Science and spirituality: From impasse to innovation

Pulkit Sharma


Present paper looks at the chasm between science and spirituality from author’s personal and professional (psychological) vantage point. The author reflects on the fact that how many a modern Indian youth, including himself must struggle and live the split created between ‘science’ and ‘spirituality’ within dominant academic discourse leading to inner chaos caused by collision of perspectives. The confines of predominant paradigms, which ignore many truths owing to an unconscious exclusion of exceptions and reduce all phenomena to materialism, are delineated. Various theoretical problems, practical considerations, personal unconscious factors as well as mutual hatred and skepticism that have kept scientists and spiritualists largely ignorant about each other’s work are discussed. The need of the hour is a dialogue between scientists and spiritualists to bridge the split. Though it’s impossible to comprehend spirituality by current tools of science, nevertheless this exercise must be undertaken to lead the world from ‘neuropsychology’ to ‘metaphysics’ of spirituality. Endeavors aimed at a total annihilation of the other perspective do more harm than good and therefore ought to be curbed. There is a need to minimize the resistance put up by fanatical proponents on both sides. Only the discipline that is liberated from hierarchy, pejorative vocabulary, animosity and rigidity and guided by curiosity, openness can have a space for all- brain, mind and higher consciousness and help us bridge the existing split between science and spirituality. This point is elucidated by author’s personal journey through various perspectives.

Introduction: A few personal biases

I’m writing this essay from a difficult vantage point of a psychotherapist and counselor trained and working in western scientific healing practices and yet feeling nostalgia for Indian spiritual traditions to which I had been exposed in childhood. These two worlds are kind of divergent and split off from each other and yet I inhabit both and have a deep striving to integrate the two in order to assure a conflict-free thought, identity and existence. The academic training, which I received, has structured my perception and worldview in a way that the two terms, science and spirituality seem rigorously antithetical to one another. ‘God’ and ‘spirituality’ always seemed to be part of an archaic and obsolete heritage fuelling a few obsessions, culminating in morning prayers at school and home but the real world that required attention and dedication has been the laboratory where hypothesis about life are made and tested. The message was clear; spirituality is good when taken in a small dosage, perhaps a two-minute prayer but beyond that it’s a sheer wastage of time and creative energy, as it has no value in the elite professional work-oriented and fashionable world of science laboratory. The science lab demanded a bold exhibition of concrete, objective and tangible stuff rather than an inward introspection deemed unproductive, neurotic and feminine. The split is quite troublesome and unsettling, many a times there seems to be a God while on other occasions it just appears to be a metaphysical archetype, a mere creation of mind to defend against overwhelming helplessness.

A thorough analysis of ancient civilizations reveals a persistent belief in spirituality. In Europe, the Cartesian dictum (Descartes, 1641/1996) asserted the notion of individuality and consequent rationality, which has been the center of all activities of science and modern world. Consequently, there occurred a split between Spirituality and Science making them opponents. Though in recent times, some researchers have started attending to consciousness and spirituality, the mainstream science finds these concepts elusive, imaginary and at worse neurotic. Hazrat Inayat Khan (2003, p. 74) reflects upon the damage caused by this split, “the only difficulty in acquiring esoteric knowledge at the present time is that man who is trained in science is not yet capable of attaining esoteric knowledge. In order to enter the gates of mysticism the first thing for man to understand is what feeling is. It is a great fault of the education of today that sentiment, which is really its most important side, is neglected. It is like wanting a person to become not alive, but like a corpse: in order to educate him life must be taken from him and he must be turned from a living person into a dead one. What is to be revived in the present generation is the capacity of feeling. Only thinking is developed today and not feeling.”

The split between science and spirituality, the war between religious institutions and scientists were alien to ancient Indian civilization, which did not believe in a compartmentalization of knowledge and where opposites could be harmoniously integrated. Ancient Indian mathematicians, poets, doctors, scientists were all spiritualists in their own right.

However, these days we must engage in a relentless confrontation with the same, as it is becoming a struggle for victory of one over the other. In my own experience, science has won many times and so has spirituality, a belief in a higher esoteric consciousness. I have felt passionately drawn towards neuroscience with dreams of replicating human consciousness in robots and at the same time derived clarity out of Baba Bulleh Shah’s Sufi poetry relentlessly wishing to undertake an inward journey to unleash the true self. Both spiritualists and scientists would surly diagnose me as suffering from ignorance; spiritualists would see me as still caught up in illusion whereas the scientists would receive me to be overpowered by superstition. It is this difficult fate of being consumed by a split that many Indian youth of the day must face. One feels bewildered to come across this split in even Indian Psychoanalyst Kakar’s (1982) scholarly work where he cites an example of a male hysteric patient Sunder who approached him for psychotherapy and whom he later referred to a religious healer after Sunder wished to discontinue with Kakar. I kept on wondering that how an eminent practitioner and a firm believer of Psychoanalysis like Kakar could refer a patient to a traditional healer as Psychoanalysis is firmly opposed to shamanic and mystical healing practices.

