Zen into Science
Dr. Susan Blackmore
The memes of most religions are not compatible with science, but some kinds of spiritual practice are. Zen practice and science have much in common and each may benefit from the other. They may even lead to some of the same insights about self, mind and consciousness.
Zen into Science
What is this yearning that so many of us have for something else; something beyond, something finer than the messiness of striving for the ultimately pointless gains of our ordinary life? It is this yearning, whatever it is, that drives us towards religion and spirituality.
The path to religion is dangerous, full of traps, and frequently at odds with science. All kinds of infectious memes thrive in religions, in spite of being false, such as the idea of a creator god, virgin births, the subservience of women, transubstantiation, and many more. In the major religions, they are backed up by admonitions to have faith not doubt, and by untestable but ferocious rewards and punishments (Dawkins 1993). They can alleviate the spiritual yearning by providing false hopes and beliefs – that God created us and will care for us, that the “something beyond” will be found after death, and that there is a point to all our striving. Yet as far as science is concerned, we were created by the blind and inevitable process of evolution, the death of the physical body is the end of personal existence, and we live in a pointless universe.
If one avoids the traps of religion and the yearning stays alive, what then? To me the yearning is a massive swirl of questions. Who am I? Why am I here? What is the point of it all? What is this stuff I seem to see all around me? What is consciousness and how can it possibly arise from a physical brain? How can I go on?
I have found two ways to seek answers and, oddly enough, they seem to converge.
The first is the practice of Zen. I was initially attracted to Zen because it has very little religious trapping. The whole point of it (although in the end, of course, there is no point) is to wake up and see through the illusion to how things are. For that purpose it does not matter whether you read scriptures, partake in rituals, or study doctrines, although these things can sometimes help. The prerequisites are great doubt and great determination (Batchelor 1990, Crook 1991). The main practices are sitting meditation – calming the mind and looking steadfastly into how things are; and mindfulness – paying attention in the present moment. The doubt and determination can see you through hours, or days, or weeks of the physical pain, fear, boredom, or frustration of just sitting and looking. Sometimes koans are used, and these ask the very questions I began with; “Who am I?” “What is this?” (Batchelor 2001), or “There is no time, what is memory?” (Blackmore 2002a).
Many people seem to see the same things when they look in this way. Self cannot be found and nothing is substantial or permanent. What seems at first to be a stream of experiences, happening one after the other to a self inside my head, falls apart. Nothing matters and everything must go. The yearning for comfort, for ultimate meaning, or for life after death cannot survive this steady gaze.
The second is the practice of science. This requires the same doubt and determination, although it is trained in a completely different way. Unlike the memeplexes of religion, the memeplex of science includes methods for systematically doubting and testing its own claims (Blackmore 1999). Unlike most religions, yet like Zen practice, it encourages open-minded search for the truth about how things are, and a willingness to change one’s mind in the face of the evidence.
My own scientific work has led me to try to answer the same questions as my practice, and the answers have been surprisingly similar. What is the self? When you look inside a brain you do not find someone sitting in there, pulling the strings and watching the show in the Cartesian theatre (Dennett 1991). Yet in every moment of life there seems to be a ‘me’ experiencing things. So the brain must be constructing some kind of illusion, but how and why should we have evolved that way? Perhaps it is memetic, not genetic, evolution that is responsible; the memes competing to survive within my own head have constructed this false self for their own protection. The selfplex seems to be someone who has consciousness and exercises free will, but this is illusory (Blackmore 1999).
And what about the world that I seem to see out there? Research on change blindness, inattentional blindness, and the timing of awareness all suggests that the visual world is a grand illusion (Noë 2002). There really is no picture in the head, even though psychology and cognitive science have long assumed there must be. What then do I see? According to the sensorimotor theory of vision, seeing is not building a picture of the world but is a kind of doing; a mastery of the relationships between what this body does and the way the world responds (O’Regan and Noë 2001).
The familiar “hard problem” for science is how physical brains can give rise to subjective experience (Chalmers 1996), and there are other, related, mysteries. If there is a stream of conscious experiences then we have to explain why some things are ‘in’ the stream while most of the brain’s processing is ‘outside’ of it. Since all neurons function much alike, how can some of them have the magic property of giving rise to consciousness, while most do not? Research on the neural correlates of consciousness had made good progress (Metzinger 2000), but it still confronts this problem, as do most current theories of consciousness. This problem is so difficult that I wonder whether the whole enterprise is based on a fundamental mistake. Perhaps there is no stream of consciousness (Blackmore 2002b).
Well is there? I must look. And it is here that the scientific and spiritual paths may help each other. If we are to explain the nature of subjective experience in terms of objective brains, then we must see clearly what that subjective experience is like, and this is not obvious. Indeed the more you look the less obvious it becomes. It may help to bring the Zen practice of looking into the science. But perhaps the reverse is true too, and the scientific ideas can help with the looking. For example, if I try hard can I see vision as ‘doing’ as in the sensorimotor theory? Yes, but it is terribly strange. Things seem to appear and disintegrate back into nothingness with alarming rapidity. Can I see directly that there is no stream of consciousness? Yes, but it is very peculiar. William James likened the task of introspection to “trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks." (James, 1890, i, 244). This reminds me of the odd fact that whenever I ask “Am I conscious now?” the answer is always “yes”. But what about the rest of the time? With practice at looking back into the darkness, it is possible to lose the sense that there is always one me experiencing one stream.
In this, and other ways, the two disciplines of science and spiritual practice can each help the other. And will they lead to the same place? Are their insights the same? I don’t know.