We are in the Age of Science. The human brain is pushing knowledge further and further into the abyssal dark of the unknown.

The prominence of science has never reached such heights. It reigns as the dominant cultural entity, the most exciting hero of the human struggle, eclipsing the high arts, literature and religion, endeavours that used to win the supreme laurel wreaths in times past. Today, a Nobel Prize in physics draws far more prestige than one in literature. The technology science inspires is letting loose life-changing forces, conscripting talent and penetrating social norms that have traditionally fertilized the other fields.

Science is widely accepted as the window into reality, the real world. But, what does that mean? It’s undoubtedly true in the material sense, but there are other activities of the human mind that experience reality, reality of a different sort. As Hamlet says, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” His close friend was a Stoic, a man Hamlet admired for his rational adherence to reality, the material kind.

There is arguably more likelihood these days than in Shakespeare’s imagination that our focus is too narrow.

The term science, coming from the Latin scientia, meaning knowledge, was coined in the 19th century. Before that, the activity was called natural philosophy because its operation was to enquire into nature, meaning the physical world. The restless curiosity of the human species to understand, to make sense of what surrounds it and to improve its life by harnessing the fruits of observation, experimentation and rational conclusion must have animated even the earliest hominids. Homo habilis most probably would have used a stick, then a stone-carved stick, to extract honey from the hole in the tree.

In earliest times, all enquiry was the province of one discipline, searching within one reality. In pharaonic Egypt, the priests, among the few literate people at the time, were in charge of looking into and understanding both the material and the spiritual worlds. What we regard as science and mathematics, religion and magic were all combined into one perception of reality, though often practiced in different specialties. Every purpose of the Egyptians, including that of their wondrous architecture and renowned medicine, was meant to express and glorify that unity. All worthwhile knowledge was perceived to emanate from the perfectly ordered and eternal harmony personified in the god Maat.

When, later, the Greeks achieved intellectual hegemony in the Mediterranean world, learning from the Egyptians (many, such as Pythagoras and Plato, studied there), they split the discipline into religion and philosophy, the latter covering not only the physical world but also mathematics and human behavior. It was a sensible division of labour, for some people lean one way, others another.

Greek natural philosophers examined nature in astonishing detail. They even looked far enough into it to reveal its granular form, discovering things beneath what the human eye could see. Democritus, considered the father of science and called the laughing philosopher for poking fun at human foibles, saw that everything was not all that it seems but is actually structures of atoms (Greek for that which cannot be cut). The theory has survived into modern science. And Heraclitus, given the moniker of the weeping philosopher for his constant state of depression, observed that all is subject to change, even that which seems eternal, like Tennyson’s babbling brook. He is credited with saying; “No man can step into the same river twice.”

Philosophers explained natural phenomena without resort to religion, the traditional source of understanding. Yet religion remained to animate perception, for the people needed an avenue to explain the unexplainable and to express their longing to relate to something beyond the fragility of the mortal state. Both modes of though had their place. And so an observation was born that there are different realities, each with its own compelling truth.

For many centuries natural philosophy, while universally recognized as an important discipline in its own right, was the junior partner of religion. In matters of the highest importance, perception of a reality conceived as spiritual prevailed, wherever observations of a material type clashed with faith.

The Galileo controversy started the process of reversing that. The point was reached where the apparent inconsistence between the two concepts of reality could no longer be tolerated and a wrenching choice for supremacy had to be made. By the 18th century, the only reality in the minds of an increasing number of people lay in the material world. And that is where we are today.

I love science, so fascinating, although, coming from a background in the humanities (classics, history and law), I have no formal training in it. Nevertheless, in my business career I have been involved productively with geoscientists (in mining) and physicists (in biotech). Some science has inevitably rubbed off on me, but of course only at the most superficial level, but one sufficient to instill in me a profound respect for its activity and practitioners. It has rightly captured hegemony at the present and offers our highest hope for progress in matters material, producing benefits, which if applied prudently, can lead to a state of greater human happiness than ever before.

But, as in all human endeavours, science has a category limitation, which gives rise to the need for another branch of thought if the full gamut of human potential is to flourish.  By itself, science is not fully satisfying. It lacks the means to liberate the soul and give substance to its yearning for something beyond the mundane.

Its commendable habit of accuracy and exactness in matters of fact needs an escape hatch so that another reality can be apprehended, one that allows imagination a full rein, untrammelled by the rigour of proof.

