Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Science of the Psyche

Responding to Bob and Friend from the post on psychism and ID theory:

Bob, in regard to this quote from Nisargadatta:

Q: Forgive me a strange question. If somebody with a razor-sharp sword would suddenly sever your head, what difference would it make to you?

Sri Niz: None whatsoever. The body will lose its head, certain lines of communication will be cut, that is all. Two people talk to each other on the phone and the wire is cut. Nothing happens to the people, only they must look for some other means of communication. The Bhagavad-Gita says: "the sword does not cut it". It is literally so. It is in the nature of consciousness to survive its vehicle. It is like fire. It burns up the fuel, but not itself. Just like a fire can outlast a mountain of fuel, so does consciousness survive innumerable bodies.

I'm not sure that non-dual teachings have a significant role in the ID/pyschism debate. Non-dualism is not a scientific theory or path, and neither its philosophy nor its method are based on science. When Nisargadatta suggests that the body is merely a vehicle of communication, he is simply making an observation which to him is true, and to us may ring true, but to science it is simply an assertion that has to be supported by evidence. The route Nisargadatta would recommend to test and affirm and recognize the truth of such a statement is very different than the method science would be required to follow. On the one hand this is a criticism of science, in that Nisargadatta's method leads to spiritual realization, whereas the scientific method does not. But spiritual realization is not the purpose of science, any more than spiritual realizaiton is the purpose of eating. Science is a relatively mundane discipline, like eating, which follows natural laws for the simple purpose of giving us knowledge of mundane matters, like diet, that can give us practical truths to live by. Knowing the nutritional value of food and how it is digested by the body does not lead to spiritual realization, but it can lead to a healthier diet. Nisargadatta's approach is not aimed at acquiring that kind of knowledge for that kind of goal. He is not at war with science, but says it has its place in life, but he does not think it should be given any ultimate value. Which science itself doesn't. Some scientists overvalue the knowledge science gives, but that is the problem with most people - they overvalue whatever they are "into".

Considering how the psyche works in relation to the brain, the body, and things like evolution is a scientific question, not a question about realization. It's a question that requires evidence to support its speculations. We may have an idea about how all this works from our readings of spiritual sources and our own intutions and experience, but none of that is scientific in approach. It hasn't submitted itself to rigorous analysis and the test of evidence and verifiable experiment. It may be that you, like Nisargadatta, aren't much interested in taking the scientific approach and gathering the kind of practical knowledge that results from that approach. That's fine. It's not really necessary to do so, because the question itself isn't an ultimate one.

There is really only one ultimate question - "Who am I?" - and everything else is moot. But that doesn't mean everyone should drop all practical life issues and enquiries and simply spend all day asking "Who am I?" to the exclusion of all else. As Ramana and Nisargadatta say, self-enquiry does not interfere with ordinary life and its ordinary quesitons. One can do the discipline of science in relation to these matters while at the same time enquiring "Who am I?" They are not mutually exclusive or in conflict with one another. So one need not interfere with the scientific approach by constantly interjecting a non-dual philosophy into it. That's just as obnoxious and unnecessary as trying to constantly inject a Christian or creationist philosophy into science.

Science is guided by evidence, not by philosophy. And by "science" I am really meaning any inquiry into mundane matters of the physical universe and the waking state of experience. One could try to extend the scientific approach into the more subjective realism of consciousness and mind, but one has to be very careful here. Psychism may represent a "border crossing" from the physical universe to a subtle one, and for that reason it has to be treated very rigorously. One cannot immediately begin to impose subjective interpretation onto the facts, and jump to the "obvious" conclusions that psychics and spiritualists often do. What they presume to be obvious is often simply their own subjective interpretation of subjective experience, without rigorous analysis, testing, and evidence to back it up.

What I'm trying to suggest about psychic experience is that, if it's actually true - and even the anecdotal experience of people like that dream of the girl in the car accident on Oprah strongly suggests that it is true - one has to posit a causal connection to the brain and the nervous system which allows the neurons of the brain to be stimulated in such a fashion that a dream like this could result. Because a verifiable mechanism for this has not yet been hypothesized, it can't simply be affirmed to be so, unless one abandons the discipline of the scientific approach and simply makes declarations based on religious and personal conviction. But those kinds of declarations don't really help answer the questions raised, as much as put an end to the debate. They are political solutions, not scientific ones. Revealed knowledge does not further practical enquiry into practical matters, it simply short-circuits it, and actually hinders the process of coming to a real understanding of such things.

