[back to Spirituality]
Science as a pragmatic model of reality -
The epistemic status of meditation
In the 3rd movement of Italian composer Luciano Berio’s piece Sinfonia (1968-9), the narrator says, somewhat ominously: “…you buy your seat and you wait, perhaps it's free, a free show, you take your seat and you wait for it to begin, or perhaps it's compulsory, a compulsory show...”.
Being a person is indeed compulsory and involuntary. We didn’t choose to be incarnated, it just happened. We discover ourselves thrust into the world for no obvious reason, with a “full catastrophe” set of needs and desires, including some that won’t be fulfilled, for instance not to die. We’re built to take life very seriously, and can understand why from a scientific standpoint: only creatures that took it that seriously made the evolutionary cut. Those with a more casual attitude about living didn’t survive and reproduce at the same rate, so are not among us. So we are stuck with the burden of life’s compulsory seriousness – a serious business indeed, given the human capacity for suffering which all too often finds expression in poverty, deprivation, war, torture, interpersonal abuse and violence, and a host of other personal and social ills. There’s simply no way around the fact that for many people much of the time, life is an extremely difficult proposition. How can we handle this, and perhaps make it better?
In many ways, from political and charitable action
that addresses the causes of suffering in its many forms, to the personal
psychological project of gaining, partially through the practice of meditation,
a modicum of equanimity and compassion, the better with which to act in the
world. It is the latter undertaking, exemplified by the Buddha and conceived
naturalistically, that concerns me here. How might a philosophical naturalist
understand meditative practice? How are we to think of contemplative
experience and its insights, given a science-based view of persons as completely
physical, natural creatures? What’s the epistemic status of meditation? Is
it a way of knowing about the world, and if not, why should we seek out the
psychological states meditation can make available? How might a
naturalistic worldview – a cognitive, intellectual edifice bequeathed us by
philosophy and science – be consistent and find mutual support with a spiritual
path such as Buddhism? Consistent with the aims of contemporary Buddhist
communities such as the Center for Pragmatic Buddhism, it would be good to
integrate the philo-scientific and spiritual domains in service to the
fundamental goal of a virtuous life as the Buddha saw it: reducing suffering for
all sentient beings by gaining a clear view of ourselves and our situation. In
what follows, I’ll suggest that the convergence of meditative experience with a
naturalistic understanding of ourselves might help us in this quest.
Enlightenment, broadly construed, is to be undeluded about how the world is and how best to live. Each of us has at least a vague idea of what there fundamentally is, and if we’re curious, we might wonder if we’ve got it right. Naturalists take the position that in modeling reality we’re best served by relying on observational and testable propositions about the world, for instance as investigated by science. Wanting to avoid delusory beliefs, we subject our intuitions and hunches to empirical confirmation or disconfirmation. Beliefs arrived at in this fashion are generally more reliable than those held on the basis of intuition, revelation or authority, so the commitment to empiricism is prima facie rational. It isn’t a matter of faith.
Although Buddhism is famously pragmatic in avoiding unanswerable metaphysical questions, even Buddhists need at least a provisional theory of things, and science is our best bet. The Dalai Lama wrote that “My confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that as in science, so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation: if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” Object-ivity, understood as an intersubjective and empirical take on the world, conducted by a community of inquiry, is the best antidote to dogmatism and wishful thinking. Science is by its method open to the possibility of new facts and alternative explanations, and thus is an exemplar of non-dogmatism. Further, it has a simple pragmatic test for valid understanding: does it permit prediction of phenomena, or not? As motivated creatures seeking skillful accommodation of our needs and desires, we want to predict and control, and this sets the criterion for verdicts about the truth and falsity of belief. We’re also naturally curious, wanting to get to the bottom of things for the sheer pleasure of knowing.
