“You cheated on me!” Hold on a second, you know you haven’t, but your heart skips a beat at the fervour with which she’s expounding these fiery words directly into your chest. The weak reply of “no…darling” is unconvincing for one main reason…you both just woke up from the 6-8 hour slumber, that we refer to as sleep.
Have any of you experienced this? Your other half had a vivid dream that you’ve done the naughty on them, and suddenly you’re getting full-on accusations! Of course it wears off quickly enough, but immediately after waking it is clear from anyone who has been in this situation that it seems so real at the time.
We all know Descartes, right? Mathematician, philosopher and scientist, this 15-16th Century character really mixed things up, and injected some exciting thinking into the western world. He proposed the famous ‘cogito ergo sum‘ catchphrase, translating to, ‘I think, therefore I am‘.
Basically, he asserted that there is no way of proving that anything outside of our minds is real. What? Crazy, no? Let’s take the example of your iPhone. One might confidently state that because one can use all of one’s senses to examine this nifty little shatter-proof gadget, therefore it is blatantly real. Unfortunately for the phone, and for us, this isn’t true…it’s a case of circular reasoning. That is, to prove something is real in the world, you take something from the world to prove it. A no, no.
Doubting the nature of reality…isn’t this all a bit too over-the-top? Why even bother thinking about this stuff? Good question, and it’s one that I used to skip over regularly and quite nonchalantly. But I’ll give one good reason as to why it is important:
The underlying, starting premise of science is that there is an objective world outside of our minds, and that we can understand it empirically
This leaves us in a pickle, because as we’ve just illustrated, you can’t prove that there is an objective world outside of our minds. Yes, we could all be brains in a jar, being manipulated by an evil genius…
Funnily enough though, we don’t tend to end up at that conclusion. In fact, no serious modern philosopher (who values their job) actually doubts that there is an objective reality out there. How then, do we get around this predicament?
To put it simply…we conclude that the world is real and not a figment of our imagination…because it is obvious to us. In philosophical terms, one would say that it is self-evident; that is, no external evidence is required to convince us of a fact. Now, back to our dream saga… it is self-evident that waking state is more real than a dream. Although there is no way of empirally showing this to be the case, we pretty much all exclusively vote (or don’t even see the need to) that waking state is more real than dreaming. However, to call dreaming unreal would be unfair, given the strength of experience at the time.
So finally, I’ll get to the point…let’s call ‘science’ ‘the goose’. The goose has pulled out the trump card by claiming that reality is a self-evident truth, and we therefor don’t need to prove it before science can begin. I am in complete concordance with this assertion, seeing as we can all benefit from pain killers and jumbo jets.
But what about assertions from those are seriously practising spiritual paths, which might be etched in thousands of years of solid philosophy and practical methodology (such as yoga)?…AKA, ‘the gander’. What if a dedicated follower of bhakti yoga were to state that after 40 years of study, austerity and training, they were experiencing a reality who’s quality of experience was self-evidently more real than that which we typically refer to as waking state? Perhaps waking state would start to seem almost like dream state, relative to this new reality that they were experiencing.
You see, what’s good for the goose…should be good for the gander. It doesn’t mean that I have to take their path, but as a good scientist I could assess their claim based on the criteria outlined in their tradition. For example, in the yoga traditions, it is explained in Bhagavad Gita as it is 5.18 that a person with elevated consciousness sees only the good in everyone, no matter how degraded someone may appear from a standard societal perspective…they literally cannot see it any other way. And it is certainly possible to ascertain whether this is true by simply observing another’s behaviour.
So, in conclusion, you know I love all you fellow scientists out there…and if you ever find yourself retorting to a question with the standard ‘one day science will find out why’…please recall two points to avoid being a state of philosophical deep sleep: 1. This is faith, because 2. Science can’t empirically prove that ‘reality’ is real.
“Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery in Nature. And it is because in the last analysis we ourselves are part of the mystery we are trying to solve.” — Max Planck
PS. Should this seem a biased review, I would also turn to those who say they are seriously practising a spiritual discipline that is rooted in sensible philosophy and a specific practise for internal development…make sure you do one of two things: 1. Demonstrate by your actions that this process works (actions speak louder than words after all); 2. If like me, you’re not at a stage of elevated spiritual advancement, then keep going, try your best…and be honest with yourself and others…let’s not pretend to be someone or somewhere we’re not