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Piet/Steven Dialogue

Science and “Spirituality” #1

{This is the first of four segments drawn from a dialogue recorded in Berkeley on May 5, 2006. Since this dialogue occurred a year later than most of those which will appear early in WoK's Dialogues list, it represents a more settled perspective on some basic issues, particularly Piet's orientation towards "science and spirituality". It is included here in the hope that it may stand as a revision and clarification of points made in the April/May/August '05 discussions, which will be posted without any fundamental rewrites.}

Piet: I have great respect for various contemplative traditions, but I doubt very much that they can still be understood properly in the modern world, in our cultural setting in which we have effectively lost a living tradition of contemplation or meditation, deeply probing forms of what you might call “spirituality.” Attempts at reviving and/or importing old traditions are interesting, but also often confusing and prone to profound misunderstandings. For better or worse, our culture is steeped in science, and science is our way to acquire knowledge that has lasting value.

The main problem with science is that it is still a young enterprise, only four centuries old, and that as a result the terrain covered by science is still rather narrow compared to the whole of human concerns. I do expect science to grow, and to eventually incorporate in some way the type of knowledge that contemplative traditions have found, albeit in rather different ways.

When I study contemplative traditions, I can't help feeling that I'm getting a sneak preview of aspects of a future science. It feels like looking at the last page of a book. And of course, I know that in my lifetime, those pages will not yet be written. It may take thousands of years for science to arrive at the types of insight that the most penetrating traditions have already started to explore in their own manner. But when science reaches that point, it may have found a broader base than is currently possible, when we have to gather pointers from different traditional teachings, none of them particularly suited to our times.

So I think the more mature and broad way in which these things will be made accessible to humanity, will be through something which I definitely think will happen and which I think could be given the name “science”, because there will be a continuity with current science. So that for me is a crucial point. It’s what I really mean when making references to “spirituality” or when discussing it with you here in WoK.

This doesn’t mean that “spirituality” is not important to me, but that what’s really essential there, as I see it, is too important to be just a belief or creed or religion in any ordinary way of talking. So in that sense, I am against any attempt to combine science and religion. I'm all for letting the essence of the latter be brought forward out of science.

Steven: I won’t comment much yet about my own views, except to say that what you just meant is that it could be brought forward out of your conception of a future science, not science in its present form.

Piet: yes, that’s true.

Steven: and of course I too am opposed to trying to actually combine science and religion, since I think that does a disservice to both and would be basically misconceived. This is something I’ll be explaining at various points in our discussions. Anyway, going back to our current thread, we started out considering various versions of the “room” issue (see the preface to this dialogue). What then are you then trying to find room for here, if it’s not “spirituality”?

Piet: I'm not trying to find room for anything at all! I think there is room, simply because something has been overlooked. And the "for" question is then just an applied-science question. The "is there room?" question is the pure science part, which is my concern here. Just as Einstein would say “Newton is nice as a starting point, but why assume absolute space and time?”, I would say Galileo is nice as a starting point, but why only include the object pole of things? If someone really wants to be empirical, he or she shouldn't from the start take only one aspect of things and build everything on that. The point is to start from experience, and every experience has an experiencing subject, an object and an interaction between them. By arbitrarily only taking the object part, one doesn’t take experience seriously, and is thus not really being empirical—in this respect, we are still being dogmatic. So we're not really out of the Middle Ages yet. We present-day scientists are still a cult in that sense ... we are occulting the “subject” and the interaction parts.

Steven: Here I’ll just note that this is a somewhat different view than the one we’ve sometimes expressed, particularly when we’ve concentrated on issues of values, contemplative practice, etc. Often we have even tried to see how these matters could be made less obscure or outrageous for people holding a general scientific perspective. This is of course different from trying to insert them into some scientific theory, but we have often talked explicitly about “spirituality”.

Piet: but the way I feel it, and maybe I didn't explain it clearly enough, maybe I sometimes was being pulled along by your way of talking, but I've always had the attitude very strongly... that yes, it would be nice if there would be room for spirituality, so let us see whether something has been overlooked! Let us see what room that gives us, and then if it pertains to spirituality, that will fall out of our investigation ... if not, then too bad, it's no longer our concern. Our business is only to see where we have overlooked something, and if we have overlooked something, what room is there in that place? That is the business of pure science. It is specifically not to find room for spirituality or anything else.

Steven: yes well of course it’s true, that is certainly not the agenda of science.

Piet: for you and me that is clear, but not for many of people in our present society. People now often try to bend science to their agendas, and they think that is normal or even part of scientific practice itself.

Steven: I agree with your last comment, and more broadly, I have reasons both to agree and to disagree with different points in what you might be taken as having just said. On the one hand, I strongly resist the idea that we can get a complete and essential appreciation of ethics, values, our humanity, etc. from science or any other theory-based discipline … and of course in saying that, I am not necessarily disagreeing with what you really mean, because I think you have in mind something very different from present-day science. I will discuss some of my concerns and views about this issue at length in other WoK dialogues.

