Using Scientific Tools to Study Spiritual Questions

In the first article of this series, I examined the idea that many of us are misled by certain illusions about what is important in our lives. In the second article, I proposed that one of these illusions involves the existence of a spiritual realm that many of us either deny or misinterpret.

(Is the World Real or is it an Illusion?) 10/10/12

(The Illusion of an Exclusively Material Universe) 1/12/13

While my personal experiences have completely convinced me of the truth of the conclusions I presented in the second article, I realize that others will require more confirmation. Since the proof I am promising is found in the work of highly competent research scientists, I am including this article as a brief introduction to important scientific principles for nonscientists. Even scientists may find it useful, though, particularly toward the end where I discuss how the methods of science might be used to investigate how spiritual influences may be impacting physical phenomena.

The Evolving Methods of Science

Personal computers, the internet, cell phones, jet airliners, modern farming productivity — we take the many achievements of modern science for granted. The sophistication of our technology demonstrates beyond question that the methods of science are powerfully effective. But where do such marvels originate? What is it about science that makes it so potent?

We have been developing the insights and techniques that have made these things possible for thousands of years. For example, the cultivation of wild grains that led to our earliest farming communities started well over ten thousand years ago, setting the stage for the earliest civilizations to begin to develop. When such useful innovations are discovered, they are adopted widely and quickly become absorbed within the fabric of society. Every aspect of our understanding of our world and all of our technological expertise develop in this way.

What we now call “the scientific method” is just the modern refinement of our steadily growing mastery of our material world, a process we have been engaged in for many millennia. Just like the earliest farmers began to gather wild seeds and plant them near their homes, man has always looked for the causal relationships that yield new techniques to satisfy his wants and provide for his needs. Scientists formulate laws, develop models and create theories as sophisticated ways of describing the causal interactions they observe in the world. They then test these ideas using highly formalized methods (experimentation) to confirm the important interactions they believe they have discovered.

But, as we all know, our reasoning can easily be distorted by our emotions, and this greatly interferes with our intellectual capabilities. To me, much of the true genius of the scientific method is its ability to minimize or eliminate errors that creep into our reasoning. Scientists provide precise descriptions of their experimental procedures so that others can repeat them and verify that their findings are reliable, reproducible and not compromised by wishful thinking. They publish their methods and results in scientific journals to be easily and widely shared. These techniques help eliminate the biases and emotional distortions we are all predisposed to as human beings. It is the refinement and careful use of these techniques that is responsible for much of the power of modern science and the amazing technological breakthroughs that we now enjoy.

A note of caution: it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that highly successful theories constitute absolute truth since they are so widely accepted and have been so potent in fostering our current technological expertise. To avoid this error, we must be careful to keep in mind the difference between the theories of science on the one hand, and the methods used to develop the theories on the other. Any theory, no matter how widely it is accepted, should always be considered tentative and open to modification in response to well designed and carefully replicated research results. This is an essential part of the genius of the scientific process. When established theories conflict with reliable new data, the theories require modification.

Next, let’s consider another extension of the scientific method that has further increased our technological power.

Exploring invisible forces and interactions

The “natural philosophers” that honed our modern scientific methods developed their insights by studying the behavior of material objects as perceived by their five senses. When they began to envision and explore forces, sub-atomic particles and “fields” that cannot be directly perceived by our physical senses, they found these same methods to still be valid. They fashioned powerful extensions of the emerging scientific methods to include a reality we cannot directly sense.

Electromagnetic fields, like those familiar to us as “radio waves,” are good examples of this. Even though we cannot directly perceive these invisible fields of potential, we are absolutely sure they exist because we have developed devices to precisely measure them. Radio wave transmissions exist all around us, all the time, yet they do not exist for us unless we use a radio tuned to the proper frequency to translate their potentials into sound. Even though we cannot directly sense them, we know that electromagnetic waves are definitely physical phenomena since they precisely follow all the well-defined rules of time, distance and causation that all physical objects follow.

Our success in inferring the existence of invisible fields and particles, followed by the invention of devices to measure them and study their actions, has greatly extended the power of modern science and technology. In a moment we will consider a further major extension of science into a different kind of invisible influence, but first let’s consider yet another way we have developed to multiply the power of the scientific method. We will turn our attention to a brief look at modern statistical methods to see how they are a potent means to verify the reliability of what experiments are telling us.

Exploring subtle interactions using statistics

Many of our most effective modern medicines would never have been discovered without the use of modern statistical analysis. While the mathematical methods involved are quite sophisticated, the understanding of statistics that we need, for our purposes here, are fairly simple and straightforward. Just like you do not need to know the theory behind the electronic components and programming of a computer to use it proficiently, you can interpret the statistical indicators within research reports to accurately assess their reliability without an in-depth understanding of how they were produced.

