Not knowing is most intimate: Neil deGrasse Tyson and Grace Slick and Nagarjuna

I recently watched the awesome Neil deGrasse Tyson’s show “Star Talk” where he interviewed Richard Dawkins and had a Jesuit priest on to discuss religion and science. Despite being an atheist and agreeing with much of what Dawkins has to say I found myself rooting for the Jesuit. Dawkins was so arrogant and sure he had the real story, despite some murmurings to indicate humility in the face of our awe inspiring ignorance about the universe (I assure you that while it is amazing how much we do know, or perhaps one could say, despite that we know anything about the universe at all, we know much less than some seem to think we do), his lack of compassion and insight was astounding. Sure I am an atheist and can’t get behind Catholic dogma, so finding myself trying hard to agree with a Jesuit was a strange intellectual sensation!

At one point Neil spoke about a kind of spiritual experience he had in nature. He just objected to dogma. Well, Nyogen is often paraphrasing the great Chan master Huang Po: we have no dogma in Chan/Zen (only realization and practice).

Dawkin’s smugness reminded me of Hawking’s pronouncement that philosophy is dead because science has supplanted it. Was he being purposely ironic in making a philosophical metaphysical comment about the death of metaphysics? You know, like saying “this sentence is a lie”? Perhaps.

Granted some metaphysical speculations have been laid to rest by modern science, but even within the realm of science others have arisen. At what point is math science? How do you define science, is it still falsifiability or reproducibility (if so there goes Hawking’s M theory)?  Certainly Hawking must get that such a statement is a metaphysical stance, hard to justify in terms of these basic questions about the definition and scope of science, that a statement on the limits (absolute  or otherwise) of metaphysics and philosophy is an evaluation and judgment about the nature of reality that is not established deductively but inductively. It is a speculation about philosophy, an opinion; it can’t be measured or proven. It can be disproven (as per the previous discussion, a less than formal proof admittedly but really..!). Whatever it is, it isn’t science.

But closer to home than M theory, we will never be able to step out of consciousness to prove the nature of consciousness. We do find neurologic correlates of states of consciousness, but it is not clear that is the same as grasping the experience or understanding the nature of consciousness.

The nature of consciousness is awareness, and awareness is a subjective experience. We may, and I suspect will, prove the physical correlates of thought. Will that be enough to comprehend the nature of mind, of consciousness?

Is it science? Is consciousness even at its most basic a scientific question? It is the one thing that is at the end of the day the quintessence of subjective experience. It is subjective experience.

Well, think about what we do know. E=MC^2

Energy is mass. What IS energy? We only know what it does, how we experience changes in energy. What could it mean to really know what it is? Certainly scientifically it is sufficient to know what energy, or consciousness, does but we experience what consciousness IS, by definition, because consciousness is exactly what we DO experience, at some level.

Same with mass. We define it by what it does. We understand it confers inertia, that the Higgs field plays a role. What is a field? IT is something that is measurable at all points. What is this something? That thing which, when disturbed, gives us a Higgs boson and confers mass. This is wonderfully sophisticated and true. This is a vision of reality that should take you out of your day-to-day limited experience and open up the universe; yet kind of circular.

For that matter define a flavor without simply comparing it to other flavors. You can get to the chemistry, see how it lights up a functional MRI, but what about that first lick of your favorite ice cream on a hot day? Can math and an MRI capture that? Except perhaps for some specific biomedical research, do we need it to?

We can only kind of say what awareness, consciousness, experience at its most basic, is, what it isn’t, what it may be and not be, what it seems to neither be nor not be, but not quite. Can’t pin it down intellectually. We can come close, we can dance around it, use mathematical metaphors and measure certain aspects of certain behaviors, certain relationships in the world of the senses, but we are limited intellectually by our evolution, our inability to “get our heads around it” as the saying goes. How do you get your head around your head? Like the old Zen saying: adding an extra head to your head?

So yes Neil, savor experience, don’t worry about dogma.

And how about this: Neil deGrasse Tyson at the end of that show said he could even give up cause and effect, that is has worked well so far, but maybe, just maybe….

Certainly in the world of this and that, the senses cause and effect is the best rule of thumb…..

This is not without Western precedence (the philosopher Hume). Not getting caught up in inductive reasoning. Or Sekito Kisen “cause and effect must return to the great reality.”

And while in Buddhism the twelve links of existence are cause and effect, the great exposition of this by Nagarjuna in the Madhyamaka text “the Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way” beings with:

Neither from itself nor from another.

Nor from both,

Nor without a cause,

Does anything whatever, anywhere arise.

So cause and effect and yet not form itself or anything else, so implying not caused, no beginning no end, no arising. Nagarjuna says logic comes to the tetralemma: is, isn’t, is and isn’t neither is or isn’t, that is the point where logic and proportion fall sloppy dead (Grace Slick, White rabbit, Jefferson Airplane 1967).

Sounds like bare awareness, emptiness, to me. Wow Neil! And he’s an astrophysicist!

Not knowing is most intimate!


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