Response, by Ed Turner

Over the past few months I have read, and re-read parts of, Piet Hut's "Life as a Lab" essays/book and would now like to make some comments. Beyond merely recording some of my reactions, my goals/hopes are to stimulate discussion among whatever group(s) read these remarks and perhaps even to provide Piet with input that he might find useful in his own thinking and possible future writings on this topic.


Both science and meditation/contemplation, as "ways of knowing", are and have long been extremely important to me personally, and while I would not remotely claim anything like mastery of either, I have spent a good deal of my time and energy on both. For these reasons, it is not surprising that I find the topic(s) discussed in "Life as a Lab" (hereafter LaaL) extremely engaging and important. It has been a great pleasure and, in many instances, quite "eye opening" to read LaaL and think about the ideas and claims it presents. I am very grateful to Piet for giving me access to it.

That said, let me hasten to add that quite a few of my remarks below are going to be critical or, perhaps more accurately, challenging re some of LaaL. My goal here is not to write a review in which I give some balance of praise to what I find clever or brilliant (and there are many aspects of LaaL which I so regard) and criticism of what I find weak or dubious. Rather I just want to talk about LaaL, to put down some assortment of the many thoughts that occurred to me as I read and thought about it. More than that I would not be qualified to do in any case.

A Semantic Issue

LaaL talks a great deal about "science" and derivative words such as "scientific". Indeed, LaaL opens with "Part 0. Science and the Scientific Method", a discussion of some of the properties and accomplishments of science, and the topic comes up very frequently throughout the text. Much is said about what science is, how it works and how it may evolve/expand in the future, and of course this is natural since science is a major component of Piet's basic goal/agenda in writing LaaL, as best I understand it (see the "LaaL's Agenda" section of my comments below).

Because science is so central to LaaL and because use of the term "science" and related words often confused me or gave me pause, I am here belaboring a purely semantic issue a bit. Specifically, what Piet seems to mean by "science" in LaaL is different in an important way from what is meant in the word's conventional current usage, in my opinion. In particular, LaaL allows/suggests inclusion of subjective perceptions and experiences which could not be objectively verified in any "public" way (i.e., by any other observer/experimenter), even in principle if we take the "hard problem of consciousness" at face value. In my mind, this is no minor matter. It is the reason that most contemporary scientists would not recognize the many "experiments" suggested in LaaL as scientifically valid or useful, and far more importantly, it is precisely the crucial change of definition that allows LaaL to begin building connections between "science" and meditative/contemplative/wisdom traditions.

Now, to be clear, I am not in the least suggesting that Piet is trying to slip anything by the reader in LaaL via some sort of semantic trick. In fact, he goes to great lengths to explicitly state and emphasize repeatedly that he considers "science" to be a young and evolving/expanding "way of knowing" and investigating the world. LaaL postulates that the science of the future will differ greatly and fundamentally from science as we now know it, not just in its contents but also in its basic logic, mechanisms and structure. The point is made particularly sharply in LaaL's Chapter 20 in which it is suggested that the best definition of "science" is along the lines of "what scientists do" in the same sense that FORTRAN may be defined as the computer language used by physicists, independent of the properties and changes in the computer language itself. This comparison may be meant partly in jest, but it emphasizes Piet's conception of science as a flexible and opportunistic investigation of the world without any particular fixed methodology or constraining principles.

So, given that the alternative definition of "science" used in LaaL is clearly explained and repeatedly brought to the reader's attention, does this whole semantic issue really matter in any important way? Isn't it just a matter of defining one's terms and using them consistently? Well, in some sense and in principle, the answer must be that there is no problem. There is one related and more substantial quibble that I defer to the next section. But even setting that slightly postponed issue aside for a moment, I still think that it is a disadvantage to use such a key term in a so importantly non-conventional way, simply because it makes it too easy for the reader to become confused (via falling into the habit of thinking about "science" as it is conventionally understood) and potentially for excerpts from the text to be misunderstood when taken out of context (i.e., without knowledge of the redefinition of the word).

So, what term would be better than "science" for LaaL's purposes, given that the techniques and practices it suggests do indeed have many key features in common with scientific (in the conventional sense) methodology? Well, it is difficult since no single word with which I am familiar quite catches the right meaning. Personally, I'd suggest calling it something descriptive, perhaps "systematic rational inquiry" or "systematic empirical exploration" and then describing the ways in which the process is like and unlike that of science. (I have spent so much time reading NASA documents lately, that I can scarcely resist suggesting a three letter acronym, such as SRI or SEE, for these otherwise unwieldy phrases. By the way, the three letter acronym for "three letter acronym" is TLA, itself a TLA of course.)