When researchers want to explore for the existence of subtle effects, they assign research subjects into either experimental or a control groups using randomization techniques. Tossing a coin or rolling dice are common examples of this process. While these two techniques are not truly random and should not be used in research, they are pretty close to random and give the idea of what is involved. Once two groups are properly randomized, we can compare the results of the measurements we gather from them using statistics.

One of the most important questions we want to answer about experimental results is whether the differences we find between the groups are real differences of whether they are just random. To assess the likelihood that results are real, we ask: “How many times would we have to repeat this experiment to get this result by chance alone?” The indicator we use for this evaluation is often written in the form: p < .25. This particular “p-value” would tell us that the probability of getting this result is about 25% even if there is actually no real difference between the two groups and the difference is due to chance alone. In other words, we would have to run the experiment only four times to expect one result like this. In contrast, a p-value of p < .001 would mean that we would have to run the experiment 1,000 times or more to expect this result one time. Obviously, if we had to run an experiment over 1,000 times to produce the result in question just one time, we can be a lot more certain it is not a chance result than if we had to run it only four or five times to get that result.

The p-value lets us know how comfortable we can be in ruling out a purely chance result as the true explanation of a relationship we might have identified in our study. In practice, a p value of < .05 is considered to be the cut-off between effects that are probably present compared to ones that are just random results. For example, a finding of p < .15 is very likely to be due to chance alone, while p < .01 is considered to indicate that the research results are very likely to be a real effect.

For those without a background in interpreting research reports, this is all you need to keep in mind about statistics to follow the arguments in this series of articles. We need to be sure that the research results are being reported by competent scientists, the study groups are properly randomized and that the statistics show that chance results can be comfortably ruled out as the explanation for the experimental results. Once other qualified researchers are able to reproduce similar findings, we can be highly confident the relationships are real. This is the way science has moved our technology forward so impressively in recent times.

With these techniques in mind, let’s now consider how they can be used to almost unequivocally answer the question of whether or not important spiritual influences actually exist. If they do indeed exist, not only will we be able to use these same powerful scientific tools to study their nature, we will also gain access to a much more complete understanding of why the physical world is unfolding the way it is.

Finally, we get to the point of this article

Scientists have been adamant that questions about potential spiritual influences are “unscientific” and, therefore, outside the proper concern of science. This conclusion is based on the reasonable assumption that scientific research techniques only apply to phenomena that can either be directly perceived through our physical senses or measured by devices designed for this purpose. Until recently, this argument has been hard to argue with. But what if the techniques of modern science are now so sophisticated that they can also be used to study subtle, invisible spiritual influences? What if this dictum proclaiming all spiritual questions to be unscientific is no longer valid?

Those who are familiar with the scientific study of “paranormal’ human abilities or the research into healing prayer will know that the ideas I am presenting here are not new. But, at this point in time, few research scientists are even aware of the quality and reliability of the results already available, just sitting on library shelves. Even fewer non-scientists are aware they exist. Hardly anyone is seriously discussing their importance.

If we can indeed appropriately and productively apply the highly refined techniques of modern science to nonphysical phenomena, we will be able to have as much confidence in some of our most important spiritual beliefs as we do in the findings of our physical sciences. This is where the proof I have been promising will originate. Not only will this research serve to solidly confirm some of the implications of the NDEs discussed in the last article, other important insights will become available, and all will be amenable to careful evaluation in objective, repeatable trials. Perhaps most important of all, as we examine the anomalies of various scientific fields, we see the same surprising and unexpected patterns repeated over and over. If these anomalies are actually due to either chance results or sloppy research technique, these consistent patterns would not be present.

In the next article of this series, I will begin exploring these scientific anomalies. As always, I heartily encourage comments.

My best to all,

Chuck

For those who want to look a little further into the topics of this article, an earlier article on this blog contains another discussion. It was from a series of articles I called “The Scientific validation of the Extrasensory and the Paranormal.” You can find this article here.

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About Chuck Gebhardt

I am a physician specializing in internal medicine. I sub-specialize in nutritional medicine. I am very interested in all areas of healing research, not necessarily limited to traditional medicine topics.
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2 Responses to Using Scientific Tools to Study Spiritual Questions

  1. Pingback: Three Illusions Misleading Modern Society | Dr. Chuck's Chat

  2. Pingback: Seeing the World through New Eyes | Dr. Chuck's Chat

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