version of:   September 10, 2004

Chapter 20: Science and Contemplation

Science is alive. In the middle of a world full of opinions and spin and political strife, science is continuing its exploration with an effective sense of truth, as a gauge. In this quest for truth, science is rivaled only by a similar quest for truth that has been undertaken by contemplatives. The main difference is that science is much more slow and methodological, as a multi-generational approach to finding truth, whereas contemplation aims at the deepest possible insight within one's lifetime. Other differences follow as a consequence of this distinction.

A Long and a Short Path

Science is not in a hurry. Even though Galileo and Newton and others of their time had breathtaking visions of a deeply rational world that could be understood and explored by humans on all levels, still they were content to study only a very small niche of phenomena, for which they had the mathematical and methodological tools.

They preferred to leave further exploration for future generations, rather than making short cuts and guessing or forcing answers. Both their vision and their humility have turned out to be right, and have paid off in remarkable ways. Science as an enterprise has been far more successful than one might have expected, seeing Galileo rolling balls down inclined planes, or Descartes and Huygens drawing up simple rules of how billiard balls bounce off each other.

In stark contrast, contemplatives have always urged their followers to shake off their limitations, to leave the ordinary world with its distractions behind, and to focus on the highest possible vision of reality, right here and now, within one's life time, as much as possible.

The easiest explanation is that contemplation aims at a form of salvation or liberation, a type of waking up, which seems to involve an individual who wakes up and is thereby liberated or saved in some way, a notion that is absent from science. When framed in this way, science and contemplation seem to be two very different paths indeed.

Different Motivations

Yet the deepest insights on the contemplative path tell us that there is no one to be liberated, that there is nothing to be saved, that everything is already perfect as it is. The world is drenched in cognition, or more accurately, the very fabric of the world is cognition, in such a way that everything is open and available. It is only our clumsy approach based on conceptual thinking that tends to obscure what is clarity itself.

Following the contemplative path is like jumping into a deep hole, while the scientific path is like slowly descending along the periphery, while charting everything in detail. In both cases, our understanding of what this hole is and means will change dramatically, and both journeys are exercises in dropping pictures and concepts.

The fact that science has started with a focus on objects and on mathematical methods is a reflection of the fact that it is easier to start a detailed investigation of simpler aspects of reality. If you're not in a hurry, a thorough investigation can start by building firm foundations first.

The fact that contemplative approaches focus on dropping everything non-essential and immediately focusing on the deepest truth is a reflection of the concern for a quick resolution of life's conundrums. If you're in a burning house, you don't stop to investigate the furniture.

What is Science

This `going beyond' will have to be as radical as possible: it will have to go beyond any ingredient that is currently central in science. We have seen already how science has shed various skins, like a growing insect: repeatability of experiments for example, once thought to be an essential ingredient of science, has been shed when quantum mechanics was discovered.

What will be shed in the future, perhaps in the very far future? Will science still be based on an interplay between theory and experiment? Will mathematics still be seen as the basic tool to express scientific insight with? Will a concise description still be prime goal of science?

The central question here is: ``what is science?'' The best answer may be: ``what scientists do.'' Any attempt to catch science into a net of definitions is a mopping-up operation, and typically only captures yesterday's science, since during the logical and philosophical mopping-up phase, science is steadily marching on, changing as it grows.

Science is opportunistic. If experiments seem only understandable by using a theory that introduces intrinsic uncertainty in nature, so be it. No point to stick to yesterday's definition of science in terms of deterministic or whatever properties. And if even weirder aspects of nature will be discovered, why, they will surely be incorporated into our scientific understanding.

It Will Still Be Called Fortran

There is an analogy with computer languages. Physicists have a traditional aversion to learning any other language than Fortran, with which they grow up, no matter how useful the other languages may be. But without ever parting from their beloved Fortran, it was Fortran that changed out from under them, incorporating many of the features that the other languages had pioneered.

So, when asked how future physicists will program, a good answer is: we have not the foggiest idea, but whatever it is, it will still be called Fortran. The essential ingredient here is the fact that there was a continuous evolution from when the earliest Fortran was invented in the late fifties, through all the later Fortran versions up to the most recent one.

This does not mean that there always was a smooth transition in the way Fortran could be used. Sometimes new elements were incorporated that were totally different from what the old-timers were used to. But there were always sufficiently many old features left in place that one could choose to limit oneself to the old way of programming for quite a while, although some features might finally become obsolete, after a few decades.

