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Piet/Steven Dialogue

Science and “Spirituality” #3

Steven: I’d like to come back to your statement that what we currently have is a science of objects. Of course I’m sympathetic to your real intention, to distinguish a “science of objects” from a possible future alternative based more on taking the whole phenomenologically-intact situation into account. This is one important angle. But I’ll also note in passing that even current science has already moved far past any ordinary notion of “objects”.

Take physics, for instance ... particularly with some branches, like particle physics, the nature of its “objects” is pretty quirky. And in other kinds of physics—I wonder, are they really framed in terms of "objects" anymore at all? I just mention this because I think science already constitutes a critique of the ordinary notion of “an object”, and has done so in a way that parallels the view of contemplative teachings. Common sense gets contradicted in this case, but not necessarily the more in-depth inquiry available to a contemplative.

Piet: my point was more fundamental, that the whole pedigree of science is that the person who reads the books and who does the experiments and who teaches—all of those are completely bracketed out.

Steven: yes, I understand. That part is bracketed, but even if this bracketing is problematical in some way, what you're left with may not be an object in some simplistic sense. It’s already something else than what we ordinarily consider “objects” to be.

Piet: well I think quantum mechanics is telling us that it is something else, and we don't get it yet. This is what logically follows out of the procedure of amputating reality by taking away the subject and the "moving now", etc., and then trying to look at that more and more carefully. If your point is that it is becoming really weird, then yes, if you amputate something and then look very carefully, you begin to see something very unnatural.

Steven: Perhaps. Or perhaps in this respect they are already doing something right with respect to the kind of progress we think is needed here. This is basically an IOU for another dialogue about the specific ways science has replaced ordinary notions of “objects” with something more sophisticated and true-to-life, closer even to the traditional teachings with which I’m concerned.

Piet: OK, but regarding your point, some sciences like biology are still sticking with “objects”. It's very important for genes to be objects, because in a sense they have to be stabilized, they should be robust, they should not be perturbed too much, also not too little, they should be mutating at the right speed...

Steven: yes well biology relies on that point of view, and evolutionary theory in general relies on that.

Piet: so the question is, will that be overhauled?

Steven: well this is an example of what I meant when I referred to geology. Even though as a point of meditation teaching it’s hugely important to see the involvement of the mind in positing apparent stand-alone things or processes, I just don't think that refinement or perspectives that include the subject pole really matter for the purposes of the scientific discipline taken narrowly, for the questions that they are asking. And it also may not matter that their view of “objects” (“things”) remains conventional either.

Piet: maybe. But when you ask how come complex autonomous systems have consciousness, then you may be putting your finger on this issue of the lack of a correct treatment of the subject pole side of things. This is at least a possibility.

Steven: yes. OK, so now we’re moving back to your main area of concern. This is an extremely controversial issue you are raising. Nowadays there are people arguing that we don't really have consciousness anyway, or that we have it but it doesn't do us any good, or that we have it and it does us the one good of not really being efficacious but somehow evolutionarily adaptive anyway, for some unknown reason. There are so many different ideas flying around nowadays about consciousness …

I would feel much more comfortable... and this is a WoK issue that worries me a lot. I would be much more comfortable if the people doing some kinds of science and theorizing about science, particularly the cognitive sciences and psychology of perception etc., and also people doing biological and evolutionary studies and the people in philosophy of science, had even five minutes of experience of actually, explicitly being what you call "the subject". This still falls far short of what the traditional contemplative disciplines are about, but at least it would be a very helpful start.

I don’t even care if the notion of "consciousness" is thrown out—in fact, I would expect a mature cognitive science to do that by replacing it with more scientifically-apt terms—but I would insist that we still place a premium on learning to attend more fully and directly to presence, engagement, explicit participation in life, etc. There are things that matter to both you (with your concern for the “experiencing subject” pole) and me here, for similar reasons.

Many people in these scientific disciplines have somehow managed to get through life without ever really explicitly participating in it much. So they are therefore very willing to discount awareness or presence, because they are actually just not very familiar with it. This is the anemia I was talking about in one of our WoK snippets. Such an anemia can have unwarranted theoretical consequences and encourage dubious or hasty conclusions, and may undermine our appreciation of ourselves in a more existential sense. This is an example of how our views and our enactment of life interact, for good or ill.

Piet: yes. It's as simple as the case of someone who grew up in the 50s, who for the first time hears about feminism and just doesn't get it. Because no woman ever really expressed to them how she really feels.

Steven: certainly in both cases there is a lack of sensitization and awakeness to the issue. This is a major point for us, something can be there in our existence, or as a facet of our existence, or of reality …

Piet: which we don't acknowledge.

Steven: exactly. The fact that we have never really seen it clearly doesn't mean it's not there.

Piet: and there may be something we acknowledge which is not there, like time.

Steven: that's right, although in choosing “time” you’ve taken a rather advanced example of the issue. I’ll just say there are things we do acknowledge or assume that aren't real, and things we don't acknowledge that are real. So I think this is a major point for everything we are discussing, in the sense that it will keep coming up.

Piet: yes I agree. Certainly it has been a recurring theme in science too.

Steven: yes. This issue pops up a lot, because if you say to people that there is something in that “life directly lived” area with which they don't have much familiarity, they may get very angry. If you say that to some other people, they might say "oh yeah, perhaps I should address that somehow, someday". But many will simply throw up a barrier, arguing that it seems like a narrowly-based form of elitism, or is factually false (about them), or is based on an analysis of human cognitive capacities they don't accept, etc. And that's a real problem for promoting human beings' appreciation of the full dimensionality of life.

Piet: yes that's true. This will be quite a challenge.

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

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