Science and The Spiritual Path – Part 1

“Science is not a perfect instrument, but it is a superb and invaluable tool that works harm only when it is taken as an end in itself.  Science must serve; it errs when it usurps the throne… Science is the tool of the Western mind, and with it one can open more doors than with bare hands.  It is part and parcel of our understanding, and it obscures our insight only when it claims that the understanding it conveys is the only kind there is”

— Carl Jung, from Psychology and Alchemy / Collected Works

Some topics in American discourse are what’s known as ‘sacred cows.’ Defined by Google as, “an idea, custom, or institution held, especially unreasonably, to be above criticism,” sacred cows can be so controversial that even wanting to have a conversation about one is viewed as suspect.

Vaccines, for example, are a sacred cow in this country. Very few people I’ve encountered want to have a discussion about vaccines. People tend to fall into one of two camps – either they tell you you’re crazy if you don’t get your child vaccinated or they tell you you’re crazy if you do. The very fact that I’m writing this paragraph lands me squarely in the ‘crazy’ category for some simply because I’m not decrying the ‘anti-vaxxers.’

This post-series isn’t about vaccines though, it’s about science. Not only is the concept of “science” itself a sacred cow, but there are dozens of ideas associated with science that are also sacred cows. In this series we’ll touch on how science is funded in America and why. We’ll take on one of the most inflammatory scientific sacred cows, evolution. (I can already feel your hairs standing on end 🙂 ).

We’ll talk a little bit of how the cutting edge research in physics may be providing the foundation to explain how co-creation works. And if that isn’t enough, we’ll cover how computer science driven research into neural networks may have unlocked part of the answer to how existence transitions (or persists) from one moment to the next.   We’ll wrap up the series with a brief discussion of where science fits in walking the spiritual path.

Before we get there, though, this first post in the series takes a step back to discuss the term “science,” itself, and it’s use in common discourse.

The Search for Meaning

A quick google search defines science as, “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” (This is identical with the Oxford English Dictionary definition and a near match of the Cambridge Dictionary)

Merriam-Webster says science is, “knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation.”

A little bit of an infinite loop occurs when I look up the word ‘experiment’ as it is often defined as ‘a scientific procedure’ – So here we have science defined by conducting experiments and experiments defined by being scientific.

This recursion is not all that surprising, though, as in common discourse the term “science” is used to mean something apart from ‘following the scientific method’ to test a hypothesis. In my experience, the term is typically used to shut down a conversation that is venturing into strange and unknown territory.

What do I mean by that? Let me try to answer by way of analogy. Right now I’m reading an excellent book by Jeff Patton called User Story Mapping (it’s an old one). At one point in the book Jeff talks about the word “Requirements” in Software Development. (Requirements are a documented description of desired application functionality.)

Jeff’s style is to initiate more of a conversation about what the client / customer needs rather than rely too heavily on copious documentation written by someone who doesn’t actually use the software or have the need.

In relation to this, Jeff mentions an encounter that brought him to a fundamental realization about the way people thought about requirements;

“As the company grew, we added more traditional software people. At one point the head of a different team came to me and said, ‘Jeff I need you to make these changes to the product you’re working on.’

I said, ‘Great, no problem. Tell me who they’re for and what problems this solves for them.

Her response? ‘They’re the requirements.’

I replied, ‘I get it. Just tell me a bit about who they’re for and how they’re going to use this, and where it fits into the way they work.’

She looked at me like I was stupid and said to me with an air of finality, ‘They’re requirements.’

“It was at that moment that I learned that the word requirements actually means shut up.”[1]

This matches my experience in how people use the term ‘science’ in discourse today. When someone trots out a scientific study (or the lack of one) it means ‘shut up.’ Here’s a recent example from my own life that mirrors the Jeff Patton example.

Recently, I was reading some excellent posts listing scientific studies on the benefits of meditation.[2] In the comments section on one of them (I can’t remember which right now) one commenter brought up our ability to influence reality via thought / intention / meditation and I added a few corroborating notes of my personal experience with this.

Another commenter’s reply? “That’s very nice for you, but I prefer to live my life on a more scientific basis.”

Such use of the term “science” or “scientific” is very common and seems to be stuck in a level of confidence and understanding that comes about only after experiments have been conducted. Yet, ironically, it’s often used to reject topics where little to no comprehensive experiments have even been conducted so the field of possibility should be wide open not shut down.

For a more real-world example, see Kiera Butler’s Mother Jones article “Enough Already with the Bone Broth Hype.” This article (which reads more like an editorial) frames itself as a point-by-point refutation of health claims about bone broth. Each claim is paired with a negative ‘answer.’

For example, in the article we find, “Claim #4: Drinking bone broth will make you look younger. False” yet nothing in the paragraph below the ‘false’ statement actually proves this claim false. Butler, herself, admits that “the only actual study on bone broth is form 1934.” Which – again – should suggest that the field of possibility is wide open.

I can understand wanting to protect people from a ‘snake oil’ phenomenon, but if that were the main goal – a much more helpful way to frame the article would have been something like this;

We hear a lot of claims about the healing properties of bone brother, such as: <insert claims>. Here’s the scientific studies we do have on bone broth. The only other evidence we have are anecdotes from proponents such as <insert some anecdotes>. As there are no lab studies that corroborate these claims, readers will have to determine themselves how seriously to take them.

The way the original article reads it seems like personal anecdotes are unreliable as a source of information. However, when we don’t have scientific studies to corroborate a claim (which is quite common), the only thing we do have are anecdotes. Anecdotes are not inherently false or untrue – in fact, witnesses to the scene of a crime share their anecdotes of what happened in court and this is considered evaluated by the judge / jury in relation to the case (although some people think it shouldn’t be). There are things that can discredit a witness, but merely being a witness or providing an anecdote of your experience is not automatically ‘incredible.’

