Hungry for meaning: Is there a conflict between science and spirituality?

Spirituality plays a different ballgame than science, so the language used in either of them doesn't often match up to the other side. This, says religious teacher Rob Bell, creates a lot of conflicts.

Rob Bell: Ah, yes. That word: “spiritual”. 

I think the reason why many people run away from it is because lots of what has been done in the name of spiritual or spirituality has been completely crazy. So the problem with that word is it’s easy for a lot of really bizarre unfounded—sometimes even destructive and toxic—ideas can hang out under this word spiritual because you’re talking essentially about that which isn’t accessed through the five senses. 

When somebody says, “Well, I just had a spiritual feeling.” Well, you can’t really put that on a spreadsheet. You can’t really take a picture of that. My understanding of spirituality is that this life that we’ve each been given, the very breath that we took and we’re about to take, is a gift. That life is a gift and how you respond to it, what you do with it matters. 

So you’ll find in a business people working very hard and making lots of money and yet at some point asking these questions like, what is the point of what we’re doing? Why are we here? Why are we giving this kind of energy to this? Which is fundamentally a spiritual question, because the answer to that question won’t show up in the second quarter financials, and yet why people get up in the morning and come work here is the driving question behind the question behind the question.

So I begin with life is a gift and what you do with it, how you respond to it matters. And when we talk about it mattering we are talking about something that’s true but can’t be accessed in the ways that we normally access things. 

And I think a lot of scientists have run from the word spiritual because a scientist deals with hard facts. 

And when you get into language of the heart, language of the soul, when you start talking about transcendence you are talking about more than literal truth. 

So like if somebody asks me why I fell in love with my wife and I said, “Well because she’s five seven, she’s from Arizona and she drives a Honda,” that’s kind of a weird answer. But if you say to me “Why’d you fall in love with your wife?” and I said, “I fell in love with Kristen because when we got together it was like I found my other half.” Something within you is like okay, now that’s an answer that I get. I understand that answer. 

And yet it’s not like I was limping. It’s not like suddenly I actually literally found my other half. I shifted to a different kind of language to describe a different kind of reality. And so oftentimes in my experience the scientist is fine with spirituality when we understand the terms that we’re working with.

This idea somehow that faith and science are at opposition I’ve always found to be complete insanity. Both are searching for the truth. Both have a sense of wonder and an expectation and exploration. They’re each simply naming different aspects of the human experience. One thrives in naming exteriors – height, weight, gravitational pull, electromagnetic force. The other is about naming interiors – compassion, kindness, suffering, loss, heartache. They’re both simply different ways of exploring different dimensions of the human experience. 

Well if you think about the past like let’s say 300-400 years of human history, especially the history of the Western world we’ve had this explosion. Some call it the age of certainty, the explosion of scientific rationalism. I mean we have 10,000 songs in our pockets. We have airports and hospitals. We don’t have polio anymore. I mean we have had this explosion of rational, stand-at-a-distance and study and analyze it with a clipboard and a lab coat—I guess now it would be an iPad—But we’ve had this explosion of knowledge about how the world actually works. 

And so for many people this rational, linear, scientific thinking has done so much that it sort of stepped on and crowded out other ways of knowing things. 

Because I was doing this event recently and a woman came up afterwards and she had a child in one of those little packs that you carry a child around. And it was a Saturday, and she said, “Yesterday I found out that my child’s been diagnosed with MS.” And then she turns and walks away.

There isn’t a formula or a theorem to name what she’s going through. What she needs is a poem. She needs a prayer, a liturgy, a song. She needs a ritual. You light a candle. You sit in silence with somebody. When it comes to grief, pain, loss, heartbreak, euphoria, joy, ecstasy, the lab and the microscope and the data aren’t as helpful. 

So I think what’s happening in the modern age is people are realizing we’ve built this extraordinary gleaming modern world and yet we’re more hungry and thirsty for meaning than ever. 

So I think that’s what’s happening is we have more than any human beings ever had in the history of the world and yet the same questions are still gnawing at the soul. What’s it mean? What are we doing here? Where is joy found?

Everything is driven by the desire to know the truth. There’s an exploration. There’s a wide eyed sense of wonder. If you talk to the best scientists they have this sort of gleam in their eye like, “this is what we’re learning and we don’t know what’s actually around the corner.” And if you talk to the best theologians and poets and scholars they ideally have the same gleam in their eye, which is, “Look what we’re learning, look what we’re exploring.” And so to me they’re not enemies. They’re long lost dance partners. 

And I actually think what’s happening right now is if you and I are in opposition, if we have some sort of fight and we turn and walk away from each other, if we walk away from each other long enough we’ll probably go around the globe and we’ll meet up on the other side. And so I think for many people, especially religious people who were raised with this sort of faith and religion going in opposite directions, I think what’s happening is they’re coming back around and we’re realizing these are all ways of exploring different dimensions of the human experience.

Spirituality plays a different ballgame than science, so the language used in either of them doesn't often match up to the other side. New York Times bestselling author and spiritual teacher Rob Bell posits that the two need each other to help describe this modern world. Whereas science deals with explaining cold hard facts, spirituality deals in vagueries that can often help the more human and emotional sides of us a lot more. For instance, grieving families of a plane crash don't want to be told the plane crashed because the force of acceleration became less than the force of gravity — they want to be told that their loved ones are in a better place. Both science and spirituality are searching for the truth, says Rob Bell, and therein lies their similarities. Rob's latest book is What Is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything.

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.

Psychoanalysis

Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Why are so many objects in space shaped like discs?

It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?

Videos
  • Spinning discs are everywhere – just look at our solar system, the rings of Saturn, and all the spiral galaxies in the universe.
  • Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
  • Gravity brings matter together; the closer the matter gets, the more it accelerates – much like an ice skater who spins faster and faster the closer their arms get to their body. Then, this spinning cloud collapses due to up and down and diagonal collisions that cancel each other out until the only motion they have in common is the spin – and voila: A flat disc.