Spirituality Beyond Platitudes

| June 7, 2016

Man is ruled by Spirit. In the desert I am worth what my divinities are worth.

~Antoine de-Saint Exupery

As a general statement, and with some exceptions, I tend to prefer art that is self-expressive to art for its own sake. I do not mean to characterize either approach as inherently better or worse, or as more or less important, than the other. I consider them to be different things, originating in different philosophies, and intended to accomplish different goals. This is a personal choice, rooted in the roles that art plays in my own life, as both a maker and a consumer of art. The primary reason for my preference is my belief that art is most useful in its power to elevate the living experience. I say this knowing that some contemporary scholars may bristle at the idea that art should be useful—it should not; I just happen to favor art that is.

Those things that elevate the living experience by intangible means often are considered as “spiritual.” Indeed, even at the semantic level, spirituality and art share an unfortunate similarity, which is this: discussions of both are at times so overloaded with platitudes as to be easily dismissed as trite and cliché. I think this is a shame, and I would like here to make the case for a spirituality that is rooted in knowledge, experience, reason and scientific exploration.Such a spirituality in my own life also is intimately associated with, and derived from, among other things, both the making and the consumption of art.

I also wish to share my opinion that such spirituality transcends, in its power to elevate one’s living experience, other manifestations of spirituality that are rooted, instead, in unquestioned myths or traditions, as by its self-correcting and adaptive nature, it is less susceptible to doubt and error.

Some consider spirituality to be antithetical of science. This belief is, regrettably, held by some scientists and also by some who consider themselves as spiritual. Both, in my mind, make the unfortunate error of favoring dogma over experience. Spirituality that denies facts will forever be mired in doubt and denial; while a purely materialist world view robs its holder of the profound awe to be found in mystery.

Let me explain what I mean by spirituality, starting with the distinction that spirituality may overlap with, but is not the same as, faith, or mysticism. Faith is what one believes to be true in the absence of knowledge or evidence. Mysticism is what one believes to be true regarding things that are unknowable. Spirituality, to me, is the meaning one derives from acknowledging one’s place within the grand tapestry of existence, accounting for the known, the unknown, and the unknowable; and for the fact that knowledge is not a fixed quantity.

A spirituality founded in the pursuit of truth is one that should be able to adapt with changes in knowledge. Better yet, it is one that gains in value with increases in knowledge. As it turns out, the more we learn about the nature of existence, the greater and more impressive its mysteries become. Albert Einstein referred to the mysterious as, “the most beautiful thing we can experience,” and Francis Bacon proclaimed it the artist’s job “to always deepen the mystery.”

To have spirituality, of any manner, and to have it factor into one’s attitude toward life, into the choices one makes and into one’s sense of what is important, is of tremendous value. It offers comfort and motivation in peaceful and troubled times; it alleviates anxiety rooted in concern for the future; in particular, it is also a means of contending with one’s transience and inevitable death. Such powers, however, are diminished if one’s spirituality is founded in conjecture, tradition or myth, and thereby inherently susceptible to doubt. The more one’s spirituality is validated by fact, knowledge and experience, the more confidently one may rely on in both the best and the worst of times.

Humanity’s journey of scientific advancement resulted in acquisition of profound knowledge. And as such, a spirituality informed by knowledge is intimately tied with the scientific process: the best tool humanity ever had for ascertaining what amounts to truth, or as close to it as we are able to get. Science took spirituality from the realm of speculation and myth and allowed it to become more defensible and less ambiguous. Science offers humanity a view of itself that to many is difficult to accept: our infinitesimal presence in the grand story of existence. Going by what we know, the universe we live in (perhaps one of many) is so astoundingly large and complex as to make our very existence inconsequential; our lives exceedingly short in comparison with other natural processes; and our demise certain and finite. Science has proven unequivocally that our concepts of time, space and material existence are far removed from what we may perceive with our senses and intellect, let alone abide by what we casually call “common sense.” Recent studies even suggest that consciousness is just a biological process evolved to improve biological fitness, same as digestion and breeding; and that it is quite likely we (as in: our conscious selves) are not truly afforded free choice, at least not to the extent we often believe we are. By any perspective, one’s conscious existence is meaningless, except for one: that of the individual experiencing the world within the short blip of existence he or she is afforded.

