F.A.Z. Column by Emanuel Derman Spirit Matters

My scientific credentials are reasonably impeccable, but my philosophical ones, I regret, are peccable indeed. Nevertheless ...

© Kat Menschik Vergrößern

I find myself increasingly in irritated disagreement with the many neuroscientists and evangelically professional atheists who think that science is everything, that matter is all we have, and that photographic images of chemicals glowing in the brain are equivalent to thoughts and feelings. (I have no problem with their simply disbelieving in God.)

I grew up a rationalist. My introduction to the supposedly spiritual was in synagogue and school, but it was a pro forma introduction, tales and laws and recitations but no discussion of the perception of God. Nothing about the sort of experience Aldous Huxley wrote about in The Perennial Philosophy.

Outside of doing research, I got my first genuine feel for Wonder while in Oxford as a postdoc, when some several-years-old advice to read Rudolf Steiner, given to me in a time of trouble, popped into my head again when I passed a poky little Anthroposophical bookstore. I purchased an English-language copy of Knowledge of the Higher Worlds.

There was no way I could make my way though the entire book, which was somewhat turgid, but a few sentences set off internal reverberations.

The Mystic, the Gnostic, the Theosophist, have always spoken of a world of the soul and a world of spirit which are just as real to them as the world we can see with physical eyes and touch with physical hands.

And, later in the book, a prescription for spiritual training:

Other traits which have to be combated as well as anger and irritability are timidity, superstition, prejudice, vanity and ambition, curiosity, eagerness to impart unnecessary information ...

That latter phrase -- eagerness to impart unnecessary information -- hit home because I’ve always been someone who told people more than was necessary. I’m not voluble; I am regrettably eager to impart unnecessary (sometimes personal) information. I couldn’t have phrased that tendency better myself.

I am not generally gullible. Mystics, Gnostics and Theosophists sound corny and stupid. But that evening in 1975, the idea that mental world existed as a primitive rather than a derivative resonated with me, and so I was willing to cut Steiner some slack.

I never became an Anthroposophist, but some of those perceptions still carry weight with me. Years later, when I read Spinoza’s Ethics, I came across a version of the same idea. Mind and matter, according to Spinoza, are simultaneous attributes of one underlying Substance. Or, in modern terms, mind is not an epiphenomenon of matter nor is matter an epiphenomenon of mind. Neurophysiology doesn’t explain psychology, and psychology doesn’t replace neurophysiology. Spirit co-exists with matter; spirit is an element, not a compound.

Kopie von  derman © Laif/The New York Times Vergrößern Emanuel Derman

Another Steiner sentence rung a bell too:

In all its phenomena the outer world is filled with divine splendor, but first we must have experienced the Divine within ourselves if we are to discover it in the surrounding world.

Wonder, wrote Spinoza, is “the conception of anything, wherein the mind comes to a stand, because the particular concept in question has no connection with other concepts.” Wonder comes from mystery. What bothers me about reductionists is precisely their lack of a sense of mystery.

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