Thoughts on Science and Contemplation (a.k.a Religion)

There are several ways in which one could approach the dialogue between science and contemplative traditions (meditation, yoga etc). I can think of three strategies myself:

  1. Use scientific methods to study contemplative traditions. In this camp we can club a variety of methods, such as the traditional (reductive) strategies that seek to explain contemplative traditions via psychological, anthropological or sociological means; attempts to map out the neurophysiological basis of yoga as well as recent attempts to get Buddhist yogis and neuroimaging people to collaborate with each other.
  2. The second approach is to say that the contemplative traditions have a knowledge of different worlds or states of reality that modern science does not know about and then to exhort science to expand in those directions. In this category one would include re-evaluating the limits of mental imagery after looking at the ability of certain Tibetan monks to visualize Mandalas, as well as radical breaks from conventional scientific beliefs such as acknowledging the separate reality of dream practices and clairvoyance etc.

Both of these approaches are in the best sense of the term cosmological, in the sense that they attempt to assimilate the other side to their own cosmos, whether it be the Buddhist one or the scientific one. While I find these attempts important as well as interesting, I believe that they will never have a genuine impact on the other, at least not in the sense of a permanent change in the composition of the other, as desired by most people engaging in this dialogue. This is the problem of fruits, not roots, i.e., in these strategies, people are taking well developed techniques and ideas from one tradition and applying them to the other in the hope that it will change the other. This method is valid, but ultimately, I think it tilts the scales in the favour of the dominant mode of thinking that has the most powerful tools, which at this time is the scientific cosmology. Instead, I believe in a dialogue that starts at the roots, at the way of being that lies behind the two traditions.

Let me start by outlining some of the fundamental aspects of the scientific way of being. I believe that the fundamental existential motivation for science is to know the world as it is. However, this desire to know the world has been fleshed out over the centuries using the following norms (which are not exhaustive or even necessarily compatible with each other):

  1. Objectivity
  2. Universality
  3. Abstraction and Idealization
  4. Empiricism

Some of these constraints are more crucial than the others. Indeed when studying the mind, some of these assumptions can be quite devastating. For example, if we want to study consciousness, which is by definition concrete and subjective, we run into constraints 1 and 3. I think that these assumptions are extra, and that underlying them is a quest for essence. The essence dimension captures what something really IS, which by its very nature is the truth and outside of time, in the way that scientific knowledge is meant to be, except that it does not have to objective (in the sense of being out there, independent of our minds) or abstract. Some contemplative traditions — Chan, Dzogchen and Advaita come to mind — have excelled in sticking to the essence without any additional assumptions, which is why they are able to see the essence of being a human or the essence of morals without sacrificing the concreteness or the subjectivity that comes from studying yourself from a first person perspective. At the same time, these traditions do not have a history of mathematical modeling, controlled experimentation, peer review all of which make modern science universal and at its best, culture neutral.

In my opinion, what we need is a new “essential inquiry” that borrows from the best of the scientific method, its theoretical, experimental and communicative tools and combine that with the existential and metaphysical subtlety of the contemplative traditions, giving rise to a new method that does not need the four additional assumptions that scientific inquiry has imposed on our understanding of reality.

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