W o K     :     Ways of Knowing

A Virtual Seminar


Living with Uncertainty

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?

I talked about the many levels of uncertainty that are inherent in what we are doing here in WoK Forums.  Within science, the transition from undergraduate class work to actual research can be unsettling for a student, who suddenly has to grope in the dark, instead of having to reproduce knowledge obtained by the best and the brightest in the past. But at least the framework of a given field of science is familiar and can be relied upon.  In our case, not only do we grope in the dark as far as our specific research in ways of knowing is concerned, the whole field itself is not yet well defined at all.  So we proceed uncertainly with a still very uncertain field.

Within contemplative traditions, too, a student first learns about the background of a tradition, and then is asked to practice, in order to realize directly what the tradition is all about.  During this practice, the student is asked to let go of all preconceived ideas of what insight and realization might be.  Instead, students are forced to see for themselves, in the most direct way.  On the one hand, there is a clear parallel between the transition from study to research in science.  On the other hand, the jump may well be more radical in the case of contemplative traditions.  A zen student is asked to jump from a hundred feet pole.  Or a student may be asked to leave the whole world behind, friends, family, everything.  But at least such a student has a teacher who can act as a guru, a light in the dark, a beacon to follow.

In what we are doing here, we are trying to follow the model of science, by forming a community of peers, rather than a more hierarchical teacher-student relationship.  This combines the difficulties of the two approches: we miss the guru role of a contemplative tradition, and we miss the more structured framework of a given scientific tradition. We really try to jump in the dark in a collective way.

Perhaps this is foolish.  Perhaps it will turn out that we really don't know what we are doing.  It may be a total disaster.  We may wind up just chatting about reality without any real break-through or deep insight worth mentioning.  Or it may be a radical success.  We may be able to avoid buying into a picture of a religion that we then later have to escape from.  By not trusting a guide, by not trusting any fixed framework, we may be growing up faster than what would be the case in a more traditional spiritual model.  We'll have to see what will happen.

I invite you to live with uncertainty.  I invite you to let go of the certainty of time and identity.  Try to imagine.  Imagine that you are not who you think you are, that the world is not what you think it is, that time is not what you think it is.

Following my talk, there were questions about the nature of research, and the nature of total uncertainty.  I pointed out that in scientific research, often the initial question is modified during research, so much so that the final question is totally different from the one we started with.  Similarly, in our research with the working hypothesis, we will not only grope for answers, but also grope for better ways to formulate our questions.

As for living with total uncertainty, I mentioned that a real poet lives in uncertainty.  When we see a leaf blowing in the wind, we usually pass it by, or if we notice it at all, we classify it as a leaf, as something known.  But a true poet can see a leaf with the eye of not-knowing, as if seeing it for the first time, with total uncertainty about what it is and stands for.

Finally, I used an image of a mother and a child.  While the child is playing games, the mother plays along, without buying into the games, but with full engagement.  Similarly, we can treat our own thoughts and emotions as the antics of the child that we are, without identifying with that childish person that we normally think we are.  Instead, we can identify with something far more real, that what we really ARE, the mother in this metaphor.  In our community, we can all play the role of mother, helping ourselves and others deal with our children, in loving and kind but also sensible ways.  We can play the mother role of what IS while also continuing to play the child role of the particular person with the particular personal history that we have learned to identify with.

By now, after almost half a year of experience, I am pretty much used to talking in Qwaq.  The fact that I could not see how people physically reacted to my talk did not bother me much.  Giving my talk felt a bit like sending out paper airplanes, seeing them float on the currents of the air, not knowing where and how they would land, but enjoying their flight.  At the end of my talk, there was a relatively long silence.  If this would have been my first talk in a virtual world, it probably would have been unsettling.  However, being among a group of friends, it actually felt quite peaceful, and I just waited happily until someone finally spoke.  The subsequent give and take in the discussion felt rather natural, and I enjoyed the exchange of ideas.

Piet Hut

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