mystical or supernatural. It can take many forms, but for me it’s an experience of calm and of feeling connected to the world and to other people. There are several practices which reliably bring forth the experience, especially meditation.

    The question is where the experience comes from. Is it spirits, cosmic awareness, crystal resonance or some such b.s.? Or is it a purely physiological phenomenon in people’s brains? I believe the latter, and here’s the interesting thing: This does not diminish the spiritual experience in any way.

    To me, this makes my spiritual experience even more valid and valuable, while placing it squarely within a scientific worldview.

  2. says

    This brings to mind a favorite Feynman quote of mine:

    Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars — mere globs of gas atoms. Nothing is ‘mere’. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination — stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern — of which I am a part… What is the pattern or the meaning or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little more about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it.

    To say that religion has a monopoly on awe is to lie. In fact, it is my opinion that religious awe, tied to a projection of ourselves onto existence, is a lesser awe. It is religion that tries to bind existence, to make it less than it is, to make it in our image. Spiritual atheism is an attempt to squeeze honest awe into a religion-like form. It is nonsense.

  3. Randy! says

    I appreciate the idea of “spirituality”, but I bristle at the terminology. A feeling of calm, of order in the universe that you can appreciate is simply that, a feeling. It’s nothing different then that feeling you get when you *know* that your team will win as you’re laying down your bet. It’s somewhat rare in that example, but as one becomes more comfortable with being calm and connected, it gets easier.

    While I’m not a student of the so-called “spirituality” of Eastern religions, I have found some bit of calm in studying Aikido. As a devout atheist, I’m always skeptical when some of the spiritual stuff comes up, but I can appreciate being “centered” and at peace with the universe.

    One of my favorite stories is of some old master standing on top of his house, pointing his staff into the sky and moving his arms in a circle above his head. When asked what he was doing, he responds with, “stirring the universe.” It’s a fascinating idea to me, and has everything to do with one’s place in the cosmos and absolutely nothing to do with the effect of spinning a stick over your head and hoping to effect something “out there.”

    But with all that said, I think it all boils down to Bill & Ted with their “Be excellent to each other” as all the so-called spirituality that I need. Spirituality as generally accepted isn’t anything anyone needs to be happy or productive or whatever it is one is searching for by being “spiritual.” One can acquire this feeling with a good stretching session, heavy exercise, completing a complicated task, coming up with a new idea, even making a big sale or getting a promotion or throwing a perfect pass; hell, even waking up at 11:00am on Sunday, having a good stiff drink and laying on the couch watching football. It’s not any more complicated than that. Pasting a God or religous ideal on top of life experiences is wasteful, innefficient, unnecessary and demeans the experience. And as we all know, it also leads to other, less desireable traits.

  4. Will E. says

    When people say (and they love to say this) they’re “not religious, but spiritual” I think they just mean they like to drink herbal tea and read books on astrology and yoga by candlelight.

  5. HPLC_Sean says

    Wilson is very careful about tiptoeing around the sensitivities of religious folks. He says something interestingly wrong when he says:

    You might say it’s just best to go ahead and accept the two worldviews [science and religion] and let them live side by side. I see no other solution. I believe they can use their different worldviews to solve some of the great problems — for example, the environment.

    A worldview that narcissistically believes that the entire universe was specially created (fine-tuned?) for humans by a benevolent, omnipotent force will not raise a finger to solve questions on the environment. After all, if the entire universe was created for humans by God, he wouldn’t let us choke ourselves to extinction on our own fumes, would he?

  6. lt.kizhe says

    Probably because I’m ex-religious, I have trouble coming up with useful definitions of “spirituality” that don’t involve gods or other immaterial intelligences. It seems to be a term for Unitarians to use in church, on which everyone present — from the Christians and pagans through the vaguely-theistic to the agnostics and atheists — can hang their own meanings.

    Take out the mysticism, and the term seems to refer to what I’d call “existential” concerns (Who/what am I? What is my place in the universe?), feelings of awe and “connection” and so forth. While I definitely experience that sort of thing, I’d prefer a more simply descriptive term, that doesn’t have implied (but now personally irrelevant) connections to historical obscurantism.

  7. SqueakyRat says

    The awe is good. What blows my mind is that people find it awe-inspiring to think of the universe as a squalid little family drama. I know it’s elitist and everything, but Christianity (and the rest, but particularly Christianity) is just so . . . corny.

  8. dc says

    I love all the comments above. There is a great irony: just below the surface of a devout religious believer is a hardcore nihilist: Without instruction from the Bible, there can be no morality; if evolution is true, then we’re just apes and can act as cruelly as we please; without a God-driven purpose, then our lives are totally meaningless.

