The Spiritual Origins of Science

“Spirit” is not a word commonly paired with science. To the lay public, science is presented as a near-opposite to all things “spiritual”—rational, analytical, empirical, and above all, skeptical. To consult science is to set aside myth, to banish superstition and prejudice in favor of clear thinking and reason, in hopes of landing upon a more accurate vision of reality.

In its historical and original form, science was first an individual, spiritual undertaking. 

Today, institutions lay claim to every achievement once created in the spirit of science, and from this claim assert the right to speak for science itself. They advance a “social technology” model of science, arguing that peer-review and expert consensus are the essential core to “real” science. This places professional experts in a place of epistemological power, like priests in a hierarchical religious institution. And as with priests, cultural and political power comes along with this claimed privileged access to truth.

But if science has an underlying spirit, then the institutional claims to the honorable mantle of “science” is both false and more deeply “anti-science” than any of the supposedly anti-scientific theories we see today. 

It is the purpose of this essay to explain this spiritual dimension of science.

To begin this exploration, we might ask: why should a man engage in science in the first place? Why pursue a more objective vision of reality?

A common answer is that science provides us with material benefits and a higher standard of living. 

Biologist Richard Dawkins famously argued that “it works; planes fly, cars drive, computers compute. If you base medicine on science, you cure people. If you base the design of planes on science, they fly.” 

But much of our modern world works just fine without science. We do not need to understand the true nature of things, or have falsifiable working models in order to invent and create by trial and error. Romans built roads and aqueducts and bridges unparalleled for a thousand years without Bacon’s scientific method. Electrical engineers today cannot even agree on which direction electricity moves in a circuit, yet this does not prevent us from lighting the civilized world with its power. Endlessly pursuing a more objective view of the world is almost always superfluous.

The vast majority of science brings us no real economic benefit to offset its research cost. Studying the mating habits of a particular endangered tortoise, or the properties of light near dense gravity, do not make planes fly or computers compute. Most science is not done for — or justified by — its effects on our standard of living. By this measure, the vast majority of science would be considered a waste of time and money.

Rather, the true justification for science is the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.

My favorite example of this is Justin O. Schmidt, an entomologist who studied honey bees. Frustrated by the absence of any systematic comparison of different insect stings, Schmidt decided to establish a baseline himself. Schmidt spent years getting stung by all variety of insects, in all variety of unpleasant parts of his own body, rating the pain on a scale of 1-4.

One might wonder what value could come from such a scale, but to distinguish between “useful” knowledge and “useless” knowledge is itself a subjective assertion. Seeking to understand the world through systematic empiricism—through science—is in some sense to disregard the distinction between “useful” and “useles,” where knowledge is concerned—to see facts as facts, neither good nor bad; useful nor useless. 

In addition to ratings, Schmidt added descriptions of the quality of the stings. In the pain level 4 category was the warrior wasp, which Schmidt described in the following language: “Torture. You are chained in the flow of an active volcano. Why did I start this list?”

Of course, Schmidt could have asked this question at the start, before stinging himself with the most painful insects known to man. Why pursue an objective view of reality, when a subjective view is perfectly functional (stereotypes and prejudices are sometimes useful), when much objective knowledge is useless and when a truly objective view is impossible anyhow?

The modern advocates of science aren’t very good at answering such a question – especially in the face of material discomfort that perfectly opposes the high standard of living and comfort so often used to justify science.

But to ask the question “why do science?” in the context of stinging oneself with various insects is to simultaneously ask the related question: “what is science?” Is what Schmidt was doing “real” science, and if not, what does the real thing look like?

Most people understand science to be synonymous with the “scientific method,” a systematic process of exploring the world through observation, prediction, testing, and analysis. But aside from the most general of descriptions, this “method” is not singular. Paul Feyerabend, the Swiss philosopher of science, even argued that strict methodology was opposed to science and scientific progress:

The idea of a method that contains firm, unchanging, and absolutely binding principles for conducting the business of science meets considerable difficulty when confronted with the results of historical research. We find, then, that there is not a single rule, however plausible, and however firmly grounded in epistemology, that is not violated at some time or other. It becomes evident that such violations are not accidental events, they are not results of insufficient knowledge or of inattention which might have been avoided. On the contrary, we see that they are necessary for progress. (Against Method, 1975)

Descriptively, there is no singular “scientific method” that one can use to distinguish science from pseudoscience or non-science.

