W o K     :     Ways of Knowing

A Virtual Seminar


Knowledge and the "self" in science and contemplative practice

My talk centered on the issue of the “self”, as it figures in both science and contemplative spirituality. It's an important discussion point in its own right, but it also serves as an illustration of what “knowledge” involves in contemplative practice and how this compares with the sort of knowledge that is both assumed and provided by the practice of science. I feel that unless this point is clarified, little progress will be made in “science/spirituality” dialogues.

Contemplative spirituality is certainly “experiential”, but not based on experience in the sense often critiqued as folk psychology or a naïve reliance on ordinary assumptions and features of common experience. The issue is primarily one of cultivating insight, and this point was not properly understood even by many traditional groups that have practiced contemplative arts in the past. The distinction is subtle, and I don't pretend to a fully explored it in my short talk, but in any case this is a discussion worth having in a sustained way and I expect we'll continue with it in the near future. With a little care, traditional forms of contemplation can emerge as a source of knowledge in at least some domains, and thus as a clear alternative to the commonplace sensation-mongering that figures so commonly in pop-level meditation practice, and to the more abstract approaches to knowledge that figure in science. What's at stake here is our own personal access to knowledge about ourselves and our situation—to our real needs, to life's significance, and even to reality itself in some important sense.

As part of this presentation, I mentioned a few positions regarding the “self” and the traditional Buddhist notion of “no self”, discussing what these might mean and what kind of knowledge might be involved in grounding them. I also reviewed positions that various types of scientists might have regarding these notions. I then concluded with a simple example—a practice involving following the breath while also bringing a certain appreciative view to bear on the practitioner's existence, considering what sorts of insights and understanding might emerge during the conduct of this practice. Ideally my talk would have served as the prelude to actually exploring this practice with the virtual group over a number of virtual reality sessions... I think it's likely this would have set the stage for a vigorous and focused discussion of some of the points I raised. Some future WoK VR projects probably will take that sort of approach.

I concluded my summary with a list of questions centering mostly on the relative merits and status of contemplative knowledge and scientific knowledge, and in particular on the ways in which these two disciplines might aid, “check” or inform each other. When someone is doing science, or people are taking in the findings derived from scientific research and drawing inferences from them, in both cases more is present and operative than just what the science itself explicitly addresses—this is where contemplative insight not only can but in some sense must come in. And this is especially true when science is used to characterize our humanity. Conversely, science is now in a position to inform and complicate (in an interesting and fruitful way) our understanding of core points that have emerged from millennia of contemplative practice... like science, contemplative traditions have always been critical in nature, evidence-based, and value counterexamples and additional perspectives that can be used to further refine contemplative explorations and our resultant self-understanding.


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