Today's date:
  Fall 2004

Mindful Science

Piet Hut, a Dutch theoretical astrophysicist at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, creates and explores large-scale computer simulations of star clusters and galaxies. He is also cofounder, along with another physicist, a cognitive psychologist, a philosopher of science and a scholar in Eastern religious traditions, of the fledgling Kira Institute ("kira" is word that derives from the Japanese sound associated with a twinkling star). The Kira group is using an interdisciplinary approach to study the connections between science and human experience. Marilyn Berlin Snell spoke with Hut about science, subjectivity and the fine art of haiku. His comments here are adapted from their conversation in the spring of 1999.

Princeton--It is a paradox of being human that in order to see fully into something--whether scientific, artistic or religious--we often seem to have to first step back.

The basic step underlying objectivity--namely the effort to strip away judgment and just observe what presents itself, to catch certain aspects of reality--is a beautiful move, one that was formalized around the time of Galileo in the early 17th century. This move of stepping out of the world is found everywhere: In science, we make controlled laboratory observations; in religion, it's called meditation; and artists step out of a particular environment or personal circumstance in order to catch the fullness of the moment.

The problem of seeing things through a glass wall and alienating ourselves from reality-only arises if you think the objective approach is all there is. If we are too single-minded in this approach, we lose the full context of reality, which includes us. We lose ourselves. However, if you look at objectivity as one facet of a crystal, as one very beautiful way of getting in touch with deeper aspects of reality but not the only way, then there is nothing wrong with the objective approach.

Space and time are the canvas on which science paints a picture of all kinds of different phenomena. But this science does not, by itself, describe the depths of meaning associated with those phenomena.

In everyday life, we can travel in space and we can travel in time, but we can also travel in yet another direction. Imagine standing in front of a painting, for example, or a sunset. While looking at this painting or sunset we can, as it were, fall into its beauty and experience deeper levels of meaning, deeper sense.

By adding "sense" to the framework of human experience--so that now we can speak of space, time and sense--we provide a more complete description of science. Given that my description of science includes "sense," when you ask me what value I put on science, where I place the importance of "sense" in relation to space and time, or how "sense" is interwoven with other attempts to get in touch with deeper aspects of reality, then I think I have a different, more comprehensive view than many of my colleagues. Most of my colleagues are very skeptical if not downright hostile toward philosophy and toward attempts to put things in a larger context.

Freedom from Identification | In science, when we look at a map of the stars, or of our galaxy, there's no red dot saying "you are here." That is the danger of a purely objective science: we lose our place in the universe. If you have a beautiful map but there is no room for you on it, then you have lost something precious. Moreover, if you don't notice that you have lost something--because it looks so wonderfully complete in and by itself--then the map can lead you to a form of superstition, the superstition of objectivism.

The problem with most philosophical systems is exactly that: They are systems. One popular phrase I like to start from is that "the map is not the territory." But then I want to take an additional step. When we ask "what is science?" we go further than the distinction between map and territory: We see that the map is not the territory but also that the territory is not reality.

Compare, for instance, the map of a city with the city itself. On the map there are street names. When you go into that city, you see the actual street name on the sign, but that street name is still symbolic. The real world--the mud on the ground, the stones, the sprouting grass--are not captured by the street name. Reality is richer. Every blade of grass can be an infinite source of inspiration...

I'm not saying that identification with signs and symbols is wrong. You have to identify a street with a name, using a map or a road sign. But if that is all you see, then you have no freedom. I like to say that we need to live in "freedom from identification." Identification is useful in the proper context. But you mustn't stick to it: move around, keep an eye open for the reality underneath territorial thinking. Remember that physics began with a basic questioning of simple, everyday phenomena: apples falling from a tree, balls rolling off a plane! By describing these simple phenomena, science began establishing a small beachhead within the much richer world of everyday phenomena. This original beachhead could barely be called a territory by any stretch of the imagination. But now, a few hundred years later, it may seem that science can describe almost everything in terms of matter and energy, at least in principle. Therefore, now the danger of mixing up the underlying reality and the territory established by science has become real.

