In every discussion involving science and spirituality, certain preconceptions affect the thinking of those involved, or as William James put it many years ago, “Every explanation is based on a stated or unstated metaphysics. Even in the most air-tight systems, ‘the juices of the metaphysical assumptions leak in at every joint.’” [Harman, Willis: "Two Liberating Concepts for Research on Consciousness", Noetic Sciences Review, 25 (Spring 1993) p. 15]. One result of this is that the topics of discussion include points that do not properly belong to the shared domain of science and religion, but only to one or the other. Thus the dialog includes topics of science that have religious import and topics of religious thought that have scientific import, and also some topics of theology that interest some particular scientists, but that have no specific scientific import. The topics can be discussed in six groups.
The first group of topics concerns the nature of ultimate reality. Most of these topics are largely metaphysical and philosophical, and have been discussed for a very long time. However, recent developments in science shed new light on some of them. The most basic of these topics, and the one of greatest interest to many people, is the question of the existence and nature of God: can we, with intellectual honesty, believe in God; and if so, what is God like? If there is a good God, how can evil exist in the universe (the question of theodicy). Is there perhaps, not a personal God, but a supreme intelligence which creates the universe? How do we relate to God: as parts, only as creatures, as identical with supreme intelligence but misled by illusion? If the latter is the case, how do we perceive ourselves as being different from the rest of the universe? What is the relation among matter, spirit, and mind? How is religious thought, in both individual and group manifestations, affected by human psychology? What is the truth about time and space? How much can we really ever know and understand about all these questions? Does quantum physics have anything to say to us about spiritual topics?
The second group of topics concerns origins. Can science and religions agree on cosmology and the origins of the universe? Is the universe purposeful? If there is a Creator of the universe, how does the Creator interact with the creation? How did sentient life come to be? Is there any hope for reconciliation between science and religion on these important topics?
The third group of topics –- on the issue of prayer -- can be considered to spring from the last question of the second group, as prayer certainly assumes interaction between Creator and creation. First, some groundwork will be needed: what is prayer? What are the forms of prayer? How universal is prayer among different religions? What are the psychological effects of prayer upon the person praying? Does prayer for another person have real effects upon the person being prayed for? What can we learn from scientific experiments involving prayer? What do the skeptics have to add to the discussion?
The fourth group of topics relates to healing of the human body. Almost all religions provide examples of non-medical approaches to healing. What methods are actually used? What efficacy do they have? Is there a body of knowledge that can be systematically applied to produce or enhance healing? What scientific studies have been done on such forms of healing? What can we learn from these studies? Is there any possible materialistic explanation for such healing? How is non-medical healing related to prayer?
The fifth group of topics concern the survival of persons after death of the physical body. First, we must ask, what are the origin and nature of consciousness? What is individuality, and how does it come about? What is personality, and how is it related to individuality? If, as many religions posit, there is a spiritual realm, how does it affect material bodies; i.e., how does incarnation occur? Do we in some way survive death? How?
The sixth group of topics comprises two other issues that may not be directly related to each other, but are still a part of the dialog. Are paranormal events real, and if so, how do they occur? How can the study of such events be incorporated into science? Should such study be incorporated into science? Are there examples of rigorous scientific studies of the paranormal, and if so, what do they show us? And finally, what alternative viewpoints of science can we consider that would facilitate a growth in knowledge of issues that are presently excluded by the Grand Material Metaparadigm?
Next we will try to assess what is known, believed, or intuited about the nature of ultimate reality.