So, although untestable metaphysical speculation may not be the best use of our time, it’s permissible to have a theory about the world, even on the largest scale, so long as it’s honestly obtained and non-dogmatically held. Science recommends itself to us as the basis for such a theory precisely because it holds to no metaphysical or ontological conclusions in advance that might bias inquiry: it’s a method, not a metaphysics. Even so, to hew to science, or more broadly an evidential empiricism, tends to make the existence of some things (people, proteins, quarks) more probable than others (angels, demons, unicorns). It also unifies our understanding of phenomena, such that whatever science judges to exist comprises the single realm we call nature. As far as we can reliably know, there is no separate supernatural realm.
The naturalist’s commitment to the intersubjective empiricism exemplified by science means that one’s personal experience, in particular experience arising during meditative practice, doesn’t count as a direct, accurate perception of reality. Conscious experience is a brain-based phenomenon that helps organisms like us negotiate the world, so it’s a highly selective representation of things, not an unbiased reflection of what’s outside the head. Should the meditator experience, for instance, the dissolution of the sense of a separate, observing ego, this isn’t direct perception of a fundamental feature of reality – its emptiness or suchness – rather it’s an experience with the content, among other things, that no fundamentally separate being is having this experience.
The feeling of unity and connection the experience of egolessness might bring mirrors what science shows to be the case about the human person: that we are in all respects causally enmeshed in the world, historically and in the present moment. But the subjective feeling of unity isn’t direct confirmation of the objective scientific proposition about human embeddedness in nature. To suppose that meditation is an unmediated window on reality is, from a naturalistic perspective, a delusion, since reliable knowledge is always gained using intersubjective evidence and observation. One’s personal psychological states, in and of themselves, don’t necessarily count as evidence of things beyond themselves, even if they convey intense conviction and certainty, as is sometimes the case in meditation. We should therefore be skeptical about the veridicality of experience uncorroborated by evidence assessed within a community of inquiry.
That said, the meditator might learn a lot about her experience, about its structure and how it changes over the course of the meditation session. She can truthfully testify to the difficulty of staying in the present, the wandering of attention, the uncontrollable volubility of thought, the tenacity of the observer-observed duality, and the quality of experience when thinking slows down and, sometimes, stops. So when meditating we become empiricists in a restricted but real sense, that is, with respect to our own psychological processes in a controlled setting. In this capacity, we might discover that some commonsense assumptions about subjectivity need revision: who’s the me “in here” that’s trying to non-judgmentally observe things, anyway? And of course we might have experiences that are intrinsically interesting and rewarding in their own right, even if they don’t count as accurate representations of the world outside our heads.
Such considerations point to the practical value of meditation, conceived naturalistically. But there is much more to be said on this score. In the Zen Buddhist tradition, meditation is a key resource in gaining enlightenment in the sense of how, metaphysics aside, it is best to live. As ineluctably motivated creatures, the Buddha taught, we are necessarily gripped by the problem of suffering: we cling, and can’t help but cling, to the possibility of realizing our desires, and so are always vulnerable to their frustration. What desire wants is its permanent fulfillment; what we get is transience. Seeing the trap set by desire, we want, perhaps, release from the wheel of attachment and disappointment, to achieve a kind of equanimity that makes us less vulnerable to impermanence.
Meditative practice – one’s personal laboratory of experience – can help us understand our reactive, grasping psychology in the (sometimes) calm light of contemplation. Seeing it for what it is, without judging it as good or bad (which would simply prolong our reactivity) we can sometimes let it go, or it releases us, at least temporarily. With the help of meditative insight and experience, the impossible demands of the self-project might lose some sway over us. In particular, meditation might reveal the experience of self to be a psychological construction, not the essential bedrock of identity we ordinarily assume it, and feel it, to be. If so, we might participate in the “compulsory show” more skillfully, with less all-consuming self-seriousness. This makes us psychologically stronger, less driven, less literally self-centered, and therefore in a better position to be of service to other sentient beings as they too face the problem of suffering.
