As an academic - a researcher and senior lecturer at a university in the UK - people are often surprised by my unorthodox views on the nature of life, and of the world. For example, when I mention to colleagues that I’m open-minded about the possibility of some form of life after death, or that I believe in the possibility of paranormal phenomena such as telepathy or pre-cognition, they look at me as if I’ve told them I’m going to give up academia and become a truck driver. It’s taken for granted that if you’re an intellectual or an academic, you don't entertain such unusual views.
The great majority of my colleagues and peers - and most academics and intellectuals in general - have an orthodox materialist view of the world. They believe that human consciousness is produced by the brain, and that when the brain ceases to function, consciousness will end. They believe that phenomena such as telepathy precognition belong to a pre-rational superstitious worldview which has long been superseded by modern science. They believe that the evolution of life - and most human behaviour - can be completely explained in terms of principles such as natural selection and competition for resources. To doubt these beliefs is to be seen as weak-minded or intellectually gullible.
People are even more confused when I tell them that I’m not religious. ‘Have can you believe in life after death without being religious?’ they wonder. ‘How can you be doubtful about Darwinism without being religious?’
This book is my attempt to justify my views to anyone who believes that to be rational means to ascribe to a materialist view of the world. It’s my attempt to show that one can be an intellectual and a rationalist, without automatically denying the existence of seemingly 'irrational' phenomena. In fact, it is actually much more rational to be open to the existence of such phenomena. To deny the possibility of their existence is actually irrational.
Although we might not be aware of it, our culture is in thrall to a particular paradigm or belief system which in its own way is just as dogmatic and irrational as a religious paradigm. This is the belief system of materialism, which holds that matter is the primary reality of the universe, and that anything that appears to be non-physical - such as the mind, our thoughts, consciousness, or even life itself - is physical in origin, or can be explained in physical terms.
We don’t just have to choose between an orthodox materialist view of the world and an orthodox religious view. Often it is assumed that these are the only two options. Either you believe in heaven and hell, or you believe that there is no life after death. Either you believe in a God who overlooks and controls the events of the world, or you believe that nothing exists apart from chemical particles and the phenomena - including living beings - that have accidentally formed out of them. Either God created all life forms, or they evolved accidentally through random mutations and natural selection.
But this is a false dichotomy. There is an alternative to the religious and materialist views of reality, which is arguably a more rational option than both. Broadly, this alternative can be termed ‘post-materialism.’ Post-materialism holds that matter is not the primary reality of the universe, and that phenomena such as consciousness or life cannot be wholly explained in biological or neurological terms. Post-materialism holds that there is something more fundamental than matter, which might be variously termed mind, consciousness or spirit.
There are a number of varieties of ‘post-materialism.’ One of the most popular is called panpsychism, which is the idea that all material things (down to the level of atoms) have a degree of sentience, or consciousness, even if it is infinitesimally small, or just a kind of ‘protoconsciousness.’ However, I favour what I call a ‘panspiritist’ approach. Or you could simply call it a ‘spiritual’ approach.
The basic idea of my spiritual approach is very simple: the essence of reality (which is also the essence of our being) is a quality which might be called spirit, or consciousness. This quality is fundamental and universal; it is everywhere and in all things. It is not unlike gravity or mass, in that it was embedded into the universe right from the beginning of time, and is still present in everything. It may even have existed before the universe, and the universe can be seen as an emanation or manifestation of it.
Although this is a simple idea, it has a lot of important corollaries and consequences. Since all things share a common spiritual essence, there are no separate or distinct entities. As living beings, we are not separate to each other, or to the world we live in, since we share the same nature as each other, and as the world.
It also means that the universe is not an inanimate, empty place, but a living organism. The whole cosmos is imbued with spirit-force, from the tiniest particles of matter to the vast empty empty tracts of darkness between planets and solar systems.
Spirituality isn’t often thought of in an 'explanatory' context. Most people believe that it’s the role of science to explain how the world works. But this simple notion - that there is a fundamental spirit or consciousness which is ever-present and in everything - has great explanatory power. There are many issues that don’t make sense from a materialist perspective, but which can be easy explained from a spiritual point of view.
This is perhaps the biggest problem with materialism: that there are so many phenomena that it can’t account for. As a result, it is woefully inadequate as a model of reality. At this point, it is reasonable to say that, as an attempt to explain human life and the world, it has failed. Only a worldview based on the idea that there is something more fundamental than matter can help us to make sense of the world.
One thing I would like to make clear at the beginning of this book is that I am not criticising science in itself. This is one of the common reactions I’ve had to the articles I’ve published on similar themes to this book.
'How can you criticise science when it has done so much for us?' is a typical comment. 'How can you tell me it isn’t true when it’s based on millions of laboratory experiments, and its basic principles are used in every aspect of modern life?' is another. A further typical query is: ‘'Why do you equate science to a religion? Scientists don’t care about beliefs - they just keep their minds open until the evidence appears. And if they have to revise their opinions, they do.'
I have no wish to criticise the many scientists - such as marine biologists, climatologists, astronomers or chemical engineers - who work diligently and valuably without being particularly concerned with philosophical or metaphysical issues. Science is a method and process of observing and investigating natural phenomena, and reaching conclusions about them. It’s a process of uncovering basic principles of the natural world, and of the universe, or of the biology of living beings. It’s an open-ended process whose theories are - ideally - continually tested and updated.
And I completely agree that science has given us many wonderful things. It’s given us amazingly intricate knowledge of the world and of the human body. It’s given us vaccinations against diseases that killed our ancestors and the ability to heal a massive array of conditions and injuries that would also have been fatal in the past. It’s given us space travel, air travel, and a whole host of other amazing feats of engineering and technology.
