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Toward a Synthesis of Insight

The discussion below will treat the question what counts as empirical knowledge, and whether extending its definition can influence empirical pursuits in a fruitful way. Those questions will be partially answered through a survey of views of various western intellectuals who have felt that embracing the totality of human experience is equally valuable and as such should be considered as mutually complementary, rather than mutually exclusive. Finally, the moral of the story may be that an active, gradual and above all indiscriminate unification of all human experience may be the necessary step we’ll need to take in our quest for a unified and complete body of knowledge describing reality.

Edward O. Wilson’s tentative move in the right direction

Edward O. Wilson, one of the most accomplished naturalists of the 20th century, brings our attention in his book Conscillience: The Unity of Knowledge to the unifying principles underlying all facets of human endeavor. This approach led him to argue in his book Sociobology that social sciences could benefit from the work done on the level of genetics. That is, all social and psychological phenomena ultimately share their causal roots in more fundamental processes of chemical and ultimately physical interactions. In Conscillience he states …[A]ll tangible phenomena, from the birth of stars to the workings of social institutions, are based on material processes that are ultimately reducible, however long and tortuous the sequences, to the laws of physics.

He even goes further by claiming that the arts and religious experiences and practices likewise share the same origin. Despite the reductionist tone of Wilson’s beliefs, they harbor a more general message, which emphasizes the value of content within the humanities and religious practices, which if considered by scientists as mere reflections of the same underlying truth about our universe, could invigorate and consequently benefit the sciences. He makes this implicit by pointing to the shortcomings of the positivist view, a direct intellectual descendant of British empiricism, which advocated purifying scientific discourse (language of science) which led to a systematic disregard for metaphysics or emotional linguistic content as largely meaningless and hence irrelevant.

Who would have thought that aesthetics and its concepts such as beauty could be explained by biological processes? Well, lateral thinking brings insight, and it has been shown that biological processes shaped by evolution may well cause concepts such as beauty. Such insights have inspired and contributed to the emergence of a dynamically expanding, powerful and successful field of evolutionary psychology.

Unification of fields within science does occur but Wilson’s call is radical due to the scope of proposed syntheses – it is to unify phenomena from fields traditionally thought to be worlds apart – the humanities and empirical sciences. Although his message is of great breadth, his discussion concerning religion and possible insights therein is (alas!) only limited to ethics. It seems the great thinker is reluctant to entertain the possibility of more concrete empirical content within religious experience. It seems that Wilson’s approach, although relatively bold and even radical when contrasted with the orthodox scope of scientific inquiry, falls short of a complete unification mainly because the scientific method in his synthesis still remains the sole and exclusive approach to inquiry.

Niels Bohr and human experience

Science can be viewed more generally as a type of human activity – one where the experimental approach of the scientific method provides us with additional and specific experience emerging from artificially set up conditions. This empirical endeavor can be viewed as an extension of human senses which allows an incessant broadening of human experience of the world. The counterintuitive nature of the consequences emerging from Einstein’s Special Relativity for example is then quite understandable, since we as individual beings never experience relative speeds close to the speed of light – such experiences never occur in our interactions with the natural environment. This also explains why evolution never capitalized on such (non occurring) experiences and hence has not endowed us with intuitions to identify them in order to gain some survival advantage. Nevertheless the extended perceptual apparatus of science creates artificial conditions (experimental set up) where such experiences do occur.

To an enlightened scientist, true to his method but not limited by it, no human experience is considered irrelevant, and the realization of this opens a myriad of possibilities which have not been previously considered. Thus the experimental data observed by the scientist is no more of an experience, than the internal wonder one experiences when gazing at a starry sky – it differs in quality. Bohr writes: “Physics is to be regarded not so much as the study of something a priori given, but rather as the development of methods for ordering and surveying human experience.” On a relevant historical note, Bohr being of the leading representatives of the Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum Physics, stressed the importance of experience to the point that it has acquired a central ontological status. The act of observation (the experimental measurement) in the Copenhagen Interpretation is an experience which creates reality. This position is close to subjective idealism, however due to its rather obscure elucidation, it remains inconclusive whether Bohr was an idealist. Despite his unclear ontological position, what is clear and relevant to our topic is his emphasis on the complementary nature of all experience which led him to characterize indiscriminately as of equal value the content of different cultures and religious traditions.

