Science & Spirituality|Oct 11, 2008 5:04 PM| by:

Methods of Enquiry and Research

Research in life sciences, of which medicine is a specialised branch, seems to be entering into a blind alley because of its heavy leanings upon the materials and methods of enquiry more appropriate to physical science. So universal is the phenomenon of regarding life as an offshoot of matter, as a by-product of certain physical and chemical processes, that the above statement may appear shockingly unscientific to a mind accustomed to conventional ways of thought and experience. Yet, the paradox is that the three recognised revolutionary directions in the domain of physical, biological and psychological sciences came precisely by disregarding the conventional form of research where `seeing is regarded as believing’ and `measuring is considered the only way to separate error from truth’. These three were respectively, Einstein’s theory of relativity, Darwin’s theory of evolution and, Freud’s concept of the unconscious mind. Despite their limitations, the fact is that these three statements (which so powerfully moulded modern scientific thought) were neither derived from the data of pure sense experience nor evolved through deductive logic. In fact, our usual repertoire of sense experience contradicts all the three. We do not `see’ the relativity of time and space, we do not `see’ or `hear’ the unconscious, nor have we ever seen an ape turn into a man.
But if not true to the experience of our outer sense, just a little careful observation of ourselves reveals that all the three statements are common experiences of human psychology. Perhaps Einstein’s broodings over the movement of stars or Darwin’s epic voyage and Freud’s encounters with patients were outer events that simply served to trigger a knowledge already known within. For the mind does observe time shorten or lengthen and space contract or expand based on the observer’s state of consciousness. The mind also observes that a dog can be made to grow (evolve) in a way that comes close to some activities of human beings through specialised effort. Even in oneself one finds that the mind grows with or without the impact of life experiences and if we do not confine evolution to its narrow definition of forms, we can well say that we evolve in consciousness from birth to death. The mind also observes that much of its own activities, behavior, impulses and feelings originate especially in dreams and often enough in the waking state from some source within itself (which is not yet its known self) – the unconscious.

In this sense we find that a knowledge concealed and inherent within our psyche was simply projected and applied to outer events which made or became suddenly meaningful and comprehensible. For certainly the same observations can lead to many possible modes of thought. The same phenomenon can be explained in a perfectly logical and reproducible way by different reasonings. The explanation or reason we give is therefore not the only one. An `unconscious choice’ is made either under the light of a guiding intuition or the shadow of our past experience. This is so is well illustrated in the domain of life sciences itself. The same illness that was treated by `shamans’ effectively is treated today by the medical man using different time-tested methods of enquiry and treatment. However, since the mind finds it impossible to reconcile contraries it accepts one theory to the exclusion of others depending on which way the pendulum of the majority swings.

The Qualitative Aspect of Phenomena

This brings in another factor, the concept of statistical majority as a valid probability. A basic truth is ignored here, that is, every phenomenon has a quantitative and a qualitative aspect. All human brains look alike and have similar pathways but there is a wide range of difference in their capacity for thought. We have not been able to ascribe this uniqueness to a difference of brain structure or neurochemistry. The same neurophysiological event gives rise to a wide range of phenomena. Even if minor variations are found they would only be indicative of the endless variety of nature rather than any correlating factor between mind and matter. Even where the psychological event is of the same broad category, the range of experience is very wide. As for example the love of a teenager in romance with all its fits of expectations and desires is qualitatively different from his love for a friend or of a mother towards her child.

That this is so is indisputable if we do not limit our range of observation to the seen and the heard but also to the felt and the willed and the thought. One neither sees anger nor hears it, nor can one prove its existence until it overtakes the body and creates a certain characteristic form of nervous reactions. Diverse emotions like fear, anger, even certain forms of love and joy can create the same nervous response in the physical organism. Yet one knows anger as different from fear and love. The more sensitive psychology can appreciate the subtle shades of difference between one kind of joy and another even if it is not always possible to communicate it to someone else.

This happens because man is a qualitatively complex organism. He is not just a cellular aggregate of atoms. It is possible that life exists as an independent substance with independent properties other than those of matter and mind, and has a `substance-organisation’ different from mind and body. If we accept this basic premise, we can readily extend it to other domains and infer that the soul, if considered to exist, would be composed of a different `substance-organisation’. Thus it is a common experience that feelings of one person can be communicated to others without words or acts. And, less commonly though, one observes the phenomenon of telepathy, clairvoyance, etc. wherein a direct use is made by the thought to communicate itself through the mental substance without a physical mode. That such phenomena exist is a qualitative truth. Their absence in the majority no way proves the contrary. Again it has been demonstrated in the Yogic tradition of certain trance states that life can continue for some time in the absence of physical mechanisms like heartbeat and breathing. A similar phenomenon is seen in NDE (Near Death Experience) and OBE (Out of Body Experience) wherein life returns after a period of cessation of life processes. In fact life does not return. It was always present and if one were to include the testimony of yogic science, cessation of breathing and heartbeat in any person is not a sign of absence of life. This is well recognised now in the concepts of biological death and cellular death respectively.

