What is Science? Part 2: Hanging in the Middle

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Summary: This is part 2 of a 10 part essay that suggests we can think of science as a weak form of samadhi.  Part 2 closes out the discussion of the demarcation problem, and introduces additional ingredients of the discussion: the subjective/objective dichotomy, yoga, and samadhi.

Defenders of Science are Not Objective

Part 1 ended on the realization that no one has successfully defined what science is.  If one goes on the physics blogs (like here and here) you can see the philosophy that is adopted is that of Karl Popper, who defined science as the attempt to prove ideas were not correct.  This is called falsification.  It is a common sense view with merits. However, Popper’s idea came before the Kuhnian revolution mentioned in Part 1 and so, at best Popper’s view of science is very incomplete.  Since Kuhn, things got very messy in philosophy of science.  For example, philosophers such as Paul Feyerabend came to the conclusion that there was no single rational way to define science.

Most scientists aware of the newest ideas in philosophy of science tend to reject them, not because they are bad ideas, but because they are emotionally disturbing and cause practicing scientists discomfort by implying that science is not fundamentally different from other human activities, most notably religion.  There is also the issue of “pseudo-science”, or fake science.  There are many self-appointed “keepers of the faith” in science who try to defend science from crackpots and fakes (like this guy for example).   All of this rests on very shaky grounds because, as stated, there is no agreed upon definition of what science even is.  So, it has become a very subjective and opinionated enterprise for those who defend and define science, and those who seek to protect science from “pseudo science”.

At the core of the issue is the seemingly obvious aspect of science that it discovers the nature of the objective world, that it discovers how things work, independent of human biases, influences and subjectivity.  Thus, what is subjective and what is objective sit at the heart of trying to define and defend science.  It is via the subjective/objective dichotomy that we bring the ideas of yoga into the mix.

Subjective and Objective

In The Study and Practice of Yoga Volume 1 by Swami Krishnananda, he presents this relevant observation:

“Consciousness wrongly and foolishly imagines that it has no substantiality inside – that substantiality is only in the object outside…It wants to import the being of the object into itself .. which is a mix-up of perceptional experience … and the…character of the object upon consciousness.  We are left hanging in the middle – with a part of objectivity and a part of subjectivity in us. ….”

What is the great Swami saying here? He is saying we perceive things that appear to be outside of our mind, notably the world we live in, and attribute to it substantiality: the world is solid, real, it exists.  But at the same time, we do not consider our thoughts and emotions, subjectivity in general, as real, solid things. These instead are thought of as ghosts, as ephemera, as somehow less real than the world.  This, he is saying, is ass backwards.  The fact is: the world we perceive occurs only inside of our mind.  Therefore it is the seemingly subjective that is solid and real, and the seemingly objective world we perceive is what is really ephemeral.  To anyone who knows yogic and Hindu thought, this is a standard and unsurprising view.  And it is our point of departure for bringing yogic thought into the discussion.

As is a repeating theme on PlaneTalk, it is clear that we “point” in both subjective and objective directions at the same time.  One can see the history of Western philosophy as trying to take one of these sides and say it causes the other side.  Thus, materialism claims that mind is somehow caused by material factors.  Idealism, on the other hand, tries to explain matter as being caused by mind.

We can see above that the materialism/idealism debate is reflected in the demarcation problem.  Classical philosophy of science saw the scientific enterprise as 100% objective, but as people thought more about it, subjective factors were also recognized to have a role.

As Krishnananda indicates, objective and subjective are both true on their own terms.  In Western philosophy, this position is called “dualism” where both sides of the coin are acknowledged.  I won’t discuss the variety of ideas of dualism in Western philosophy.  While they have merits, they simply are not as good as the yogic ideas. Therefore, we will consider the yogic teachings.

Samadhi

Yoga teaches techniques to make the mind “one pointed”; it teaches how to concentrate the mind, literally.  Lay-people understand this as “meditation”.  But yoga is a complex technical discipline, very much like the various sciences, and it cannot be understood in a simple or superficial fashion.  Here is not the place to go into the depths of yoga (you can find resources here and here and here).  Instead, I discuss the state of consciousness achieved in yoga called samadhi and the bearing this has on the question “what is science?”

Samadhi is the state of maximum concentration of the mind.   To understand this, first consider your mind in your normal everyday life.  You think about all kinds of things.  Your attention constantly shifts as you involve yourself with different activities.  You have different goals throughout the day.  Even as you go about your daily activities, you find yourself thinking of other things: maybe anticipating the next thing you will be doing after the current activity; maybe you daydream; maybe memories pop into your mind.  All the while, you are feeling different emotions, depending on what is going on around you, and on your goals and anticipations.  Your mind is in a constant state of ever-shifting activity.  In yoga, this state is called “vikshepa”, which means “distracted”.  To picture the vikshepa state, imagine your mind is like a big fluffy cloud, all puffed up and spread out.

Now, imagine concentrating this cloud down, making it progressively smaller, more dense, not puffy and spread out.  This is what practicing yoga does to the mind.  The mind becomes focused on only one thought, and it holds this thought, and doesn’t wander at all from thought to thought.  When the technique of holding a single thought is perfected, this is the state of samadhi.

A bizarre effect results from so concentrating the mind:  the person holding the thought and the thought itself fuse into one thing.  The observer and the observed become one unified mental activity. We cannot understand this effect because it never occurs in our normal waking state. Almost by definition, being awake in the world is a state of vikshepa. Samadhi is an altered state of consciousness.  The fusion occurs only when the mind is highly concentrated, not when it is diffuse or vikshepa.

The key point about samadhi is that it is the one mental state humans can achieve where the dichotomy of subjective and objective breaks down.  In this regard, samadhi is analogous to black holes, where space-time breaks down.  Both are singularity states. While black holes are physical phenomena in the seemingly external world, samadhi is an actual form of human experience.  The relationship of the observer and the observed in samadhi has much to teach us about what science is, which will be elaborated in subsequent parts of this essay.

Here we close out on the following.  If one has never heard of samadhi before, or is completely unfamiliar with the methods of yoga, then hearing these things for the first time sound utterly fantastic and unbelievable.  In a similar vein, hearing about the Large Hadron Collider, or the Hubble Telescope, or genetic engineer is also quite fantastic to those not initiated in how such things are done.  Like any specialized technical knowledge, you either know it or you do not.  Please never forget the key theme of PlaneTalk is altered states of consciousness.  I have written simple methods for beginners to take their consciousness into the other realms.  More sophisticated writings are available for those who wish to learn more about yoga and its techniques (here , here , here).  This essay is not intended to teach yoga.  It assumes the reader has some basic familiarity with these things because here we are interested in the bearing of the yogic methods for understanding science.

Having said the above, we close out Part 2 with the punch line of this whole essay: science is a very weak form of samadhi.

Fear not, we still have 8 parts of the essay left to go to fill in what this means…


Jump to the other parts of What is Science?

Intro
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8
Part 9
Part 10
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2 thoughts on “What is Science? Part 2: Hanging in the Middle

  1. I am very much enjoying these talks. All of the hyperlinks are fantastic! Substantive and interesting. I am taking my time with it to absorb all that is here, but I can’t wait to read the next segment. Thank you Dr. Degracia!

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