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Piet/Steven Dialogue

Theory and Practice #4

Piet: Returning to this question of “what contains what?” … if we have these three pictures, science containing spirituality, spirituality containing science—which I would call two variations of the “one island” picture, and then finally the “two islands” picture of Stephen Jay Gould—the question is, how does the traditional picture of heaven and earth fit in there? This conventional picture that we are on earth, in a limited realm, and maybe later on we can go to heaven as a wider realm—is that the “two islands” picture or a “one island” picture?

Steven: (laughter) ... I guess it depends on the details. The general picture you mention is not one that figures very prominently in the spiritual traditions I've studied. It's much more a Judeo-Christian picture. There are some Taoist groups that also have an idea like that, but even there, it's explicitly a “one island” notion, because Taoists are concerned with dynamics they want to see how things work, and they want to find patterns in the workings. And the patterns they find can involve or express principles, some of which they consider fundamental. So these principles would apply across the board.

Although some of those groups actually do think in terms of a “heaven” dimension—and even then they make a clear distinction between what we were calling the event realm and something else that’s not “event”-time based—they still think that the principles behind the dynamics involved apply everywhere. So the only difference between the “heaven” case and the “earth” case, would be the level of expression of these principles or the subtlety of their manifestation, etc. These principles provide a unification of view. And in Buddhism, there isn't this heaven-earth division, or at least not in a way that changes the basic teaching …

All in all, I guess I'm on the “one island” side, which holds that the spiritually-realized ontology contains everything. But even there, I still think… coming back to a point we just made a minute ago, the situation is a bit complicated, because the fundamental status of that ontology doesn't change the fact that if you are doing chemistry, or molecular biology, you have to think in those (less ultimate or fundamental) terms. You can't import a spiritual ontology in a way that would be helpful there. And I don't think this is a trivial point, because you can see a change coming now regarding this.

In the middle of the 20th century, or even in the late 20th century, just a few years ago, physics didn't contribute much to biology. And it contributed even less to the general field of psychology in any direct sense. Theorists in the life sciences and psychological sciences never drew very much on physics in the past, except for the important step of borrowing a basic framework from Helmholtz … they still saw physics as a separate ontology, so it didn't seem to buy you anything for these other sciences. But that's changing now, and may continue to change… that's the subject of a hot debate in some fields like cognitive science.

However, in the spiritual case, I'm in the odd position of holding that the spiritual ontology is truly fundamental, and yet doubting that any explicit reference to it will ever buy you much in doing science. It doesn't buy you anything now and it may not do so even in the far future. It has a perspective which is healthy and interesting, and certainly offers things that are soteriologically valuable, but beyond that I'm not sure that there's any other, more “explanatory” value in the typical scientific sense. So this is a kind of odd case, very different from the more usual one where ontologies are nested and eventually compacted or unified in science.

Piet: think this is a clear case where we disagree, or at least we have a different intuition or angle into the discussion. Since we're talking about vanishing points at the horizon, while sitting somewhere in the middle of the field, it's hard to know whether we can really call it a disagreement, but it's certainly a difference in perspective.

Steven: yes, and it may come from the fact that I'm not a scientist, and don't even have a scientist' s intuitions about new theory development, which I think you have very acutely. When you think about science, you tend to not only look at where it is, but where it can go. I don't have that aptitude. And on the other side, I have a sufficiently strong sense of the point driving spiritual exploration, that it arrests my attention, frankly. It prevents me from thinking much at all about what it could contribute to science, which looks to me like a very different sort of concern.

Piet: well, I could say the same. You have been studying these spiritual ideas, techniques… I'm at a loss to know exactly how to refer to it all… it's more than ideas, obviously, you have been studying this for much longer than I have in my life, but it may also just be that we have a different intuition on this point.

Steven: yes. And it may also depend on how we define our boundaries here. Because, I'm already saying things that assume a rather limited set of definitions: I'm referring to fields like geology or molecular biology, and doubting that the study of the basic nature that's of interest to some spiritual traditions will contribute to those fields as they are currently defined. But part of the point that I see behind your set of intuitions, is that those fields are not finished yet, and you're looking at where they will continue to go, and larger perspectives that will eventually create new sciences that will contain them. So a point of agreement might still emerge here that is getting obscured now simply because I'm drawing the picture very narrowly.

Piet: well, let me describe my picture more precisely. One reason to put those three “island” pictures on the table, is that I think I have a fourth view. It is a one island view, but of a different type. So we have the island A view, the island B view, the A+B view, that I think is a case where A equals B. The island here is the world described by science and also by spirituality, but then by an ultimate science, and also by an ultimate form of spirituality.

So just as the current science is still very young, a current scientific description should be compared to a religious mythology, which is not very well developed or informed yet. And certainly the world as described by a relatively simple mythology cannot be claimed to be a good characterization of an ultimate “one island” picture which could contain everything. So my view is that the understanding of ontology inherent in science will evolve to become as rich and encompassing as what I understand the most penetrating and sophisticated spiritual insights involve.

Steven: yes, perhaps. But this is also where things get complicated, or rather subtle … part of the point of comments I made a few minutes ago was that there is a distinction to be made between the spiritual enterprise, conducted by human beings, and that involves not just myths that they developed thousands of years ago, but also more sophisticated understandings that were developed subsequently … anyway, there's a distinction to be made between that latter kind of thing and its counterpart in science on the one hand, and the ontology that is being addressed … And we both agree on that point. I.e., there is a difference between the approaches and the thing being explored.