OK, enough of this (too much you are thinking?), on to other issues.

Possible Downsides to "Expanding" Science

LaaL suggests that the methods and standards of science can/should/will evolve and expand in order to make better contact with other "ways of knowing", particularly contemplative, religious and artistic ones. This view is the topic of LaaL's Chapter 3 and is particularly vivid in the subsection called "A Thought Experiment". This vision is very appealing to me personally, and I definitely hope that it is correct.

However, on the general principle that "we should be least willing to believe what we most want to believe", it may be wise to at least consider the possibility that science cannot be expanded/evolved in certain ways without, as an unintended side effect, losing some of its major virtues. In particular, it is not at all clear to me that you can expand the definition of scientific data to include entirely subjective experiences without paying a heavy, perhaps even fatal, price in its ability to converge on "the truth" in at least some contexts/arenas. For example, the anti-intuitive scientific demonstration of the fact that the Earth rotates, rather than the sky spinning, is mentioned several times in LaaL as a demonstration of the ability of scientific investigation to overcome incorrect perceptions and natural predispositions. Although this example is a bit trivial and facile, it may be worth contemplating how much more difficult it would be for a version of science that accepts subjective impressions/feelings as "data" to achieve such anti-intuitive insights.

I have no definite opinion on the correct answer/resolution to this question/issue but simply want to flag it as a possible difficulty. My understanding of the final section of LaaL's Chapter 3 is that it is also warning the reader to beware of the same or similar problems...though I am not sure that this is what Piet had in mind there.

LaaL's Agenda

When I first began to read LaaL, I was expecting to read (another) guide to meditation and some sort of (probably rather secular) blend of the meditative/wisdom traditions. I was particularly interested in hearing what Piet had to say on these topics because he and I share the experiences, context and perspective of being working physical scientists, a relatively rare background for those who write on such topics.

However, to my surprise (and delight) I soon discovered that LaaL's goal or agenda is far more ambitious, that it could even be called wildly revolutionary. Namely, it seeks to imagine, and point readers along at least some initial steps toward, a unification of (what Piet calls) science (and I would prefer to call "systematic empirical exploration") with the mystical and religious ways of knowing associated with meditative/wisdom traditions. Very heady stuff...far more noble and profound a goal than, say, physicist's dreams of a unified reductionist "theory of everything" in many respects.

My first thought was, basically, "Wow!"

My second thought was to wonder if such a goal is achievable, even in principle, or if it is not an inspiring but impossible fantasy objective. LaaL is clear enough that the project is likely to be long and arduous, with full success not likely within the foreseeable future and only the first steps currently visible to us in even a foggy way. However, my misgiving is more fundamental. It is the issue of whether science (or empirical rational inquiry) can eventually access all truth in some way or whether it is inherently limited. Personally, I see no particular reason to think that it can do so and some reasons (mentioned explicitly in later sections) to doubt it. In places, LaaL seems to almost implicitly assume that success in its grand enterprise can eventually be achieved. As attractive as that scenario might be, I think that we ought to keep the opposite possibility in mind too.

This issue is the one that, at least formally, defined the agenda of the one Kira Institute summer meeting I was fortunate enough to attend...the limits of various "ways of knowing". In my talk there, I expressed the opinion that, in metaphor and effect, science is a sort of tool...wonderfully effective for some tasks, adaptable within limits for others and almost entirely useless for still others...the moral of which is that you shouldn't think everything is a nail just because you only have a hammer or are particularly skillful at hammering, so to speak. That is still my personal opinion, but I most certainly do not claim to know it to be correct...just my best guess.

The consequence of this uncertainty about the limits of science (at least on my part) is that I think we definitely ought to give LaaL a try. Whether or not it is possible, it surely will not happen if the attempt is not made. "The 'impossible' is often untried" it is said. So, despite my doubts, I surely would encourage people to try out the many excellent and clever suggestions in LaaL and/or their own ideas for bridging the gap between the scientific and the mystic.

