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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.


How to Befriend the Universe: Philosopher and Comedian Emily Levine on the Art of Meeting Reality on Its Own Terms

From Newton to quantum physics to Hannah Arendt, a mind-bending, heart-opening invitation to welcome nature exactly as it is and ourselves exactly as we are.

“It is the most supremely interesting moment in life, the only one in fact when living seems life,” wrote Alice James — William and Henry James’s brilliant sister — as she modeled how to live fully while dying. “Death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love,” Rilke wrote a generation later in contemplating the supreme existential art of befriending our finitude — that ultimate assent to what Emily Dickinson had termed “the drift called ‘the infinite.'”

More than a century after James, Rilke, and Dickinson, a different Emily — the pathbreaking comedian, philosopher, steward of poetry, and my beloved friend Emily Levine — offers a brilliant, funny, bittersweet, largehearted meditation on the existential art of befriending our finitude as she faces her own terminal illness:

We don’t live in Newton’s clockwork universe anymore — we live in a banana peel universe, and we won’t ever be able to know everything, or control everything, or predict everything.


If you’re anti-death — which to me translates as anti-life, which to me translates as anti-nature — it also translates to me as anti-woman, because women have long been identified with nature. My source on this is Hannah Arendt — the German philosopher who wrote a book called The Human Condition. In it, she says that classically, work is associated with men. Work is what comes out of the head — it’s what we invent, it’s what we create, it’s how we leave our mark upon the world — whereas labor is associated with the body; it’s associated with the people who perform labor or undergo labor. So, to me, the mindset that denies this — that denies that we’re in sync with the biorhythms, the cyclical rhythms of the universe — does not create a hospitable environment for women or for people associated with labor, which is to say, people that we associate as descendants of slaves, or people who perform manual labor.


I love being in sync with the cyclical rhythms of the universe. That’s what’s so extraordinary about life — it’s a cycle of generation, degeneration, regeneration. “I” am just a collection of particles that is arranged into this pattern, then will decompose and be available, all of its constituent parts, to nature, to reorganize into another pattern. To me, that is so exciting, and it makes me even more grateful to be part of that process.

Complement with neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi’s beautiful reflections on the meaning of life as he faces his death, Denise Levertov’s splendid poem about our unreasonable resistance to acknowledging ourselves as part of nature, and Duck, Death and the Tulip — an uncommonly tender illustrated meditation on the cycle of life — then revisit physicist and poet Alan Lightman on our longing for permanence in a universe predicated on constant change.


Pythagoras on the Purpose of Life and the Meaning of Wisdom

Abiding insight into the aim of human existence from the man who revolutionized science and coined the word “philosopher.”

Pythagoras on the Purpose of Life and the Meaning of Wisdom

The Greek polymath Pythagoras (c. 570–c. 495 BC) ignited the golden age of mathematics with the development of numerical logic and the discovery of his namesake theorem of geometry, which furnished the world’s first foothold toward the notion of scientific proof and has been etched into the mind of every schoolchild in the millennia since. His ideas went on to influence Plato, Copernicus, Descartes, Kepler, Newton, and Einstein, and the school he founded made the then-radical decision to welcome women as members, one of whom was Hypatia of Alexandria — the world’s first known woman astronomer.

Alongside his revolutionary science, Pythagoras coined the word philosopher to describe himself as a “lover of wisdom” — a love the subject of which he encapsulated in a short, insightful meditation on the uses of philosophy in human life. According to the anecdote, recounted by Cicero four centuries later, Pythagoras attended the Olympic Games of 518 BC with Prince Leon, the esteemed ruler of Phlius. The Prince, impressed with his guest’s wide and cross-disciplinary range of knowledge, asked Pythagoras why he lived as a “philosopher” rather than an expert in any one of the classical arts.

Pythagoras (Art by J. Augustus Knapp, circa 1926)

Pythagoras, quoted in Simon Singh’s altogether fascinating Fermat’s Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World’s Greatest Mathematical Problem (public library), replies:

Life… may well be compared with these public Games for in the vast crowd assembled here some are attracted by the acquisition of gain, others are led on by the hopes and ambitions of fame and glory. But among them there are a few who have come to observe and to understand all that passes here.

It is the same with life. Some are influenced by the love of wealth while others are blindly led on by the mad fever for power and domination, but the finest type of man gives himself up to discovering the meaning and purpose of life itself. He seeks to uncover the secrets of nature. This is the man I call a philosopher for although no man is completely wise in all respects, he can love wisdom as the key to nature’s secrets.

Complement with Alain de Botton on how philosophy undoes our unwisdom, then revisit other abiding mediations on the meaning and purpose of life from Epictetus, Toni Morrison, Walt Whitman, Richard Feynman, Rosa Parks, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Martha Nussbaum.


Singularity: Poet Marie Howe’s Beautiful Tribute to Stephen Hawking and Our Belonging to the Universe

“Do you sometimes want to wake up to the singularity we once were?”

When Stephen Hawking (January 8, 1942–March 14, 2018) was a young man, having already outlived the prognosis he had been given with ALS, he built on earlier theories about what happens to a dying star as it collapses to form a singularity — that tiny point of zero radius, infinite density, and infinite curvature of spacetime at the heart of a black hole. But then Hawking did something radical — he took this final death-stage and flipped the arrow of time to consider what would happen if that singularity exploded outward and began expanding. He theorized that perhaps that is how the universe was born. So began his half-century intellectual adventure that shaped the course of modern physics and changed our common understanding of why everything that is is.

Stephen Hawking (Photograph: Gemma Levine)

A crowning moment of the 2018 Universe in Verse was a tribute to Hawking’s legacy by one of the great poets of our time: Marie Howe. Because Howe is an artist extremely considered in what she releases into the world, often devoting a decade to a single poem, it was a tremendous honor to have her premiere a new poem composed for the occasion in a blink of cosmic time and inspired by her young daughter’s love of physics. Howe’s prefatory meditations are as magnificent and full of wisdom as the poem itself — please enjoy both:

by Marie Howe

          (after Stephen Hawking)

Do you sometimes want to wake up to the singularity
we once were?

so compact nobody
needed a bed, or food or money —

nobody hiding in the school bathroom
or home alone

pulling open the drawer
where the pills are kept.

For every atom belonging to me as good
Belongs to you.

There was no   Nature.    No
 them.   No tests

to determine if the elephant
grieves her calf    or if

the coral reef feels pain.    Trashed
oceans don’t speak English or Farsi or French;

would that we could wake up   to what we were
— when we were ocean    and before that

to when sky was earth, and animal was energy, and rock was
liquid and stars were space and space was not

at all — nothing

before we came to believe humans were so important
before this awful loneliness.

Can molecules recall it?
what once was?    before anything happened?

No I, no We, no one. No was
No verb      no noun
only a tiny tiny dot brimming with

is is is is is

All   everything   home

For more highlights from The Universe in Verse, savor Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity inspired by Carl Sagan, Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Optimism” in a lovely papercraft stop-motion animation by Kelli Anderson, and America Ferrera reading Denise Levertov’s poem about our conflicted relationship with nature, then revisit Hawking on the meaning of the universe.


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