Despite all speculation and conjecture, it is quite certain that one’s identity, knowledge, memories and stories cannot persist after death. Whether consciousness remains in some form is yet unknown (and there is no credible evidence to suggest so), but even if it does there is no doubt that one’s perceptions of the world come from physical senses, evolved and adapted to the random conditions of life on Earth; that one’s memories and knowledge are encoded in physical structures within the living brain, as are one’s personality, temperament and sensibilities. We know this because we can disrupt and alter these qualities quite readily by affecting specific parts of the brain. The significance of such knowledge is immense: we each get one life, at least as the human animal we each consider our self. And what can make for a better argument to favor meaningful experiences over tedium, profound emotions to jadedness, knowledge to ignorance, joy to confrontation, beauty to wretchedness; more generally: time well spent to time wasted.

Any attempt to assign objective importance to anything we do falls apart eventually. We are made of atoms and molecules that some call “ordinary matter,” although there is nothing ordinary about them. All the atoms making all that we are capable of seeing and sensing, whether on Earth or on any of trillions of other planets and stars, and hundreds of billions of galaxies, account for just 4% of the mass in the known universe, and likely are just aberrations: fluctuations in an invisible field where things randomly pop in and out of material existence. Quantum mechanics: the most accurate science ever produced by humanity in its descriptions of reality also tells us that some knowledge will forever remain beyond our reach; made impossible to accomplish by the very laws of physics that make our existence possible.

Some argue that our actions may amount to what Chaos theorists call “butterfly effects,” potentially having significant consequences in some distant future. However, while such effects may “matter” within some prolonged span of time, they do not matter one bit from the perspective of the butterfly.

It may seem that such a system of belief may lead to hedonism and egoism, but such an assumption ignores the goal of elevating one’s living experience. Put another way, the reward for anything we do is best measured in degrees of happiness. Studies show that we are happier when we are kind and generous, rather than miserly and duplicitous; when engaged in creative activities rather than sloth or in performing mindless tasks; when free of threat and coercion rather than when engaged in conflict; when we are satisfied with what we have rather than wishing we had more. To elevate the living experience, it turns out, also means to be a peaceful, generous, compassionate and creative human being; and to fill one’s life with as much beauty as possible. It is here that art comes into play. While there is no denying the effect of beautiful art, less obvious is the effect of making expressive art. In expressive art, the artist seeks ways of symbolizing his or her own thoughts and feelings, rather than just employ craftsmanship; which makes expressive art among the most creative activities that one may partake in.

Taken a step further, when the things one seeks to express in his or her art are intense emotions and deep thoughts rooted in real, moving, inspiring, life-affirming, experiences; a constellation of spiritual effects converge: beauty, experience, emotion, creativity, knowledge and mystery. In surveying a landscape under particular conditions, my knowledge, however imperfect, of geology, weather, the physics of light, the processes of nature and the improbability of my conscious self being there to witness it all amounts to a spiritual experience of the highest order. But such experience is made yet more powerful when acknowledging mystery: what is yet unknown and what is patently unknowable. Without need for speculation, the very existence of mystery is humbling and liberating. It frees me from expectations: I can’t be perfect even if I tried, and the closest I can get to being right is to trust my own knowledge, instincts and reasoning.

Quantum Fluctuations

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About the Author ()

Guy Tal is an author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau—a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (11)

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  1. Thank you for this wonderful essay. I completely enjoyed it.

  2. Bob says:

    “… the processes of nature and the improbability of my conscious self being there to witness it all amounts to a spiritual experience of the highest order.”

    That internal experience that cannot be touched by any of our senses, that internal experience that drives us to record to share it: that internal experience that drives us to our art.

