In this post I discuss two methods for understanding reality, and the respective roles they’ve played in my own worldview over time. I conclude with my current thinking about the relationship between these two modes, which is that (1) they can complement each other but have incompatibilities, and that (2) I have no idea which one takes primacy.
Two modes of inquiry
There are two broad classes of knowledge and truth-seeking that have underpinned my worldview in the past few years:
- ‘Contemplative truths’: knowledge of first-person subjective experience. This is knowledge by acquaintance and introspection, by paying closer and closer attention to the contents of consciousness. Out of this inquiry you get the tenets of Buddhism or the lessons espoused in Sam Harris' Waking Up course.
- ‘Scientific truths’:¹ knowledge of objective facts by conjecture and criticism. This includes all of science but also other fields like math and history and philosophy and basically everything else we usually think of as ‘knowledge’.
These two modes of truth-seeking seem fundamentally different. In mode #2, your goal is to postulate clear theses, and then criticize them for consistency and coherence. If they’re scientific theses, you want to falsify them via experiment; if they’re mathematical theses, you want to verify them via proof.
Contrastingly, in mode #1 the goal is not exactly falsification, and it’s not even forming precise theories. In fact, thinking and theorizing seem antithetical to the project altogether. Theoretical concepts are only useful insofar as they help you transcend theory.² The goal, if there is one, is to drop all concepts, to drop the self, to dissolve the boundaries between one object of experience and another.
Both of these modes of inquiry seem interesting and useful. Is one of them more important or more fundamental than the other?
Personal history: introduction to meditation
Mode #1 was introduced to me very late in life. Like many people, I never realized that there was something to uncover in a first-person, directed exploration of my own mind. I had rigid, unexamined ideas about who I was, especially the idea that my primary mode of being is thinking. This changed dramatically with my first foray into insight-based meditation. Meditation, I learned, is not just about wellbeing and productivity, but also about understanding consciousness.
Given both the novelty of this mode of understanding and the psychological relief it was giving me during a troubled time, it soon became a core part of my worldview. I developed strong personal tenets about the primacy of conscious experience, the unity of conscious reality, the nonexistence of a fixed self, and the denial of free will.
Throughout this inquiry, I maintained a strong respect and appreciation for the scientific mode of truth-seeking. But my most closely-held beliefs about the world pertained to subjective conscious experience. And in contemplating questions like the hard problem of consciousness (how it is that unconscious matter could ever give rise to subjective conscious experience), I had this sense that consciousness would eventually become a fundamental part of our picture of reality.
Personal history: introduction to epistemology
A year and a half after starting a meditation practice, I was introduced to mode #2. Prior to this, I had learned plenty about science. But I’d held the same view of science that most people have, which I now consider to be somewhat mistaken: that science is justified by inductive inferences, that we can infer probabilities about the truth of our scientific theories, and that we converge closer and closer to truth and certainty over time.
The physicist David Deutsch (crediting 20th-century philosopher Karl Popper) frames science in a different way: as a process of creative problem-solving, as a fallible attempt to correct errors, as a succession from one unjustified, error-prone theory to another, which nonetheless brings about genuine progress. In this philosophy, reason and criticism play a central role (e.g. via questioning the logical consistency of a theory, or via conducting experimental tests), but authority and certainty do not. No truths are self-evident; all of our knowledge is conjectural and uncertain.
This mode of inquiry poses a problem for mode #1. A lot of the tenets I had arrived at in my contemplative practice did seem to take the form of ‘self-evident truths’ in retrospect. The self doesn’t exist because I can’t find it when I go looking for it; free will is an illusion because when I pay close attention, I can’t know the content of my next thought. But in the Popperian view, the subjective conviction that something is true, no matter how strong that conviction is, does not suffice. We need to criticize our theories and consider alternatives before we accept them.³
The struggle to reconcile these modes
Over the course of absorbing one mode of inquiry after another, I’ve noticed a tendency to center my thinking around each of them in turn. In the year and a half that I was deep into meditation, mode #1 really undergirded my value system and worldview, and in the time that I’ve learned about Popper’s and Deutsch’s ideas, they have (partly) usurped that worldview.
The question that I’m grappling with right now is how to fit these two modes of inquiry together, whether to consider one or the other ascendant, and whether any hierarchy needs to be established between them at all.
Here are a few possibilities for integration:
The two modes don’t converge and they remain independent methods of understanding reality. This assumes at least some degree of dualism: that there’s a neat (and perhaps insurmountable) boundary between mental and non-mental phenomena, and these two approaches apply to opposite sides of this boundary.
