A scientific theory of enlightenment and a more enlightened science can be viewed separately. But for simplicity and in the spirit of integration, they are considered as two sides of the same coin in this column.
The first aspect attempts to explain manifestations of enlightenment. The second seeks to apply the core values that form the basis of the first—such as compassion—as drivers for scientific inquiry. This is to ensure that the first adheres to ethical parameters in order to avoid causing suffering to satisfy scientific curiosity, which can so easily be done.
Of course, some may argue that there is no need for a theory of enlightenment or that it is a totally intractable subject. Nonetheless, this column proposes that there may be valid reasons to start thinking in that direction.
Many practitioners, including Western thinkers who are schooled and have confidence in hard sciences, have visited holy sites where handprints and footprints left on rocks by enlightened masters are clearly visible. What should they make of them? Those taking part in phowa transmissions may have witnessed small holes appearing on the tops of the heads of practitioners. What kind of physics or physiology can explain that? Isn’t it legitimate to wonder how these events are possible? And these are small examples. There are countless more personal experiences that cannot be explained.
Even if we accept things for what they are and avoid the temptation to apply our rational minds to explain situations that occur under a logic that we may not yet understand, some of us cannot help but wonder: should science attempt to understand and try to find laws that explain such experiences?
There are also other reasons for moving forward, including the need to rectify some of the limitations of what is defined as science. Science can be narrowly defined—constrained by the need for replicable results—but there are also exploratory and open-ended approaches to inquiry.
What we refer to in broad terms as science and scientific theory consist of many theories under very different paradigms that cannot meaningfully be generalized. There are new facts, results, and phenomena that come up every day that mandate the evolution of the theories. This is what scientific progress is all about.
What is a phenomenon, really? What is observable? Under what conditions? And what about the role of the observer? Do phenomena change based on the observer’s viewpoint? If the technological singularity hypothesis is anything to go by, this shift in questions is accelerating exponentially. (Research Gate)
A theory of enlightenment could emerge from integrating what we are learning from neuroscience, physics, and Dharma practices, and by accepting that even scientific methods require some sort of leap of faith. “To do science, you must take it on faith that there’s an objectively observable reality out there.” (Psychology Today)
There are several issues with science and a theory of enlightenment could perhaps contribute to address some of these:
Importance in science is often a matter of judgment, and the relative importance of scientific discoveries is very much dependent on the perspective taken by the evaluators.(Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology)
Much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness.(The Lancet)
Scientific knowledge nowadays is more advanced and accessible than it has ever been, with students growing worldwide in numbers. The modern world depends on it almost entirely. This is why science cannot continue to ignore what it does not yet explain.
We are now able to peer to the farthest edges of the universe and see the brain and other material things down to the atom. Virtually anyone can join online communities, learn, and access the data. Nonetheless, science cannot prevent global epidemics, wars, injustice, abuses, greed, ignorance, and widespread suffering. Nor can it answer fundamental and existential questions or explain love, compassion, and other emotions beyond basic chemistry
We may have more computer power at our disposal than ever before, but we are still conditioned by chance. As COVID-19 demonstrated, disease and death can hit human beings more or less at random. A scientific theory of enlightenment would necessarily include cause and effect and karma.
Finding a way to explain the broad spectrum of phenomena—observable and not—associated with enlightenment is not going to be easy. Maybe it is even intractable. But for argument’s sake, by means of hypothetical speculation, one can start looking at the challenges.
First, there is the lack of a formal definition. The term enlightenment—especially for those who have no direct experience or partial experience—is a bit fuzzy. It points to something vague that can hardly be conceived, let alone described and measured. Intangible and metaphysical properties cannot be left out of scientific discourse.
There is also a considerable overlap with the notion of spiritual liberation (sometimes known as moksha), and much debate goes on among scholars and practitioners of the respective traditions to compare and contrast them. Advancing the research agenda may require:
1. Detaching from strictly Western-centric scientific paradigms. It is accepted that the sciences are almost always taught from a Eurocentric point of view. This rarely exposes students to the scientific accomplishments of other cultures. That is considered a limitation to be overcome. (Asian Studies)
2. Not being based on a single viewpoint. A theory of enlightenment inevitably may have to accommodate multiple viewpoints and subjective experiences of countless sentient beings, and as such rest on multiple axioms and diverse logical assumptions. (Aeon)
3. Be Open World (OW). The Open World nowadays is referred to as a mere assumption, explained as:(Dataversity)
. . . the Closed World Assumption (CWA) is the assumption that what is not known to be true must be false. The Open World Assumption (OWA) is the opposite. In other words, it is the assumption that what is not known to be true is simply unknown.
There is much more than that to the Open World, discussed by Hermann Weyl in 1932 (c.f chapter four of his Mind and Nature). Although not as well known as many of his peers, Weyl was an early exponent of the unified theory, His work and thinking is ever so relevant today.
4. It would align with electromagnetic theory and contribute to explain physical properties of energy light and matter, such as wave-particle duality. (National Center for Biotechnology Information)
5. Requires an open definition for phenomena and their observation methods. (Springer Link)
6. Categories and taxonomies would be considered relative theories and hypotheses, rather than facts.
7. Scientific and philosophical theories of truth would merge. (Oxford Scholarship Online)
After all, enlightened minds are the best technology humanity has produced so far. There is no reason why such marvels should remain shrouded in myth and mystery and should be ignored by science.
As always, happy to hear from readers either way.
Weyl, Hermann. 2009. Mind and Nature: Selected Writings on Philosophy, Mathematics, and Physics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Singularity Hypotheses: An Overview (Research Gate)
Is the Nobel Prize good for science? (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology)
Offline: What is medicine’s 5 sigma? (The Lancet)
Does Science Require a Leap of Faith? (Psychology Today)
Ancient Chinese Science and the Teaching of Physics (Asian Studies)
Views from everywhere (Aeon)
Introduction to: Open World Assumption vs Closed World Assumption (Dataversity)
An Introduction to Electrochemical Methods in Neuroscience (National Center for Biotechnology Information)
Observation Versus Experiment: An Adequate Framework for Analysing Scientific Experimentation? (Springer Link)
Scientific truth (Oxford Scholarship Online)
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