Ata certain point in your practice of meditation everything becomes familiar and repetitive in human affairs. Normally focused, as we are, on the details of the moment, we become lost in the inherent repetitiveness of human thought and behavior. But meditation specifically develops the attentional focus and concentration that brings these similarities out into the open.
Originally “science” meant knowledge, and specifically the possession of knowledge; but that word was co-opted as short-hand for “the scientific method” and its practice. Co-opting word meanings is the first step in undermining the hegemony of an idea so that some other idea can eclipse it in common parlance. In the case of “science” it was necessary to co-opt the hegemony of the Church’s authority over knowledge. But you can still uncover the original meaning of “science” by looking at its negation: “nescience,” which means the absence of knowledge, or just plain ignorance (having no knowledge). No one bothered to co-opt that one.
Did you know that “auto” once meant that something had a soul? Now it has the exact opposite meaning: automatic. Thus language is fluid and ever-changing — that’s our challenge to overcome in order to understand each other. But it is also the power of the tool we have at hand in order to try to communicate with others. It should be noted though, that rather than being a phenomenon of little practical value, these changes in meaning leave footprints that can often be illuminating. Owen Barfield once commented:
It has only just begun to dawn on us that in our language alone, not to speak of its many companions, the past history of humanity is spread out in an imperishable map, just as the history of the mineral earth lies embedded in the layers of its outer crust. But there is this difference between the record of the rocks and the secrets which are hidden in language: whereas the former can only give us a knowledge of outward, dead things — such as forgotten seas and the bodily shapes of prehistoric animals and primitive men — language has preserved for us the inner, living history of man’s soul. It reveals the evolution of consciousness.¹
The word of the day is “meditation,” and I’m going to show how it is the original, and still extremely effective, source of science — you know, knowledge.
But first I’m going to make a short segue to show you that there are two kinds of scientific practice: the constructive scientific method and the contemplative method. Most scientific work today utilizes the scientific method that is constructive in nature, building up theoretical constructions from underlying constituent facts. The other kind of scientific work is contemplative and analytical and produces general principles. The former results in oftentimes tenuous attempts to explain phenomena, and are by their nature, and according to the rules of the scientific method, refutable and changing. The latter method establishes foundational principles that withstand the ruining of time. Take for example, Einstein and his theory of relativity, which is useful in order to see the differences in these methods:
Paul Mainwood, a Philosopher of Physics² at the University of Oxford, explains that most people misunderstand and get the logic of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity entirely backwards. He points out that:
…this is unfortunate because this reversal is where Einstein’s originality really lies; the place where he decisively broke with Lorentz, Poincare, Fitzgerald, Heaviside and others who had pieces of the theory in their hands before him.
Getting the logic the wrong way around also leads people to worry why there is no mention in relativity of exactly how clocks slow, or why meter sticks shrink, and also to wonder why physicists always seem so sure about the particular theory of Special Relativity, when so many others have been superseded in the meantime.³
Einstein specifically spoke about these two different methods — and why his process was different than the constructive scientific method — in a piece he wrote for The London Times:
We can distinguish various kinds of theories in physics. Most of them are constructive. They attempt to build up a picture of the more complex phenomena out of the materials of a relatively simple formal scheme from which they start out. Thus the kinetic theory of gases seeks to reduce mechanical, thermal, and diffusional processes to movements of molecules — i.e., to build them up out of the hypothesis of molecular motion. When we say that we have succeeded in understanding a group of natural processes, we invariably mean that a constructive theory has been found which covers the processes in question.
Along with this most important class of theories there exists a second, which I will call “principle-theories.” These employ the analytic, not the synthetic, method. The elements which form their basis and starting-point are not hypothetically constructed, but empirically discovered ones, general characteristics of natural processes, principles that give rise to mathematically formulated criteria which the separate processes or the theoretical representations of them have to satisfy.
Thus the science of thermodynamics seeks by analytical means to deduce necessary conditions, which separate events have to satisfy, from the universally experienced fact that perpetual motion is impossible. The advantages of the constructive theory are completeness, adaptability, and clearness, those of the principle theory are logical perfection and security of the foundations.
The theory of relativity belongs to the latter class.⁴
The differences and value of Einstein’s use of a principles-based method was summarized succinctly by Siddharth Chatterjee:
A constructive theory holds temporarily and will eventually be replaced with a more comprehensive approach. In contrast, in a theory of principle, the axiomatic foundation consists solely of principles of nature that are derived from human experience. Unless these principles are found to be false in the future, the security of such a theory is guaranteed. An example of a constructive theory is the kinetic theory of gases while classical thermodynamics and the theory of relativity belong to the class of principle theories.⁵
Einstein also explained exactly why he adopted this method over the constructive method:
By and by I despaired of the possibility of discovering the true laws by means of constructive efforts based on known facts. The longer and the more despairingly I tried, the more I came to the conviction that only the discovery of a universal formal principle could lead us to assured results. The example I saw before me was thermodynamics.⁶
Was this well-received by other scientists? Mainwood recounts:
The folk history is that the “constructors” were at first horrified by Einstein’s move; Poincare is said to have remarked sarcastically that Einstein was gaining praise for simply assuming what he and others were seeking to prove. Whether this was the initial reaction or not, within a few years they had understood and appreciated the power of Einstein’s approach, and Lorentz was explicitly handing credit to Einstein for driving this conceptual shift and for being able to derive so many far-reaching consequences.⁷
So what does this have to do with meditation? Well, if you look at how that word is used today, especially in secular contexts, you may be confused by my assertion that it refers to a source of knowledge, rather than stress-reduction, increasing concentration, or combating “bipolar disorder, eating disorders, diabetes, substance abuse, chronic pain, high blood pressure, cancer, autism and schizophrenia.”⁸ But I am focusing here on its traditional purpose, rather than the useful application of recently discovered secondary effects of meditating: the goal of meditation is the production of knowledge, i.e., science, related to mind, consciousness, and experience.
