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A Snippet

Working with a Working Hypothesis

Science tells us that the world is not what it looks like. Our personal experience, too, tells us that much of what we encounter in life is not what it looked like at first blush. Growing up means adjusting our pictures of the world, of others, and of ourselves as well. And this process seems to have no end: as long as we continue to keenly observe and deeply think things through, when we look back at our own understanding of even a few years ago, we realize how much we have learned in the mean time, and how we might even say that we have grown a little wiser.

Science has a very well defined infrastructure, that comes with guidelines as to how to conduct research to improve the current knowledge base. In contrast, wisdom of life seems to come with age in a much more haphazard way. In the past, each culture had its own system of conveying wisdom to the next generation, through rituals, forms of council, written material, and various other means. Most of those traditional means by now have been lost or grown stale, and what we convey to the next generation is mostly knowledge and little wisdom.

Attempts to recycle old belief systems, making them fit in with the modern world, are laudable, but pose an enormous challenge: ideally, one would have to start with a depth of life experience and wisdom that is comparable to those who grounded those belief systems in the first place. No wonder that many people either give up completely, or fall back onto fundamentalist and literal interpretations of old beliefs, in desperate attempts to avoid a kind of hollow alienation that seems to be the only alternative.

The goal of our WoK web site is to explore another alternative. We don't have to choose between an anemic picture of the world that we get when we attempt to be nourished solely by science, and a problematic picture of the world that we get when trying to shoehorn old belief systems in new ways of being in the world. Instead, what we advocate is to combine the best of both, using the approach of science while applying it to the topic of reality as a whole, including full life experience and, yes, wisdom.

The key reason for the phenomenal success of science has been its reliance on experiments, together with the use of working hypotheses. In order to test a new idea, a scientist tries to formulate it as well as possible, and then tries to find counterexamples, trying to shoot it down. Independently of what methods and goals a scientist may deploy, the use of a working hypothesis is central to the notion of research. Such an hypothesis is not a belief in a new idea, in the sense of a fixed belief that one defends and hangs on to. However, it does involve a form of belief, in a different sense of the word, as well as two forms of disbelief.

First of all, for a working hypothesis to be worth working with, the scientist needs to have a strong belief that there is something interesting there to start with, something worth spending a significant amount of time and energy on. Secondly, the scientist starts off with a double sense of disbelief. On the one hand, she disbelieves that the current understanding of the topic under consideration is ultimately correct, motivating a further search; and on the other hand, she also disbelieves that the new hypothesis is correct just as it is formulated. Or to state it more accurately, even if she carries an emotional investment into the possible truth of the hypothesis, she will still try to shoot it down, as the best way to check what part of it is true and what not.

The notion of a working hypothesis as requiring a type of belief was stressed by Max Planck, who even described it as a type of faith in his essay `Science and Faith'. Clearly, Planck did not talk about blind faith, a fundamentalist notion that has no role to play in science. But neither does blind faith have any role to play in experiential contemplative approaches in the major world religions. In fact, in the latter there is often talk about Great Doubt as having to balance Great Faith; without doubt (in one's own interpretation) one would likely believe in the wrong thing, in a far too small picture of what grounds a given form of contemplation.

Now there are many different types of working hypothesis that we can draw up and test, as a third alternative avoiding the extremes of scientism and fundamentalism. Possibilities range from forms of humanism to modern reformulations of traditional approaches to spirituality and beyond. One particular approach that I find very attractive is a radical attempt that we have pioneered on these WoK pages, starting last September, first in our WoK Experiment and then in our WoK Practice Intensive; cf. the Editor's Summary that appeared last month.

The working hypothesis explored there is extremely radical in stating that: no limits are absolute; all is perfect; time does not exist and neither does causality and neither do beings in any real way. It is so radical that it refuses to be captured by a single conceptual formulation; part of `working with the working hypothesis' is trying to figure out how to approach it and how to circle around it. We are continuing our research in this radical working hypothesis in our T4 project, as part of our new VR Explorations.

Piet, 6/5/07.

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