Issues Magazine

Combining Scientific and Spiritual Inquiry

By George Ellis

There is a moral reality as well as a physical and mathematical reality underlying the world and the universe.

The rise of science over the past 300 years has led to an increasing series of attacks on religious faith, seen by some as a defence of rationality against superstition and irrationality. This has been renewed with vigour in recent times, in particular by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Viktor Stenger. The swelling of atheist literature is a reaction to a worldwide rise in fundamentalist religion. Doubt about faith and religion has been strengthened by such attacks. What are the intellectual resources and sources of spirituality that can sustain those of faith in these times of uncertainty?

I support the view that consonance between science and religion is possible; indeed, they fit together to give an overall view of reality, with basic agreement in the areas where there are overlaps. As I will point out, the strong claims of reductionist science (reducing humanity to nothing but a conglomeration of particles and forces) must be wrong; science and rationality are not the answer to all our needs. Faith and hope, religious understanding and spirituality are important aspects of a full humanity.

Some areas of possible conflict between science and religion are no longer relevant. One can feel quite comfortable with belief in a creative God underlying the existence of the universe, whether it had a beginning in time or not. If a creator shapes the laws of physics so that life will come into being, that is an amazing way of getting creation going, and evolution is not a serious theological problem.

The real crunch comes with the issue of being human. What is the essential nature of humanity in the light of modern physics, chemistry and biology, and in particular molecular biology and neuroscience? There are philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists who tell us that consciousness is not real. Consciousness and conscious decisions are obviously real, because that is the primary experience we have in our lives.

The common physics view is that bottom-up causation is all there is: electrons attract protons at the bottom level, and this is the basic causal mechanism underpinning everything else.

But reductionists tell us this is the only kind of causality, and this is wrong. Top-down action sets the context in which the lower level actions function, thereby organising the way that lower level functions integrate together to give higher level functions.

An important example is human volition: the fact that, when I move my arm, it moves because I have “told it” to do so. Many social constructions are equally causally effective, perhaps one of the most important being the value of money. Ethics, too, is causally effective. It constitutes the highest level of goals in the feedback control system underlying our behaviour.

The important point is that physics as it currently stands is causally incomplete.

In terms of human behaviour we have sociologists and anthropologists who say it’s all culture; evolutionary biologists who say it’s all genes; and others saying it’s just physics. But it is not just one of these – it is all of them and more.

The human genome does not contain a fraction of the information necessary to structure the brain. What the genome does is set up general principles of structuring the brain, while all the detailed structuring is governed by the interactions we have with our peers, parents, caregivers, environment, and with our own minds.

Since the time of the Greek philosophers there has been a perception by some that one could live a purely rational life: that emotion, faith and hope simply get in the way of rationally desirable decisions. It is my contention that this view of a purely rational way of existence is a deeply flawed view of how we can conduct both personal and social life. It is not possible to reason things out and make decisions purely on a rational basis. We need faith and hope because we always have inadequate information for making any real decision, like whom to marry or whether to take a new job.

Together with our attitudes to risk, perceptions of how things are now and will be in the future are crucial in making real-world decisions. Do we tend to see things in a threatening or optimistic way?

Helping make decisions are intuition and imagination. Our emotions are another major factor in real decision-making, both the hard-wired primary emotions that are our genetic inheritance from our animal forebears, and the socially determined secondary emotions that are our cultural inheritance from society. We need values to guide our rational decisions; ethics, aesthetics and meaning are crucial in deciding our “telos”, the purpose that guides our life.

There are many limits to what we can know within the sciences. Knowledge in mathematics is limited by Gödel’s incompleteness theorem and by sensitivity to initial conditions (chaos). Knowledge in physics (and cosmology) is limited by observational limits. Knowledge in biology and related sciences is limited by their complexity. Acknowledging this does not deny the power of science; it helps locate the power of science within its own proper domain.

Ethics is outside the domain of science because there is no scientific experiment that determines what is right or wrong. Aesthetics is outside the boundaries of science. No scientific experiment can say that something is beautiful or ugly.

These are areas of life that cannot be encompassed in science: they are the proper domain of philosophy, religion and spirituality. And meaning relates to metaphysics: whatever it is that underlies the nature of existence, and in particular whether there is some kind of transcendental reality underlying the physical world.

Life as we know it on Earth would not be possible if there were very small changes indeed to either the nature of physics or to the universe itself. For instance, both the difference in mass between the proton and the neutron and the ratio of the electromagnetic force to the strong nuclear force have to lie in a very narrow range if atoms are to exist, and without heavy atoms, no normal life can come into being.

Four arguments have been proposed to explain this: it has happened (i) by chance or (ii) by necessity; (iii) there is such a large number of universes that life becomes essentially inevitable; and (iv) it is the work of a transcendental power. All these solutions are logically possible. No scientific test can disprove any of them.

Science cannot provide values. Ethical values cannot be arrived at purely rationally. They have a normative dimension that cannot be present in emotions per se (although emotions are one of the factors helping us understand normative values). Ethics are decided on the basis of an interlocking set of factors that include emotions and rationality, but also a broad-based understanding of meaning based on our total life experience, which is surely data about the way things are.

Humans have a great yearning for meaning, and ethics embodies those meanings and guides our actions in accordance with them. But ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics and meaning are outside the competence of science because there is no scientific experiment that can determine any of them.