Confines of existing scientific paradigm

In any age, scientific practices in all disciplines are bound to be shaped by a largely unconscious dominant paradigm as argued by Kuhn (1970). Paradigm is a set of beliefs and assumptions that provides a framework for the scientists to work. The unconscious rules of the paradigm are rarely questioned or put to test. What gets tested is the ability of scientist and the theories to conform to the paradigm. Anyone who wishes to get his work recognized and valued by the scientific community must adhere to this paradigm or else face the consequences of rebellion. The scientist who conforms to a paradigm must see the world in just one particular way. The paradigm therefore has a limiting effect, the problems that can be answered within its preview are taken up, others ignored. The exceptional cases that challenge its assumptions are ignored as ‘errors’ or brilliantly veiled by statistical analysis.

I once attended a clinical case discussion where an eminent French Psychotherapist presented a case he had successfully treated. The patient suffered a psychotic breakdown and became chaotic. Years of psychotherapeutic work were needed before the broken personality structure could be integrated. No doubt, the therapist had put a lot of hard work and heart into his work and I felt deeply inspired as a budding student of the discipline. However, the therapist revealed a fact that left me awestruck and curious. He reported that the patient who was an Indian, following the psychotic breakdown started reading and writing fluent Sanskrit though he didn’t know the language earlier. He began reciting shlokas and reading ancient scriptures. I enquired the clinician about this sudden and almost miraculous change in the patient for which there was no ready answer by the existing paradigm. The therapist reported being surprised by this change initially but ignored it as there was no ready answer and it seemed to be of little consequence in the therapeutic work undertaken. This was one instance where an important question, a crucial piece of data stood banished by the prevalent scientific enterprise just because it threatened to challenge the basic assumptions of the scientific paradigm. Modern science rests on the ground of empirical rationality, cause and effect laws, precedence and consequence and has little space for rare, esoteric and bizarre happenings. The psychotherapeutic work done in this case had immense value but it operated within a confine choosing to remain blind to the facts of reality that were antithetical to its basic guiding principles. Existing science therefore makes us resist seeing reality from different and novel perspectives.

Leahey (1991, p.15-16) considers the possibility of dialogue between different schools of thought to be rare because of opposing paradigms they follow, “that the meaning of the world depends on paradigms is of great consequence in disputes between paradigms. When psychics fail to perform in the laboratory, for example, the materialist sees a disconfirmation of psychic phenomena, while the believer sees the destruction of fragile psychic abilities in the cold, sterile research environment. The materialist and the spiritualist thus have a paradigm clash that cannot be resolved by the data, since each will persistently interpret the data according to his or her paradigm.”

The current brand of science is strictly materialistic and reductionist based on an atomic and uncomplicated view of complex reality. It has difficulty in dealing with those aspects of reality that are non-material and abstract, which includes human emotions, mind and consciousness and reduces them to matter. Existing science is comfortable talking about brain, hesitant about mind and enraged by just the mention of the spiritual. Left to its own devices, it visualizes all human subjective experiences emanating from firing of neurons at different frequencies. The scientific enterprise seeks to understand consciousness by molecular biology approach. Dennett (1994) impressed by molecular biology, supports the claim that robots could one day possess human consciousness. He argues that, “the best reason for believing that robots might some day become conscious is that we human beings are conscious, and we are a sort of robot ourselves. Conscious robots probably will always simply cost too much to make. Over the centuries, every other phenomenon of initially supernatural mysteriousness has succumbed to an uncontroversial explanation within the commodious folds of physical science. Thales, the Pre-Socratic proto-scientist, thought the loadstone had a soul, but we now know better; magnetism is one of the best understood of physical phenomena, strange though its manifestations are. The miracles of life itself, and of reproduction, are now analyzed into the well-known intricacies of molecular biology. Why should consciousness by any exception?”

The war of perspectives

Spiritualists and scientists have been caught up in a never-ending war against each other for asserting the supremacy of their perspectives. Freud (1927, pp.17-18) dismissed religion as emanating from “man’s need to make his helplessness tolerable, and built up from material of memories of his own childhood and the childhood of the human race. Man’s helplessness remains and along with it, his longing for his father, and the gods. The gods retain their threefold task: they must exorcize the terrors of nature, they must reconcile men to the cruelty of fate, particularly as it is shown in death, and they must compensate them for sufferings and privations which a civilized life in common had imposed on them.” Psychoanalytic thinkers in recent times though have been empathic and more receptive to spirituality (Kakar, 1991; Sarin, 2002; Vahali, 2002; Sharma, 2004 etc.)

