Jan_Matejko-Astronomer_Copernicus-Conversation_with_GodIn the Western World, religion is in decline. Early in his pontificate, Benedict XVI lamented the weakening of churches in Europe, Australia, and the United States. He told a meeting of clergy in the Italian Alps, where he vacations, that “the so-called traditional churches look like they are dying.”[1] For many people, spirituality has replaced religion. I often hear my former physicist colleagues at Los Alamos National Laboratory say, “I do not believe in God, but I am very spiritual.” I do not think this is an anomaly of living in Northern New Mexico, where everyone I know feels the allure—dare I say the spiritual attraction—of the high-desert landscape. Señor Rudolfo Quintana, an old healer, un curandero viejo, once told me that the magical beauty of northern New Mexico opened a spiritual corridor and that the prayers of the Pueblo Indians and the Spanish settlers kept the world in balance for years. Right after Señor Quintana told me this, he looked me straight in the eye, and said, “Mi hijo, you scientists at Los Alamos, by making instruments of mass death, defiled this sacred space.” Despite that I never worked on nuclear weapons, I did not protest. For all I knew at that time maybe science had cut off the corridor to the spiritual.

Elaine Howard Ecklund, a social scientist at Rice University, surveyed religion and spirituality among scientists at elite universities. She reported that nearly sixty-five per cent of the scientists in her survey were either atheists or agnostics. (In a survey of members of the National Academy of Sciences, Edward J. Larsen and Larry Witham found a “near universal rejection of the transcendent,” with the belief in a personal God and in human immortality a mere seven percent.[2]) Yet, Dr. Ecklund concluded from her data that “scientists are surprisingly interested in spirituality,” since about seventy per cent described themselves as spiritual.[3]

Probably not too much should be made of this latter result. To ask a person “Do you believe in God?” is a sharply defined question, but to ask “To what extent do you consider yourself a spiritual person?” is vague, for in contemporary life the meaning of the word “spiritual” seems to vary from person to person. For instance, Richard Dawkins, the evangelical atheist, said in a recent interview that he has experienced “wonder at the beauty of the universe, the complexity of life, the magnitude of space, the magnitude of geological time… [something] which you could call spirituality.”[4]

But to wonder about nature and technology is part of human life. Most adults have wondered how birds fly, why the trees turn color in the fall, and how bees find their way back to the hive. My son, Nikolai, when young, barraged me with questions:

How can electricity come through a wire that doesn’t have any holes in it? Why can you see your breath in the winter but not in the summer? Do the telephone wires ever end? Why does a scratch relieve an itch? How do they grow seedless orange trees with no seeds to start from? Why does the moon seem to follow us when we drive along at night? Why doesn’t a spider get caught in its own web?

Children are experts at wondering, for they see the world with new eyes. If wonder is the essence of spirituality, then a five-year-old boy or girl would be more spiritual than any Zen Master.

Science, however, does lead to a rigorous, universal understanding of spirituality, not by following the path of quantum physics first proposed over forty years ago by Fritjof Capra in his book The Tao of Physics but by taking clues from ethology, the science of animal behavior. Surprisingly, the study of the perceptual life of frogs, jackdaws, and chimpanzees reveals the spiritual nature of Homo sapiens.

Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 4.52.54 PMIn a classic study at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lettvin, Maturana, McCulloch, and Pitts inserted tiny electrodes into a living frog’s optic nerve so that they could measure the electrical impulses traveling to the frog’s brain.[5] Using this technique, the researchers formed a good picture of what the frog sees. They found that when a small object is brought into the frog’s field of vision and left immobile, the frog’s eye sends electrical impulses to the brain for a few minutes, but then ceases to do so. After a short time, then, the object is no longer there as far as the frog is concerned. (See Figure 1.[6])

The reason for this disappearance is that the frog’s retina is designed to detect small moving objects. If a small object ceases to move in the frog’s field of vision, the retina cancels it out of the frog’s world. The researchers concluded that a frog cannot see a fly as such; it sees only small moving objects.

