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Piet/Steven Dialogue

Science and “Spirituality” #4

Steven: Earlier we were talking about the Asian notion of Wu-wei (relaxed non-action), and ended up saying that it’s tricky because even our attempts to use that approach are just that—attempts. They usually involve an inappropriate intentionality, a “time-“ or “reaching-for” logic that gets in the way of real “non-action”. This has all sorts of unfortunate consequences, certainly for the way we usually live, and if you are right, even for the way science is usually conducted. And I think it is even responsible for the problem I have with science being used to suggest that we are limited “organisms” and that we consequently can’t know anything of fundamental importance about reality.

It’s a bit hard to explain this connection in a few words, but the basic point is that we seem a certain way, viz., limited, precisely when we look at ourselves using this limiting action- or agenda-based, and framework-specific approach. It’s all we usually know how to do, but it’s not all that’s actually available to us. And it sells us short.

Piet: well of course, just taking the specific case you mentioned, currently science hasn't gotten a real view of an organism anyway.

Steven: that's true too, although it's given us the only even slightly sophisticated view of an organism we've ever had. We didn't have any view of organisms in the theoretical sense before science provided one, unless you count the very different kinds of views of nature and “living beings in context” emphasized in Asian thought. Those latter are sophisticated too, but in a very different way that may not be amenable to any kind of scientific development.

Anyway, I’m saying we are not just organisms, and you seem to have just said that even the notion of “organism” itself is not fully understood. What’s at issue in both ideas depends on adding back what you say is bracketed in current science, and then refining it with Wu-wei etc.

Piet: the current view of an organism comes from the view of physics, which is problematic because it's still half-baked --- we still don't understand quantum mechanics. And we certainly don't understand how physics leads to biology, although we are beginning to see some regularities and some functionalities. We are still missing a type of deep insight in biology, and the ones provided by physics aren't enough. It would be very strange, very disheartening, if we did have a clear scientific view of organisms without any cracks, since then it would seem that there is a small limited version of reality which is crack-free. And how would that be embedded in the larger reality? If there is a deep unity between us and a larger reality, there should be cracks in any limited picture of such matters. So I think the cracks is very encouraging.

Steven: what you mean by a "crack"?

Piet: this is related to the “room” issue I mentioned earlier. Cracks are things which, when examined carefully, are really inconsistent or not accurately connected with reality. As in classical mechanics -- it has the cracks of not describing accurately why atoms don't implode... also at a theoretical level there is already a suspicious crack in the lack of beauty. And the fact that space and time influence objects, but not the other way around. There's always something un-unified and one-sided. It's like the religious dogma that spirit infuses matter—in classical mechanics space and time tell matter how to move, but there's no interaction going back in the other direction. That is deeply unsatisfying, in that sense there's a crack on the theory level. And if you want to be empirical, you can say that classical mechanics, upon being scrutinized carefully, is not accurate enough. And the fact that we don't understand life, much less consciousness, those are also cracks in the sense of pointing out that we still just have an engineering view of biology. This is rapidly improving, but remains a far cry from a truly scientific perspective (in terms of basic scientific principles).

Steven: but couldn't you have a crack-free picture that still implies that we are limited? I mean, I am complaining that the scientific view of us as delimited—and therefore limited—organisms is unfortunate in some ways, but I'm not claiming that from a scientific point of view it's mistaken. I'm just saying it is not the whole story for someone like me, concerned with more directly appreciative ways of knowing, and hence tends to prevent people from seeing the rest of what is true. But why does a crack-free theoretical picture, of the sort science might come to have, necessarily imply that we are unlimited?

Piet: it's just an intuition, let's see if I can firm it up. If you play a game of chess, you could call it "crack-free".

Steven: you mean because as a specific game, with specific rules, it’s so formally circumscribed?

Piet: Yes, But even with something so well-defined, like chess, in the real situation you could also point to the fact that there are people playing it and the question is, can you play a game of chess and really isolate it like an enclosed sphere inside a larger sphere of reality? Well maybe not, because if you focus … and this is maybe a nice example of what I mean about objects … if you take only the object-part of the chess game, the chess pieces' interaction, well even the chess pieces strictly speaking cannot be isolated, because they're made of wood and wood involves plants etc. You can use plastic instead, but then that involves fossil fuels etc., or you could make them as symbols on a piece of paper, but the paper is still an organic thing. Or you could represent them with ones and zeros in a computer, but then you still need a computer with atoms in order to realize them, etc..

