W o K     :     Ways of Knowing

Piet/Steven Dialogue

Theory and Practice #3

{after the discussion presented in the previous two sections, Piet suggested we again switch to questions concerning science and other issues, what we loosely refer to as “spirituality”. Specifically, we revisited a question we’ve discussed many times since 1997 or so: “does science contain spirituality, or does spirituality contain science?”}

Steven: It's hard to talk about the “what contains what question?”, because to do it properly, one might think that there would be a need for a lot more definition and general clarity concerning the issue. If you ask whether physics contains chemistry, or vice versa, then you have a pretty clear issue to discuss. If you ask whether physics contains what you are calling the “experiencing subject”, or even whether science contains the role of the subject, you have a less well-defined issue. But it's one that still lends itself to various kinds of debate and discussion, if not simple agreement. If you ask whether science contains spirituality, or vice versa, the question is much less well-defined. So I think a lot of what we would have to do at some point, is not so much to explain or argue that X contains Y or Y contains X, but just explore what are we talking about.

Piet: I think at least we can start with a few more extreme points of view. Most scientists nowadays, I think, would say that science contains spirituality in the following sense: that spirituality is part of our psychological makeup, which is part of the way our brain functions, which is part of the way our body functions, which is part of biology, which is part of science. It seems pretty straightforward.

Steven: yes, I think that’s a very common and apparently reasonable perspective. But even there, we run into some tricky areas. We do not have a science of mind or of consciousness, or of anything like that yet. We are still studying perception, more or less in isolation of a broader understanding of cognition, and it will take awhile to improve substantially on that. There is a field called “cognitive science”, but it means lots of different things to different scientists. There's no real paradigm there yet that allows scientists to coordinate their efforts, or that gives them any reason to believe that they've made much progress yet. It's still a fledgling proto-field, not even a real field in a lot of respects. Basically, just as when it started in the late 70’s, it's a catchall for a lot of different disciplines that are more well-defined in their own right. So this “containment” picture isn’t as easy to really spell out as people often think.

Moreover, considering your own, more ambitious ideas … even if you did have a science of the conscious subject, as we have discussed already, just projecting along the lines of current scientific work, that would only mean you have a set of theories and body of terminology, language, perspectives … various kinds that are fairly well-defined, that would let you study being a subject, or study consciousness. There is still nothing even remotely in that which goes further, and sees what things are actually like from the point of view of being a subject. It would just mean studying how subjects work, or how being a perceiver or knower works, from a certain point of view, in certain terms. The terms might differ, but the formal nature of the theory in certain respects might look rather similar to that of geology, certainly to computer science. You wouldn't have crossed the gap and actually gotten anything that actually grabs onto what experiences like for a subject.

You, on the other hand, are proposing a future science that I can’t yet visualize, which crosses that boundary to some extent. And spirituality presents yet another big step or level of difficulty, because it's not the same as just talking about consciousness or perception etc., and I would definitely like to make some comments about what it is, which suggest it goes far beyond being a subject, or even having experiences, even having nonstandard experiences. It's a commonly-held notion of spiritual practice, that it's about having some kind of unusual experiences, and I would want to say at the outset that this notion is mistaken. So I don't think it's going to be very easy for people to legitimately claim that science somehow encompasses spirituality, just because science is now starting to include references to an observer in physics, or has started to study cognition. Because … there are several big steps here, and people should be aware of them.

Piet: I definitely agree that the straightforward extrapolation of studying subjects the way you described it, in a scientific way, would be using the object-oriented methodologies we have now, describing the subject as an object, and—as we discussed before, I think. That is pretty limited. I believe it will change over time, but this will take awhile. We have not talked so much about what I consider to be the next few stages ...

I do think that this is the obvious next stage for science, and I think another stage beyond that will be one which goes beyond the subject-object split, and then there will be other stages yet beyond that. But for right now, rather than getting into all that detail, which would be many long conversation in themselves, I would like to put on the table the different options or basic ideas that you could possibly have if you talk about “what contains what?”.

