Science has had a profound positive effect on daily life, and it is part of our basic education. Therefore, it is important to understand its implications regarding truth.
The word science, like many other words, has several meanings. One meaning is a body of knowledge and the other is a method of assessing truth. I will be using the word both ways, but hopefully the meaning will be clear in the context of the sentence.
Let’s start with some clarifications.
Science and Proof
Science does not and cannot “prove” anything. As discussed briefly elsewhere, it is impossible to have certainty about anything in the physical world. If you hear or read the expression “science proves …”, you should immediately be on guard for this shows a fundamental misunderstanding.
What science accomplishes, when done properly, is to provide so much robust evidence that its conclusions are generally accepted by the scientific community, and usually society. And that is all that it does. It does not prove anything. Scientific knowledge changes and at times is even overturned. It is never “proven”.
When you accept the teachings of science, as we must all do in most parts of our life, your belief is based on faith in science teachings and your teachers. Science, as a package of teachings, is the equivalent of dogma. Those who are not qualified as scientists in a particular field, yet who take a position on it, are acting out of faith, not from scientific knowledge. This even applies to scientists if they are outside their own field of expertise.
To give an example, you know from direct experience that your cell phone works, and under what circumstances (it is in good working order, the battery has enough charge, and it is connected to a network, etc.). For you, that knowledge about what your phone does is scientific.
But, unless you are trained in the field, your understandings about how and why your phone works are based on faith. Your understanding of the nature of electrons, how they can produce an electromagnetic field, how that field is propagated as radio waves and used to send information, etc., is all based on what you were taught. It is a reasonable faith, but it is faith, nonetheless.
In summary, for all of us in most areas, and for most of us in all areas, scientific knowledge is faith based – that is, dogma. We each have strong evidence that the dogma works, but it is still dogma for each of us. If we take a strong social or political position based on faith in what we have been taught, we are being as dogmatic as any religious adherent. Perhaps we can all afford to leave a little more room for doubt.
The (Unwritten) Policy on Scientific Unknowns
The scientific community has an unwritten policy of assuming any assertion without scientific support is false.
This is understandable, emotionally and practically. Emotionally, because at a trust level, scientists are like the rest of us and are suspicious of new explanations, especially if they call into question something else they already believe. It is easy to forget that there is no direct connection between belief and truth and so we all tend to treat our belief as proof of truth. And practically because for any given phenomenon there is only one “true” explanation and a vast number of false ones. So, if the initial position is one of disbelief, odds are in favour of it being correct.
The problem is that historically virtually every paradigm shift in scientific understanding was strongly resisted as it was first being developed. A classical example of this is that Einstein never accepting quantum mechanics. Max Planck, one of the founders of quantum mechanics commented: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” Someone paraphrased this as: “Science advances one funeral at a time.”
Ultimately, when it comes to paradigm shifting advances in knowledge, you can expect the scientific community to show the same human tendencies and biases as everyone else. The history of science is full of stories of scientists who dismissed data that disagreed with their preconceived views and therefore delayed important breakthroughs. There are also examples of scientists jumping on the bandwagon of understandings outside of their own field that were later shown to be false.
Science relies on objective facts or data. This implies that every witness should report the same observation. However, this is not as straightforward as it might seem, and the field of science is aware of this.
One issue is that the observer needs to be qualified and know what to look for. The qualifications may range from rested and alert, to requiring a deep understanding of the subject and the test equipment. For these reasons, very few people are qualified to observe what is happening in most modern laboratories. Even qualified people can make errors or miss something if they are tired, stressed, fearful, etc. Or their senses might be inadequate.
Another issue is measurement error. Every instrument has fundamental limitations in its accuracy, and at times may not be working properly. It is valuable to remember that our own senses are measuring instruments and can miss things or mislead us.
Objectivity is, at its root, subjective. Rainbows are a real phenomenon unless you are blind. In case of doubt, we rely on others to verify our experiences and perceptions, and there is wisdom to this. However, it can be the case (like in laboratories) where others are not capable of perceiving what is real and obvious to you.
So ultimately, even facts can be open to dispute. One way around this is repeated observation or measurement. That is why, if you see something that surprises you, you will look again or longer, or look for confirmation from other senses (e.g., can you hear it?) to be sure you got it right. Or you may ask another qualified observer to confirm your perception.
Relevance to Meditation
Science has 2 roles to play with meditation.
The first is to determine if there are objective benefits. Benefits relating to health, performance and even a sense of well being can be objectively measured using sufficiently large groups of people. Even though there are inevitable variations due to individual characteristics and circumstances, trends can be reliably measured. This is no different than measuring the impact of exercise, diet, medical treatment, or food supplements. Of course, in order to see you must first look, and meaningful studies must be carefully designed and run repeatedly to confirm the results are reliable.
Thousands of scientific studies on the effects of meditation have been done starting in the early 1970s. Admittedly some were poorly designed, however overall the results have been consistently positive, and the benefits are now widely accepted by the scientific community. Examples of the results can be found here.
Science, as a method of assessing truth, can play a personal role for each meditator. Little if any scientific work has been done on the nature of awareness. On the other hand, you can determine for yourself what is true or not regarding your own awareness, and the impact meditation has on it, by taking a scientific approach to your own experiences. As one teacher said: “Meditation is scientific research into the nature of your own consciousness.”
The scientific community has labeled consciousness “The Hard Problem”. Most scientists believe consciousness arises from the brain, although some argue that this is an assumption with no facts to back it up. Of course, it is an accepted fact that the condition of the brain and nervous system impacts our experience of consciousness. However, the question about the source of consciousness can be compared to trying to decide if a small, solid state device is a radio or an MP3 player. In both cases the condition of the device impacts the quality of the music it produces. However, the music is caused by the MP3 player, whereas the music embedded in radio signals exists independent of the radio.
Similarly, there is no scientific consensus on many aspects of consciousness itself, including such questions such as the source of creativity. For example, many professional mathematicians believe mathematics is pre-existing; they discover what is already there. Others believe mathematics is invented, not discovered. This difference in view is nowhere near resolution.
If you take up the practice of meditation, you will have many experiences, but they will all be entirely subjective. Some will only occur once, others sporadically, and some almost constant. You cannot share these internal perceptions the way you can an external perception. For example, it is easy to objectively determine if someone is malnourished or staving, but there is no way to determine if they feel hungry.
Science has long been aware that our senses and perceptions can be fooled. So how do you know which of your internal, subjective experiences are “real”, and which are illusion, the result of random and meaningless firing of a group of neurons in your brain?
The only way to answer this question is to take on the role of a scientist. Are the experiences repeatable? Are they consistent with the experiences others have? Are they consistent with experiences in you daily life? Do they have meaning and application in your daily life? What do they imply regarding your own nature and potential?
Like any scientist, if you want answers, you will need to be open to learning (i.e., be humble), to acknowledging mistakes, and most importantly, bring a high level of integrity to your experiences and your interpretations of them. One of our most dangerous habits is our practice of self deception, of lying to ourselves. To become an effective researcher into your own nature and to gain the maximum practical benefit from your mediation, you must be willing to look ever deeper into the truth of what you are experiencing, doing and why. Not only in your meditation, but in all aspects of your life.
On the other hand, there is no need to do this. Many are happy to just drive their car with no understanding how or why it works. And no one else has the right to judge them. It is the same with meditation.