Jurgen Habermas and semantic value within religious discourse

Habermas, one of the most influential modern philosophers, points to certain expressions and meanings within religious discourse which are not exhausted by the secular approach and philosophy. In conclusion he emphasizes the importance of a dialogue where both secular and religious modes of thought can be exchanged which should inform both sides and thus be of mutual benefit. He has further developed his views through discussions with Cardinal Ratzinger, presently Pope Benedict XVI.

William James’ radical empiricism and Alan Wallace’s pioneering work

This is where our discussion culminates. The modern concept of consciousness has a long tradition both in western and eastern philosophy. The western philosophers coined a term qualia to refer to the raw and immediate quality of conscious experience, as in the case of experiencing the phenomenon of the color red, a pain or the smell of a rose. The philosopher Frank Jackson provides an argument for the existence of qualia based on knowledge, and concludes that qualia is knowledge; suppose we’re given all the scientific facts (facts as admitted by the scientific method paradigm) about the world, including the physical properties of light and its spectrum, the electromagnetic field properties including the wavelength and frequency of red light etc, but at the same time being brought up in a monochromatic environment i.e. not exposed to the subjective experience of colour red – he concludes that we would still be missing some knowledge concerning the colour red, namely what it looks like. There are equally many supporters to the view that qualia are purely physical as there are those who claim that qualia is a non-physical phenomenon. Speculations aside, some have suggested treating such subjective and irreducible phenomena as facts about the world, and hence of adequate substance for empirical inquiry.

In the context of psychology, William James, a philosopher and pioneering psychologist in the late 19th century suggested a method of radical empiricism, where such internal experiences should be considered as legitimate data.

His approach has inspired Alan Wallace, an American scientist and practicing Buddhist, to use novel methods in the study of consciousness. By its definition internal, subjective experiences are inaccessible to an external observer; as with the case of the experience of the colour red – no matter how one tries to probe the brain and its neural activity, even with the aid of the most sophisticated apparatus of PET scans, MRI and the like, one does not find any “redness”, even though the subject undergoing such clinical scrutiny vividly experiences it.

Wallace’s approach is exactly the synthesis this article is endorsing; by integrating the millennia old systematic and precise science of the mind and consciousness developed by eastern schools of thought, Buddhism in particular, and the reductionist approach of the western scientific method he endeavors to bring new insights concerning consciousness. His avant-garde approach being a synthesis of diverse paradigms and drawing on their strengths can be characterized as experimental metaphysics (an approach which is outside the current scientific method framework). His projects bring together psychologists and neuroscientists, who are then guided by Alan during month long retreats to develop techniques of mindfulness and shamatha in order to study the mind (area of their expertise), through introspective methods. For that purpose, and further development of this pioneering work he founded in 2003 The Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, organized the Shamatha Project in 2007, and concurrently has received funding to establish the Phuket Mind Training Academy which has expanded beyond pure inquiry to take the form of a wellbeing community founded on meditative practice. Wallace’s pioneering work has received recognition and encouragement from various authorities, including his holiness the Dalai Lama.

By expanding our definition of what counts as empirical to include all human experience, including subjective experience I believe will benefit our general inquiry in understanding the world. Such tentative suggestions have been made within the scope of the scientific method, where the fruits of such expanded “data set” would benefit various branches of science. However, ultimately a bolder approach is necessary which goes beyond those classical traditions of inquiry. Some have already begun this greater synthesis, and we are privileged to witness it.

Read Mariusz’s blog here!

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