Science and Spirituality

Relations between Two Modes of Cognition: Rational-Scientific and Intuitive-Spiritual
Axel A. Randrup
International Center for Interdisciplinary Psychiatric Research, CIRIP
Written 1994 with revisions 2002. Electronic publication only.


Considerable evidence indicates that the human cognitive system comprises two subsystems, one rational-scientific and the other intuitive-spiritual. Differences as well as harmonies and interactions between the two subsystems are described. The advent of systems science has improved the understanding of the harmonies and interactions. Consideration of cultural differences is important for understanding spirituality and communicating about it.

Key-words: Cognition, science, spirituality, systems science, cultures.

Twenty years ago I read about an Australian medicine man whose soul travelled to the center of the earth, where in a bright cave he saw the two Ungud serpents, the fundamental creative force of life and the earth (1), and I still remember, how I immediately conceived the reading of this story as a peak of my scientific career. Not for a moment did it occur to me that the language and background of the medicine man, so different from my own, were of any importance for the relevance of his spiritual experience to my own vision of scientific research: a striving to see (understand) the most important features of life and nature.

"Spiritual" is not a well defined term, but study of the literature shows that a number of knowledgeable authors have developed the opinion that a spiritual essence exists and can be understood cross-culturally (2 - 6). This view with its philosophical ramifications is often called the "Perennial Philosophy". Other authors, also knowledgeable, believe that the cultural differences are more fundamental (7), but all seem to agree that every mystic or spiritual person expresses or has expressed him/herself in the language and general frame of reference of his/her own culture.

In the sessions of the Spirituality group in the International Society for the Systems Sciences (ISSS) we have had several valuable inputs from non-Western cultures (Japanese,Indian, American Indian, Aboriginal Australian etc.), but for those of us who are rooted in Western scientific culture it seems that we will obtain our best chance for communicating about spirituality by expressing ourselves on the background of our familiar scientific attitude. A better understanding of both simlarities and differences among the cultures may then become possible.

Here it must be recalled, however, that during its relatively short history modern science has undergone several fundamental changes, called paradigmatic shifts in the literature on the philosophy of science (8). I find that the advent of modern systems science constitutes such a paradigmatic shift, and one which is important for the communication about spirituality. Thus a spiritual experience is often said to have a strong feature of unity, an intuition that everything is connected with everything. This general idea can also be expressed and understood in systems science, but not so readily in old fashioned science with its focus on one cause - one effect. Systems science does not replace or even describe the spiritual experience, but I think, it can give a correspondence with spirituality in words or mathematics which is helpful in our attempts to communicate and perhaps obtain intersubjective agreement.

In the International Society for the Systems Sciences, ISSS some people have expressed concern about spirituality being discussed in a scientific society like ISSS, apparently because they think that there may be some disagreement or even conflict between science and spirituality. In the beginning this came as a complete surprise to me, as may be understood from the first paragraph above. Now I understand the reasons for these concerns better. One reason seems to be that some spiritual people do not live up to the ideals of science concerning a critical attitude. Lack of critical reflection is, however, also observed with many non-spiritual people and within science itself; and conversely, some persons to whom spirituality is important do practice the level of criticism ideally required by science. From an engineer's viewpoint it may also be a matter of concern, that spiritual people often envisage or relie on empowerment coming from spirituality, while engineers tend to presume that everything is done by rational means and individual willpower. The engineers viewpoint is, however, not an inevitable consequence of science; rather the difference of opinion is a problem amenable for further study, within both science and spirituality.

Considerable evidence indicates that our cognitive system consists of (at least) two subsystems, one rational-scientific and the other intuitive-spiritual (9). Since these subsystems work on overlapping data bases, it seems understandable that sometimes they come up with comparable results as briefly mentioned above. Only, these results are experienced consciously in widely different ways. Further, although the two subsystems are working in parallel, they probably influence each other, because the human person appears to function as a self-organizing system.This is also brought out by more detailed studies: intuitive and spiritual ideas can be contemplated rationally and in the end give rise to rational-scientific conclusions, which may again give rise to new intuitive ideas (9), so that a progressive develpopment of knowledge occurs. Indeed, our discussions in the ISSS may be regarded as an example of this self-organizing interaction in progress.


1. Lommel, Andreas 1969, Fortschritt ins Nichts. Atlantis: Zürich. See in particular pp. 137, 156-158.

2. Ferrer, Jorge N. 2000, The Perennial Philosophy Revisited. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology Vol. 32 (1): 7-30. Many references.

3. Forman, Robert K. C. (ed.) 1997. The Problem of Pure Consciousness. Oxford University Press: New York. Chapters by Donald Rothberg, Stephen Bernhardt, and Norman Prigge & Gary Kessler.

4. Randrup, Axel 1998, The Perennial Philosophy. Lecture 42nd Annual Conference of The International Society for the Systems Sciences, 1998 Publ. on CD rom ISBN 0-9664183-0-1, eds. Janet K. Allen and Jennifer Wilby. With references.

5. Smith, Huston 1987, Is There a Perennial Philosophy? Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 55 (3): 553-566.

6. Underhill, Ruth M. 1965. Red Man's Religion. University of Chicago Press: Chicago. USA. See particularly p. 94 and chapter 23.

7. Katz, Steven (ed.) 1992, Mysticism and Language. Oxford University Press: New York.

8. Brier, Soeren 1994, Verdensformlen der Blev Vaek. Aalborg Universitetsforlag: Aalborg, Denmark. Much on paradigmatic shifts.

9. Marchais, P., Grize, J.-B., Randrup, A. 1995, Intuition et psychiatrie. Annales Médico-Psychologique, Vol.153 (6): 369-384.