A major theme in recent times has been the possibility of evolutionary psychology explaining altruism via kin selection. There are two problems with this as a proposal for the origin of genuinely altruistic ethics. First, if altruism extends only to kin and those whose genes will be preserved by acts of sacrifice, then by definition it excludes all outgroups, and hence cannot by its very nature explain the kind of ethic that says “love your enemy”. Second, the concept of altruism invoked by the evolutionary psychologists is a pale cousin of the true thing as envisaged in religion, where altruism by its very nature is conceived of as having no reward.

I propose there is a moral reality as well as a physical reality and a mathematical reality underlying the world and the universe. A standard of morality exists that is valid in all times and places, and human moral life is a search to understand and implement that true nature of morality. This means that we do not invent ethics; rather, we discover it (much as the same may be claimed for mathematics). It is already in some sense existent out there.

I suggest the nature of that moral reality is centred in love, with kenosis (“self-emptying” – a letting go of the self and selfish interest) playing a key role in the human, moral and spiritual spheres because of its transformational qualities. This is quite different from the shallow ethics on which everybody agrees and which sociobiology can largely explain. Kenosis is here understood not just as letting go, although this is a key element, but as being prepared to do so in a creative way for a positive purpose in tune with a creative and loving worldview. It is based on a realisation of the preciousness of each human being, and is the core of true Christianity. The suffering of Christ on the cross is a kenotic, self-sacrificial giving up on behalf of the other. I believe that each of the major world religions has a spiritual tradition that believes seriously and deeply in a kenotic ethic.

I believe in particular this view is deeply embedded in the Quaker attitude towards war and peace. This is the most fundamental way to fight evil, with its purpose being the transformation of evil intentions to good, and the redeeming of those who do evil into what God intended them to be. This is not achieved by military force or by buying people; it is not even achieved by intellectual argument or persuasion. It is achieved by touching them as humans. This is achieved particularly by sacrifice on behalf of others, as exemplified in the life and work of Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and Desmond Tutu.

One characterisation of the way this is demonstrated is that it always transcends the immediate problem by changing to a context of self-giving loving, thus moving to a higher plane where love and forgiveness are the basic elements. This change of perspective and context has the possibility of transforming the situation. This does not mean compromising truth; it does mean creating hope of reconciliation, in that all activities can be forgiven so that anybody can be redeemed. Our acts and spirit of forgiveness should demonstrate this, if necessary through loving sacrifice. It means being willing to love the enemy rather than giving in to hate, which has the power to transform us into a hateful kind of person. Forgiveness is a huge step on the way. This involves the ability to see others as fully human instead of seeing them through the enemy image, which allows you to treat them as sub-human.

Kenosis is the basis of community in general, for that involves giving up one’s own needs to some degree on behalf of the welfare of those around. Learning and artistic endeavours are based on kenosis in the sense that you have to give up your preconceptions about the way things are in order to see things as they really are. One must be prepared here to question one’s faith and to let go of it to see what then comes back and remains. One of the reasons why we have to listen to others even when we disagree with them is the belief that, no matter how irritating they are, they may have something to which we should be listening. They may have seen the Light in a way that we have missed.

The experience of kenosis seems to point beyond the everyday world to a set of higher processes that underlie the way reality works. Beauty is for many a way of experiencing a transcendent reality, which is perhaps why people value it so much and some devote their entire lives to it.

The various religious faiths have many ways of approaching the nature of spirituality and of experiencing it. The proposal here is that at least some of those experiences are what they seem to be: genuine intimations of transcendence. This does not mean all are, and discernment is needed to see which are genuine and which are not. But it opens the possibility that this kind of experience (of which there is a huge amount) is genuine.

That self-emptying vision embodied in the life of the great religious and spiritual leaders of all faiths provides an inspiring basis for a deep ethics and for life. It can provide a deeply meaningful vision of the nature of reality. This view cannot be proved to be true, but it is supported by much experience that has considerable persuasive power as a whole.

The problem of evil is a key issue here, one of the oldest facing religion. God cannot offer independent beings free will and also prevent them from doing evil. In some sense the answer to evil is the image we have been given of God suffering voluntarily on our behalf; freely accepting that suffering in order to create a greater good. That act not only shows the way for us to go, but also shows that God himself follows that way and accepts the suffering, thereby transcending death. In the end, it is the contemplation of the Cross that is the solution to evil, not in an intellectual sense but in the sense of allowing us to share both the pain and the glory with God. That sharing is the true nature of kenotic love. If one believes in a loving God, then one accepts that somehow it will indeed come out right, and that is the promise given us of resurrection, whatever that may mean.

I suggest that true spirituality lies in seeing the integral whole, which includes science and all it discovers, but also includes deep views of ethics, aesthetics and meaning, seeing them as based in and expressing the power of love. The viewpoint presented by Richard Dawkins and his colleagues simply does not begin to approach that powerful relevance to real world issues of justice, peace and well-being. What movement have they led in relation to poverty or slavery or ill health or any other aspect of improvement to the quality of life or the relief of suffering?

The counterpart of faith and hope is doubt, and one might be tempted to regard it as an undiluted bad. Doubt is inevitable as a part of the overall package, because metaphysical uncertainty will always remain with us if we are honest about it. So doubt is a sign of a kenotic faith that gives up the demand of certainty, and makes leap of trust despite the uncertainties that inevitably exist. It is a mark of a mature faith.

George Ellis spoke on science and spirituality at the 2008 James Backhouse Lecture, a public lecture on contemporary issues delivered annually at the national gathering of Quakers in Australia. This abbreviated version of the 7 January 2008 lecture at Monash University was prepared by Dale Hess, Victoria Regional Meeting. Printed copies of the full lecture can be ordered from; an mp3 audio version can be downloaded from