Ethologist Jacob von Uexküll, among the first to document the remarkable specificity of animal perception, discovered that a jackdaw is unable to see a grasshopper that is not moving: “A jackdaw simply does not know the shape of a motionless grasshopper and is so constituted that it can only apprehend the moving form.”[7] This explains why so many insects feign death. The motionless form of an insect does not exist in the field of vision of frogs, birds, and snakes, so by shamming death insects drop out of their prey’s world and cannot be found even if searched for.

JackdawsEthologist Konrad Lorenz reports that on one occasion when returning home from a swim he was suddenly attacked by the normally friendly flock of jackdaws that nested on the roof of his home. The birds screeched their sharp, metallic mobbing call and hailed agonizing pecks on Lorenz’s hand. The black bathing suit that he had just withdrawn from his pocket was sufficient to trigger the jackdaw’s mobbing instinct. Lorenz explains, “Of all the reactions which, in the jackdaw, concern the recognition of an enemy, only one is innate: any living being that carries a black thing, dangling, or fluttering, becomes the object of a furious onslaught.”[8]

When Lorenz held in his hands a featherless nestling jackdaw, none of the other birds attacked or paid any particular attention. When the nestling’s feathers developed so that the bird became black, Lorenz’s hand was furiously attacked by the parents, if he tried to pick up the young bird. Jackdaws perceive black, they perceive fluttering, but amazingly they cannot perceive bathing suit or featherless jackdaw.

Primates, considered the most intelligent of animals, also do not perceive what things are. Primatologist Wolfgang Kohler reports on the narrow perception of chimpan­zees.[9] He tested them with primitive stuffed toys on wooden frames padded with straw sewn inside cloth covers with black buttons for eyes. Kohler discovered that he could not get his normally docile chimpanzees near these small toys, which bore little resem­blance to any kind of animal. The chimpanzees went into paroxysms of terror and threatened recklessly to bite his fingers when he tried to draw them towards the toys. The apes perceived the shape, size, color, and design of the stuffed toys but could not see what they were — harmless cloth and wood. Psychologist Francine Patterson discovered the same thing while training her female gorilla Koko: “Although Koko has never seen a real alligator, she is petrified of toothy stuffed or rubber facsimiles. I have exploited Koko’s irrational fear of this reptile by placing toy alligators in parts of the trailer I don’t want her to touch.”[10]

Because animals do not grasp what things are, their innate responses are keyed to a few external stimuli. A deaf turkey hen pecks all her own chicks to death as soon as they are hatched. The poults’ distressed cheeping is the only stimulus that inhibits the hen’s natural aggression in defense of her nest. Without the cheeping, a recently-hatched turkey is judged by its mother’s instinct to be an enemy and is attacked. A hen with normal hearing will attack a realistic stuffed chick if it emits no sound and is pulled toward the nest by a string. Conversely, she will respond maternally to a stuffed weasel (the turkey’s natural enemy) if it has a built-in speaker that produces the cheeping of a turkey poult.[11]

To picture the impoverished perceptual life of an animal is extraordinarily difficult. We perceive the what and the why of things, substances and causes, not just black and fluttering, but swimming suit and returning swimmer. Only extreme and rare pathology can cause the perceptual life of a human being to approximate that of an animal. Neurologist Oliver Sacks reports that a patient of his, suffering from a degenerative process of the visual parts of his brain, picked out key features of a scene, “a striking brightness, a color, a shape… but in no case did he get the scene-as-a-whole. He had no sense of a landscape.”[12]

From the scientific study of animal perception, Uexküll concludes that an animal’s world is not the world we see at all, but more closely resembles “a small, poorly furnished room.”[13]

birth of venusOf all the natural creatures, only human beings can grasp a whole. A frog cannot see the iridescent, filigreed wing of a fly, nor can the fly see the glistening head and jet black eyes of the frog. A ten-year-old boy seated on the bank of the pond can take in the frog and the fly, can see the puffy white clouds racing across the blue sky, and can feel the warm spring breeze. Without the presence of a human being, the scene does not exist.

