Scientism and Spiritual Disbelief – by LDH Wood, MD PhD

If a higher power wants to tell us how the Cosmos works, scientists would be wise to learn how to listen to god’s voice. In my memoir Science, Belief, Intuition1, I describe how a person can pursue a productive career as a clinician scientist while cultivating a spiritual relationship. Yet many scientists act as if science and spirituality are antagonistic, so they must choose between them². Some of those choosing science feel the need to discredit spirituality as if it’s existence threatens science or reason, when what it threatens is materialism as a doctrinal world view3.

Part of the preference for science over spirituality is the observation that analytic thinking promotes religious disbelief4. This preference is furthered by scientism, an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the scientific method applied to other ways of knowing. This approach is not so much a method as a faith or belief that enables choosing what should be studied. For example, Rupert Sheldrake studied 10 phenomena which were sufficiently outside the prevailing paradigm that some declared them not worthy of investigation5. When he studied telepathy in wolves and dogs, he was swiftly denounced as a numbskull ‘chasing fairies’. Yet if telepathy turned out to be real, why should it matter to a neutral science3? Another example;  Frances Crick insisted that all reproduction is explained by the arrangement and duplication of nucleic acids. This dictum excluded, even ridiculed, scientists presenting data suggesting influence on the expression of the nucleic acids by cell membranes or substances from the cytoplasm or extra-cellular influences. Of course, these observations are the basis of a new science of epigenetics which reversed this dictum6.

Thomas Khun described the process of science as extending linearly the prevailing paradigm with blinkers on, until sufficient evidence is gathered to explode that line of thought7.  Then the creative work of science develops a new paradigm to explain previous observations and incorporate the new data. Scientific progress depends on formulating new paradigms based on fresh insights. Accordingly, any attempt to reject explanations before they have been tested is a disservice to inquiry.

Although scientism and spiritual disbelief tend to diminish the contributions of the spiritual source of knowing, 60% of Ivy League scientists believe in God, or believe a spiritual universe is possible but unknowable via conventional scientific means8. But what means would make spirituality more knowable? I contend that hearing the still small voice or intuition verifies beliefs to create a spiritual source of knowing. Such hearing is a gift, which can be cultivated1 or can be suppressed if the listener is so inclined to reject it a priori. It seems timely and appropriate for study of factors validating the still small voice. At the least, young scientists should be aware that pursuit of their career does not preclude parallel development of their spirituality; In fact it may help1.

Consider an illustrative case. I was asked to evaluate a moribund 30yo woman.  My examination confirmed her hyperactive circulation and low BP (90/40) likely due to a serious infection (T=39C), complicated by excess liquid in her lungs with 4-quadrant air space filling on her chest x-ray, due in part to excess circulating volume as indicated by a pulmonary artery occlusion pressure (PAOP) of 24mm. hg.  She was intubated and ventilated with 100% oxygen, positive end expiratory pressure (PEEP) of 20cm H20, and a tidal volume of 800ml at 20 breaths/min.  She was oliguric, comatose, and receiving a large intravenous dose of broad spectrum antibiotics.  As I examined her, I prayed silently “Lord, Agnes is dying, what can I do to help her get better?”  Out of the noisy background of her ICU cubicle came the still small voice “less circulating volume, more dobutamine, less ventilation, less PEEP.”  Aware that the scientific support for the benefits of lowering PAOP inspired O2, tidal volume, Peep and auto peep were each ambivalent, we began.

We cut the tidal volume in half and reduced the ventilator rate to 12 breaths per minute.  Immediately, the auto-PEEP fell from 8 to zero cm H20and her BP increased without much increase in PaC02.  Then we removed 4 units of blood from her indwelling arterial line.  As her BP decreased, we increased dobutamine from 2 to 12 microg/kg/min, and PAOP decreased to 4 cm H20.  Her urine output increased to 80ml/hour.  Then we progressively decreased PEEP in small decrements to 8 centimeters H20 overnight.  By dawn, her cardiopulmonary status was nearly normal.  As I left to make ICU rounds at the University of Chicago, I prayed “Thank you Lord”, still wondering whose voice I heard.  So there I was, living the interface of science and intuition.


  1. Wood, LDH. Science, Belief, Intuition: Reflections of a Physician. Balboa Press, Indiana, 2012. Pp 46-48
  2.  Chopra, Deepak and Mlodinov, L. War of the Worldviews: Science vs Spirituality. Harmony Books, NY, 2011.
  3. Science and Religion: Why you don’t have to choose. The Huffington Post. October 9, 2012.
  4. Gervais, WM, Norenzayan A. Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief. Science 336: 493-6. 2012.
  5. Sheldrake, R. The Science Delusion Coronet 2012.
  6. Lipton, BH. The Biology of Belief. Hay House, USA. 2008.
  7. Khun, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press, 1962.
  8. Ecklund, EH. Science vs Religion: What Scientists Really Think.  Oxford University Press 2010.

Constantine Manthous

Lawrence D.H. Wood – Larry Wood is a father of modern critical care.  He published 100’s of original scientific articles, many which lie at the foundations of 21st century evidence-based practice, and was the senior founder-editor of Principles of Critical Care, the definitive text of CCM.  Larry also mentored a tribe of national figures in PCCM who began their careers at University of Chicago. 

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