Some fields of science do not permit experimentation – paleontology, for instance. One can only make predictions based on hypotheses, and see what shows up. Some might say that such fields cannot even be properly called “science,” but such a charge opens the doorway to the purity-spiral of relative “hardness,” which quickly excludes psychology, anthropology, and economics from the domain of “real science.”

And even among the “hard sciences,” method is not universal. One does not test a mathematical formula in the same way one explores a chemical compound. Standards for exactitude and rigor vary depending upon what the field permits.

This is how someone describing the sting of a bald-faced hornet as “rich, hearty, slightly crunchy […] similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door” can be scientific. Subjective descriptions like that of a wine-connoisseur are not rigorous in the manner of a geometric equation, but they establish a baseline which others can build on top of with increasing precision over time (we are still waiting for replication of Schmidt’s pain experiences), just as the primitive exploration of numbers thousands of years ago paved the way for more precise and complex mathematics today.

What defines this method as science is not the precise steps or procedure, but rather a kind of inquisitive spirit which informs its construction in context. This spirit of science is not merely the cause of maximizing exactitude and objectivity in whatever inquiry the scientist engages, but also the why behind the exploration in the first place.

This spirit of science has a history we can explore.

Friedrich Nietzsche argued that Socrates was the originator of what was eventually to become the scientific spirit. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche said:

[…] Socrates is the archetype of the theoretical optimist, who in the above-indicated belief in the fathomableness of the nature of things, attributes to knowledge and perception the power of a universal medicine, and sees in error and evil. To penetrate into the depths of the nature of things, and to separate true perception from error and illusion, appeared to the Socratic man the noblest and even the only truly human calling: just as from the time of Socrates onwards the mechanism of concepts, judgments, and inferences was prized above all other capacities as the highest activity and the most admirable gift of nature. (1871)

Socrates was in many ways the prototype of the scientific culture, endlessly criticizing those who claimed knowledge, though rarely advancing opinions of his own. A walking, one-man peer-review machine, he endlessly challenged others in the hopes that what could survive such scrutiny would be more reliable knowledge. But here, to focus on Socrates’ strategy and the utility of his means for inquiry would be to miss the true spirit itself, and the aesthetic belief which gives it life:

To pursue knowledge is good for its own sake.

Many centuries later, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing poetically described this sentiment in the following manner:

The true value of a man is not determined by his possession, supposed or real, of Truth, but rather by his sincere exertion to get to the Truth. It is not possession of the Truth, but rather the pursuit of Truth by which he extends his powers and in which his ever-growing perfectibility is to be found. Possession makes one passive, indolent, and proud. If God were to hold all Truth concealed in his right hand, and in his left only the steady and diligent drive for Truth, albeit with the proviso that I would always and forever err in the process, and offer me the choice, I would with all humility take the left hand, and say: Father, I will take this one—the pure Truth is for You alone. (1778)

Lessing’s depiction is of the pursuit of knowledge as a means to the end of moral virtue… or perhaps as an indicator and expression of virtue. But in either case it depicts the pursuit of knowledge—and not the acquisition of purported facts—as the aim and value of science. It is this curiosity and hunger for knowledge that the activity of science, in all of its variety of method, seeks to satiate.

The true spirit of science is a hunger to know, not to be satisfied with knowledge that is merely functional, but to truly understand for the sake of understanding.

Christian monks of the medieval ages pursued science as an outgrowth of natural theology: the idea being that though God remains separated and hidden from man, man can seek his Creator and come to know Him by exploring creation.

Here, the undertaking of science was explicitly religious, not as a means of developing virtue but as the right and natural relationship between a created being and his Creator. One could say the same thing in a less denominational fashion—that it is right for a human being gifted with intellect and curiosity to explore and pursue what is objective and transcendent, not because it is useful, but because we can – just as it would be a shame to never exercise and develop the muscles our bodies have been blessed with.

