version of: July 4, 2004
Chapter 6: Beyond Hope and Fear
Appreciating the presence of appearance is the minimum of what we can do. And at the same time it is the maximum. Phenomena appear, but even calling them phenomena is already adding something. Simply tending to the presence of their appearance is a minimal way of dealing with them, and in doing so a natural appreciation arises. Adding anything more would only subtract from this appreciation.
A New Shift
When we look around us, we interpret everything we see as objects, and we posit a world as the stage on which all these objects appear, a world that has existed long before we were born, that stretches far beyond where we can ever hope to go, and will continue to exist long after we have died. We identify ourselves with our bodies, just more objects among other objects in this world.
In the previous two chapters we have started to shake this picture a bit. First we challenged our objectified understanding of the subject, by playfully experimenting with the various relations we can engage in when dealing with a single object. Then we challenged the character of the whole world, by exploring ways in which we can shift from the givenness of the world as a collection of objects to the givenness of the world, as a content of consciousness.
It may seem that we have reached an end point in our exploration. How much more skeptical can you get about the true existence of things, when you learn to view them on a par with dreams or with a virtual reality simulation? It turns out that you can go a lot further. A whole lot. So much so, that the shift from world-as-real to world-as-dream will seem to be only a small step compared to the new shift to appearance.
Yes, there is the appearance of objects, and yes, it appears that I am the subject that deals with these objects, seeing them, feeling them, manipulating them. Whether they are real or not, this subject-object structure carries over from waking life into a dream, and it carries over into a virtual reality experiment as well. In the dream I sense myself moving in a world of objects with which I interact. And when I put on goggles and gloves to immerse myself in a virtual reality, I am still me in yet a different world of different objects.
The me-ness of me as a subject seems to be an invariant under all these transformations. And experience itself seems to have an invariant structure: there is an action that connects subject and object. Or more accurately: subject and object arise as the two poles of every act. In the act of seeing, there is a seer seeing the seen. In the act of lifting something, there is the lifter lifting the lifted. Seeing and lifting are actions through which the subject connects up with objects.
The new shift will leave even those invariants behind. It will shift to a kind of knowledge operating differently, not through the familiar subject-action-object structures. What this means is hard to describe in ordinary language, given that ordinary language is so much based on subject-object structures. What is more, the notion of describing something itself implies a describer and a described.
How to describe something that goes beyond the subject-object split? This would involve projecting that which goes beyond into an object pole of a description. It would be like trying to catch a small fish with a net that has gaps that are far larger than the size of the fish. Or it would be like painting with a blue pen on a blue surface, or like trying to write on water or in air. There is no contrast, no traction, no trace.
Yet there is nothing mysterious about this new shift. Like every other new exploration, it may seem strange at first, in the sense of being novel, different from what we're used to. Doing a subject-object reversal may feel odd, when you do it for the first time, but after a while it grows on you, and you learn to enjoy it. Viewing the world as given in consciousness can feel very strange at first, once you finally manage to do rather than think about doing it. And going beyond a subject-object shift is even more unusual, at first.
But in each of these cases, once you are familiar with newer shifts, the older ways of viewing are seen as curiously limited, imposing arbitrary borders on ways of knowing. The trick is to recognize these borders for what they are, and not to get fooled by them. Asking the right questions already goes a long way. Asking ourselves why we normally look at stone, instead of letting the stone look at us; asking ourselves why we normally consider this world to be real, rather than dreamlike.
For this newest shift to take place, we have to ask in a more radical way. Rather than questioning the status of objects, one by one, or a whole world at a time, we now have to question the status of the subject, the status of the I, the me, the self that is always at the center of things, or so it seems.
What am I?
We can ask `who am I?' or more generally, without regard for the notion of being a fixed person in an already existing world, `what am I?' and the answer took on different shades, throughout the experimentation we have engaged in, in previous chapters. But most raw and most basic, each answer boiled down to `a subject, namely this and that'. Now we have reached a point where we will question the subject status of what it is we identify with.
In part 3 we will describe various ways to pose this question, and to work with it. But before getting into more detailed exploration, let us pause for a moment to see whether we already have some familiarity with the terrain, to make it easier to see where we are going.
When we are totally engaged in an activity, our sense of a separate self is diminished. Absorbed in writing a letter, where the words just seem to flow out of our pen; playing music with a group of friends and fully lost in the activity; gazing out upon a sunset and falling into the landscape; we all have memories of activities that took over, that had their own flow, in which we effectively forgot ourselves and our own separate existence.
Curiously, such a deemphasis of a sense of self goes together with a heightened sense of awareness of the situation as a whole. Our most creative moments are those in which we lose ourselves. And this loosening or dissolving of the self has nothing irrational about it: the greatest rational insights of mathematicians and scientists stem equally from these non-self-centered moments of flow.
Generally, such moments come and go, often in unpredictable ways. While they can be cultivated or triggered by conducive circumstances, creating these circumstances in itself is no guarantee to escaping the subject-object strictures. In fact, the more we try to repeat such experiences, the more we seem bound by the subject-object polarity. There is an inherent freshness in the dissolution of the subject-object split that refuses to be the content of repeatability.