In addition to establishing the limited perceptual world of animals, ethologists have also shown that animals perceive only what is useful or harmful to them. The bloodhound’s sense of smell is acute enough to detect a person’s unique scent from a five-week-old fingerprint, but the hound uses its expert nose to track animals, never to delight in the fragrance of flowers. A barn owl can distinguish objects in light one hundred times dimmer than the light human beings need to see anything, but the owl uses its keen night vision to sight rodents, never to study the stars. An animal perceives things only under the aspect of what is useful or harmful to itself and hence ignores virtually all of nature.

Trapped within the narrow world of utilitarian desire, animals are unaware of their own beauty. Animals, of course, can experience pleasure in the activities they perform. An otter enjoys swimming, and a foxhound takes great pleasure in the chase. Yet, neither the otter nor the foxhound knows how wonderful it is; only a human being knows that.

We know from experience that human sensory perception is not limited to rigid categories of utility. Entomologist Edward Wilson studies ants because he finds them fascinating, not because he wants to find better ways to exterminate them. Wilson says that his own personal experience has taught him that science begins “by loving a subject. Birds, probability theory, explosives, stars, differential equations, storm fronts, sign language, swallowtail butterflies — the odds are that the obsession will have begun in childhood.”[14]

We fall in love with whatever is beautiful and want to know more about it. “The scientist does not study nature because it is useful to do so,” mathematician and theoretical physicist Henri Poincaré says. “He studies it because he takes pleasure in it; and he takes pleasure in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing and life would not be worth living.”[15]

What characterizes human life in contrast to animal life is that a human being can get outside himself or herself through wonder and love. If you want to experience the human way of life, go outside at night and observe the stars, or in summer pick up a dandelion and behold it, or gaze into the eyes of the next person you see. Only a person can fall in love with the other; only a person is open to all existence. Who are we? We are lovers. Each person is, as it were, the eyes and ears of nature. Instead of inhabiting “a small, poorly furnished room,” every human being through love can be connected to all that is.

newtonWithout human beings, the universe would be a drama played before an empty theater and thus would be pointless. Nature, without human beings, would be like a superb book with no reader to appreciate its subtleties, or like a mag­nificent symphony played by deaf musicians with no audience to savor its grandeur and pathos. Nature is a pageant that yearns to be known, and no animal’s perception fulfills nature as Homo sapiens’ perception does.

In the prevailing materialistic outlook of science, founded on Newtonian physics, the human being, an insignificant creature, an accidental product of chance and necessity, occupies a planet of no distinction, and life, human or otherwise, is pointless. Human existence, however, renders the universe meaningful. Remove humankind from nature and you erase the perception of all its wonder, its beauty, and its mystery—the world becomes meaningless.

Today, most of us suffer from culturally-induced amnesia and believe that a person’s spiritual nature—if it exists—is confined to church, synagogue, or mosque and has nothing to do with everyday life. The study of animal perception re-discovered the spiritual nature of Homo sapiensthe capacity to be connected to all that is. In the Western, the Eastern, and the Native American traditions, the spiritual element of the human being means precisely the capacity to embrace the totality of being. Each culture, of course, expresses the spiritual nature of the human being in its own way:

Ancient Greek: “The human soul is, fundamentally, everything that is.”[16]

Hindu: “Thou are that.”[17]

Christian: “Every other being takes only a limited part of being whereas the spiritual soul is capable of grasping the whole of being.”[18]

Jewish: “At opposite poles, both man and God encompass within their being the entire cosmos. What exists seminally in God unfolds and develops in man.”[19]

Islamic: “Who knows his soul knows his Lord.”[20]

Chinese: “He who cultivates the Tao is one with the Tao.”[21]

Native American: “To walk the path of beauty, you must connect to all things, take them seriously, with reverence.”[22]

At the center of every scientist’s life lies the fundamental principle of spirituality—the capacity to be connected to all that is. The Hubble telescope, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, and the Human Genome Project, all proclaim that Homo sapiens is a spiritual being. Scientists seek to know all that exists. The cosmologist studies the universe as a whole; the archaeologist and the paleontologist examine the ancient past on Earth; the particle physicist plumbs the smallest things. Scientists attempt to encompass everything and ultimately desire to know the source of all that is. If Homo sapiens could not embrace the totality of being, the pursuit of science would be doomed to failure, and in the end would be meaningless.