The Qualitative Methods of Knowledge

Thus we need to radically alter our methods of enquiry in the domain of life and mind sciences and come out of our heavy leanings upon the sole prevalent methods of studying material phenomena. The fundamentals remain. For, observation, which is the beginning of all science will still be there but extend its scope beyond `seeing’ to `experiencing’ and `introspecting’. Experimentation will still be there but may change its domain from the physico-chemical issues to increasingly subtle and psychological issues. Inferences will also be drawn but rely not only on reason but increasingly on reflection, contemplation and the steady growth of intuition. Naturally, this admits the need for a considerable growth in consciousness of the experimenter himself. But it is undeniable if we are to eliminate the observer bias. Naturally, there may be an absence of reproducibility unless the others are close to the consciousness of the scientist.

These methods of enquiry were used in the ancient Indian tradition whose validity is currently recognised even in the purely physical domain. There is no reason to believe then that, by experimenting upon one’s own consciousness, the subtle truths of human psychology will not see the light of the day. The dreams of reason with their play of probables and not-probables will surely give birth to the dawn of true science or a larger science where intuition will illuminate observation and knowledge will enrich information. Till then the uncertain passage is to be passed through. Its period of darkness will depend upon our will and courage to take a leap from one level of enquiry to another, from the gross to the subtle, from the mere sensible to the suprasensible.

The Objective and the Subjective

Thus we have seen that for their fullest scope life-sciences have to shed their bias towards observing merely the life and mind operations confined to the body. We have also seen that such a preoccupation not only limits the field of enquiry but may also lead us to grossly incorrect conclusions by failing to observe, record and include a large mass of subjective and other phenomena which are lumped as abnormal, mystic, irrational and hence superstitious. A serious study is never made to qualify these wide ranges of subjective states.

This happens because we feel knowledge must be quantifiable and objective. In a sense all knowledge is subjective since it is gained by contact of the object with the subject. The intermediary to such a contact, whether it be the sense organs themselves or the instruments does not alter its nature. The final receiver and analyser is the subject whose personal (individual or racial) limitations must necessarily be imposed upon the object. Yet, taken in quite another sense, even the knowledge of one’s so-called subjective states is objective for something in us observes it `as if’ in another person. This antagonism can be solved only by postulating the presence of consciousness behind phenomena. This consciousness can withdraw itself from any field within or around and enter a kind of `observer or witness status’. It may, on the contrary project itself on to the object and identify with it in what is known as the `subjective status’. Unfortunately, this capacity of projecting itself subjectively is little explored though its potentials are many. We know ourselves simply because of this habitual or ego-mediated subjective projection onto ourselves. But the same ego limits us from a subjective identification with others whom we regard as `not ourselves’ and the consciousness has to rely on the data received by the impact of the object upon our senses and through our nervous processes on to the mind. At each of these levels a certain distortion occurs so that we are never able to know the true properties of what we observe.

It is a truth of yogic-psychology that it is possible to withhold or even dissolve this ego-formation and suspend or do away with the senses and reach out directly to the object and know it by identification. In a certain sense, we all experience it in some measure or the other. An intense rush of feelings in a person can create a wave that reaches us and makes us directly aware of it without the usual mediums necessary. But these are rare moments and confined to specific states. The possibility, however, exists. It is also possible, on the contrary, to use the senses as pure channels and the mind and nerves can be so stilled and purified that they become fairly perfect instruments of knowledge without the usual distortions.

A Reconciliation in Consciousness

The training and education of scientists must therefore include these capacities of `witness’; projection and subjective identification; purification of sensory and nervous-emotional reactions; and the art of stilling them at will. Then the true world of reality will begin to appear before us. Till then we will simply measure and analyse, cut and re-join; record and pile up information; but never really know.

The dangers are evident enough. Firstly, the increasing complexity of human life in the absence of a substantial change in the present form necessitates that even in the material domain many states or experiential statuses are mediated through common physical pathways. This is increasingly been found by the various researchers studying the neurological basis of psychological phenomenon. While sometimes entirely contradictory states are seen to exist by way of the same or similar neurophysiological changes, at other times, the same state appears to be mediated through different mechanisms and pathways. As always one good result has surely come out of this confusion. It is the concept of `holism’. This remained the only way to explain the heap of contradictory information that has gathered down the last few decades. Though used in a very limited sense, the realisation that all events take place in a bio-psycho-social matrix, has opened doors towards some kind of a unity of phenomenon even in its diverse manifestation. This lead, if we take it rightly; can take us to the science of consciousness which postulates that all events – biological, material, psychological, social or spiritual – arise in a matrix of consciousness, which though one in essence, can have varied and diverse manifestations.


This was the basis of science laid down by the Rishis. The mere fact of these things as belonging to the past is no sign of their inadequacy. Many great ideas are born far ahead of their time which men at a later date acknowledge and put to use for a common good. The seed of a tree antedates the appearance of its first fruit which men at another time come and enjoy. These truths have an eternal quality verifiable at all times, under all circumstances, by those who cared to live them. However a detailed understanding of the processes and methods of enquiry is warranted.