Chaos and Void: Gnosis and Scientific Practice

Professor Farnsworth: And, now that I’ve found all the answers, I realize that what I was living for were the questions!
Fry: That stinks, Professor. Too bad the universe made it turn out that way and not some other way. I wonder why it did that.
Stephen Hawking: Probably magnets.

Futurama

Science is a discipline that involves personal and social inquiry into the nature of reality. While having its intellectual forebears, it truly evolved into its own in the past few centuries leading up to the modern age. Searching for material truth has led humanity to develop sophisticated systems that parse cause and effect towards finer control and repeatability.

Science shares space with other fields of human knowledge that make concepts, attempt to explain natural phenomena, and provide experimental knowledge. These other fields include religion and philosophy. While its claims are often presented with the ring of authority, its provisional character is less apparent. The same factors that influence personal works are at play in science’s quest for accuracy, including accident, intuition, and material design.

One of the most influential philosophers in the way I conceive science has been Paul Feyerabend. In his classic book Against Method, Feyerabend outlined a philosophical attack on “homogenous” reality, and attempted to subvert reductionist approaches to science and life. In the beginning “sketch of the main argument,” he said:

Science is essentially anarchistic enterprise: theoretical anarchism is more humanitarian and more likely to encourage progress than its law-and-order alternatives. This is shown both by an examination of historical episodes and by an abstract analysis of the relation between idea and action. The only principle that does not inhibit progress is: anything goes. For example, we may use hypotheses that contradict well-confirmed theories and/or well-established experimental results. We may advance science by proceeding counterinductively . . . Neither science nor rationality are universal measures of excellence. They are particular traditions, unaware of their historical grounding. Yet is is possible to evaluate standards of rationality and to improve them. The principles of improvement are neither above tradition nor beyond change and it is impossible to nail them down.

Feyerabend refers to this methodology as “ad hoc,” and this opportunisitic approach to explaining cause and effect relationships has a lot to offer us. It envisions a kind of science in which all things are open to interpretation, experimentation, and meaning.

The experiment is often the nexus of scientific practice.  There are many factors that can affect how scientific experiments are designed and their results reported. These factors can include the subjects used in the experiments, intended applicability of the results, current limits of technology, use of materials and how they are set up within the system, how those materials interact, and the interpretation and assumptions of the scientists involved.

These assumptions can be particularly important for our investigation of scientific practice. Many times our theories are the best approximations we can make of complex phenomena, and those approximations allow us to make certain predictions and material designs. We also have to consider the use of the data we are working with. This is a strength of the practice as well as a weakness: what our data may lack in completeness allows us to manipulate the experiment more effectively. However, we should not confuse this with any kind of “ultimate” truth. The Wikipedia article for fluid dynamics states:

In addition to the above, fluids are assumed to obey the continuum assumption. Fluids are composed of molecules that collide with one another and solid objects. However, the continuum assumption assumes that fluids are continuous, rather than discrete. Consequently, it is assumed that properties such as density, pressure, temperature, and flow velocity are well-defined at infinitesimally small points in space and vary continuously from one point to another. The fact that the fluid is made up of discrete molecules is ignored.

The trade off to making these assumptions is that scientific theories cannot possibly describe or account for everything. There are therefore multiple ways of doing different “taxonomies” of theory. How one organizes their information can affect the system in exciting ways. This is one of the first lessons I learned from the study of history – how the issues of perspective and assumption effect the kind of history we are writing. There is not necessarily one correct perspective in this regard. Manuel deLanda’s work A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History writes world history from three different viewpoints:  geological, biological, and linguistic.   All three are valid perspectives.

According to Amanda Geftner, a science journalist who wrote the great book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, we can’t really determine a “god’s eye view” of the universe in which there is one transcendent perspective for all subjects. She writes:

A participatory universe? Participatory, yes; a universe, no. It was one participatory universe per reference frame, and you can only talk about one at a time. Why the quantum? Because reality is radically observer-dependent. Because observers are creating bits of information out of nothingness. Because there’s no way things “really are,” and you can’t employ descriptions that cross horizons. How come existence? Because existence is what nothing looks like from the inside.