Yet, we must not forget that science is only one of the many ways we are connected to things—a wonderful way at that—but it does not embrace the totality of being, and thus doing science is only part of the spiritual life. Love and hate, hope and despair, freedom and enslavement cannot be measured on a meter; existence is vastly greater than the results of measuring apparatus, and measurements, themselves, ultimately depend upon a human observer. If scientists were to look inward with the same seriousness with which they look outward, they would be forced to reflect upon the interior life, upon the creature who seeks truth, desires to know everything, delights in beauty, experiences joy when the truth is encountered, and wonders about why nature can be known at all. Doing science does reveal much about the interior life. But the experimental method renders science, itself, mute about meaning, purpose, and value. For a fuller account of the purpose of human life, we must turn to the interior experience of musicians, poets, and, yes, mystics, but most especially to the three great teachers of humankind—the Buddha, Socrates, and Jesus.

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[1] Benedict XVI, reported by L’Osservatore Romano (July 2005).

[2] Edward J. Larson and Larry Witham, “Leading scientists still reject God.” Nature 394 (23 July 1998): 313.

[3] Elaine Howard Ecklund, “Religion and Spirituality among University Scientists,” Social Science Research Council, (7 Feb. 2007).

[4] Richard Dawkins, “Al Jazeera’s Riz Khan Interviews Biologist Richard Dawkins,” (9 Jan. 2010).

[5] J. Y. Lettvin, H. R. Maturana, W. S. McCulloch, and W. H. Pitts, “What the Frog’s Eye Tells the Frog’s Brain,” Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers 47 (November 1959): 1940.

[6] Figure 26.1 is a composite of Shutterstock images: Michiel de Wit, “Northern Leopard Frog (Lithobates pipiens);” Africa Studio, “Fish hook with worm isolated on white background;” Irin-k, “Bee isolated on white;” Anneka, “Mealworm or worm on a fishing hook as bait;” and Vnlit, “Dragonfly macro isolated on white background.”

[7] Jacob von Uexküll, quoted by Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, trans. Alexander Dru (New York: Mentor, 1963), p. 86.

[8] Konrad Lorenz, King Solomon’s Ring, trans. Marjorie Kerr Wilson (New York: Meridan), pp. 155, 157.

[9] Wolfgang Kohler, The Mentality of Apes, trans. Ella Winter (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1931), pp. 320-321.

[10] Francine G. Patterson, “Conversations with a Gorilla,” Nation­al Geographic 154 (October 1978): 456, 459.

[11] Konrad Lorenz, On Aggression (New York: Harcourt, 1963), pp. 117-118.

[12] Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (New York: Summit, 1985), p. 9.

[13] Uexküll, quoted by Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis Culture, p. 85.

[14] Edward O. Wilson, Biophilia (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), p. 65.

[15] Henri Poincaré, The Value of Science (New York: Dover, 1958), p. 8.

[16] Aristotle, De Anima, Bk. III, Ch. 8, (431b). Available http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/soul.html.

[17] Chandogya Upanishad, 6.12-14.

[18] See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, Bk. Three, Part II, Ch. 112.

[19] Gershom Scholem, Kabbalah (Jerusalem: Keter, 1974), p. 152.

[20] Jalaluddin Rumi, Signs of the Unseen: The Discourses of Jalaluddin Rumi, trans. W. M. Thackston, Jr. (Putney, Vermont: Threshold Books, 1994), p. 59.

[21] Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, no. 16.

[22] Billy Yellow, interview by David Maybury-Lewis, “Millennium,” aired on PBS, 1992.

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