Summary: This is part 3 of a 10 part essay that suggests we can think of science as a weak form of samadhi. Part 3 brings a critical element into the discussion: that accurate knowledge leads to the ability to manipulate the world. This is true of both science and yoga.
Knowledge is Power
What is the tangible result of successful science? Certainly a more accurate understanding of the world would be most people’s first answer to this question. In addition, it is generally agreed that successful science should allow prediction of new phenomena that were not previously known.
It is a great irony that scientists who so pride themselves on their realism and objectivity, consider as their greatest prize mere ideas. But aren’t thoughts and ideas merely subjective artifacts of the mind? Well, no, obviously, not at all. Within the scope of this article, the most important tangible result of successful science is that it is always accompanied by the ability to rationally cause changes in the world. Generally, this is classed as “technology” and considered separate from science. But the distinction is arbitrary. Technology follows from science like theorems follow from axioms; they are indelibly interrelated.
The Mars Rover or Hubble Space Telescope are products of Newton’s and Einstein’s gravity, of Maxwell’s electromagnetism, and quantum electrodynamics. They cannot be thought of separate from the science. In many instances, new technology is only about the science, as with the Large Hadron Collider, or DNA microarrays, or the atomic force microscope. These technologies are used mostly in the lab setting to further the science (although microarrays are gaining traction in medical applications, and AFM has industrial applications).
So, distinguishing science from technology is a relatively arbitrary distinction. The distinction mostly follows the necessity for division of labor. It takes a lot of time to do basic science, so other people must extend the scientific ideas to generate technology. These other people are called “engineers” and not thought of as scientists. Distinguishing science from technology is more a social and economic distinction than an intellectually deep difference.
Bringing the technological aspect of science into the mix is relevant to the demarcation problem. Science lets us change the world. However, it cannot just be about changing the world in new or predictable ways for this also applies to art. A new painting, song, or novel is also a physical change in the physical world, and it was generated by the artist using the methods of their craft to output a predictable result. Hollywood uses the same tired formula for scripting its banal movies, for example. Yet, there is some intuition that the products of technology are different from the products of art. But are they?
At this point in the discussion, we are not in the position to offer an answer as to whether science and its technology are different from art. Our purpose now is to introduce a key idea into the discussion that science is accompanied by the ability to manipulate the world. The short way to say this is: knowledge is power.
Perhaps the most graphic image of “mere” ideas releasing power is the mushroom cloud of the atomic bomb, a physical manifestation of Einstein’s E = mc2. Where does this power come from? Why do some ideas allow the release of such power but other ideas do not? Yoga has something to say about this, something much different than the conventional Western ideas.
Part 2 introduced the idea of samadhi: the extreme concentration of the mind that causes the observer and observed to fuse into one entity in consciousness. When this happens, not surprisingly, it has effects. Here we introduce the effects, which are called “siddhis”.
When the observer fuses with the observed in samadhi, the consciousness of the observer melds, or becomes one with, the consciousness of the object. How we may consider the object of meditation to have consciousness, and further, how this consciousness is accessible to the yogi, are discussed in later parts of this essay, but not here. For the moment, the Reader is asked to accept that these are the terms used in yoga to describe the process. In this act of fusing, the observer and the observed become one entity. The intimate details of each are now accessible to the other. The consciousness of the yogi fills with the consciousness of the object and vice versa. The siddhis follow as a consequence of this fusion.
Yogic descriptions of the siddhis seem very bizarre and unrealistic on first hearing. Siddhis are the “super powers” one gets as a side effect of fusing with the object of meditation. I state here, but do not elaborate until later, that siddhis are merely a side-effect and not at all the intended result of practicing yoga. Siddhis are actually discarded and downplayed in yoga. But the fact that siddhis result from samadhi has great bearing on the question of how accurate scientific knowledge allows the release of power in the universe.
Let’s list a few siddhis from the above Wikipedia link:
- Aṇimā: reducing one’s body even to the size of an atom
- Prāpti: having unrestricted access to all places
- tri-kāla-jñatvam: knowing the past, present and future
- dūra-śravaṇa: Hearing things far away
- dūra-darśanam: Seeing things far away
These siddhis result from taking as the object of mediation: space ( and ), time (), the ear and sound (), the eye and light (). So, by concentrating one’s mind to the extreme, and fusing with the idea held in the mind, one can potentially shrink to the size of an atom, go anywhere in the universe, know the past, present and future, and see and hear things far away. Other siddhis can be obtained by performing samadhi on other objects of meditation. The lists of the siddhis reads like comic book superheroes: Superman’s ability to fly, Spider-man’s spider senses, or Doctor Strange’s ability to travel in his astral body.
The above list is misleading however by suggesting the siddhis are physical events. For example, the description of aṇimā seems to indicate one shrinks their physical body. This is not so. The siddhis occur in the mind. One shrinks in their mind so as to be able to perceive things the size of atoms. All of the siddhis above occur in the mind and are not physical events. An historical example of aṇimā, the Occult Chemistry of Besant and Leadbeater, can be found here.
To a modern rational person, this all seems like total nonsense, like the imaginations of a crazy person. However, consider the following:
- Aṇimā: An atomic force microscope lets us see physical atoms.
- Prāpti: We can use electromagnetic radiation to see into the heart of our galaxy; use the cosmic microwave background to see the structure of the universe shortly after the Big Bang.
- tri-kāla-jñatvam: One word here: differential equations.
- dūra-śravaṇa: Microphones, anyone?
- dūra-darśanam: Spy satellites? Google Maps?
Think of it: by concentrating the mind, one can see atoms, go anywhere, know the past and future, and see and hear things at a distance. In the second list we see technologies that either extend our senses (microscopes, etc) or extend our mind (differential equations). We do not physically change ourselves, just as siddhis are not physical events. Although most technology is physical, the output or result of the technology is mental. However, math is different. No one would deny that math has literally changed the world. But math itself is not physical. Math is idea. We return to comparing math to samadhi in later parts of the essay.
Now, one may reasonably object that in the case of the 2nd list, this is all technology that has come about through long and laborious processes involving the efforts of countless people, much trial and error, and many blind alley ways, which eventually led to modern science and its application in engineering and technology.
If one takes this stance, then they are making my point for me.
Jump to the other parts of What is Science?