Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Separating Spiritual and Supernatural

A long time ago, someone created religion. I doubt that they sat down with their friends and said, "alright guys, we're starting a religion." That would require them to know what religion was--there would have to have been one for them to have a name for it. Instead, I'm sure their newfangled hominid brains meandered a bit--pondering questions about life with this newfangled language thing--finally concluding with, "I bet all these questions I can't stop asking have a common answer."

Among these questions were things like:
"How did we get to be this way?"
"What's it mean to be?"
"What happens when people die, and why am I sad when they do?"
"What will happen to the world?"
"Why is there weather, day, and night?"
"What is right?"
To explain these, they personified and discussed through metaphor. These metaphors were incorporated into supernatural beings, and those were--in most cases, after thousands of years--incorporated into one being.

In due time, though, when people looked really close, the questions weren't answered completely. "Ok, so the all-gerunding being makes the planets go around the earth, but why do they go backwards?" People started looking deeper at questions, abandoning the simple explanations found in religious and classical texts, and reaching for deeper ones.

This process resulted--along with high standards in rigor and definition--in what we now call science. This is also the origin between the conflict between science and religion. Religion presents protoscience--hypotheses to explain the world without the scientific method--incorporated into its texts. Science demonstrates that protoscience is false, but because one is an organ of religion, the two butt heads.

One way to abate the conflict temporarily was "to leave room for the creator." Newton did this--the mathematics backing his theory of gravity couldn't explain why the planets didn't throw each other out of orbit over long periods of time. Newton answered this question with the Hand of God.

Neil Degrasse Tyson discusses this "Hand of God" gap-filler in his essay The Perimeter of Ignorance, and he concludes that the belief in the supernatural acts as a crutch, stunting continued exploration in science. Sometime after Newton, Laplace discovered the mathematics to replace Newton's Hand of God. According to Tyson,
Laplace gave a copy of Mécanique Céleste to his physics-literate friend Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon asked him what role God played in the construction and regulation of the heavens. "Sire," Laplace replied, "I have no need of that hypothesis."

It's an elegant statement, and I wonder if it's one that can be applied not only in science, but to the realm of the spiritual--the essence of being. From the birth of religion, humanity used religion to satisfy its spiritual needs--ones that, even in an atheistic context, do not recede. There's no reason to bind the spiritual to the supernatural. They remain inseparable because the entire discussion of spirituality for the whole of history has taken place in a supernatural context, but there's no reason this has to continue.

What makes this difficult--and why I haven't heard of anyone who's done it yet--is that I don't know where to restart the discussion. I don't think anyone does. Just as gods were necessary for humans to discuss the cosmos, people utilized gods to discuss the core of our being and purpose. We're surrounded by a metaphor gone mad.

There's no reason but tradition for which this has to continue. It's true that science can't answer all questions, but it's false to say that questions outside of science require supernatural explanations. Using them may be simple or satisfying--providing an answer to many of these questions--but that doesn't mean that they're right. They are merely pleasing--like a cigarette to the smoker. They provide temporary relief, but the addiction continues. A long struggle--quitting--offers the most viable long-term solution. In the short-term, it is difficult, but in the long-term, it will bear greater fruit than any ever-lasting life the smoker is pleased to contemplate.

This "short-term" may be a thousand years. The spiritual struggle remains unanswered from ancient times, and I'm sure a solution won't come quickly. The path beckons us, though; imaginary satisfaction dulls our hearts to the call, but on occasion, the question asks itself loud enough to feel again. When they hear it, people pander from the horror of ignorance to the supernatural explanations into which they were raised--the easy road.

Yet the cravings never leave.


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