The book Friend recommends looks like an interesting one, but based on the brief exert on Amazon it doesn't look very rigorous in its approach. It looks like another attempt to impose a metaphysical view that the author already knows is true, rather than look at the evidence rigorously and dispassionately and see what the evidence points to. The author seems more interested in leading the reader to the conclusions the author has already arrived at rather than letting the evidence speak for itself, and rigorously analyzing any conclusions we might draw from the evidence. As Friend says, the approach is rather Oprah-esque, in that whether something is true or not is not as important as how good it makes one feel. And that is the problem with most spiritual and psychic approaches to these matters. People are simply looking to feel good, and to come to comforting notions of interconnectedness that allow them to feel good about everything.

The problem with trying to feel good is that it's the biggest reason people have so many illusions about life, from the most mundane matters to the most profound. We are so desperate to feel good that we are attracted to illusions which feel good even if it means rejecting truths that feel bad. The idea of an interconnected universe is not necessarily a false idea, but if we are attracted to it because of the way it makes us feel good, we may be creating illusions about it in the process. We may be falsifying the ways in which the universe is actually interconnected, and ignoring the ways it really is interconnected. The true implications of how the universe is actually interconnected may not give us the good feeling we are looking for. It might even give us a rather terrifying feeling. Or it may simply turn out that the universe is no more comforting than our own brains and nervous system are. That's even the implication of the approach I was taking the other day in that previous post.

What if the "psychic realm" is not a beautific world in which everything is profoundly interconnected, but a rather slipshod and slapdash world like our own, in which the interconnections between things are grown through more random and chance events than we are willing to acknowledge? What if the world of psychic interconnections more closely resembles the slow, unreliable and unpredictable process of our own brain, and the evolution of our own brain through chance mutation and natural selection? When I suggested that psychic forces may be involved in DNA mutations, it doesn't mean that it works in some "intelligent" fashion as the term is commonly used. Or that if one can speak of it that way, that the "intelligence" of these psychic forces isn't itself the result of a rather random and unplanned process of evolution within the psyche itself. In other words, it may be a lack of real knowledge of the psyche and the forces involved in its creation and evolution, and how it interacts with the physical world, that leads people to idealistic conclusions about the beautific nature of the interconnected universe. It may well be that truly scientific and rigorous analysis of the psyche and its relations to the physical may reveal a universe even more terrifyingly arbitrary and uncomfortable than the one we already are stuck with.

On the other hand, real knowledge of these forces and processes, rather than merely subjective conjecture, may allow us to gain responsibility and even some degree of control over a portion of our experience that we have previously been at the mercy of. That's the positive aspect of the scientific approach. There was a time when humans were utterly at the mercy of the natural forces of the physical world, and could not really protect themselves or gain much responsibility over it. They didn't understand how the physical universe actually worked, and attributed much of it to Gods and witches and had bizarre notions about the world which could easily have been deconstructed if they had simply looked at the evidence in a rigorous fashion. Science began when people did just that, at first simply in a very practical, non-philosophical way, as primitive technologies developed, and finally in a very intentional and analytical way, beginning with Galileo and Newton, that led to a huge revolution in our understanding of the physical world, and the development of ways to take responsibility for our presence here that would have seemed miraculous and impossible only centuries earlier. That process is far from finished, but it is well under way. And it seems to me that at some point science may succeed in crossing over into this world of the psyche in a fashion that actually develops technology rather than mere philosophy.

So the question I'm asking is what is the mechanism that would allow this woman to have a dream of her daughter's friend's location? Because we don't know how the greater psyche actually interacts with the physical brain, we are at a bit of a loss, but an analysis of the event itself at least begins to suggest clues. At some point in scientific brain studies these kinds of phenomena will have to become subject to closer scrutiny, because if an actual mechanism can be found which could account for this transmission of distant and seemingly inaccessible information to a person's brain, we will be onto a scientific revolution which will dwarf anything previously encountered in the industrial or high-tech or even biotech revolutions science has previously launched. It will undoubtedly require and build upon discoveries in those fields we have yet to make, particularly in the area of brain research. But if there is a physical process involved, and there certainly must be if the phenomena is real, then it stands to reason that science will eventually find it out. But it will only do so if it sticks to its own discipline rather than tries to incorporate metaphysical and mystical principles into its approach.

As for non-dualism, I'm not really ready yet to be writing about it here. I encountered a lot of hostility to it in the Daism forum, and I'm wondering if its really suitable for public debate. Contrary to the impression most people have of me, I'm mostly interested in the practice of it, and find that a bit too personal to write about. So writing about the ideas of non-dualism is something of a sideline, like all these other topics here, unnecessary but interesting nonetheless.


Anonymous said...

Hi Conrad!

I may have some follow-up comments later, but here's a url for now:

We are very good friends with Linda Stewart (, who works closely with Pam, and so I offer this story with an interesting science twist about the brain & all.

See ya later!


bob said...

Oops, should have said "bob"...