Mode #1 is actually a variation on mode #2. You could argue that meditative introspection is really another way of “seeking good explanations”, although the explanations are implicit (not formulated in words) rather than explicit. I concede that we can think of meditation as “explanation”-seeking, but the methods of science and introspection still seem wildly divergent to me. They require different attitudes. Mode #2 requires you to be conceptual, critical, and precise about your ideas, and it requires you to solve problems. Mode #1 asks you to stop thinking and stop solving problems.
Mode #2 is actually a variation on mode #1. This one seems even less plausible, but someone could argue that conjecture and criticism are really about building greater familiarity with one’s own mind (solipsists, perhaps?). Seems like a stretch.
Mode #1 eventually becomes subsumed (explained) by mode #2. By this I mean: we come to a genuine, explanatory, scientific understanding of consciousness. We can predict and describe exactly what a conscious experience feels like given objective properties such as brain states. This would be earth-shattering.
- (Deutsch would argue this is the position we should take, because we should not draw any “arbitrary boundary” on the reach of reason and scientific explanation.)
Mode #1 isn’t a method of understanding to begin with. It could just be a particular kind of activity that brings us relief and changes our brain. In this case there is no distinction between “modes of inquiry”. There’s just the conjecture-and-criticism mode, and what we call “mode #1” is just a hobby, much like playing the piano or juggling.
This view also seems suspect on first glance, if only because of the ever-elusive problem that consciousness poses for our understanding of reality (a role that seems unique to consciousness) and because of the apparently-deep connections between meditation, psychedelics, near-death experiences, and profound life-altering spiritual awakenings. All of this suggests to me that there is such a thing as coming to greater understanding about the truths of subjective experience.
I think a key question we’ll have to resolve in order to reconcile these modes is to understand consciousness itself and the role it plays in reality. If consciousness is no more than an emergent property of information processing (or of creativity or intelligence) in an otherwise unconscious reality, then everything about mode #1 is just another thing to explain via mode #2. On the other hand, if consciousness is fundamental to reality (e.g. panpsychism), then mode #1 may be just as important for understanding reality as mode #2. Like everyone else, I have no idea what the answer is.
Putting aside the metaphysics, there is a practical question here for me and others: what set of ideas should I hold most dearly?⁴ This might just be a matter of taste. Each mode of inquiry makes me feel different things and relate to others in slightly different ways. Counterintuitively, I find that Deutsch’s ideas make me more dogmatic in conversation and relations with others, even though the whole point is to not be dogmatic. On the other hand the contemplative ideas make me feel more at ease and open-minded. In a future post I’ll address this distinction between the “feels” of mode #1 and mode #2.
- ‘Scientific truths’ may not be the best name for this – I’m really referring to the quest for good explanations that David Deutsch talks about in The Beginning of Infinity. I think this covers everything from philosophy and math to history and physics, but I believe it does not cover introspection.
- What does it mean to use theory in order to transcend theory? Here’s an example: in the middle of a meditation session, you may be asked by an instructor to look for the center of your own awareness. Certainly they are invoking the concepts of ‘awareness’, and ‘center’, and ‘you’, but if you really try to carry out those instructions, your mind should enter a state in which all those concepts of ‘you’ and ‘center’ have dissolved (or so it seems), and all that remains is this blank, nebulous awareness.
- Here’s an illustration of how the two modes could conflict about the topic of free will.
Under mode #1, I pay really close attention and find that this “free will” of mine isn’t really there. I can’t know my next thought or action before it occurs: it literally just happens out of thin air. Hence, I don’t have free will.
Under mode #2, we’re seeking an explanation for the behavior of me as an agent. Kasra makes choices. Kasra makes his choices based on his will. This isn’t to say that he’s unconstrained by his biology or the laws of physics…just that he could choose to have steak or shrimp for dinner and picks one of them instead of the other (e.g. because he feels like eating shrimp tonight).
Basically, we’re distinguishing between the subjective experience of free will (which may or may not be present at a given moment) from the objective existence of a space of possible actions that an agent can take. That space of possible actions exists*, hence Kasra has free will.
- *Ok but what about determinism huh, what if there is no “possible” space of actions? We have several good reasons to believe that “possibility” is a thing. Quantum interference is one of them. Constructor theory might be another one.
- Deutsch might interject here and suggest that belief itself is an irrational state of mind, that you don’t need any kind of foundation for your thinking or worldview. I agree that such a foundation isn’t logically necessary, but I think there is some part of our psychology that seeks out a “core set of ideas” to anchor our thinking around, even just as a rough heuristic. Given this tendency, it can’t hurt to explore what it means—and what it feels like—to take up one heuristic over another.