Gregg Sapp's Reviews > Science and Spiritual Practices: Reconnecting through direct experience

Science and Spiritual Practices by Rupert Sheldrake
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it was ok

News flash – scientists can be spiritual, too. Who knew? Rupert Sheldrake, author of “Science and Spiritual Practices,” that’s who.

Actually, there is nothing about practicing rigorous scientific methodology that prevents a person from simultaneously cultivating an inner, subjective spirituality. That’s hardly a bombshell revelation. True, many scientists may by their nature be skeptical of certain types or methods of attaining spiritual bliss, but that doesn’t require them to be rigid materialists about everything.

So far, there’s nothing remotely contentious in Sheldrake’s observation that “Open minded scientific studies enhance our understanding of spiritual and religious practices.” There are two types of studies that apply – one which examines the physiological events that take place in a body during a spiritual exercise, such as meditation, and the second documenting the effects upon the practitioners. There is a relatively small, but still representative body of literature regarding both.

Sheldrake considers scientific knowledge as it pertains to seven common aspects of religious expression – meditation, gratitude, connecting with nature, relating to plants, rituals, music, and pilgrimages. Some of these practices lend themselves to the analysis of the first kind. For example, the neurological effects of meditation can be studied using brain scanning technology. The second category of study is where the researcher looks for correlations between a religious practice, such as prayer, and general traits or experiences, as reported by the subjects themselves. Among the findings of this kind are that respondents who have levels of gratitude are happier than those who don’t, or that nature can inspire transformative experiences in young people. Hardly a revelation.

The bulk of this book discusses how the materialistic presumptions of science fail to capture the innate human feelings that make these religious practices so valuable. Sheldrake provides lots of historical and philosophical examples of how this is so. I think he is wrong, though, for it is entirely possible to be in awe of a beautiful sunset and still appreciate that the sun is just another main sequence star.

It is at this point, however, that Sheldrake makes a bigger theoretical leap. These rituals provide glimpses of a reality greater than they physical universe in which we dwell. There are connections between animate and inanimate objects, past and present, and supernatural phenomena, governed by a force he calls “morphic resonance.” To the best of my understanding, morphic resonance is a kind of telepathic connection between organisms and objects, which raises the possibility that even inanimate objects possess something akin to memories. Whatever it is, I think that the default should be to be skeptical.

I agree with Sheldrake’s main argument the experiences evoked by religious rituals are important facets of human psychology. I also agree that science can and should study the effects of those experiences. But science, too, can generate similar feelings, and when it does I consider them to be spiritual experiences. Does it really matter if the explanations are materialistic, or morphic?

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Reading Progress

February 29, 2020 – Started Reading
March 19, 2020 – Shelved
March 19, 2020 – Finished Reading

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