Earth is just one part of an incredibly complex, dynamic system that is continuously effected through interconnected levels. This generates questions that scientists are able to explore further. They are then able to make new creations by setting up interactions in ways that were not possible before. When we set up these interactions within experiments, interesting implications spontaneously emerge. These implications then have important bearings on how we can make and organize decisions.

Just as important for scientific practice are the moral implications of how one builds their world. This is where the importance of ethics come in, and which the spiritual attempts to address: the wider impact of human activity. For example, use of fossil fuel burning is beginning to shift, helping to drive alternatives to sustainable energy sources. While combustible engines are scientifically applicable, they are silent on the degree and morality of their use. This degree of use will also change based on present observations.

Spiritual practices, which aim at a gnosis that can’t be proven with science’s external instrumentation, attempt to put us more in touch with human subjectivity and morality. It is a knowing based on the fact of our own existence – and the profound questions that follow. It is a knowing that isn’t afraid of following those questions into interesting spaces for their own sake.

Speculating on why this might be the case – isn’t a universe in which constant discovery is possible preferable to one in which there are no longer any room for the subjective or idiosyncratic? A lack of transcendent law seems to be a way to make sure that each subject has the ability to contribute in their own way. This way involves participating in an unknown manner.  An episode of Futurama, from which the quote at the beginning of this article was taken, beautifully illustrates the necessity of unanswered and unanswerable questions to science.   Material answers point to the enormous question, also addressed in this episode, of why things are the way they are.

How we create life is a messy, complex, and unpredictable undertaking that cannot be revealed through only material concerns.  Following this undertaking requires luck, knowledge, and skill that develops over time, and in which we may need to dispense with to go forward.  Even a totally accurate theory may be rendered obsolete as the universe continues to develop.

This is because that universe is alive – breathing in, breathing out, and transmuting itself at every opportunity.

Evolution, Compassion, and the Human Mind

Compassion isn’t separate from reality. It doesn’t pretend to transcendence or an arid contemplation. Compassion and benevolence are part of looking at our own behavior and minds in the realities of everyday life. We are better able to change situations from within as we penetrate further into the various layers of human experience. The process is like excavation: further levels of awareness open up the deeper we go and the more we see. We will follow our minds to discover where they lead: down into ourselves, the depth of our predicament, and the depth of our amelioration.

Through my interest in philosophy, I have been exposed to many ways of understanding the world. Reading for this article was shaped by the political climate, including conspiracy theory.  (A good article by The Atlantic on conspiracy culture becoming mainstream can be found here.) Understanding these theories is extremely important, not only due to their reach through mass media, but also the keys to insight that they provide us. I see the limits of my own mind splayed all across these writings, with its false certainty, emotional justifications, and dilated belief systems. It ensures that humans continue to partition others, and then use violence, whether physical or verbal, to enforce these divisions.

‘We were out there and I seen a lot of Communist flags and anti-fascist and we’re going to see more stuff like this,’ [Justin] Moore said. ‘White people are getting fed up with the double standard setup in America today by the controlled press.
We should have been able to go out there and have our protest and it should have been peaceful but it’s the anti-fascist and the communists…continuing to try and stop us,’ he continued. ‘So I think there will be more violence like this in the future to come.’ (The Charlotte Observer, August 15, 2017)

In contemplating these shared boundaries of the mind, coherent explanations began to emerge. I’d like to share them with you as possible explanations for the problems we encounter in statements like those above, their persistent yet illusory nature, and why meditation is such an effective way of seeing past these illusions. Once we see how limiting the mind can be in its reductive and constructive approaches to reality, compassion begins to start naturally manifesting. We see the traps we have fallen prey to, and that humans continue to repeat. The difficult task is doing this in the midst of the human situation, but with persistent effort we can create more effective and compassionate patterns which benefit the whole.

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One of the most exciting developments in modern science has been examining human evolutionary history. When considering the idea of how humans initially started in smaller groups, and the realities of this kind of situation, many of the things that I observed in the mind began to make more sense.

