One of things I thank my father for is introducing me to the beauty and wonder of nature. I remember, as a young boy, accompanying my father to his work on some weekends, where he showed me the many gadgets and instruments in his lab. To a young and enquiring mind, the visits to this magical room of test tubes, centrifuges, and colourful chemicals was awe inspiring and amazing. It was here where I was shown the counter-intuitive properties of mercury, the metallic liquid in which metal balls would float, and how two inert metals, when mixed together in powder form, would suddenly burst into flame.
But the instrument that was my favourite was a small glass vacuum chamber. My father, who was always willing entertain his kids with the lab equipment, would fill the chamber half-way with water, seal it, and then turn on the vacuum pump. As the air was sucked out of the chamber, the water inside, to my utter amazement, started to boil – at room temperature! And I asked my dad: why is this boiling without any heat?
When I’ve come across mystery, I’ve always asked such questions. How do clouds form? What is lightning? Why are plants green? Where did we come from? These questions have always flowed out of me, like an excited bubbling brook, from the intense wonder that I have always had regarding the universe and our place in it. I guess one of the reasons why I eventually left religion is that the answers it provided to some of these questions seemed somehow weak and unsatisfying, always wrapped up in mystery and riddles, forever out of reach of human intellect. And the answers that science provided – through fields such as physics, chemistry and biology – have always instilled a sense of empowerment within me, a sense that I could, as a simple human being, grasp – to some extent – the world around me. As I’ve written before, the beauty of nature is awesome, and a source of great inspiration, but understanding how nature works has been, for me at least, even more incredible.
Could I be so brave as to label this wondrous sense of nature, together with the tool of my understanding – science – as a form of spirituality?
How can an atheist be spiritual, you may ask?
Well, I would reply with a question: does a person have to believe in the supernatural to be spiritual?
Carl Sagan, who was an atheist as well as a scientist, wrote in his book, The Demon-Haunted World (page 32):
Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in the immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or of acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Lurther King Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.
As an individual who has always found meaning in understanding, empowerment through knowledge, and excitement in detail – this is how I feel. Finding out how nature works has been incredibly enriching for me. And as my father, standing over that vacuum chamber, began to tell me the story of water molecules and how they react under different pressures, I started my journey to the realisation that for me, I don’t need the supernatural or a form of mysticism to provide me with meaning in life or a sense of spirituality. As the cartoon above illustrates, nature is all I need, and nature is enough.