An interesting wrinkle here is that, in what I am loosely referring to as “spirituality,” there is a shift that occurs, about midway through. Spiritual exploration by people, is just that … at least in the beginning and intermediate kinds of training. But further along, a switch occurs, which isn't sufficiently considered in most studies of these matters. Because, if you're following through with a spiritual exploration, what you find is that initially you are the explorer and your exploration is what is foremost. But if it continues to mature, a different picture emerges, namely that you're not the explorer, and your exploration should be stopped, or dropped or relaxed! The “me, me, me, my investigation” emphasis is seen as too small, selfish, skewed, disrespectful, etc.

All you're left with then is the actual presence of the very thing that we're referring to as an ontology, the reality being sought by the “approach”. There is no longer an emphasis on a human exploration of something, because what that means has already been seen as too narrowly delimited … it’s an inadequate view, no longer helpful. And what you have instead is the presence of the object of the study itself. Its character is no longer at all “thing-like”, but it some important sense it is present and that presence is prior and primary.

So we start off with a subject studying an object, and we end up with a far larger notion of what the “object of study” really is, and a more direct and selfless sense of what “study” is. In that case, it's not merely an ontology that amounts to a description or theoretical construct, laid out in some body of literature, it's the sacred reality itself, being increasingly uncovered or unveiled by its own presence.

Piet: well, all of that I can perfectly well see coming out of a future science. And of course I'm handicapped here because I don't know what this future science is, but the only tool I have—and I think it's a great tool—is the historical record of the progress of unification that humanity has already witnessed. For instance, quantum mechanics has already unified the potential and the actual, there is still a difference between the measurer and what is measured, the system which is doing the measuring and the system which is being measured, and that is being considered to be very important and also problematic.

So what is considered to be both important and problematic in one stage, will probably be unified in the next stage. For Isaac Newton, it was very important and very problematic to have absolute space and absolute time, and then Einstein showed that they were two sides of the same coin. Not the same, but two sides of the same thing… they were intimately connected.

Steven: Of course you’re now talking about a more limited case, where two things that already stand as cognizable, even formally-defined, topics are then unified in a further theory, whereas I’m referring to something a little different. But leaving that aside for now, what is this “problematic” side that you're referring to here?

Piet: oh, when Newton and Leibniz had discussions… and their followers also had discussions, Leibniz only wanted to talk about things which actually were empirical, like differences in position and in time, and Newton insisted on talking about absolute space and absolute time, which by definition cannot be measured.

Steven: OK so then Newton himself didn't find those notions to be problematic…

Piet: I'm not a historian of science… we should look that up, but I do think he found it problematic. I mean, similarly, he proposed that there was action at a distance, and I think he himself found that problematic as well, but he said that he didn't want to speculate. He knew that if you postulated that, it works. But still, the next question is why is it like that? How does it work? I think he still had that question, but his followers got more used to his scheme and simply took it as the way things are.

And so after a couple of hundred years, everyone thought comfortably in those terms. It was the genius of Einstein to go back to this old question, and say maybe this is not right, maybe things are different. So by analogy, I would say in quantum mechanics right now, the system doing the measurement and the system being measured are completely different, but I could easily see … again, it's almost unavoidable that if science continues and finds deeper layers of unification, that we will end up with some sort of theory or insight or procedure or whatever we may want to call it, which deals with things that are no longer uniquely on one side or the other of that divide.

We may come up with a way of dealing with reality, where the measurer is what is measured, and it sounds very close to the spiritual case at first blush. And of course, we can't postulate that, we have to see what will actually happen in the future.

Steven: yes. If that could happen, then I would have to agree that that is the bottom line here, that science and spirituality are determined primarily by what they are concerned with, not by their approaches or styles at one time or another. And if that happened, then you'd have “one island”.

But I also think that we are going a little too fast here because almost everyone that we would be talking to about this, or who might read something that we're saying about it, would be primarily versed in the current situation, the current way of trying to answer these questions, which itself is of interest. And I don't think we should skip the specifics that may already seem clear to us, regarding the argument of how spirituality or the spiritual ontology could contain science. We are often referring to our view, but I think it's actually worth stepping through in some detail, perhaps in a subsequent discussion. Because, the current basic perspective which most people have, at least to some degree, is that as you said, it's all about what is happening in the brain, and the brain is something that science could study and therefore science—at least in some distanced way—will be able to make an object of study of anything that we can do as perceivers or experiencers.

I've made a few comments here to the effect that spirituality is not just about experiences, and therefore is not automatically covered by science, but we undoubtedly need to say more about that. The argument from the other, science side seems much more obvious, much stronger … I think all of the crucial details are still in the future, but for many people the handwriting is already on the wall, and it seems to them like science is indeed going to be able to cover everything. I would like to claim that the situation is not that clear cut. And of course, science could indeed also “cover” everything in one sense, as judged by one set of criteria, and still leave out a lot from another point of view … and this could be true regarding several different levels of “spiritual” practice and discovery. So we have to tackle several cases.

Piet: yes, more action items for us.

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

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