I have come across many scientists who say: “I do not subscribe to any religion, but I am a spiritual person.” What exactly is spirituality? Here are a couple of definitions:
The term “spirituality” lacks a definitive definition, although social scientists have defined spirituality as the search for “the sacred,” where “the sacred” is broadly defined as that which is set apart from the ordinary and worthy of veneration. The use of the term “spirituality” has changed throughout the ages. In modern times, spirituality is often separated from Abrahamic religions, and connotes a blend of humanistic psychology with mystical and esoteric traditions and eastern religions aimed at personal well-being and personal development. The notion of “spiritual experience” plays an important role in modern spirituality, but has a relatively recent origin. (Wikipedia)
Spirituality means something different to everyone. For some, it’s about participating in organized religion: going to church, synagogue, a mosque, etc. For others, it’s more personal: Some people get in touch with their spiritual side through private prayer, yoga, meditation, quiet reflection, or even long walks. Research shows that even skeptics can’t stifle the sense that there is something greater than the concrete world we see. As the brain processes sensory experiences, we naturally look for patterns, and then seek out meaning in those patterns. And the phenomenon known as “cognitive dissonance” shows that once we believe in something, we will try to explain away anything that conflicts with it. Humans can’t help but ask big questions – the instinct seems wired in our minds.
Shorn of the superfluous and logically untenable God concept (or the “some higher power” concept), spirituality is mainly about the so-perceived “enhancement” of the so-called “inner life”. Each person has his inner life, pertaining to what his mind perceives, or imagines, or aspires for, but so what? I think it is no different from idle reverie. My inner life is different from yours, and all that really matters is the “outer-life” expression or manifestation of the inner life, and this outer-life manifestation is a natural phenomenon like any other, amenable to scrutiny by science.
Our brain is a physical organ, subject to the laws of physics. And our mind is what our brain does. I subscribe to the view that there is nothing wrong or unscientific about any efforts to make one’s thinking more productive and innovative and original by meditation etc.; and there is nothing mystical about that. It is perfectly fine for a person to do meditation if that helps him achieve better mental health, and greater intuitive capabilities or originality.
One of the most innovative minds I know of is Ray Kurzweil (2012). Here is what he does for getting new, problem-solving ideas: “Relaxing professional taboos turns out to be useful for creative problem solving. I use a mental technique each night in which I think about a particular problem before I go to sleep. This triggers sequences of thoughts that will continue into my dreams. Once I am dreaming, I can think – dream – about solutions to the problem without the burden of the professional restraints I carry during the day. I can then access these dream thoughts in the morning while in an in-between state of dreaming and being awake, sometimes referred to as ‘lucid dreaming'”. Fine. And very impressive.
The mind-body relationship is a subject of great importance. There are so many unexplored examples of what the mind can make the body do or endure. Scientific researchers should be duly skeptical on one hand, and open-minded on the other, when it comes to accepting or rejecting outlandish-looking claims. Reproducible verification has to be the final arbiter, always.