    Behind each of those common assertions is a denial of humans’ ability to reason and provide *ourselves* and *our own lives* with morality and meaning. Thus, to me, secular humanism is a great affirmation of the creative force of individuals and self-empowerment. It is religion (as praticed by some, and certainly not all) that involves a feckless cry that we must “believe” because without “belief” all is lost.

  9. Dick Mulliken says

    I’d differ with Wilson re Humanism and Sprituality. I find extraordinary spirituual depths in contemplating the human condition, our history and accomplishments. Maybe the key here is in classical humanism. I don’t see how somone beginning with Della Mirandola and working back through Seneca and Cicero to the Greeks can fail to be moved by awe.

  10. says

    Wilson has exactly the same horror of “heaven” that I think I developed at around age 10 to 12. Every time I heard descriptions of heaven and hell, I wondered why one was supposed to be better than the other. Hell meant physical torture; heaven meant psychological torture. Yeeessshhhh.

    I’ve probably mentioned this before, but the other thing that clinched my non-faith before my early teens was reading stories from Greek and Roman mythology, and suddenly having the light switch go on: One society’s myth was another’s religion.

  11. Kapitano says

    A lot of scientists enjoy detective fiction, probably because there are parallels between the two. Both involve untangling a web of incomplete (and sometimes contradictory) evidence to find ‘what’s really going on’ or ‘who did the murder’.

    Do detectives (real or fictional) feel the need to talk about a ‘spiritual’ aspect to their work? Do they feel a sense of ‘awe’ when dusting for fingerprints? Is there even something ‘sacred’ about securing a conviction. No, I don’t think there is.

    There can be fascinating criminal cases, intriguingly baffling evidence, and the satisfaction of seeing justice done. But these emotions don’t seem ‘numinous’ in any way.

    The universe is certainly a fascinating place, and producing an elegant theory that fits the known facts does give a nice feeling, but the same could be said about solving crossword puzzles, mending a bike or finishing a jigsaw.

    In short: that science is interesting and useful doesn’t mean it needs to feel holy to be done well.

  12. poke says

    I have no idea what “spirituality” means either. What people are describing as a “sense of awe” or (seemingly) just having fun doesn’t seem to warrant a special term.

  13. Will E. says

    Ugh, read the “Letters” section for all the (typically cliched) responses to Wilson’s interview. What crap readers Salon has.

  14. msf says

    Judy Shulevitz had a dumb review of Dennett’s latest book on Slate. She ridiculed his definition of religion (which takes up a couple of chapters in the book) and claimed that religion is “that which makes one feel religious”. Aside from being circular, this definition seems to indicate “subjective awe and connectedness” as what constitutes religion. So, the subjective experience of the physiological effects of mescaline on human brains is equivalent to religion. Now we are talking!

  15. The Bloody Sergeant says

    Talk of the need for a “spirituality” in science or something of the sacred or sense of awe or whatever is based on a complete misapprehension of the need that religion meets for the religious. Give science as great a spiritual dimension (whatever that means) as you want, but it can’t ameliorate the 3:00 AM fears (if you’ve dealt with them without the crutch of religion, count yourself lucky and know you are exceptional), the dark night of the soul, the certain knowledge of our own mortality. Religion promises that even if this world can be dangerous, brutal and unjust, there will be, for the believer, another world that will be safe and kindly and have some kind of justice.

  16. John M. Price says

    Spirituality seems to encompass not only a sense of awe, but also a sense of something larger than oneself of which one is a part. Here, I look not only to religion(s), but also to communities. Note that patriotism seems to engender the same sense – even emotions – and probably because of this, is often confused with religion, or that patriotism requires religion.

  17. Todd says

    Spirituality is meaningless word. In that sense, you are correct. However, if you approach it from an intuitive standpoint, like our Eastern friends, all it means is just experiencing things that you cannot describe.

    Let me give you an example. John Coltrane’s classic album Love Supreme has been transposed into musical notation. You can read the score and get an idea of what the music is about, but until you hear the Coltrane quartet play the music, you aren’t hearing anything. It’s the experience that cannot be described. This is why art and science are inseparable. Science gives us a richer palate of information to understand our experience, but it does not take away from the feeling that we get when immerse ourselves in that experience. Instead it enhances the experience.

    Okay, my definition of “spirituality” is still pretty meaningless, so I’ll just point to Coltrane’s Love Supreme and say “THAT!”

  18. says

    In the monastery we are attempting to reach out to atheist, especially those dedicated to the sciences, and this week the brothers are practicing the art of ‘bristling’ as many of you seemed to have mastered. So this morning at break fast, instead of our usual spiritual cheerfulness, steeped in wittiness and sprinkled with sidesplitting laughter, we all attempted to furrow our brows, purse our lips, and hurl snappy retorts at one another. So far the experiment has gone exceedingly well, Bro. Cecil (in the kitchen this week with baking duties) ran out of biscuits and had to hurriedly bake a new batch, these being somewhat under baked, so many of the brothers left break fast with sticky biscuits still clinging to their robes. In our previous spiritual humor a brother with a clinging biscuit on his robe would produce much laughter, but a curious thing happened this morning, in our newfound ‘bristling’ it appears that these clinging biscuits are a sort of medal, or badge, if you will, and Bro. Sedwick who had the most sticky biscuits clinging to his robe, seemed to bristle with delight, however paradoxical that may sound.

