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William James on Science and Spirituality, the Limits of Materialism, and the Existential Art of Assenting to the Universe

“At bottom the whole concern of both morality and religion is with the manner of our acceptance of the universe. Do we accept it only in part and grudgingly, or heartily and altogether?”

William James on Science and Spirituality, the Limits of Materialism, and the Existential Art of Assenting to the Universe

“I live my life with the idea that the universe can be described by a set of physical laws that are quantifiable and knowable, and that they apply anywhere in the universe, and that’s an assumption,” NASA astrophysicist Natalie Batalha — a modern-day Carl Sagan — reflected in our On Being conversation. Assumption is a species of belief, or rather the genome of all belief — which is why Sagan himself asserted in his superb meditation on science and religion, based on his 1985 Gifford Lectures in Scotland, that “if we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed.”

Sagan titled his lectures The Varieties of Scientific Experience to situate them in deliberate dialogue across space and time with the Gifford Lectures pioneering Harvard psychologist William James (January 11, 1842–August 26, 1910) had delivered eight decades earlier.

Having already established himself as the founding father of American psychology, James — brother of the brilliant Alice James and of novelist Henry James — took the prestigious Scottish podium between 1901 and 1902 to deliver twenty lectures he titled The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (public library | free ebook). Writing with tremendous insight and prescience, James examined the nature and shifting role of spirituality in an increasingly secular world on the precipice of a new era of scientific understanding — Einstein’s relativity theory and the dawn of quantum physics were still years away, DNA was yet to be discovered, the existence of dark matter yet to be theorized and confirmed, and it would be more than a century before the detection of gravitational waves unlatches a whole new gateway to apprehending the universe.

William James

James defines religion as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine,” and writes:

Religion, whatever it is, is a man’s total reaction upon life, so why not say that any total reaction upon life is a religion? Total reactions are different from casual reactions, and total attitudes are different from usual or professional attitudes. To get at them you must go behind the foreground of existence and reach down to that curious sense of the whole residual cosmos as an everlasting presence, intimate or alien, terrible or amusing, lovable or odious, which in some degree everyone possesses. This sense of the world’s presence, appealing as it does to our peculiar individual temperament, makes us either strenuous or careless, devout or blasphemous, gloomy or exultant, about life at large; and our reaction, involuntary and inarticulate and often half unconscious as it is, is the completest of all our answers to the question, “What is the character of this universe in which we dwell?” It expresses our individual sense of it in the most definite way. Why then not call these reactions our religion, no matter what specific character they may have?

Art by Derek Dominic D’souza from Song of Two Worlds by Alan Lightman

Scientific inquiry, James points out from the cusp of a monumental civilizational shift, is another such reaction to the cosmos — one which “in many minds is genuinely taking the place of a religion.” But even science, he cautions, treats its central assumptions about the laws of nature “as objective facts to be revered.” With an eye to the scientific materialism and secular humanism dawning in the early twentieth century, he writes:

Non-religious as some of these reactions may be, in one sense of the word “religious,” they yet belong to the general sphere of the religious life, and so should generically be classed as religious reactions. “He believes in No-God, and he worships him,” said a colleague of mine of a student who was manifesting a fine atheistic ardor; and the more fervent opponents of Christian doctrine have often enough shown a temper which, psychologically considered, is indistinguishable from religious zeal.

Citing Margaret Fuller’s famed proclamation — “I accept the universe” — James considers the central purpose of spirituality, be it religious or not, in human life:

At bottom the whole concern of both morality and religion is with the manner of our acceptance of the universe. Do we accept it only in part and grudgingly, or heartily and altogether? Shall our protests against certain things in it be radical and unforgiving, or shall we think that, even with evil, there are ways of living that must lead to good? If we accept the whole, shall we do so as if stunned into submission… or shall we do so with enthusiastic assent?

Morality alone, he argues, effects a cold assent springing from a cerebral sense of obligation. But a spiritual enthusiasm adds an essential emotional dimension that makes a wholehearted assent possible:

The moralist must hold his breath and keep his muscles tense; and so long as this athletic attitude is possible all goes well — morality suffices. But the athletic attitude tends ever to break down, and it inevitably does break down even in the most stalwart when the organism begins to decay, or when morbid fears invade the mind. To suggest personal will and effort to one all sicklied o’er with the sense of irremediable impotence is to suggest the most impossible of things. What he craves is to be consoled in his very powerlessness, to feel that the spirit of the universe recognizes and secures him, all decaying and failing as he is. Well, we are all such helpless failures in the last resort. The sanest and best of us are of one clay with lunatics and prison inmates, and death finally runs the robustest of us down. And whenever we feel this, such a sense of the vanity and provisionality of our voluntary career comes over us that all our morality appears but as a plaster hiding a sore it can never cure, and all our well-doing as the hollowest substitute for that well-being that our lives ought to be grounded in, but, alas! are not.


When all is said and done, we are in the end absolutely dependent on the universe; and into sacrifices and surrenders of some sort, deliberately looked at and accepted, we are drawn and pressed as into our only permanent positions of repose.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo’s, found in Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time

Condemning the primitive belief in “individualized personal forces” — that is, a deity one can pray to, who intercedes on one’s behalf — James considers the uses of spirituality in an increasingly secular, science-oriented world:

I believe that the claims of the sectarian scientist are, to say the least, premature. The experiences which we have been studying during this hour (and a great many other kinds of religious experiences are like them) plainly show the universe to be a more many-sided affair than any sect, even the scientific sect, allows for. What, in the end, are all our verifications but experiences that agree with more or less isolated systems of ideas (conceptual systems) that our minds have framed? But why in the name of common sense need we assume that only one such system of ideas can be true? The obvious outcome of our total experience is that the world can be handled according to many systems of ideas, and is so handled by different men, and will each time give some characteristic kind of profit, for which he cares, to the handler, while at the same time some other kind of profit has to be omitted or postponed. Science gives to all of us telegraphy, electric lighting, and diagnosis, and succeeds in preventing and curing a certain amount of disease. Religion… gives to some of us serenity, moral poise, and happiness, and prevents certain forms of disease as well as science does… Evidently, then, the science and the religion are both of them genuine keys for unlocking the world’s treasure-house to him who can use either of them practically. Just as evidently neither is exhaustive or exclusive of the other’s simultaneous use. And why, after all, may not the world be so complex as to consist of many interpenetrating spheres of reality, which we can thus approach in alternation by using different conceptions and assuming different attitudes, just as mathematicians handle the same numerical and spatial facts by geometry, by analytical geometry, by algebra, by the calculus, or by quaternions, and each time come out right? On this view religion and science, each verified in its own way from hour to hour and from life to life, would be co-eternal.

James was ahead of his time in many ways, but he was — like even the greatest of seers — still held back by a blindness to what lay beyond his era’s horizon of knowledge. Only a quarter century later, in the midst of the golden age of twentieth-century science, quantum theory founding father and Nobel laureate Niels Bohr would remark: “The fact that religions through the ages have spoken in images, parables, and paradoxes means simply that there are no other ways of grasping the reality to which they refer. But that does not mean that it is not a genuine reality.”

Still, James’s Varieties of Religious Experience remains a foundational inquiry into human consciousness, with all of its splendors and convolutions, only a fraction of which have been clarified or sublimated by our growing understanding of objective reality. Complement it with Carl Sagan on how to live with mystery and physicist Alan Lightman on our longing for absolutes in a relative world, then revisit James on what an emotion is, the psychology of the second wind, and the habit of mind that sets geniuses apart.

Published May 28, 2018




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