    • Guy Tal says:

      “The mind which has become accustomed to the freedom and impartiality of philosophic contemplation will preserve something of the same freedom and impartiality in the world of action and emotion. It will view its purposes and desires as parts of the whole, with the absence of insistence that results from seeing them as infinitesimal fragments in a world of which all the rest is unaffected by any one man’s deeds. The impartiality which, in contemplation, is the unalloyed desire for truth, is the very same quality of mind which, in action, is justice, and in emotion is that universal love which can be given to all, and not only to those who are judged useful or admirable. Thus contemplation enlarges not only the objects of our thoughts, but also the objects of our actions and our affections: it makes us citizens of the universe, not only of one walled city at war with all the rest. In this citizenship of the universe consists man’s true freedom, and his liberation from the thraldom of narrow hopes and fears.” ~Bertrand Russell

  3. Jack Larson says:

    The ways that you use words like faith and mysticism and myth are not the ways that these words are used inside of the best of Christian religion. For example, only fundamentalists understand faith as blind belief. Faith is not even primarily a cognitive function. Faith involves the total person and has to do with what grasps us at the deepest dimensions of who we are. Continuing on, Biblical myth is not about fairy tales. No substantive biblical theologian interprets the great myths of Genesis literally. These myths call for us to wrestle with fundamental human issues that confront every one of us. Biblical myth is akin to great poetry which takes us to levels where literal language is inadequate. And if you delve deeply into quantum mechanics, you will find that all of those physicists talk like mystics. I think that you are on firmer ground when you see that reality is more than what fits within the categories of space and time, when you talk about the power of mystery. All of the great theologians of the 20th and 21st centuries (and many of the 19th century) have had no issue with the best of what is going on in the world of science. But just as in the realm of religion, science, too, has its fundamentalists, and they are just as narrow and limited as are fundamentalists in any field of human endeavor.

    • Guy Tal says:

      Thank you, Jack! I was careful to not mention religion, not because it is unrelated to spirituality but because it easily can distract from the point I wished to make, and because I don’t think that spirituality necessitates belief in the supernatural. I agree with many of your thoughts, and particularly your last sentence.

      • Jack Larson says:

        Agreed that spirituality does not necessitate belief in the supernatural. In fact, some religion, such as Theraveda Buddhism, does not believe in the supernatural.

  4. Excellent, thought provoking post, Guy. In my opinion, your last two paragraphs are the most profound and stand best with the rest of your argument from the beginning with or without the later middle paragraphs.

    I understand your omission of religion here. However, it is worth noting that religion is threatened by science both because science debunks and contradicts many religious and even non-religious spiritual thinking and also because science threatens to take the place of religion, having become a religion in and of itself.

    “Despite all speculation and conjecture, it is quite certain that one’s identity, knowledge, memories and stories cannot persist after death. Whether consciousness remains in some form is yet unknown (and there is no credible evidence to suggest so)” Actually, there is significant measurable scientific evidence that our perceptions and thoughts do exist and persist with or without the physical brain. One example, have you ever heard of the book, “The Afterlife Experiments: Breakthrough Scientific Evidence of Life After Death” by Gary E. Schwartz Ph.D.?

    There is not so much a contradiction as a dichotomy between “there is no doubt that one’s perceptions of the world come from physical senses, evolved and adapted to the random conditions of life on Earth; that one’s memories and knowledge are encoded in physical structures within the living brain, as are one’s personality, temperament and sensibilities,” and “The very existence of mystery is humbling and liberating… the closest I can get to being right is to trust my own knowledge, instincts and reasoning.”

    If linked directly, these statements would seem to say that you only trust what comes from the physical senses. However, isn’t what you are saying overall that you are glad there is some mystery beyond the physical realm that cannot be explained, and that this is what we call spirituality?

    Because everything is encoded in the physical brain does not prove it is the limit to our perceptions. In fact, if we explore the question that follows: “how did it get encoded in the first place?” We then quickly get into areas of mystery and spirituality BEYOND the brain. We are born with a lot encoded. Science believes it can explain all of this with genetics, but we don’t even understand logically how genetics comes about completely, or where and when that encoding happens. Perhaps this too is a mystery, which is the best part of your essay, from my reading of it anyway.

    • Guy Tal says:

      Thank you, David. I will not be pulled into a conversation about religion. I would think that anyone who is committed to the truth should not be afraid to have their faith debunked.

      Schwartz’s methods and conclusions are considered unscientific by most of his peers. He also refused to have his data reviewed by an independent panel. The closest humanity has ever gotten to evolving a method for unraveling the truth is peer-reviewed science, and Schwartz’s work does not meet this standard.