But just to stay close to your comments right now, the situation is rather ironic, because I have always said to my students that I don't think there is really such a thing as spirituality. Both of us in fact agree that we are not trying to emphasize some narrowly traditional notion of religion or even spirituality. Precisely because I want to preserve what’s really at issue in “spirituality”, I don’t think it’s helpful to set up a separate topic or category called “spirituality”. At least we should not emphasize that idea very much in isolation, because it’s imprecise and even misleading.

Piet: Yes, I agree.

Steven: basically there is only what you find in life directly, through being more awake. And this applies in all cases, not to one aspect of life called “the spiritual”. If there is “spirituality”, it’s everything, not one compartmentalized area.

Piet: yes.

Steven: So the traditional teachings I'm giving to my students are just supplementary things or pointers, that hopefully help people wake up to what is actually present. What is real in that sense. You and I are both happy to talk about “reality”, whereas many people avoid the term nowadays. I think the reference can be made clear and respectable, without indulging in metaphysics or something overly ambitious … we’ll get back to this point. Anyway, I'm often on record as saying that we don't want a separate subject called spirituality, nor a double ontology or two domains (science vs spirituality) or anything like that. But even the lesser step of making a discussion topic called “spirituality” bothers me, if it’s used much without the right clarifications and context because ---

Piet: yes, it bothers me too.

Steven: I just don't think you need it. It actually misdirects people, causing them to look away from the real issues. It hinders “awakeness”. So I'm saying that from my side, as a teacher of contemplative traditions, and you are saying it from your side, as a scientist who also has this additional background and interests. We have what at least look like two different sets of reasons, coming from two different perspectives, for saying something similar. Would you agree that this bears on the basic mission of WoK?

Piet: definitely.

Steven: So we don't want a split or double ontology (as was suggested in Steven J. Gould’s book Rock of Ages), and we don't ultimately and in the strictest sense want a bifurcation of topics either—I mean, even within one ontology, you could still have many different topics of study. And I think you and I are unusual in this respect, because we don't even think we need a separate topic called spirituality here, except for certain discussions where we’re narrowing our focus. That might seem strange if you say it, Piet, but it seems even stranger if I say it because people assume that spirituality is specifically what I'm interested in. But it's really not strange at all. There are even many traditional precedents for this, at least in the traditions I happen to teach. They aren't trying to be "spiritual"... they're just trying to be fully present and appreciative, without being inappropriately limited by assumptions and habits.

Piet: Yes, certainly here I would sometimes like to concentrate on just the basic point that there is still “room” for more fundamental discovery because Galileo-type science is not really out of the Middle Ages, there's still dogma. The subject and the interaction are still obscured—only the object is subjected to critical empirical inspection. But I won't mention spirituality. I will leave it to you to bring up, if you like.

Steven: Or if we both agree that it’s just being used as a shorthand.

Piet: Yes, that would be acceptable. But more generally, to return to what I said a few minutes ago, if anything, we respect spirituality so much that we want to let it show its own face on its own terms even when we don't ask for it.

Steven: so what is it you are really expecting here? Obviously you are not saying that since the optimal way for it to come out is through the evolution of science, we can just wait for science to tell us what it is thousands of years down the line. You're saying something different from that. At the moment you are saying it should come from science, but on some other occasions you're sort of pushing the river along to anticipate or...

Piet: yes, as far as the “pushing” goes, I'm trying to be a catalyst. I'm not an evangelist, but a catalyst.

Steven: But what if someone does say “well, you seem to think we should just wait … that science will get there in the end and then we'll find out.”? Why bother to consider any of this now?

Piet: oh no, that's a different thing! Some of our discussions are about the near future of science, and by "near" I mean the next few hundred years. That is the bottom-up part or the next step for science. What you and I are going to do with some of our other discussions, and certainly in the more radical parts, that’s an anticipation of the last page of the book, the far future of science.

So I see both the near-term and far future aspects to be legitimate issues for WoK. I like to combine my understanding of reality with my science-like attitude... so I have the near view and the far view. The near view is the bottom up part, the next few hundred years. And the aspect of that which is important for me here is the science of the experiencing subject -- I want to say "look, Galileo was very one sided. Let us balance that." The whole program of unification in science has centered on tactics like this: when there's a backdrop-like stage and then players (particles etc), you then make both into active players. Electricity and magnetism, space and time, everything... similarly, subject, experiencing interaction and object. Then there’s the top-down view, concerned with the far future of science, and that gets us into other kinds of discussions, more radical ones that anticipate the “last page of the book”. Those are very distinct enterprises. So we should put this at the beginning of WoK’s dialogues, explaining why are we doing this …

Steven: and what are we doing.

