In 1954, a commissioner of the US Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis Strauss, declared that atomic energy would make electricity too cheap to meter. In other words we were going to enter an era of such radical abundance of free energy that we would not need to pay for it at all they had no cost. We all know how that turned out. The promise of free energy was only one of the consequences of the atomic revolution. Some of the other consequences were much less appetizing. We still live under the threat of destruction and radioactive waste. As for free energy, we are still waiting. What’s the lesson of the story?
Dangers lurk underneath anything we take for granted or that promises radical abundance
What nuclear energy was for the outer world, experience is for the inner world: something we take for granted, whose depths
are yet to be plumbed and that hides several of our deepest flaws.
We take experience for granted. It’s not even too cheap to meter. Experience is ubiquitous and effortless. Every time we open our eyes we see the world in full bloom. Yet, as we know from contemplative teachings and from scientific research, our experience is conditioned by our personal, cultural and evolutionary history. Much of that history isn’t pretty.
In response to such pervasive suffering, contemplatives throughout human history have searched for insights that ends misery once and for all. Contemplatives realized that experience lies at the heart of suffering; in fact, the study of the human condition is nothing but the study of the conditions that underlie human experience.
More recently, scientists have also started inquiring into the human condition. Their approach is — by it’s very nature — factual. Can we bring the ethical concerns of the contemplative together with the methods of the scientist? Quantemplation is an attempt to do so: it’s an exploration of the causes and conditions that underlie human experience. In doing so, we should be sensitive to three strands that contribute to our tapestry:
- The contemplative traditions that inquire into the nature of human suffering.
- Scientific research into the biological underpinnings of human experience.
- Technological tools that help us probe human experience in the first, second and in the third person.
Is and Ought
Human experiences are elusive; like the proverbial elephant, they appear differently to different seekers. To the scientist, experiences are like rocks. They can be studied like one studies other facts. Why is that rose red? why is the sky blue?
At the same time, experiences carry a moral charge. All experiences have a value laden character. They are either pleasant or unpleasant, good or bad and any experience could be better or worse tomorrow than it is now. I might experience tooth pain in my molars and at the same time, I may wish that it goes away. The first comes under the rubric of the way things are and the second comes under the rubric of the way things ought to be. This combination of is and ought is one of the most interesting things about experience which means that it can never be studied by science alone or by a moral tradition alone.
In other words we have to be practitioners of the Dharma and experiment rigorously with our own experience.