What’s most unhelpful about this use of ‘science’ is that it cuts off discussion instead of allowing more ideas to percolate around in our brains and spark new ways of thinking. ‘Open’ thought is the creative climate that allows the generation of hypotheses for the scientific method to test – if we don’t allow ourselves that, it’s a wonder we ever discover anything new.

Presidential Science

Additionally, before we get too ‘high-minded’ about the objectivity of scientific research and experimentation we should consider that a significant percentage of scientific research in this country is undertaken with the ultimate goal of creating a profitable product. Is the intention to make people’s lives better? Yes, at a price.

An East Bay Express article reprinted on alternet.org noted an increase in corporate funded research at UC Berkeley and at many Universities across the nation. The article comments, “For decades, much of the research on campus was federally funded and driven primarily by scientific curiosity. The results of this basic research allowed the public to better understand such concepts as genetics, the origins of humanity, and the laws of physics. It also won UC Berkely numerous Nobel prizes”

The article goes on to assert that, “The rise of corporate funding… has spawned a dramatic increase in the amount of applied research on campus. It’s typically funded by industry and aims to develop products that can be quickly brought to market – and create corporate profits”

These days, unless there’s a demonstrable commercial application for research, it’s unlikely to get funding. And yet, on the flipside, it is the people who have bucked tradition and –in some cases – scrounged together studies, data, and experiments in the face of skepticism and discouragement who have made some fantastic breakthroughs.

A great example is the discovery that ulcers and gastritis were, in some cases, caused by the microbe Heliobacter Pylori. As Discover magazine put it in a April 2010 article, “The medical elite thought they knew what caused ulcers and stomach cancer. But they were wrong – and did not want to hear the answer that was right.”[3]

The article further goes on to describe that physician Barry Marshall strongly suspected that ulcers were caused by the bacteria, but “unable to make his case in studies with lab mice (because H. pylori affects only primates) and prohibited from experimenting on people, Marshall grew desperate. Finally he ran an experiment on the only human patient he could ethically recruit: himself. He took some H. pylori from the gut of an ailing patient, stirred it into a broth, and drank it.”

And before we think that we’d be ‘in the dark ages’ without our rigorous scientific experiments under lab conditions, let’s not forget the number of important discoveries that were made by accident. No less than plastic, the microwave, x-rays, matches, gunpowder, nuclear fission and, of course, penicillin. The stories behind this list and seventeen more discoveries like it can be found at Mental Floss

Those discoveries did not come from “science” as the ironclad authority by which all ‘crazy’ ideas are judged and found wanting – they represent the Hermaion – the ‘accidental find’ brought to us by the powerful influence of the Trickster. (To read more about the Trickster see the post Trickster Makes this Road)

How, then, should we think about ‘Science’?

I vote that we take a new look at an old way of thinking about science – which is merely to treat it as a process by which knowledge is gathered and ideas are tested. This does not mean we should ignore scientific studies on a particular subject; by all means we should examine them rigorously with the goal of enhancing our own understanding.

If we internalize the wisdom of the Jung quote that started this post we can see science as a useful and important tool for understanding our world, but not the only one.

There are probably hundreds of aspects of our daily lives that haven’t been ‘scientifically proven’ under lab conditions and yet we feel no need to decry them as false and unsubstantiated because they are present to our regular experience.

In my high school anthropology class I learned that Eskimos have more than a dozen words to describe snow and ice. At the time that sounded incredible – as far as I was concerned the only word for snow was “snow”! Over time and observation, however, I learned that it’s possible to differentiate between varying types of snow – even here in Chicago.

Have all the various types of snow been scientifically studied and classified under lab conditions? Probably not. The difference is subtle, if we’re not paying attention, we’ll miss it – but that there are different types of precipitation that could be categorized as ‘snow’ is an observable phenomenon. I would argue the same way for “Energy” (as previously discussed on the blog in this series) – it’s subtle, and takes a little effort to experience, so our tendency is to say ‘it doesn’t exist.’ However, it can be as present and observable in our regular experience as snow.

If you only feel on safe territory discussing and absorbing ideas where copious amounts of study and research have already definitively weighed in, challenge yourself by considering why that might be? Why put such a barrier between yourself and the unknown? Are you afraid of being wrong? Looking like a fool? That others will make fun of you?

In quoting ‘science,’ how scientifically rigorous are you? For example, when you read an article quoting scientific studies, do you dig through the studies themselves to determine whether the conclusions drawn in the article are, in fact, supported by the study? Or do you, also, take some things on ‘faith’?

Is the mystic’s report really any less credible than the journalist’s? Both are people reporting their present experience.

When the reports of many show such similarities (as is the case with the mystic experience), we may not have scientific studies that provide documented and detailed understanding, but we run the risk of missing out on something important if we simply ignore.

In dealing with the vast unknown, it is natural and understandable to want the safety and security of repeated results obtained under lab conditions. However, I have found that the most transformative instances of discovery and growth in my own life have come from walking in the direction of uncertainty and discomfort.

Check back in next week – the next post in this series will tackle one of the most controversial topics – evolution.

 

[1] User Story Mapping, Jeff Patton kindle loc 466, O’Reilly

[2] 76 Scientific Benefits of Meditation by Live & Dare and Neuroscience of Mindfulness on MindfulnessMD

[3] Discover Magazine Article, “The Dr. Who Drank Infectious Broth, Gave Himself an Ulcer, and Solved a Medical Mystery.” By Weintraub, Pamela, published Thursday April 8th 2010.

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