Piet: yes, what are we doing. I want to stress that that for me, science and spirituality are not things which should be integrated. Just like electricity and magnetism are not things to be integrated—if there is unification, it has been there all along. If science and spirituality are both valid parts of knowledge, and they come from the same reality, they must already have been integrated. So the question is how can we get an understanding which is deep and wide enough to encompass both?

I consider the scientific method to be just a youthful sprout into something which can grow much bigger. Whether it will grow as a tree which is larger and stronger, or whether it will grow like an animal into something quite different, or like a caterpillar into a butterfly, I don't know. But even a caterpillar and a butterfly are continuous. If you kill the caterpillar, you won't get the butterfly. So however the future will be, I have my intuition and my reasoning for both the near science and the far science... the near science is doubling the present age, from 400 years to 800 years. The far science is multiplying it with a much larger number than it has been so far... really extrapolating way beyond what you can extrapolate from just using past history as a guide.

The near science, which is still much further than what most people consider “near”, is something I think I can extrapolate, because if something is happening for a certain period, you are allowed to extrapolate for a similar period, but not much longer. So I can do the near science by becoming an historian and seeing what has been the pattern of the scientific revolution in the past. If the pattern continues, my prediction is that the next revolution will be the science of the experiencing subject, because that is one thing which hasn't been straightened out in the past. It's the one thing which hasn't become active. It's the one remainder stage... a little bit of scaffolding which is rigid, which has to be taken away. That is the near science.

Now for the far science, there I really need an intuition... I have to be a visionary. I may be wrong, but I just give my vision, and I don't claim any longer to be based on history. So there I need a vision which I take from the higher levels of contemplative traditions, from what I have seen in my own life, what reality has told me directly, what it has told me indirectly, through scriptures and teachers, people around me, everything.

Steven: so when you are talking about a "bottom-up" approach you are talking about near-term science. When you're talking about the ultimate form of science, or something that's more than an argument from history, or "top-down", you're talking about this other thing, which is not to be confused with the near-term “science of the subject”. I mention this because in some of our dialogues, which will be posted, your arguments from history were linked to the far future of science.

Piet: yes, I’m correcting that here.

Steven: just to clear up another point, can you say more about this catalyst idea you mentioned earlier? Are you a catalyst with respect to both the near term and the far term parts of science, the bottom-up and the top down parts?

Piet: my catalyst role is only for the near term, at least with respect to science, because regarding the far future of science, it’s just too early to try to “push”. The whole point of science is to let it grow in its own way.

Steven: yes that's a major point for me as well, as an ex-philosopher of science, I feel very strongly about that.

Piet: trying to be a catalyst for the long-term would be like trying to help grass grow by pulling on it.

Steven: yes, I agree. It's not in keeping with the scientific spirit or its methodological strengths. On the other hand, someone would then ask why we are doing this? What is the point of this top-down part?

Piet: oh, for both myself and others, to lead a fuller life. To get more insight into reality. The fact that science has not yet yielded something doesn't mean that we cannot start thinking about it. On the contrary ... I mean, these are such important features of life. Here's where WoK’s emphasis on "science and other ways of knowing" comes in. Science itself is an important way of knowing, but history shows us that humanity has been inspired by a number of individuals who brought something influential on the “spiritual” side, which doesn't fit into either current or near-term science but yet seems to be important. So as a human being, that is worth looking at, to say "is this other way of knowing something which I can do in my life?".

Steven: I would say we can and should address it.

Piet: Yes. And then the question is “well, if there is something important like that which doesn't fit into the foreseeable science, do you have a two-island view, or one-island view... and I definitely have a one-island view.

Steven: one domain or ontology that is currently seen in two ways, through science and through contemplative spirituality, but with the possibility that these perspectives could cross-pollinate each other in both intuitive, intellectual and even quite formal ways, and might eventually be replaced by one view (which you call “science”). I don’t necessarily hold to that last bit, but for now I’ll try to keep an open mind about it … and meanwhile the rest seems very likely to me.

So in summary, there are several cases here. Often in our dialogues we’re maintaining that features of meditation practice could also bear on both the near-term science, and vice versa, and can contribute to quality of life issues for our readers. Meanwhile, our discussions of the higher-level traditions bears primarily on long-term science, what you call “the last page of the book”, and on the most radical kinds of realization that readers might enjoy. So both ordinary and very advanced contemplative explorations we discuss could contribute to quality of life, and in addition the ordinary version interacts with near-term science ideas and the highest presages your version of long-term science.

Piet: yes, I think that is right.

Steven: fair enough. Another, more general point is that in presenting our actual dialogues, rather than just a late and much more mature summary, there in a positive value precisely in the fact that these talks did and I hope will continue to evolve. It’s better to let people see how we are developing, but at the same time offer the benefit of our more recent perspectives.

Piet: yes, this is why I proposed the “River” model as the methodology behind our dialogues … the round-about path of the river has its own value, and we don’t need to look only for a final position.

Piet & Steven, recorded 5/2/05, posted 6/24/06

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