Even so, it is possible to learn to cultivate such insights. Many cultures have hit upon ways of doing so, in more or less reliable ways. Because of the paradoxical nature of the shift beyond the subject, when described in ordinary language, such cultivation techniques typically remained as secrets, contents of esoteric forms of knowledge, only handed down to those individuals that were deemed to have both enough talent and enough preliminary training.
Because of this esoteric nature, many of these traditions have probably perished during periods of cultural upheavals. But enough of them are still accessible, at least through writings that have been handed down, and in some cases through the presence of living descendants from those traditions. Prime examples are Chan Buddhism in China, notably around the Tang era (later exported to Japan where it became known as Zen), and Dzogchen, an approach practiced by Buddhists as well as non-Buddhists (Bon) Tibetans.
In addition, there are many places scattered throughout the vast Hindu and Taoist literature, and similar sentiments can be found in Sufi and Medieval Christian writings as well. So there is no dearth of pointers. The challenge is to make sense of them. How to make sense of something that by its very nature goes beyond descriptions?
If I were to make a guess of where I see science moving to, in the long term, my best bet would be the following sketch. After four hundred years of studying objects, science will spend another four hundred years learning to study the relationship between objects and subjects, both in their own rights, rather than projecting subjects into funny forms of autonomous objects. Following that, there will be a far longer period, perhaps spanning thousands of years, in which science will gradually find ways to go beyond the subject-object split, and to map the territory there.
Mapping will take on different forms, in each era. In order to describe the dynamics of the subject, most likely new forms of mathematics will be developed, just as calculus was developed in order to describe the dynamics of objects. Moving from descriptions in terms of pure causality, to descriptions that are faithful to the central role of intentionality in living organisms, almost certainly will need new vehicles of expression.
But what about mapping the territory of what goes beyond descriptions? Mapping the unmappable does not sound like a plausible future activity of science. But before we reject such an idea as preposterous, we should carefully look at the recent past of scientific discoveries. In quantum mechanics, for example, any attempt to ascribe a precise state to a single quantum is doomed to failure; phrased in technical terms, it has been shown that there are no `hidden variables'. Yet we can deal perfectly well with quanta.
The solution of this paradox lies in what we mean with `dealing with'. Can we describe a quantum, by catching it in a complete and consistent description? No. Can we do detailed calculations, leading to very precise predictions in quantum mechanics? Yes. So let us not prejudice what may be found a hundred years from now, or a thousand, or ten thousand years from now.
Autonomy of Science
In my sketch of various new kinds of science, I am not suggesting that science should try to incorporate elements from pre-scientific traditions. On the contrary. The only way for science to grow in a natural way is by following its own lights, and seeing where that will lead to, as they have done in the past.
Fortunately, physicists did not try to bend their theories to please William Blake, making them more poetic. Instead, the found a new kind of poetry at the heart of nature, in the form of quantum mechanics, more than a century later. Nowadays, too, scientists should not try to make their theories more poetic, more religious or spiritual or mystical. The whole point for scientists is to follow their ongoing explorations, wherever it will lead them to.
This does not mean that scientists cannot benefit from the results of pre-scientific traditions. Astronomy, as a science, has its roots in the observations of the Babylonians, who had no scientific interests to speak of, but were excellent observers. Alchemy did not have the scientific structure that chemistry would later achieve, but alchemists made many discoveries that proved to be useful in rapidly building up chemistry. It would have been silly for chemists not to use the data from earlier traditions, even if they were not deemed to be scientific.
Science will be in a similar position, by the time it will venture out into a full-fledged study of, first, the role of the subject, and later, what it may mean to deal with the world on a level beyond the subject-object split. Vast bodies of knowledge have been gathered, especially in various Buddhist traditions, with their monastic culture and their universities that once held tens of thousands of students.
If I am even roughly correct, in my view of where science is headed for, is there anything we can we do here and now, in the twenty-first century? Or should we resign ourselves to letting our descendants find out these things, many generations from now? If we learn from the past that Blake could not hurry the Newtonians of his day, doesn't this mean that we should leave science to follow its own course, however long it may take?
Not quite. It does mean that we should not try to force science to grow one way or another, since that would only stunt its growth and postpone the time of fuller integration. But there is something else we can do, right now. We can play the role of amateur scientists. Especially at the beginning of a new phase in science, when new terrain is disclosed, it is often possible to perform simple experiments and still come to profound conclusions.
There are many examples of important contributions made by amateur scientists in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, when the science of objects was young. The current book is an invitation to the reader to become an amateur scientist for new kinds of science that, first, include the subject, and then rise beyond the subject.
To what extent the results of our investigations will be incorporated into main stream science, sooner or later, is impossible to predict. And it should not be our concern either. History will judge, to start with a few hundred years from now, and more definitively on a much longer time scale. We can't wait and we shouldn't worry. Let's get going!
Forward to next page
Back to previous page
Return to title page