      There is a reason I didn’t link the lines you quoted directly because I absolutely am *not* saying I only trust my senses (as I state in the essay, “Science has proven unequivocally that our concepts of time, space and material existence are far removed from what we may perceive with our senses and intellect”); the parts in between the statements explain that I trust knowledge. Senses are just one means of acquiring knowledge, and evolved in order to improve biological fitness, not understanding; other tools for acquiring knowledge, like mathematics, have no such agenda. I trust them more.

      There’s a simple truism about science: if you can’t fault the methods, you also can’t fault the findings. It is what it is.

  5. Fine scholarship on your part that you are familiar with Schwartz and his book. I probably ought to have known you would know more about him than I do. There are other “proofs” that are scientific, but I am not sure they would hold up under the same scrutiny either, maybe they would, I don’t know. I’ll have to look into it further to see. This is one problem with some science, even if it is rigorously applied, it too sometimes starts from people trying to prove what they already believe. Please understand, I have far more confidence and “faith,” by all definitions on all levels in science than in religion, though I do find religion an infinitely fascinating study. Science is revealing to us many more useful and expansive new frontiers. I’m merely warning against science as the end-all, be-all. Too much confidence in anything can lead to blind spots. What is also true is that science has brought us a long way along in our growth and evolution as a species. What is now most interesting is that science is also proving many things previously dismissed as new agey or far out. The future will be more and more interesting as science dips into areas previously only explored in spirituality. While we may disagree on what can be known or not about what happens after death, I agree with much of the rest of your essay as I said. I especially concur with the line in your comment above that starts with, “Senses are just one means of acquiring knowledge…” What is exciting about all of this is not the infallibility of science, but that science is becoming a stepping stone to furthering spirituality, which, as I understand it, is a significant aspect of your argument.

  6. Steve Zigler says:


    It is always a pleasure to read your thoughtful and articulate writing. I also love the image that you included in this essay. The out-of-frame light adds a strong system 2 element!

    Throughout the various phases of my life, I have explored different faiths, beliefs, and religions. My experiences have ranged from being an atheist to being a Baptist and several places between and adjacent. In the end, the only landing place that has worked for me is spirituality. It is the only way I have been able to consistently and logically accommodate what I know in my brain about the universe from a scientific standpoint and what I feel in my heart about the universe from an emotional standpoint. In a very real sense, photography was the catalyst that led me to this perspective. By being outside, by exploring my world, by witnessing beauty, by the very act of creating, photography helped me elucidate my place in the world and rationalize it with my existence as a scientist. For that, I credit photography with saving my life. And I don’t mean that in a trite or clichéd manner. 🙂

    During my journey, I’ve learned to consider that there are two broad categories. One category contains that which science knows, or has discovered. The other contains that which science doesn’t know or has yet to discover. This latter category has changed over time as science peels the onion of our existence in this universe. However, there are likely to be things that will never yield to our science. We can express beliefs and postulates regarding these things that are unknowable, but there is no reason that what we know and what we believe cannot peacefully co-exist. Of course, when I say science, I mean the science that humans use to understand things from the perspective of this planet. There are likely to be more complete (and less complete) systems of understanding in other parts of the universe. So far, this approach has served me well, but I’m sure there are gaps in my logic that I’ll need to fill over time!

    As science has peeled away the layers of the onion, it forces us to adjust the understanding of our place in universe. Typically, with each layer we learn that we are not nearly as significant as we think. The repudiation of the heliocentric model of the solar system and the discovery of galaxies outside our Milky Way are my two favorite such examples of how science has taught us the insignificance of humanity. And that is exhilarating to me! To understand our insignificance is the most significant pursuit I can imagine. (BTW, I’ve tried to describe this in more detail on my facebook page recently if you’re interested. Would love to hear your thoughts if you have a minute.)

    I wish I could be alive in 200 years, it would be fascinating to see how today’s science will add to the understanding of our insignificance!

    Thanks again, and keep up the thought-provoking artistry of your writing and images! I know it takes a lot of energy, but it adds so much!

  7. John Wall says:

    I don’t know how anyone can witness the universe and feel insignificant. You and the universe are the same thing.