Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

CosmolPauly and our View of the World


The Intersection of Science and Mysticism + Self-Aware Universe
Lead: Laura Baker, Peter Duran & Alicia Sprague


Summary by Aaron Hope:


The Intersection of Science and Mysticism + Self-Aware Universe

While most discussions begin with an overview of the subject matter, we approached Mysticism with an introduction to the experience itself. Laura told us that we would get to go on a field trip, to the lawn behind the building (and perhaps beyond ...). Once we were standing on the grass in a circle, Laura led us in a relaxation exercise, or perhaps a sketch of meditation. We were told to close our eyes, find our center, and extend our awareness to the sounds around us. She took our focus from our immediate surroundings, to the group, to the campus, to the most distant sounds we could perceive. Peter then led us inward. We started at the tips of our toes, wiggling them, feeling their presence and motion, and moved in stages all the way up the torso, listening to our own body as we had listened to the outside before.

Once we were again seated indoors, we began to work on definitions. The discussion leaders presented their version of Mysticism: “An experience of oneness with reality”. Sean took exception to this, asking if it wasn't just “stuff you can't explain”. Peter said that in theory, it was the unexplainable, ultimate reality.
We momentarily switched gears to take a survey. We were asked about the domain and methodology of Science. Jason claimed that while Science doesn't prove anything, it does prove what's not.

Peter said that that sounded like Physicalism, what he defined as the belief that everything was explainable by Science. Sean didn't seem to care for the question saying that Physics was for explaining what you observe, that Physicists were the generalists. Someone asked where, given that definition, the boundary between Physics and the other sciences lie, e.g. is Biology a part of Physics? Peter suggested that pure physics was about getting to the deep structure of the Universe. Getting back to the division between Science and Mysticism, Peter added that every definition of Science stands and falls with empirical evidence and that the study of Physics involved the interplay of other fields of knowledge.

When people started to talk about science as if it was the only way of acquiring knowledge, Paul stated that Mysticism wasn't just mumbo-jumbo. He backed up his claim by pointing out that it was common to and crosses all religious traditions. Bill seemed to agree that it had a place, namely to fill the explanatory gap with, for instance, in subjective experience. Sean asked if this wasn't just about memory. Touching upon our discussions of consciousness, Bill clarified that it was about the things that we experience, but can't describe or explain with Science. Because science is based on the principle of independent verification, it is fundamentally unsuited to explaining subjective experiences.

Someone suggested that there was a word to describe this subjective experience: an epiphany. An epiphany is a sudden realization that changes one's perspective and can change one's entire world-view. Alicia offered as an example the story of an old monk who after a stroke, said that he had experienced the feminine. This could be said to be a mystical experience.
Peter may not have liked this example, because he pointed out that people’s definitions of mysticism varied. Paul responded with a parable about a group of scientists filling the tiles of a great room with their knowledge of the universe and exclaiming at the end “Fly!”. And he asked, what do you do when it doesn't fly? His point was that there was an “Awe and Wonder” to the universe that science does not encompass. Someone wanted to know why these wonders needed to be inexplicable. Paul didn't seem to think that they had to be, that even if our universe was born from the fluctuations in the vacuum, that it was still miraculous and wonderful.
Returning to the theme of epiphany, I suggested that mysticism had the distinguishing characteristic of convincing by the nature of the experience. Paul claimed that it was an experience that required an explanation beyond the realm of empirical science. He claimed that while science renders the world controllable and predictable, mysticism seeks the inexplicable.

Many of us hadn't liked the story of the old monk's seizure, and some complained that this was just the synapses of the mind misfiring, that was simply a matter of a malfunction in the brain. I asked how this was different from recreational drug use. Vicky jumped on my disregard of chemically induced altered states, retorting that many cultures use drugs in their religious and spiritual rituals. Trevor said that, ideally, a mystical experience involved “true perceptions”, and suggested that using drugs to strip away the mere sensory input might be legitimate. Peter disagreed. He spoke of one particular ideal, Nirvana, in which the distinctions between subject and object are blurred. This was to be considered Post- or Trans-mental. In theory, the mystic was reaching beyond the normal limitations of the mind, and touching reality directly. He said that these mystics considered drug-induced hallucinations as Pre-mental, not Post-mental.

Perhaps responding to the recreational nature of drug use, someone added that Nirvana might not be at all fun. Those who claim to have reached say that it was in fact very painful. Jason added that there may be many ways to reach epiphany, and spoke of the eight-fold path. Buddhism offers six different approaches to Nirvana, the paramitas, charity, moral conduct, patience, devotion, meditation, and wisdom. He called to attention that some of these are extroverted and some are introverted. We normally think of mystics as highly introverted, sitting with legs crossed and
OOHM-ing to themselves, but that's not the only way.

Paul wanted to make it clear that mysticism wasn't just about altered states, but that it was about ultimate reality, about attaining oneness with the universe. He then returned to the problem of the different roles of science and mysticism and posed the question: Can everything worth understanding be explained by science? He suggested that by its inability to address the subjective experience science had proved it's own limitations. Robin chimed in with Gödel's Theorem on the necessity of axioms, which indicates that no valid theory can contain more information than the axioms it references. No matter what we do, we have to make some assumptions.
Alicia began bringing the discussion to a close, asking us if we thought this class helped heal the gap between science and religion. There was a generally positive response. Vicky said that it gave her a lot to think about that she wouldn't have come to on her own. Jason said that he thought that it was very healthy, and that we needed a 100 more like it.

Looking back over the discussion, someone commented that he didn't like mysticism because he considered it exclusionary. This prompted the response that science precipitated a loss of purpose and a loss of community. Dan had just the opposite view of mysticism, saying that everybody can have a mystical experience, but that the layer of “superficial” words and mathematics excluded the masses. Billy didn't care for the characterization of scientific theory as superficial and asked Dan what then was beneath, what was real. Dan appears to think of the woods, of nature, as being the substance of our world. Paul said that reaching Nirvana, becoming one with the universe, isn't just a solitary experience: it expands your horizons and changes your whole world-view.

Tom closed by relaying his own experience with meditation. He said that he didn't know if he believed in the mystical aspect, but that he had experienced something helpful via meditation.