The Science of Mysticism

Here are the points I’d like to cover in this essay;

1. Why is the “scientific paradigm&” attractive?
2. Are these attractive elements inseparable from philosophic materialism?
3. Can the scientific paradigm be reconciled with spiritual things?

1. Why is the “scientific paradigm” attractive?

Just as there are a lot of questionable motives that could attract someone to religion, there are of course a number of questionable motives to be attracted to the scientific paradigm, especially as a replacement for a “religious paradigm”. For example, one might have a pathological hatred of dogmatic authority, a projected father-hatred directed against God, or simply the desire to behave as one wishes without having to answer to any objective moral standard. Let’s dismiss all these and give our scientists the benefit of the doubt, just as we would hope they would do for our religious inclinations. Let’s address the good reasons one might be attracted to a scientific paradigm.

I think the primary attractions of the scientific paradigm can be summed up as follows: utility and beauty.

First utility. A great attraction of science is the results it produces. As Bertrand Russell put it, science, while it diminishes our cosmic pretensions, enormously increases our terrestrial comfort. Science has provided an ever-progressing collection of creature comforts, medical advances, and entertainments. We might call this the indoor plumbing argument 😉

Second, beauty. Science seems to produce glimpses of the workings of the cosmos, on a micro and macro level, that can inspire something akin to religious awe. It gives, to an extent, some of the same feelings provided by religion in terms of working toward a higher purpose. Man is inherently curious, and science provides an outlet for that curiosity. The philosophical trappings of science also have an intrinsic and simple beauty – something akin to the Japanese art of understatement – clean, functional and austere.

2. Are these attractive elements in science inseparable from philosophic materialism?

In a word. No. I will argue that the pairing of the two is in fact somewhat accidental. What is it, to begin with, that MAKES science useful and beautiful? Why is it so successful in producing useful technology and elegant, universal models? Is it philosophic materialism? Not at all. One can easily imagine a natural philosophy based exclusively in materialism, but without the procedural philosophy of science. A dogmatic materialism that gave no heed to experiment, refinement of process, or observational confirmation (indeed, there are places in the culture where such is a reality). Such a dogmatic philosophy would be neither especially useful nor attractive.

The philosophy of science is a complex subject but to simplify, I contend that what makes science work is the following:

A. Science discovered the principle of a self-correcting system. It corrects itself by allowing own authorities and procedures to be questioned, evaluated, and changed based on that evaluation. In this way, the procedures and principles it uses are constantly improving.

B. Science seeks to approximate objectivity by making its observations according to standardized protocol.

C. Science then subjects the content of its observations to a wide community of trained observers who have the same observational protocols available to them. Again, this approximates objectivity by .

And that’s about it as far as essentials. Notice that philosophic naturalism isn’t part of those three scientific characteristics. Actually, even physicalism isn’t demanded. I believe that philosophic naturalism became more associated with science because it was a natural ally against religion and religious authority.

3. Can the scientific paradigm be reconciled with spiritual things?

There is absolutely no reason (other than a-priori prejudice) why the three principles listed above (self-correction, standardized observation and community feedback) can’t be applied to man’s inner experiences. There is no reason why a “science of the Spirit” can’t exist. In fact, it does exist, in many forms.

The a-priori prejudices I mentioned tend to arise from an illusion science has created. A self-deception into which it falls. Because science strives to approximate objectivity, it can lose sight of the fact that all observations are, in the last analysis, events in the human mind. Even if those events are recorded by some kind of mechanical device, they ultimately must be processed in the human mind or they are not part of our reality at all. All we have to go on are our perceptions or our perceptions of the perceptions of others 😉

In other words, while science sees events proceeding from physical systems, like so:

Events <<<< Physical system

In fact, we do not have direct knowledge of those physical systems (thank you Emmanuel Kant) but rather only direct knowledge of our mental perceptions of the events, like so:

Mental perceptions <<<< Events <<<< Physical system

Is there any reason why our mental perceptions of the events generated by physical systems (traditional science) have a higher priority or are more “real”; than our mental perceptions of mystical experiences? No. they are both mental perceptions. The only argument that can be attempted for the mental perceptions of physical events being superior is that perhaps they are more universal – more applicable to many different observers.

But this is not the case. If we apply the three characteristics of science to mystical experiences – if we use a standardized protocol for making mystical “observations” – and we compare notes with other trained observers of the mystical experience, and if we allow our protocol to be refined by continual criticism and improvement – we find that there are definite universals in the interior landscape of mystical experience.

How might this work? For example – we learn a particular meditation technique. We practice it until we are a skilled observer (which unfortunately may take months or years.) We take note of our experiences using this technique. We compare those experiences with those of a community of other meditators. And we refine our meditation and observation methods as we go along.

It’s important to note here the importance of TRAINED observation. It is not an adequate response to say “I sat down and tried to think about God one day for a half hour. Nothing happened”. This is no more persuasive than for me to say “I looked at the sky with my binoculars and found absolutely NO evidence of cosmic background radiation,” or “I looked at a bubble chamber one time and all I saw were a bunch of squiggles.” Some kinds of observation need special training and protocol. Meditation or mystical exploration are no different.

Are the mystics simply auto-suggesting themselves into these experiences through their training and protocol? Several things suggest they are not.

First of all, the protocol themselves generally do not have the quality of suggestion. Indeed, the whole point of most meditation methods is remove the barriers of pre-conceived thoughts, concepts and other filters on our perceptions and simply experience the inner world in a state of completely open-minded receptivity. Secondly, if the techniques are auto-suggestive, one would expect that the observations would not be universal, but would vary according to the spiritual expectations of the individual. This does not seem to be the case. The universals still exist.

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