Meditation, like the constructive scientific method, is a technique the was originated as a systematization of an inherent human ability. In the case of meditation, it is our ability to contemplatively discover similarities and differences in and between empirically observed natural processes, giving us knowledge of general characteristics of these natural processes that then aid us in making our way through our lives. And in case I am being too non-obvious here, I am paraphrasing what Einstein said about the method he adopted to create the Theory of Relativity.
Following the historical meaning of the word “science,” we tend to comprehend the scientific method as monolithic, since “science” once meant knowledge of all types — so knowledge of any particular “field” was still science; however, the scientific method is really many methods, all generally similar, but each targeted to a specific field and type of phenomena and using equipment and tools purpose-built, and all subsumed under the title “the scientific method.” Similarly, over thousands of years many different types of meditation were created to focus on specific kinds of phenomena, called “supports” for the meditative process, each with specific goals of uncovering particular types of knowledge. Yet, they can be seen to be all based upon the inherent processes involved in how we experience and think about our lives.
Thus, the kind of science that meditation brings can be considered primordial to all scientific knowledge because meditation brings us knowledge that is foundational to the practice of the scientific method. That this isn’t considered so, is reflective of a particular blindness endemic in scientific practice today — for the most part. Scientific practice starts with an assumed set of principles — just like Einstein’s specific theory — and just like all theories they can be modified, or replaced when new knowledge arises that calls into question its underlying assumptions. That is always a possibility in the case of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. And it is equally a possibility for the base set of principle assumptions present in modern scientific practice.
The blindness that I speak of is specifically related to the counter-indications generated over long centuries in meditative science that call into question some of the specific principles that have been adopted today in current scientific practices, specifically relating to underlying assumptions about the structure of reality that meditative science have shown to be questionable.
These insights have been ignored because of the confusion that exists between observations, and interpretations of those observations, as well as any explanatory systems that may have been built upon and around them. To wit: scientific practitioners today ignore meditative science because it is tainted — for them — by religious doctrines. But these doctrines are only the explanatory system built-up around the interpretations of the observations of meditative science. Today, religious doctrines are anathema (and a basis for derision by the weaker-minded practitioners) in modern scientific practice.
Even the interpretations of these meditational observations are derided as not being coherent with present ideas about the structure of reality — but these present ideas are themselves just other interpretations. We human scientists always must make sense of what we observe. And unless you fall easily into dogmatic beliefs and assertions, how you come to understand what you are observing is a very creative affair.
The purpose of this exercise in history and clarity is neither to recriminate, nor complain, but simply to note the truth: meditation is the original source of science, aka, knowledge, and it has neither been superseded by modern scientific practice, as many believe, nor has it been bettered in its domain — that of what mind and consciousness are and how experience arises.
Modern scientific practice is primarily focused on constructive theories, while meditation is focused on developing the kind of insights that develop into first principals.
Excising traditional meditation from its accompanying religious doctrines is, while certainly laborious, fairly straightforward using contemplative practice, as Einstein used contemplation in his uncovering of the general principles that are the foundations for his theory of relativity. In the same way, similarities between practices across spiritual traditions can be noted, and the fundamental phenomena that effectuate the relevant changes in the practitioner gleaned through the use of the same method that Einstein used in the development of his theory.
However, recreating an explanatory framework around the excised traditional meditative practices and principles is complex, to the say the least. But even more so today because it is near impossible in the face of dismissive and uninformed practitioners of science — in relation to “spiritual” practices specifically. Any deviation from the generally accepted theory of what’s true is simply unacceptable today — for discussion, or any other use. The line is hard and fast and science is quite brittle here.
But that attitude is not just in relation to meditative practices alone. In general, there is resistance to change within science as practiced today, as opposed to the theoretical purity of the pursuit of knowledge. In theory, the practice of science using the constructive scientific method is open to new ideas and evidence, immune to subjective feelings and jealousies, and above all, has a single-minded focus on learning the truth. But in practice today, it is prone to manipulation (“Science For Sale”), and is resistant to new ideas — especially those coming from outside the mainstream.
This is the reason why Max Plank said “science advances one funeral at a time.” The practice of science is corrupted by dismissive attitudes towards minority opinions, resistant to new evidence that undermines accepted theories, and is almost immovable when pet theories of powerful individuals are questioned. The decades-long battle — that is still going on — over the cause of the demise of the dinosaurs, where a minority of researchers — with evidence in hand — are calling into question the generally-accepted theory that an asteroid strike led to their demise, has been witness to, among other things, the suggestion that at least one of the minority opinion holders — a woman, of course — should be “burnt at the stake.”⁹ It has a very medieval feel to it.
All of these considerations come together to create an atmosphere that is poisoned to the very idea of entertaining anything having a spiritual taint — unless there is money in it, which exercises its corrupting effect here as well.
In the meantime, meditative practices are being taught in a manner devoid of any explanatory framework in which the student can be prepared to experience advanced meditative insights. This is dangerous for the student, as I will discuss in the next dialog in this series. In a way, secular meditation today is an experiment, hardly controlled and only loosely structured, in which the protections of the Declaration of Helsinki regarding informed consent are absent. This has to change.