All of this is wonderful. And it’s partly because of such accomplishments that I love science. The other main reason I love science is that it opens up us up to the wonders of nature and the universe. In particular, I love biology, physics and astronomy.
The complexity of the human body, and particularly of the human brain - with its hundred billion neurons - amazes me. And I find it mind-boggling that we know the structure of the tiniest particles of matter, and at the same time of the structure of the universe as a whole. The fact that scientific discoveries range from such a microcosmic level to such a macrocosmic level is incredible. I feel immense gratitude to the scientists throughout history who have made our present understanding of the universe and the world possible.
So why am I so critical of science? you might ask.
The answer is that I’m not critical of science or scientists. I am critical of the materialistic worldview - or paradigm - that has become so intertwined with science that many people can’t tell them apart. (Another possible term for this is scientism, which emphasises that it is a worldview that has been extrapolated out of some scientific findings.) Materialism (or scientism) contains many assumptions and beliefs which have no basis in fact, but which have authority simply because they are associated with science.
One of these assumptions is that consciousness is produced by the human brain. However, there is no evidence for this at all - despite decades of intensive investigation and theorising, no scientist has even come close to suggesting how the brain might give rise to consciousness.
It’s simply assumed that the brain must give rise to consciousness because there appear to be some correlations between brain activity and consciousness (e.g. when my brain is injured, my consciousness may be impaired or altered) and because there doesn’t appear to be any other way in which consciousness could possibly arise. In fact, there is a growing awareness of how problematic this assumption is, with more and more theorists turning towards alternative perspectives, such as panpsychism.
Another assumption is that psychic phenomena such as telepathy or precognition cannot exist. Similarly, anomalous phenomena such as near-death experiences or spiritual experiences are seen as brain-generated hallucinations. Materialists sometimes say that if these phenomena really did exist, they would break the laws of physics, or turn all the principles of science upside down. But this is untrue. Phenomena such as telepathy and precognition are actually completely compatible with the laws of physics. In addition, there is significant empirical and experimental evidence suggesting that they are real.
However, some materialists have a blanket refusal to consider the evidence for these phenomena, in a similar way to how many religious fundamentalists refuse to consider evidence against their beliefs. This refusal isn’t based on reason, but on the fact that these phenomena contravene their belief system.
This contradicts the naive assumption that science is always purely evidence-based, and theories and concepts are always re-evaluated in the light of new findings. This is how science should ideally be, but unfortunately, findings or theories that contravene the tenets of assumptions of scientism are often dismissed out of hand, without being given a fair hearing.
Thankfully, there are some scientists who don’t adhere to materialism - scientists who have the courage to risk the hostility and ridicule of their peers and investigate potentially heretical possibilities, such as that there may be more to evolution that just random mutations and natural selections, that so-called paranormal phenomena may in fact be ‘normal’, or that consciousness isn’t wholly dependent on the brain. Heretical scientists aren’t burnt at the stake, of course, as religious heretics sometimes were, but they are often excommunicated - that is, ostracised and excluded from academia, and subjected to ridicule.
I certainly don’t intend to throw science overboard, and return to ignorance and superstition - far from it. I would simply like to free science from the belief system of materialism, and so introduce a wider and more holistic form of science, that is not limited and distorted by beliefs and assumptions - a spiritual science.
There are two ways in which the conventional materialist model of reality is deficient. One is that it cannot adequately explain major scientific and philosophical issues, such as consciousness, the relationship between the mind and brain (and the mind and the body), altruism and evolution. The second is that it cannot account for a wide range of ‘anomalous’ phenomena, from psychic phenomena to near-death experiences and spiritual experiences. These are ‘rogue’ phenomena that have to be denied or explained away, simply because they don’t fit into the paradigm of materialism, in the same way that the existence of fossils doesn’t fit into the paradigm of fundamentalist religion.
Every phenomenon that appears ‘anomalous’ from the perspective of materialism can be easily and elegantly explained from the perspective of panspiritism.
It’s also important to point out that these issues aren’t just academic. It’s not just a question of me picking arguments with materialists and sceptics because I think they’re wrong. The conventional materialist model has very serious consequences in terms of how we live our lives, and how we treat other species, and the natural world. It leads to a devaluation of life - of our own lives, of other species’, and of the Earth itself.
At the same time as solving many of the riddles of materialism, a spiritual worldview can reverse these consequences. It can change our relationship to the world, engender a reverential attitude to nature, and to life itself. It can heal us, just as it can heal the whole world.
©2018 by Steve Taylor. All Rights Reserved.
Published by Watkins, an imprint of Watkins Media Limited.
Spiritual Science: Why Science Needs Spirituality to Make Sense of the World
by Steve Taylor
Spiritual Science offers a new vision of the world that is compatible with both modern science and ancient spiritual teachings. It provides a more accurate and holistic account of reality than conventional science or religion, integrating a wide range of phenomena that are excluded from both. After showing how the materialist worldview demeans the world and human life, Spiritual Science offers a brighter alternative – a vision of the world as sacred and interconnected, and of human life as meaningful and purposeful.
Steve Taylor is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University, and the author of several best-selling books on psychology and spirituality. His books include Waking From Sleep, The Fall, Out of the Darkness, Back to Sanity, and his latest book The Leap (published by Eckhart Tolle). His books have been published in 19 languages, while his articles and essays have been published in over 40 academic journals, magazines and newspapers. Visit his website at stevenmtaylor.com/