John Keats spoke of this when he accused the scientists of “unweaving the rainbow”, defending the importance of the arts, particularly poetry, in lifting the human soul into the joy of transcendence. And he said in the Ode to a Grecian Urn, a poetic simulacrum of classical aesthetics, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know and all ye need to know.” A bit hyperbolic in one sense, but he was speaking in the world of poetry, where infinite possibility can reign unfettered.

Traditionally, religion has been the principal resident of the transcendental domain and for many people it still is. However its presence in Western society seems to be diminishing, largely because of a perceived non-conformability with science. Of course, clerical misbehavior has exacerbated the decline.

However, I consider it an error to view science and religion, or its secular spiritual equivalent, as fundamentally inconsistent with each other, much less antagonistic.

In parallel with a deeper apprehension of the material world, thought in the incorporeal sphere can realize another reality, one animated by the sense of ultimate perfection, whether that be God or an inspirational conception of another sort. The perfect is the essence of the all.

Plato saw this. In his theory of Forms, he explained that all objects have a Form (or essence) that defines their reality, their physical appearance being merely an imitation of that. It is in the realm of thought that “truth and reason” can be produced to apprehend their true nature, their incorporeal aspect.

This approach to reality is available to people of faith and atheists alike, although its style of thought and action differ. Its transcendental nature rises above what appears to the senses (reality in the material world), and enters a different realm, one that may touch the material in a way through the imagination but is not overwhelmed by it. Nor does it threaten its truth. The essence of the rainbow is beyond unweaving.

This reality can be realized through various avenues; some elevating the human mind to its highest state, as in a religious or other spiritual experience, others to merely an interesting awareness.

An example of the latter can arise from the creation of an apparent identity change in a well-known object, by displaying it momentarily in a different state. The observer can encounter the familiar identity but see it in a new light. That is what happens in the wrapping of things for which Christo is famous.

I went to his project in Lake Iseo, the first major one executed after his wife and artistic partner died. The lake, two hundred and fifty metres deep and set about with picturesque mountains, is in the Alpine region near Bergamo. The project required seventy thousand metres of saffron fabric laid over a floating dock system of polyethylene cubes that took scuba divers to anchor into place.

Over its ephemeral period – only a matter of weeks, more than a million people walked on narrow, serpentine piers that crawled over the lake to Monte Isola, a small island. So low upon the surface, many said it was like walking on water. Christo called the project the Floating Piers.

Here was an instance where art showed its aesthetic power to transform, to act on an object and afford it a place in a different reality. A saffron ribbon slid gracefully across the water and brought the lake and its island together as never before, and through that action an expansion of its essence came into sight. Like Michelangelo who said he didn’t create his sculptures but merely released what was already in the stone, the art of Christo revealed a connective aspect of the lake whose potential had always been.

The lake before Christo was still there and would revert to its appearance quo ante after the Project ended, but its realized potential, in a sense a component of its essence, would remain, at least in the minds of the people who saw it. That was the reality of it all. It brings forth the observation that, as a result of its potential, reality should not be considered fixed. It is in a constant state of being.

Another appearance of reality, but of deeper significance, arose from an experience when I was travelling in Xinjiang along the Silk Roads, on their northern branch which gingerly skirts the deadly Taklimakan desert, a trap so fearsome that its name means, “Once you go in you never get out.”

There, the ancient Tien-Shan mountain range strikes east/west in sedimentary magnificence, rising out of the desert like a wall with no end. At times, haematite, salt, and green inclusions appear to cover it with a coat of many colours. Unruly rills etched by the wild rush of water towards underground aquifers give it the wrinkly face of a sage.

The range is called the Heavenly Mountains for its venerable procession of snow towers that reach to the clouds in otherworldly grace. Along the way it is brushed by shifting mists that blur its material state and stimulate the imagination to appreciate the majesty of its incorporeal form and link it to everything that matters.

Far away from humanity and its mundane obsessions, a celestial tranquility reigns in beauty. But underneath the calm, and only perceptible to geological examination, is the ceaseless action of tectonic violence that rages in continental conflict, upturning, deforming, suturing and creating huge fault zones between blocks, some of which go back to Gondwana times and others beyond. Within the chorus of the rocks, the rhythms of peace and conflict resonate in a timeless reality, which, like the whole mountain range, has a spiritual form.

If indeed there is an ultimate unity it must comprise the material and the spiritual. Both are participants in the march of reality. What goes on in the material world is one truth and in the spiritual consciousness another. They are complementary, and a perception of both is required to make animals human.