Brilliant and Obvious

LaaL contains many clever suggestions, including the one implicit in its title, for what I now think of as "experimental meditation" which I found very novel and exciting, although sometimes simultaneously a bit unsettling or even unattractively anti-intuitive. These suggestions most often had the quality of many (but not all) important ideas/insights, namely of being utterly "invisible" (unperceived as even possibilities) before I heard them but then suddenly "obvious" in retrospect...that slapping your head and saying "Why didn't I ever think of that before?" quality.

Specifically, I mean the notions it borrows from the normal procedures and practices of conventional experimental science, such as keeping careful records/notes of all "variables" and "results" of meditations, intentional and systematic incremental exploration of the variables/conditions of meditation sessions, comparisons of different meditations, progressive expansion of the meditative "experiments" into deeper and more complex hierarchies and so forth. As someone who has spent quite a bit of time doing both experimental science and various meditative practices, I was astonished, embarrassed almost, that the possibility of using such straight forward experimental techniques to study meditation had never before even crossed my mind!

Furthermore, despite my various quibbles, above and below, I very much hope that these ideas/suggestions will be tried out by a significant number of people. In my opinion, it is impossible to say at this stage whether they will eventually lead to some unification of the scientific with the mystic, as Piet supposes, or somewhere else or nowhere at all. However, I am pretty sure that they represent a path which has been very little explored so far and which certainly looks promising enough to merit some serious "expeditions"...little to lose and much to gain potentially.

The Limits of Language and Thought, A Fatal Obstacle?

Going back to at least Nagarjuna (see Articles/Epistemology/the_limits_of_thought.htm for example), the 2nd-3rd century Indian philosopher/monk, Mahayanic Buddhism has been deeply influenced by the claim that the expression of meditative/mystic insights in words of any sort (or, more radically, in any sort of specific/explicit thoughts) inherently and unavoidably distorts and obscures them. My perhaps overly simplified and naive understanding of Nagarjuna's main point is that the best you can do at expressing the ultimate mystic truth (sometimes termed prajna-paramita in Sanskrit) is to say what it is not; thus, though you may personally access it via meditation and spiritual "growth", any attempt to express it, even via internal conceptualization, instantly destroys it. In this view, the objective of mystical/meditative "ways of knowing" simply does not fit into the limited "box" imposed by the very nature of language...or even explicit thought.

The Heart Sutra, my personal favorite, consists basically of praise for the glories of prajna paramita plus a systematic set of negative statements saying much about what it is not but nothing at all about what it actually is. And of course Zen, arguably the purest/deepest form of Buddhism, famously defines itself as "A special transmission outside the scriptures, not depending upon words, but directly pointing at...".

Moreover, this difficulty in catching mystical insights in words is more than an interesting, if slightly vague and incoherent sounding, claim of Buddhist philosophy. Much more importantly to my mind, it is an extremely common, almost universal it seems, reaction of individuals to strong or deep "mystic experiences" in nearly all of the many relevant traditions, at least to the best of my knowledge. Certainly it is so prevalent that it is very nearly a useful definition of "mystic" that the individual in question asserts that he/she has achieved some profound and transformative insight, often via meditation or contemplation of some sort, but cannot describe the content of his/her insight in any clear and explicit way. To me, this suggests that Nagarjuna may well have been onto something quite fundamental and central to the nature of the "truth" (if it may be so characterized) accessible via meditation.

If this is the case, if the ultimate objective/result of the contemplative "way(s) of knowing" really lies beyond the reach of words or even of what might be called left-brain conceptualization of any sort, then it seems to me that nothing remotely resembling scientific methodology will ever be able to make more than superficial contact with it, even if we are willing to expand/evolve science to include subjective experience as valid data or in other fundamental ways, as proposed in LaaL. This serious and potentially insurmountable barrier is the primary basis for my skepticism about the possibility of achieving LaaL's basic agenda, even in principle (see above).

But, again, we will never know if we don't try.

Need for a New and Better "Language"?

On a more positive and optimistic note, the considerations in the immediately previous section might be taken to suggest a possible way forward. It is a common situation in science that some problem or topic suddenly becomes much more tractable and understandable when it is cast in some new "language", often invented intentionally for the purpose. In the physical sciences such new "languages" are often mathematical; for example, the use of calculus or group theory make it possible to rigorously and completely solve problems which are otherwise completely impenetrable and otherwise not even able to be clearly formulated. However, sometimes it is not mathematics but rather some new concept or definition that allows a problem to be stated in a way that makes it solvable/understandable.

