This is the third in an occasional series on “deep science,” a rational way of reconciling scientific method with the human need to find meaning and purpose. See the entire series HERE.
Science has been a very powerful tool for our collective co-creation of the external world. There is, however, obviously no complete consensus on the nature of the external world and our relationship to it as human beings, and we can rest assured that there never will be. That’s a good thing. Science isn’t about absolute truth, and nor is the “deep science” I’m fleshing out in this series of essays.
Rather, science (deep or conventional) is an asymptotic process of discovery that hopefully gets ever closer to truth over time. That process is surely not linear, however, and we’ve seen with the history of science many mis-steps and culdesacs.
We’ll never actually know how close we are to truth because we’ll never know the extent of what we don’t know, the extent to which we are on a local peak when there is in fact a much larger peak off in the distance that we can’t even see from our local peak. This gives me comfort because I like the promise of eternal mystery, of eternal discovery and eternal creation of new solutions for old conundrums.
In addition to the tools of modern science, spiritual techniques can be helpful tools in plumbing the depths of our single domain of experience. Spiritual pursuits, under this formulation, constitute those activities that examine the parts of our single domain of experience that we spatialize as being “in here” (that is, in our heads) as opposed to “out there” in the external world. (See Part II for more on the “single domain of experience” that is all each of us knows about the world directly). As we saw in Part II, however, there is no firm line between “in here” and “out there” because all of our experience is given to us in the same field of experience and we add spatial coordinates after the fact.
Space Is Inferred From Our Experience
Continuing our examination of what we know and how we know it, let’s look deeper into how we turn the raw data of our senses into an entire world. This is part of my attempt to build a firm foundation for individual and collective knowledge in the spirit of Descartes, Kant, Buddha and many other philosophers.
When we think about it, we realize that there is no space inherent in our domain of experience. Space is inferred. What I mean by this is that our mapping of the contents of our experience is itself a process of inferring space, based on the simple fact that all contents of our experience are innately not close or far, they simply arise in our experience without any built-in spatial coordinates. Experience itself is inherently dimensionless: it’s just there all at once.
My experience of what I generally think of as, let’s say, pain from a headache, which seems very much “in here,” is no closer spatially in my field of experience, than my sensory experience of my computer screen in front of me, or of my experience of the moon or stars on a starry night. All of these experiences seem to be presented to me, the center of experience, as a unified set of experiences in each moment. This set of experiences changes in each moment, and this constitutes the stream of consciousness. But there is no innate spatial difference between my experience of my headache and my experience of a starry night. Space is inferred through our ongoing process of creating a model of the world in our own heads in each moment.
Just as the external world is inferred from our sensory experience, so is the reality of our bodies inferred. I don’t disagree with common sense that we very likely do have bodies. But this likelihood is entirely inferred. Again, the only thing we know with certainty is the existence of our own experience in each moment to moment to moment. We could be brains in a vat, connected to sophisticated virtual reality displays. Are we really brains in a vat? This is unlikely, but we can’t rule it out as a possibility. And deep science is all about being careful and methodical in what we think we know about ourselves and the world.
I do not agree, however, with the Idealist (Western or Eastern) suggestion that “reality is all in our heads.” All we know of reality is, by definition, in our heads (or at least localized in our heads), but reality itself is very likely not all in our heads. Science is all about using the evidence of our senses, and the enhanced evidence made possible by various scientific instruments, to probe the details of the inferred world outside of each of us as individuals.
My reason for stressing this point is that we need, in crafting a robust deep science, to be extremely careful in our approach to knowledge. We need to follow Descartes’ lead on this key point but be even more careful than he was. Only through such careful construction of the foundations of our knowledge can we have confidence in our inferred conclusions. Figure 1 attempts to illustrate some of my points here visually.
Figure 1. The single domain of experience and various sub-aspects of experience.
We may revise this diagram to show the more conventional view of reality as proceeding from our mental realm out beyond the confines of our body into the universe more broadly, with space inferred from our direct sensory experience.