In order to live according to a real freedom from identification, you have to give up hope and fear as well. That seems very threatening for people. And yet, many of the great religious figures throughout the ages have told us that if we really want to experience reality in a deep, personal, authentic way, we should not only be fearless but also hopeless. Another way of saying it is that when we hope for something, we hope for something that is too small and limited, something which passes through the eye of the ego; it's less than reality itself. If you can give up hope, you can then be open to something much larger, something approaching the reality beyond territory--literally something better than you could have possibly hoped for.

There are no ultimate limits. In other words, all limits are valid only in relation to particular contexts. Take any activity that's really enjoyable--whether it's looking at a beautiful landscape or making music with a group of friends. By losing yourself in the activity, everything becomes much more real, and the sense of separation between object and subject drops away. We generally tend to think that everything has to be steered by the ego, by our own self-image. But the ego is a filter between you and reality, and in letting go of it one can go deeper into reality; become more mindful, more present in the moment as it is.

When we have dialogues in our Kira group, for example, we place a priority on getting beyond conceptual boundaries. We ask questions like: "What is the type of experience or intuition from which scientific, religious or artistic knowledge flows? What is at the source? What is the reality underneath the territory, or before the territory consolidates into a territory?"

ETHICS | All of us have a strong intuition, for example, that ethical questions are ultimately not something which are based on subjective relativism but that are anchored in reality in just as strong a way as are scientific facts. And we are trying to explore these questions in ways that do not flatten, project or objectify these connections.

What is beautiful about science is that, independent of your cultural background, once you learn the common body of knowledge and the ways experiments are done, anybody can join in. Unfortunately, this is not the case at the moment with religious approaches. You wouldn't want to erase differences between religions, of course. But we get stuck when we focus on the fruits alone--the dogma or rituals of a particular sect. If you go not to the fruits of a particular religion but to the roots, to the source of the inspiration, then I have a very strong intuition that the wellspring is not that different from religion to religion.

If I compare St. Francis' The Canticle of the Sun with Taoist writings, for instance, I think St. Francis could have been a Taoist. St. Francis dug deep enough into reality to come to something which his Chinese counterparts, in different times and places, also found. And on that level, whether St. Francis started out as a Christian, Buddhist or Taoist makes relatively little difference.

Again, I would not want to erase the differences between religions. Any dialogue is interesting because the contributing viewpoints are different, but the dialogue is possible because we can share a sense of basic values, respect and awe.

I really like the childlike joy that awe conjures for me. But, of course, many great practitioners who go deeply into nature, who manage to step outside of their own ego or self-image to a remarkably deep degree, may use "reverence" to describe their experience. But in this context "reverence" might become freed from identification with a particular religion or hierarchical worldview.

REALITY AND UNITY | Reality has gotten a bad name from many people, but unity has an even worse reputation. Everybody focuses on plurality. The word "unity" gives most people the feeling of a lack of respect.

Let's take as a given that ideas of unity have been misused in the past. That said, any type of plurality has to be grounded in an underlying unity. It sounds very old-fashioned, if not crazy, to say that. But if there isn't some kind of underlying unity, communication across difference is impossible.

Any type of experience strives for larger and larger encompassing realizations of what is real. What somebody like St. Francis experienced was the deep unity in all phenomena, in the whole world--body, mind, everything. He approached it through his Christian background and he phrased it in Christian terms, but even so, he was bearing witness to a sense of deep unity that transcends identification.

SCIENCE AND POETRY | Science and poetry are different ways of seeing. When you write a poem to capture something, you find yet another window on the world; experience gets richer. Besides, it's fun.

By dissolving objects you let a natural coherence come out. The nature of things is always a lot more coherent than the structures that the ego tries to put on top of it. I wish I had sense enough to spend the whole day dissolving identification structures. It is certainly something I aspire to.