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Piet/Steven Dialogue

Science and “Spirituality” #2

{a note to the reader: a little later in our May 5 ’06 chat, we switched to considering suggestive parallels between contemplative practice and science. In particular, Piet wanted to discuss the Chinese notion “Wu Wei,” which literally means “no action” but in fact refers to a range of ways of being that are considered more authentic than more typical ones based on action, struggle and grasping.}

Piet: I want to talk about my Wu Wei understanding of a month ago, as being superseded but yet logically encompassed by my current understanding. The more I see the parallel between scientific progress of wider and wider theories, as being analogous to my growing Wu Wei understanding, the more I see that I can apply to Wu Wei what I'm applying to science. Namely, predicting what will happen to science in the next few hundred years. So, in that way, from the bottom-up point of view for me to say "A ha! I have found a way to speed up spiritual growth!". And of course if I do that in too much of a project-oriented way, that would be a bad thing. So I'm beginning to see how not to do that, but I'm also beginning to see how something can survive from that.

Also … not just the image of scientific progress which I just described, but another image is that of accelerating the solution of a differential equation. It's a rather technical thing, and I don't know whether it makes sense to try to point it out here... it's like you can have a second-order solution, a fourth order, a sixth... you can have more and more accurate solutions, and you say “okay, I will make the most accurate calculation I can do.” But the much better way is to do a few of those, and then to see whether you can see where it converges to. And if you can figure that out, then you have effectively done a million'th order thing which you could never do by hand -- you can get close to that.

It's called Richardson extrapolation. So maybe a year ago or so, I stumbled upon the idea of a Richardson extrapolation for Wu Wei. And it sounds to me like the right thing. And it's hard to put into words, but it is something like seeing yourself in action, trying to step aside, seeing that the stepping aside is also being done by the self, noticing that there is something which is not quite the self, seeing that the tendency to try to grasp that is something that can be dropped, then saying that you cannot do that—you are still the self—letting that which is about to be covered over be released, etc.. Take that and let it run its own course, let it run away with itself. And I making any sense?

Steven: yes... keep in mind, there are many levels of Wu Wei, and some are pretty close to ordinary notions of action. And others are more free and on a larger scale, and more spontaneous... they have less to do with the ordinary picture of an action and actor, who is the locus of the Way. And then there is an extremely high level that doesn't have any kind of locus, either in space or time, and is not to be judged in time terms. When we talk about a more free kind of action, we are still thinking about time—effortless action or nonaction action, or something. But the ultimate Wu Wei is not a time thing at all. Therefore it's not... it simply an actuality. And it's in actuality that spans everything.

So the highest Wu Wei is not an action at all, because it is not a process and nothing is occurring in time. And all the lower levels of Wu Wei derive from that! In time. They get their juice from that. So at the highest level, there is no notion of building up toward a better view ... you know, sort of summing over approximations or anticipating where something is headed, etc.... because you're always just starting with the already-accomplished, basically. The ultimate Wu Wei is the "already accomplished". That nature is present in a way that amounts to being a trans-time thing, not an accomplishment in time.

Piet: so how do you start from that?

Steven: you don’t, as an action! Everything is always just that, really. That's the real point of Wu Wei. It's not a question of how something in time manages to become or get at what is beyond time.

Piet: yes, so the notion of starting is wrong.

Steven: Or becoming, yes, or if it’s meant to be an approach or strategy! Nor is it necessary to hold onto the idea of someone doing it, either being able to do it or not being able to, either way. Wu Wei, like many features of higher contemplative insight, involves a totally different view. The radicalness of this is impossible for people to measure up to, no matter how hard they try, they will fall short of the real radicalness, because they are still thinking in local terms, unawake terms. Locality and un-awakeness are closely linked, though they don’t seem related.

Piet: yeah, it also reminds me of inaccessible transfinite numbers. But that's just a random association of course, not one I offer as a potentially useful parallel.

Steven: in a sense, the most remarkable thing about this is... and what makes this a WoK topic, rather than just a meditation topic which I would teach in a separate context, is that people don't think they have much capability... they think they themselves are quite limited. And thankfully, science in some ways denies that, because science—and through science, we too—in certain areas have achieved remarkable things, going far beyond our apparent limits. But in another sense science actually reinforces the same limiting picture, because it says “well, people are limited creatures,” which of course I accept in certain ways, “they're just this tissue, they have sense organs and a mind based on those, a limited brain, and that's what they are, and you can extend their capabilities using science, but you can't directly know much, regarding reality.” This is a claim which I both accept and reject, depending on the specifics.

Science is basically saying that the best we can do is just plug into this long multigenerational project and use the methodology and instrumentation of science, and gradually learn a few more things, etc., but we can't know reality in any direct way. And in some important sense, that turns out not to be true! It's both true and not true, depending on the domain and set of concerns which are at issue. In a certain sense, yes we are limited, there many limits to what we can do, and in another sense or with respect to another set of concerns or facet of our reality, there is no limitation.

Piet: here there's a very interesting point. Thanks for bringing that up. It is quite possible... that when we find a natural way in science to let an experiencing subject be treated on the same elementary footing as the experienced object, there might be some big surprises. I mean, Einstein tried to get rid of absolute space and time, and he had no way to guess that he would suddenly wind up with matter and energy being interconvertible. That was a complete surprise. Similarly, when he was making space-time into an active player, rather than just background scaffolding, he had no way of knowing that would finally explain the perihelion of Mercury, which had been a puzzle for half a century.

