Is spirituality really the opposite of science?

Love is just a hormonal fluctuation coursing through neurological circuits in the brain. Art can be reduced to its atomic structures. Should we really be using science to explain culture and beauty? Some critics say we shouldn't — and that science is destroying the sense of wonder we get from stories.

Image by Frank Kunert

Though the science vs. culture debate has been raging for at least 300 years now, this latest round has its own special properties. Right now in the United States, universities and science labs are suffering from funding cuts, and so people on both sides of the culture and science divide are feeling especially vulnerable. And we're also living in an era in the west when the media has heavily associated the idea of scientific rationality with charismatic, antagonistic figures like the atheist Richard Dawkins. So in the public sphere at least, the fate of science has been politicized — it's the subject of fierce debates over government spending, and it has become embroiled in religious debates too.

That said, the yelling really got started when Illinois State English professor Curtis White published a book called The Science Delusion earlier this year. The book is a polemic about how science has drained beauty and meaning from the world. White suggested that science had no answer to the idea of "spirit" or "soul" proposed by art and philosophy. To view the world from a scientific perspective, White wrote, meant losing our way. Later, in an interview, White told science journalist Maggie Koerth-Baker that the whole book was just intended as exaggerated satire. Unfortunately, nobody got the joke.

In this way, White takes his cues from rhetoric used in a previous melee in this battle, back in the 1990s, when the scientist Alan Sokal published an article criticizing science in cultural studies journal Social Text. Later, he claimed the article was an elaborate hoax. He didn't actually believe that science should be subject to critical theory, and he claimed that his ability to "fool" humanities scholars proved that they were a bunch of idiots.

So now the tables have turned! With White's book, at last a humanities scholar has fooled a bunch of scientists into thinking he's serious when he wasn't! Perhaps this proves that culture will always be able to wriggle out of rationality's grasp.

If you consider White's book in this light, he's saying something that many scientists wouldn't disagree with. You can't use the scientific method to discover the "truth" of a cultural or artistic phenomenon in the same way you can use it to discover how fast an object is moving through space. Certainly art critics and social scientists can make an effort to back up their arguments with evidence, and use logical analysis. But in the end nobody can put a piece of art in a PCR machine and decide whether it's conclusions are true or not. Cultural meanings are ambiguous and unpredictable, and understanding them requires a set of tools that are not strictly scientific.

OK, fine. So ethical decisions and aesthetic judgements aren't always scientific. But the skirmish begun by White took a leap into the surreal when Yahoo! reporter and former New York Times technology writer Virginia Heffernan published an essay called "Why I'm A Creationist." In that essay, she took White's arguments a step further. If science couldn't explain the beauty in art or the structure of a social phenomenon, then she figured she was a creationist. Because if science can't explain beauty, then the entire scientific endeavor is useless.

Heffernan took to Twitter to debate this with scientists and science writers, where she clarified her argument. Basically, she believes that everything in our world — from science to religion — is a kind of story. There is no absolute truth. And therefore, she wants to pick the coolest story to believe in. Which she feels is the story of God. Here are a couple of her tweets explaining this:

To Heffernan, everything is a matter of belief. So she picks her truths based on artistic principles — and from an artistic standpoint, the Big Bang and climate change are just boring.

Though Heffernan is probably taking the weirdest position in this debate, she engages in a form of logical slippage that's common in anti-science thought. The slippage comes from people moving from "science can't explain this" to "therefore truth comes only from religious or spiritual faith."

It's actually quite possible for science to suck at explaining why I cried during Pacific Rim, and yet still be excellent at uncovering the truth behind objects and events in the physical world. Narrow-minded scientists have certainly been guilty of disparaging cultural analysis, but the scientific project is not. Ideally, science is a system that admits its own failings.

Luckily, we have thousands of years of philosophy and aesthetics to help us understand the forces that brought tears to my eyes during a movie about a traumatized little girl who grows up to vanquish the giant monsters that destroyed her life. Science cannot predict all the ways that audience members will react to a movie. But the humanities and social sciences give us many ways to explore the myriad possible ways that culture affects us — and how we change ourselves by using culture. Spiritual belief systems can help illuminate these issues too. But does that mean we should dismiss what science reveals?

The problem is the fact that this whole debate is being staged as a debate in the first place, as if it's impossible to be both scientific and cultural, or rational and spiritual. I propose that we need more public discussion about how we can reconcile these perspectives, which to many members of the public seem equally alien. We cannot understand the world and humanity if we don't combine the tools of science with all the other meaning-finding systems available to us. Believing in culture or spirit doesn't mean you automatically have to reject science. And vice versa.

What's infuriating is when we're presented with a false binary like science vs. culture and are forced to choose a side. If you want to find me, I'll be on the side of the people who are deconstructing the cultural binary and building a better world out of atoms.

Annalee Newitz is the author of the book, Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction. Follow her on Twitter.