The naturalistic hypothesis that it’s the brain that
constructs the sense of self, now being explored by neuroscientists and
is entirely consistent with what meditation might reveal. Since experience seems
a function (somehow – explaining consciousness is just getting underway) of what
the brain and body do, the very sense of being a subject which purportedly “has”
experience and “to whom” things happen is itself simply another
neurally-instantiated aspect of subjectivity, albeit psychologically
fundamental. What the brain constructs can perhaps be temporarily deconstructed,
given the right conditions and sufficient practice. Thus the first-person
meditative experience of the dropping away of ego, should it occur, is to
experience what third-person science shows to be the dependent arising, and
non-arising, of the phenomenal self. In this way, the scientific-physicalist and
meditative-experiential perspectives, both empirical in different senses, end up
with the same conclusion: the very core of self – the experienced locus of all
our concern and striving – is a mutable, perishable, dependent phenomenon, just
as the Buddha taught. Seeing this clearly from both perspectives might give us
some psychological distance from the very self on behalf of which we’re
striving, giving us a measure of equanimity and opening space for compassion
centered on others. Science and Buddhist practice are thus consilient partners
in the quest for liberation.
Naturalism accepts what science in all its domains, physical, biological, neural, psychological and social, shows to be the case about the human creature. The various law-like regularities discovered in these domains, and still being discovered, suggest that in both our development and moment-to-moment behavior and experience we are fully enmeshed in the causal working out of nature, broadly conceived to include both biology and culture. There’s nothing about us, no soul or immaterial mental agent, that transcends the astoundingly complex but ultimately materially-based process of being an evolved creature resident in a culture-transmitting society. The scientific method has quite ruthlessly undermined the explanatory need to posit any ultimately self-constructing, causally exempt, non-physical “mind-pearl” (as philosopher Daniel Dennett aptly describes it) that performs mental functions such as feeling, thinking, planning and choosing. Instead, the brain and body, shaped by evolution and culture, do it all, and they do it using physically instantiated mechanisms and processes that operate quite reliably without benefit of a supervisory soul acting outside causation. We are, of course, proximately autonomous and proximately self-constructing to a degree unmatched by any other creature on Earth, just because we carry such recursively complex neural machinery in our heads. But we don’t float free of the observationally confirmed, many-leveled, and hierarchically interlocking laws of cause and effect that nature so wonderfully contrives in the cosmos and on the planet.
This naturalistic insight, that we are fully, concretely enmeshed in nature – its very expressions, in fact – is just the science-based version of the central Buddhist tenet of dependent origination. From an overarching scientific-objective perspective, we can understand every facet of life, from the simplest to the most complex, from the most public and social to the most subjective and private, as the doings of physically instantiated and mindless processes, some of which have the remarkable property of embodying persons and their conscious mental states. This reinforces the Buddhist doctrine of anatta: sentient beings arise, entirely, out of impersonal factors; there is no atman (soul) that persists above and beyond the temporary concatenation of the incarnated person.
Seeing that we don’t exist as essential souls pitted against the materiality of nature might help to take the curse off subjectivity. We are not minds trapped in bodies, but material patterns out of which mind emerges. The amazing fact is that we don’t need to be more than physical to have conscious experience, and this raises the status of “mere” matter considerably. Knowing this, we reconceive ourselves as full-fledged participants in the unfolding natural order, not strangers in a strange land. The little self we’re stuck with can more happily accept its lot, now that it understands the true, awe-inspiring dimensions of its habitat, and the mind-boggling story of its cosmic and evolutionary origins. Seeing ourselves as fully caused expressions of nature puts things in a refreshingly large perspective, one that grounds a naturalistic spirituality which celebrates the vast impersonal aspect of existence surrounding us.
Still, as much as there’s no soul, the person as construction is unequivocally real, and the phenomenal self is still with us, an adaptive, necessary psychological feature of being a cognitively flexible organism intent on its own survival. The ensemble of impersonal factors that constitutes my body, brain and personal psychology very much remains, an inescapable locus of desire, ambition, disappointment and loss (and of course pleasure and joy, but here I’ll emphasize the direct causes of suffering).