So it may be that what you just said, and that is what triggered me, could come out of the near-term science. For me, it played the role of the far term science, because I have no clue where it will be, but we may be surprised, and things may shift into each other more quickly than I had thought.

Steven: yes, we don't want to set up a picture that is too frozen regarding these notions of near-term and long-term science.

Piet: I’m also continuing to think about this notion of Wu Wei beyond action or assumptions …

Steven: all I was saying is that it is hard to really relax ... even if we let go of the idea of action, we still think in terms of arriving... it's like we are using time in some sense to get from an incomplete state to a completed state that would normally be implemented achieved by an action. Even if we try to refine our approach, looking for some better way to do it, there is still this assumption of a time or state change. We don't understand the type of Wu Wei based on no-time. A strict Actuality emphasis is very different from what we usually comprehend. But despite it being unfamiliar to us, it’s still available, and in a remarkable way. Our scientific and other studies should not be taken as so definitive as to rule this out, because that would be an overextension of the true scope of their relevance or application. I’m sure we’ll come back to this issue many times in our talks … it already bears on the false “limits” issue and to Wu Wei.

{note to the reader: earlier I didn’t explain clearly enough that I mean Wu Wei comes into the discussion of human beings’ “limits” regarding knowing reality, because at its highest level, it points at a way of knowing that is not undercut by scientific discoveries of limits to perception and other neurologically-based findings. I understand that this claim sounds very implausible, and admit that we will have to provide a lot more discussion to support it and to narrow its intended application. So we'll return to that in many of our later Dialogues.}

Piet: that reminds me of another one of my intuitions, which I have had for quite awhile, is to radicalize phenomenology. I mean, my approach is to radicalize whatever I see, and then see how far I can get.

Steven: your point is that the near-term revolution in science, centering on the “the experiencing subject and interaction with its experienced object”, is related in certain ways to a radicalization of phenomenology?

Piet: yes, it might be. Taking that line, what is the "phenomenon"? Science talks about phenomena, and I accuse science of amputating the phenomenon by trying to cut off the object pole from the subject pole... pretending that you can cut off one end of the stick and thereby reduce the complexity to just the one side, which never really works of course.

Steven: well, it works well enough for certain sorts of concerns.

Piet: yes, but you can never fully and meaningfully cut off one end of the stick and just have the "other side", you just get another "second side". You can choose to ignore one side, and then do something with the other, but...

Steven: yes, of course. I realize we’re now discussing two different points simultaneously … but just to continue this crisscrossing of ideas, my point was that just as Newtonian mechanics is perfectly adequate in nonrelativistic frameworks, so too I think you can make the cut you are talking about and still do geology and cell biology etc without any difficulty.

Piet: and what I mean is that you never really change the reality, which always continues to have both the subject and object sides.

Steven: sure. But for answering certain kinds of questions, which are perfectly legitimate scientific questions, you just don't need to include this extra facet “subject side” or type of information. It wouldn't buy you anything more with respect to those particular questions.

So there are two important issues here, and in a way we are taking what might be expected to be each other's part: as a teacher of contemplation, I want to say that there is always the involvement of a mind to consider--it's never really absent. This is terribly important for the contemplative traditions’ main point. And yet right now I'm also imagining that for some scientific work, this may matter much more than people now admit, but for other sciences, it may not make much difference (even though it still makes a huge difference for a contemplative's assessment of such sciences in some ways). Meanwhile, you, even speaking as a scientist, are making the point which usually comes more from contemplative disciplines and phenomenology, that this other pole—the mind or subject part—cannot ever really be cut away as contemporary science pretends. So we seem to be having a quirky identity- or role-crossing discussion now ...

Piet: Yes. But both sides are part of a larger view of science too. Coming back to my point, to do radical phenomenology, first of all the phenomenon... the phenomenology of physics is now couched in terms of the objects. Whereas a more complete phenomenology would be to have the subject interacting with the object. The next step could be the arising of phenomena independently of subject and object, what I in the past called "appearance", and then the next one still if you want, could even drop the notion of "arising". In some advanced contemplative texts I’ve read, this is basically the "there" part … some authors say everything that arises is "nothing, yet there". So in the "nothing, yet there", what is the "there" part?

Steven: "there" basically just means “manifesting” or “manifest”. This whole line of inquiry can really only be an IOU for a discussion of the differences between the agenda of scientific explanation, and that of traditional contemplative examinations of “phenomena”. This is an interesting and complex issue.

Piet: but just for now, is there an "ing" in the "manifesting"?

Steven: I’m going to duck the question for now, and just admit it’s interesting and complex, especially in the context of those traditional teachings. It would take awhile to discuss properly. It becomes an even more profound question when it's brought forward, as you’re asking, to a modern context informed by scientific perspectives and also modern views of mind and perception. This involves a context or world-view that the ancients could not have fully understood or imagined, but I think their view is still completely relevant. So the question is still ask-able, and important.

Piet: yes, and it already applies even regarding just this issue of radical phenomenology. So we’ll have to continue with this sometime.

Piet & Steven, recorded 5/5/06, posted 6/16/06

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