Secular spiritualists, although they trust in nature instead of the supernatural, may or may not as individuals understand much about science. And scientists, who study nature in detail, may or may not find spiritual meaning in it. The relationships between these two groups and those two topics, nature and spiritualism, are complicated.
The recent TV series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey illustrates some of the complexity on the science side. The series is full of imagination, it is visually striking, the music is stirring, and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s voice is expressive and friendly. In the videos we travel the breadth and depth of nature. The series is about science first and foremost, but its mode is inspirational, so it’s worthwhile asking to what extent spirituality actually comes into the picture. The answer is, not much. I’ll mention three examples.
One reference to spirituality appears in the second episode as Tyson discusses evolution, DNA, and “the tree of life.” He says, “Accepting our kinship with all of life on earth is not only solid science; in my view, it’s also a soaring, spiritual experience.” I was glad to hear Tyson assert that something can be both solid science and a spiritual experience at the same time. But the phrase “in my view” reflects his caution. Tyson knows the comment is controversial. It might irritate both scientists who reject religion and, if any of them are watching, religious people who reject evolution. In a different cultural climate, perhaps, he could asserted the claim more boldly.
Another episode in which Tyson alludes to the spiritual aspect of scientific knowledge is the final one, in the very last sentence. He stands with the ocean and sky behind him.
If we come to know and love nature as it really is, then we will surely be remembered by our descendants as good, strong links in the chain of life, and our children will continue this sacred searching, seeing for us as we have seen for those who came before, discovering wonders yet undreamt of, in the cosmos.
On the last phrase, Tyson turns from the camera to look out over the water and sky. Fade to black. The phrase “chain of life” caught my attention. While not a spiritual concept to most people, it is very much one to me. Unlike the evolutionary tree of life, the chain is an image of length and connectedness, a metaphor for each organism’s overlap with and dependence on the one that came before it. The image of the tree is about kinship and variation, while the chain suggests persistence through time.
However, Tyson here doesn’t seem to be thinking of the chain of life as the links between all organisms. In speaking of “good, strong links,” he is referring specifically to humans who “know and love nature”—to scientists and others. I was disappointed that he did not give the image of the chain of life a broader relevance.
The third spiritual reference, “this sacred searching,” appears in the same sentence. Because we know and love nature, our children will pick up where we have left off, “seeing for us as we have seen for those who came before.” Tyson like other scientists is keenly aware that they stand on the shoulders of earlier scientists. We owe it to them, he says, to take the next steps in understanding nature. The search is sacred because it is a commitment. But this use of sacred applies to scientists only. There is no sense here of a sacred search that ordinary people can participate in as they seek to understand their lives.
So Tyson’s allusions to the spiritual aspects of nature concern mostly the work of scientists themselves. In Tyson’s view and perhaps that of many of his colleagues, scientists at work studying nature already feel intimately involved with nature, perhaps almost “inside” it, as they try every day to tune in to its mysteries and marvels. This perspective is quite different from that of the many non-scientist nature-lovers (including me) who worship nature but would hardly claim to understand how it works.
These contrasting perspectives are, as I said, complicated. We need more discussion about them, and maybe after the tension surrounding creationism tapers off, we can have it.