What the constructed self still wants, impossibly and unrealistically, is an unobstructed flow of action and fulfillment in accordance with desire, forever and ever. But what nature affords is an unobstructed flow in accordance with law-like cause and effect (and whatever true randomness might exist) that guarantees the extinction of the self and its projects. For nature, there is no hindrance, simply the smooth unfolding elaboration of transitions from one moment to the next as entropy overall increases. For us persons, however, hindrances abound, whatever our station in life: all the dashed hopes, impossible dreams, unrequited love, frustrated ambitions, not to mention the physical and mental horrors imposed by sub-standard living conditions and oppressive political arrangements in so much of the world. (If you’re reading this you have it comparatively easy, most likely.)
But what if we could come to deeply appreciate the fact, maybe even feel in our gut, that we in our ultimately doomed strivings are, remarkably enough, just more of nature’s unhindered transitions? That even in the toughest moments of life – a full blown catastrophe of loss or failure – we are what nature is doing here and now, part of a process ineluctably working itself out. Might this help us in our extremity?
But let’s step back from such dire imaginings, what we might call “worst case mind.” Notice that your everyday, not-so-dire experience and behavior, what we can think of as your mental and physical worldline, unwinds smoothly from one moment to the next. Whatever it is that you’re thinking and doing and feeling right now will of course change, but it evolves into each successive moment according to transitions that, even though they might not realize your hopes, are nonetheless causally perfect. Although you don’t always get what you want, or even what you need, what you always get is an unobstructed, unhindered unfolding of experience and behavior into the next moment. What is this? It’s nature doing what it does, effortlessly: being the many-leveled, interlocked and evolving patterns, conforming to what we call laws of nature, that constitute you. You, in your compulsory struggle to control, achieve, persist and enjoy, are exactly what fits and gets expressed in this bit of space-time (see note 5). You, a person, are in fact a process that’s perfectly entailed from moment to moment by the local configuration of impersonal factors cooked up by evolution and culture, genes and memes. We can trace the you-process historically and we can see it concurrently – what the organism and its mind do in transaction with immediate surroundings. Either way, what we see is an unhindered expression of cause and effect, the patterning of natural laws as they constitute you the person, whether in agony or ecstasy, joy or regret.
Meditation is a microcosm in which we can further develop this insight, the better to align our self-understanding and experience with what naturalists believe intellectually about the person in the world. The basic assignment of vipassana or mindfulness meditation is to pay attention, non-judgmentally, to whatever arises as you sit (or walk, wash the dishes, etc, but we’ll stick to sitting here). We minimize environmental distractions, stop moving, and firmly put aside our plans and projects, so things become very simple for us (perhaps!). Whatever happens is fine – not in the sense that we approve of it, but that we just accept it. If we find that we have judgmental thoughts and feelings about things, including our success or failure at meditating itself, that’s just more acceptable grist for the mill of attention. So in meditation we’ve intentionally reduced to the bare minimum our personal demands on each successive moment. The only demand we make is that we pay attention, otherwise whatever arises is fine, acceptable.
What this means is that, as far as possible, we’ve aligned ourselves motivationally with the causal unfolding of nature as we now embody it. Our only disappointments in meditation are lapses of attention, which we necessarily discover after the fact. But even these “errors” become just more acceptable episodes of what we eventually notice about our situation. The wandering mind is simply what nature, in the form of this person, cooks up in this particular chunk of space-time according to its multifarious modes of patterning. So could we have done otherwise? No! So please to accept.
Under this regime, if non-judgmental attention successfully maintains itself, there’s eventually no subjective hindrance for the meditator. Being this way right now – “mere being” we might call it – is all that’s necessary, or wanted. There’s a maximal alignment between the personal aim of accepting what arises and what unfolds in this little, simplified neck of the cosmos. We know intellectually that whatever happens on the mat happens with no causal hindrance, just like everything else in nature, but now we might experience no hindrance, a feeling analogous to the objective causal truth about things.