Most likely, these small groups would tend towards fear of outsiders. Eliminating these outsiders would often be the safest course to prevent harm to the coherence of the group. The human mind deals with the dangers of this situation by readily stereotyping other groups. It also tends to split people along a nice dichotomy of “us and them.” We still find this attitude today in every form of racism and its justifications. This situation still tends to work its way into belief systems, in which this dichotomy is reinforced, backed up intellectually, and presented as if our racist inclinations are established fact.

Stereotyping others ties into the conceptual elements of group life. Being raised in certain cultures means that we absorb certain ways of understanding the world, which often affect our perception in insidious ways. These concepts are important in reducing the overwhelming detail of our environment to a more manageable “headspace.” We also use this ability in practical ways of identifying animals and other resources that are part of that environment. However, if we discount the individual in favor of these organizing concepts, we miss out on unique persons and situations.

Our emotions can also prevent us from acting cogently and with full awareness of these unique situations. Although emotions have evolved to fix certain kinds of problems, they often do not give us the best course of action. Anger is a good example of this. By observing this emotion in myself, it seems that anger helps to prevent others from dominating us socially, and helps us address inequalities in situations when being forceful is required. Anger can help with these problems, but its negative impacts are observable everywhere. These emotions can make situations far worse, especially since each person may have skewed and intense emotions from their own personal histories.

An interesting way of looking at the emotion of fear is outlined in this Nautilus article:

Those fears that are near-universal are known as ‘prepared fears.’They are not hardwired in the same way as the fears of sudden, loud noises and looming objects are. Nobody learns to flinch at a rapidly oncoming basketball. Prepared fears are innate, though, in the sense that they are genetically transmitted but require environmental input for their activation. The human fear system, in this aspect, is relatively open-ended—that is, it is set up for environmental calibration. The evolutionary logic underlying this design characteristic is as follows: Humans evolved to be adaptable . . . Humans quickly absorb local culture, including norms, language, knowledge about dangers, the sorts of things people in your culture consider edible or not, and so on. Learning, in fact, is an ‘evolutionarily derived adaptation to cope with environmental changes that occur within the life span of individuals and allows individual organisms to tailor their behavior to the specific environmental niche they occupy.’

This seems to be a good way of describing both the general patterns that occupy human organisms and the personal idiosyncrasies that can evolve in unique environments.   These are all characteristics of the mind that can be observed directly. I think that evolutionary theory is so far the best account for these human ways of thinking.  Without observing and recognizing the concrete patterns of human lives, we won’t be able to shed fresh perspectives on our perennial problems. Since these problems often have such intense cultural justification behind them, we have to look at the mind unflinchingly. This is where meditation practice comes in and helps us.

Buddhist meditation attempts to address the questions of how the mind structures our lives and consequently, how it creates a background of dissatisfaction and suffering to experience. When we sit in meditation, in the silence we start to recognize the familiar patterns that the mind falls into. We notice our biases and suggestibility, our opinions of others, and the play of our emotional life. We also might notice how excluding certain outcomes, and limiting diversity to what we have in our heads worsens the problem. It further reduces others, and the world, to the image we have of them. Since the world resists such easy categorization, we are doomed to sketching out the same outcomes and repeating the same limiting behaviors.

These patterns are something we may have always taken for granted: that this is the way the world is, or that they exist inexorably. With more meditation it becomes increasingly obvious that the mind directly constructs some of its own experience. It then gradually becomes easier to let things go or change things with more pragmatic approaches. Our patterns can be changed with the consistent, challenging work we do on ourselves.

Compassion is part of this process because as we notice these characteristics of our own minds, we notice them in others as well. We see how easy it is to be consumed by approaches to reality that make ourselves and others suffer. In effect, this has been with us since we were born, infiltrating us and reducing our ways of responding to this life. Instead of being separate, we all share a commonality that can’t be reduced to simple divisions of class, race, or ideology. Compassion acknowledges this common link and ultimately expresses it, changing the conditions of reality for others to respond to.