Much is said in LaaL about the bias introduced into our understanding of the world due to deep subject-object conceptualization built into the structure of the languages in which we think and speak. Many of the meditative experiments suggested in LaaL are aimed at helping the reader overcome and see "around" this bias.

Both of the above points lead me to wonder if some new "language", perhaps one somehow free of subjects...or even of both subjects and objects, is needed to enable some sort of unification of the scientific and mystical ways of understanding the world. At an abstract level, I find this speculation quite attractive, but in a practical sense, I have no idea where to go with it next.

The Assumption of Underlying Unity

"In whatever way men love me,
In that same way shall they find my love.
For many are the paths of men,
But in the end, all lead to me."
                            - Bhagavad Gita 4:11

LaaL, all of my comments so far and my personal opinion are in agreement with the assertion of Hindu philosophy expressed in the above passage from the Gita. It seems entirely natural to assume that there is one reality, one truth, one prajna-paramita "out there" (or should it be "in here") and that it can be accessed, even if only partially/incompletely, by a variety of techniques. In a basic way, it is this assumption that gives us cause to even imagine the possibility of connecting/unifying science and meditative/wisdom traditions, or for that matter, even for believing that the various versions of mysticism and contemplative religion are compatible among themselves.

All this strikes me, as it does most, as very plausible and attractive, as almost self-evident. However, reading LaaL caused me to remind myself that this view is an assumption which could be false, at least in principle (I think). I do not know how to express the notion clearly, but it seems to me conceivable (though not attractive) that the reality one knows depends on how one comes to know it. An example might be the Platonic reality accessible via mathematical thought and the physical reality accessible via our senses and the scientific investigation of the information they "report". These two "worlds" may both be "real" but, in a deep sense, entirely disconnected. Perhaps there are one or more other such disconnected realities, one or some of which are accessed via other ways of knowing, meditative or otherwise.

LaaL's Audience

Let me now return to shallower and clearer waters: As I read LaaL, I found myself frequently wondering, worrying even, about its audience. Piet Hut is quite unusual in having a foot firmly planted in the modern natural/physical sciences, Western philosophy, Eastern religion and philosophy, practical meditative techniques from a variety of traditions plus, for all I know, other relevant disciplines (e.g., cognitive and/or neuro- psychology?). In LaaL he seems to be carefully avoiding assailing the reader with any daunting or intimidating array of jargon or allusions drawn from this diverse expertise; indeed LaaL is a model of presenting complex and multifaceted material in a simple and clear way. I think that LaaL would be quite understandable and accessible to most readers, whatever their personal backgrounds and degree of familiarity with the various fields in which Piet has his many feet rooted.

Nevertheless, I found myself frequently wondering how many readers would be favorably disposed to give the exploratory and experimental meditative investigation proposed in LaaL a try themselves. My worry, if you could call it that, is based on the observations that most people who are drawn to mystic traditions are not particularly inclined towards the sort of systematic experimental study (with detailed record keeping, control of "variables" etc.) suggested by LaaL on the one hand and, on the other hand, that people who are inclined to such scientific modes of study are most often ones who have little inclination to be seriously interested in meditative/contemplative activities. In other words, I am concerned that the path forward suggested by LaaL falls squarely between left and right brain types in a place where Piet may feel comfortable but in which few others do.

I suppose that there is nothing to be done about such a problem, if indeed it is a real one, but again it is an interesting issue (to me, anyway) raised by LaaL.

A Confession

When I read the initial chapters of LaaL, my intellectual reaction was that its suggestions for "experimental meditation" were so novel and intriguing that I resolved to give them a serious try myself. My confession is that, so far, I have not done so.

I am quite tempted to offer various excuses, such as that I have been very busy lately (perfectly true) or that I want to first reread LaaL and absorb it more deeply or that I can't think of anything useful/coherent that I could record in a notebook (not quite true) or that I am working on my own ideas for approaches to experimental meditation (not true at all) or ... But none of these are the real reason.

In fact, I am not at all sure what the actual reason is. The best I can do at the moment is to say that it simply doesn't "feel right" to me, when it comes to actually doing it, despite seeming so interesting in the abstract. Perhaps this is simply my own version of the left vs. right brain dichotomy; the mindset in which I meditate and the one in which I do science seem to me rather disjoint and incompatible. What feels natural and graceful in one seems incongruous, or even silly, in the other.