Given the epistemic status of meditation discussed above, remember that this experience isn’t a direct perception of how cause-and-effect reality is unhindered. Rather, the subjective feeling of being unhindered mirrors or emulates reality in this respect. By being virtually goal-less and accepting, our experience temporarily mimics non-intentional, impersonal nature in the heedless perfection of her causal transitions. We have a concordance between personal experience and what science suggests is a fundamental aspect of existence. Understanding this aspect, and having had this experience, we are perhaps in a better position to cope with the inevitable situations in which our wants are not aligned with what the cosmos has on offer. We will know, and might even feel to some extent, that in our subjective hindrance we are nevertheless the objectively unhindered expression of nature as one moment transforms into the next. This might help reconcile us to our less than perfect situation.
There are of course many moments in life outside meditation, moments of flow, in which we might feel relatively unhindered. Sensory and sensual pleasures, the exercise of a well-honed skill to achieve an artistic effect, the attainment of a long-contemplated goal – such things fulfill desire. In such moments there’s no conflict between the self-project and what reality affords. There’s nothing wrong or unworthy about such fulfillment, so long as we maintain an ethical balance between self-realization and the needs of others (what that balance should be is a vexed question I’ll happily sidestep here). But whatever satisfactions we allow ourselves, what we notice is that desire inevitably re-asserts itself, and we’re off and running again. Moreover, we know that ultimately it’s a losing game: our fundamental want, to live forever with loved ones in some harmonious ethical abundance, outstrips our meager abilities to control nature. Besides, imagine we did achieve utopia according to some agreed-upon specification. Then what? This is the problem of heaven: getting everything you’ve always wanted, permanently, is only a prescription for boredom. So now what do we do?
Regrettably, perhaps, we’re not confronted with this luxurious question, although maybe some species somewhere in the universe has had to deal with it. So we’re returned to the more realistic prospect of worst case, or just medium-bad case, mind. How can the poor suffering constructed self cope with the fact that it isn’t going to get what it wants, and further, that the whole project of desire is in some fundamental sense unfulfillable? Perhaps by seeing, through the cognitive lens of science, and feeling, through disciplined attention in the laboratory of meditation, that this is just how it unavoidably is, and to thereby achieve some measure of acceptance. We assimilate into our psychology the fact that every bit of our striving, even not to strive, is one of nature’s causal perfections.
This is not to release ourselves entirely from attachment, or to rise above what’s necessarily involved in being an incarnated person thrust into the world. There’s no permanent, once-and-for-all solution to the problem of desire. For the very quest for equanimity is a project of the suffering self; yet another desire vainly hoping to be permanently realized. The difficult truth of both naturalism and Buddhism is that there’s no bullet-proof, invulnerable position we can take to secure the self from disappointment and dissolution, precisely because it’s an impermanent construction that wants permanence. We are transient configurations of material components, built by natural selection to cling, to want, and the best we can do is to become more skillful in how we play the obligatory role that nature has cast for us, and thus reduce suffering. In emulating, in meditation, the impersonally unhindered working out of the causal transitions nature realizes in all its manifestations, the self might realize that it too, even in its toughest moments, is the equally unhindered working out of one such manifestation. Seeing this, feeling this, we might gain some acceptance, equanimity and compassion, for ourselves and all selves as we turn on the wheel of desire.
 From The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality (Broadway, 2005), pp. 2-3, quoted by Owen Flanagan in The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World (MIT Press, 2007) p. 63, and in “Science for Monks: Buddhism and Science” at http://www.usc.edu/schools/college/crcc/private/flanagan_lectures/Science_for_Monks.pdf.
 In his book Consciousness Explained, (Little Brown & Co, 1992).
 About entropy and space-time, see Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos (Knopf, 2004).
 The classic reference is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Harper and Row, 1990).