You can drive that object-part pretty far, but the real chess-playing and the chess as something meaningful ... those are something else. Actually this is interesting, I just realized it’s Feynman's analogy.

Anyway the chess players, as soon as they come into the picture, then you must have all of reality. So my intuition would be that you can never really isolate something and still retain complete accuracy. Reality is too holistic to allow the kinds of amputations I've been talking about. And already on the level of electrons you see that. A single electron is an excitation of the electric field. You can isolate an electron, but you cannot cut it out of the field. The field pervades the universe, and that is not "cut-out-able". So on that level in a very precise scientific way, I could argue for the sort of thing I'm saying in general here..

Steven: that still doesn't imply that the knowing capacity available to the item being isolated and identified by our analysis, is limitless with respect to at least some domain of concern. It only implies that any item that you select out for certain purposes is still part of the whole system. It doesn't imply that the item or even the whole system has any kind of knowing or appreciative capacity that is limitless, in a sense.

Piet: how did we get to this knowing capacity issue?

Steven: well, I started out this part of the conversation by saying that one of the main things I'm concerned about is that people think they are limited with respect to their ability to know reality. At least the kind of reality that's at issue for contemplative disciplines. And even science contributes to the sense of limitation, by saying yes, we are limited organisms, there's a limit to what we can perceive or know or think, because we have limited brain-based minds, etc.

Piet: well I would say that that is a limited understanding. And it’s based on a limited game of dealing with reality. And any limited game needs a limited way of analyzing the game, but if you analyze it carefully enough, you'll see that within the game, there are cracks. Within the situation of playing the game, you'll see that there's something fishy about it. On the limited level of physics, because physics is so simple, we have gone far enough that we can have a single electron, put it in a box, and say that's where it is. Classically you can do that, quantum mechanically this single wave of the infinite field is not isolated, in the sense that the field that carries it cannot be excluded outside the box, it cannot be only existing in the box.

You cannot separate the wave from the ocean, so in that sense quantum mechanic shows you that on the simple level of particles, the notion of a particle is an idealization. And by carefully doing experiments you can see that. And my intuition is that if you take something much more complicated like an organism, you have to have a much more complicated analysis, but you'll also find before long that the idea of an organism is limited, is an idealization... and once you begin to see the idealizations being made, those are the cracks.

Steven: I see, yes. Even so, keep in mind that when I started off talking about was the ability to know reality directly, in some sense. I realize that seems like a crazy notion in modern scientific terms, it’s psychologically and physically very naïve—I grant all that! But there's still some sense in which something about it is right from an existential and contemplative and values-related point of view. And I want to find a way to protect that while still respecting what we have learned from science. So I want to say that something there is not limited or at least, precluded, we have that capacity in some sense. Of course it can’t be located "in us", defined in a narrow sense ... we’ve already seen that won’t work.

Piet: that's true.

Steven: it's just available in a way that doesn't need to be tied back to these narrow pictures. When someone delimits us, and says we are like chess pieces, then of course science will want to say that the pieces are obviously limited or can't do or know much, because of the details of their structures and capacities etc. I would say that we never really became, for instance, something determinate like a chess piece, cut off from the whole of reality. Also there is a second point which is implicit in the contemplative disciplines, which is that reality itself is not devoid of knowing, it's not a vacuum or in some way unclear about itself. And that's definitely not a standard scientific view at this point.

Piet: my idea is that a crack … or consider a piece of a tablecloth, once you start investigating or pulling at it, you get everything. As long as you really have a one-island picture, and once you get a grip on some part of that territory, not in one generation but eventually, then you will get it all. That is an intuition, which I can illustrate with analogies, but I can't prove with analogies.

Steven: I think your idea works to address my concern only if we recall that you are really talking about is a future science way of investigating, pursued in a particular new way—one that must restore and include the “knowing” part of every situation more, and that’s more direct than the kind of object-oriented cognitive science that’s currently being explored.

Maybe then we really would start to have a science that is rigorous but doesn’t sell us—our appreciative capacities in certain crucial areas—short. If that really is possible, it will address both what you called the near-term “science of the subject” and a far-future science which is consistent with contemplative insights too.

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

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