Figure 2. Space is inferred as our experience is arranged into a three-dimensional world.
Figure 1 attempts to show how different experiences arise in the single domain of experience: they just pop up here and there and we have no idea why or how. Figure 2 shows how our minds organize the various experiences that arise into a world divided, most fundamentally, into the world “out there” and the world “in here” (that is, in our heads). This division has a lot to commend it because it sure seems like there is an important boundary between our heads and various senses and the world that seems to exist inside those windows to the world. However, the careful first-person approach I’ve outlined here shows that there is no innate division between our individual experiences, in terms of outside and inside. It’s all “inside” in terms of the fundamental experience that makes up our consciousness. Our experiences, once they arise, are then automatically assigned the spatial coordinates of either “in here” or “out there” by the evolved ability of our mind to create a model of the world that has helped us to survive over the eons of our species’ evolution. This spatialization is largely a subconscious process.
We’re now back full circle to the idea that a Deep Science can provide an integration of the traditional concerns of science and religion. So rather than ceding to science everything that was traditionally covered by religion and spirituality, and then denying the validity of those very topics essential to religion and spirituality – an approach that constitutes the materialist’s preferred “integration” of science and spirit – the Deep Scientist recognizes the validity of the traditional inquiries native to religion and the importance of spiritual inquiries into the nature of our own minds. The answers to the various spiritual and religious inquires will be different than traditional religions provide, to be sure, but the inquiries themselves remain valid under this new framing.
The Deep Scientist recognizes the need for, and the validity of, asking ultimate questions about meaning. The Deep Scientist also recognizes the need to be rigorous and she agrees with a preference for falsifiability, the traditional modern criterion of gold standard science. The Deep Scientist thus recognizes that religion, science and philosophy are “substantially overlapping magisteria” that can fairly be thought of as different framings of a single underlying line of questions: who are we, what is the nature of the external world, and how do we fit within it? Gould’s NOMA (discussed in my last column) becomes SOMA: Substantially-Overlapping Magisteria.
What About Alexander’s Visions Of Heaven?
In closing, let’s look back at Eben Alexander’s relaxation of the truth with respect to his coma and his experiences of a heaven-like reality, raised in my last column. Deep Science and today’s science agree with the need to corroborate his claims with evidence such as, for example, the testimony of his doctor who kept him in a medically-induced coma. Where Deep Science differs is that it won’t automatically dismiss the kinds of claims that Alexander makes, as many scientific types would today. There could be a heaven and there could be souls – even if both claims seem to be highly unlikely given what we know about the physical world and our own minds. As with all claims, however, the Deep Scientist will take the appropriate evidence in hand in order to assess such claims, viewing the reported experiences as an unusual but interesting part of the single domain of experience for one person. Deep Science will consider this first-person evidence in the context of everything else that we know about the universe, including other first-person testimony and our current understanding of the laws of nature (better described as “habits of nature,” but that’s a topic for a future essay).
The Deep Scientist truly interested in the validity of near-death experiences will interview and catalog these experiences where they are claimed and will, using the hard-nose of empirical inquiry, attempt to come to conclusions about what is really going on. “What is really going on” could, conceivably, be actual near-death experiences. We can be open to these possibilities without being so open that our brains fall out of our heads. The key is to remain open to new evidence and new interpretations while still being rigorous in our reasoning.
Summing up, we’ve made some headway in developing a first-person science by stressing the need for corroboration of extraordinary claims, but not automatically dismissing first-person evidence. By conceptualizing reality for each of us as a single domain of experience, the deep science approach I’ve fleshed out here allows us to plumb the nature of our own minds and the nature of the external world with the same set of tools. And by getting our toolbox in order we can get to some pretty interesting insights, which we’ll explore in future installments.
Tam Hunt is a philosopher and lawyer based in Santa Barbara, CA, and Hilo, HI, and a visiting scholar at UC Santa Barbara.