Waking up to Wisdom
In Stillness and Community

Science As Spiritual Practice

--by Adam Frank (Apr 02, 2012)

Spiritual endeavor often begins when a direct experience of suffering (or rapture) drives a person out of the confines of self. From there a commitment is established to explore for oneself matters of birth and death, the true and the real. Experience is the seed of aspiration, the deeply rooted commitment to know. That aspiration then drives one into the difficult and transformative realm of spiritual pursuit, into the realm of practice.

Science, in its essence, is no different. We begin with experience, experience seeds aspiration, aspiration drives effort, and effort matures into understanding. Go to any graduate department in physics or biology and ask the aspiring students why they are there. You will hear a range of reasons, but without fail you will always find those who speak of a passion to know the world on its own terms. Often these students describe vivid experiences: their first view through a microscope of the vast ecologies contained in a water drop, or the awesome sight of rapid lightning strikes illuminating the face of a mountain. Such experiences fire a sense of the world's great beauty and the students' own heartfelt desire to understand that beauty on a deeper level.
Of course, such aspiration is only a beginning. It is the depth of one's aspiration that then fuels the student's effort. In scientific and spiritual endeavor alike, that effort must be exhaustive. Training to become a scientist, not unlike the training of a monk, requires a commitment that stretches across decades.
What makes this training different from, say, getting an M.B.A., is that damnable quality about science that drives so many people crazy. In science there is a right answer. A more accurate description would be that in science there is an answer that conforms to the way the world is constructed. If you are to become a scientist, first you must forge your will into a resolve strong enough to persevere in the long search for those answers. Then, most important, you must develop the discernment to know what the answers look like. No one can do this for you. It most be won on your own.
Past a certain point, there are no answers in the back of the book. In fact, there is no book. Even knowing how to ask the question requires an intuition, a gut feeling that comes from paying close attention to the world as it presents itself. Scientists will talk about "taste" in choosing a problem and knowing how to pursue it. In short, students must learn for themselves when they are on the right path. As the ninth-century Zen master Rinzai taught, "Place no head above your own." The great innovators in science, from Newton to Einstein, were people who steadfastly trusted their own vision of the world's truth.
Ultimately, what brings science and authentic spiritual endeavor into an active parallel is not the nature of the truth each claims to find, but the ethic and practice of inquiry itself.
--Adam Frank

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Previous Reflections:

On Mar 31, 2012 Conrad P. Prtscher wrote:
 Thanks Somik for the opportunity to respond.  About the right path, about whether our vision is genuine or misguided, about how we see the real hiding in the unreal, I don't know. I seem to have had experiences where committed inquiry has led to deep realizations about myself.  The deep realization is," I don't know."  Frank says: "In science there is a right answer." The answer is only right tell a better one comes along. Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and Kurt Gödel's incompleteness theorem coupled with Miguel Nicolelis's uncertainty principle in neuroscience lead uto Keats's thought when he said we should make up our minds about nothing.  Continuing  openness and continuing inquiry is a key to awareness, and awareness is the key to peaceful living and rewarding science.  The effort we expend helps lead us, paradoxically, to an effortless state.

As Nobel laureate Richard Feynman said in Value of Science: “What, then, is the meaning of it all?  What can we say to dispel the mystery of experience? If we take everything into account, not only what the ancients knew, but all of what we know today that they didn't know, then I think that we must frankly admit that we do not know. But in admitting this, we have probably found the open channel.” 

Warm and kind regards to everyone.

On Mar 31, 2012 David Doane wrote:
 All I know is whether I am on the right path for me, and that I know when what I am experiencing is positive and feels right on.  I don't know that my vision of the world's truth is genuine insight as opposed to misguided perception -- all I know is my vision of my truth and if I am being faithful to my truth.  When I am faithful to my truth I have integrity, and I trust that.  I really don't much care about the world's truth except to the extent of being smart enough to not get my throat cut.  I don't know if I see the real hiding in the unreal.  I sometimes see my real hiding in the unreal, at least I do when I am being honest with myself and being open.  Inquiry to me means being open to ask and listen and pay attention and learn -- it reminds me of the Buddhists recommendation to always have the beginner's mind.  The practice of that kind of inquiry is crucial to my self-development.  Committed inquiry to me doesn't primarily mean trying to learn what someone has discovered, but means being open to what is in me and around me and learning from that, and that does result in deep realizations, as it has at times for me.