The Growth of Science

So to say that science is what scientists do, does not give more information about their activity than saying that Fortran is what scientists program with. Science is an active, living body of knowledge, that is growing on its own terms. A future science will barely resemble current science. But it will still be called science.

Sure, at any given time the growth of science can be stunted or accelerated in particular directions. Funding plays a major role, and the status of scientists in society influences who chooses to become scientists. Some type of experiments may be forbidden for various reasons, sometimes very good reasons.

However, in the long run, these restrictions are unlikely to totally alter what it is that science will discover, in terms of basic insights. The laws of gravity and electromagnetism, the existence of atoms and the role of DNA, those types of insights would have been discovered even if science would have traversed a very different historical path.

Therefore, another answer to the question of ``what is science'' would be: science is an ongoing enterprise to increase our understanding of the world, starting with the simplest foothold we have, classical mechanics, and growing in every direction imaginable, regulated by a peer review process that awards brownie points both for originality and criticism.

The Role of Experiments

While this second formulation is more informative than the first one, it may still seem to be too wide. Other groups of people may encourage each other to find innovations while at the same time keeping critical rules enforced. Chess players, for example, may come up with new openings, while making sure that the rules of the game are not violated.

Science, however, is different. It has no rules that are by definition sacrosanct, in any absolute and ultimate way. The rules change over time. And yet working research scientists know full well what will and will not be recognized as proper science by their peers.

So there must be an extra ingredient, and there must be a third definition, as an extension of the second one, to indicate that science searches for an understanding of reality. Simply put: scientific understanding is bound to agree with the outcome of experiments.

But having said that, a whole host of questions arise: what counts as a valid experiment, how do we interpret the outcome of an experiment. The short answer is: for all practical purposes, scientists agree among themselves how to deal with experiments, even though they may not agree when asked to draw specific theoretical pictures of what is going on, as is abundantly clear in the case of the various interpretations of quantum mechanics.


So science is what scientists do, while they are keeping each other in check through peer review, and while nature keeps them in check through the outcome of experiments. Their enterprise is doubly universal, in that the community of scientists has grown to span all nations, and in that they test their theories against a notion of nature that is also shared.

In contrast, contemplative traditions have not yet reached a similar level of universality. Their practitioners have historically been divided according to dominant cultures and civilizations, and hence the language in which they describe their experiential approach cannot be so easily translated from one tradition to another.

Yet the deepest and most authentic forms of contemplative exploration have always left their starting culture behind, with often dire consequences for their practitioners because of a lack of understanding and appreciation from those around them.

It will only be a matter of time for these practitioners to find each other, and to spark a new and more universal tradition. With all its drawbacks and unintended side effects, globalization is bound to result in this type of development, the first steps for which will surely be set in this century.

No Boundaries

Developing a universal brand of contemplation is not a luxury. While contemplative traditions have been alive for a much longer time than science, their very survival is threatened because we are rapidly forgetting even what contemplation is and can be. Tribal and provincial notions of what it may mean to appreciate what `is' are unlikely to survive much longer.

I expect contemplative forms of exploration to become increasingly blended and shared. Distinctions such as monastic training, living in isolation in the wilderness, or pursuing a layperson's path, will become less relevant. Forced by the upheavals of globalization, these traditional boundaries, too, will be broken down and transcended.

While there will always be individuals who will take months or years off in order to practice in isolation, I expect the majority of true contemplatives to focus on what is real, irrespective of historical patterns.

In this sense, too, they will probably follow a pattern of a research scientist, who may spend an intense few months on a particular pursuit, followed by periods that are more dominated by teaching and traveling to meetings and being involved in organizational aspects.

A Matter of Time

How long will it be for science and contemplation to grow together? This is, of course, very hard to predict. Right now, little real contact has been made, even though there are hopeful signs of a few fresh beginnings. So far, however, they are at best still in the stage of polite gatherings, and still far from actively shared research.

You never know, significant progress may happen quickly. In general, the timescale for new developments is now measured in years, where it used to be measured in generations and centuries. I, for one, sure hope to be able to see some concrete developments in my life time.

On the other hand, human nature has not changed much, even though our technology has changed enormously. In the past, it has always taken a few generations to adopt and internalize new ideas. This is true for changes in economy and politics as well as in spiritual ways of looking at the world.

I expect that a new attitude toward real collaboration between science and religion will require a new generation to provide the right atmosphere, in which then another generation can grow up to make use of that atmosphere. It will be very interesting to see these developments unfolding.

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