Repugnant is the creature who would squander the ability
To lift an eye to heaven, conscious of his fleeting time here

This hunger for knowledge is the spirit of science. It is the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake that drives increasingly precise and thorough standards that have come to characterize scientific methods. This spirit is an individual matter, as it relates to an individual’s relationship with the universe, with God, with the transcendent, or else a matter of developing the individual’s virtue in humility, diligence, care, and even gratitude and reverence.

It may be true that it is harder to be in awe before a thing rendered transparent by exploration, but very little reveals the true mystery that surrounds us as quickly as testing what we think we know.

Here, the Greek language helps encapsulate this spirit in the history of important scientific words. The word “theory” derives from the Greek theōriā, which means ‘sacred journey.’ Harvard philologist Gregory Nagy describes its root theōros in the following way:

Etymologically, theōros means ‘one who sees [root hor-] a vision [theā].’ So the basic meaning of theōriā can be reconstructed as a ritualized journey undertaken for the purpose of achieving a sacralized vision. (The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours, 2013)

A great deal has changed in the way we use “theory” today. But for all that change, a “theory” is still a kind of vision of reality, and sacred in the sense that it is held as special, above ordinary opinion because of the journey – the ritualized scientific process of experimentation, analysis, etc – by which that vision was assembled. One could also say that a “theory” itself is a journey, a model-in-motion that adapts to new information.

But in the spirit of science, the most important journey is not the one made to acquire a particular vision (the method), or the journey of the vision (the theory), but that of the individual scientist in his efforts to see more clearly.

Yet in the days of Socrates, such an individual hunger for knowledge could be politically subversive. In Plato’s Apology, Socrates has to ask the crowd not to interrupt with indignant outbursts as he recounts his friend Chaerephon’s unsanctioned journey to the Oracle of Delphi—in those days, only a “sacred delegate” of the city (the more literal meaning of theōros) was supposed to consult the oracle. Even Socrates called his friend’s journey “bold” and his friend “very impetuous in all his doings.”

Historically, these bold and impetuous individuals are the source of almost all scientific innovation and progress. Great advancements like those of Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Tesla, or the Wright brothers were the result of obsessive individuals exploring in relative isolation, often under the disapproving eyes of the institutions of their day.

In today’s day and age, the spirit of science retains its political subversiveness. Galileo is sometimes mentioned as a conveniently distant example of the persecutions suffered by scientists who did not show due deference to political power (perhaps in hopes of insinuating that such persecutions are a matter of the distant past). But examples of censorship, blacklisting, and more serious forms of persecution of those charged with corrupting the minds of the youth carry on to this day, often under the guise of science.

As recently as December of 2021, Scientific American published an article defaming the still-warm body of E.O. Wilson as a racist with problematic ideas. The author argued that to engage with “scientistis whose legacy is complicated,” certain steps should be taken so that people don’t get the wrong political idea from scientific work which does not account for political interests. “[T]ruth and reconciliation are necessary in the scientific record, including attention to citational practices when using or reporting on problematic work. This approach includes thinking critically about where and when to include historically problematic work…” In laymen’s terms, Scientific American is recommending a culture of censorship, of deleting the work of “problematic” scientists from journals, periodicals, and even textbooks—or if a “problematic” person must be included in the record, that they be presented with “the context necessary for readers to understand the limitations of the ideas embedded in it.” Presumably, this necessary context would include an exhortation to dismiss in advance the opinions of the scientist in question.

That this classical form of political censorship and moral condemnation could take place under the guise of “science” is a symptom of a more modern innovation: the “social technology” model of science.

In his book Kindly Inquisitors, Jonathan Rauch described science as a social model, appending “liberal” before the term “science” to denote it as a social institution for dispute-resolution and generating political legitimacy in matters of knowledge, rather than merely seeking facts for their own sake. “Liberal science […] is a way of organizing society and a way of behaving” (1993).

“Liberal science” – science as a social technology – takes the view that science produces a reliable path to knowledge because external criticism and peer review serves as a better check against bad ideas than reviewing our own ideas.

There is certainly some wisdom in this.