Similarly, Sri Aurobindo (in Dalal, 2001, pp. 298-300) warned against “the exaggeration of the importance of suppressed sexual complexes (by psychoanalysis) is a dangerous falsehood and it can have a nasty influence and tend to make the mind more fundamentally impure than before. The self-chosen field of these psychologists is besides poor, dark and limited…That is the promise of the greater psychology awaiting its hour before these poor gropings will disappear and come to nothing.” Contemporary spiritualists and psychotherapists have been working to integrate the split (e.g. Cortright, 2001) but the resistance and hatred towards the other from both sides is paramount.

Scientists and spiritualists have been largely ignorant about each other’s work owing to theoretical problems, practical considerations as well as mutual hatred and skepticism. The theory and methodology of science is derived from mind, whereas the spiritual consciousness is considered to be beyond mind by those who have attained it. One fundamental theoretical problem therefore is that whether a science originating from the mind can register, appreciate and study something beyond it (Sedlmeier, 2004). The attempt even if made with great rigor might end up being a precocious one. In order to make a progress in both the disciplines one has to follow different and contradictory paths, which makes an interface difficult. The scientist must search for mind in the brain whereas the spiritualist strives to transcend both mind and brain. The area of action of the scientist is external world where results can be observed and made visible to others, for the spiritualist however a journey within, an unleashing of true self that forms one’s core is required.

Apart from such theoretical and practical considerations there could be some more factors that refute the possibility of a dialogue between science and spirituality. Elsewhere, I have argued that how in the war of ideologies, the contrasting school becomes an external symbol of aggressively despised and denied parts of one’s self and is consequently devalued and rigorously ostracized shutting out all possibilities of any kind of dialogue towards integration (Sharma, 2006). One idealizes one’s perspective extremely while failing to recognize any merit in the other ideology. Thus, the mind becomes a battleground for ‘democrat vs. republican’, ‘east vs. west’, ‘spiritual vs. scientific’, ‘traditional vs. modern’, ‘India vs. Pakistan’, etc. The strong emotional undercurrent of hate that one attaches to other ideologies cultivates distaste and refutes the possibility of an empathic evaluation and interaction. Proponents of all perspectives are happiest being rigid.

Bridging gaps and filling void

We are faced with a scenario where in order to assist the evolution of consciousness and bestow an integration upon fragmented pieces of Self, possibility of an interaction, a ‘thinking through each other’ between science and spirituality is needed. Elsewhere, I have mentioned that, a just and fruitful attempt to integrate these schools of thought should include the obliteration of power and superiority struggles, an empathic understanding of each other from one’s standpoint, sensitization toward the other view and the culmination of the expertise and energy of both to serve mankind (Sharma, 2004).

Until the scientists continue to banish spirituality as an exaggerated neurotic pretence lacking any validity and spiritualists portray science as a dangerous and destructive falsehood the war would go on leading us nowhere.

Sri Aurobindo’s (1996) Integral Yoga offers hope for an interface between the two contrasting schools as it encompasses a spectrum of consciousness where lower levels are not detached from the higher ones and get transformed as soon as pure consciousness is attained. Theoretically, it creates a plane where the three- brain, mind and higher consciousness can harmoniously exist and interact. One need not renounce normal daily life, external materialistic or scientific world to attain higher consciousness.

However, when a transition from theory to practice is made there emerge several handicaps that relentlessly reinforce the status quo of the great divide. There are three major issues that we must deal with before working towards an interface. Firstly, is there a possibility of comprehending spirituality by using currently predominant methods of science? While some authors feel that it is not possible to appreciate higher consciousness within the prevalent Western scientific discourse based on reductionism and argue for a radical theoretical and technological change (e.g. Cornelissen, 2003) others retain the hope of doing so by certain modifications in existing structures (e.g. Sedlmeier, 2004). Some recent studies have been done to find neurological correlates of consciousness and how does the neuro-physiology of spiritualists differ from that of normal people (e.g. Davidson et al., 2003). These studies do offer opportunity for a dialogue to begin as scientists register the potential of spirituality. However, this movement should not just limit itself to validation of spirituality in neuro-psychological terms and its use as a stress management exercise, but the spiritualists rather than being critical of such researches must grab the opportunity to take the scientists from the surface into the metaphysical depth of spirituality.

Secondly, are the proponents on both sides looking for a paradigm shift, a total annihilation of the other? Even though the majority of spiritualists would disagree with it but their often emotionally charged overly critical writings express a strong distaste with existing paradigm of science which could be creating insecurity and hostility among scientists making them more resistant towards spirituality. All adherents put their perspective on a sacred pedestal often making them a part of internal imago and are likely to put up high defiance and academic violence if their perspective is attacked. If one is working towards a dialogue then it must include an authentic appreciation of the other besides the criticism. The humanity has gained a lot from both science and spirituality and there is no reason for either to be obliterated. What we need is a theoretical and practical plane to hold both.