It may well be that this "hang up" is entirely my own, a personal quirk; if so, it has little place in these comments and should be disregarded. However, I am including it in case others might find themselves having similar reactions if they choose to give LaaL's suggestions a try. I really have no idea how likely that is to be the case but would be interested to find out.

Concluding Remarks

I delayed writing-up these comments on LaaL in the hope that my thoughts would settle down into some sort of organized and coherent structure that permitted a more transparent and readable presentation. As any reader who is still with me after this long ramble must clearly perceive, it never happened! For the same reason, I am not in a position to supply the conventional concise concluding summary that might have conveyed my main point(s) to those without the time or patience to wade through the body of the text above. For this I apologize but retain the hope that some of the above may provoke further thought and perhaps even discussion for some of you. I would be happy to hear any reactions or comments.

Response to Ed's response, by Piet Hut

Dear Ed,

Thank you so much for your very thoughtful and generous reactions! I am pleased to see that my writing was sufficiently interesting for you to trigger such detailed reflections. Much of what you wrote speaks for itself, and does not require any response, beyond me expressing my sincere gratitude. However, there are a few points you have raised that I would like to briefly expand upon.

A Semantic Issue

You prefered to use a term like "systematic rational inquiry" or "systematic empirical exploration", instead of "science" for what I have described. I think I understand your motivation, to draw a clear line between what is currently accepted as science and what I am describing as a possible future extension. However, for me it is essential to use the same word "science" for the past, present, and future practice of science, since I want to stress the continuity of that practice.

If history is any guide, then in the future, too, science will continue to produce explanatory discontinuities. Yet, we still call quantum mechanics a form of physics, and Darwinian evolution a form of biology; we don't change the names of these disciplines, no matter how radically different our insights may differ from that of our predecessors. And there is a good reason for this, namely to stress that science grows through its own necessity, unlike fashions that come and go and as such may deserve new names.

Possible Downsides to "Expanding" Science

You start this section off with: "Laal suggests that the methods and standards of science can/should/will evolve and expand ..."; here I would like to drop the "can" and "should", since I think science will evolve and expand far beyond its current methods. I mentioned robotics and neuroscience and quantum mechanics as three areas where I see the current object-oriented methodoloy of science as already breaking down, and requiring a wider foundation in order to make real progress. In my opinion, it is not a question of if but when this will lead to a radical extension of our ideas about the structure of science.

I see my role not so much in advocating new directions in science, but rather in being a catalyst. The new directions will come, under their own steam. Perhaps I may speed up the process of acceptance a bit, if I can lower the resistance against these new ideas in advance, by stressing the continuity of the scientific style and process amidst the profound discontinuities in content.

The world has suffered a great deal from the naive clockwork interpretation of classical mechanics, leading to a type of "scientific materialism" that is now seen as hopelessly outdated, after the advent of quantum mechanics. Currently, the world is still suffering a great deal from overly object-oriented "scientific" judgments, that will in turn be seen as outdated in the future. Scientists tend to be overenthusiastic, presenting the current state of science as the Truth, with sometimes very negative consequences when they and others overlook how science is alive and evolving all the time. My main goal is to present a counter balance to this profoundly negative tendency.

The Limits of Language and Thought, A Fatal Obstacle?

I think already in current science, we have far transcended ordinary language, in relying on mathematical formalisms. Nowhere is this more clear than in quantum mechanics, where most physicists admit at being utterly puzzled about what it all means -- even though their calculations are unambiguous. It is deeply meaningful that both science and contemplation have reached such a state of affairs, and this lack of clear use of language for me is a sign of the maturity of both subjects as forms of human knowledge. So instead of seeing a difference here, I see a deep similarity between the two.

LaaL's Audience

Yes, in the Western world, most people drawn to mystic traditions are not very interested in science, by and large. In fact, when you visit a meditation center, you will find that the majority of the practitioners there are looking for some kind of therapy, rather than an exploration of reality. But this was not true in the past. It just reflects our society, in which the more rationally inquisitive individuals are stimulated to go into science, rather than contemplation. This, too, will change again in the future. The last few hundreds years have been an anomaly in this regard, an understandable collective obsession triggered by the novelty of science. There are many signs that we are now growing out of this one-sided view of reality as being purely object based. I see plenty of room for rational mystics to appear among the best and brightest in the next generation.

Thank you again, Ed, for your very stimulating reactions!


back to Life As A Lab