  19. Older says

    I am totally a member of the Church of Bill and Ted. Two commandments: “Be excellent to each other,” and “Party on!” (Treat other people well, and treat yourself well, in that order.)

    Anyway, who says science can’t be a religion? I used to tell people I was raised as a Scientist, when they asked about my family’s religion. Our sacraments are evidence and critical thinking. Why not??

  20. says

    It seems to me like the way “spirituality” is used by religious people is this: the emotional/personal connection to the non-physical world. If we modify this slightly for naturalists, to “the emotional/personal connection to the unknown or mysterious parts of the physical world”, it doesn’t really make any sense. If we modify it to “the emotional/personal connection to the awe-inspiring or mind-bending parts of the physical world”, it really just becomes another word for the pursuit of mystical experiences, even without any supernatural superstitions. So I think self-described spiritual naturalists should instead be called mystical naturalists.

  21. says

    Spirituality is simply how you make your peace with your existence.

    I’ve been born into catholicism and fought my way out via my desire for a personal, understandable spirituality. I’ve succeeded fabulously as often as I’ve failed miserably. That’s life.

    I don’t think such a thing is necessary for everyone; just as fame or wealth and even progeny are not. It is for me, and it doesn’t include any of the religious or New Age or ideological human constructs which fail, time after time, to replicate an identical experience of material reality from one person to another. Only material objectivity, and the knowledge that “a chair is a chair to everyone who sees it” have provided me with an ability to say my life has meaning.

    And that meaning is what I say it is.

    Thanks for posting on this PZ. I’ve been wanting to do so all day long but, alas, that pesky paycheck kept gettin’ in the way of doing it justice.

  22. John M. Price says

    Todd: all it means is just experiencing things that you cannot describe.

    No, you have confused it with ‘ineffable’.

  23. Pete K says

    If science is to replace an “instinct to worship and revere something larger than ourselves”, then so be it… It doesn’t necessarily harm evolution or science to incorporate religious imagery or ideas. People like Dawkins use religious imagery all the time, although they intend them in the totally non-religious sense.

    Dawkins’ latest books and notably Unweaving the Rainbow are devoted to the richness of science and the poverty of psuedoscience. They expand on Wilson’s ideas, and are full of religious-style imagery.

    Spiritus = soul = pneuma = nepresh. It originates from the old days when spirits were assosicated with the air and emptiness

  24. DavidSewell says

    One of the best comments on “spirituality” that I know is in the postscript to a letter that Herman Melville wrote to Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1851. He had finished the letter by mocking Goethe’s admonition to “live in the all”; now pulls back and reconsiders a bit:

    This “all” feeling, though, there is some truth in. You must often have felt it, lying on the grass on a warm summer’s day. Your legs seem to send out shoots into the earth. Your hair feels like leaves upon your head. This is the all feeling. But what plays the mischief with the truth is that men will insist upon the universal application of a temporary feeling or opinion.

  25. Caledonian says

    Give science as great a spiritual dimension (whatever that means) as you want, but it can’t ameliorate the 3:00 AM fears

    *What* 3:00 AM fears? I’ve never had the experience you’re talking about — I know it exists only because people occasionally talk about it. Can you expand on your statements?

  26. SqueakyRat says

    DavidSewell —
    The Melville quote, which I have not seen before, reminds me a bit of the first couple of pages of Freud’s “Civilization and its Discontents.”

  27. CCP says

    Hate to get all reductionist and everything, but if you don’t think that “spiritual” or “mystical” experiences are just fancy chemistry, then you simply haven’t tried the right chemicals.

  28. RevEnki says

    all it means is just experiencing things that you cannot describe.

    this would seem to indicate that capacity for spiritual experience must show a strong negative correlation with language ability.

  29. says

    What CCP said. Sorry, 15 years working around flakes trying to combine the spiritual and psychology has turned me into a radical behaviorist (it’s all chemistry & electricity, baby!).

    Reading here and a few other science blogs lately though has got me wondering if athiests possess a mutation (a variation in the “awe” gene or genes that allows the processing of the experience to produce a different outcome).

  30. John M. Price says

    usagi | March 23, 2006 12:40 AM
    Reading here and a few other science blogs lately though has got me wondering if athiests possess a mutation (a variation in the “awe” gene or genes that allows the processing of the experience to produce a different outcome).

    No, we just know the difference between internal emotions and external agency. Simple, but oh so hard for the truly credulous.