Saturday, December 9, 2006

Contemplative Science, bringing together scientific method with spiritual experientialism

Contemplative Science: Where Buddhism And Neuroscience Converge makes for an interesting line of thinking. In our modern times we think of Science and Religion as occupying two non-overlapping worlds of study. Science is to stay with its rigorous method of proof based on testable hypothesis, while Religion is to stay with matters of the divine, that transcend material existance, and deal with matters of ethics and the like.

But that split exists only in Europe and in relation to the Catholic church. In other regions of the world, at other periods of history, spiritual and religious seekers also studied the material world. The great flowering of learning in Islam, while Europe was in the clutches of Christianity imposed anti-learning dogma, was because the early Islamic practitioners were enamored with getting to know the Divine through studying the material world created by Allah. And what an amazingly intricate creation this world is. The detail in this world which has been revealed to us by science is truly mind-boggling vast in scope, depth, breadth, detail and in every other descriptive measure I could muster.

Another spiritual tradition of the world that did not split reason and spiritual practice is Buddhism. The Buddha himself told his followers "Do not take my statements to be true simply out of reverence for me. But rather, put them to the test." In other words he challenges Buddhist practitioners to test the teachings he presented to us, test them and prove them for ourselves.

In this Salon.COM interview, Buddha on the brain, B. Allan Wallace, the author of Contemplative Science is interviewed at depth about his proposal, Dogma and Science. The difference between Dogma and Science is a poignant observation here. Dogma is a ritualistic acceptance of what you are told, no critical reasoning, no testing, just a blind acceptance of what others claim to be truth. The Scientific method is all about testing everything, and a key aspect is the formation of testable hypothesis.

A testable hypothesis is refutable, that is you can prove the hypothesis is wrong, just as you can prove it to be right. The existence of God is, for example, an untestable hypothesis because you cannot disprove God's existence. In the realm of Spiritual experience there are many an untestable hypothesis.

An interesting idea to ponder is this:

At the same time, science is not just science. This very notion that the mind must simply be an emergent property of the brain -- consisting only of physical phenomena and nothing more -- is not a testable hypothesis. Science is based upon a very profound metaphysical foundation. Can you test the statement that there is nothing else going on apart from physical phenomena and their emergent properties? The answer is no.

Science is full of dogma, that is it's full of ideas that are accepted by rote rather than proved by scientific method. For example the idea of the mind and consciousness. Neuroscientists have found all sorts of correlations of emotions and chemicals or locations in the brain, but what have they proved? Have they disproved any claim made by mystics? Have they been able to form a testable hypothesis around mind and consciousness solely being a byproduct of the chemicals and brain activity? No.

B. Allan Wallace suggests bringing Buddhists practices of studying the mind into cooperative work with those who can drive the instruments of science. The Buddhists have a couple millennia of experience and teachings to draw upon related to a rigorous system of studying the mind. That is what Buddhists do as they meditate is to observe the function of the mind, and deep Buddhist practice has a lot in common with psychological theories.

It is my experience that the actions of spiritual practices are very real and can cause real effects. That is what healing is about. Healing is to access spiritual states and through spiritual practice bring about beneficial change of a physical condition. This tells me that spiritual forces are part of the world and ought to be measurable by appropriate instruments. Until now the appropriate instruments have been living beings such as you and me. But these forces ought to be measurable by other kinds of instruments, the kind that give objective measurements, that can be quantified, etc.