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The Beauty of Ideas: Reflections on Science, Spirituality, and the Quest for Truth

Science is sometimes described as a search for the truth, says Tim Birkhead in his remarkable and fascinating book “Book Sense – What it’s like to be a bird”. Spirituality is often described as the same. Those who have been fascinated by both can testify that science and spirituality may often become exchangeable, and that there possibly isn’t as stark a contrast as we’ve been made to believe for so many years. Birkhead writes:

… ‘the truth’ here has a straightforward meaning: it is simply what, on the basis of the available scientific evidence, we currently believe. When scientists retest someone else’s idea and find that evidence to be consistent with the original notion, then the idea remains. If, however, other researchers fail to replicate the original results, or if they find a better explanation for the facts, scientists can change their idea about what the truth is. Changing your mind in the light of new ideas or better evidence constitutes scientific progress. A better term, then, is ‘truth for now’ – on the basis of the current evidence this is what we believe to be true.

Looking at truth this way is a life-changing approach. It helps us comprehend our staggeringly diverse experience with truth, which strangely and truly is both the norm and the alternative. What is considered having an open mind in scientific circles can be likened to having the humility to surrender in spiritual circles. Birkhead further writes:

Ideas have a particularly important place in science. Having an idea about why something is the way it is is crucial since it provides the framework for asking questions – and asking the right questions. For example, why do the eyes of owls face forward, whereas those of ducks are directed sideways? One idea for the owl’s forward-facing eyes is that, like us, owls rely on binocular vision for depth perception.

Birkhead talks about the journey the idea takes. When a scientist has an idea, they test it, present it to their peers, then after any required modification write up the results and send it as a paper to be published in a scientific journal, the editor of which sends it across to other scientists to review and decide whether it merits publication or not. If all things go well, the scientist finally has their paper published in the journal, making the idea now available to more scientists who can criticize it or take it as an inspiration for their next idea.

It sounds, at least in its rigorousness, very similar to our spiritual lives in which we find the breadcrumbs of those who have walked before us, and through our own spiritual-scientific filters we accept or reject their discoveries meanwhile creating our own which may or may not rub other the right way. The tried and tested process of science, which according to Birkhead hasn’t changed since the late 1600s when the first scientific journal was published, is in a nutshell our own unequal combination of personal and public spiritual process.

The process of perspiration and inspiration is a common denominator for being in love, for coding an amazing website, for growing tomatoes in your balcony garden, for engaging with our everyday mundane lives, for finding god, or for the scientific discoveries associated with bird senses.

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