Science and Mystics

“The natural universe is neither prickles nor goo exclusively. It’s gooey prickles and prickly goo.” –Alan Watts

“All perception of truth is the detection of an analogy.” –Henry Thoreau

“I maintain that the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.” –Albert Einstein

I’m at the Psychedemia conference on integratic psychedelics into academia at the University of Pennsylvania. The two quotes above are from a poster presentation by Sarah McManus, titled “Pricles and Goo: Playing with Scientific and Psychedelic Metaphors.” She argues that the even though the scientific and intuitive (mystical? psychedelic?) traditions are often grasping towrads the same insights, their different metaphorical styles make it difficult for them to speak to each other. She wants to discover common ground between reason and insight.

She gave several quotes from scientists–most of which I can no longer remember–who confess that their models are never truth but only useful approximations; that we are nowhere near understanding the basic nature of the universe; and that at best science can only capture fleeting moments in time and make very limited, context-bound predictions.

I know we could dig up several more quotes from scientists asserting the opposite: a firm belief in theories and particles; that we are at the verge of understanding everything; and only have to work out the details to work out. But I think she has a point. As I have written elsewhere, the most exciting science creates some of the most mind-boggling mystical visions around.

But after reading the poster I wondered: Why would scientists want to study mystics and mysticism? Why should mystics care about science? I don’t think they have much to offer each other yet, even when they are heading in the same direction. The divergence between the two lies in more than just metaphors. There are also fundamental differences in how to gain knowledge and what to do with it. The universe may be prickly goo and gooey prickles–but our modes of accessing it excessively emphasize either the goo or the prickles.

Although some scientists like to make big theories and philosophize, most of science is about reducing the great, holistic, super-entwined structure of the universe down into manageable chunks that can be analyzed and transformed into clear, useful, focused results. They retreat in trepidation when confronted with ineffable, unmodular holism. This is both because of the need for testable hypotheses, and because of the social pressure to justify research through practical consequences. Mystics, however, are all about dissolving our attachment to the particular manifestations of the universe. learning to be aware of the whole and perceive the undifferentiated fabric. The scientists work hard to put words and formulas to the parts that they analyze. The mystics are searching for those experiences that are beyond words.

Some scientists are curious about the mystics. They even like to brain scan meditating monks. But even that is all about breaking the brain down into its modular parts to figure out how it works. It has nothing to do with helping people to reach those mystical experiences. In fact, encouraging an over-analytic mind may even make it more difficult to obtain those experiences. At most, after they study all their brain scans and understand the chemistry, science may be able to develop more drugs to facilitate mystic experiences (Alexander Shulgin, for example–as well as more underground chemists today). But there is little incentive to do so, because such drugs would surely be made illegal.

In the end, the mystical scenarios created by scientific theorizing are held from us at arms length, beautiful ideas for us to appreciate but not to experience. At best, we must take it on their word that a few elite mathematicians are experiencing ecstasy through the symmetries and algorithms they discover.

Some mystics (and scientists) like to point to the similarity between mystical perceptions and the conclusions of scientific research. But I never find that very compelling. The analogies are often vague and sometimes misleading representations of science. And I often feel that the appeal to science is merely an appeal to authority, a way to justify mysticism to a skeptical audience. It is not an appeal that really helps us to have the experience. And once you’ve had the experiences, you realize that the science offers just one of many possible interpretation.

Most scientific research into psychedelics these days has more modest goals, usually to investigate their potential for therapy (basically the only kind of research that can get government permission). The investigators recognize that mystical experiences are often a crucial part of the therapeutic experience—an experience which may lead to quitting smoking, curing cluster headaches, or reconciling to cancer. But they have little to say about that experience (at least in their published work). Their research is still limited to correlation, i.e. showing a high number of patients who receive the psychedelic treatment have good results as compared to those who take placebos. The reasons and mechanisms remain mysterious, and the experience itself is valued mainly for its practical results.

Technology is the one other place were many people see an overlap between psychedelic mysticism and science. Many people like to give credit to psychonauts and psychedelic drugs for many recent advances in computing and networking (although the military surely deserves as much, if not more credit). And in turn, structures and metaphors of networking, computing and information are providing new ways to interpret the psychedelic experience (among psychonauts at least–less so among institutionalized scientists). But the more thoughtful of these theorists will be the first to admit that it is just fun and games. That the most difficult thing about mystical and psychedelic experiences is that the minute you try to stop it, to think about it and describe it, you have lost it. That’s no use for science, and no use for mystics.

(But there is still the possibility that continued interaction of clinical scientists with people on psychedelics confronting the ineffable unverse will have some kind of long-term effect on science, and even vice versa. I suspect that the results will look quite different from the science and mysticism we currently have–perhaps something more like alchemy?)


Posted on September 29, 2012, in Consciousness, My Bad Science, Psychedelics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.


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