We started with the idea that science could be seen to contain spirituality, because spirituality is not much more than a particular mode of operation of the brain—that is the first idea. The exact opposite idea, that spirituality actually contains science, would be to say that... pick your favorite view... either that God created the world, or that the world is all basically Emptiness in the Buddhist sense, or whatever you would like to start with, as a basic ontological picture of reality. Then within that, our kind of universe and world, our realm and our way of experiencing arose, and then within that all of science played out. So by definition, this would be a picture in which science is part of our world, and our world is part of this transcendent thing.

So those are two extremes, and each has its own logic in a way, and it will be interesting to talk in more detail about where the logic can go wrong, or with the unstated assumptions might be. Before going further in that direction, I would also like to put a third option on the table, which is that science and spirituality are basically two different ways of dealing with the world, and they're like two different islands. You cannot get from one to the other, there is an ocean in between, and it would be silly to even try to connect them. And interestingly, this is a vision or view, which has been held by a number of scientists recently. For example, there was the book by Stephen Jay Gould, Rock of Ages, in which he specifically held that view. Whereas yesterday, as we mentioned, there are people like Steven Weinberg and E. O. Wilson, they are basically “one island” people: there is one island where you have firm ground in the sea of uncertainty, and that is science. The second view is where you have spirituality as the one island, and science as part of the lack of knowing or uncertainty. A third view would be the “two island” view, that you have science and spirituality as separate things. And for me, I think in order to come to clarity about this, I find it very important to scrutinize this... what I consider rather wishy-washy view of the two islands, since I think that is very damaging. If you really believe in the “two island” point of view, you have carte blanche to stop investigation altogether. Because you cannot use scientific methods for studying spirituality, you cannot use spiritual methods for understanding science, you go to church on Sunday, and during the week you do your science work. I think that is a detrimental attitude frankly.

Steven: yes. Well, I have certainly committed to the project of trying to bring what spirituality is really about into the 21st century, and into a kind of lived appreciation and also a conceptual framework—to the extent that it can be conceptualized—that is more coherently a part of the rest of our current worldview. So I definitely don't agree with Stephen Jay Gould's idea, and in fact, I think it's basically just an incoherent picture from the start.

But in any case, there are still some tricky issues here. The word “spirituality” can refer to a project that people are engaged in, an exploratory project, and then “science” can refer to another exploratory project that people undertake... that would be one kind of picture. And having said that, you could then say there remain several other logical options, as far as these “islands” and containment relations are concerned. This is one way to approach the discussion.

But if “science” is taken to refer to its content or its primary object, rather than to a methodology, which I think it sort of does—at least in terms of things you have already said today—then science is pointing at a reality that physics has studied remarkably well so far, and is making progress on redefining further, etc. So from this point of view, I think when one talks about science, one is discussing what science is finding—this physical world that is emerging out of the scientific exploration. Thus, when one says that science contains something else, such a spirituality, what one really means is that that world, which science is discovering, is the world... and anything else we mention then has to be something which is happening in that world. And if someone says that spirituality contains science, then as you pointed out, one is saying that there is a dimension or whatever, which is larger and contains the science-defined world and the project of science itself.

So there are activities, exploratory methodologies and projects, here, that are either very separate from each other, or perhaps can be more integrated. And on the other hand, there are distinct notions of reality, or specific senses of “reality”, that could be argued to be in some kind of containment relation, one to the other. And I don't think one can mix up the “exploration project” or “characteristic methodology” approach to a comparison with the “reality” approach ... and mean, these are ambiguities, which lurk in the discussion.

