W o K     :     Ways of Knowing

Lab Project

Within the context of our virtual reality explorations our first specific research project is the Lab Project. At the start, we called it the T4 Project; see the T4 Project page for more background. Here we describe a more recent description of the Lab Project, with guidelines for its exploration, starting on October 22, 2007.

Working with a Radical Working Hypothesis: Freedom from Identification

1. Science is young, only 4 to 5 centuries old, and has remained remarkably vigorous. Its strength is not just its empirical base, but its balance between awarding credit for introducing progressive new ideas as well as for conservatively testing those very ideas. The community of peers is what keeps science honest. The core of science is to eschew both blind belief in dogmas as well as blind enthusiasm for new fads. Instead, the core of the scientific method is the use of working hypotheses, where beliefs in old and new ideas are simultaneously put on hold, during an in-depth critical investigation of the consequences of both.

2. Progress in science has been a progress in uncovering new and unexpected degrees of freedom. Most anything that seemed fixed in the ideas of Galilei and Newton have subsequently been seen to have its own dynamics: space and time in relativity, and even the very identity of particles in quantum mechanics. Particles are entangled. Species evolve. The whole universe originated in a big bang, perhaps as part of a larger multiverse. In the light of all that, the most conservative guess for a future science is that this trend will continue, and that more and more degrees of freedom will be found, in places that are equally unexpected as where Darwin, Einstein and Bohr have dared to look.

3. My guess is that science, during a few more centuries or millenia, will continue to grow in such a way as to make meaningful contact with any aspect of any way of knowing that humankind has explored so far. I may be wrong, and there is no way to prove such a guess, but I would be shocked if there were any terrain of valid human knowledge that would by definition be excluded from the kind of multi-generational peer-based experience based approach that is the hallmark of science. Of course, such a future science may look totally different from current science, just like quantum mechanics looks totally different from the clockwork picture of classical physics. But as long as it is the product of a continuous development building on current science, the name `science' may still apply.

4. Whether my guess is right or wrong is not that important. For me, its importance lies in the inspiration it gives me to be a pioneer in trying to explore the consequences in my own life of a view in which the basic scientific approach is in principle unlimited in its power. And I invite anyone who likes this kind of exploration to join forces with me and see how far we can get. Let us start with the radical working hypothesis that there is no ultimate limit to the investigative power of science, combined with the even more radical working hypothesis that we, right here and now, as we are, can already meaningfully embark on such a limitless exploration.

5. To give this most radical working hypothesis a name, in the form of a slogan, I propose: "freedom from identification". Note that I do not suggest that we drop or ignore or deny our many identifications with our name, country, job, family relationship, personal history, etc. Rather, I suggest that we experiment with wearing all those more lightly. We can then experiment with such `wearing lightly' by including literally everything: we can question even such seemingly given things like the past-present-future nature of time, and our sense of having a given body and mind and personal identity.

6. Another way of formulating this working hypothesis is to consider reality as complete in a most fundamental way, beyond any of the limitations that normally seem to be in place. I invite you to play with those three formulations: no identification, complete, no limits. I also invite you to propose alternative formulations in an attempt to circle around that what we are trying to point at, which transcends words and concepts.

7. So far I have focused on the role of (past and future) science, in formulating our working hypothesis. I could have also have started in a different way. After all, any form of science had as its base a body of facts from pre-scientific vintage. The Greek astronomers started with the data base of Babylonian observations. Geometry got started with the need to measure and parcel out plots of land. Chemistry used the data base of alchemy, and biology was based on a mass of accumulated phenomenological descriptions. Similarly, I expect that a future science will want to learn from the empirical bodies of data that have been accumulated in various contemplative traditions in the world.

8. Whether we like to start with Medieval Christian mystics, or Islamic Sufis, or Buddhist meditators, or Taoist practitioners, in each case we can find rich descriptions of what we can expect to see and encounter when we set out to transcend our perceived limitations. In fact, it has helped me enormously in my own explorations to read widely in those traditions in order to get a feel of the lay of the land, so to speak. And we can turn the arrow around. Instead of asking how science can grow, we can ask how to re-invigorate those ancient traditions in the modern world. We can ask ourselves: how can we dive into any of these traditions, staying true to the spirit of such a tradition while also staying true to what it means to live fully in the world of science that we find ourselves in?  I suggest that the approach sketched here, using a science attitude towards an investigation inspired by ancient traditions, can provide the missing link between the old and the new.

9. To sum up: I see contemplative traditions as having greater width and depth in what they address, compared to the far more narrow terrain that has been explored so far in science. At the same time, I see science as having reached a degree of universality that contemplatives have not yet reached. Whenever two formulations are found for the same phenomenon in science, all else is put on hold until a translation is found between the two formulations. Science never branches into lasting competing schools of, say, Newtonian versus quantum mechanics physics. Sure, for a few years or decades, fiery debates are held to decide what is what, but the highest priority is unification, not lasting diversion. My hope is that the 21st century will see a similar process shaping up for contemplatives, following the example of science.

10. Now for the practical recipe, for our Lab meetings: here is how I suggest we explore the radical working hypothesis introduced above in 5) and 6). This will be a self-contained purely empirical exploration. Independent of which aspects in my musing above do or do not appeal to you, let us be guided by what we find in our explorations, while treating the musings of me and of others as only pointers and suggestions, and no more than that.


For those interested in joining me in this experiment, let us use our daily life as a lab in the following way.

As much as we can, we keep the radical working hypothesis (as "freedom from identity" or in an alternative form) in mind, during our waking hours, and perhaps even in our sleep and dreams. While doing so, we compare the notion of that working hypothesis with what we actually see, feel, encounter, in short in whatever we find. In a critical, thorough and ongoing investigation, we continually question both the working hypothesis that seems to say one thing, and our daily life's experience that seems to tell us quite something else.

Then, while we are attending a Lab session, we will pick someone at random, by rolling dice, who will then be invited to report on their life-as-a-lab working-hypothesis research during the last 24 hours, in whatever way he or she likes, for up to five minutes. In the next five minutes, others can comment.

Piet Hut, October 19, 2007.

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