In my previous post, I wrote “Yet thinking about the explanatory value of spirits reveals that there is a significant difference between the idea of good spirits and bad spirits, and this difference is rather interesting.” I concluded that to an extent bad spirits are used to explain bad things like disease, death, and bad human behavior. Good spirits, on the other hand, are less explanatory; they are more often meant to inspire good behavior.
Dwelling on this idea further, I have come to see it as stemming from another, more basic distinction: the difference between knowing and willing. Further, I think a deep understanding of the difference between knowing and willing is critical to understanding the difference between the scientific and spiritual points of view. To put it bluntly, science is a method of knowing – certainly the most powerful and effective method of knowing available to humans. Spirituality is largely about willing – about redirecting our natural energies away from material ends and toward spirit itself (spirit here refers to our ability to attend and intend).
There was a time when the goal of scientific knowing was at least partly the discovery (creation) of ideas that would lead to sublime contemplation. Contemplation itself (which from the time of Pythagoras to the Nineteenth Century was the activity par excellence for humans) is the balance of knowing and willing. To contemplate requires a disciplined, self-governed mind. While the discoveries of modern science are still marvelous objects of contemplation, to create marvelous objects of contemplation is not why science is paid the big bucks. (The arts and humanities, it would seem, do not see it as their job to create objects of contemplation either, though to do so may be the sole reason they get any bucks at all.)
For the person whose main goal is to live more intently and attentively, which is to say more contemplatively and spiritually, science offers little assistance. To the extent that people seek assistance, they are most likely to find it among the ancient traditions: e.g. the Stoics, Neo-Platonists, and Desert Fathers in the West, the Yogis, Zen Buddhists, Taoists in the East. In these traditions, disciplines dedicated their life to willing their beings into a particular kind of existence – a fullness of being that required a liberation from the imperatives of the body’s many appetites and desires. (In contrast, the modern complex of the market economy and its servants -- the researchers, inventors, and marketers -- are fully dedicated to encouraging us to give ourselves fully and regularly to the body’s imperatives.)
For those whose goal is knowledge, the ideal is factual knowledge. For those who seek spiritual being, the ideal is the authentic attainment of such of being. Scientific knowledge is not particularly valuable for the latter – people were attaining the truth of being for thousands of years before the advent of modern science. But in this endeavor, a good myth can be of considerable value. And contemplation is still the state where the state where the two meet on equal and productive terms.