Spirituality, as a project undertaken by people, is indeed different from the project of doing science! Doing geology is always going to concentrate on geothermal reactions, tectonic plate shifts, etc., and these are simply not subjects for spirituality and for the spiritual exploration. One can take a spiritual awareness into such geological investigations, but it may not buy you much—at least, that would be another discussion or debate we might have, and might also best involve some of our colleagues from other work we’ve done together. So on the one hand, I wouldn't want to argue for some sort of schizophrenic separation, but I also would acknowledge that, just as a matter of simple efficiency and pragmatic concerns etc., spiritual orientations don't somehow replace the knowledge project of doing chemistry, astronomy, etc. There is a kind of continuity there, on some level, which we could discuss sometime, but nevertheless the subject matter at issue is quite different and that does matter too. Sorry, this is probably a small point.

Piet: but it is an important point. And I think if we talk about “what contains what?”, we talk about ontology, about how things really are...

Steven: yes, in some sense of the word "ontology", that would be my preference as well. You could discuss the other, methodology-oriented approach, and that has been discussed by other people already, but in some respects the issues there seem more straightforward and less interesting to me.

Piet: I would say so, yes.

Steven: I just mention this difference in passing, because some people actually might want to argue that there is a payoff or advantage in taking a spiritual perspective into the project of doing science... of exploring the world as a scientist. For instance, our colleague Arthur Zajonc has sometimes argued for a certain kind of reconsideration or recasting of scientific methodology, along lines that were hinted at by some ideas that the German philosopher Goethe had. I found his ideas very intriguing and provocative, and would like to explore them later. And it certainly follows from that point of view, if you play it out a bit, that the project of doing science would actually be aided by this more spiritual perspective. That's a line of thought which we could discuss as a separate topic.

So there is a debate there as well, and someone else could argue in the other direction, that spirituality would be aided by actively holding and using a scientific attitude or terminology or set of perspectives drawn from what are currently thought to be other fields, like physics or neurochemistry. People who want to extend Paul Churchland's work might fall into this camp. This is not my own perspective, but I mention it just for the sake of the record, and will also pick it up in detail another time.

Piet: I think that spiritual traditions have a literature which list different paths. There is the path of contemplation, and devotion, and for something like analysis, etc. So at least within spirituality, I think that there are specifics which do or do not focus on something which you might want to call “scientific”, although that's a big discussion by itself. Within science, interestingly, there is very little discussion about the different paths to discovery. What is being described in science are the results of discovery, but there is very little talk about the process of discovery.

Steven: yes, that latter was more the kind of thing I studied in philosophy of science.

Piet: yes. If you learn to become a scientist, you do exercises, you work in a laboratory, at some point you start to do your own research, but the whole idea of how insights come from an unformed realm, and suddenly become concrete—that whole process is basically passed by, and science focuses on the verification procedure at the end. This is interestingly different from spirituality, and this may reveal an immaturity in science, that science is so young, only a few hundred years, that people haven't yet learned to share much about the process of doing scientific discovery. Scientists just try to put young people in a situation where they know enough that hopefully for some of them, the spark goes through... and they get new insights.

Steven: that's interesting. It's true that this becomes a big issue in some of the traditions' notions of spirituality, at least the ones that I'm most familiar with. Because, there's an acute awareness of a kind of co-dependence factor... the way you approach something in many respects determines what you find. Of course this is a big issue in Buddhism, but it's also well understood in Taoism and some of the other traditions that I teach. One needs to be aware not only of the objects of one's exploration, but of the exploration itself as a co-determining factor. I'm interested in your having brought this up, and whether this could contribute more to science than the general understanding of this point already has.

Piet: but to address more directly the point of whether spiritual interests will help someone to do better science, indirectly, I think it probably will, to this extent: I think that an authentic spiritual exploration is bound to help someone to be a more balanced and keenly aware person. That can only help the scientific enterprise.

Steven: yes, that would help all of life... it has to be integrated with life, and you live better as a result. The same applies to individual activities, like science.

Piet & Steven, recorded 4/30/05, posted 6/21/06

|Back to Dialogues|
|Top of page|