Where Science Meets Spirit

A fish said to another fish, ‘Above this sea of ours there is another sea, with creatures swimming In it – and they live there, even as we live here.’ The fish replied, ‘Pure fancy! When you know That everything that leaves our sea by even an inch, and stays out of it, dies. What proof have you of other lives in other seas?’

Kahlil Gibran – The Forerunner

Most psychiatrists regard mental disorder as caused by a disturbance of brain chemistry, a view strongly supported over recent years by advances in the neurosciences. There is also good empirical evidence that psychological stress can initiate changes in brain chemistry. This has strengthened the development of a bio/psycho/social model of mental disorder, in which genetic and dynamic factors combine. Yet the fundamental question of what constitutes ‘mind’ remains unanswered, for mind has no physical substance.

The general view is that mind is epiphenomenal, meaning it is secondary to the function of the physical brain. The brain is thought somehow to generate consciousness. This is not a logical proposition, although it sounds reasonable enough. How can something non-physical be created by something entirely physical? Yet it is an everyday assumption in a world based on the idea of a mechanical, material universe, in which the five senses are held to be the only reliable source of information. I am going to be arguing against this physicalist view of the world, which started with Rene Descartes and Isaac Newton three hundred years ago. Descartes established the golden rule for empirical science, that nothing would be held to be true unless it could be proved to be true and Newton laid the foundation of a mechanical universe, in which time is absolute and space is structured according to the laws of motion.

From this time, the split between religion and science began to widen. The Church could no longer claim to understand how the universe worked and the spiritual and physical worlds drifted apart.

During the 19th century, the new science of psychology helped redefine the mental world in secular terms. Sigmund Freud (1927) saw religion as a massive defence against neurosis and even Carl Jung, despite his own spiritual journey, limited himself to defining the soul as ‘the living thing in Man, that which lives of itself and causes life’ (Jung 1959:26). Psychiatry is set on proving its bona fides as a science equal to any other, and little attention has been paid to spirituality. Yet a survey carried out by the Mental Health Foundation (1997) showed that over fifty per cent of service users hold religious or spiritual beliefs they see as important in helping them cope with mental illness. They also said they don’t feel free to discuss their beliefs with the psychiatrist. I have found that psychiatrists, who privately acknowledge the importance of spirituality, often feel reluctant to embark on such talk with their patients because it is outside of their training in medicine, psychiatry and also psychotherapy (Powell 2001).

The impact of the Newtonian world-view has been immense. Our scientific model of the psyche has no place for the soul; there is nothing before birth and nothing after death. Everything has to be understood as arising from within this temporary, physical existence, with the human self the only source of consciousness. We are all separate beings, bounded by the envelopes of our skin and moving around in a fixed, impersonal, three-dimensional universe utterly indifferent to our comings and goings. Little wonder that depression is the ailment of the modern world. In the first five years of Prozac coming onto the market, over ten million prescriptions were handed out (Kramer 1994).

©Dr. Andrew Powell

Taken from Powell, A. (1998) ‘Soul Consciousness and Human Suffering: Psychotherapeutic Approaches to Healing’. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine Vol. 4.1:101-108