Thirdly, how can the immense resistance put up by fanatical adherents against the other be minimized? The theory of any school coincides with its radical and fanatical interpretation while the practitioners tend to be liberal often-incorporating diverse frameworks. However, in academics, research and conferences the theoretical fanaticism seems to have the last word. Our academics and research need to be more practice-oriented as that is in the service of reality. Theoretical opium surly needs to be diluted to meet the demands of the real world and only then its possible for us to talk to each other rather than talking at each other.

The gap between brain and soul is a big one. Perhaps, it’s a split in our being that cannot make a connection between the two. It’s the task of education to enable the mind so as to fill the void between brain and soul. A single science or spirituality that encompasses both brain and soul is needed. It is also the responsibility of this science to be free from hierarchy, pejorative vocabulary, animosity and rigidity. It must be guided by curiosity, openness and have a space for all- brain, mind and higher consciousness. The movement must eagerly take up and analyze resistance than feeling uncomfortable with it.

Coming back to my own vantage point, I’m a psychotherapist and counselor trained in western tradition. My work is psychodynamic to a great extent. A year ago I used to associate omnipotence with psychoanalysis that it has all answers but in-depth self-reflection made me renounce this position. Earlier, I would eagerly see a hysteric in a patient who reported suffering from chronic and severe headaches, for me the unconscious mind was the supreme force. Even now, I question myself that whether a patient focused on his body a hysteric or not, but I keep alert that severe headaches could be a sign of brain tumor as well. After all, a hysteric can actually suffer from a bodily ailment as well besides pretending. If I come across a case where something out of the ordinary has happened then unlike the French Psychotherapist who restricted his curiosity I would explore the issue further, go beyond my perspective and try finding an answer. If I find an answer then I’ll come back and modify the existing theory.

A true scientist and spiritualist is one who keeps his curiosity alive, who does not get confined emotionally and academically to dictates of any particular perspective. In fact, he is the one who kills Buddha if he sees him. In order to become enlightened one need not pray to, see or hear Buddha; one must become Buddha.


Cornelissen, M. (2003). The Need For The Indian Tradition. Psychological Studies, Vol. 48(3), 38-49.

Cortright, B. (2001). “Integral Psychotherapy as Existential Vedanta.” In Matthijs Cornelissen (Ed.) Consciousness and its Transformation. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo ICE.

Dalal, A.S. (Ed.) (2001). A Greater Psychology: An Introduction to the Psychological Thought of Sri Aurobindo. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education.

Davidson, R.J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S.F., Urbanowski, F., Harrington, A., Bonus, K., & Sheridan, J.F. (2003). Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65, 564-570.

Dennett, D.C. (1994). Consciousness in Human and Robot Minds. IIAS Symposium on Cognition, Computation and Consciousness.

Descartes, R. (1641/1996). Meditations on First Philosophy, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (The text is the 1911 edition of The philosophical Works Of Descartes (Cambridge University Press), translated by Elizabeth S. Haldane).

Freud, S. (1927). The Future of an Illusion. Standard Edition, Vol. 21, London: Hogarth.

Hazrat Inayat Khan (2003). “Science and Psychology”. Philosophy, Psychology and Mysticism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Kakar, S. (1982). Shamans, Mystics and Doctors- A Psychological Inquiry into India and Its Healing Traditions. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Kakar, S. (1991). The Analyst and the Mystic- Psychoanalytic Reflections on Religion and Mysticism. New Delhi: Viking.

Kuhn, T. (1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Leahey, T.H. (1991). A History of Modern Psychology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Sarin, M. (2002). Psychoanalysis and Religion. Psychological Foundations-The Journal, Vol. 4 (1), pp. 8-15.

Sharma, P. (2004). On The Seashore: Dialogues Between Indian Psychology and Modern Psychotherapy. Paper presented at National Conference on Indian Psychology, Yoga and Consciousness organized by Indian Council of Philosophical Research, 10-13 December 2004, Pondicherry, India.

Sharma, P. (2006). Beyond Good and Bad. Joyful Living, Vol. 1(3), pp. 36-38.

Sedlmeier, P. (2004). Western Scientific Methods and Indian Psychology: How Far Can They Go Together? Paper presented at National Conference on Indian Psychology, Yoga and Consciousness organized by Indian Council of Philosophical Research, 10-13 December 2004, Pondicherry, India.

Sri Aurobindo (1996). The Synthesis Of Yoga. Twin Lakes: Lotus Light Publications.

Vahali, H.O. (2002). The Spiritual Potential Within The Psychoanalytical Terrain: The Use Of The Analyst. Psychological Foundations-The Journal, Vol. 4 (1), pp. 37-43.