W o K     :     Ways of Knowing

A Virtual Seminar


Groping in the Dark: Exploring the Use of Scientific Methods in Matters of Being

The scientific approach has been to follow an explanatory arrow, from logic to mathematics to physics to chemistry to biology to psychology, with each previous field grounding the next one. In this chain, the largest jumps occur between information and matter and between matter and consciousness. They give rise to the riddle of existence and the riddle of consciousness. Why is there anything at all, and why do complex forms of matter seem to give rise to conscious experience?

We can also follow an arrow in the opposite direction. Starting with the phenomenology of conscious experience, we can analyze how we construct our notions of matter and information.

In addition, we can ask the question of what has been left out from scientific approaches so far. How do matters of art and spirituality fit in, what can we do with the ways of knowing that epic literature and mythology are offering us? Of course, we can approach those with a reductionist attitude, following the explanatory arrow, using tools such as evolutionary psychology, but is that the whole story?

In my talk I explored an alternative by extending the second arrow, past its initial point of departure. Instead of starting with experience, I tried to go back to what I call sheer appearance, the very fact of anything arising at all before it is interpreted as phenomena arising for a subject. If it makes sense to postulate appearance as a stage or realm or way of dealing with what is, before a subject-object polarization, we can then trace the second arrow as showing how experience arises in appearance, how matter shows up in experience, and how information arises in the way we deal with the structure of matter.

To the two riddles of the first arrow, existence and consciousness, we can then add a third one, the riddle of Being, as that which is unique to sheer appearance, before concepts and distinctions have set in. In the light of the second arrow, however, the three riddles are not independent; existence is implied in consciousness and both are implied in Being.

Long ago, Being has been seen as the province of art or religion or philosophy. In the last few centuries, the whole notion of Being has receded into the background, at least in Western ways of knowing. What I propose to explore is the use of scientific methods, especially the use of working hypotheses, to investigate Being, as a realm of sheer appearance that may ground both matter and mind.

It was an interesting experience for me, to give a talk in Qwaq WoK Forums. The first two speakers in our series had talked impromptu, standing in a circle with the other avatars. As the third speaker, I decided to try out the use of slides (with OpenOffice, an open source equivalent of PowerPoint). It was interesting and efficient to use those visual tools, although I had less contact directly with the audience. Standing in front of the screen, I could see the slides clearly, but not the audience, and moving away from the screen made the screen too small for me to see clearly. I wonder whether some form of compromise would be possible. After the half hour talk, we had more than half an hour of discussions. During that period, I felt a stronger sense of immersion in the virtual space provided by WoK Forums. The combination of stereo sound and visual clues gave me a strong sense of being in a room, talking with various people standing around.

Piet Hut

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