Around 50 BCE, the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius famously proclaimed reason as the only viable tool to achieve individual freedom, a means of breaking free from the widespread superstitions that enslave the human mind:

This dread and darkness of the mind cannot be dispelled by the sunbeams, the shining shafts of the day, but only by an understanding of the outward form and inner workings of nature.

Four hundred years earlier, Lucretius’ biggest influence, Greek philosopher Democritus, already celebrated an understanding of the world through reason as the only path to happiness, to “cheerfulness,” to finding grace. For this reason, Democritus was known as the “Laughing Philosopher,” as a Rembrandt self-portrait (“In the likeness of Democritus,” shown here) reminds us. This is the kind of luminous smile we usually see in images of saints and the enlightened. Rembrandt’s painting seems to be saying that Democritus figured out something essential about the art of being human and living in grace.

Could reason be a path to achieve a sort of self-transcending state that lifts us beyond the trivial pursuits of everyday existence? Note that Lucretius proposed that reason and the pursuit of an “understanding of the outward form and inner workings of nature” as the way to free the mind from the “dread ad darkness” of belief. In doing this, he was separating the natural and the supernatural into two disjointed realms, claiming that supernatural belief is, essentially, childish and uselessly fear-inducing. Instead, he places reason as the only viable path toward meaning.

To Democritus and Lucretius, then, the rational search for knowledge about the natural world—what, today, we call science—is a quest for meaning. It is a short step to go from this quest for meaning to the “S” word, Spirituality. As long as we reconsider the meaning of the word.

To quote Einstein, in a 1951 letter to his lifelong friend Maurice Solovine:

I have found no better expression than “religious” for confidence in the rational nature of reality, insofar as it is accessible to human reason. Whenever this feeling is absent, science degenerates into uninspired empiricism.

Are we fundamentally wrong in placing science and spirituality in the battlefield? Can reason lead us to transcendence?

Only matter exists

To most people, this is an impossible, even absurd, proposition: reason is the opposite of grace or spiritual transcendence, given that it operates under strict adherence to rigid rules and to an unshakeable skepticism. How can analytical thinking be conducive to a spiritual life?

To make sense of this, we must, first and foremost, eliminate the connection between spirituality and spirit, in particular, of spirit as a supernatural manifestation. As I am sure Democritus, Lucretius, and Einstein would agree, the starting point of the argument is that only matter exists. There is only the natural. In their awesome complexity, from electrons to proteins to butterflies to stars, natural forms express the wealth of interactions between the basic material constituents and the forces that bind and repel them. There is no question that we have learned a lot about these forces and constituents, and that this is what Lucretius had in mind when he wrote that “only by an understanding of the outward form and inner workings of nature” would we dispel “this dread and darkness of the mind.” This is the central goal of the physical sciences, the identification and description of the “outward form and inner workings of nature.”

However, materialism and belief in a rational explanation of the inner workings of Nature doesn’t imply that we will ever be capable of explaining all there is. Together with the power of deductive and inductive reasoning, we must also concede that we know precious little, and that we are surrounded by questions of such forbidding complexity that our knowledge will always be limited even if ever growing, a point I explored in The Island of Knowledge. The very methodology by which we acquire new knowledge of the world opens the way to more questions.

Materialism and scientism—excessive belief in the power of the scientific approach to knowledge— are not the same thing and must be differentiated.

It is also essential to realize that complexity in Nature does not need to mean “divine” or “supernatural.” In other words, the fact that mysteries remain doesn’t imply a God of the Gaps view of reality. The spiritual materialist embraces mystery as an essential part of existence, indeed, its most precious part. He sees unknowns as invitations, as challenges to his creativity. To him, obstacles are triggers for action, not showstoppers. Using the tools of science and reason he faces them with a fervor that, as Einstein remarked, has all the dressings of religious devotion.

To a spiritual materialist, spirituality is secular. It is a channel to re-connect (“re-ligare”) with something bigger than we are, a way of life that seduces the imagination, driving our urge to know, to embrace the mystery that surrounds us and the mystery that we are.

This spiritual materialism is not a form of mysticism. Mysticism presupposes that knowledge that is inaccessible to the intellect can be apprehended by contemplation or by a union with the divine. Science, to the spiritual materialist, starts with a spiritual—even contemplative—connection with nature. But it then uses the intellect as the bridge between this connection and the pursuit of knowledge.

By linking our very human spiritual attraction to the unknown (calling it “curiosity” sounds very impoverishing to me) to our reasoning powers, science becomes a unique expression of our wonderment with reality, of our awe with nature’s grandeur—the kind of awe I experienced as I snapped the photo at the top of this page while in Switzerland last year. Of course, there is also all the practical stuff that we do with it.

But that comes after, at least for this spiritual materialist.

(Image: Monte Rosa, in distance at left, Switzerland’s highest peak | Marcelo Gleiser)
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Gleiser is a professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College.