On Apr 1, 2012 Katrina wrote:
 Nicely said. There is nothing left to add. I appreciate your understanding of this path. May your day be filled with life.

On Apr 3, 2012 Riddhi wrote:
 This  passage took me back to my dissertation period where my hypothesis -'relative truth' of the proposed project was different from its result 'absolute truth'. Throughout the process, inspite of all the knowledge my guide had and wisdom already available from past research, i used to be open enough that the results would be quite different from what we had expected. Also, since the fungi species I worked on had undergone a lot of mutation since the landfill site from which i picked my sample was heavily polluted. In the same manner,every human  throughout their life undergoes unique experiences and are nurtured in unique environments. So the truth they perceive would be different and relative from which others perceive. And each one seeking the absolute truth should hold to the relative truth, as Gandhiji said ' But as long as I have not realized the Absolute Truth, so long must I hold by the relative truth as I have  concieved it'

On Apr 3, 2012 Ganoba wrote:
 scientific enquiry has placed a limitation on its ways. It accepts only those observations that are within the realm of the human senses, supplemented now a days by technical gadgets.
In so doing it can see only that which has taken form. That which has not yet taken form, the formless remains beyond its scope. All the path breaking discoveries have been made by people, like Newton, Einstein et all, who were visionaries first and scientists later.
A visionary sees the aura, the scientist sees only the body. 
a scientist goes by performance, the visionary senses the potential.
A scientist is bound by limits, the visinary dwells in the limitless.

On Apr 4, 2012 Jim wrote:
 I have spent most of my life in science and medicine. It has created the wonderful opportunity to investigate the illnesses that my patients present. Now that I have begun my spiritual journey in contemplation I see more clearly the path I must take. Unlike a monastic I must seek the answer within as well with every opportunity to be present at the bedside of my patients. Spiritual teachers now take their place amongst my science and medicine teachers to sustain my journey. Non-duality is only one of the lessons I have learned along the way. For now the best medicine I can offer my patients is my presence.

On Apr 4, 2012 Somik Raha wrote:
Lovely reflection, Jim! Very inspired to read it. 

On Apr 7, 2012 L wrote:
Very nicely said. There are a few differences in these two paths, however. Science can be absolute, and tested by empirical fact. Whereas life cannot be tested repeatedly because it is the 'truth' for each individual person. Moreover, it is only myopically that one can make decisions in life, whereas scientific truths are again different.

I am at the stage where I am making an inquiry about myself, triggered by an event. Because I did not think about this question deeply enough earlier, now am in a position that I now am realizing several things that were hidden before. It is surprising, a little bit disappointing, but mostly interesting and empowering. I am also not sure for how long I will be able to stay in the curious and inquiring (scientific) frame of mind, so I will also have to observe if this will cause negative feelings later.

On Apr 8, 2012 Sherry wrote:
 "the passion to know the world on it's own terms" may be a unifying path that spiritually oriented and scientifically oriented people both share -  Still, the path of inquiry for spirituality is so entirely different from the path of inquiry for science ...
    To me spiritual practices are about finding or attributing meaning in life, it is one in which the truth is personal and felt and subjective and in which the unspoken agreement is that no one has the right to criticize your truth or your path to the truth. It's as if our personal truths have a sacredness to them. On the other hand with science, it is not about personal meaning or a truth being held sacred. It is the opposite. It is one where the scientist challenges his/her truth belief with experiments, statistics, double blind studies, etc - and if the truth belief survives these rigorous efforts, then your most brilliant colleagues are expected to challenge your findings. It doesn't matter how many years you dedicated to your belief or how much you cared. It is a fierce competition for the truthiest truth as each flawed truth falls by the wayside when it doesn't measure up to the scrutiny.  
   I deeply appreciate  how this article heightened my awareness that the root of each path seems to share an important  value  - to discover and know the world as it is.  That both entail awe, effort and observation is rich for me too. Yet acknowledging the magnitude of the differences between spirituality and science seems important in the context of talking about "truth."