But scientific legitimacy is only one standard of truth or value. Human history is replete with values such as beauty, honor, and liberty, which have no basis in science. Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker once said that honor is ‘that curious thing which we believe exists because we believe everyone else believes it exists.’

The nature of subjective or localized values is such that they are often invisible to scientific inquiry. What is universal is not always “more true” than what is particular, but it is often a lower common denominator in quality. Speaking of television, David Foster Wallace said that the breadth of the audience necessarily tended toward lower and lower quality of entertainment:

TV is the epitome of low art in its desire to appeal to and enjoy the attention of unprecedented numbers of people. But TV is not low because it is vulgar or prurient or stupid. It is often all these things, but this is a logical function of its need to please Audience. And I’m not saying that television is vulgar and dumb because the people who compose Audience are vulgar and dumb. Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be really similar in their vulgar and prurient and stupid interests and wildly different in their refined and moral and intelligent interests (E Unibas Pluram, 1993)

When performed by an individual, pursuing science for individual reasons (perhaps as an expression of an irrepressible need to know things), it is easy for that individual to relegate scientific facts and epistemology to its appropriate place in his own value-hierarchy. He can value the facts, while still subjugating his knowledge of the facts to his feelings of love, loyalty, or duty.

When scientific institutions come together—as they inevitably must, when the demand for peer evaluation becomes high enough—scientific epistemology must be the sole unifying force. Non-scientific values are relegated to the periphery or discounted as “unscientific,” and the power of consensus leaves little room for individual judgment over which values are most important.

Even these scientific institutions are willing to condescend and mouth platitudes about the importance of art and literature and other matters… at least in times of peace. But when hard choices have to be made – for instance, between something as unmeasurable and subjective as “freedom” and something as concrete as health or temperature – the pressure of scientific institutions will always be towards the lowest common denominator. Liberal science will always choose the measurable, even if the hearts of individual scientists hold reservations.

We might, for instance, hear something saccharine and conciliatory about the “independent spirit” of America, before being told that “now is the time to do as you’re told.”

This tendency becomes fractally pernicious when it is applied to the evaluating the “reasonableness” of citizens. The motivations which science cannot see—by nature of its materialistic limitations in vision—will make perfectly normal people appear irrational to scientific institutions. Anyone who cares about honor, for instance, may be dismissed as a backwards barbarian, trapped in an ancient mind-game of violence, and whose opinion can have no bearing on the function of a civilized society. It isn’t long before this perceived irrationality grows into an outright contempt for the lay public, who must be manipulated with “noble lies” because they cannot possibly understand the science. The institution’s inherent blindness to non-scientific (but not un-scientific) values leads to an utter inability to comprehend the nature of outsider’s skepticism. The institutions inevitably pathologize the entire world as irrational or stupid, mistaking their own incomprehension from their own epistemologically-limited scope for the intellectual limitations of others.

For example, in March of 2020, PLOS Biology defined “an antiscience movement” as “…an organized and funded rejection of science and scientific principles and methods in factor of alternative views, often linked to the targeting or harassment of individual scientists.” A year later, Scientific American claimed that “antiscience is the rejection of mainstream scientific views and methods or their replacement with unproven or deliberately misleading theories, often for nefarious and political gains.”

This is, of course, neither the nature of science-skepticism, nor why people are increasingly skeptical of scientific experts.

People distrust science—as curated by the institutions and the media—because of a natural, healthy, human distrust of conflicting interests and the transparency and purity of anything remotely political. But such reasoning is not made in the appropriately scientific language, and is argued from outside the scientific epistemological framework. Thus, it is not acknowledged by scientific institutions, and the skeptic can only be seen as unreasonable, nefarious, or both.

This brings us full-circle to the spirit of science.

Much of the philosophy of science in the 20th century was framed in opposition to Plato’s Republic. Karl Popper wrote The Open Society largely in opposition to the totalitarian censorship-state depicted by Plato as the “just city.” Jonathan Rauch describes reading the Republic as coming “face to face with the ethic of a totalitarian regime.”

But Plato’s Republic does not advocate totalitarianism.

