Introduction: Science in a Spiritual Key

Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others (hereafter DAE), uses modern evolutionary theory as a “navigational guide” to answer a question that has been posed for centuries. It also offers a “post-resolution” account of multilevel selection theory, which has been controversial among evolutionary theorists for over half a century. This roundtable provides a discussion of DAE by commentators who have diverse backgrounds but share two things in common: 1) They are thoroughly accepting and informed about science; and 2) they are each in their own way “spiritual”.

The very concept of blending science and spirituality is likely to ring alarm bells in the minds of many people. Whatever spirituality is, it lives next door to religion. Religion and spirituality can be studied with the tools of science, but that’s not the same thing as being religious and/or spiritual. People who call themselves spiritual but not religious are likely to be suspected by some of being self-indulgent New Agers who will believe anything and have questionable taste in music and art to boot. The same people might also sometimes regard scientists as boring, narrow minded, and clueless about the questions most worth asking about life.

The story of how we started to work together and organize this roundtable might help to explain how science and spirituality can be blended, like a two-part harmony. Both of us have our PhD’s in evolutionary biology. DSW specializes on the evolution of social behavior and KJ specializes on insect systematics and biogeography, including the Blues, a group of butterflies that was also studied by the novelist Vladimir Nabokov, causing KJ to become a biographer of Nabokov as a scientist in addition to his own career as a scientist (go here and here for more).

Both of us have a strong interest in religion and spirituality. DSW studies them as a scientist, in academic articles and books such as Darwin’s Cathedral and The Neighborhood Project, which includes one chapter (“We are Now Entering the Noosphere”) on Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and another (“Body and Soul”) on how words such as “soul” and “spirit” can be understood from a purely naturalistic perspective . KJ became a Christian monk between obtaining his Masters and PhD degrees and now helps to lead a worldwide movement called Interspirituality, as he recounts in his book with David Robert Ord titled The Coming Interspiritual Age (hereafter CIA). Thus, one might say that DSW studies spirituality while KJ lives it in a way that he regards as fully compatible with being a scientist.

We met in the spring of 2015 thanks to one of DSW’s research projects funded by the John Templeton Foundation, which studies religion and spirituality in the context of everyday life in Binghamton New York. A pastor named Wilfredo Baez approached DSW with the idea of organizing a symposium on Interspirituality featuring KJ as the main speaker. The event was held in the First Congregational Church on the corner of Main and Oak streets, whose pastor, Arthur Suggs, had become enthusiastically involved. The audience included mostly residents of the city with only a sprinkling of academic types. Binghamton is like Everytown, USA and most of the people sitting in the pews looked like regular churchgoers. They had become disillusioned with the Christian religious experience, however, and were animated by the concept of Interspirituality.

What is Interspirituality? KJ was able to explain it in very simple terms. He said that all major religious traditions converge on a common awareness that everything is interconnected. When this awareness is taken seriously, certain ethical conclusions follow. Namely, it becomes difficult to defend parts of the system against other parts of the system. Reflecting and acting on this basis allows people to transcend their particular religious and spiritual traditions (what KJ called “first-tier consciousness”) and find common ground (what KJ called “second-tier consciousness”). This is true for people who devote their whole lives to contemplation, such as His Holiness the Dali Lama (e.g., his book titled Beyond Religion: Ethics for the Whole World) and Brother Wayne Teasdale, who was one of KJ’s spiritual mentors. Judging from the people attending the Binghamton event, it could also be true for residents of Everytown, USA.

Listening to KJ caused DSW to have a 2 + 2 = 4 moment, an epiphany that immediately seemed obvious in retrospect. Religious traditions were not alone in reaching the conclusion that everything is interconnected. They were joined by scientific traditions such as physics, complex systems thinking, and ecology. No wonder that scientists from these traditions had a way of developing their own forms of spirituality, such as the creed of “Deep Ecology” developed by the Norwegian eco-philosopher Arne Naess. Second-tier consciousness was truly a place where religion, spirituality, and science could meet on common ground.

Our first encounter is captured as an interview that DSW conducted with KJ at the end of the Binghamton symposium, which was published in the online magazine This View of Life. Afterward, we dove into each other’s work. KJ read DAE and could immediately appreciate its import for the Interspiritual movement. As he recounts in his contribution to the roundtable, Interspiritualists have already embraced evolutionary and ecological concepts, especially of the holistic variety. Their appreciation is reflected in book titles such as Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution by Ken Wilber and Birth 2012 and Beyond: Humanity’s Great Shift to the Age of Conscious Evolution by Barbara Marx Hubbard. However, their holistic view of evolution ran counter to the main narrative in scientific thought that evolution is all about selfishness. The “post-resolution” account that KJ encountered in DAE was a far cry from what he had learned as a graduate student. Group selection was now accepted as a strong evolutionary force (especially for human evolution), altruism could be explained at face value as a product of group selection, the concepts of “organism” and “society” had merged, and planetary altruism required consciously selecting policies with the welfare of the planet in mind. For the Interspiritualist, the new scientific account reported in DAE was like sailing with the wind rather than against it.

DSW read CIA and was added as a speaker to an event in Colorado titled From Self-Care to Earth-Care, which also included Ken Wilber. KJ was especially eager to get DSW together with Wilber, whose books on what Wilber called Integral Spirituality have been translated into over 30 languages. When DSW began familiarizing himself with Wilber’s writing, he was pleased to discover that although Wilber might be guilty of being an extreme generalist, he was thoroughly committed to methodological naturalism and was not tempted by the excesses of New Age beliefs or post-modernism. Health issues prevented Wilber from personally attending the event but he met privately with the other participants and prepared a lengthy video that was shown at the event and is available online. An excerpt is included in this roundtable. DSW has written about the event and its aftermath in a series of essays titled “My Spiritual Journey” on the Evolution Institute’s Social Evolution Forum.

This roundtable, which is the first of three, features diverse thought leaders. Some specifically identify with the Interspiritual movement, while others are better characterized as engaged in discussions of evolutionary consciousness, social change from moral and ethical perspectives, and in meeting major global challenges at the level of politics and policy. Some of them know each other through mutual participation in international forums and committees, particularly those of the United Nations non-governmental agency community. The second and third roundtable forums will be published in other outlets so they can collectively reach the broadest and most diverse audience.

We end our introduction with an observation about the tone of the commentaries. The word “spirit” is derived from the Latin “spiritus”, which means “breath” and is also the root of “inspire”. Spiritual prose is designed to inspire, to appeal to the heart in addition to the mind and above all to move the reader to act, since spiritual experience is empty if it doesn’t lead to practice. This kind of prose might seem odd and even inappropriate to some readers who are accustomed to more value-neutral scientific prose, but it is part of what it means to sing science in a spiritual key. What makes it spiritual is its inspirational quality. What makes it compatible with science is its commitment to methodological naturalism. It is indeed possible to be spiritual and scientific at the same time.