I don’t like the term; it reeks of religiosity and superstition. Another problem is that it is defined in too many diverse ways, making the concept exceedingly slippery. A third problem is potential confusion with spiritualism (belief in communication with ghosts). But I use the term spirituality because I haven’t found an acceptable alternative, including all those suggested by rationalists who bristle at its very mention.
It’s reasonable to ask why I bother dealing with spirituality at all, regardless of what word I use. I see it as a realm apart from physicality. Is the physical universe everything? Maybe; certainly, there is no objective evidence of any other realm. But whereas detectability establishes existence, non-detectability does not establish non-existence. (Yes, I know—True Believers offer the same argument, “You can’t prove God doesn’t exist!” And they are correct; the claim that a deity, generically, exists is not falsifiable. It is, however, easy to show that the specific deity they are promoting—the character called “God” in the Bible—is either non-existent or not a deity, for a flawed, all-too-human deity is a self-contradictory concept.)
Evidence and speculation
An idea for which there is no evidence either way—nothing supportive, nothing refutative, and no foreseeable way to obtain evidence of any kind—is a speculation. In the absolute absence of evidence, the rational process cannot dictate an answer. For some people, unproved ideas and disproved ideas are all to be rejected as worthless. For others, unproved ideas may be considered individually and then either accepted or rejected.
The spiritual realm is a speculative idea. If it exists, what can we say about it? How can we explore what is non-detectable by any known physical instrumentality? The plain answer is, we can’t. We cannot know anything about a realm that we aren’t even sure exists. And yet we may get an intuitive or instinctive feeling about it. Feelings are not evidence, but the fact that we cannot know if a feeling is true does not dictate that it must be dismissed as false.
What I believe
I don’t claim to have factual knowledge about the speculative realm I call spiritual; I can only share what I believe. I believe it is a web of sentience; an immense lattice connecting all sentient beings, human and animal, such that how I treat others reflects right back at me, as if by resonance along the strands of the web. Obviously, I am not talking about a physical structure, and I make no claim to understanding the mechanism of connection.
Spirituality is expressed in compassion. Compassion is not special or noble; I try to help others because doing so returns a sense of being helped to me; I try to avoid hurting others because that would return a sense of hurt to me. These feelings are the definition of empathy, which I believe arises from the connection and is carried along the web, much as a phone conversation is carried along a communications network.
The web of sentience is how I interpret my instinctive or intuitive feeling of connection. I am also intrigued by an even more speculative idea, for which I cannot even claim any intuitive personal feeling. If sentience is a pervasive trait in the universe (or of the universe), then perhaps there is an overriding “cosmic mindfulness” that reflects the accumulated knowledge and experience of all sentient life that has ever existed and will ever exist, everywhere.
In contrast to religion, magic, and the supernatural
Although religion routinely describes itself as spiritual, I see religion and spirituality as diametric opposites: Religion sets up walls that separate us according to which unprovable doctrines we believe, whereas spirituality tears down walls by establishing and embracing our connection to others; the web of sentience is the medium of that connection. Connection through the web can be broken by paralysis; the strands cannot resonate when they are rendered sclerotic by dogmatism and obsession—exactly the traits prized by fervent religiosity.
Religious beliefs center on a deity construed to have magical powers (“miraculous” is just a pious euphemism for magical). I don’t mean illusions created by clever stagecraft and sleight-of-hand; I mean real-deal magic by which a god can, at any time, willfully suspend the scientific principles that govern reality. Magic is therefore incompatible with reality, and I state categorically that I don’t believe in magic. Magic defines the province of superstition and the supernatural, whether we are thinking about gods or zombies or witchcraft.
As stated, the realm of spirituality—if it exists at all—is distinct from the realm of physicality, yet I see it as part of the natural universe, whereas religion and magic are intrinsically supernatural concepts. The fact that we cannot detect spiritual phenomena does not automatically relegate the idea to the unreality of magic and superstition; that is, when we speak of physicality, we are limited to what we are able to detect as physically real. But again, reality is not necessarily limited to what we can detect with current technology. For example, consider a time in history when no one had any inkling of the electromagnetic spectrum. People might have laughed at the notion of invisible waves in the air; yet radio waves are real and entirely natural. Now consider American author Jack Williamson’s science-fiction novel The Humanoids (1948), which presents a phenomenon called “rhodomagnetism,” a source of immense power derived from the properties of rhodium, analogous to ferromagnetism based on the properties of iron. In the world today, we have no way to detect such a phenomenon as rhodomagnetism and therefore no objective basis to regard it as real—but if there were such a thing, it would be part of the natural world, not the magical world of the supernatural.
To repeat: I do not claim to know that my speculative beliefs are real; without evidence, they may be nothing more than my own fantasies and imagination at work. It is enough that they work for me. No, they do not “bring me comfort,” as more than one imperious cynic has contemptuously sniffed; what they do is provide a model that supports my commitment to let reason and compassion guide my acts. And for that, I offer no apology, excuse, or justification.
I don’t ask or expect anyone to believe that what I experience and have tried to describe is real; maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Most atheists shrug at my spiritual belief; a few are openly scornful. Yet in the absence of evidence—i.e., for an idea that is neither proved nor disproved—belief and disbelief are equally non-volitional. I cannot willfully disbelieve something I do believe any more than hardcore skeptics can willfully believe something they don’t believe. There is no rational basis for demanding or forbidding acceptance or rejection of a speculative idea.
The attitude that unproved and disproved ideas should be treated as interchangeably worthless ignores the fact that we know a disproved idea is false but we do not know whether an unproved idea is true or false; therefore, we are each free to consider such ideas. If it is offensive for proselytizers to dictate what others must believe, it is also offensive for epistemological purists to dictate what others must not believe.
“On what basis can a rational person accept this speculative idea as real?” the militant rationalist demands. “You have no way of knowing if it’s true. And if you’re wrong, you’re accepting a lie.”
To which I smile winsomely and reply, “But if I’m right, you’re rejecting the truth.”
Yep, life is uncertain.