In a conversation exploring the nature of justice, Plato’s characters construct a theoretical city as an abstract analogue to better understand justice in the context of the individual:

I’ll tell you,” I said. “There is, we say, justice of one man; and there is, surely, justice of a whole city too?”
“Certainly,” he said. […]
“So then, perhaps there would be more justice in the bigger and it would be easier to observe closely. If you want, first we’ll investigate what justice is like in the cities. Then, we’ll also go on to consider it in individuals, considering the likeness of the bigger in the idea of the littler?”
(Republic, Book II)

When Plato describes the just city as being ruled by a philosopher king, he is speaking metaphorically of an individual and that individual’s passionate desire for knowledge and wisdom. The limits of this metaphor are later made explicit, when the characters describe the various ways in which such a just city could never actually exist and would inevitably fail as a city.

And if there was any doubt left as to the intended subject-matter of Republic, Plato concludes with a cryptic story about reincarnated souls choosing their next lives, and the importance of justice in this process.

The Republic is – at the beginning and the end – about the individual choosing the good life at the expense of the political life, just as Plato’s teacher Socrates had done:

…he who will really fight for the right, if he would live even for a little while, must have a private station and not a public one. (Apology)

The consistent misunderstanding of so obvious a message is both a symptom of the scientific institutional mindset, and an example of why much of the lay public would mistrust the supposed expertise of those who advocate for science in politics. Even an advocate of science like Karl Popper believed that Plato was arguing for “the establishment of a state which is free from the evils of all other states because it does not degenerate, because it does not change” (The Open Society and its Enemies, 1962).

In reality, Plato was advocating the individual pursuit of wisdom, regardless of – and perhaps, like Socrates, even in opposition to – the state.

In short, Plato was advocating the individual pursuit of the spirit of science.

The misunderstanding of Plato reveals something unscientific in the development of scientific institutions. They limit the capacity of those they influence to perceive certain kinds of knowledge, and they even crush the inquisitive heart of those around them. 

In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan described an instance in which he disheartened a taxi-driver who had taken an interest in Atlantis and UFOs, giant kraken and advanced ancient civilizations. Each subject the man brought up, Sagan dismissed as unscientific and fundamentally lacking any substantive evidence. Sagan wrote:

As far as science can tell, they never existed. By now a little reluctantly, I told him so.

As we drove through the rain, I could see him getting glummer and glummer. I was dismissing not just some errant doctrine, but a precious facet of his inner life. (1997)

We may think it right to dismiss a such a facet of a man’s inner life if it concerns fanciful stories dressed up in the guise of archeology. 

But what if the man had been speaking not of UFOs, but of honor?

What if, like Socrates, the taxi-driver had been enthusiastically conversing about justice?

About free will?

About a spirit that sought knowledge for its own sake?

Would Carl Sagan have reluctantly informed him that such things did not exist?

We have seen Steven Pinker speak along these lines, and Karl Popper misunderstand Plato so fantastically as to miss the point entirely.

The “real scientist” – the man who truly embodies the spirit of science – is not driving down political main-street, correcting everyone who he believes to be wrong about something.

He is more likely to be out in the woods somewhere, documenting the flavor of a fire-ant sting, to satisfy his own curiosity (perhaps after doing some reading to see if someone else had already gone through that pain).

By virtue of his individuality and curiosity, he is also more likely to understand Plato’s Republic, which means that he is more likely to understand himself, others, and what it means to be human.

At the end of the day, the good things we receive from science – as well as the goodness of science itself – are contingent upon this scientific spirit which precedes the method and institutions with which we identify science today. This spirit is one of “impetuous” curiosity and the desire for a personal connection with the objective and the transcendent, unmediated by a priestly caste of institutionally-ordained experts.

We may say that it is “unscientific” or “anti-scientific” to contradict a given theory of science, or to question the holistic validity of the scientific method. But insofar as theories derive from method, and method derives from the scientific spirit, there can be nothing more un-scientific than to contradict or corrode this spirit.

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C.B. Robertson is the author of Letter to Anwei, Holy Nihilism, and The Hero and the Man. He lives with his wife and children in the Inland Northwest.